After the club struggled at the bottom of the Third Division South during its first two Football League seasons, the rest of the 20’s and the 30’s saw it become more of a force in the division, with the club finishing outside of the top ten just twice in the following seventeen seasons.
By the end of the 1930s Albion were making regular pushes for promotion to the second tier. However, with only the champions promoted from both the regional North and South Third Divisions, chances were limited. So, neither Brighton’s best finishes of 3rd in both 1937 and 1939 or 5th in 1938 were good enough for promotion.
The subsequent outbreak of the Second World War meant the 1939/40 season was cancelled after just three matches being played. And the Football League wouldn’t resume until the beginning of the 1946/47 season in August 1946.
For many, the legacy of the Second World War meant late forties were hard. Like many others, professional footballers had fought in the war, and now had to try to rebuild their lives after it finished.
The ones which returned home that is. That wasn’t the case for everyone of course, like for former Albion player Sam Jennings, who represented the club between 1925 and 1928 110 times. After fighting in the war, Sam died in 1944 after two bouts of Pneumonia which he had contracted whilst on duty.
This was of course a war which had left millions dead and millions more homeless. The European economy had collapsed, and much of the European industrial infrastructure had been destroyed.
And this was very much the case for life in UK after the war. All made worse by the first few post war years seeing poor crop production and industrial action, which combined to mean fierce rationing remained in place, and persisted for some food stuffs until 1954.
Even Bread was rationed for two years after the war, and you weren’t able to buy it until the day after it was baked, with the reasoning being that stale bread was easier to slice more thinly. All measures which would have no doubt made physical preparation for a professional athlete all the more difficult.
Nonetheless with peacetime heralding the return of the Football League, interest in Football continued to rise throughout the 20th century and its teams and their players were under increasing scrutiny.
The 1946/47 season would be manager Charlie Webb’s last in charge of team affairs before he became the club’s general manager and handed over to Tommy Cook, the man better known as Albion’s all-time leading goalscorer still to this day.
This change was due in large part that in Webb’s final season in charge of team affairs he couldn’t replicate the success of the 20s and 30s. The team finished a disappointing 17th, the club’s worst league finish for a quarter of a century. However, worse was still to come the following season with Brighton legend Cook now in charge.
Cook ended his football career with Brighton in 1929 after scoring what is still a club record total of 123 goals. But he continued playing first class cricket for Sussex until 1937 and then moved to South Africa to become a cricket coach for Cape Town.
And he would later serve for the South African Air Force during the Second World War. However, he sadly suffered serious injuries after being involved in a horrific plane crash and was left with long-term health problems. Cook was the sole survivor of the crash and spent months in hospital rehabilitating. No doubt Tommy would have been hoping his move back at Brighton could be a new and successful chapter for him.
The 1947/48 season started well enough after a 3-2 win away to Watford on the opening day, but this was followed by three straight defeats that destroyed any early season optimism. The first of which was an embarrassing 5-0 defeat at home to QPR, which the Brighton Argus’ Victor Champion described as “a great disappointment”, saying that the team were “thoroughly defeated”.
But September offered some hope, with home wins over Swindon and then Norwich as well as two away draws to Swindon and Aldershot giving the club some much needed points.
But a further five defeats in the next six, including four successive home defeats, the last of which a 4-0 home loss to Walsall, left the club with only 9 points and having recorded a whopping 10 defeats from the first 16 games.
Understandably supporters were less than pleased and after the defeat to Walsall 500 Albion fans stayed behind and demonstrated in front of the director’s box. As a result Tommy Cook was relieved of his duties.
So for another Albion legend, this was sad end to his involvement with the club. Outside of the game he never seemed to recover from the mental scars of that plane crash along with the physical scars he’d been left with, and sadly committed suicide in 1950 aged just 49
But as well as being a sad end for Cook, his sacking was also a sign that supporters were becoming more of a force at the club, with the resumption of normal football after the war seeing attendances increase. In 1947/48 the club had an average crowd that season of 11.5k, but whilst compared to the rest of the division this was still relatively low, the club will no doubt have been keen to take advantage of the post war boost and the great potential the club had.
The attendances must have impressed some though as the Goldstone Ground was chosen as a host venue for the London Olympic football tournament later in 1948, where Afghanistan lost 6-0 at the hands of the not so mighty Luxembourg.
