In the summer of 1961, Brighton manager Billy Lane resigned, leaving a huge hole for the club to fill. Over the past decade and a bit, he’d transformed the club’s fortunes, achieving promotion to the Second Division in 1958 for the first time in its history, and then keeping it there for the subsequent three seasons.
In his place came George Curtis, who in the face of the very restricted budget that he was given by the board, led the club to relegation back down to the Third Division. And worse was to come in his second season, which saw Albion again struggle. Not helped by the number of experienced names who had left and were being replaced by youngsters. A trend which led to his team being dubbed “Curtis’s Cubs”, but unlike Man United’s “Busby Babes” of the previous decade this Albion side contained nowhere near a comparative level of quality or talent and continued to struggle on the pitch.
As a result the board faced an increasing amount calls to resign, and so the chairman and vice-chairman did just that in November 1962. A new board was formed with Supporters’ club president, Eric Courtney-King at its chair. But despite the new board raising funds to invest in the team, results didn’t improve and Curtis left by ‘mutual consent’ the following February.
By the time he’d been replaced it was too late for the new man in charge Archie Macaulay to turn things around and as a result, the club was relegated to the Football League’s Fourth Division with a game to spare for the first time in its history.
It’s first season at that level was one of mixed fortunes. The club won just one of its first six league matches and worries mounted of yet another season of struggle. But under Macauley, Albion eventually found their feet as the club finished a respectable 8th.
Macauley wasn’t one to always follow the mould. After joining the club he altered the clubs pay structure to be focused more on performance related bonuses, but it wasn’t just pay where his approach was uncommon. Howard Wilkinson, the future Leeds and England manager who played under Macauley at the Albion after signing for the club in 1966, divulged that: “we had some remarkable preparations for important matches and cup-ties. There were liberal doses of sherry and raw eggs, calves foot jelly, fillet steak, and plenty of walks on the seafront where we were taken to fill our lungs with the ozone.”
And under Macauley, with Brighton having now found their feet in the Fourth Division, the club went into the subsequent 1964/65 season with high hopes that the club could win promotion back to the Third Division. Especially with the arrival of England international Bobby Smith.
Bobby Smith was as chairman Courtney-King put it in the programme before the opening game of the season: “one of the big names in soccer”. A signing which he went onto say “shows just how eager we are to climb to our rightful position in the Football League.”
And indeed it was an impressive signing for a Fourth Division team. After starting out at Chelsea as a reserve when they won the First Division in 1955, Smith joined Tottenham. There he spent nine years scoring 208 goals and still stands second in Tottenham’s record books only behind his strike partner Jimmy Greaves.
At Tottenham he was a key part of the double winning team of 1961 and also won the FA Cup in 1962 and the Cup winners Cup in 1963 whilst getting 15 caps for England between 1960 to 1963, his last coming when scored in an 8-3 win for England over Northern Ireland at Wembley.
Some were surprised by Tottenham letting Smith go at all and he felt he still had plenty to offer. Smith is quoted soon after signings for Brighton as saying: “Every time I turn out for Brighton next season I will be determined to show Bill Nicholson how wrong he was to let me go… to show him and Spurs that there is a lot of the old Bobby Smith fire left – and that it is going to be used to help Brighton bid for better things… I’m an Albion man, and great, new experience lies ahead.”
But others were less surprised. Bobby Smith was a player who despite his impressive stats, wasn’t to everyone’s taste. Something not helped by his reputation as an at times overly-relaxed character and a routine gambler. Characteristics that meant whilst at Tottenham, he was judged as not being captaincy material.
There is always one player in a generation who doesn’t get the recognition at international level which they deserve. And Bobby Smith was probably that player for England in the early 1960s, something his 13 goal in those 15 caps attests to.
He was part of England’s 1958 World Cup squad but didn’t play and then didn’t even make the squad in 1962. Had injuries not damaged his progress, maybe he’d not been cast off so early by Tottenham at just 31 and played a part at the 1966 World Cup, a tournament which saw injuries limit the playing time of his former strike partner Jimmy Greaves.
Instead, a year after his last England cap he was lining up for Albion against Barrow at the Goldstone in the Fourth Division. And in his first game all the expectations of Smith leading Brighton to victory were met as he scored two on his debut in a 3-1 win, in front of a crowd of over 20,000.
One of his fellow forwards that day was Jimmy Collins who was a reserve at Tottenham whilst Bobby was there, before joining Albion in October 1962 and was later made captain. Jimmy was partly responsible for persuading Bobby to join Albion and with his old Spurs teammate alongside him captained the side for most of the 64/65 season, going on to play 221 times for the club before leaving in 1967 to join Wimbledon.
But it appeared the club’s inconsistency from the previous season was back as despite remaining unbeaten for the first seven matches, they won just one of those and then slumped as low as 13th at the end of September after successive away defeats to York and Chester.
