It might not have excited Manish Bhasin, but for David Stubbs this scoreless draw at Brighton’s corporate new ground proved to be an historic occasion
The first professional football match I ever attended was just over 40 years ago in September 1971. A treat for my ninth birthday, en route back from a late summer holiday at the Golden Sands Chalet Park in Withernsea. It was at Hull City, as it happens, at the old Boothferry Park. In later years, with Kwik Save and Iceland stores embedded into its queasy, dirty yellow structure, it cut a grim spectacle indeed (it was home to Hull until 2002) but back then, to my young eyes, it was a veritable Humberside Xanadu, wreathed in the alluring odour of fried onions, a mass plumage of hats and scarves, the floodlights towering with Wellesian awe like gigantic alien overlords at all four corners of the stadium.
These were the days of Chris Chilton and the remarkably portly Ken Wagstaff, when Hull enjoyed an almost cult-like status, thanks to regular coverage on Sunday afternoons on Yorkshire TV, with commentary by the authoritative and versatile Keith Macklin (who also commentated on rugby league, darts, skittles, carpet bowls and shove ha’penny for the channel – this was not the most enviable of counties and decades to have lived in).
I recall being shocked at the roughness of the language on the terraces. “You Portsmouth pigs!” yelled the man in front repeatedly. I wondered why Hull’s Malcolm Lord was booed by his own fans when his name was announced over the Tannoy and if that made him feel sad. And I shared the mass, crestfallen air as Hull went down 3-1. Since 1971, I’ve never been an absolute regular but have attended many games, League and non-League, domestic and international – a few each season with the number increasing in recent years. In those 40 years, one quirky statistic had, until today, held firm.
I had never, in my life, been a spectator at a 0-0 draw. The heading above this piece, which gives the game away, doubtless does not set the pulse racing. On The Football League Show, this result would have merited barely a mention from Manish up on the balcony. For this writer, however, it represented a quite astounding moment, one which I thought the Fates would never grant me. At long last, I had popped my scoreless draw cherry, and its spills were pretty thrilling. But then, having nothing with which to compare it, what would I know?
Entering this game, Brighton and Hull were neck and neck in the Championship. Newly promoted Brighton had hared off to a fabulous start, winning five out of their first six. They then faltered, losing three out of four prior to this fixture, including, gallingly, a 3-1 home defeat to Crystal Palace, their deadly rivals for reasons that have never been adequately explained amid all the mutual murmurings of “the scum”. Hull, meanwhile, came in undefeated since themselves losing to Palace in a poor start to the season. Still, it’s Brighton who feel the more upwardly mobile, as symbolised by the two managers on the touchline. There’s trim Gus Poyet in an immaculately cut, probably Armani, suit still looking like he could turn out for 20 dazzling, exhibition minutes. There’s grey-haired Nigel Pearson in his tracksuit with the logo of sponsors Cash Converters stamped on the back.
Both teams have experienced remarkable trajectories. It’s not so long since Hull were knocking insolently at the door of the Premier League Big Four, beating Arsenal at the Emirates. For years prior to that, they themselves looked back on the Wagstaff/Chilton/Boothferry era, in which they commanded gates of 17,000, with nostalgic envy. As for Brighton, their own rise, well above their urban weight category, has swung against the grain of expectation. In the centrefold of the fanzine The Seagull Love Review, there is a photo taken by Stewart Weir in 1997 a few days after the final game at the old Goldstone Ground. It’s a grim, black and white tableau of Broken Brighton. As his wife and toddler look on, a young man kneels, head bowed in admission of defeat, digging up clumps of the nobbly turf to be taken away in a plastic carrier bag, against a backdrop of buckled terrace crush barriers. Far away, the rest of the country was singing to the tune of Things Can Only Get Better and New Labour. Not down here.
Brighton & Hove Albion came within an inch of dropping into the Conference at this time. After groundsharing with Gillingham, they then took up occupation at the Withdean Stadium, which, ignominiously, had once been the site of a zoo. However, with millions raised by a new board, and initiatives such as the Alive And Kicking campaign, Brighton now find themselves in a new stadium and with realistic ambitions of Premier League football.
Contemplated from the surrounding downs and parkland, the stadium certainly represents a startling intervention on the landscape. With only its white, metal arcing top feature visible, you imagine some alien spacecraft landed while inside, its crew sat in conference in preparation for First Contact. As you approach it, however, nestled between Falmer Station and college grounds, it disappoints a little.
