After Brighton had survived a re-election vote in 1948 at the hands of its fellow Football League members, Don Welsh’s Albion side vindicated their support with back to the top half in the Third Division South of 6th and 8th place.
And aside from a 13th place finish in 1951, a season disturbed when Don Welsh left part way through to take the Liverpool job, the club stayed in the top half and continued their seemingly futile pursuit for promotion to the second tier, but now under the management of Billy Lane.
With only the league champions promoted from the Division Three South it was a tough task, but they were getting closer. Particularly with 2nd place finishes in 1954 and 1956. The highest the club had achieved since joining the Football League in 1920.
The fifties was a decade of great transition in the UK. The times of rationing and fear of war were ending, and the freedom, prosperity and excitement of the swinging sixties were just around the corner. And there was possibly no team that represented this change better than Billy Lane’s swashbuckling Albion side.
For this was a different Albion to Welsh’s defence minded team. Under Billy Lane Brighton became an entertaining and attacking side, scoring goals a plenty and caring less about conceding a few at the other end. The club scored more than 80 goals in all bar one season between 1951/52 and 1957/58, and in 1955/56 scored a club record of 112 goals in a Football League campaign.
So despite the promotion failures to date, there was plenty to keep the fans happy as Lane built probably the best and most entertaining Albion team up to that date. And as such, hope for future success still remained high.
With the Third Division South and North combining to form national third and fourth divisions the following season, continuing the club’s run of top half-finished was an all-important minimal expectation in order to avoid an effective demotion. But this was one worry they wouldn’t have as the season progressed.
The team started the season as they meant to go on, with six wins in the first seven games putting the club top of the table. But four defeats in a row including a 5-0 defeat to Southampton meant the club lost top spot to Plymouth, another trend starting as it meant to go on.
Nonetheless, despite the emphasis being on attack and evidence of the occasional defensive lapse, this wasn’t a team without defensive quality. No more so than captain and left half Glen Wilson. He played 436 times for the club between 1949 and 1960 and then served in the club’s coaching staff between 1966 and 1986, before a club cost cutting exercise lost him his job. He was even caretaker manager in 1973 for two games before the arrival of a certain Brian Clough, more on him later.
But much as had been the case since Billy Lane took charge, this was a team all about its ability to score goals. And it was forwards Peter Harburn and Dave Sexton who were the stars, tying for Albion top scorer that season with 20 goals each.
For Harburn this season was the end of his time with the club. After the success of the 57/58 season, in the summer he asked for an extra £1 a week, which the club refused and he was sold to First Division Everton. There he only made 4 appearances before being sold again the following January, this time to Second Division Scunthorpe and then again later that year, this time to fourth Division Workington.
Maybe if things had been different if he’d stayed with Brighton. Harburn later admitted “I’ve always had a soft spot for Brighton. I never really wanted to leave… I wanted £1 a week extra in the summer but they wouldn’t give it to me and sold me to Everton. I wasn’t ready for that quality of football and my wife didn’t like it. They all talked like Cilla Black!”
But despite his journeyman future, he’d already made his mark with the Albion. In his first season at the club 1955/56, he scored 27 goals including scoring 8 in 8 games, a club record run of scoring in consecutive games until 2001 when it was broken by a certain Bobby Zamora. And Harburn scored in total 61 goals in his time with the club.
For his strike partner Dave Sexton, this was also arguably the high point of his playing career too. He would though have more success after retiring as a player, getting a reputation as one of English football’s great thinkers.
As a manager he won the FA Cup and Cup Winners Cup with Chelsea in the early seventies before moving to QPR and leading the club during one of their most successful periods it its history where they finished second in the First Division in 1976. He then went on to have a less successful spell with Manchester United in the late seventies, before managing the England U21 team to two European titles in the early eighties.
