A club in turmoil
After the club was relegated down to the third tier in 1991/92, Albion manager Barry Lloyd began losing the faith of the Albion supporters. This was despite leading the club to a respectable 9th place finish the following season, when at one point it even looked like the club may finish higher and make the playoffs. However, a winding up order on the club from HMRC due to an unpaid tax bill somewhat halted the team’s momentum.
In fact this winding up order was a close call. After four adjournments, the club was given until 21st April to find the money to pay the debt and only managed it in the end at the eleventh hour when Barry Lloyd’s wheeling and dealing saw goalkeeper Mark Beeney sold to Leeds United for £350,000 and raise the necessary cash. So close some fans who attended the game at home to Blackpool the Saturday before Beeney’s sale, feared that it might be one of the club’s last.
Unfortunately things would get worse before they got better, in part down to the club’s ongoing fight to build a new stadium. Lloyd himself tried to solve this issue by spending a lot of time away from the training field working on a proposal for a new ground being built at Beeding Cement Works, but the plan was rejected by director Bill Archer, who preferred another site at Waterhall to the North of Brighton.
Later that year there was another winding up order from HMRC and this led to a restructuring of the club’s shareholdings and board of directors. Bill Archer would become chairman of the club by securing a 56% stake in a joint bid with Greg Stanley who bought the remaining 44% and took up the post of club president, in a deal publicised as helping to save the club’s finances with some new investment. In reality rather than a new dawn for the club this was the beginning of a further downward spiral for the club. With the pair invested nothing more in the club as equity than the nominal £100 to purchase the share capital and instead loaning the club hundreds of thousands at high levels of interest in the form of bank loans secured against the club’s only valuable asset, the Goldstone Ground, they simply delayed the problem from being dealt with by significantly increasing the club’s debt.
In part drawn out of the lack of funds available, Lloyd had taken on the responsibility of managing director as well as first team manager and it seemed the additional responsibilities were turning his attention away from on-field duties. After the club only secured two wins in the first sixteen league games of the 93/94 season, he was sacked.
Ultimately Lloyd’s loyalty to the club was seemingly partly his undoing, the chaos off the field had well and truly taken over and Lloyd did his best job of fire-fighting until he had finally lost control. After that point it was probably only a matter of time before things hit rock bottom.
Finances had been so tight for a while and meant that any good players were required to be sold. But now things had got so bad that money couldn’t even stretch to replace them with genuine senior professionals. So instead they were being replaced by youngsters like Nicky Rust, Stuart Tuck and Ross Johnson who were promoted ahead of schedule from the club’s youth system.
The arrival of Liam Brady as manager settled things for a while. He led the club to an unlikely looking and ultimately comfortable survival in 93/94. Then to another mid table league finish the following season, but the stability on the field was just masking the ever growing problems off it. The job of spinning the boards line and masking the problems was the former Liberal Democrat MP for Eastbourne David Bellotti who Archer and Stanley had appointed as Chief Executive. Who as such would become synonymous with the ineptitude of the club’s leadership that was to follow in the coming years.
Much of this stability was instead down to Brady in spite of the board, as he took on full responsibility for the sinking ship that the club had become. Having ended a prestigious playing career that featured trophy winning spells in both England and Italy, Brady had a fairly underwhelming two-year spell managing Celtic before taking the Albion job. Whilst he wasn’t a proven manager, he was a big name and was described by Bellotti as “head and shoulders” above the other applicants.
Whilst Brady was working with a squad full of youngsters, there was some experience in this squad. As alongside Club veteran Dean Wilkins was former Irish international John Byrne and former England international Steve Foster. But these were all players coming to the end of their careers, and they could no longer be expected to carry the team.
The precursor to the new season was a friendly with QPR for Dean Wilkins’ testimonial. A game particularly special for Dean because as well as being against QPR, the team he started out for as a professional, they were also then managed by his brother Ray. This game would turn out to be a rare moment of sentimentality amongst the gloom that was to come in the season ahead.
The 95/96 season begins
After two years of consolidation, there were hopes from some that the club could mount a promotion push. But, hopes were quickly diminished after a defeat to Peterborough began a run of no wins in the first 6 matches, which included a 5-0 aggregate defeat to Third Division Fulham in the League Cup.
But, the on field matters were the least of everyone’s worries when reports arose that the club had sold the Goldstone Ground to property developers Chartwell, who were planning on building a retail park on the site. A company it later came to light had connections to the Kingfisher Group, with which club Chairman Bill Archer was also involved. Whilst the club initially denied the sale, they later confirmed it and the clubs plans to ground share with Portsmouth next season ahead of the clubs first home game of the season against Bradford, which was drawn 0-0.