That non-sequitur of a name for a start – the American Express Community Stadium. But most of the community, especially in these straitened times unanticipated by D:Ream, are more likely to join their Hull City counterparts down at Cash Converters than own an Amex card. No one calls the stadium by its name, preferring the acronym AMECs or even “Falmex”. It is done out in a churlishly anaemic beige, real corporate bloodsucked, Brittas Empire tones. It feels as out of these economic times as a Filofax.
But then, this is Brighton, a town that for all its progressiveness feels generally out of time – the place where the London of the 1980s and 90s went to retire and opt out of the joyless, digital, internet-ravaged 21st century, where record shops and veggie outlets still thrive, where Goths and Mods continue to maintain strongholds. This game was held back to 5.30pm so not to clash with a university open day. Only in Brighton.
But then again, the Brightonians here don’t feel especially boho – more orthodox white southern. There’s a Kick It Out anti-racism presentation prior to the game but casting an eye around the stands, it is hard to find anyone, save a handful of players warming up on the pitch, to be racist against. The crowd is part boisterous, part bourgeois. A flavour of the more nouveau staid season-ticket holder’s sentiments can be found in the letters column of today’s Argus, one of which isn’t alone in expressing disgust at the amount of shouting, standing and fist-waving which goes on at the Albion. “These people are not youngsters but supposedly mature adults. If they want to stand, they should go and watch parks football where they can stand throughout the whole game and pay nothing.”
It is bustling enough in the stadium nonetheless, with the pre-match announcer exhorting us to “tear the roof off the place”, prompting several sets of eyes to raise towards the open skies above. Brightonians are making all the noise, a sea of blue and white stripes, assuming such colours wouldn’t run at sea. The Hull fans are remarkably glum-looking, seeing as Brighton look there for the taking, sitting cross-armed like a difficult crowd at a working men’s club about to make a frank assessment of an up-and-coming young London stand-up comedian. Only after ten opening minutes do they suddenly rise and find voice, with Hull, having weathered an early onslaught, seizing the game by the seat of its trousers and taking advantage of some scarily capacious gaps in Brighton’s defence.
Brighton have an enterprising and ambitiously tippy-tappy footballing air but don’t always cohere. Iñigo Calderón’s beard is the most striking feature of their forward line. Like Ricky Villa’s, it’s as if his chin is permanently on fire, an eternal flame. At least Calderón is a sensible-sounding name. As ever, the British surnames – Dunk, Dicker, Painter, Bridcutt, Dudgeon – are the most exotic. Despite Brighton’s defence all but drawing up deckchairs at times, distantly intrigued as to how Hull’s attacks will work out, it’s a first half of ballooned free-kicks and promising advances ending in tame shots straight at the keeper. Hull’s Matt Fryatt manages to break away in the 39th minute but is denied at the death by some last-ditch Dunk defending.
Throughout, Poyet has kept up a barrage of extraordinarily keening whistling noises from the touchline to communicate with his players. One is reminded of those Greek shepherd tribes who have developed a language from such noises, with which they address each other as well as their livestock.
The second half is an altogether more effective affair, with Brighton, doubtless after a good whistling-to from manager Poyet, discovering their front foot. Yet Hull look more threatening on the counter-attack, with Aaron McLean finding himself one-on-one with the Brighton keeper Casper Ankergren, who saves with his knees. The atmosphere shifts palpably as three of the stadium’s four sides breathe out at once.
Minutes later, McLean lets off a long shot that rattles off the underside of the bar and falls to Robbie Brady whose curling shot is picked athletically out of the air by Ankergren. Hull’s Adriano Basso matches the aerial balletics at the other end, making slightly more spectacular work of a header from Craig Mackail-Smith (at least one of whose ancestors must have worked at Scotland Yard).
Your reporter begins to realise it’s going to be that sort of day, the sort that he’s never experienced. The reporter from the Hull press in front of me evidently thinks so, filing his report of a 0-0 draw with several minutes to go. But will this be his “Dewey Defeats Truman” moment? No. Hull’s Robert Koren cannons a shot from long distance but, once again, only the extra coat of paint denies him a goal.
Apart from a scrawny, lanky pitch invader, reminicsent of Jack Whitehall gone native on the student demo in Fresh Meat, that’s our lot. The final whistle goes. As the crowds are expertly funnelled down to Falmer station, I am stunned. As twilight descends, my mind casts back over 40 years – Old Wembley, the New Den, Pride Park, the Emirates, Harrow & Wealdstone, The Hawthorns, The Valley, right back to Boothferry Park, 1971.
This, then, at last, is what a 0-0 draw is like. A wry, stoical raft of subdued emotions. It’s Beckettian. As was said of Waiting For Godot, nothing happened, twice. In the first half, both teams failed, in the second half they failed better. But I was there.
From WSC 298 December 2011