Twenty things from twenty seasons (part 1)

According to the World Health Organization, twenty years equates to around a fifth of the average life expectancy in the UK. It is also a period of time that equates to around a sixth of the history of Brighton and Hove Albion Football Club.

So on reaching the culmination of the twentieth season since I decided to start following the Albion, and as the club approaches the twenty year anniversary of moving back to Brighton and making Withdean Stadium its temporary home, it feels like a good time to reflect. So here’s a few memories from times gone by.

1999/20 – You never forget your first game. But by 1999, I’d already been a football goer for a few years, having been sporadically taken to Arsenal and England games by my parents. But it wasn’t until Saturday 6th November 1999 when I first experienced the Albion live. A day which saw an unspectacular 1-0 win over Hartlepool at Withdean Stadium.

I remember little of the games aside from Jamie Campbell’s headed goal and the subsequent firework that followed. Something that became a regular celebration of Albion goals at Withdean for the majority of the club’s time there.

It was a game Albion Manager Micky Adams described as having a “dead” atmosphere. No wonder really considering the quality of the match and the fact it was such an incredibly cold day. I still remember my brothers’ complaints ringing in our ears, so if you’d told him then that we’d be regularly frequenting this place for the next twelve years I expect his response would have been far from friendly.

Yes, the Withdean wasn’t a place to be when the weather wasn’t on your side, with no protection from the elements. And on this day the wind swept through the newly upgraded converted athletic stadium with a fierce harshness. But nonetheless this was a place we would grow to begrudgingly love over the coming years.

2000/01 – The next season a man arrived at the club who for a while defined my love for it. And when Bobby Zamora signed for the Albion from Bristol Rovers for £100k I think the majority of fans thought we’d go on to win the league. So much so that on the first day of the season away at Southend the Albion away end sung chants of ‘Championes’ before the game, only for the team to embarrassingly then lose 2-0.

But nonetheless the team did win the league with Zamora the league’s top scorer on 28. We all know the rest, those three seasons with the club go down as one of my favourite periods over these two decades. A period that began and ended with the transfer of Bobby Zamora.

2001/02 – In the third season at the Withdean it got even better for the Albion. The team continued their supremacy and marched on to a second consecutive title and promotion. With a little help from that man Bobby Zamora, who once again top scored with 28.

Even the departure of manager Micky Adams couldn’t derail the Albion’s journey onwards and upwards. After he left for Leicester City, Peter Taylor moved in the opposite direction and got the team over the line. But, he then left in the summer after realising the club’s plans for a new stadium and the financial resources available to strengthen the team, weren’t quite what he’d been hoping for.

But for me the moment of the season was that Swindon game at home. The worst 0-0 you’ll ever see, but a result that secured yet another championship title. There’s nothing like seeing your team win a title but seeing them do it two seasons in a row is particularly special.

The club had won two titles winning promotions in my first three seasons as an Albion fan, but what I was soon to find out was that there would be just as many ups as there would be downs.

2002/03 – And inevitably after such a sharp jump up the leagues, the following season was one of those downs. Whilst the season started brightly with four points from the first two games, a run of 12 straight defeats followed and the writing was on the wall for the Albion.

But after Steve Coppell was brought in to replace the hopelessly out of his depth Martin Hinshlewood as manager the team put up a great fight and almost survived. At one point remarkably lifting themselves out of the relegation zone.

And a game that summed up this fight was a 2-2 draw at home to Burnley. The club’s had met on the first day of the season a day which saw a 3-1 win for Brighton at Turf More, a win that had preceded that losing run. And when the clubs met again in the December of that season there would be more Albion celebrations.

But first the Albion once again found themselves behind. Burnley were dominant in the first half and finally took a deserved lead through Glen Little. Then after many chances came and went and with less than twenty minutes to go, Burnley first goalscorer Little found Ian Moore with a cross who doubled the Clarets lead.

I like many Albion fans had seen this story too many times before that season and assumed that was that. I was close to giving up and leaving when unthinkably the Albion mounted a comeback through a 20-year-old young rookie on loan from Arsenal named Steve Sidwell.

And it was that man Zamora who was to turn provider this time. First, he found Sidwell with a cross who pulled the deficit back to one with three minutes left on the clock. Then the duo combined again for Sidwell to equalise and cue bedlam in the rickety South Stand in the Withdean rain.

It wasn’t just that the Albion had got a result by scoring two late goals, but also that it was done so despite being second best for long periods. But after a successful spell on loan Chairman Dick Knight made a futile attempt to sign him when Steve Sidwell’s loan soon ended. But instead Sidwell went to Reading where he was later a key player as the club achieved promotion to the topflight. The Albion’s main marksman Zamora would also leave at the end of the season for topflight Tottenham. I wonder what that side could have gone on to achieve if it had held the same pulling power that the club does now to enable it to hold onto its best players.

2003/04 – So a new season brought a new dawn for Brighton back in the third tier. As following the resignation of manager Steve Coppell who left in the September of that season to join Steve Sidwell at Reading, there was another new manager in the shape of Mark McGhee.