One of the leaders of the resentment against the club’s ownership was the now defunct Brighton fanzine Gulls Eye. A fanzine that had been running for a number of years up to that point and would play a huge part in shining a light on the owner’s wrongdoing at the club. After a tip off from a Portsmouth employee over the summer break, the fanzines co-editor Ian Hart took the story to The Argus who ran it on the front page ahead of the 95/96 season.
They had been no stranger to run ins with the club before, having been sued by the board in 1990 for libel over an article in the fanzine, after which its editors Ian Hart and Peter Kennard agreed an out of court settlement to pay the legal costs of the Brighton directors. Not that this experience had fazed them.
The summer had seen further revelations of the owners mismanagement of the club too. As it was revealed that after buying the club, Stanley and Archer had removed the clause from the club’s constitution designed to prevent shareholders from profiting if the club was wound up. After an investigation by supporter Paul Samrah and the Argus’s investigating journalist Paul Bracchi into the ownership of the club, it came to light two years later and the club was forced by the FA to change it back. Bellotti claimed it was simply an admin error, albeit an incredibly convenient one from which the owners could personally financially benefit from after the more recent sale of the Goldstone Ground. Following the correction, Paul Samrah continued to hold the owners to account and played a huge part in eventually ousting them, later becoming involved in the club’s fight for planning permission for a new stadium at Falmer.
As the season went on matters both off and on the field were becoming a considerable mess. A 2-1 defeat to Wycombe followed and the fact it featured two goals from former Albion schoolboy Miguel De Souza, only rubbed salt in the wounds of the Albion faithful. A sign that if you cut back a clubs infrastructure to its bare bones, even if you’re going to give youngsters a chance, some will be missed.
There were chinks of light when the club secured its first win of the season at home to Notts County, poignantly just four years after the club’s had met in the playoff final for a place in the topflight. But fittingly for such a season, even this was overshadowed by protests from supporters. A group invaded the pitch and sat in the centre circle interrupting the game to protest about the running of the club and the sale of the Goldstone Ground.
Liam Brady came onto the pitch and managed to convince the fans they’d made their point and that they should leave so the match can be finished, which they did. Unfortunately, this warning was not acted on by the club’s board and this protest was only the beginning of many that were to come.
An escalation in tensions
Following the victory over Notts County, another win followed away to Bristol City which momentarily lifted the club out of the relegation zone. But two subsequent defeats destroyed any good feeling created ahead of a trip to Bournemouth for a game being shown live on ITV in the South East as part of Meridian TVs “Meridian Match” series. Regionally broadcaster live matches were all part of ITV’s broadcast deal with the football league, which came to an end that season and would move to Sky.
It was the first time the club had been on live TV in eleven years and was only the fourth live TV match in its history. With the only previous times being the original and replay of the 1983 FA Cup final, and then a fourth round FA cup tie against the then mighty Liverpool in 1984. Whilst this occasion was just a lower league game on ITV regional TV, it still gave the supporters a chance to once again show their discontent towards the board in front of the watching media.
Protests were inevitable. Initially it was done with Brighton fans in the away end holding up red cards and banners stating “Sack the Board” and “We’ll never go to Pompey”, as well as singing songs about Archer, Stanley and Bellotti. But with the Albion falling 3-1 behind, some fans ran onto the pitch to halt the game and cause further disruption to events to raise attention for the cause. The fans were fairly peacefully dispersed but as time went on and the board stood firm, frustrations would grow and that would change.
A win in the Auto Windscreen Shield did nothing to halt the downwards momentum of the club, as a draw and three further defeats extended the clubs winless run to seven. It left Albion second bottom of the league and with just 9 points from its first 13 games. Ultimately the position the club would finish, but this season had plenty left to run and plenty of anger was to be vented.
In that run the club lost 3-1 to top of league Swindon. Whose Player-manager was Steve McMahon, returning to the Goldstone for the first time since scoring the winner for Liverpool in an epic 1991 FA cup fourth round replay between the club’s four years previous. A relatively small matter of time and yet a world away from the goings on at the Goldstone at that time.
There were light moments amongst the pain and anger. Possibly none more so than George Parris’ goal in a 2-0 win at home to Bristol Rovers. After the Rovers goalkeeper had rolled the ball to his feet, unbeknownst to him sneaking in behind him out of sight was George Parris, who tussled the ball off him and scored a memorable goal.
