Drew Whitworth has some good memories of a temporary home, but he's not sentimental about leaving and never going back
Let’s get one thing straight first. It’s not The Withdean in the same way it’s not, say, The Hillsborough. But somehow it deserves the definite article. It’s a unique place to watch football, with its bank of “temporary” uncovered seating to the south, backed by the woods of a nature reserve, its poky North Stand with a suburban pub behind and its litter of athletics paraphernalia, like the hammer net. There is only one Withdean: thank God.
Finally, however, Withdean’s 12-year tenure as Brighton & Hove Albion’s home ground is ending. Next season the club move into their new, 22,000-seat Amex stadium at Falmer. All Brighton fans are grateful to Withdean in one way, as it was a key ingredient in the club’s emergence from the wreckage left by chairman Bill Archer in the mid-1990s. Following the sale of the Goldstone Ground, two seasons were spent playing at Gillingham in front of threadbare crowds under 2,000, an unsustainable situation even in the short term, hence the immediate importance of bringing the team home. But the difficulties of finding anywhere to play in Brighton & Hove, even temporarily, were as evident then as they have been since.
Brighton is an affluent place, with high property prices inflated by substantial in-migration from London and also by its location next to the South Downs, recently designated a National Park. Put simply, there are few places to build and they’re expensive. The club also draws much of its support from the wider county of Sussex, whereas many living in Brighton & Hove itself have moved there, and brought other club loyalties with them. All these factors help explain the difficulties and opposition that the club faced with both the building of the Amex and the earlier move to Withdean.
Withdean was an athletics stadium and big enough for that purpose (its club once nurtured Olympic gold medallist Steve Ovett), but woefully inadequate even for basement football. Nor did the residents of its expensive suburban location wish to see their leafy lanes invaded by hordes of the unwashed every alternate Saturday. Compromises had to be found. The club, despite lacking ready cash, obligingly – and farsightedly – funded public transport vouchers attached to match tickets, with parking within a mile of the ground banned on matchdays. Temporary seats were installed, despite their always arriving late for the first few seasons because they were needed at the Open golf. With hindsight it’s amazing the club returned to Brighton so quickly, but the site was, and remains, unwelcoming and inconvenient.
Withdean’s impact on the club’s fortunes varied wildly over 12 years. At first, the facilities (both teams changed in prefabs) were so quirky that visitors struggled to adjust and Brighton’s home record was strong, epitomised by the 6-0 win over Mansfield in the first League game there. Two promotions quickly followed, and I admit that probably my fondest single memory of 35 years following Brighton came there, with Danny Cullip’s header against Chesterfield on May 1, 2001 that won the club its first title in my lifetime. Another followed the next year.
But familiarity eventually bred contempt. A few more years of sitting, exposed to the elements, on rainy Wednesday nights while watching Mark McCammon fall over his own feet, and with the new stadium never seeming any closer, was never going to pull in the fans. With most seating uncovered, no atmosphere could be generated except on the few occasions when big clubs visited and lost (victories over Leeds and in the League Cup against Manchester City being the highlights here). By 2009-10 the “Withdean factor” had reversed and Brighton had the worst home record in the League.
But at least, by then, the new ground was finally being built. And this season, Withdean has once more become a home fortress second only in strength to Old Trafford. Yet I will not miss it, not for a second, and nor will any other Seagulls fan. We apologise profusely to all visiting supporters who have suffered the away “end” over the last 12 years (it’s not just the end of the ground, it’s got a whole different postcode); but it’s over now.
After Brighton’s tenancy there ends against Huddersfield on April 30 – ten years since that win over Chesterfield – Withdean will doubtless return to its former sleepy existence as an athletics track and two games into the new season we’ll forget we ever played there. Goodbye Withdean, and thanks, but we’re finally moving on.
From WSC 291 May 2011