Ben White – a story of rejection and redemption

Ben White was previously profiled along with a number of Brighton’s other U23 team last summer by Tweeting Seagull contributor @seagullsacademy, which you can read here.

Like many footballers back stories Ben White’s begins with rejection. In 2014 the 16-year old born in Poole was released by Southampton. In such circumstances do many prospective football careers end, whilst a small selection of others are formed. Ben White fortunately falls into the latter category after he was given a second chance by Brighton. As he later said himself, “The club gave me a scholarship and took me all the way until now, so I’m very grateful for that.” 

For Brighton, 2014 was largely a disaster, instigated by some terrible recruitment over the year, along with the appointment of the soon to be found wanting new manager Sami Hyypia that summer. But the addition of Ben White would soon become a rarity for much of the club’s 2014 intake, in that they would begin to see the fruits of it.

White impressed so much in his first year as a scholar for the U18s that he was soon also involved with the U21s and by end of the season had earned himself a professional contract and a place in that summers 25-man first team pre-season training camp. After starting a first team friendly against Lewes, an injury halted any further involvement with the first team and he spent the remainder of the following season again in the U18s and U21s.

He was then involved as a substitute in a number of first team pre-season games ahead of the following 2016/17 season, including as a substitute in the club’s showpiece friendly at home to Lazio.

As the season started, with Albion struggling for number in defence because of injuries to Uwe Huenemeier and Connor Goldson, White was heavily involved with the first team squad. Being named as an unused substitute for the first four league fixtures of the season and making his debut in the first round of the EFL cup in a 4-0 win over Colchester alongside Rohan Ince in the centre of defence.

White impressed on his debut as a young Albion defence earned a clean sheet and he earned himself a second start in a 4-2 win over Oxford in the second round. But the signing of Ireland international Shane Duffy for a then club record fee and the continued progression of fellow Albion youth team product Lewis Dunk meant Ben White’s involvement with the first team was limited from then on and he spent most of the season playing for Brighton’s U23s in their inaugural season in Premier League 2 and helping the team get to the final of the Premier League 2 Cup, which they lost 1-0 to Swansea City.

As the 2017/18 season drew near White was again involved in first team pre-season training. But with opportunities in the first team continuing to be limited by the increased competition for places and Chris Hughton’s tendency to not make many changes to team selection, White was sent on loan to League 2 Newport for the season to get some game time.

Whilst there, he came up against England striker Harry Kane in Newport’s impressive run to the 4th round of the FA Cup, which saw them beat his future loan club Leeds in the 3rd round. A 1-1 draw in the original tie against Spurs saw White mark Kane admirably as Newport pulled off a shock draw at home to earn a replay at Tottenham’s temporary home, Wembley Stadium.

Ben said of his time there: “The cup run was amazing, what we achieved and the manner in which we secured the game with Tottenham Hotspur was brilliant. Then we nearly beat them in the home tie, but to then play at Wembley Stadium was a dream come true. Facing Harry Kane was great for me and I feel like I more than held my own against him.”

White came to the attention of many clubs and many Albion fans during this loan spell at Newport. Whilst the club had finished a fairly underwhelming 11th place in the league, he had greatly impressed. Both to the masses in the cup run and the locals throughout the season, winning four of Newport’s player of the season awards, the Doc Heffernan Shield for Young Player of the Year; the Brian’s Tom’s President’s Cup Player’s Player of the Year Award; the Supporters’ Club Player of the Year and Young Player of the Year. County’s manager Mike Flynn described him as an “outstanding talent” and the best loan signing the club had ever made.

After a successful loan Ben White received a new contract from the club until 2021, with Brighton manager Chris Hughton telling the club’s official website: “I’m delighted for Ben, and he is another example of a young player that has worked very hard to develop his game over the last couple of years. We have closely monitored his progress at Newport, and it is very pleasing to see him adapt so well to a very competitive standard of football in League Two. I was pleased to give him his debut for this club in the EFL Cup match against Colchester last season, and he thoroughly deserves this new contract.”

The following season, after White’s success at Newport, Hughton included White as a part of the 1st team squad, becoming the effectively now fourth choice central defender. At the start of the season Chris Hughton said of his central defence options beyond his top 3, “If I am looking within, the natural ones in that position would be Ben White” Going on to say: “Particularly in that position you would want as much experience as possible but on numerous occasions, not just myself but with other clubs, a young player comes in and surprises a few. So if that opportunity arose for him then you’d want him to take it with both hands.”

But unfortunately chances weren’t forthcoming. As after an injury ruled him out of EFL cup action, and the brilliant form of Shane Duffy alongside then vice-captain Lewis Dunk, plus the experience of new signing Nigeria international Leon Balogun meant he struggled to get a look in. Some were beginning to question by this point why the club wasn’t entrusting Ben with the back-up centre back spot, but as Hughton said in the earlier quote, his is a position where experience is key. And as many young talented English footballers have found to their cost, youth team football and one season in the lower leagues doesn’t fully prepare you for the rigours of the Premier League.

As a result, another loan move looked like a sensible option for White at the time. Especially with first team chances so limited and another centre back in Dan Burn being added to Brighton’s defensive ranks that January. So White that month was sent out on loan, this time to League One Peterborough. Chris Hughton said, “This move is one which allows Ben to play regular first-team football at a good level for his development. At this stage of his career it’s important that he continues to gain as much match experience as possible. He’s someone who we’ve had around the first-team squad for the first half of the campaign, but with competition for places increased with the return of Dan Burn from Wigan, this gives him the chance to go out and play regular football at a level higher than he experienced last season.”

