The 1987/88 season saw Brighton return to its spiritual home of the Third Division after ten seasons away, four of which were spent in the topflight.
The team was then managed by Barry Lloyd, whose previous managerial job was with Non-League Worthing and who was initially brought in by his predecessor Alan Mullery during his doomed second spell at the club to manage the reserves and youth team. But was promptly promoted into the job as first team manager after Mullery was sacked just a few months into the job during a period of severe cost cutting and player sales.
Lloyd’s task initially was one of remaining competitive in the Second Division amongst the costs cutting measures. So drastic we’re the measures that during this time The Brighton Argus featured a front page story saying that all the club’s first team professionals were for sale.
Somewhat inevitably amongst such turmoil, the club couldn’t avoid relegation back to the third tier. However, given the circumstances he was working under and after the club had sacked two high profile managers in just over a year, it’s little surprise that the club stuck with Lloyd, despite his inexperience.
Fortunately for Albion, Lloyd proved to be a more than competent coach and a shrewd operator of the transfer market. Despite the club’s financial limitations he began building an exciting, attacking side, focused on a passing style and he managing it despite having to sell high profile players. The likes Terry Connor and Dean Saunders were sold for a profit and replaced with cheaper options like striker Garry Nelson who was signed from Plymouth, and with midfielder Dean Wilkins, who had returned to the club after playing in the Dutch topflight with Zwolle for three years.
Due to their return to the third tier Albion joined that season’s FA Cup in the first round for the first time in a decade, but despite this handicap the cup finalist of five seasons earlier still managed a decent cup run in the competition.
Albion’s run started by beating Brentford 2-0 away from home in the first round, thanks to a brace from Garry Nelson.
Nelson’s first that day has gone down in Albion folklore and is one he described recently on the podcast “Football, Albion and me” as one of his best. He said: “The sad thing and funny thing about it was it was the only goal that season I scored out of the 32 – that and a penalty – that nobody filmed.” Also saying that “At the time the local paper at Brentford said it was one of the best goals they had ever seen at Griffin Park.”
But don’t just take Garry’s word for it. John Vinnicombe the then lead sportswriter of the Brighton Argus said of the goal: “Nelson rated his 68th minute strike as the best of his nine years in the game, and that is saying something. Albion were shading the second half when he took the ball off Keith Jones just inside Brentford’s half and then proceeded to bamboozle no fewer than five defenders before unleashing that rocket-powered left foot. The ball must have been a blur to Gary Phillips as it tore into the top corner.”
Nelson then rounded off the day with an injury time penalty that secured the 2-0 win before Albion faced another away trip to Northampton in round two. A match which they won 2-1, with goals from Kevin Bremner with another from Nelson, setting up a home tie in the third round with then Second Division Bournemouth.
Bournemouth were then managed by a young Harry Redknapp, who would lead the team to a 12th placed finish in the Second Division that season, which up until 2014 was the Cherries highest ever league finish. They had also caused a notable FA Cup shock beating the then cup holders Man United in round four, four years previously. But this Albion team were up to the challenge and deservedly beat the visitors 2-0 to make it into round four. Captain Doug Rougvie put Albion ahead, getting on the end of a Steve Gatting free kick, before Nelson scored his 4th goal of the competition to seal another 2-0 victory.
Albion’s reward in Round 4 was a plum draw at home to George Graham’s Arsenal. This was a highly anticipated tie and saw an attendance of 26,467, the biggest at the Goldstone since the 1983 quarter final against Norwich, and an attendance that earned the club a then record matchday gate receipts of £85k. This was indeed no ordinary game for the club and the Albion players and management prepared for it with a four day summer training camp in Spain the week before.
And the break appeared to have done Albion good, as they started the game well and created a flurry of chances on an admittedly poor Goldstone pitch. Those chances included one for that man Garry Nelson, but he put his shot straight at the Arsenal goalkeeper John Lukic. And despite the home sides pressure it was Arsenal who took the lead on the run of play through Kevin Richardson, a goal the Brighton programme described as “soft”.
But Albion continued to press and equalised after Garry Nelson turned in a Dean Wilkins headed cross with a spectacular flying volley scissor kick, to score his fifth of the competition.
That particular goal is said to have “caused one of the biggest terrace surges in North Stand history at the Goldstone Ground.” But despite all the excitement and anticipation, Albion couldn’t muster a second to take the lead. They did have their chances, including one for Nelson’s strike-partner Kevin Bremner who had probably the best chance of the game after being found at the near post by Alan Curbishley, but his cross come shot was fired harmlessly across the face of goal.
It seemed like the tie was destined for a replay at Highbury, which given the club’s mounting debts would have been a useful financial reward for the club. It would also have made for a special return to Highbury, the location of Albion’s most famous win in the competition, 2-1 over Sheffield Wednesday in the 1983 FA Cup semi-finals. That was until Perry Groves scored a 78th minute winner for the visitors. A victory the Brighton programme described as “rather fortunate” also commenting: “Now you know why they are known as lucky old Arsenal”.
Indeed Garry Nelson told the Brighton programme last year in a feature about this game that “we were gutted” and “we all felt we deserved a replay and gave a brilliant account of ourselves. They were more clinical but there wasn’t much between the teams.”
This may have ended Albion’s 1988 cup run, but there would be further success in the competition as the club made the 4th round in four out of the next five years. In fact from 1978 through to 1993 the club made it to at least the 3rd round every year making two quarterfinals, one further 5th round appearances and nine further 4th round appearances. A period of relative success in the competition unmatched until recent seasons.
A win in Albion’s following game away to Blackpool saw them move up to sixth. And a 2-1 win at home to Bristol Rovers on the last day of the season would see them finish second, behind Sunderland, securing automatic promotion back to the Second Division and avoid the dreaded playoffs, which had only been introduced the season before.
Including his five goals in the FA Cup Garry Nelson scored 32 goals in total that season. But despite this impressive season he eventually lost his place after promotion as the team pushed for a further promotion back to the First Division in the 90/91 season. However the success on the pitch led by Barry Lloyd’s management was masking the financial troubles off of it, which would come to a head later that decade.
In contrast, Arsenal would go on to beat Man United at home in round 5 before losing in the quarterfinals to Brian Clough’s Nottingham Forest and finish 6th in the First Division that season, before going on to win the First Division the following season in that dramatic end of season decider against Liverpool, chronicled brilliantly in the documentary “89”.