The story of the 1920/21 season starts in unusual circumstances at a meeting of Southern League Clubs in Manchester, May 1920. They met to agree the expansion of the Football League from two divisions into three with the introduction of a third division which would encompass the Southern Football League Division One clubs.
This division would become the Third Division South the following season when the Third Division North was created to remove what the Football League members believed to be a Southern bias that had been created, and so a further 20 Northern clubs then joined the Football League from the various regional leagues.
Brighton had spent the early part of the twentieth century in the Southern League, winning it once in 1910, until the break out of the world war led to football being suspended in 1915. During the next four years many of its players, referees and officials would have fought on the frontline, with many of those sadly losing their lives.
But after the war ended in 1919 football restarted and it was now beginning to return to normal. And for the country as a whole, football was a big part of bringing things back to a sense of normality.
As the country began what has become known as the ‘Roaring Twenties’, what followed was a time of prosperity for many in the UK after the hardship of war. With it came an increasing interest in leisure activities, and so the Football League’s expansion to a league that now included teams from all part of England and some of Wales was very well timed. And football continued to harness that interest as the country approached English Football’s glory years of the mid-twentieth century, which would culminate by winning the World Cup in 1966.
Brighton had played their first post war season in the Southern League in 1919/20 finishing 16th, before joining the expanded Football League with the rest of the Southern Leagues best club’s for the 1920/21 season.
Charlie Webb, who had scored the winner in Brighton’s 1-0 1910 Charity Shield win over Aston Villa, had since retired and taken over as manager in 1919, a position he would hold until 1947. His first task was rebuilding the team after the war.
Webb was known for his shrewd transfers, but this was in part forced upon him due to circumstance because of a relatively limited budget at the club. Restrictions which at times during his tenure led to bad relations between him and the board, and which were made worse due to accusations that they were having undue influence on team affairs.
Until the 1920’s, Football Managers had been little more than trainers who picked the side and did little to influence how they played. But this was the decade of the emergence of the modern manager, largely influenced by Herbert Chapman’s success with Huddersfield in the 1920s and later more notably at Arsenal in the 1930s.
Under Chapman in the 1919/20 season Huddersfield were promoted to the First Division and reached that season’s FA Cup final, losing to Aston Villa. They then came back the following year and won the final 1-0 over Preston North End and followed that success up with three straight First Division titles between 1924 and 1926, finishing second the next two seasons, by which point Chapman had since moved on to build his lasting legacy at Arsenal. Therefore for Brighton, Charlie Webb was its first contemporary Football Manager and oversaw a period of great development in the role.
Brighton’s Football League journey started as a Third Division club away to Southend United on 28 August 1920, a game which they lost 2-0. The clubs first of 16 away defeats during the season, the equal most in the division and a large reason for their relatively lowly league finish.
But the home form was far better and the club repaid Southend by beating them 1-0 at home the following week. And a 4-0 win over Brentford and a 2-0 win over Bristol Rovers subsequently followed at the Goldstone in the early part of the season.
Whilst Brighton weren’t one of the biggest clubs in the country by any means, their average gate of 9.2k in their first Football League season was a respectable total in the Third Division and meant Webb could hope that their was improvement to come in his side with experience.
But whilst Webb had secured some notable signings, including the former England international forward George Holley the year before for a club record £200. But as the club’s resources were limited signing players could be a struggle. And to make matters worse, soon after he joined, Holley suffered a career-ending injury.
Fortunately, Webb found a capable replacement in Jack Doran who topped scored for Brighton in the 1920/21 season with 22 goals, as he did the following season, scoring a further 23 goals and so earning a move to First Division Manchester City. However, Doran struggled to get game time in the topflight and moved back down to the Third Division (North) to play for their local neighbours Crewe two years later.
Doran’s scoring figures for Albion were particularly impressive consider that this was still four years prior to the change in the offside rule from three opponents needing to be between the player receiving the ball and the goal to two. A change which was brought in to significantly increase the number of goals being scored and the most prominent player to take advantage of it was Dixie Dean who scored what is still a record of 60 goals in a season for Everton in the 1927/28 First Division season and scored an incredible total of 349 goals over 12 seasons after signing for the club in 1925.
Being a lower league club, much as has still been the case in more modern times at the club, the FA Cup was Brighton’s best opportunity for glory. And this season was no different as in Round 1 the club beat First Division Oldham Athletic 4-1, with Doran once again getting on the scoresheet.
However, in the next round they lost to Second Division Cardiff City in a replay at Ninian Park, after an initial 0-0 draw at the Goldstone between the clubs was overshadowed by a career ending leg break to Albion’s Jack Bollington. A player who had only signed for the club earlier in the season after lining up against Brighton for Southend in that season’s opening game.
As the season progressed further league wins did come, mostly at home, but these were spread between a number of heavy defeats. Including losing 5-0 away to Plymouth, 4-0 away to QPR and 3-0 defeats to Swindon, Norwich, Portsmouth and Watford.
Brighton finished the season in 18th place out of 22 teams only just avoiding the prospect of a re-election vote from the other Football League clubs for finishing in the bottom two league places and face the risk of dropping back into the Southern League.
The subsequent 1921/22 season saw another season of struggle with the team finishing in 19th, but in the years that followed the club then became a greater force in the Third Division and regularly challenged for promotion in the years to come. Nonetheless, the 1920/21 season was just the first of a 38-year long spell as a Third Division Football League club.