It was a tough start to his loan stint, which saw a 5-0 defeat in a FA Cup 3rd tie away to Middlesbrough in his first game. But despite this White was described as “a ray of light amid the Middlesbrough gloom” by the Peterborough Telegraph and given a 7 out of 10. Once again whilst out on loan White impressed with his calmness, intelligence on the ball and awareness when defending. And as the season went on, he was a key player for Peterborough as they just missed out on the playoffs. Yet more signs of greater things to come.

Part way through that season Dan Ashworth was appointed Technical director at Brighton and soon started putting his stamp on the club. In particular with the club’s summer transfer business including a number of young talented English player to add to the first team competition for places. This included Adam Webster and Matt Clarke, both signed from Championship clubs adding competition to Ben White’s position at centre back. And with Graham Potter replacing Chris Hughton as manager and keen to not change too much too soon or introduce too many of Albion’s talented young U23s into the first team, another loan move for Ben White made sense.

And he would be one of a large group of youngsters at the club that were sent on loan that season. That summer Dan Ashworth, head of loans David Weir and head of recruitment Paul Winstanley attended an event as Stamford Bridge dubbed a “transfer speed dating event”, which they attended in order to promote its young loan players to other clubs. And given the clubs U23 team finished 3rd in the Premier League 2 and the team’s top scorer Aaron Connolly won the league’s player of the season it’s no surprise there was a lot of interest

But considering how well Ben had done at Newport and Peterborough there was no real need to advertise his availability, many clubs had already taken note of his talents. And a loan move to Leeds United in the Championship was agreed for the upcoming 2019/20 season. Like a number of clubs, Leeds had been tracking White’s progress for about two years, around the period of time which had passed since they were knocked out of the FA Cup by Ben White’s Newport County in fact.

White’s U23 boss Simon Rusk said of the loan: “This is an exciting move for Ben and one that make sense in his natural development. Ben will have to adapt once again, as he joins a new group of players and experiences an increased standard of quality and athleticism in the Championship.”

Brighton were only willing to sanction a temporary exit for White to Leeds, who were initially keen on a permanent move or a loan with an option to buy in 12 month’s time. To further protect their investment Ben White was tied down to a longer term deal until 2022, a big coup for the club given there was serious talk of Spurs amongst others being interested in signing the youngster that summer.

At Brighton it was the newly appointed head of loans David Weir who’d keep the club in contact with Ben. His role at the club is to manage the relationships with the club’s loan players. A role that’s been created by the significant amount of loan deals the club are sanctioning for its youth players to encourage their development with a view of them either being promoted to the first team or sold on at a profit.

David Weir said of his role: “It’s also about meeting people who might be interested in our players and find markets and clubs who might potentially be interested in taking our players. It’s a really good tool for me – to meet a lot of clubs in a relatively short period of time and open up some new avenues.”

Ben White’s loan was a real coup, not just for Leeds to get such a sought after player, but for Ben too. Having experienced mid table finishes in League’s 1 and 2, to now get the experience at a club in the Championship with the expectations that Leeds had was huge for his development. Having narrowly missed out on promotion the season before there were now increased expectations that the club would go one better the following season. Whilst being able to work with a manager of such global and almost mythical renown as Marcelo Bielsa too, it had the potential to be a massive season in his development.

So it turned out. It wasn’t long before heads were starting to turn toward Ben’s performances. He won widespread praise on his debut in a 3-1 win over Bristol City and never looked back. Sky Sports pundit that day Louis Carey described Ben White’s debut for Leeds as “one of the best Championship debuts I’ve seen.”

David Wier told the Athletic part way through season: “You could argue that he could play for Brighton now. He has got better and better, and has done better than anyone could have expected. He’s right up there in terms of the top defenders in the Championship. We’re all thrilled by how he is doing and the progression he has made. He’s a great example of a loan programme working well.”

And Ben White has been getting praise from far and wide for his performances at Leeds with Alex Stewart of the Athletic saying: “While White’s defending is intelligent and proactive, it’s his work with the ball that marks him out as an outstanding prospect.” Going on to say “What’s clear, though, is he has the skills to succeed almost anywhere.”

Ben White certainly left a lasting mark at Leeds United. As the fans celebrated the Championship title and promotion, Ben White joined his teammates on the steps outside Elland Road to join in the celebrations and Ben revelled in the moment as the fans urged him to join the club permanently. And the subsequent #FreeBenWhite social media campaign shows just how highly the young defender is thought of by the Leeds faithful. Something all those who have been involved in his development over the past 6 years at Brighton can take great pride in.

With the season now over, according to reports in the Brighton Argus, Albion have continued their stance that they held the previous summer by telling suitors that Ben White isn’t for sale. But just because of his recent success and hype, he isn’t simply going to walk into the Brighton first team next season. As David Weir said on the clubs official website recently, the reality that Ben White now faces at Brighton is: “Now he has to come back to us and prove that he is a Premier League player. He has shown that he is good enough to be promoted out of the Championship and be consistent.”

That said, the transfer window still has a long way to go and whilst Albion have said White is not for sale, every player has a price. Whether White is playing at Brighton, Leeds or another club next season, it’s almost certain that the Premier League will be his destination for the season ahead.

Whilst there is still plenty for White prove. If his track record tells us anything, it’s that he has continued to rise to every challenge he’s faced. It’s not been a completely smooth ride for him into English football’s top level over the last six years, but there’s plenty of reasons to believe that the 2020/21 season will see further success for Ben White.

1990/91 – A tale of what if?

Following the club’s relegation from the topflight in 1983, and after the years of overspending that preceded it in the aim of achieving that topflight status, the club had continuous struggles with its finances and its ever mounting debt.

