As Bad As Things Got: Brighton & Hove Albion, 3rd May 1997
It was a story that summed up the very best and the very worst of English football at the same time. A football club that had played top flight football and got to an FA Cup final just over a decade earlier was systematically asset-stripped, and those who run the game in this country stood back and did as close to nothing as they could. The neglect of the club was so severe that by the time it got to the last day of the 1996/97 season, the team went into a match knowing that a failure to pick up a result would likely end in the club becoming financially untenable, the result of two years during which a combination of neglect and failures of oversight so egregious that it’s difficult to know where to start.
But on the other hand, the protests that came over the course of these two seasons would change the nature of supporting a football club forever. One of the great dreams of the post-Taylor Report football world was that fans would become more like mere customers, but what happened to Brighton was so severe that it radicalised both its own fan base and a proportion of the fan bases of all clubs. And a quarter of a century on it should continue to shame English football that the asset-strippers got away with it, even though the dedication of those determined to keep it going in its darkest hour would eventually reap rewards that those who picked it apart in the 1990s would scarcely have been able to believe possible.
Bill Archer and Greg Stanley, a pair of DIY tycoons who owned the Focus DIY chain, bought Brighton & Hove Albion in 1993, along with David Bellotti, a former Liberal Democrat MP for Eastbourne, who was installed to run it on their behalf as chief executive. At first, fans were supportive of the plans of Archer and Bellotti to sell the Goldstone Ground and build a brand new stadium. There were failed attempts to gain planning permission for a site on the South Downs, just to the north of Hove, but the tide began to turn as it increasingly became clear that all was not as it seemed behind the scenes at the club.
They’d purchased Brighton for a nominal £56.25, on proviso that they provided the £800,000 that the club needed to fight off a winding up order. But Archer, Stanley and Bellotti’s ‘investment’ into the club had come with significant strings. It was more of a loan, rather than money being put into the club by its directors themselves. They used the Goldstone Ground as collateral, and the £800,000 ‘donation’ was just a bank loan which was secured against the ground and would have to be repaid immediately upon its sale.
In 1995 came the announcement that the ground was be be sold without Brighton having a new stadium to go to, and that there would instead be a ground share with Portsmouth, 70 miles from Brighton, instead. There also came the discovery that Archer had changed the club’s constitution to allow him and his fellow investors to profit from the sale of the ground, a move that was eventually blocked by the FA. Open rebellion erupted and the supporter’s campaigns began.
Archer & Bellotti had sold the Goldstone Ground for £7.4m to pay off debts of – depending on who you believed – between £4m and £6m. The new owners, Chartwell Land, had agreed to lease the stadium back to the club for one final season at a cost of £480,000, but Archer & Bellotti at first refused and counter-offered £200,000, and for a while there was a stand-off which made it possible that Brighton could be evicted at the end of the 1995/95 season.
The final home match of 1995/6 against York City had been abandoned after 15 minutes, after protesting fans invaded the pitch in an attempt to highlight the clubs plight. York fans were amongst them in a show of solidarity in what was assumed at the time would be the final match to be held there. The club, however, eventually relented in their game of brinkmanship with Chartwell and agreement was finally reached for the 1996/97 season.
The following season saw a continuation of the campaign to get rid of Archer, Bellotti, and all those who had come to poison Brighton & Hove Albion, but as this was happening, the team was unravelling on the pitch. They started the 1996/97 season in Division Three with Jimmy Case managing the team, following a catastrophic drop from Division Two at the end of the previous season, when they finished in 23rd place, twelve points adrift of safety.
The new season, however, didn’t start much better than the previous one had ended. They won two of their first five games, but after this brief high the team plummeted to the foot of the Division Three table. Brighton won one and drew three of their next 17 matches, and by December they were hopelessly adrift at the bottom of the Football League and – with only one promotion and relegation place between them and non-league football – likely out of business, should they end up falling through this particular trapdoor come the end of the season.
