1981/82 – Brighton’s failed quest for European football

In 1982, Brighton achieved its highest ever Football League finish of 13th in Division One. And it was a season where the club, albeit briefly, even flirted with European qualification.

The 1981/82 season was the first where English football introduced 3 points for a win, with the intention of putting more emphasis on teams to win matches and so encourage attacking football. And yet Brighton went against the grain and that summer appointed a more defence minded manager in ex Charlton boss Mike Bailey.

Bailey took charge after Alan Mullery had resigned over the summer due to falling out with Chairman Mike Bamber over the club’s transfer policy. But whilst in Bailey’s year and a half with the club he achieved its highest ever league finish, he is nonetheless mostly remembered, somewhat unfairly, for the team’s defensive and dull style of play. Despite his relative success it was clear he wasn’t the manager that Bamber wanted and he was eventually sacked in December 1982 of the following season with the club 18th and beginning to worry about the threat of relegation, a threat the club nonetheless ultimately succumbing to.

The team’s defensive style of play under Bailey is highlighted by striker Andy Ritchie top scoring for the club that season with just 14, low considering Peter Ward and Michael Robinson had top scored with 22 and 18 during the previous two less successful topflight seasons respectively.

Ritchie also won the club’s player of the season award, a season that was very much the high-water mark of his Albion career which also included an England U21 cap in a 2-2 draw against Poland. But this was Richie’s only truly good season in his three with the club and followed a difficult first season where he scored only six as the Seagulls struggled against relegation. In his third and final with the club goals were again in short supply as the team again struggled, and he was eventually sold to Leeds with a future Albion top scorer in Terry Connor moving in the other direction in a swap deal.

Brighton started the 1981/82 season with many not predicting a successful season for the club after what had gone before. Along with the loss of key players over the summer of 1981 like Brian Horton, Mark Lawrenson and John Gregory, the club had only stayed up by the skin of its teeth the season before.

With only six wins accumulated going into the final four games of the season and sitting in the relegation zone, the club won all four games, including a famous 3-0 victory at Selhurst Park against an eventually relegated Crystal Palace, which secured Brighton an unlikely third top flight season.

But whilst the club did start their third topflight season slowly with only one win in the first five matches, the results quickly turned around.

Albion won two of their next three including a memorable 4-1 win at home to Man City. And after a goalless draw away to West Brom there was another memorable match at the Goldstone as Brighton drew 3-3 with Liverpool.

The club’s first and to date only ever win at White Hart Lane over Tottenham stretched the clubs undefeated run to three and then four consecutive draws extended it to seven as the club rose up the First Division table.

It was a run that was ended by a 2-0 defeat away to Man City. But a 2-1 win at home to Sunderland and a 2-0 win away to Southampton left the club 8th and six points off top spot on Christmas Day 1981.

As the season continued into 1982, the good results persisted, and recognition of the clubs success came in the form of a senior England cap for club captain Steve Foster, who would go on to become the first Brighton player to represent England at a World Cup in Spain that summer.

But what followed was probably the high point of the season for the club and arguably one of the high points in the club’s history when they went to Anfield and beat that season’s eventual Division One Champions Liverpool 1-0.

This victory at Anfield was not a swashbuckling domination, but instead as John Vinicombe said the Argus “a display of character and defensive ability, Albion’s performance couldn’t be faulted.” Or as Peter Welbourne more pertinently put it in the Sunday Express: “at times Brighton had all their players in their own penalty area stemming the red shirted tide which was in control for most of the match.”

After that match Liverpool sat a mere two places and one point ahead of Brighton in the table, although admittedly they did have two games in hand on the Seagulls. And afterwards there was serious talk of a first European competition qualification for Brighton at very least.

Roy Collins described Brighton in the Sunday People as “not far from being title contenders themselves”, whilst Martin Leach stated in the News of the World that the result “keeps Brighton on the road to Europe” and quoted Albion’s star midfielder Jimmy Case as saying “The aim is a place in Europe”.

Case was a key member of Albion’s midfield for the first half of the eighties after joining the club at the beginning of the season from Liverpool as part of a deal which saw Mark Lawrenson go the other way. But his ambition was quickly to prove misplaced. Maybe for Case this was the aim, but clearly not as much for manager Mike Bailey. For the remainder of the season Bailey regularly changed the tactics, team selection and at times both, which played its part in the terrible run that followed.

Going into the final 14 games, Brighton sat eighth, one place and one point above their next opponent Spurs, ahead of a clash between the clubs at the Goldstone. But that was the point at which things began to take a turn for the worst for Bailey’s men as Spurs won 3-1.

This wasn’t a terrible result in and of itself, this was a very good Tottenham side which eventually finished 4th that season and won the FA Cup in a replay against QPR thanks to a Glenn Hoddle penalty. A win which was Spurs’ second FA Cup win in a row having beaten Man City 3-2 after taking the final again to a replay the season before.