At first the team persevered. In 1985 Chris Cattlin was close to leading the club back into the First Division and the season after took the club to the last eight of the FA Cup for only to the second occasion in its history. But despite subsequent protests from supporters, Cattlin was sacked later that season with the club out of the promotion picture and after allegations from the club of Gross Misconduct.

In his place came the return of Alan Mullery, but with the financial problems now dominating affairs the club’s performances on the pitch continued to diminish and he was sacked a matter of months after his return, being replaced by Barry Lloyd. The man initially brought in by Mullery to manage the reserves and youth team.

Lloyd’s task was tough and was one of remaining competitive in the second division amongst the increased cutting of costs and multiple played sales. So drastic was the cost cutting The Argus featured a front page story saying that all the club’s first team professionals were for sale.

So somewhat inevitably, amongst such turmoil the club couldn’t avoid relegation back to the third tier after ten years away. However given the circumstances he was working under and after sacking two high profile managers in just over a year, it’s little surprise that the club stuck with Lloyd.

There, despite the club’s financial limitations Lloyd began building an exciting, attacking side, focused on a passing style. Managing it despite having to sell high profile players like Terry Connor and Dean Saunders for a profit and replace them with cheaper options like Garry Nelson who signed from Plymouth and was that seasons club top scorer with 32 goals, along with Dean Wilkins, who returned to the club after playing in the Dutch topflight with Zwolle for three years. As a result of his good work in the transfer market the team secured promotion back to the second tier at the first time of asking against many’s predictions.

For the first two years back in the second tier, the club spent the majority of the time near the bottom of the division but avoided relegation as the club continued to wheel and deal. As a result of this transfer policy there were very few long serving players remaining at the club, with goalkeeper Perry Digweed, one exception.

Having joined the club in 1981 when it was in the topflight, Digweed was more commonly the number one in his time with the club. But had more recently spent a significant period out of the team after being on the wrong end of a dangerous lunged challenge from West Brom’s John Paskin which saw him tear his Urethra (ouch) and lose a significant amount of blood. From which he’d only returned in March 1990 after at one point some wondering if he’d ever return to playing at all.

Lloyd continued to bring in players as best as he could under the restrictions the financial position of the club dictated, whilst still having to sell some of his bigger names to make ends meet.

Ahead of the 1990/91 season the club signed striker Mike Small from PAOK in Greece, former Chelsea and Sunderland winger Clive Walker from Fulham and shortly after the start of the season, John Byrne made the move across the English Channel from Le Havre. All of which brought little fanfare but would be key figures in Albion’s season.

After a couple of years of struggle Albion understandably started the season as one of the favourites for relegation. So when an opening day defeat away to Barnsley was followed up by going out of the League Cup in the first round at the hands of Fourth Division Northampton, many were getting worried that those predictions would ring true.

However, after a draw at home to Wolves had gained the club its first league point of the season, things were to starting looking up as the club then won four of their next five in the league, a run that saw the club rise to 8th in the table. This run included two consecutive 3-2 wins first over Charlton and then Portsmouth with Mike Small, Dean Wilkins and Robert Codner all getting one each of Albion’s goals in both games.

Codner, who is now the agent of current Albion player Solly March, was much like his client as a player in that he greatly divided opinion amongst fans. But Codner was arguably very representative of Lloyd’s Albion era, often exciting and entertaining, but frustratingly inconsistent and unreliable.

The club’s good run was to abruptly come to a halt with a 4-0 hammering received in a home match with Ron Atkinson’s Sheffield Wednesday. Whilst it was a bad day for Albion, this was a talented Wednesday side that would go onto much better things.

It was a side which included future England international Carlton Palmer in midfield playing alongside the likes of Sweden international Roland Nilsson, club top scorer David Hirst and goalkeeper Kevin Pressman. So talented, that this team would go onto win that season’s League Cup despite being a Second Division club, and after achieving promotion that season, finished 3rd in the topflight the following season, qualifying for Europe. Subsequently going on to finish as runners up in both the League Cup and FA Cup finals to Arsenal the season after that.

But that defeat was a sign of things to come in the short term for Albion as they won just one of their next six matches. After which a 3-1 win away to Ipswich helped lift the club above their opponents and into 9th ahead of a 3-2 home win over Plymouth Argyle that further boosted the teams promotion prospects.

The match programme from that day featured a notice of the intention from the club to build a new home, which included the prospective design for the stadium, but ominously a location had yet to be decided upon. This is of course a tale that would continue to overshadow much of the history of the club for the next two decades until it moved into a permanent home in Falmer in 2011.

We were now over a year on from the Hillsborough disaster that killed 96 and the fallout was well underway. The Taylor report from the enquiry into the disaster had been published in January of that year and club’s were beginning to plan for its recommendations that all major stadiums in the UK should be all-seater and like many, Brighton had long realised that its ground was in no longer fit for purpose.

The Hillsborough disaster meant terrace capacities were reduced across the UK, and on top of that with parts of the Goldstone already closed due to a lack of funds for redevelopment leaving them in a state of disrepair, the capacity of the club’s ground was significantly reduced. So despite success on the pitch attendances were falling, with that seasons average home gate 8,386.

Director Ray Bloom (uncle of current owner Tony Bloom) said in the club’s announcement of its plans that: “It is not feasible to convert the Goldstone Ground.” But after years of broken promises over the redevelopment of the Goldstone Ground, there was no doubt much scepticism amongst fans about the new proposal, and as it would turn out this was just the continuation of the club’s mounting issues off the pitch.

However, on it things were going well, but a run of tough matches was ahead. Firstly a trip to second placed West Ham where despite taking a first half lead through another goal from Mike Small, the game ended in a 2-1 defeat. As Barry Lloyd said after the game, “our open style of play won plenty of praise and confirmed our ability to keep scoring. But in the second half we showed the other half of our nature and conceded two goals.”