But the club’s consistency would improve and it was in part down to the development under Macauley of some of the younger players who’d been bought over the last few seasons. No one less so than Norman Gall who came of age this season at centre half.
After joining the club in 1962 Gall was initially unpopular with supporters because he replaced captain Roy Jennings in the team. And the club’s subsequent relegation to the Fourth Division probably didn’t help. But he soon established himself as first-choice centre half and was later twice voted Albion’s Player of the Season in 1971 and 1974. A feat only repeated since at the club by Steve Foster, Danny Cullip, Bobby Zamora and Liam Bridcutt.
For Gall it was a monumental turn around after things had started so badly. Upon replacing Jennings in the team to make his League debut initially under Curtis, the club lost three straight matches and the supporters clearly saw him at fault. As Gall described it himself: “As soon as I went on the pitch they booed and during the kick-about they were on my back. They chanted, ‘We want Jennings.’ I played quite well, but it affected my play a bit and I think it ruined me for the rest of the season. Anyway, I was dropped right after that.”
Us football fans have always been a fickle bunch. Now playing under Macauley and an established first team player, Gall was winning the fans round and success on the pitch followed. The club won the next four in a row to climb the table and remained in the top four promotion places for the rest of the season.
As well as the development of some of the younger players Macaulay made some astute signings including another of Bobby Smith’s former Tottenham teammates Mel Hopkins, who added great experience at full back and thrived alongside talented youngsters like Gall. Hopkins made his debut in the third of those four successive wins, 6-0 over Notts County at the Goldstone. And from then on both he and the club didn’t look back.
And with the club now performing better on the pitch along with the acquisition of some big names, attendances were significantly up. After the season average had fallen to around 9,000 for the previous two season, it would nearly double that in the 1964/65 season at just above 17,000. And with added crowds came added atmosphere, made all the better with Norman Wisdom’s input.
Norman Wisdom, who’d made his name in British popular culture in the 50s for his slapstick comedy joined the club as a director in 1964, a position he’d hold until 1970. And he was making his mark at the club. No more so than introducing a rewritten version of the county song “Sussex by the Sea” at half time of a 5-0 home win over Chesterfield in February. A song now sung before every home game still to this day.
But whilst this was mostly a season of joy and success, there was tragedy with the death of Barry Rees, another one of Macauley’s astute signings who’d only joined the club three months before from First Division Everton.
Whilst enjoying some well-earned time off after a 3-1 home win over Southport that saw the team keep pace with the teams at the top of the league, he was on his way to see his parents in Wales. But after being involved in a car crash with an oncoming lorry, died of the injuries he sustained in the crash.
In the match programme ahead of the next home league match against Tranmere, the club ran a full page tribute to Barry Rees. In it they said they were “devastated” and that in his short time at the club he’d “quickly established himself as a player of undoubted promise and became a firm favourite at the Goldstone.”
But this tragedy didn’t derail the club’s promotion push as they beat top of the league Tranmere 2-1 with Norman Gall turning in a Jimmy Collins corner for the winner. As a result, Brighton went top for the first time all season. And this was where they’d finish with Tranmere ultimately missing out on promotion by a single point after losing on the final day to Doncaster.
In contrast Brighton won three of their remaining four games after going top. And were promoted as Champions after beating Darlington on the final day of the season. With winger Wally Gould scoring the third to secure the win.
Albion finished the season having scored 102 goals, with Bobby Smith top scoring with 19 of them. But this was the end of the road for him with Brighton. At 32 his injuries and his lifestyle had finally all caught up with him.
After he turned up to next summer’s pre-season training significantly over weight, he was first suspended and then later sacked in October 1965 with one newspaper cruelly dubbing him “Blobby Smith”.
A sad end to a great professional career. As his Albion teammate and captain Jimmy Collins said of Bobby Smith’s upon his death in 2010: “[he was] a better footballer than he was given credit for.” Or as journalists Norman Giller said of Smith “If he had been playing today, Bobby – who mixed cruiserweight strength with subtlety on the ball – would have been revered as a player in the Alan Shearer class, and rewarded with the riches that his ability warranted.”
Bobby Smith was one of the greats of his generation. But if he’d managed to reach his full potential, he’d never have signed for Brighton and helped steer the club back into the Third Division. It feels crass to say it, but Bobby Smith’s loss was very much Brighton’s gain, even if it was only for one season.
For Brighton this was the start of a new beginning. The following season the club reverted to type as a Third Division club, where they would remain for the next seven seasons and eleven of the next twelve. A period only interrupted by another brief dalliance with the Second Division in the 1972/73 season. That is until a certain Alan Mullery took over as manager in 1976 and lead the club during a legendary period in the club’s history. But that’s another story.