Kevin Bartholomew looks at how Brighton ended up being at the bottom of the Football League
On a Thursday evening in May 1983, Brighton lost 4-0 to Manchester United in the FA Cup Final replay. The outstanding memory of that day for many Brighton followers was the support the team received. Despite the result, by the end of the match Albion fans were, incredibly, outsinging the Red Army. This was in recognition of the Seagulls’ achievements in the FA Cup that season: the campaign had included victories over Newcastle, Man City and Liverpool, and we had come agonizingly close to beating United in the first attempt at the Final. But it also demonstrated the affection held for a club that had risen from being a mediocre lower division outfit to a side able to do battle with the best teams in the country.
Now, thirteen years on, the club is in real danger of extinction. At the time of writing, Brighton are three places, and just two points, from the bottom of the League. We have only won twice in 11 starts this season, and have lost our last thirteen away games (a club record). Attendances are also at an unprecedented low. The team have nowhere to play next year and, according to the club’s own predictions, will lose over one million pounds during the course of the season.
To make matters worse, a buyout by a consortium headed by local businessman Dick Knight (who has plans for a new ground) has been sidelined due to the refusal of the current owners to provide access to the accounts. In short, there has never been a worse time to be a Brighton fan.
The nightmare began in July of last year, when the directors sold the Goldstone Ground after removing a clause from the club’s constitution which prevented them from profiting from the sale of the ground. When this was exposed by the Brighton Evening Argus, the board declared their intention to build a new stadium with retail facilities at the unfortunately-named Toad’s Hole Valley. But this scheme had already been refused planning permission.
Chief Executive David Bellotti then suggested that the team groundshare with Portsmouth while a new home was found. This would mean a 100-mile round trip for fans, who have persistently stated they would boycott games at Fratton in protest. The team are only playing at the Goldstone this season because it has been leased back to them by the new owners.
What will happen if we move to Pompey? On top of having to pay for renting the ground, the club will lose a huge proportion of its revenue from attendances. This can only mean one thing: oblivion.
The way the club has been run since chairman Bill Archer bought his stake for £56.25p (yes, that’s right) is a complete disgrace. To say the board do not have the best interests of the supporters at heart would be an understatement of cataclysmic proportions. Archer, who lives in the North and rarely attends games, paid the nominal sum for a majority shareholding in the £100 off-the-shelf company he set up to handle Brighton’s finances. Apart from this, however, he has invested no money in the club. The co-owner, Greg Stanley, is a season ticket holder at Chelsea.
But it is Bellotti, the man seen as responsible for consistently misleading the fans, who has become the real hate figure. For a former Liberal Democrat MP Bellotti’s actions have been remarkably illiberal. Among other things, he has banned the Evening Argus and the secretary of the supporters’ club from the ground and sacked several long-serving members of staff. The response of the fans has now become so hostile that he has been forced to close off the sections of the stand surrounding his seat in the director’s box.
With all this going on, what’s been happening on the field has been something of an irrelevance. But there’s little doubt that speculation about the club’s future affected the team’s performance last season, and was the main reason for Liam Brady quitting as manager.
By the time relegation became inevitable most fans had simply had enough, expressing their frustration and anger by invading the pitch during the match against York. Before the game, fans broke into the ground and painted ‘Sack the Board’ on the pitch in large white letters. Archer and Bellotti had been told by the police to stay away from the game for their own safety, and the only people sitting in what was left of the directors’ box (the seats had been ripped out the previous week by fans trying to storm the boardroom) were the writers of the fanzine Gull’s Eye. They had agreed to sponsor the game at the start of the season and were later accused by the club of helping to incite the ensuing ‘riot’.
Not everyone agreed with what happened that day, but there was an overwhelming feeling that something had to be done to draw attention to our plight.
If there’s a reason for optimism it’s the refusal of the fans to let the directors get away with it. Despite ever dwindling crowds (our average attendance dropped by almost 305 last year) there are, thankfully, still people out there not prepared to stand by and watch the club die.
Supporters have produced T-shirts with a picture of the York demonstration and car stickers urging fans to boycott Focus DIY stores (owned by Archer). Hundreds of cards demanding the chairman’s immediate resignation have been sent to his home address, and more radical forms of protest are also in the pipeline. But so far Archer refuses to be moved, despite calls for him to quit from many sources (even a local MP has told him to “go now before it’s too late”).
Watching the team struggle against Torquay and Barnet, it seems hard to believe, but there were times when following Brighton was an enjoyable experience: when we won promotion to Division One for the first time ever; when we knocked Liverpool out of the FA Cup two seasons running; or when we took 35,000 to the Second Division play-off final (just five years ago); and, of course, when we almost won the Cup.
The hopes of the supporters now appear to rest on the Knight consortium. If the current regime steps down and a new stadium is built, the potential is there for a successful First Division outfit enjoying county-wide support (most fans would be quite content if we became another Ipswich or Norwich). The odd promotion campaign, a few seasons in the Premiership and some decent cup runs, with the dream of a return to Wembley. It doesn’t seem too much to ask. Right now, however, most fans would simply settle for the club’s survival.
From WSC 117 November 1996. What was happening this month