How Brighton went from the brink of extinction to the Premier League – told by their heroes
There were 28 minutes remaining at Edgar Street, and hope was starting to evaporate. Brighton & Hove Albion were losing 1-0 at Hereford on the final day of the Division Three season. Homeless, they were heading for non-league.
Fans huddled in the packed Blackfriars End terrace were bracing themselves for the worst – not just relegation, but possible oblivion. The Goldstone Ground had been sold from under them. After 96 years of existence, it looked like the end – thanks to an own goal from Kerry Mayo, a boyhood Seagull in his debut season as a pro.
“If I’d had time to think about it, I would have tried to place it and probably missed,” Robbie Reinelt tells FFT now, recalling the moment he came off the substitutes’ bench to carve a place in Brighton history. “Craig Maskell’s volley rebounded off the post, and in that split second I just hit it. The supporters went absolutely crazy. Kerry jumped onto my back and told me, ‘You’ve just saved my f**king life.’”
Reinelt’s goal was enough to give Brighton the point they needed, as the fourth tier’s bottom two clubs went head-to-head in a dramatic shootout for Football League survival. That day in 1997, Brighton survived, Hereford went down. Today, they stand six divisions apart, Hereford in the Southern Premier League, Brighton preparing for their first season in the Premier League.
“We make any player we sign very aware of the history of this club,” says Chris Hughton, the manager who has guided Brighton into the top flight. “We’ll show them a video of the history – from where the club were, to where we are today.”
“We could get to the Champions League and every supporter who was around in those days would still tell you the Hereford game was the single most important game in Brighton’s history,” says lifelong Seagulls fan Alan Wares. “If we’d lost, there would be no Brighton & Hove Albion any more. We wouldn’t have been accepted into the Conference as we had no home.”
“Liam Brady called it ‘a different kind of riot’”
Head a mile up the hill from the seafront in Brighton and you'll find a reminder of where things went so badly wrong for the club. It’s a nondescript retail park with a Toys R Us and a Nando’s, the sort that you will see in countless towns and cities up and down the country. This one is different, though. Wander to the other side of the main road and an information board details the site’s significance. This used to be the Goldstone Ground.
“Many of us try to avoid driving past it,” says Paul Samrah, one of the most significant fans in Brighton’s rise back to prominence. “My wife thinks I’m crazy but we’ve all got our idiosyncrasies and that’s mine. Even now, all these years on, it’s still too painful.”
Brighton were in the FA Cup final in 1983, but 12 years later they were in the third tier and experiencing financial issues. The news still came as a bolt from the blue: the club were set to sell the Goldstone.
“Sure, the club were in a bit of a pickle but they didn’t have to sell the ground,” Wares insists. “If they had wanted to restructure the finances, they could have done so in a way other than the nuclear option.”
Brighton were to leave the stadium at the conclusion of the 1995/96 campaign, destination unconfirmed. Portsmouth’s Fratton Park seemed the most likely, but all that was known was that the club were departing Brighton, with no concrete plans for when they would return.
Unhappy with owner Bill Archer and chief executive David Bellotti, anger among fans snowballed when it emerged that an important section of the club’s constitution had been changed – with the removal of a clause that prevented shareholders profiting from asset sales if the club folded. The clause was later reinstated, its omission described as an oversight, but by then the relationship between board and supporters was irreparable. Samrah and his fellow fans formed the Brighton Independent Supporters’ Association, and protests grew.
Meanwhile, the team were busy getting relegated to the fourth tier. They were already down when they faced York in their final home match of 1995/96 – what looked to be their final game at the Goldstone. More than 1,000 fans invaded the pitch, protesting right in front of the directors’ box. Supporters broke both crossbars, forcing an abandonment, with the match later replayed on a Thursday morning.
“When the game was abandoned I thought, ‘This is a moment’,” Wares says. “It was absolutely necessary. We were screaming and no one was listening.”
He adds, with a shake of the head, “The FA was more focused on Euro 96.”
More than 1,000 fans invaded the pitch, protesting right in front of the directors’ box. Supporters broke both crossbars, forcing an abandonment
“Liam Brady called it ‘a different kind of riot’ – that was a really good quote,” continues fellow supporter Steve North, an actor in London’s Burning who would later co-write two books about the team. Brady had managed the club, departing in 1995 because of disagreements over the way it was being run. A day after the York abandonment, he stood outside the Goldstone offering to put his own money in as part of a consortium to take over the club, but it was met with resistance from the board.
The pitch invasion brought a suspended three-point deduction, to be enforced if it ever happened again. In the end, it turned out not to be Brighton’s final game at the Goldstone, with the club granted a one-season extension before the bulldozers moved in.
The 1996/97 campaign brought more protests – at matches; at Archer’s Focus DIY stores; even in his home village in Lancashire – while some of the games were boycotted.
“We were boycotting against Mansfield but someone managed to get the gates open to one of the disused stands and we piled in – suddenly there were 2,000 of us on this terrace,” chuckles North.
The pitch invasions continued. When the fans ran on once more against Lincoln, the FA deducted Albion two points, leaving them 11 points off safety after a nightmare start.
Relegation to non-league appeared inevitable but the December arrival of Steve Gritt – formerly joint-manager with Alan Curbishley at Charlton – revived their form. They didn’t lose at home again for the rest of the season and beat Hartlepool 5-0 on Fans United day, with supporters from approximately 65 other clubs – which included Eintracht Frankfurt and rivals Crystal Palace – stood shoulder to shoulder with Brighton fans and their cause.
The protests finally persuaded Archer to sell up late in the season – to Dick Knight, Brady’s original backer – but there was no saving the ground. The final game there came on April 26, 1997, when Brighton beat Doncaster to move off the bottom of the league for the first time in 203 days, ahead of the Hereford showdown. The club would spend the next two campaigns playing at Gillingham – some 70 miles away.