THE HALF DECENT FOOTBALL MAGAZINE

An early-season meeting between two teams suffering hangovers from relegation finds the home side also paying the price for mistakes committed long, long ago and distracted by a meddling council. Taylor Parkes reports

Airy, friendly and staunchly tolerant, Brighton is a magnet for those worn down by the dark heat and pace of denser, less liberal cities – the San Francisco of England, or close enough. It seems right that a team from such a self-consciously bohemian town should be too laid-back for the uptight glare of the top flight, but most inappropriate that they’ve become dependent on the approval of others.

The sale of the Goldstone Ground in the late 1990s was their calamity, a boardroom move welcomed by no one (except the buyers, who promptly sold it on for several times the price they paid), and the subsequent years of groundsharing in distant Gillingham saw a haemorrhaging of the Seagulls’ support. Despite government approval for the development of the stadium at Falmer – a site on the border of Brighton and Lewes – Lewes Council are attempting to reverse the decision, claiming the new ground would wreck the fringes of the South Downs. Before today’s match, an old lady hands out flyers encouraging fans to demonstrate at the forthcoming Lib-Dem party conference: “If one Lib-Dem council can try to destroy a football club,” it asks, “what might a Lib-Dem government do to the country?” This is perhaps the first time that the prospect of a Lib-Dem government has been considered terrifying, or indeed considered at all, but the frustration is easy to understand.

It does have a certain charm for the casual visitor, but the shaky stop-gap that is the Withdean Stadium is not a place you’d call home. Like a Serie C ground relocated to the English south coast, it’s somehow too big and too small: cavernous and exposed, yet ramshackle and cramped. A modest athletics stadium squeezed between a nature reserve and a garden suburb, with a premature autumn breeze skidding off the running track and the cries of seabirds the loudest sound around, the word for the Withdean is quaint. On a railway arch leading to the stadium, graffiti says “SEND CRUISE BACK” – not an anti-scientology protest, but a nice archaic touch. At the top of the main stand, TV cameras are perched inside the kind of rectangular, pole-and-canvas construction in which you might expect to find Bill Oddie or Action Man, brandishing binoculars, watching the trees.

The pre-match atmosphere is uncommonly cosy, kids running around as though the place were an enormous beer garden, while youth- and reserve-team players mingle, instantly recognisable by their tracksuits, gelled-up hair and monstrous self-confidence. Today’s game has been put back 24 hours, to allow cricket-loving Brightonians the chance to watch Sussex pull off a surprise victory over Lancashire in the C&G Trophy final at Lord’s – the man on the PA plays a celebratory blast of ­Sussex by the Sea and there is genteel applause. Before kick-off, we get the obligatory track by club sponsor Fatboy Slim, to which a troupe of teenage cheerleaders clump out their desultory routine. At least this is one of the few league grounds where no one will shout anything rude at them... or if anyone does, no one can hear it.

The home support is not loud, but it is passionate. The Crewe contingent – about 150 of them, plus a big flag – are silent for the most part, save for predictable run-throughs of the homophobe’s songbook (missing the fact that Brighton is arguably the best place in the south in which to be a single heterosexual male, a fact that eludes generations of visiting fans, too scared to stick around after the final whistle). Now and then, about six spotty herberts stand up and raise their voices for their team, but the flame soon flickers and dies. In fairness, Crewe have had a wretched start to the season; they’ve also just narrowly escaped taking on Paul Ince as player-coach, so perhaps everyone’s too busy counting their blessings to say very much.

