Gary Hart may not be considered one of the Albion greats. But when it comes to longevity and dedication to the club, there are few that match his record.
Along with Kerry Mayo, Gary Hart is probably the footballer most synonymous with Brighton and Hove Albion football club’s Withdean era. In his 13 years with the club he made around 400 appearances, scored 46 goals, won four promotions including winning the 2004 Division Two play off final and three championship winning promotions, experienced two relegations, all whilst playing under by my count, nine managers.
Gary Hart’s story of signing for the club is not your average football transfer. He signed for the Albion from non-league side Stansted Football Club towards the end of the 1997/98 season for £1,000 and a set of tracksuits, a deal that would go down in Albion folklore. Former Brighton chairman Dick Knight said in his autobiography “Mad Man” that Gary Hart was: “one of the great Albion players of this period, a man the fans loved because of his unquenchable spirit.”
Dick also reveals that Gary was brought to his attention by an Albion fan based in Gary’s native Essex. Then working as a forklift truck driver whilst playing part-time for Stansted, Gary was brought to the club for a trial. During his trial he played in a match against Arsenal reserves and was put up front up against one of Arsenal’s famous back four, Steve Bould who was coming back from injury. Gary scored twice in a 2-2 draw and a transfer deal that would go down in the club’s folklore was subsequently made.
In his first full season with the club still playing in exile at Gillingham, Gary was tied for club top scorer with Richie Barker on 12 goals helping steer the club clear of relegation to the non-league and finish 17th.
These were tough days for the club, but ones that gave a player like him, an unknown non-league footballer whose chance in professional footballer had seemingly passed, a second chance.
At the time Albion had no ground, very little money and were stuck fighting out at the bottom of the football league. As a result its most talented youngsters, like Gareth Barry and Michael Standing, left whilst any proven player was either likely out of the club’s price range or not interested in signing for a club playing their home games over 70 miles away from where the club were based.
Micky Adams was put in charge of the club during that season and Albion then moved back playing within Brighton and Hove at Withdean Stadium for the 99/00 season. And by this point Gary had become a focal point of the team, scoring ten in a season that promised much but ultimately delivered only an 11th place finish. But the team that Micky Adams was building was starting to bear fruit. And after an unbeaten run at the end of the season, the club was hopeful of good things to come.
In particular that season it was a period of six games that changed the club’s fortunes markedly, and with-it Gary Hart’s, as loan signing Bobby Zamora scored 6 goals in 6 appearances before signing for the club permanently in the summer. Bobby went onto score a further 77 goals in following three seasons, which was in no small part down to his strike partner Gary Hart and his other teammates doing a lot of the legwork that allowed him to shine.
In Spencer Vignes “A Few Good Men”, Bobby recognised this himself when he said “I was scoring a lot of goals. But that was down to the running of a lot of other guys in the team… ‘my bitches’ I used to call them!”. And with the team working hard to supply Bobby with his goals, the first two seasons after he signed permanently were fairytale stuff for the Albion as they went on to win two consecutive championship winning promotions.
And Gary was ever-present in the Third Division title winning season, missing only a further 7 matches in the Second Division title win, but only after a leg break at Peterborough ended his season in early April. By this point Gary had been moved from a striker to the right wing. Finding himself playing on the right of a front three in a 433, with Bobby leading the line and Lee Steele brought in to bolster the attack on the left.
The change from 442 to 433 was in part due to a change in manager. When, after Micky Adams left for the Leicester City job, Peter Taylor was brought in and helped the Albion get over the line in their second consecutive championship winning promotion season.
Despite the injury, Gary ever-defined by his never say die attitude, recovered quickly to be ready for the start of the new season, with the Albion now playing First Division football. However, it was as much being out of his plaster cast for his upcoming wedding in June of that year that was motivating Gary’s battle for a quick recovery as it was his football career.
It had been quite some rise for the club in those two years and Gary had been there from near to its lowest ebb and now found himself in the second tier of English football playing against some of its biggest names in English football.
But somewhat inevitably after such a quick rise and with the club employing the inexperienced youth team coach Martin Hinshelwood as first team manager, the following season started terribly. After a win on the opening day, a run of 13 games without a win saw the Albion seemingly plummeting back to the third tier without a hope. Steve Coppell was brought in to replace Hinshelwood as manager to halt the fall and whilst they lost that battle with relegation, they won a few fights along the way and can take pride from taking the fight down to the final day of the season, when they were ultimately relegated.
There was no lesser win that season than a 4-1 win at home to Wolves, a game in which Gary Hart scored and starred down the right as the Albion triumphed. A day that We Are Brighton described as “easily the best performance of Steve Coppell’s reign.”
And it was a day that typified Hart’s qualities going forward with the Albion programme described him as “buzzing around the Wolves defence creating havoc”. But it showed he wasn’t all about his work rate too, involved in most of the good things that the Albion did that day including capping the victory with a brilliant solo goal.
After relegation Steve Coppell left and was replaced as manager by Mark McGhee who led the Albion back into the First Division via the playoffs. And Gary was again part of the heart of the team, playing 45 of the 46 league games that season. Bobby Zamora had left for the bright lights of the Premier League and was replaced by the much smaller in stature Leon Knight. And as two small players up front wouldn’t work in Mark McGhee’s more direct style of football, Hart found himself playing on the right wing in a midfield four. It wasn’t a tough adaptation for him though as his selfless work rate and endless stamina meant he was suited to the wide midfield role.