After a spell with West Ham that saw him make over 300 First Team appearances in over ten years, George Parris had found himself at Brighton in the dying days of his career. And whilst the club were struggling off the field with their issues, so was he as a gambling addiction meant he was amassing debts, something he later discussed in his book “My Name is George…I am a Compulsive Gambler”. His problems would get worse and eventually lead to him contemplating suicide, but, like the club he later rebuilt his life, going on to build a career in Women and Girls football coaching that saw him briefly re-join the Albion in 2016.
That win was just another short lived moment of joy in an otherwise depressing season. A 2-0 defeat at home to Swansea followed three days later, a game that despite the recent victory saw the club’s lowest home attendance for 40 years, a sign of the level of disgruntlement of supporters. The ones who stayed away missed a game which featured a certain West Ham loanee Frank Lampard Jr scoring Swansea’s second.
Then came a match against Canvey Island away in the first round of the FA Cup. The Essex side had never got to that stage of the competition before and had never played football league opposition before either, so Albion’s visit was a momentous day in their history. Amongst Canvey’s ranks was the former Albion goalkeeper and future Albion goalkeeping coach John Keeley who after winning the club’s player of the season in 1989 was sold to Oldham in 1990.
After losing at that stage of the competition to non-league Kingstonian the season before, Brighton could be excused for fearing another upset. Nerves that were well placed as despite going ahead twice, Canvey came back to draw and take the tie to a replay at the Goldstone.
After this a 3-0 home defeat to Walsall followed, which left the team second bottom with only 12 points from 17 games in the league and Liam Brady resigned as manager. He’d shown incredible loyalty to the club by taking a pay cut to afford some new signings and would show further loyalty to the club in the future, but said he simply couldn’t serve as manager under the current leadership at the club anymore.
Brady’s out the bunch but Jimmy is now on the Case
In his place came Jimmy Case who was part of Brighton’s cup final team in 1983 and famously scored in every round in the lead up to the final. Case was also a key part of the club’s midfield for the first half of the eighties after originally joining the club from Liverpool as part of a deal which saw Mark Lawrenson go the other way. Having been at the club as reserve team manager, he now found himself promoted to managing the first team.
In his first game in charge of the club they comprehensively beat Canvey Island 4-1 in the replay of their FA Cup first round tie. But then lost away to York 3-1 in his first league game in charge.
There were also further revelations about the club’s owners when the club accounts were leaked and revealed Greg Stanley was due £400k interest on a £600k loan. In reaction to the revelations the Brighton Argus ran a headline in the front page telling the board to resign and the board subsequently banned the paper from being sold within the ground.
But on the pitch Case’s appointment was beginning to see an upturn in form as the club won 2-0 at home to Bournemouth. And despite this being followed by two defeats, the club then took 7 points from the next three games including beating Brentford 1-0 and Bradford 3-1.
However, that was the high point for Case as manager and nonetheless the club was still sat firmly within the relegation zone. So a run of no wins in the next eight left the club with an ever increasing gap to third tier survival. And as well as still sitting second bottom the club was still looking for certainty over somewhere to play the following season.
The board were insisting the plan for next season was the play at Portsmouth despite an offer of the property developers to rent the Goldstone back from them for one final season whilst they made longer term plans. Adding further concerns was that the football league were reporting they’d seen nothing from the club to permit them to actually play at Fratton Park next season and so many questions remained unanswered.
Despite an impressive 4-0 win at home to Bottom side Hull, that was followed up with 3 defeats and a draw that left the club ten points from safety and having played two games more than fifth bottom Burnley who were their next opponents at the Goldstone.
This was last chance saloon for the club, and a 1-0 win here kept the club there for a short period. The winner came from Zeke Rowe who was on loan from Chelsea, a player who scored three goals in a nine game loan spell which ended with a red card. But whilst this win gave the club some hope, in reality only the most optimistic weren’t planning for relegation to the fourth tier.
And despite the board still insisting they were going ahead with the ground share with Portsmouth, there was growing uncertainty over where the clubs home would be next season. And when a 2-1 defeat away to Swansea all but secured relegation it became all the more pertinent.
An ignominious end to the season
The off field issues were tearing the club apart, the fans were regularly chanting “Sack the Board”, most of the media coverage surrounding the club was all about the owners questionable leadership and Chief Executive David Bellotti’s interviews had become more and more absurd, as to little avail he tried to spin the Board’s line.