He subsequently worked for the England senior team as assistant to Ron Greenwood and Bobby Robson, as well as working later in various other capacities with Terry Venables, Glenn Hoddle, Kevin Keegan and Sven-Göran Eriksson. And Sexton received an OBE for his services to football in 2005 before he died in 2012.
With the help of their in form forwards Albion’s free scoring team recovered from that run of four consecutive defeats and continued to rack up the wins, with 6 coming in the next 8 games. They were scoring for fun again, twice or more in all except one of those games and were back at the top of the league. Two successive 5-2 home wins over Colchester and then Gillingham followed and left the club top ahead of a draw with Swindon on Christmas Day and four points clear of the chasing pack.
And as the season continued into January and February the wins continued to come and the club stayed top. But this wouldn’t remain the case, with Plymouth in particular continuing to put the pressure on. Plymouth’s run of 8 wins in 9 going up to mid-March meant they and Albion continued to switch places at the top going into March.
And the twists and turns persisted. With Albion once again looking to have regained pole position, a shock 4-1 home defeat to Northampton left the club again falling to 2nd and now others like Reading and Brentford were breathing down their necks too. But Brighton still had games in hand, one of which was the next match at home to Millwall, a game the club won to again regain top spot.
But we aren’t done there. Things continues to twist as Brighton lost away to Torquay, which was followed by two draws, one at home to fellow promotion chasers Brentford. All this left Brighton behind Plymouth in the table ahead of what was originally scheduled to be the last round of league fixtures. Except Brighton had the upper hand with two extra games in hand to play the week after meaning they had the championship in their hands.
And a late 1-0 win at Watford meant they were still in 2nd and only behind Plymouth on goal difference. This meant just a draw was required from either of their last two games to become Champions.
First up was a trip to Brentford, and yet another twist. As fellow promotion chasers themselves, a win would put Brentford top above both Brighton and Plymouth at the top of the table, and pile more pressure onto Albion. And unfortunately for Albion they did just that via a 1-0 win.
But despite Brentford going top, all three clubs were level on 58 points, and Brighton still had one game left, at home to Watford two days later. Either a win or a draw would secure promotion to the second tier as Third Division South champions for the first time in Brighton’s history.
This was a huge game for the club, one which some workplaces and schools closed for to allow people to attend the game. And the importance of the occasion wasn’t lost on manager Billy Lane who said in his programme notes that “I should think that in the history of the club there has not been a match so important”. Going on to encourage the crowd to support the team with its “ALBION ROAR”. And they did as a crowd of 31,308 (with thousands more who wanted to attend locked outside) cheering the team on to a historic victory.
Unlike the rest of the season, there was no jeopardy here. The first Albion roar occurred when reserve striker Adrian Thorn scored his first of his five goals that night, and the team were 5-0 up by half time. And Albion ultimately ran out 6-0 winners to win the club’s first championship and secure its first promotion since joining the Football League. After 38 years as a Third Division South club Albion had finally done it.
In truly remarkable circumstances too. At the age of just 20 Thorne had only played his first League game three month before but found himself starting in one of the biggest games in the club’s history due to an injury to Dave Sexton. And the icing was put on the cake by captain Glen Wilson scoring the other goal from a penalty to cap off a remarkable day.
But if this season ended with a fairy tale story, the next season started with a horror-story as the Albion lost 9-0 to Middlesbrough on the opening day, with that man Brian Clough scoring five, the club’s biggest ever defeat in peacetime. However, under Lane’s assured leadership the team found its feet and bounced back to finish a respectable 12th in its first season in the second tier. Funnily finishing one place and one point above Middlesbrough.
And the fairy tale didn’t last for Thorn either. Despite scoring an honourable total of 38 goals for the club in 76 appearances and finishing top scorer in the 1960/61 season, he never managed to hold down a regular first team place and moved to Plymouth in 1961 after handing in a transfer request.
Billy Lane continued to manage the club in the Second Division and stabilised the club at that level over the following three seasons until the stepping down in the summer of 1961, handing the reigns to George Curtis.