Things hit a low at the end of November. In the middle of the month, they’d only been able draw 1-1 at Sudbury Town, of the Southern League, in the First Round of the FA Cup. Held to another 1-1 draw in the replay, ten days later, they were beaten 4-3 on penalties. Case was finally dismissed after a 3-2 home defeat against Darlington a week later. It was a miracle that he’d stayed in his position for that long.
It wasn’t as though there wasn’t interest in taking the club over the club. A consortium led by Dick Knight, a local businessman, and which included the construction firm McAlpine, was trying to take control of Brighton, with both the local Council and the FA appeared to believe that this consortium had both the plans and backing to turn the clubs fortunes around. They satisfied the four criteria which Archer himself had laid down as conditions under which he would step aside. With this all agreed, though, he refused to leave, or even to allow the prospective owners access to the company accounts.
A toxic atmosphere hung in the air around the club which grew increasingly poisonous, and increasingly fans began to stay away. By November 1996, crowds had dropped well below 3,000, a third what they had been five years earlier. And as if all of this wasn’t enough, the club was also hit with a two point penalty from the Football League, imposed as punishment for a pitch invasion by fans who were protesting against the sale of the Goldstone Ground during a league game against Lincoln City at the start of October.
Steve Gritt, formerly the joint-manager at Charlton Athletic with Alan Curbishley, was appointed on the 11th December 1996. Brighton were eleven points adrift at the bottom of Division Three at this point, and few gave him much hope of being able to turn things around. Initially, it seemed as though little was going to change on the pitch, but from the middle of January on, Gritt was able to slowly set the team on a straighter course. They only lost five league matches from the 25th January on, and slowly began to claw their way back towards Football League survival.
Meanwhile, the protests continued, and the biggest of them all came with the Fans United day. The idea came from the early days of home internet posting in this country. A young Plymouth Argyle fan called Richard Vaughan posted the idea that supporters of all clubs should protest what was happening to the club a Brighton forum, and it snowballed from there. A match against Hartlepool United was chosen for the match, as it was on an international break weekend, and on the day a crowd of almost 8,500 – getting on for three times their average for the time – turned out to see Brighton’s team get lifted by this sudden influx of support from elsewhere, and they won the match 5-0.
By the penultimate weekend of the season, Hereford United – who’d been similarly terrible to Brighton throughout much of the winter and had recovered over the previous few weeks – were in their sights. A sell-out crowd of 11,341 filled the Goldstone Ground for its final league game, against Doncaster Rovers. The match was interrupted throughout by pitch invaders but, after both sides were reduced to ten men following a double sending-off, Albion finally got the breakthrough they needed, the stadium erupting with years of pent-up emotion when Stuart Storer scored midway through the second half. They held on for a tense 1-0 win.
Elsewhere, the news came through that Hereford United at lost 2-1 at Leyton Orient. A draw away to Hereford on the final day would keep Brighton in the Football League – a last roll of the dice before what before was assumed would be the club’s death upon relegation into the non-league game. The club’s financial position was by this time so severe that it was considered unlikely that Brighton would able to survive such a trauma as relegation from the Football League, should it come to pass.
The final match of the season, on the 3rd May 1997, attracted a sell-out crowd of just over 8,500 (including an estimated 3,500 Brighton supporters) to Hereford United’s Edgar Street ground. Hereford started the better of the two teams and took the lead after 21 minutes, when Tony Agana’s somewhat ungainly cross-cum-shot was diverted into his own goal by Brighton’s seventeen year old defender Kerry Mayo. Hereford continued to push for a second goal to kill the game, but it wouldn’t come. There were points at which Brighton’s defence was having to throw everything at preventing the home side putting the result beyond any doubt.
Mid-way through the second half, though, the game suddenly span on its head. Hereford were starting to look a little leggy, and when they failed to clear the ball properly from the edge of their own penalty area, Craig Maskell was able to flick the ball up and drive the ball across, off the inside of the right hand post, and back across the six yard area for Robbie Reinelt drive in the rebound to put Brighton level again. This time around, at the end of a 46 game season, Hereford had nothing more to give. At full-time, there was pandemonium. Against all odds, Brighton & Hove Albion had kept their place in the Football League.