So despite failing to win, the sides next game at home to Millwall seeing a clean sheet in a 0-0 draw would have pleased Lloyd. But what followed put all that good work out the window as Albion travelled to the eventual champions Oldham and were handed a heavy 6-1 defeat. Much like against Wednesday, it’s worth pointing out that this was a very good Oldham side who at the time under the management of Joe Royle had reached the semi-final of the FA Cup and the final of the League Cup the season before. And whilst not quite achieving the same success as Wednesday following promotion that season, they would get to another FA cup semi-final in 1994.

Nonetheless, losing 6-1 was maybe the kick up the backside that this Albion side required as five wins in its next seven matches saw the club rise into the playoff spots and up to 6th in the table.

This run of form saw the short lived Albion career of one time Soviet Union international and future Belarus international Igor Gurinovich, who signed for the club from Dinamo Minsk. As a youngster he was part of the Soviet team that had won the 1978 U17 European Championships and then finished runners up at the 1979 FIFA World Youth Championships. Whilst his senior international football was limited to one cap, he went onto win the 1982 Soviet league championship with Dinamo Minsk. But somehow found himself at the Albion a little under a decade later.

After making his debut in the Zenith Data Systems cup at home to Charlton, he played the next four matches scoring two including once in Albion’s third round FA Cup victory over Scunthorpe. But that was his last start for the club before returning to Dinamo Minsk in the January of that season.

This wasn’t the first Soviet player Barry Lloyd had brought to the club as its empire began to crumble. More prominently Sergey Gotsmanov had signed for the club the season before and in his 16 games became a cult hero before joining First Division Southampton the summer of 1990.

That run of games also saw another new arrival at the club, with the soon to be infamous Albion Chairman Bill Archer joining the board initially as one of the then nine directors. He was spoken about in the matchday programme in glowing terms in regards to his commercial and advertising expertise, with his experience of securing a shirt sponsorship deal with Liverpool whilst working for Crown Paints specifically referenced. He was quoted as saying “Brighton have a terrific potential and I am here to develop a greater sponsorship input for the future.” Unfortunately for all involved, his legacy at the club would be very far removed from his stated objectives.

But all that was for future seasons, for now Brighton were flying. In the run up to their fourth round FA Cup tie with Liverpool the team won four in a row, scoring twelve and conceding seven. This exemplified Lloyd’s Albion team, attacking and exciting, but always having issues with conceding too many goals, even in this season of such relative success. In fact only two other teams outside the bottom five in the Second Division that season conceded more than them and they finished the season with a -6 goal difference despite their high league finish.

So with that record, Brighton would have been worried ahead of their trip to Anfield but after a quiet first half Brighton held off the hosts. But it soon looked that things would turn as were initially feared when John Barnes found Ian Rush who gave Liverpool the lead, before Rush then doubled his personal tally and Liverpool’s lead. But after Small pulled one back from the spot, he then set up Byrne to equalise from close range which set up a midweek replay at the Goldstone and gained Albion some welcome national media attention.

The replay continued in that vein as Small again equalised for Albion after this time McMahon had given Liverpool the lead. Albion were threatening their visitors goal throughout and as the game went into extra time Byrne got on the end of a Small knock down to score his second goal of the tie and give Albion the lead for the first time. But it didn’t last long as Rush finished off a brilliant Liverpool team move to level the tie again before some tired defending from Albion let McMahon in for his second to win this magnificent cup tie for Liverpool.

The excitement of the cup gave the club a short term boost as they won their next two matches over Charlton and Leicester. However the teams inconsistency remained as a shock a 2-0 defeat to struggling Plymouth followed. Then sandwiched in between creditable away draws to Newcastle and Wednesday were two defeats, the first 2-1 at home to Oldham and the second 3-0 away to Millwall.

However, by sitting 8th in the table and just one place outside the playoff places Albion were still in the mix for promotion ahead of the run in. But manager Lloyd wasn’t getting carried away saying in his programme notes ahead of the club’s next match at home to Blackburn saying that: “the season is far from over and that the task which lies ahead places heavy demand on the resources at the club.” Going onto say “see me at the end of April and I’ll let you know.”

Indeed, there was still a fair way to go with four matches still remaining in March before their hectic April schedule of eight matches in 24 days. And Lloyd’s restrained approach did seem to help initially as Albion won consecutive home games 1-0 over Blackburn and 2-0 over West Brom, before consecutive 3-1 wins away in the West Country over Swindon and then Bristol Rovers.

This left Albion 4th going into April and suddenly just five points off Wednesday who occupied the third and final automatic promotion place. But two straight defeats to Port Vale and Leicester put pay to any automatic promotion hopes and whilst a win at home to West Ham and a draw away to Notts County appeared to stabilise things, four defeats in the next five meant even the club’s playoff hopes were floundering.

If it weren’t for that sole victory during those previous five games, which came against bottom placed Hull, they would have dropped out of the playoff places altogether. But as it stood a win at home to an Ipswich team with nothing to play for on the final day of the season would secure a place in the playoffs and give the club a chance to earn an unlikely return to the topflight. Fail to win and there was the likely threat of both Barnsley and Bristol City waiting to take advantage.

Albion had reason to be confident too having beaten their opponents 3-1 earlier in the season at Portman Road. And it started well when Mike Small converted a spot kick to give Albion the lead but after Chris Kiwomya equalised for Ipswich things began to unravel for the Seagulls. Perry Digweed, who was also named player of the season that day saved Albion from the spot, but time was running out for the Seagulls to get the win they required.

