After The Albion Left: What The Withdean Did Next
It was never quite home to the supporters of the club, but it was the best that they could manage at the time. When Brighton & Hove Albion lost The Goldstone Ground in 1997 and moved to play their home matches seventy miles away at Gillingham, it looked like the death knell for the club. Over time, many presumed, the number of coaches leaving from the south coast to Medway would diminish, leaving the club homeless and with a generation of supporters in the town without a professional club. It felt like a tipping point in the end game.
Things didn’t quite turn out like that, of course. The Withdean Stadium, a couple of miles north of the town centre on the road out of town, was far from ideal but it was a home, of sorts. Temporary stands were put along one side and behind the goals and agreement was reached with nearby residents to limit the amount of music played over the public address system – the club’s relationship with its very nearest neighbours could hardly ever have been described as “harmonious” – and Brighton & Hove Albion made do there for a little more than a decade, before moving a few miles out of the city centre to Falmer and leaving this most unsuitable of grounds behind.
But what happened next to the Withdean Stadium? The temporary stands were removed and some of the parts were relocated to the Enclosed Ground, home of the once upwardly-mobile Whitehawk, and the ground was converted back into what it had been in the first place, a multi-sport community facility owned by the local authority, albeit managed by a private company on its behalf. In 2011, Brighton & Hove Albion were a League One club playing matches to a few thousand people in this dilapidated athletics stadium which was consistently reckoned to be one of the worst grounds in the entire Football League. Now the club is playing Premier League football in front of crowds of crowds of more than 30,000 people, but what did they leave behind?
It started, as these things so frequently do these days, with a WhatsApp message. “I’m not feeling particularly intrepid today, BUT”, it read, “if you wanna come here c. 1pm we could go to AFC Vardeanians v Steyning Town. At the fucking Withdean, no less.” I was loosely aware that the Withdean was still being used for football by somebody or other. The aforementioned Whitehawk had made noises about moving there when they were being heavily bankrolled, but nothing ever came of it, but with that having failed and that club staying put, who had come along to use it of a Saturday afternoon?
The answer, as per the above WhatsApp message, turned out to be AFC Varndeanians, of the Southern Combination Football League Division One. This club was formed in 1929 as Old Varndeanians, a club for the old boys of Varndean School, which lists amongst its alumni former players Lewis Dunk of Brighton & Hove Albion, Darren Freeman, also formerly of Brighton & Hove Albion, Russell Martin, formerly of Rangers and Norwich City, and Tommy Fraser, formerly of, you guessed it, Brighton & Hove Albion.
The club played in the Sussex County League between 1956 and 1973 before dropping back to the locals league, but 2015 turned out to be a big year for the club. It moved into the Withdean Stadium, changed its name to AFC Varndeanians, and took up a place in the Southern Combination Football League, the name now adopted by the former Sussex County League. Promoted at the end of their first season at their new home, they go into this match at the top of Division One of the league, just the five promotions away from a place in the National League.
And today’s match is a top of the table fixture. Steyning Town are in third place in the table, some way off Varndean but still very much in touch. They’re a club with an even longer history than their opponnents. Formed in 1892, their most successful years came in the middle of the 1980s, when they won the Sussex County League title twice in a row and reached the quarter-finals of the FA Vase. Stalwarts of the county league scene for decades, they should present a stiff challenge to the league leaders this afternoon.
Finding the entrance to the Withdean Stadium is probably more of a challenge than it should be, these days. The temporary stands may have been removed, but much of the fencing that comes with being a member of the Football League is still present and correct, much of it with useful signage now removed, which leads to the inevitable conclusion of two easily confused middle-aged men walking through a maze of green wire metal fencing befoore realising that we’ve hit a dead end, yet again. With time running out until kick-off, however, we finally find our way to the entrance. It’s £5 to get in, but that includes money off drink and food in the “players lounge” and an eight-page programme.
Once inside the ground, it’s cold but picturesque. The Withdean is surrounded along one side by tall trees, and a combination of this, the surprisingly cold weather and the small crowd watching the match across an athletics track causes us to feel as though we’re watching a lower division Scandinavian match, or similar. And considering that this is a very long way from even a decent semi-professional level, the standard of football is pretty good. The pitch is in good condition, which helps, but it is noticeable that teams across practically all levels of the game nowadays try to play the ball on the ground where possible these days, and whilst there are mistakes – the players here are likely making little more than their petrol money, and might not even be making that, so to expect the silky passing of the Premier League would be somewhat unreasonable – this is perfectly watchable football. The two teams are evenly-matched and chances are thin on the ground, but these aren’t just hackers and cloggers.
Seven years away, however, haven’t completely eliminated Brighton & Hove Albion from the Withdean Stadium, asn our first hald exploration of the ground confirms. The commentary box is locked, but a brief peer through the window indicates that it still may be functional (most of the technology therein doesn’t date past 2011 itself, but had the door not been locked the players might have found themselves suddenly distracted by an extremely loud rendtion of “One Way Ticket” by Eruption, courtesy of my Spotify), whilst we can also act out our wildest Neil Custis fantasies at what remains of the press area.
Of particular interest to me, however, was the “players lounge.” Situated at one end of the ground, we spent much of the first half trying to see whether we could find it or not, before I found a sign that gave me directions so plain and clear that I would have be charting new levels of stupidity had I not done so. With a pleasingly retro Brighton & Hove Albion carpet in its entrance, it was staffed by three people who seemed a little surprised to see anyone turning up there during a match with the hope of eating or drinking anything. I chose two small sausage rolls from a plate of ten on the table in front of me, priced at 30p each, and a coffee. “I think we’ll get rid of all of these today”, says one of the volunteers to another as I make my way back out into the cold.
Varndean may have shaded the first half, but the second is largely dominated by Steyning, who bring out a fine save from the Varndean goalkeeper early in the half and otherwise dominate possession. There’s also one of those heart in mouth moments when a hard challenge is met with a loud cracking sound what only turns out to have been the noise of boot on shin pad rather than boot on bone after a couple of minutes’ investigation, before, with two minutes to play at the end of the match, a downward header from Lewis Levoi falls wide of the Varndean goalkeeper and snatches all three points for the away side. It’s a little bit tough on Varndean, but if one of the two of them was going to grab all three points it was always going to be Steyning, who looked much stronger in the second half than they had in the first.
At the final whistle, we leave the ground via another dead end, which leaves us in a corner by a disused turnstile and a women’s toilet which presumably hasn’t been visited at all in the last seven and a half years. On this coldest of cold autumn evenings, I think of Brighton centre at this moment in time, of supporters pouring back into the pubs and hostelries of the town centre after the Albion’s win against Wolverhampton Wanderers, and about how much has changed, and I think of us two, walking up a steep hill which I’m certain is in the opposite direction to where we should be going. But I don’t say anything. The Withdean Stadium, with its few remaining trappings from when Brighton & Hove Albion were the tenants here, its portable cabins, disused portaloos and suspiciously old-looking posters, is for the explorers amongst us. We’ll wend our way back, some way or another. One of the considerable benefits of living in this part of the world is that if you end up with wet ankles, you know you’ve walked too far south.