By September, the Dick Knight led consortium had completed the takeover of the club. David Bellotti retired back to Bath, where he worked as a political agent and served as a councillor, before dying in 2015. Bill Archer, who’d never seemed to have much interest in the football club in the first place, departed as chairman, though it wasn’t until 2002 that he finally relinquished his shareholding in it.
The club’s future, however, remained precarious. With the Portsmouth deal having fallen through, fans were left with the grim prospect for the 1997/98 season of a 140 round trip to Gillingham for “home” games, and the following season they finished in 23rd place in the Third Division again, this time with only a club which was arguably even worse treated than Brighton, Doncaster Rovers, falling out of the Football League below them. Average home crowds fell by 60% with the move to Kent, although they recovered a little the following season, when the team finished 17th.
Then came the move back to Brighton, and the athletics track at Withdean Stadium. It was thoroughly unsuitable for football, with temporary dressing rooms, temporary stands, a lack of cover and a running track, but it was as much was there was available in the area, and at least the club was back in its home town, albeit under fairly severe restrictions (due to being next to a residential area) and in a broadly unsatisfactory venue.
After finishing in 11th place in the table in their first season back, they won the Third Division title in 2001 and the Second Division title the following year. Brighton were back, with two successive league titles that felt more than a little like acts of defiance towards a game which, apart from the fans themselves, had given every impression of having given up on the club, leaving it for dead in its hour of greatest need.
The new ground at Falmer was still just a pipe-dream in 1999, but Dick Knight steered the club through a difficult period that included an decade long battle to win planning approval that required a government inquiry and, eventually, intervention from John Prescott. New owner Tony Bloom, a supporter since childhood, funded its construction and opening, in 2012, and Brighton are now a Premier League club.
Hereford United, meanwhile, ended up a cautionary tale for what might have happened had Brighton been relegated instead. They were promoted back into the Football League in 2006, but were relegated back in 2012 and, after a catastrophic period of mismanagement, folded in 2014. Their successor club, Hereford FC, was formed a year later and currently play in the Southern League. They appeared in the FA Vase final in 2016, and later this season will play in the FA Trophy final there.
For all the optimism that the club’s Lazarus-style recovery in the first decade of this century engenders, though, there remains something fundamentally unsatisfying about the resolution to the story of Brighton’s near-miss at the end of the 1996/97 season. Those who heartlessly asset-stripped this club got away with it, and those entrusted to protect it failed on just about every count. The FA and the Football League looked the other way. Politicians appeared broadly disinterested. The media, while broadly sympathetic to the plight of the club, largely wrung their hands over what was going on without applying a great deal of pressure upon those who could do something about it.
And while the fan protests – in particular those which also involved the fans of other clubs – were heartening signs of unity, they couldn’t keep Brighton & Hove Albion at The Goldstone Ground or away from their period in exile at Gillingham. But the pressure that fans applied definitely had an effect on the decision to allow the stadium at Falmer to be built, and the club’s transformation since they moved in there almost a decade ago has vindicated the belief of those who kept the faith that this club was viable and could thrive, if given the opportunity to.
Both the determination of Brighton’s fans in the face of these insurmountable odds and the unity shown by the supporters of many other clubs have provided a template which has proved invaluable over the last 20 years, because the vultures have never stopped circling the game, and its governing bodies haven’t got any better at regulating against them. Fans groups have become remarkably proficient in getting the stories of their own clubs’ mismanagements into the public spotlight, if nothing else.
When Bury were overwhelmed by asset-strippers just a couple of years ago though, the inertia of all concerned was very similar to what had happened at Brighton more than two decades earlier, and all the talk of reforming the game has, as it always does in this country, thus far proved to be no more than hot air, from the government down. Perhaps the only progress that the game has made in this respect in the intervening twenty plus years is that supporters are better informed, educated and able to protest against the vultures than they ever have been before, but that in itself doesn’t really say a great deal for the way in which the game is still run in this country, really, does it?