After his third promotion with the club, Gary found himself less of a regular in the team, in part due to another change in formation to a 352. This season he was often used as a backup striker, coming off the bench to replace the now mis-firing Leon Knight.
The club went through a real striker crisis this season, which was somewhat solved by central defender Adam Virgo often starting up front to give the team a target man. Virgo ultimately top scored with eight as the Albion found a way to grind out results with some fairly defensive football that saw the club finish 20th in the second tier, the club’s highest league finish for eleven years. However, it was only to allow for a stay of execution as the club were comprehensively relegated the following season, finishing bottom of the league with only 38 points.
This was another season of change for Hart too, having spent his career to date mostly as an attacker, McGhee began playing him at right back in the back four of a 442. But like anything Hart did, he was seemingly unphased and unsurprisingly took to his new position with great commitment and determination. And whilst the season was one of disappointment, there were good moments including a 1-0 win over rivals Crystal Palace at Selhurst Park. The club’s first win there since 1986.
After Mark McGhee was sacked in September, the club promoted youth team manager Dean Wilkins to first team manager. And unfortunately for Gary Hart, he became a less important member of the team as Wilkins gave more opportunities to the younger members of the squad he had previously managed. He played 28 times in the 06/07 season and then only 8 in the 07/08 season and his career at the Albion looked to be coming to an end. So much so that he had a loan spell with Havant and Waterlooville for one month in December 2007 and at the end of the season in the summer of 08, he was released by manager Dean Wilkins. But in an unlikely turn of fate after Wilkins was then sacked, Gary was recalled by the returning Micky Adams in time for the 08/09 season.
Moreover, as well as a new contract, the traditional season curtain raising friendly at Withdean that season, (against Championship side Charlton Athletic) would be Gary’s testimonial match to recognise his decade of service for the club. And despite the Albion losing 1-0, Gary Hart and the returning Micky Adams got a great reception.
It felt like the days of the consecutive title wins could return to the club but it was a false dawn for both the club and Gary. After making four appearances as Brighton started the season well, he again lost his place in the team as the club’s form diminished. And it looked like the club rather than in the hunt for promotion back to the second tier, wet in fact heading for a further relegation back into the fourth tier, where it had all started for Gary. But with Adams sacked, the club appointed Russell Slade who instigated a great escape from relegation. And along with the loan signing of Lloyd Owusu, Gary Hart was a huge part of this revival, making seven appearances in the run-in as the club retained its third-tier status.
Playing once again as a centre forward, which Gary felt was his natural position, he came back into the team for a vital 2-1 win away at Hereford and played a further 6 times as the Albion secured an improbable survival. This included a 2-1 win away to Bristol Rovers, which for me is one of his finest nights in an Albion shirt. This was Gary Hart putting in a performance that perfectly displayed his unquenchable spirit as the Albion lifted themselves out of the relegation zone and towards safety.
Gary’s contribution in the club’s survival effort was enough to earn him a new contract for the coming 09/10 season. But with Russell Slade unable to continue the form that saw the club survive relegation, he was sacked in November and replaced by Gus Poyet. Gary then played only another 28 times for the club across the next two seasons, including just 19 under Poyet as the Uruguayan brought in a more possession-based style of play that was about as far as you could get from the football played in Gary’s previous 11 years at the club. But Gary had showed enough in the 09/10 season for Poyet to give him a new contract for the following season, referencing Gary’s work-rate and dedication in convincing him to offer the long-serving Albion man a new contract.
Gary ended his time with the Albion at the end of that 10/11 championship winning season, making only 8 appearances. But not before scoring the first goal at the AMEX for Brighton reserves in a 2-0 win in the Sussex Senior cup final against Eastbourne Borough. It was a nice gesture from the club to give Gary this opportunity to play at the AMEX curtain raiser and one he took advantage of. It was a habit Gary had become used to, after scoring Albion’s first goal at Withdean Stadium in a 2-2 draw in a friendly against Nottingham Forest back in 1999.
Whilst some fans that day sung “sign him up”, that was finally it for Gary Hart and the Albion. And it was a goal that nicely bookended his time with the club, now having played at three different home grounds for the club by finally seeing it through to the long-awaited new stadium at Falmer. And whilst I’m sure it was an appearance that was slightly tinged with sadness that the delays in building the new ground meant he didn’t play for the first team there; it was the perfect opener for the club’s new stadium.
Whilst his career had overseen so much change at the club, he was one of the few constants. Upon releasing Gary Hart, Poyet said: “It’s the hardest thing to do as a manager, particularly when you are dealing with such a fantastic professional and a nice guy like Harty.” And it’s a testament in part to his professionalism and likeable nature that Gary’s career with the Albion lasted as long as it did.
If nothing else demonstrated this it was the love he always received from the Brighton fans. Barely a game went by without his famous song not being sung and when his time did finally come to an end, with the club having already announced his contract wasn’t going to be extended the ovation he received at the Withdean that one final time when he was brought on as a sub would have brought the roof off, had there been one.
Gary once said of his career expectations: “You don’t expect anything when you’re working in a warehouse and you don’t know what you’re going to do the next day.” And it’s this perspective that defined his playing career and his hardworking attitude whilst at the Albion. Whilst many players and managers turned their noses up at the club during this time, he excelled and as a result is a player that somewhat defines what is a successful if make-shift period of the club’s history.