Brighton & Hove Albion: Twenty From Twenty

by | Apr 19, 2017

Brighton and Hove Albion have just been promoted to the Premier League! Hooray! The Seagulls haven’t been in the top division of English football for 34 years, a statistic which would be remarkable enough without the fact that their promotion came just 20 years, almost to the day, that they almost slipped out of the Football League and, most likely, of existence. Here are twenty people who made the unlikely, the inevitable.

A Charlton Athletic legend, Gritt had spent twelve years as a player at The Valley and between 1991 and 1995 served as the club’s co-manager alongside Alan Curbishley. It’s safe to say that Curbishley enjoyed a significantly higher profile outside the immediate environs of south London: when he was appointed Brighton’s manager in December 1996 he was basically an unknown. Worse yet, Gritt looked to be an admission of defeat by a club who were at their lowest ebb. Under Liam Brady and then Jimmy Case, Albion had been relegated to the bottom tier of the Football League in 1995/96, compounding the club’s already well established off-field problems. The rot seemed to have well and truly set in by the time that Gritt began his work. Brighton and Hove Albion had played 22 league matches, losing 15 of them and scoring just 18 goals, leaving the team 12 points adrift at the foot of the table. They had been knocked out of the FA Cup in the first round by non-league Sudbury Town and, worse yet, hit with a deduction of 2 points for a pitch invasion by supporters protesting the egregious mismanagement of the club by chairman Bill Archer and chief executive David Bellotti, against Lincoln City in October.

Under Gritt, Brighton rallied thanks chiefly to dramatic improvements to the club’s home form. Indeed, by the season’s penultimate game, Gritt had remarkably guided the Seagulls to the giddy heights of 23rd place in the table. A draw with fellow strugglers Hereford United at on the final day of the season at Edgar Street would secure their league status. It was a winner-takes-it-all relegation play-off in all but name and remains the most important match in the club’s history. Gritt’s team held on, fighting back from a goal down at the break to secure a vital 1-1 draw. Hereford went down and, ultimately, to the wall. It was an unspeakably cutthroat and parlous time to be a football club.

It would have been impossible for Gritt to live up to this one moment of total drama and, of course, he couldn’t. The following season, the club’s first away from the Goldstone Ground, Brighton would again finish 91st in the Football League but there was no need for a repeat of the heroics of Saturday, 3rd May 1997, thanks to Doncaster Rovers enduring their own Annus Horribilis. Gritt was fired by Brighton in January 1998 and replaced by Brian Horton. But while the club’s upturn in form began under Horton’s stewardship, its continued existence owed much to Steve Gritt’s admirable perseverence and never-say-die attitude against impossible odds: he will never be forgotten on the Sussex coast.

Saturday 3rd May 1997. The previous day, Britain had woken up to a new Labour government – its first in 18 years – with Tony Blair’s restructured party having won a famous landslide victory. Things could only get better. This was truer for Brighton and Hove Albion than it was for almost anything else in the country. There was no money, there was little future and there was no home: the Goldstone Ground having been sold to stave off bankruptcy. The club needed to secure at least a draw away at Hereford in order to avoid the ignimony of becoming the first former FA Cup finalist to be relegated out of the Football League. But it was more basic than that: lose and the club – set to play their matches the following season at Gillingham’s Priestfield stadium and having been mismanaged to such a degree of notoriety that it had begun a supporter movement that would eventually become  Supporters Direct – would surely have ceased to exist.

Brighton trailed at half time but managed to fight their way back into contention in the second half. Just after the hour mark, Craig Maskell’s powerful shot from distance was parried away by Hereford’s goalkeeper but Reinelt, a recent arrival from Colchester United, was awake to the rebound. It was the tap-in heard around the world. Wherever Brighton and Hove Albion play in the future, a small part of Robbie Reinelt will always be with them. (They carry his toenail before them in a pot)

Reinelt stayed at Brighton for the best part of the next season, scoring an additional four goals to add to the three that had helped the club maintain its league status, before moving on to Leyton Orient, his last League club.

