Yesterday I went on a stadium tour of the Amex, the home of Brighton and Hove Albion FC. “Home” is the crucial word here as, after the bulldozing of the Goldstone Ground in 1997, the club and city was not to have a ground of its own until – 15 years to the very day – they returned to the Withdean athletic stadium in 1999. This had a capacity of 6000. The Bloom family, long associated with Brighton, took over from one of the club heroes in the fight to have a ground – Dick Knight – and spent £93m building the Amex Community Stadium at Falmer, close to the University, in a fold of the Downs.
Generally, I am not a fan of out of town sites. Over the years I have visited Derby, Sunderland, Bolton, Wycombe, Chester, Scunthorpe, Reading and Southampton and they all meld into a concrete bowl divorced from the city whose name they bear. I regard myself fortunate to have watched the bulk of my football at Craven Cottage, set by the Thames, accessed via a park or leafy roads, each stand different, with a Cottage in the corner. The difference of Brighton is that it has a most picturesque site and is ample reward for their long-suffering fans, the nost ardent of which had to travel some 75 miles to watch a home game at Gillingham. Again, when we were at Loftus Road – the home of QPR – we never could regard it as our home. We too have had a board who put the investment of the Cottage first and the stewardship of the club second – or frankly, not at all.
Like many fans, I empathise with Brighton, but the Fulham connection does not stop there. Alan Mullery and Barry Lloyd captained Fulham and managed Brighton; Micky Adams successfully managed both; two of Brighton’s greatest legends – Bobby Zamora and Peter O’Sullivan – had fine careers for us too; Darren Freeman, late of our parish, scored the first goal at the Withdean, whilst Danny Cullip held aloft the play-off Championship trophy for the Seagulls, but started his career with us. Anton Niemi – the Brighton goalkeeping coach – kept well for us and David Stockdale was recently recruited.
I cannot say that I was that turned on as we were guided through hospitality lounges to the dressing rooms. It is a fine stadium which hosts internationals, football and rugby and rock concerts. Every so often there was large image of a Brighton legend or a magical moment in the club’s history. Again I thought that at the Cottage every brick, every plank of wood, even the wrought iron on the cottage balcony, has its very own history and we don’t have to import it. Many of us continue to believe that, in times of crisis, the ghosts of old players gather in D block of the Stevenage Road stand, one of the few Archibald Leitch stands left, and decide what is best. It’s hard to think how we survived some of the chicanery of past boards without their intervention.
I felt rather neutral – after all, Brighton is not my team, Fulham is. This changed when the tour finished in the club museum. This had the normal memorabilia and as I finished I watched the video about the closing season of 1997, when the Goldstone was finally bulldozed. Fans told their story of the fight to save it. They freely admitted to using intimating tactics against the two perpetrators, Bill Archer and Derek Bellotti. They even marched on Archer’s home in the north. They invaded the pitch, tore down the goal posts and went on demonstrations. The tactics may have been rough but they saved the club. Out of this a hero emerged – Dick Knight – and it is in the bar named Dick’s Bar the museum is housed. There is a sculpture of Dick with a Brighton scarf in the corner, bearing the word Knighthood. Having led the fight to bring football back to Brighton, first at Withdean, then at the Amex, he was happy to pass ownership to the Bloom family which could fund the ambition. In the video, there was a picture of a Fulham fan in a GMB promotion shirt of 1996-7, joining the fans united in supporting Brighton fans. The football fans, and not just in England but in Germany, marched together and this was a time when hooliganism was not long over. It’s a wonderful story and, if ever a group of fans deserved their stadium, it must be Brighton’s loyal following.