30th May 2004 – That day in Cardiff at the Millennium Stadium will always be a special memory for me. It was my first cup final experience as a Brighton fan and currently the only one, unless you count the Sussex Senior Cup that is. And what a day it was, sunny and warm in Cardiff on the Sunday of a Bank Holiday weekend. As a result of which Bute Park in the centre of Cardiff which is over the road from the Millennium Stadium was full of fans enjoying the good weather. I remember strolling through the park with my family before the game anxious with anticipation whilst others joined in kickabouts between rival fans.
We had stayed in a nearby B&B in the south west of England the night before, so to break up the journey to Cardiff and drove the short final leg of our journey on the morning of the game. So, we arrived in Cardiff fairly fresh and parked in Ninian Park Stadium car park and got a park and ride bus to the Millennium Stadium. Ninian Park was an old, run down and later knocked down stadium but one that still felt impressive to see and one that was worlds away from the Withdean Stadium that the Albion occupied at the time.
The build up to the game, in fact the season as a whole had been dominated by the campaign to get planning permission to build our new stadium at Falmer from the then Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott. Most notably the “We’re pleased to be here, but we wish we were here” postcards we were given with our playoff final tickets and were encouraged to send to John Prescott’s office. At that time, it was always a balance between fighting for the new stadium and focusing on matters on the pitch and the requirement to fund the continued legal battle was stretching resources at the club. Former manager Steve Coppell said during his time as manager whilst the club struggled against relegation:
“The football has almost been a sideshow. If that money had been spent on the pitch, we wouldn’t have found ourselves in this position.”
Despite the off field troubles, it had been another good season for the Albion, after last seasons instant relegation back to the third tier that followed two consecutive promotions up to that level. And whilst after all that a year of mid-table mediocrity would have been welcomed by the more faint-hearted, another promotion campaign was anticipated. Ultimately though despite playing well during the season and being driven forward by the goal-scoring exploits Leon Knight, we missed out on automatic promotion and had to settle for a place in the playoffs.
Mark McGhee had come in as manager just after the start of that season following the resignation of former manager Steve Coppell who left in the September of that season to join Reading. Coppell had been brought in to save the Albion from relegation the previous season. This was despite relegation looking likely after a terrible start to the season had the Albion looking doomed, Coppell ensured there was a fight at least and the Albion were ultimately only relegated on the final day of that season. When McGhee came in he built on the organisation and experience that Coppell had instilled and constructed a solid, defence-minded team that conceded only 43 goals in 46 games, the third best in the league that season. McGhee also added a much-needed injection of Scottish Charisma to post match interviews, something Steve Coppell’s dry monotone nature lacked.
Whilst McGhee wasn’t that popular during his time at the Albion, I think history looks back fondly on the three years he had with the Albion. He got the best out of the limited resources available at the time and persevered with the circumstances the club found themselves in, whilst others like Steve Coppell and Peter Taylor had given up and jumped ship. In doing so, the following season he would achieve the Albion’s highest place finish at the Withdean, 20th in the second tier, becoming the only Albion team playing in the second tier not to be relegated during the Withdean years. And despite a terrible season the following year that ended in relegation and a bottom place finish, overall, he did as well as could have been expected under the circumstances at the time.
When McGhee joined he will have quickly realised he had a rebuilding job to do as the Albion had lost a few key players in recent months. None more important than the three years running top goal-scorer Bobby Zamora, who left for the bright lights of the Premier League in the form of Tottenham Hotspurs. But in his place came Leon Knight, a young striker from Chelsea who quickly filled the void left by Zamora scoring 27 goals in league and cup that season and giving Albion the bite they needed up front.
That said, Knight wasn’t alone and forged an array of striking partnership with loanee target men throughout the season, some more productive than others. McGhee had the Albion playing a game based mostly on long balls up to the target man with a compact two lines of four in behind. This target man role was key to McGhee’s system if under appreciated. That player was instructed to win headers, hold the ball up and supply Leon Knight with chances, who would use his pace in behind the opposition defence, as well as being expected to chip in with goals himself.
Knight started the season playing with Darius Henderson but Henderson only netted twice and soon returned to parent club Reading. Then there was Trevor Benjamin, my personal favourite, a man who came on loan from Leicester and scored 5 in 10. After which McGhee was keen for him to stay but he returned to Leicester when a deal couldn’t be reached. Finally, to fill the position there was his partnership with Chris Iwelumo, who would partner him in the all-important Playoff final and have a key impact that season. It was a partnership notable for the height differential of the pair, dubbed ‘little and large’ and whilst all Knight’s partners were taller than him, Iwelumo towered over Knight by just under a foot at 6 foot 3 inches. Iwelumo seemed to bring the best out of Knight and as a result their partnership helped to secure the Albion’s place on the playoffs.
There’s far more that could be said of Leon Knight, he went on to become as infamous as he would famous in football circles. Maybe that’s for another blog, but this was his season and without his goals, the Albion simply wouldn’t have been in the playoffs at all.