Brighton’s famous 1-1 draw with Hereford United on 3rd May 1997 was the key turning point in the club’s history. But the weekend before had seen a result that was just as notable: on 26th April, Brighton beat Doncaster Rovers 1-0 in the final game at the Goldstone Ground, their home of 96 years. The man who scored the winner that day was Stuart Storer. A right-sided midfielder who could also operate at full-back, Storer had spent the majority of his career at Bolton Wanderers and Exeter City before signing for the Albion in 1995. In his four years at the club, Storer would play over 150 games, scoring 14 goals and winning over the Brighton faithful with his honest, straightforward approach and admirable workrate. Storer went on to enjoy a lengthy career in non-league football, playing for Hinckley United until 2010. He is currently the manager at Bedworth United but always a welcome sight in Brighton.

Kerry Mayo’s Brighton legacy could have been all too different but no less telling: it was the full back who turned Tony Agana’s shot into his own net to give Hereford United the lead in May 1997. Instead, Mayo – a local lad who spent his entire professional career with the Albion – became the embodiment of a tumultuous yet ever more successful period in the history of the club. Mayo signed professional terms in 1995, around the time that the pantomime villainy of the club’s board was made so starkly obvious, and finally left the club in 2009, shortly after ground was broken at the site of the American Express Community Stadium in Falmer. Mayo played over 400 games for the Seagulls in three different divisions of the Football League and remains a fan favourite. Helpfully, he married a woman called Kerry, giving rise to the grammatically dubious but otherwise flawless chant, “there’s only two Kerry Mayos”.

A lifelong Seagulls fan with an established career in advertising, Dick Knight became the figurehead of supporter-led pressure to get rid of the board who had nearly led the club into oblivion. In 1997, Knight bought the club and became its chairman, after which point it hasn’t looked back. Knight was bought out in 2009 but remains on the Albion board as the club’s Life President. If you want to see Dick Knight’s legacy, go to Falmer and look around you. He is the true hero of Brighton’s remarkable story.

The club’s most notable celebrity follower to not wear a moustache, Norman Cook has provided considerable ongoing support for Brighton and Hove Albion. Most visibly, this was displayed by his record label Skint Records sponsoring the team’s shirts for nine seasons at a time when the club was unsuccessful, in sheltered accommodation and didn’t have a pot to piss in. Norman Cook has been the most visible, voluble and constant famous fan the club has had throughout a period when the Albion seemed to be determined to absent from themselves from the rest of the city’s cultural renaissance. Such loyalty and support is not easily forgotten.

Oh, Gary Hart. Signed by Brian Horton from Stanstead F.C. for £1,000 and a set of tracksuits in 1998, Hart went on to play 373 times for the Albion, scoring 45 goals in a thirteen-year career. He started off as a much-needed centre forward but eventually settled down into his more familiar tactical role of Being Gary Hart. Hart could, and would, play more or less anywhere he was asked by successive managerial regimes but was rarely considered to be surplus to requirements. A player of dedication, professionalism and versatility, Gary Hart was there when Brighton needed him. Now 40 years of age, he is still active as a player in non-league football.

Adams had a solid professional career as a player playing top flight football with both Coventry City and Southampton in addition to spells with Gillingham, Fulham and Leeds. But his managerial career was stuttering at best: he had served as a player-manager with Fulham, Swansea and Brentford without much distinction before Brighton offered him the job as manager in 1999. It coincided with the club’s return to Sussex, after two seasons playing 70 miles away in Gillingham. It sparked an extraordinary revival of fortunes. By the end of Adams’ first full season in charge, Albion had been promoted as Division 3 champions. The following season, the team Adams had won Division 2 as well. However, by the time the trophy was being held aloft, Adams was gone: to Leicester City as the assistant(!) to Dave Bassett(?!). Brighton’s modest home at the Withdean Stadium lacked the pull or the potential of virtually every other club in the league at this point and Adams’ replacement, Peter Taylor, as well as Steve Coppell, would be similarly tempted away in the following seasons. Adams further blotted his copybook in 2008/09, returning to the Brighton dugout and amply demonstrating why going back to a club is nearly always a foolish idea. However, for all his failings, it was Micky Adams who put Brighton on the football map again, and against considerable odds. After Adams, Brighton’s players and staff once again had a standard to which they could aspire.

