Brighton went into the 2002/03 Division One season (later rebranded to The Championship) on a high and with a great deal of momentum. Having won back to back titles in the previous two seasons, rising from Division Three to Division One, the club was back in the second tier ten years after a relegation from that level that preceded a turbulent time in the Albion’s history.
But all that was now in the past and after the recent upturn in fortunes things were going well for the Albion. First up that season was a trip to Burnley, their first since a 3-0 defeat in 1995. And with Burnley missing out on the playoffs on goal difference the season before, it was expected a tough test against an establish Division One side.
The preparation for a new season could have been better for the Albion though. Manager Peter Taylor had resigned over the low transfer budget and the delays in getting planning permission for the new stadium. In response, Chairman Dick Knight has appointed youth coach Martin Hinshelwood, whose only previous management experience had been as caretaker manager of the Albion the previous season, a bit of a punt you might say.
Brighton were also without the centre back partnership that led them to the title the previous season. Captain Danny Cullip was at home ill and Simon Morgan had retired over the summer. This left the Albion with a centre back partnership of utility man Robbie Pethick and youth team graduate and the managers nephew, Adam Hinshelwood.
That said, the Albion were led by the talismanic striker Bobby Zamora and with 63 goals in the past two seasons he was the hot property on the south coast. So still plenty of reasons to be confident, and it was Bobby who set up Steve Melton for the first and the Albion surprisingly led 1-0 at half time.
The Albion’s cause was helped greatly by a Burnley red card shortly before tricky winger Paul Brooker added second and Bobby made it three. And despite a consolation goal for Burnley, the Albion came away with a 3-1 win. A truly brilliant way to start the season.
Paul Brooker was one of the stars of the team at the time and along with Gary Hart’s selfless work-rate and Paul Watson set pieces delivery, he was one of the main supply lines for Bobby’s goals. It wasn’t just the experienced names that did the business that day. Rookie Adam Hinshelwood got the man of the match award in various newspapers reports and went on to make 100 appearances for the Albion as well as a handful of appearances for England U21s.
All this on top of the back to back promotions was giving the Albion a sense of optimism. Martin Hinshelwood said after the game “It has to be rated an impossible dream to have three successive promotion seasons; but that still does not stop us having ambition.”
However, it was an impossible dream. The win was the only one in 14 games and following a draw at home to Coventry that Tuesday, the Albion went on a 12 game losing streak, which signalled the end of the leadership of Martin Hinshelwood, who would take a role back with the youth team. Steve Coppell was brought in as replacement but couldn’t save the Albion from the inevitability of relegation that followed at the end of the season.
But whilst the optimism that followed was too good to be true, the win still goes down as a personal favourite. All my memories of the Albion up to this point were of them playing in lower divisions, mostly whilst struggling and being a bit of a local joke at the same time. At the time this felt like a breakthrough moment for the Albion. Brighton were back!