This was until a foul on the edge of the box earned Albion a free kick with just a few minutes left. Up stepped future Albion manager and then captain Dean Wilkins who scored in the dying moments of the game to give Albion the win they needed to qualify for play offs. Wilkins free kick goals were one of his trademarks but his lack of defensive grit at times left supporters frustrated, but that day he could be forgiven for such limitations.

In the Playoff semi-final Brighton were drawn to play Millwall, a team they’d finished just one place and three points behind in the table. Their talisman was striker Teddy Sheringham who’d scored 38 goals that season for the Lions and won the club’s player of the season, in a season where he’d captured the attention of many bigger clubs and would move to big spending First Division Nottingham Forest that summer for £2m.

Brighton had a recently strengthened their squad by signing Stefan Iovan, a former Romanian international bought from Steaua Bucharest. Iovan captained Steaua to their 1986 European Cup win and played for them in the 1989 final which they lost 4-0 to Arrigo Sacchi’s great AC Milan side. After initially being in reserve for Albion, injuries meant he found himself playing in Albion’s biggest games of the season.

The first leg was at home and it was a tie which Millwall started the better by taking a 1-0 lead but Brighton equalised shortly after with the game tied going into half time. Then came an incredible second half performance from Albion which turned the tie in their favour. Albion caught their opponents out with three goals in seven minutes, eventually winning the first leg 4-1.

Millwall’s top scorer Sheringham later admitted: “we were so confident that we thought we must prevail. We finished fifth in the League, but we reckoned we got the best of the lot in Brighton. If we were guilty of anything it was perhaps being a bit overconfident. We thought we would walk it. We were wrong.”

This result had left Millwall with too much to do in the second leg, and despite getting one back and giving themselves some hope, Albion again came back from behind in the second leg to prevail on the day winning 2-1 and 6-2 on aggregate to secure a place in the final.

That win earned Brighton a trip to Wembley for the Play off final to play Notts County who’d beaten Middlesbrough in their semi final. Giving Brighton a return to the national stadium just eight years after that FA Cup final appearance there. And giving the club a chance of an unlikely return to the topflight just eight years after relegation from that level.

This was also Brighton’s first playoff campaign and was before the Football League playoffs had become the global sensation that they are today, being just four years after their introduction. Many were still coming around to the idea, but the fact this Brighton side were here showed just the opportunity they could give to clubs otherwise out of the picture much earlier in the season.

After missing the semi final through injury John Bryne returned to the team in place of Garry Nelson who despite his goalscoring record for the club in previous seasons had been in and out of the starting eleven all season following the arrival of Byrne and Small who both reached a double figure goal tally that season.

However, when it came to the big day Brighton were ultimately outclassed by Neil Warnock’s Notts County side, who took the lead when Tommy Johnson headed home at the near post after a short corner routine just before the half hour mark. Albion were admittedly giving it their best go at the other end and after Clive Walker hit the post with a header, Dean Wilkins hit the bar with a free kick.

But that was the closest they came before Tommy Johnson got his second. Then County took an unassailable 3-0 through a goal from Johnson’s strike-partner Dave Regis. Ultimately a late Dean Wilkins goal was only a consolation in another heavy Wembley defeat for the Seagulls.

Who knows what could have happened had the club managed to win that day. Despite the club’s mounting financial problems, promotion may have meant the sale of its star players, like top scorer Mike Small who instead moved to promoted West Ham that summer, would have been delayed and possibly even provided the club with more power in its search for a new stadium.

This is by no means certain. The breakaway of the Premier League from the Football League was still one season away, so promotion to the topflight wasn’t the land of milk and honey it’s become more today.

The reality is it’s likely that this Albion side wouldn’t have made much impact in the topflight despite its evident talents. The heavy defeats received that season from the likes of Oldham and Wednesday showed that they were some way off the standard required and finances would have no doubt dictated that little investment in improving the squad would have been available for the step up in class. Yes they matched Liverpool in two cup games, but doing that throughout an entire season is another thing entirely.

Furthermore, the financial and infrastructure issues would have overpowered the on field success at some point. After losing the playoff final this Albion team were dismantled. Despite having offers from other clubs Lloyd stayed loyal to Albion but couldn’t repeat this season’s success as Albion were relegated to its spiritual home the following season, the third tier of English football. There, it’s off field issues would continue to mount and overshadow it’s on field woes.

Brighton were ill-equipped for the topflight in so many ways. Whilst other clubs were beginning significant infrastructure investment that would take the English game into a new era of global success and growth, in contrast Brighton were entering a period of great uncertainty and regression that would ultimately lead to a civil war between the board and its supporters and one where the club nearly lost its Football League status and even its existence.

Some say this season is a story of what if, but in reality, in his time at the club Barry Lloyd did a remarkable job. Just in getting the club back to the second tier on a shoestring and keeping it there for four years despite the financial issues. Let alone nearly getting the club to the topflight, Barry Lloyd delayed the inevitable fall from grace that would later occur at the Albion.

1976/77 – Albion are finally worth promotion!

After winning the Fourth division in 1965, Brighton spent ten of the next eleven seasons in the Third Division and went into the 1976/77 season having a bit of a reputation as a perennial third tier club.

In fact of the 56 seasons since joining the Football League, they’d spent 49 of those at that level and even the arrival of the great Brian Clough in the Autumn of 1973 couldn’t change the club’s fortunes.

Clough’s eight month spell at Brighton is best chronicled in Spencer Vignes book “Bloody Southerners”. After which his assistant Peter Taylor stayed on to try to finish the job, failed and resigned in the summer of 1976 to join Clough in the Second Division at Nottingham Forest, a club that they would lead to become National and European champions.

In Taylor’s place Albion chairman Mike Bamber appointed the former Tottenham captain and England international Alan Mullery to take on the task of freeing Brighton from its self-induced Third Division detention.