As well as Hoddle, who didn’t play at the Goldstone that day due to injury, this Tottenham side contained some of the club’s greats, such as the Argentinian midfield maestro Osvaldo Ardiles who opened the scoring in the win at the Goldstone, as well as Tottenham’s top scorer that season Garth Crooks who also scored that day, and future Albion manager Chris Hughton who played at full back for Tottenham that day.

What followed for the Albion after that defeat however can only be described as a disastrous collapse and a run of form that put pay to any lofty ambitions which some at the club held. Including the defeat at home to Spurs, Albion lost three of the next four matches, with the only minor positive a 0-0 draw away to Stoke.

And whilst a draw at home with Southampton was followed by a win over Arsenal in early April and kept the hopes of European football alive, just. This was another false dawn as a run of 7 defeats in the last 8 matches of the season saw the club finish 13th and ultimately 4-points nearer the bottom three relegation places than to European qualification.

Ahead of the club’s only win in that run of games, a 2-0 win at home to Wolves in early May, manager Mike Bailey offered some thoughts on a period which had seen Brighton lose their last five on the trot and fall to their eventual finishing position of 13th. Bailey said in his programme notes before the game: “we have been trying one or two ideas in recent weeks, and knowing that we were clear of relegation worries I felt that we were picking the right time to make experiments.”

But whilst Bailey called this experimentation, it was also clearly down to owner Mike Bamber’s frustration at the defensive football on show, which he in part blamed for the club’s low attendances. And it was a change in approach that Bailey never mastered with that Wolves victory one of only six which followed the win at Anfield before he was sacked in December 82.

But given the team he inherited was one that had only just avoided relegation the season before and he arrived at a club nonetheless selling its best stars, it’s hard to argue anything other than that Bailey got the best out of what he had. Until that is, he tried to make the team a more entertaining one to boost the Goldstone’s dwindling crowds. As he later said himself: “The only problem was that winning 1-0 and 2-0 didn’t satisfy everybody. I tried to change things too soon – that was a mistake.”

It’s also worth adding here that attendances during the early 80s in English football were floundering in many places, not just at the Goldstone. In fact, English football was at a low ebb and the Goldstone like most other stadiums was a crumbling mess. This was of course just three years prior to the Bradford stadium fire that killed 56, six prior to the Hillsborough stadium disaster that killed 96 and still ten years prior to the beginning of the Premier League that came just after the Taylor report was published. All of which instigated a significant investment in upgrading football stadiums across to country to become all-seater stadiums, something the City of Brighton and Hove didn’t see evidence of until the AMEX was opened in 2011. Good things come to those who wait I guess.

Furthermore, hooliganism was a huge issue at the time and detracted many from going to matches. It’s no coincidence that at the same time whilst football was struggling other sports were having their day. For instance, if you talk to anyone old enough to remember and who knows about Snooker, they’ll tell you the greatest World Championship final was the Steve Davis v Dennis Taylor final in 1985. Millions of people stayed up beyond midnight to watch the final frame which was won by Taylor and decided on the final black ball of the final frame. An iconic moment in the sport still to this day, and something English football in the 80’s largely lacked from a positive perspective with many feeling the country had struggled to move forward from the 1966 World Cup win now sixteen years previous and now becoming a dwindling memory.

All these difficult internal and external factors made for a tough balancing act for Bailey in his job as Brighton manager. It was clear his defensive tactics were working, partly shown by some of the club’s impressive away results like that win at Anfield where the pressure to entertain the home crowd didn’t exist. But with the club financially unstable and reportedly losing £6,000 a week, he needed to get people coming back through the turnstiles. But as the team’s form got worse and 1982 dragged on, attendances at times were falling below 10,000. Bailey was seemingly fighting a losing battle.

As far as Bamber was concerned this was the main issue the club faced, and he was quoted as saying in the summer of 1982: “I have been bitterly disappointed at the very poor sale of season tickets and wonder if the Sussex public really want First Division football.” No doubt a factor in Mike Bailey’s eventual sacking.

But the end of season collapse wasn’t all down to Bailey, with relegation no longer a threat the team in general clearly took their foot off the pedal and that bad run included a number of heavy defeats, including conceding three against Ipswich, Aston Villa and Sunderland as well as a 4-1 defeat to Notts County and losing 2-1 to both the eventually relegated Middlesbrough and Leeds. As the following season went on to show, this team was consistently inconsistent.

All in all after that win at Anfield, Brighton lost 10 of those last 14, throwing away the chance of European football for the first time in the clubs history, and aside from losing the following season’s FA Cup final it remains the closest the club has come to qualifying for a European competition.

The club ultimately finished a club high and yet underwhelming 13th in Division One in 1982, six places and 14 points behind 7th place Southampton who were the lowest placed qualifier for the following seasons UEFA cup.

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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