In recent years whenever I think of the Albion’s rivalry with Crystal Palace, I think of 13th May 2013 and THAT play off defeat. I know this is going to be hard to write, but it seems appropriate ahead of the big derby game on Saturday.
I still remember the deflation, the frustration, the torment, the two Zaha goals and the wild celebrations in the South Stand that followed. How could you forget a feeling like that, devastating.
What made it worse is that for the first time I could remember since supporting the Albion, we went in to the derby game with the upper hand. Finishing higher in the final league table and beating Palace 3-0 at the AMEX in the league just a couple of months before. It felt like one of, if not the, biggest match for the Albion since the playoff final in 2004. At the same time it was a chance to finally get one over our fiercest rivals.
From as long as I can remember, Brighton have been the inferior party in the rivalry. The build up to my first derby game was over a decade (with the previous meeting a 2-0 Palace win in 1991 in the Zenith Data Systems Cup). During this period, whilst the Albion fans battled against its owners and directors, lost its ground and almost went out of business; Palace were winning playoff finals and spent periods competing at the top level. We truly were leagues apart.
The first derby I remember showed the different levels strikingly, an embarrassing 5-0 hammering for the Albion that was part of an infamous 12 game losing streak back in 2002, with relegation back to the third tier to follow come the end of the season. That same season there was also the frustrating 0-0 home game in which we fluffed multiple chances to at least somewhat return the favour.
Three years later, we would meet in the second tier once again. The Albion won the first meeting through Paul McShane and that header. 1-0 to the Albion at Selhurst Park, and to a degree dispelling the ghosts of the 5-0 defeat. But later that season Palace came to our place and got a late winner through Jobi Mcanuff and beat the Albion 3-2 to even the score. It just seemed like they always got the better of us and always had the last say. We were again relegated that season, this time in comprehensive fashion, and it would be another 6 years for us to get a chance at revenge.
In the intervening period we had our struggles and so did they, but we remained the inferior party sitting a division below. When we won League One in 2011 and moved to the AMEX the following season due to the investment of Tony Bloom, everything at the club seems to be soaring upwards and with this the pattern of the rivalry seemed sure to change. The clubs would meet again with former (and now once again current) Brighton Striker Glenn Murray taking the not so short journey up the M23 to our bitter rivals and dramatically going from hero to villain, which certainly helped to build the game up nicely.
Let’s show Glenn what he’s missing and show them how it’s done finally, I thought. Only a couple of months after moving to our new place, the game finally came around and they beat us 3-1, courtesy of two goals from Mr Murray. That certainly saw the end to any AMEX honeymoon and the Albion’s love affair with Mr Murray, for a while at least.
The following season the Albion and Palace both stepped up a level and were serious promotion contenders. When Palace visited the AMEX in the March of that season, the playoffs for both teams looked a good bet. We had finished the previous season strongly and 12 points and 7 places ahead of Palace in the league table. Despite a 3-0 defeat at their place earlier in the season, (a result skewed 8 minutes in, by the sending off of Lewis Dunk) for the first time it felt we went into the derby game feeling superior, feeling confident.
The mantra of the fans for the past few seasons had been ‘we’re F’ing brilliant’, which really seemed to rub off on to the players. Under Gus Poyet we’d found a rhythm of playing that was great to watch and producing results. With the new signing of Leonardo Ulloa looking the business the Albion had a real goal threat, one that the signing of Mackail-Smith had failed to provide. When David Lopez curled in that free kick, the crowd went mad. 3-0 to the Albion over Palace, Amazing!
So, when we got Palace in the playoff semi-final, I just thought bring them on! (As I suspect did many other Albion fans) We were the divisions in-form team and went into the playoffs being widely tipped to get promotion to the top flight. The first leg at Selhurst Park finished 0-0, and except for a serious injury to that man Mr Murray, the game went on without a great deal of incident. So just a repeat of the win at the AMEX back in March and we were in the playoff final, at Wembley!