Unlike Bamber’s previous appointments, Mullery was a complete novice in football management having only recently ended his distinguished playing career which included 35 England caps. However, thankfully for Mullery he didn’t have the usual squad upheaval task that most new managers had as Peter Taylor’s legacy was the impressive squad that he’d built and left behind. Many of whom would go onto thrive under Mullery’s leadership.

This squad of players included experienced full back and future Albion manager Chris Cattlin, who was one of Taylor’s final signings on a free transfer from Coventry.

After starting out at Second Division Huddersfield, Cattlin moved to Coventry where he spent eight seasons playing for for the Sky Blues in the topflight before moving to Brighton. After retiring at the Albion in 1979, he remained at the club on the coaching staff before going onto manage the club himself for three years after its relegation from the topflight in 1983.

Another of Taylor’s recruits was the young striker Peter Ward, who’s been signed from non-league Burton Albion the previous summer and had made his mark on his debut towards the end of that season by scoring in a 1-1 draw away to Hereford in front of the Match of the Day cameras and the BBC commentator that day John Motson. Under Mullery, Ward would go onto have a breakout season at Brighton and played a huge part in him becoming one of the most iconic figure in the club’s history, but more on that later.

The season started with a 3-2 two legged League Cup win over Fourth Division Southend United ahead of the start of the League campaign. And it was a good omen, as the club started their league campaign as it meant to go on, remaining unbeaten in its first four matches, recording three wins ahead of the visit of Bobby Robson’s Ipswich Town at the Goldstone for their Second Round League Cup tie.

The club’s had already drawn the original tie 0-0 at Portman Road. And it was a night to savour as a crowd of 26.8k saw the club record a historic 2-1 win over the First Division side. An attendance that was the highest of the season so far, but one that would be topped as the big matches continued.

This was club’s first win over a First Division club since 1933, and it was a notable scalp. This was an Ipswich team that would go on to win the FA Cup the following season and the UEFA cup in the 1980/81 season, as well as being a regular feature at the top-end of the First Division for an extended period. They finished 3rd this season and within the top-6 in nine out of the ten seasons between the 1972/73 and 1981/82 seasons, after which Bobby Robson left the club to take the England job, and the Club’s fortunes soon diminished.

One of Albion’s goalscorers that day was Fred Binney, who started the season on fire, scoring four in his first eight appearances, including two in the clubs 3-2 win over Oxford and one in a 3-1 win over Rotherham. But this was to be his last goal of the season as he lost his place in the team due to the success of the partnership between Ian Mellor and Peter Ward.

Binney had top scored for the club in the past two season, scoring 13 in 74/75 and then 27 in 75/76 (with 23 of those in the league) as Albion finished 4th, just one place outside the promotion places. After starting this season in the same vein, Binney made only two more appearances before he moved to the US to play in the NASL for St Louis Stars, where he competed alongside the likes of Franz Beckenbauer, Pele, Gordon Banks and George Best.

However, the notable victory over Ipswich was followed up by a shock 2-0 defeat away to Grimsby, who recorded their first win of the season. But fortunately for Mullery’s men this was followed by the visit of second bottom York City to the Goldstone. The Minstermen were lambs to the slaughter as Brighton recorded a 7-2 win with Ward and Mellor both getting two goals.

This was Ian Mellor’s first start of the season, and what a way to make his mark! From that point onwards this became the regular strike partnership for the remainder of the season. With target man Mellor providing the perfect foil for Ward’s goalscoring exploits, whilst adding a fair few himself.

Another of Albion’s goalscorers that day was Peter O’Sullivan, the skilful winger was a veteran of the club by that time having signed for the club in 1970 on a free transfer from Manchester United. He was one of very few players to outlast Brian Clough and Peter Taylor at the club, when at times some joked that they needed to install a rotating door at the entrance of the first team dressing room, such was the number of ins and out at the club at that time. His longevity at the club of eleven years show just how good a player he truly was.

This win was also the perfect tonic ahead of a trip to another First Division club, West Bromwich Albion for the third round of the League Cup. In this Third Round tie, the club recorded a 2-0 victory and in doing so repeated that long awaited feat of beating First Division opposition twice in the same season, through two goals from Peter Ward.

That game was followed up with another league win, this time 3-1 over Tranmere that left the club top of the league going into a big match at the Goldstone Ground. Big because is saw the visit of promotion rivals Crystal Palace and was fittingly featured as the main match on ITVs The Big Match. The game ended in a respectable 1-1 draw and Managers Terry Venables and Alan Mullery sat very chummily side by side as they were interviewed by Brian Moore in the TV studio the next day.

All that would change, but we’ll come to that shortly. First Albion followed up that draw with another seven goal haul, this time winning 7-0 at home to Walsall. A match that incredibly saw Ian Mellor score four and his strike partner Peter Ward score three.

This was a night remembered almost as much for the atrocious playing conditions as the fact that all seven of Albion’s goals came in an extraordinary second half. Results like this were seeing the good work that Alan Mullery had already done with this Albion side in such a short space of time recognised far and wide, and he was nominated for the September Football League manager of the month award.

The results didn’t lie and Mullery wasn’t just getting the national plaudits. He’d very quickly won around the Albion faithful, a fact underlined by a quote from Centre Back Andy Rollings who in a recent interview for the club’s website said: “the moment we found out that Alan Mullery was taking over was light at the end of the tunnel. He was a man who had played for England, won almost everything and was such a great motivator. I loved playing under him”.

