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.