Today’s entry in this on-running series comes from Mark Chalcraft, who can otherwise be found at the very splendid 2nd Yellow football site. His subject is one that is rather close to one or two of us that already write for Twohundredpercent – Brighton & Hove Albion’s Goldstone Ground.

This summer is a poignant one for Brighton & Hove Albion, as much as any other in their history.  Winning the League One title has been a cause for great celebration and joy, but it’s the move to the shiny, wonderful new Amex Community Stadium that has brought added significance to 2011 for a club that has been living in temporary accommodation for over a decade.  The club’s farewell to the ramshackle Withdean Stadium was a party, with success on the pitch matched with a bright financial future. Compare this with the scenes on April 26th 1997, and you realise just what an arduous journey the club and it’s fans have had to undertake.

This was the date of the final ever game at the old Goldstone Ground, Albion’s home of ninety-five years and the unwilling victim of Bill Archer, Greg Stanley and David Bellotti’s asset strip.  It was an emotional day in so many ways.  Anchored to the bottom of Division Three and staring a future as a non-league club full in the face, Stuart Storer’s goal, the last ever goal at the Goldstone, had beaten Doncaster 1-0 and lifted Albion above Hereford on goals scored.  I wasn’t there that day, but the commentator’s guttural roar as that goal went in will live with me forever.  The fans celebrated in relief and in new-found hope, but there was also so much emotion after the final whistle as they said goodbye to a stadium that was increasingly showing the combined effects of age and neglect.

It was never a glamorous ground, untouched by the Taylor report, but what lower division ground was in the early nineties?  Still, it was home.  The site is now “home” to a retail park and, as yet, there is no memorial to show vacant-eyed shoppers of what used to be.  Where once the fan’s heroes – Peter Ward, John Byrne, Steve Foster et al – played for fame and glory, racks of toys now compete for children’s attention and spotty teenagers ask agitated drivers whether they want fries with that. The old place, however, had a good innings – of that there can be no doubt.  It was home to Albion for ninety-five years, and to Hove FC before that, played host to Olympic football in 1948 and witnessed the club rising to new heights in the late 1970s and early 1980s.  By 1983, it’s crowds were roaring Jimmy Melia’s team to Wembley and an FA Cup final, the one where “and Smith must score” became a catchphrase for what ifs in years to come.  For that was the summit for the Goldstone, the club being relegated from the old Division One that same season, and the years that followed saw mismanagement on and off the pitch as the club slipped down the divisions and deeper into debt and the stadium increasingly began to decay.

My overriding memory of the Goldstone was a December 1991 fixture against Millwall, aged twelve.  Sat at the front of the South Stand behind the goal, we watched across towards the North Stand as well as the open terracing that ran the length of one side of the pitch.  Sadly, the Seagulls went down 4-3 in an exciting yet ultimately disappointing encounter.  As a microcosm for supporting Brighton over the last twenty years it’s fairly representative.  That was a season that ended their stay in the old Division Two, and soon after the full extent of the clubs problems began to unravel.

At first, the fans supported the plans of Archer and Bellotti to sell the Goldstone and build a brand new stadium.  There were failed attempts to gain planning permission for a site on the South Downs north of Hove.  But the tide began to turn as it increasingly became clear that all was not as it seemed.  Finally, in 1995, came the announcement that the ground would be sold without Brighton having a new stadium to go to, and that there would be a ground share with Portsmouth.  There was also 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 blocked by the FA.  Open rebellion erupted and the supporter’s campaigns began.

That the club were able to use the Goldstone in 1996/7 at all was down to the new owners, Chartwell, offering a leaseback deal for that season. Archer & Bellotti had originally rejected the deal, but were forced to relent, and one last season was guaranteed.  Before this, 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 their plight.  York fans were amongst them in a show of solidarity in what was assumed at the time to be the final match at the Goldstone.

The following season saw a continuation of the campaign to get rid of Archer and his cronies. Football was almost secondary as far as the fans were concerned and this naturally took a toll on the pitch.  Being 13 points adrift of safety makes for a fairly certain bet for relegation.  Yet, by the end of the season, new manager Steve Gritt’s team had somehow clawed themselves to within reach of Hereford above them.  This was the prelude to that final victory over Doncaster.  One last victory to say goodbye to the Goldstone, and suddenly a draw away to Hereford on the final day would bring salvation.  Robbie Reinelt scored the goal that brought him instant legend status and in all likelihood saved the club from extinction.  Had he not scored, Brighton would have become the first former top-flight club to suffer relegation to the Conference, a plight that their finances may not have survived.

By September, the Dick Knight lead consortium, backed by fans, had completed a takeover deal.  Bellotti had scurried away for the last time, and Archer was no longer chairman, though it wasn’t until 2002 that he relinquished his shareholding. With the Portsmouth deal having fallen through, the fans were left with a 70 mile trip to Gillingham for “home” games, a misery-inducing ground-share that lasted two seasons.  Then came the move back to Brighton, and the athletics-arena-and-former-zoo Withdean Stadium.  It was thoroughly unsuited to football, with it’s porta-cabin dressing rooms, temporary stands and running track, but it was something.  That something lasted for twelve seasons, saw four promotions, two relegations and some near misses.  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 almighty battle to win planning approval that required a government inquiry and intervention from John Prescott.

It may seem hyperbolic to talk of an ageing and decaying stadium such as the Goldstone leaving an important legacy for English football, but I will anyway.  The fledgling Premier League was busy redrawing the boundaries of English football and it’s finances to the detriment of traditional fan bases.  Overseas imports were beginning to arrive in increasing numbers, the spectre of agents were starting to tighten their grip and the wage spiral was under way. Yet, at Brighton, something else was happening.  The fans, desperately trying to save their dying club, were getting organised.  The campaign that helped secure the future of Brighton and Hove Albion, a future that now looks brighter than ever, was a prototype for those at numerous other clubs. They may not have saved the Goldstone, but they learnt how to wage an effective, and non-violent, campaign against club owners that eventually helped force Archer and Bellotti out.

They took their campaign up and down the country, they organised a mass boycott of a home fixture against Mansfield, they regularly forced Bellotti to flee the stadium during games. Then there was the Fans United day that brought sympathetic fans of other clubs up and down the land, as well as from Europe, to protest at a game against Hartlepool – tactics that have been repeated time and again at other clubs in their battles against unscrupulous owners and investors. When the fans take their seats in the Amex Community Stadium for the first home Championship fixture of 2011/12, thoughts will return to the events of 1995/6 and 1996/7 and the fourteen hard years it’s taken to recover from them.  The Goldstone Ground may have been lost, but it will never be forgotten.

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