The club continued to get national recognition by featuring again on ITV’s The Big Match for their trip to Bury the following weekend, a game which saw Albion looking splendid in their all red away kit. But, they were nonetheless well and truly brought down to earth with a 3-0 defeat. Admittedly Bury were one of the better team in the division, but it was a not untypical result of the season. Brighton were heavily reliant on their home form for wins in a time where two points for a win gave draws more significance. In total that season their 19 home wins were matched with just six away from home.

So they would have been pleased that this defeat was followed by a home match with Peterborough. A match where the team showed their mental strength by earning an important 1-0 win. A result followed with an equally important draw away to fellow promotion chasers Mansfield.

This was a season where the high profile games continued to come for the club as the Seagulls next continued their impressive run in the League Cup with a game in the fourth round at home to Derby County, the First Division Champions from two years previous.

Despite the lofty opposition, some were starting to dream of a first Wembley appearance for the club and so it was a game which saw tickets in great demand. So much so that when tickets for the cup match were put on sale at the club’s reserve match with Charlton, that game attracted a crowd of 17.5k, whereas at the time reserve matches would usually attract crowds of less than 1k.

The match with Derby at the Goldstone started well for Brighton when that man again Peter Ward put Albion ahead after only 37 seconds. But Derby’s Welsh international winger Leighton James equalised for the visitors and that’s how it remained, so a replay at Derby’s Baseball Ground was to take place in two weeks’ time.

In the run up to the return match, Brighton won their next three games, the third of which a 4-0 win at home over Swindon. But despite this good form the team failed to repeat their previous heroics when they were beaten 2-1 in a replay despite a goal from Ian Mellor.

Derby were beaten in the next round by Bolton, but their star winger James would go onto feature at Wembley that summer for his country Wales where he scored the winner in a 1-0 win over England in the Home Internationals.

For Albion, their exploits in the cup that season continued with what has become one of the most famous cup ties in the club’s history, when Albion met Crystal Palace in the first round of that season’s FA Cup.

It’s a match that has helped to spawn what has become a vicious and persistent rivalry between the club’s. There had already been animosity between them, notably when on the club’s met on the opening day of the 74/75 season and there was significant crowd trouble between rival fans. Whilst former rival managers Peter Taylor and Malcolm Allison both publicly criticised the other teams style of play after recent matches between the sides. And in the 75/76 season Brighton adopted the nickname the Seagulls after the Brighton fans began signing “Seagulls!” in reaction to the Crystal Palace fans chants of their newly adopted nickname “Eagles!”

But this season would cement the rivalry when the club’s battled for promotion to the Second tier along with a trilogy cup ties, a combination which lead to rival managers Venables and Mullery upping the ante when it came to publicly criticising the opposition in what became a vicious personal duel of words.

The FA cup tie saw the clubs meet in an infamous second replay at the neutral venue Stamford Bridge, after the previous games held first at the Goldstone Ground and then Selhurst Park both ended 1-1. The tie concluded when Crystal Palace scraped a 1-0 win in the second replay, but in controversial circumstances after Albion’s midfielder Brian Horton was ordered to retake a penalty he’d originally scored.

When Horton unfortunately missed the retaken spot kick Brighton’s manager Mullery lost his temper and made a two fingered salute to the Palace fans, for which he was later fined. One Palace fan is then said to have thrown a hot cup of Coffee over Mullery who responded by throwing some loose change on the floor and exclaiming, “You’re not worth that!” Palace won and the teams have hated each other ever since.

But let’s be frank, this story has become so legendary its masks the main reason why the rivalry has persisted beyond this period of fierce competitive and personal rivalry. Hooliganism. Yes, the competitive rivalry at the time fed it too, but most games between the clubs were, and remain to this day, marred by crowd trouble. For example, the original first round cup tie between the sides that season was halted three times by smoke bombs being thrown onto the pitch.

Crowd trouble was becoming common place in English Football at this time and would persist throughout the 1980s. The following summer saw one of the most notable example of over-exuberant football fans causing havoc, when Scotland met England at Wembley Stadium in what was that years Home Internationals decider.

After beating England 2-1 to win the trophy, Scotland’s fans poured onto the pitch to celebrate. One group of supporters snapping the crossbar of the Wembley goal, others tore up the Wembley pitch and many caused further damage to the stadium and throughout London later that night. And it was scenes like these that in part led to the tournament ultimately being removed from the football calendar in 1984.

For the Albion, the cup run had helped to derail their season with that defeat to Palace the latest in a run of seven games without a win in all competitions that included four defeats and exits from both cups. As the match day programme said ahead of the club’s next match at home to Chesterfield: “it never rains, but it pours.”

But the club were still third in the league and only a point off top spot. So when a 2-1 win over Chesterfield meant the team moved up to top of the table ahead of a trip to Portsmouth a week later, the club looked to have turned a corner and got over that slump. But after a surprise defeat saw the club drop to third again, they were required once again to quickly bounce back, which they duly did with a 2-0 win over Northampton to regain top spot once again just after the turn of the year.

From then on, the team built up some much needed momentum and consistency for its promotion push as the season went on, winning five of the next nine in the lead up to a return to Selhurst Park to renew their battle with Crystal Palace.

But there good form counted for nothing as the fifth and final meeting between the sides that season saw a comprehensive 3-1 win for Palace, in which Terry Venables impressed the watching media by showing off the tactical competencies which saw him go on to manage at some of the games great global stages.

But whilst Palace won the club’s individual battle that season, Brighton were still winning the war and quickly regained the momentum of their promotion push by responding to that defeat with an emphatic 4-0 victory at home to Shrewsbury in mid-March and regained top spot in their next match with a 3-1 win at home to leaders Mansfield thanks to yet another Peter Ward brace. The first of four wins in eleven days and five wins throughout April, which put the club on the brink of promotion to the second tier.