Whilst Coppell didn’t save Albion from relegation, he had at least ensured there was a fight and that 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, constructing 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.

And it was McGhee’s charisma and wit that pushed the Albion over the line into a playoff place for promotion back to the second tier at the first time of asking.

After being drawn against Swindon in the playoff semi-final and winning the first leg 1-0, the Albion were poor in the return home leg. After going 2-0 down in extra time they needed a late goal from defender Adam Virgo to take the game to a penalty shootout, which they won to get to the final.

That Virgo equaliser still goes down as a favourite Albion goal of mine. We thought we were beaten; some fans had already begun to leave, and it really was the 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.

Then came the final, one of the great Brighton and Hove Albion days as nearly 30,000 Albion fans descending on the Welsh capital of Cardiff, a following about four times larger than the average attendances the club were getting at the time at Withdean.

Ultimately, we won the game when we were given a penalty through a 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 that’s how it ended.

But 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 postcards saying: “We’re pleased to be here (with a picture of the Cardiff Millennium Stadium), but we wish we were here (with a picture of the design for the new stadium)” the club gave out with the playoff final tickets and that fans 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.” But this was to continue for some time yet.

2004/05 – Given that the planning permission battle was to run on for a few more seasons, the fact the club avoided relegation from the second tier for the only time during the Withdean era is a testament to the good work Mark McGhee was doing at the club.

His style wasn’t to everyone’s taste though and would eventually be his downfall a couple of years later. One of the best examples of his approach was the switch of Adam Virgo from Centre Back to Striker to play him as a target man, eventually becoming the club’s top scorer that season.

I remember the surprise when I first saw that he was playing up front. Like most I first thought it was bizarre, but this exemplified the makeshift nature at the club that McGhee had to work with at the time.

This was first tried in what was a notable 1-0 win for the Seagulls away to recently relegated from the topflight Leicester City, who were incidentally managed by former and also future Albion manager Micky Adams.

And it was just as bizarre of a winner as the Leicester defence’s failed offside trap left Virgo with so much room, he had plenty of time to set himself and slot the ball home past former England goalie Ian Walker.

And he wasn’t the only former England international on show for Leicester as up the other end Dion Dublin wasted a few opportunities to peg back the seagulls. In fact, this was a Leicester team full of players with plenty of topflight experience and the three points were a real coup for the Albion.

Virgo admitted the forward role wasn’t one he relished saying after the Leicester win: “I wouldn’t say I am enjoying playing up front. There is a lot of running involved” and McGhee was clear that it wasn’t in his long-term plan saying: “Adam is a better centre half than centre forward or right-back and eventually he will be a terrific centre half for us.”

But Virgo never really did get the chance to do that. He played most of that season as a make-shift target man, top scoring with eight. In doing so he caught the eye of Celtic manager and former teammate of McGhee, Gordon Strachan, who signed Virgo for £1.5m. A deal Dick Knight described as “the best deal I ever did”.

Things didn’t work out though for Virgo at Celtic as personal issues and broken promises counted against him. After a knee injury during a loan spell at Coventry he found himself back at Brighton in 2008. When despite being a fairly regular face in the team over those next two seasons, he never looked like the potentially great centre back he had under McGhee pre-injury. And when his contract ran out, he left the club in 2010, subsequently ending his playing days with spells at Yeovil and Bristol Rovers.

2005/06 – The following season Brighton couldn’t repeat the feat of survival again, ultimately succumbing to relegation as the bottom placed team sitting a whopping 12 points from safety. Whilst the club had made a huge financial gain on the sale of Virgo, much of that money went into keeping the club and its fight for a new stadium afloat and as such the on-pitch matters suffered.

But there were still some high points. In particular when Albion won a meeting between themselves and rivals Crystal Palace at Selhurst Park 1-0 through a Paul McShane header. A win that to a degree dispelled the ghosts of the 5-0 defeat there that bookended the 12-game losing run in 2002.

Brighton were favoured by the fact that hat-trick hero of that day back in 2002 for Palace Andy Johnson started on the bench due to injury. But it was Albion’s strike-force which looked like it was missing something as an out of form Leon Knight and a young Jake Robinson spurned a number of chances until McShane became the unlikely goalscoring hero to earn Albion a morale boosting victory.

But later that season Palace came to our place and got a late winner through Jobi McAnuff and beat the Albion 3-2 to even the score. It just seemed like they always got the better of us and always had the last say. How things change.

2006/07 – So with the club back in the third tier and with everyone still stinging from the horrors that they saw over the previous season; Mark McGhee was sacked in September only a handful of games into the season.

In his place came former club captain and more recently Youth team coach, Dean Wilkins. Once in charge he put his focus almost entirely on developing the young players at the club. But unfortunately, as Dick Knight says in his autobiography: “a good coach doesn’t necessarily make a good manager.”

The first season he had in charge was far from a success as the Seagulls finished only six points and three places above the relegation zone.

