It's 20 years this year since the Seagulls returned from exile, and despite its obvious shortcomings this athletics track will always have a place in the hearts of Albion fans
4 March ~ The “Theatre of Trees”, as many Brighton fans affectionately refer to their former temporary home, the Withdean Stadium, arguably remains one of the most unlikely venues to have hosted League football.
This year marks the 20th anniversary of the start of that significant chapter in the club’s history. That sunny August day in 1999 couldn’t have gone better for the home fans, most if not all foot soldiers to varying degrees in the campaign to get the club back to the city after two seasons in exile at Gillingham following the well-documented loss of the Goldstone Ground.
A 6-0 rout of Mansfield wasn’t quite a sign of things to come that season – the club finished a respectable, if unspectacular, 11th in the bottom tier. The Withdean years (12 of them in the end) brought plenty of success, though, with four promotions including the League One title in their last season there in 2011.
For all the heights scaled by the club in the seven and a half years since the move to their impressive new home, a trophy is perhaps the only thing to elude them on their ascent thus far. It is a fact not lost on the generation of Albion fans who fought for the club’s return to the city, enabling it to survive and ultimately prosper today. They can be forgiven for indulging in a spot of rose-tinted nostalgia when it comes to Withdean.
Dan Tester, part of the supporter campaigns in the late 1990s and 2000s, and now editor of The Albion Mag, is one of them: “I actually grew to be quite fond of the place and I think fans look back in the same way on the whole. Withdean did us proud – and it wasn’t Gillingham. The pre-match routine was seamless, it was easy to get to the ground, and we were promoted four times, playing exciting football. Everyone who went to Withdean really cared. I miss the camaraderie, which has understandably been a bit diluted at Falmer.”
The two stadiums couldn’t be more different but one of the more intriguing contrasts is highlighted by the regular plaudits the club receive these days from away fans for their matchday experience at Falmer. Albion fans can sometimes be heard muttering about how good travelling supporters have it now with large allocations, clean sightlines, proximity to the action and guest ales from their locality served up in the visitors’ concourse. They recall the incredulous looks on the faces of away punters as they entered the modest and uncovered Withdean visitors’ section (something which wouldn’t have looked out of place on a set of It’s A Knockout), to be greeted by a 50-yard view to the nearest goal, beyond an athletics track and a hammer net.
The temporary seats (at one time borrowed every season from the British Open) have now found new homes at local non-League clubs Whitehawk and Newhaven, and the grass on the bank that used to house the south stand has now fully grown back. Southern Combination League side AFC Varndeanians, formed in 1929 by former pupils of Varndean School down the road (Des Lynam is an alumnus) became the Withdean’s next footballing tenants in 2015.
In truth the venue has always had a temporary feel to it, each use representing a place and time in the city’s sporting history. The 12,000 in December 1985 who witnessed San Francisco’s City College American football team take on the Brighton B52s remains a stadium record, and a reminder of a time when football’s popularity was threatened by new spectator sports. The tennis centre and “Wimbledon of the South” which opened on the site in 1937 seemed doomed given the proximity of SW19 to the south coast.
But it is the period when it was home to the city’s football club that will linger most in the local consciousness. The story is told in the club’s museum, lovingly researched and curated by lifelong fan and local historian Tim Carder. It includes a handmade replica model of Withdean Stadium, captured during the Albion’s tenancy, which sits alongside one of the much-loved Goldstone Ground. That itself seems a fitting tribute to the oddest of Football League venues (it’s doubtful we’ll see its like again) and the important part it played in the club’s history. Joel Essex
Photo by Colorsport: Brighton & Hove Albion's last match at Withdean Stadium in April 2011