Their next match could see Brighton clinch promotion at home to Sheffield Wednesday but they needed to win and hope other results went their way. As such this crunch match saw yet another crowd of over 30k at the Goldstone where a 3-2 win secured the club a long awaited promotion to the second tier after Rotherham lost at home to Reading. John Vinicombe of the Argus said he’d “never witnessed such scenes at the Goldstone before” as the crowd spilled onto the pitch to celebrate after what was a dramatic match.

It looked like it wouldn’t end that way early on when Brighton found themselves 1-0 down at half time, made all the worse by Peter Ward uncharacteristically missing a chance to score from the penalty spot. But Ward finally did equalise for the Albion after the break, who then took the lead through a penalty, this time taken and scored by Brian Horton, and eventually won the game 3-2.

Brian Horton who captained the team that season, was another of Peter Taylor’s astute signings who made over 250 appearance for the club in a five year spell and would be named that season’s Club player of the season despite Ward’s imperious goalscoring exploits. Horton did return breifly to manage the club in 1998 during its exile in Gillingham, but soon realising the task he had on his hands, left to take the Port Vale job later that season.

The season wasn’t over yet though as the title was still up for grabs, but despite Peter Ward scoring in both the club’s remaining two fixtures to set a club record by scoring 36 goals in the season, a defeat to Swindon and a draw to Chesterfield meant the club ended up settling for second behind Mansfield. But the consolation was that they still finished ahead of rivals Palace who sneaked into the third and last promotion place ahead of Wrexham.

As the seventies drew to their conclusion the club continued to reach new heights, achieving promotion to the topflight for the first time in 1979, and remaining there for four seasons before finally succumbing to relegation in 1983. A blow softened by it coinciding with the clubs only appearance in the FA Cup final, which was lost on a replay to Manchester United after the original tie was drawn 2-2.

But whilst there were seasons to come where this team would go onto bigger and better things, when it comes to iconicity, there are few in the club’s history that match 1976/77.

This Weeks Seagulls Reading List

I started this blog, in part, because I always found myself searching for Albion related content to read that wasn’t about Hereford in 97 or the cup final in 83. However, now Albion related reading has never been more frequent and interesting. So here, in the first of what I hope to make a regular feature, is my weeks worth of Albion reading.

*note, all articles mentioned are linked below, just click on the underlined words.

Mellow Monday

After Albion beat Watford 3-0 on Saturday to go third on the Premier League there were quite a few people getting rather carried away, including many Seagulls fans posting a Europa League themed Albion GIF, which being polite is a best premature.

So as well as reminding my readers of a similarly emphatic opening day victory away to Burnley in 2002 that’s was followed by 13 games without a win and subsequently relegation. I looked back at Saturday’s victory and reminded everyone that there’s plenty of football still to play.

Tudor Tuesday

This week I christened Tuesday, Tudor Tuesday in honour of Tudor Baluta, Brighton’s Romanian U21s international who has been given the number 28 shirt this season and is tipped by some pundits to have a breakthrough season in 2019/20.

Described by Dumitru Barbu (one of Baluta’s youth coaches) as a future replacement for Sergio Busquets at Barcelona, there are high hopes in Romania that Brighton manager Graham Potter can be the person to nurture Tudors talent. If you want to know more about Albion’s young prospect the this peice by Leftbackfootball in him is worth a read.

Webster Wednesday

It may have escaped some Seagulls fans that Albion fought off serious interest from Aston Villa to sign Adam Webster, a player repeatedly praised in the Birmingham Mail as ‘Gold Standard’ as well as ‘one of the Championship’s leading centre-backs’.

Here are a selection of articles from the Birmingham Mail that covered Villa’s chase for Albion’s new man.

Link 1

Link 2

Link 3

Link 4

I think you get the point. But if you want to know more about Adam Webster than just what Villa thought of him, Andy Naylor’s peice in the Athletic is worth a read ‘Adam Webster has two great feet. It’s hard to tell which is his strongest’

Tactics Thursday

It’s not taken the Albion fans by surprise, but those with a less keener eye have been pleasantly surprised by the change in style at the Albion this summer, so much so it’s been the talk of the town. Naylor has a go in the Athletic saying it “felt very different”, JJ Bull had a go in the telegraph saying Potter’s appointment as manager “already looks like a great choice” and the the difference to last season is “enormous”. Leftbackfoot had a go to in another interesting take on Potter’s approach and everyone’s second favourite unofficial Albion twitter page Albion Analytics showed us some useful tactical illustrations.

But let’s not read too much into Potter’s Brighton after one game, as As Swansea Vital describes here, Swansea fans found out quickly that he is the sort of manager who tactically can keep you guessing.

Freestone Friday

Amongst all the flux of the summer you may have missed the signing of a young centre back who spent last season at Peterborough, Lewis Freestone. After signing his first professional contract for the Posh back in 2016, he only made a handful of appearances for the first team along with and a number of small loan spells with non league clubs and was released by the Posh this summer before he moved to the Albion.

A surprising signing you may think? Well the club need the numbers within its u23 squad after sending so many out on loan, and Freestone impressed U23 manager Simon Rusk whilst on trial earning a 1-year deal. But to be able to make it at the Albion he will have to fight off competition from a number of talented youngsters, as shown by the fact he didn’t even make the bench for this weeks 2-0 win for the U23s over Wolves.

Any other business: Who owns the Albion?

Brighton & Hove Albion Holdings Limited, the company that owns the football club released its confirmation statement this week including an updated list of shareholders. And it’s worth a quick glance if only to see some of the people who have minor shareholding’s in the club, which include, Dick Knight (who seemingly failed in his bid to shift them to fans), the Friday Ad, Pig City Incorporated (a company of which Norman Cook aka Fatboy Slim is a director of), and twenty others.