One person who’d had enough was Steve Foster, an Albion legend and a man who’d led the club out at Wembley in the 1983 cup final replay, who with games still to play retired blaming the club’s bad owners for his decision.
The situation came to a head when the club played Carlisle at home next. And despite winning 1-0 in a fiery game that saw future Albion player and current BBC Sussex co-commentator Warren Aspinall sent off for Carlisle along with Albion’s Jeff Minton for fighting, things would take an even fiercer turn at the end of the game.
Upon the final whistle fans demonstrated their anger by invading the pitch and attempting to get into the board room to approach the board, causing damage to the boardroom and ripping up seats. The board had fled but stayed strong to their plans and public statements. However their hand was being forced by the football league giving the club 31 days to get its plans for where they were playing next season finalised or risk being kicked out the league altogether.
Five years on from the clubs meeting in the playoff final for a place in the topflight, Brighton faced Notts Country and a 2-1 defeat meant relegation to the Football League’s bottom tier was officially confirmed. Having spent all bar two of its 76-year spell to that point as a third tier club or higher, this was confirmation of a real low for the club and coming just a few years after being so near to a return to the topflight.
After which club faced a home match with York that as it stood would be its last game at the Goldstone. But the game would descend into riot and was abandoned.
It’s clear there were some who were there to make trouble and take advantage of the anger of the supporters towards the board. A number of spectators were injured, including Eleanor Ellison who was hospitalised after being headbutted when she was trying to protect her daughter, whilst another was seen being stretchered off after being hit by a missile.
With the country preparing to host Euro ’96 starting in six week’s time, some media outlets jumped on the scenes coupling it with the country’s Hooliganism problem that was a big topic for discussion in the build-up to the tournament. Made all the worse when the now infamously trouble-causing travelling England fans caused a friendly match with Ireland to be abandoned earlier that season.
The News of the World described the Brighton-York abandonment as “sickening scenes that shamed soccer.” However, others were more understanding of the circumstances that had led to these incidents, but the timing had highlighted the violence and somewhat masked the cause of the genuine protests. With the FA director of communications David Davies saying: “whatever the reason. It is obviously unhelpful that this happened so near to Euro ’96.”
After losing to Walsall in what was meant to be the last match of the season, the match with York was eventually replayed. But not as many expected behind closed doors, instead on the morning of Thursday 9th May as an all-ticket match with tickets only available to purchase the day before. In such circumstances a respectable gate of 2,106 saw Albion lose 3-1 as York secured their third tier status for another season at the expense of Carlisle.
Brighton also incurred a suspended three point deduction for the riot, two of which were docked after another pitch invasion, on Tuesday 1st October 1996, in a match against Lincoln.
As well as dealing with the aftermath of the York game, and on top of the host of issues the club had off the field, there was still the issue of where Albion were going to be playing next season and the deadline for the offer of a one year extension of their spell at the Goldstone Ground from the new owners Chartwell was close approaching.
In a further twist, former manager Liam Brady announced he was the lead figure in a consortium attempting to buy the club from its current owners, which involved the offer of him personally paying the deposit to ensure the club stayed at the Goldstone the following season.
Greg Stanley, who has taken a step back from day to day affairs had returned to try to help resolve the situation. After all he still held the role as club president and in that role stated publicly that Archer may sell his shares within the week, another promise from the club which was not carried out.
The club ultimately reached a last minute deal with Chartwell to stay at the Goldstone, with Archer and Stanley remaining in place. This would just be a stay of execution for them at the club. This was until the consortiums new figurehead Dick Knight (who’d been brought on board by Liam Brady, we have a lot to thank that man for!) managed to oust Archer and Stanley and take over as Chairman at the end of the following season. With the club just about avoided falling out of the football league altogether through that final day draw at Hereford.
After seeing out a two year spell ground sharing at Gillingham of all places, one of Bill Archer’s final gifts to the club, Dick Knight led the club to its new temporary home at Withdean Athletic Stadium where a new era in the club’s history would begin.
Jimmy Case didn’t last that much longer as manager however. He was sacked with the club bottom of the whole football league the following season and left new incumbent Steve Gritt to save the club from its seemingly inevitable doom.
Whilst the story of the 95/96 season is one of anger and resentment at the greed and deception of the board, the lasting legacy is of the many tales of personal sacrifice and generosity. In later times the likes of Dick Knight and Tony Bloom would overshadow others, but it’s clear that without people like Liam Brady, Ian Hart, Paul Samrah and Barry Lloyd, there would not have been a club to save at all.