The club appointed Don Welsh in Cook’s place with Brighton chairman Charles Wakeling saying in the programme before Don’s first home game against Exeter, that he hoped this would “prove to be the beginning of a new era in the history of the Albion” and that “Don’s reputation was second to none”.
Don Welsh certainly came with a reputation as a successful leader having captained Charlton to the last two FA Cup finals in 1946 and 1947. Whilst they lost the first to Derby County 4-1, Charlton won the later 1-0 against Burnley. But this was his first job in management and considering the circumstances the club were in, his appointment was a risk.
And the change in management didn’t have the desired effect for the club straight away. After already having lost away to Leyton Orient the week before, Brighton lost 1-0 to Exeter in Welsh’s first home game in charge. In fact, the club had to wait a further six matches before the club finally won its next match, a much needed 4-1 win over Ipswich on 24th January, which temporarily lifted the club out of the bottom two relegation places and into 20th.
This win was followed by a good run of form with only one defeat in the next ten games giving the club real hope of avoiding the ignominy of facing a re-election vote at the hands of its fellow Football League clubs for finishing in the bottom two league places.
So much so that in his programme notes before a 3-0 home win over Newport, Don Welsh stated the team were “Gradually moving up”. But whilst he praised the team’s spirit, he did admit that “our mid-field play was not classical”, but qualified this saying “when players have the re-election bogey on their minds, they are apt to hit the ball for safety rather than run the risk of a short pass which might be intercepted.”
And this spirit carried the team to two further home wins at the beginning of April, which kept the club out of the bottom two. But it was all just false hope as no wins in the final six games saw the club slump to the bottom of the league on goal difference, a run which included two 3-1 home defeats, first to Notts County and then to Watford.
It is maybe telling that ahead of the first of those all-important home games Don Welsh praises his team for “playing some lovely football, with for the first time some accurate passes.” It’s never a good sign when you’re praising a team for doing the basics for once. And so it proved.
Ultimately Albion finished bottom of the pile, but it was tight at the bottom with only two points (then the equivalent of a win) separating Swindon in 16th and Brighton in 22nd. As such this only helped Brighton in its application for re-election to the Football League.
As part of the re-election process, a letter sent on behalf of the club from Chairman Charles Wakeling pleaded for the Football League Member’s “confidence and support”. The letter also pointed out the small margin of points that separated Brighton in 22nd and Bristol City in 7th place, as well as pointing to 37 injuries being sustained to first team players in the season and that the club’s record attendance had been broken twice that season, as all reasons to maintain its status.
You may find this system strange compared to the merit based promotion and relegation system that is in place throughout the English football pyramid today, but re-election existed until as recently as 1986 when a direct promotion and relegation place was introduced into the Football League from the Non-League.
As Dick Knight points out in his Autobiography “MadMad” this system rarely led to the League club being relegated as “it was usually a case of Turkeys not voting for Christmas. All the Football League teams ganged up together and decided that they were going to retain the clubs that were in the league already and not bring in outsiders.” For example, Hartlepool faced fourteen re-election votes between 1924 and 1984 but was not voted out of the league once.
Therefore rather predictably, Brighton survived their 1948 vote virtually comprehensively along with fellow re-electees Norwich, Halifax and the now defunct New Brighton (no relation). And this was the last re-election vote it faced before the process was abolished. That is until 1997, when the club faced a vote of expulsion from its fellow Football League clubs for bringing the League into disrepute. But it again survived, but this time by a closer margin of 47 to 17.
The 1947/48 season may appear like a bad start to Welsh’s tenure, but there were signs of improvement with the club picking up on average just over a point a game compared to only just over half a point a game prior to his appointment that season.
The defence-minded coach had stabilised the club, and continued to do so during his time in change. He went about doing so by spending heavily over the summer and it was the signing of a certain Johnny McNichol that was the biggest coup, who became the attacking inspiration for the team during his time with the club in the years to come, but that’s another story.
As for Don Welsh, after leading Albion to 6th and 8th placed finishes over the next two seasons, he would go on to manage Liverpool from 1951-1956, albeit not particularly successfully, taking them down into the Second Division and then failing to achieve promotion back to the First Division. Whilst for Albion, their quest for promotion to the Second division went on.