However, this was a team built primarily with solid defensive foundations, particularly when playing at home conceding only 11 in the league at the Withdean that season. Now Albion coach Ben Roberts played in goal that year having deposed stalwart and fan favourite Michel Kuipers who had been involved in a horrific car crash early in the season. This was a car crash that had a significant impact on the Dutchman and gave him a new lease of life that would eventually spur him on to winning his place back in the team and he would stay at the club as a player until 2010. The Dutchman made 247 appearances for the club and is a player who is synonymous with the Withdean years, but this wasn’t his year. Pictures of the crash and the aftermath were plastered over the front of the Brighton Argus, ones not for the faint hearted. But thankfully Michel walked away from it and is one of the members of this team who now works for the club as an ambassador for the club’s community support charity.
In front of Roberts was captain Danny Cullip and centre back partner and player of the season Guy Butters who together had forged a wonderful centre back partnership. For Guy Butters, the turnaround from the previous season was striking after a poor first season at the club as Brighton were relegated from the second tier. He didn’t win many fans over that year, in fact somewhat unfairly he became a figure of mockery. He has since spoken about how as a result his kids were bullied at local schools and notably during the summer before the 03/04 season, as a cruel joke, one Albion supporter put Guy up for sale on an online auction website. However, Guy had the last laugh that season and He and Danny both still also work for the club as ambassadors for the club’s community support charity.
The Albion showed their defensive prowess in the first leg of the playoff semi-final. The club drew Swindon, and through a clean sheet and with a Richard Carpenter long range special, won the away leg 1-0. But were then poor in the return home leg and needed a late goal from defender Adam Virgo to take the game to a penalty shootout, which was won to get into the final. That Virgo header still goes down as a favourite Albion goal of mine. We were beaten, some fans had already begun to leave and it was a last throw of the dice to get as many players forward as we could and launch the ball into the box. The scenes when he scored and then when we won the shootout were like little seen at the Withdean. It was hard to not feel sorry for Swindon, but I still enjoyed mocking Swindon striker Tommy Mooney who missed a penalty.
So, we came into the final on a high. And that high led to great demand for tickets with long queues at the Withdean Stadium when they went on sale. I personally enjoyed the novelty of queuing up around Withdean Stadium to get tickets, it added to the anticipation of the big day but I wasn’t keen to do it again. However, after our arch rivals Palace won the Division One playoff final over West Ham to get promotion to the top flight the day before our final, an extra pressure formed and it made it all the more important that we won, we couldn’t have them getting one over us again! That said it wasn’t all bad that day, the Palace fans put our rivalry aside whilst they displayed a banner proclaiming their support for a new stadium in Brighton. A nice gesture I’m sure you’ll agree, but I was still disappointed that they won.
We got to the stadium and took our seats ready for the game. We were in the top tier and I remember the steps leading up to the seats seemed incredibly steep and we were only in the second or third row! Our vantage point felt very high up, this was very different to the Withdean. The teams came out to loud cheers and horns blowing from the crowd and this noise was accompanied by two large flamethrowers either side of the tunnel that the players appeared from. As they lined up and sung the national anthem this suddenly felt incredibly surreal and somewhat overwhelming, very different to Withdean. A proper cup final!
The game started and we set out our stall to defend and spoil the game from the off. As a result, it was a poor game and one I have little memory of. That said, I like many fans in attendance was incredibly nervous and was unlikely to enjoy the game either way. Ultimately, we won the game when we were given a penalty through debatable foul on Chris Iwelumo and as soon as he won it, there was little doubt that Leon Knight would put it away. 1-0 Albion and after a tense finish that’s how it ended.
This wasn’t just a side with a solid back four, the midfield were solid and disciplined too. Centre midfielders Carpenter and Charlie Oatway were almost ever present that year, both great workhorses whilst Carpenter added a bit of skill and creativity, particularly from set pieces. Out wide the personnel had varied throughout the season, but that day on the left was the now Luton manager Nathan Jones, a player who had played long spells at full back so knew how to defend but also offered some skill and trickery going forward as well as some much-needed pace. On the right was the wonderful Gary Hart, Oh Gary Hart! What a player he was, incredibly talented in the final third yet his selfless work rate and endless stamina meant he spent many years at Brighton on the wing or even at full-back defending. Just ask Zamora though what a talented provider of goals Gary could be, a true Albion legend.
The celebrations afterwards were great, over 25,000 Brighton fans in one place cheering a victory was an experience I hadn’t had before and was nothing like a win at the Withdean. That said, the overriding emotion was relief that it was over and we’d done it. As the pressure subsided we could enjoy the day and the celebrations, inevitably some a little too much. As the players celebrated on the pitch the base of the trophy was bent and broken, no permanent damage was done we were assured though as back up keeper for the day Kuipers bent it back into place.
When we got back on the coach and started our journey home the talk quickly turned to next season, let’s be fair the game itself didn’t leave much of an impression. With that talk the achievement started to hit home and the excitement of promotion and teams like Sunderland and West Ham visiting the Withdean again was overwhelming, particularly after getting the taste the season before.
Promotion is always special but the jeopardy and the anxiety of the playoffs makes winning all the better. That said the hope and anticipation of promotion makes losing all the harder as Albion fans have learnt well subsequently in recent seasons. Therefore, whilst I will always look back on that day in 2004 on a sunny May Bank Holiday weekend with glee, I will look forward all the more to the playoff finals this weekend knowing that all we have to worry about is who we will be playing next season.