But as always in the darkness, there is still light. And that came with a humongous 8-0 win over Northwich Victoria in the FA Cup first round that was played in front of just four and a half thousand dedicated souls at the Withdean Stadium. With Brighton 2-0 up at half time the Conference side crumbled as they went on to concede six second half goals.

This was a win that would end up being Brighton’s equal third highest winning margin in its history. A margin that is only beaten by a nine-goal winning margin over Wisbech Town in the FA Cup first round in 1965 and a twelve-goal winning margin over Brighton Amateurs in the FA Cup first qualifying round in 1902.

Jake Robinson scored a hat trick, Dean Cox scored a brace and there were also goals for Alex Revell, Sam Rents and Joe Gatting. Notably, Alex Revell was the only one of the five goalscorers that wasn’t a product of Dean Wilkins work with the youth team.

In fact, one of those youth products Jake Robinson is a man associated with another Albion record as being the youngest ever goalscorer for the club, a feat he achieved three years earlier against Forest Green in the Football League trophy.

But Dean Wilkins partiality towards his youth team products went far beyond that of a run out for a highly rated sixteen-year-old in a neglected and low priority cup competition. The scorers that day were a sign of the work Wilkins did whilst manager that was at times foolhardy. Dick Knight admitted in his autobiography that a number of potential signings were turned down by Wilkins whilst others that did materialise, like a young Glenn Murray, would often be used as bit part players to make room for Wilkins youth team players.

Whilst his overall vision of a team fill of Sussex born players leading Albion out at the AMEX was a noble one, it almost certainly could not have been achieved whilst gaining Brighton promotion back to the second tier as Poyet would achieve four years later.

2007/08 – The following season saw a significant upturn in fortunes as the team finished 7th and were ultimately unfortunate to just miss out on a playoff place to Leeds United. This was all-but confirmed the night before a trip to Bristol Rovers for Albion’s last away game of the season. Nonetheless they took a good away support with Wilkins referencing this saying: “It is the best in the division by an absolute mile… After Leeds won on Friday it looks like we have missed out on the play-offs, so the amount of fans turning out here today was quite phenomenal.”

I remember it being an unusually sunny day for a football match and I ended up with a quite rosy-red sunburnt shade to my facial skin-tone due to the uncovered away end. I’m not a regular at away games, mainly due to a general laziness when it comes to committing to the long journeys involved. But on this occasion living a 10-minute walk down the road from Bristol Rovers’ Memorial Ground it wasn’t as huge of a commitment as usual.

And it was a game the travelling support who had made the journey from Sussex wouldn’t regret doing so, as goals from Ian Westlake and Glenn Murray earned Brighton a 2-0 win.

The game was advertised as the last game at the Memorial Ground for Bristol Rovers, but we returned their next season after redevelopment of the ground was delayed and then later scrapped altogether. They still play there to this day.

It’s been a while since Rovers started talking of moving stadium and have since lost significant ground to city neighbours Bristol City who’ve redeveloped their previously run-down Ashton Gate stadium into a modern stadium fit for the purpose of topflight football. Rovers story is one that really makes you appreciate the AMEX.

That day in 2008 turned out to be Wilkins last away game in charge of the Albion as he was demoted back to a first team coach over the summer. In his autobiography Chairman Dick Knight admitted that he’d “lost confidence in Dean Wilkins abilities as a manager.”

2008/09 – So the summer of 2008 then saw another new manager, this time it was the return of the man who built the team that I had initially fallen in love with back in 1999, Micky Adams. As a result, the excitement and optimism at the club seemed to be on its way back. And it was enough for me and my brother to get season tickets again, which considering I was still living in Bristol made it quite a personal commitment, but Micky was worth it.

However, despite a decent start repeated home defeats followed. One home game that remarkably didn’t end in defeat was the visit of Premier League Man City in the League Cup. Unlike now the visit of a topflight team was a real novelty but living and working in Bristol meant evening games were a no-go for me and I had to settle for watching Sky Sports News for score updates.

So I was left jumping around my living room amongst my slightly bemused housemates as the winning penalty went in that gave Albion a victory at the end of an engrossing 2-2 draw. It’s a shame that the team were otherwise so dreadful that season. The return of Micky Adams didn’t work out at all, but as well as this moment of glory there was also the run to the semi-finals of the Football League Trophy, where the Albion were a penalty shootout away from a final at Wembley, but it was not to be.

Not long after that game Micky Adams was sacked, and Russel Slade came in as his replacement. The change was needed, the team looked hopeless and doomed to face relegation under Adams towards the end of his reign with him stood seemingly helpless on the sidelines.

However, under Slade’s leadership the Albion did stay up on the final day of the season thanks to a 1-0 win over Stockport that bookended a truly great escape from relegation by the team.

In doing so they had managed to avoid falling into the football league’s bottom tier, which considering we were now two years from the opening of the AMEX, feels like a pivotal moment in the club’s recent history.

To read part two click here

Author: tweetingseagull

A Fan of Brighton and Hove Albion and all things Football. Follow my tweets here: https://mobile.twitter.com/TweetingSeagull

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