Zamora, the best use for a number 25 shirt yet devised by man, first arrived at Brighton on loan from Bristol Rovers in 2000. He scored six times in six games but luckily for Brighton, The Gas didn’t notice this and happily sold him to the Albion permanently that summer for a cool £100,000. It was the best money the club had ever spent. Over the next three years, Zamora would score 70 more goals for Brighton, in just 119 league appearances. These goals fired the Seagulls into the second tier for the first time  in a decade and attracted the attentions of Tottenham Hotspur, who bought Zamora for £1.5 million in 2003. This is still the highest fee Brighton and Hove Albion have ever received for any of their players, a record that will soon surely be broken. Fittingly, Zamora returned to the Sussex coast in 2015/16 to play his last professional season at the club where he is loved like he is at no other. An epoch-making player.

John Prescott is not a football player or manager, nor is he a Brighton supporter. Nevertheless, he did the club a major solid when, as Deputy Prime Minister, he approved the plans for the building of Brighton and Hove Albion’s new stadium at Falmer. Although this was temporarily held up due to a judicial review brought about by Lewes District Council, eventually opposition petered out and Brighton had a proper home once again. A proper football ground may not seem like such a vital cog in your team’s overall performance, until you don’t have one. John Prescott helped build ours.

Dean Wilkins, youngest of the Wilkins brothers, was an Albion stalwart, playing 338 league games for the Seagulls over two spells totalling ten years. However, it was as a coach that he really distinguished himself, moving behind the scenes at the club after his retirement from playing in 1996. Wilkins helped bring through a series of young players who made a significant impact on the Brighton team and beyond: Adam Virgo, Dean Hammond and Tommy Elphick were among their number. Wilkins later served as Brighton’s manager for an 18 month spell, before he was moved aside for Micky Adams to make his return. It was an episode that left a sour taste in a number of people’s mouths. Wilkins is the kind of servant that every football club needs to thrive.

Bloom became the owner and chairman of Brighton and Hove Albion in May 2009. A local man, Bloom made his fortune is property development and professional poker playing, two pursuits which most people deem to be risky enough without the need to include Brighton and Hove Albion. However, Bloom’s stewardship of the club has been exemplary: the team improves season-on-season, while the club’s infrastructure has grown into a position of being the envy of many of the clubs in the league. Despite this, the Albion have retained much of the goodwill that they won during the dark days of Bill Archer and won many new admirers and well-wishers along the way. Tony Bloom is the chairman that you wish your team had.

Let’s get this out of the way: the swirl of events that led to Gus Poyet’s downfall at Brighton and Hove Albion involved (1) a playoff semi-final defeat at home to our most dreaded rivals Crystal Palace and (2) a poo, on the floor, in the away dressing room. However, let’s not let a poo come between us and what was a thoroughly beneficial relationship. Poyet had it all to prove as a manager when he was appointed in 2009. He quickly established himself as one of the more charismatic and remarkable bosses in League football. His first full season in charge resulted in the League One championship title and, after a stablising first year back in the Championship, a run to 4th place and the ill-fated play-offs of 2012/13. But Poyet’s importance went beyond results: he was the first manager the club had had since leaving the Goldstone Ground who could boast both prominence and managerial provenance not to be tempted away by greener pastures.

Billy Sharp is the only footballer on this list who has neither played for nor managed Brighton, but he represents something to the club all the same. Sharp was the first person to score a competitive goal at the Amex Stadium, on Saturday 6th August 2011. Brighton’s opponents that day, as they had been for the final day at the Goldstone fourteen years previously, were Doncaster Rovers and it was for Rovers that Sharp opened the scoring. There was a wonderful circularity about the whole business: the opposition, having a home again, Brighton letting one in… The Albion came back that day to win 2-1, but Billy Sharp – like Doncaster Rovers – will always have a special place in Albion hearts. Sharp is now 31 years old and this season has helped fire Sheffield United back into the second tier.

Loved, loathed, grudgingly admired and then loved again, Glenn Murray’s history with Brighton and Hove Albion has all the elements for a quite boring film of very limited audience appeal. Still, I would watch it. I may even write it. Murray arrived at Brighton in 2008 from Rochdale. Over the next three years he scored 53 goals in 118 games for the Albion, but our performances were unable to match his ambitions and like so many before him, he left the fold. However, things were complicated rather by the fact that Murray had not only left the fold for a club in the same division, but that that club were Crystal bloody Palace. Worse yet, Murray continued his fine form at Selhurst Park, helping the Eagles regain their Premier League status.