So into the second leg we went with confidence. I remember that it had been a wet day across Sussex. As my parents had taken the opportunity to get some spare tickets and came with us, my usual compatriot and I at home games took their allocated seats near the front in the west lower and they took our usual seats further back, so they didn’t have to sit on wet seats.
The home crowd had been given cardboard ‘clappers’ which created more abuse from the away end than they did atmosphere. These Clappers are a great toy for kids but otherwise just an embarrassing gimmick. When the game started, it was tense and nervy, although maybe that was just me. The tie was still 0-0 on aggregate at half time and the possibility of a penalty shootout was looking more likely, this was tense but exciting.
The second half though, was heart-breaking. We started well and had good chances to take the lead, Ashley Barnes hit the bar with one shot and had another cleared off the line. As the frustration grew so did the anxiety from the home fans and with twenty minutes to go Zaha scored to give Palace the lead. Then after twenty minutes of fruitless pressure from the Albion, Zaha made it 2-0 and with that ended the Albion’s dream of promotion, for another year at least. And as our pain was Palace’s gain, this made it even worse.
When the second goal went in, everyone knew it was over and it was just a stay of execution for the final 5 minutes until the referee blew his whistle. At the end of the game I remember vividly getting up and walking up the stairs towards my parents at the top of the stand. I caught my mum’s eye and she gave me a look that only Mums can. A look of sympathy, of comfort and of sadness all in one, I had to hold in the tears at that point but Mum’s can have that effect on us of course. The emotions of the whole season had come to a head in that second half and then when I turned to see my mum after the final whistle they crumbled in a heap, it was all over.
We trudged over to Dick’s bar for a drink after the game to drown our sorrows and to let the crowds pass and avoid the queues for the trains. But we quickly started to laugh and joke about the game and look forward to the summer and to next season. In the great scheme of Brighton’s even recent history, this was hardly a tragedy, in-fact the season was a recent high watermark and a relative success. Over the previous two decades, this season was exactly what we’d waited for and what the fans had fought for. For the stadium, for club playing at a higher level of football, for the club fulfilling its potential. ‘This was just a bump in the road’ I reassured myself.
But as the disappointment surpassed, it soon turned to anger when I saw our manager Gus Poyet’s comments straight after the game, in which he had stated he was ‘contemplating his future’. This was just the beginning though, a man held up as a hero at the time would quickly become a disgrace. First suspended and then sacked for multiple counts of gross misconduct. It had been clear for a while Poyet was a somewhat arrogant and selfish man, but this episode proved he was in-fact an absolute egomaniac and this quality would prove to be his downfall.
Then there was ‘Poogate’. Human excrement was left in the Palace dressing room before the game and found by the Palace team on arrival. Whilst no perpetrator was ever found, Poyet and his team were first to be accused but quickly acquitted and whilst the club officially stated they didn’t know who’d done it, I’m sure some people out there know, in fact there is a rumour it was the Crystal Palace coach driver of all people who was experiencing a spot of diarrhea.
The game had gone from an epic battle to a tabloid circus and a farce. This turned the devastation to anger, bewilderment and embarrassment. And a shadow hung over the club for a while following the fall out of all that happened that day, whereas after going on to win the playoff final, Palace went into the ‘promise-land’ that is the Premier League and stayed there.
As an Albion fan I will begrudgingly admit to an admiration for Palace in recent years, frankly it impresses me that Palace are still a Premier League side. With their relative lack of resources compared to most of their Premier League and even some Championship rivals, they wouldn’t have been expected to achieve the established position that they have and it’s an achievement that is a testament to those at the club.
All this though is now history, currently the clubs sit just four points apart and in the midst of a battle for survival in the top flight. Whilst I may feel anxious ahead of Saturday’s game because of that day in 2013, all the preceding defeats and the potential consequences of another, both teams will have reason to be confident and it should make for another memorable derby game. Let’s just hope it’s for the right reasons this time.