The game starts grimly, a flurry of misjudged passes, unsuccessful clearances and a shot from Georges Santos so poor it would make a crab laugh. Brighton are committed but limited, running about manfully and weighing in with one or two big tackles, but, with the partial exception of Dean Cox, no one is able to force any progress in the opposition half. Crewe field their assortment of young bucks and lower-division veterans, plus the inevitable Premiership dropout in right-back John Otsemobor, whose claim to fame is failing to keep Djimi Traoré out of Gérard Houllier’s Liverpool side and who is now not looking comfortable even in League One (he has, at least, remembered how to remonstrate with a linesman in true top-flight style). But it’s Crewe who settle down, playing with the kind of simple elegance for which they were once noted, and after 25 minutes they almost score from a sequence of dummies and diagonal runs that cracks the home side’s confidence as surely as a Dalek warming up on the sidelines. Almost instantly, the visitors have control of the game.

The mismatch comes down to the simple fact that Crewe can pass the ball to each other accurately and mark the opposition at set-pieces, while Brighton can’t, or won’t, do either. Young Crewe striker Nicky Maynard is not well served and is still prone to mistiming runs, but he’s fast and eager and capable of shattering the Brighton defence with reasonable ease: a few minutes later, he pulls off a beautiful spin-and-shot that comes to nothing but that is probably the most aesthetically pleasing sight of the afternoon.

Five minutes before the break, it’s a surprise to everyone when a lazy Brighton drive, missing its target, rolls into the path of pint-sized dynamo Dean Cox, who deflects it into Crewe’s net for an opening goal. As the miniature goalscorer – who makes Dennis Wise look a veritable man-mountain – wheels away in triumph, the Brighton hardcore raise their voices in celebration: “We’ve got tiny Cox,” they sing.

It doesn’t last – Brighton are behind by half-time. First, a Crewe player is felled and the referee forces the wall back too far with ten giant strides: the simple free-kick is parried by Brighton keeper Wayne Henderson, straight to the feet of Billy Jones, who levels the score from close range. Seconds later, Maynard makes another run into the Brighton box, embarrassing Kerry Mayo for pace, and is promptly hacked down; Mayo is sent off and Ryan Lowe scores the penalty. Pie-chewing half-time faces are not happy and this game is only going one way.

Luck will sometimes mimic justice and so it is early in the second half. Despite replacing an off-form Tony Stokes with fan favourite Jake Robinson (another nippy, diminutive dribbler who seems to know what he’s doing), Brighton are still finding it impossible to make the ball do what they want, five-yard passes squirting off for throw-ins, simplicity the hardest thing in the world. Finally, an Alex Revell shot deflects off a lunging defender, but while it wrong-foots the keeper completely a stingy goalpost hands it straight back to Crewe – who promptly charge down the other end and attempt a shot of their own, which is similarly deflected, except that theirs loops over the goalkeeper for Maynard to nod in on the line for 3-1.

It’s all over, effectively. Crewe keep possession for a full five minutes and almost cap the sequence with a goal; the first thing Brighton do on getting the ball back is hoof it right down the field to the opposition keeper. The crowd are, to say the least, unenthusiastic about Mark McGhee’s decision-making, as he hauls off the forward Revell and sends on Adam El-Abd, a central defender. In truth, El-Abd spends more time in the opposition box than anybody else, but none of his headers comes within three yards of the bar.

As Crewe fall back, Robinson and Cox set up a short-men’s club on the right wing, controlling the play at last, but without any real results; the home side force the game in the last ten minutes, but they’re beyond hope and Crewe grab a fourth, Maynard scooting clear on the break. Blue-and-white stripes stream from the stadium, just in time to hear the Crewe fans salute their dream re-signing Rodney Jack, who runs out as a late substitute for no particular reason and has to do nothing in particular. The final whistle feels like a bullet to the head of a dying rabbit. The sun comes out again.

For as long as they stay at the Withdean, Brighton games will always have that dreamy seaside feel, rather like a charity match – but for as long as the team continue to play with such little cohesion and concentration, it hardly matters. Those loyal and restless fans deserve a real home, while this kind of performance was about right for an aimless Sunday afternoon at the dead end of summer, played out in empty space, under a massive, gull-flecked sky.

From WSC 236 October 2006. What was happening this month

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