However, in 2015 Palace dispensed with his services and Murray was picked up by Premier League newcomers AFC Bournemouth. At the start of this season, Brighton re-signed their prodigal son, first on loan and then on a permanent deal. He has led the line all season, scored over 20 goals and, once again, become one of Albion’s most talismanic players. His experience, too, will prove to be invaluable in the Premier League next season. But, I mean, come on. Crystal Palace?

One of the key visible signs of Brighton’s growth in the past five seasons has been the steady influx of players and staff from exotic climes, i.e. not just from outside of Sussex, but from outside this country! Incredible scenes, I am sure you will all agree. Gus Poyet’s regime at the club helped encourage an influx of Spanish talent, but Bruno – alongside Inigo Calderon – has been easily the most enduring and popular of them. He will be 37 in October but remains the club’s starting right back and captain. Bruno’s retirement from the game, which will happen sooner rather than later, will leave some mighty big shoes to fill. It is to his credit that the type of player that Brighton will need to replace him will probably break our transfer record many times over.

Brighton’s success has been built on a steady, reliable foundation of players that the club have developed themselves. Few of these players have become stars, let alone household names, but they are nevertheless the kind of capable professional squad players that every football club needs. Lewis Dunk, born and raised in Brighton, has over the last couple of seasons adeptly proved himself to be the best of the latest intake. Now the club’s vice-captain, Dunk is the new face of Brighton and Hove Albion, the player whose achievements the next generation of youngsters will aspire to equal. Not 26 until November, Dunk has already played 150 league games and looks to have the best of his career immediately ahead of him.

Frankly, things didn’t work out particularly well for Sami Hyypia. He had been managing at Bayer Leverkusen prior to his appointment at the Amex in 2014. However, Hyypia had been co-managing Leverkusen with Sacha Lewandowski and it seems like Brighton may have chosen the wrong one. His 26 games in charge saw Brighton secure just six wins and a relegation struggle predictably ensued the season after the club had reached the play-offs. Hyypia was not a great Brighton manager by any metric. But what he does represent is the way that the club now functions when it has taken a step in the wrong direction. Firmly and assuredly. With professionalism and without rancour.

Brighton have always had something of a soft spot for signing flighty, skilful and ephemeral flair players from the other side of the channel – let’s take a moment out to think about Alex Frutos – however, Knockaert is of a completely new standard. Knockaert has worked this magic before: he helped Leicester City achieve promotion to the Premier League but had signed for Brighton – via Standard Liege – by the time Leicester had won the title. A creative, expressive winger of the type that every football supporter loves to watch, Knockaert has been Brighton’s star player this season. Stickers with his face on have started popping up around the city, further emphasising his impact and popularity. This seems set to grow exponentially now that promotion ought to secure his immediate future at the club.

For all of the growth and development that Brighton and Hove Albion have done over the past twenty years, there is no substitute for the experience of having been there and done that. Chris Hughton was the ideal appointment for a club who had been looking to make that next step. But not even the most wildly optimistic Brighton supporter could have anticipated how wonderfully he would discharge his duty this season. Last year, narrowly missing out on automatic promotion in the final game followed by igniminious defeat in the play-off semi final, was much more the team to which we have become accustomed. Hughton has changed that. He has instilled a belief and a confidence in his team which has now infected the city and returned Brighton to a league which they haven’t experienced for over a generation. Hughton’s calm, capable demeanour and continued record of achievement must now make him one of the most respected football managers in the country. He has done wonderful things for my home town. I sincerely hope that Brighton will treat him with more respect than Newcastle, Birmingham or Norwich City did.

For all of this spirit of valedictory celebration, however, I feel it would be unforgivably remiss of any Brighton supporter to not spare a thought at this time to an old sparring partner of ours from those days, not so long ago, when the boot was firmly on the other foot. In the same weekend that Brighton had their promotion confirmed, Leyton Orient had to win just to keep themselves in the Football League, for another week, at least. If Brighton and Hove Albion are an example of the good things that can happen to a football club, Orient are a stark reminder that someone else will always have to pay the cost. The very best wishes to them, their players and their supporters. May your next twenty years be like the Albion’s.

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