Like most problems in football, the crisis at Brighton & Hove Albion has its roots in money, but it has long since transcended the mere financial to become a battle for the very soul of the game.
The poor financial management of the club in the 1980s and early 1990s gave rise to the first winding-up petition against the club by the Inland Revenue in November 1992, alerting supporters for the first time to the parlous state of the Albion. Only the sale of goalkeeper Mark Beeney to Leeds United the following April averted the threat of closure.
The Board saw salvation in a scheme for retail warehouses on the Goldstone Ground, the club’s home since 1902. The enhanced value of the site would increase borrowing power, fans were told, although no development would take place until a new ground was available. Supporters fought alongside the directors for permission for a scheme they thought would save their football club. The battle was eventually won — but it was to prove a hollow victory.
The club’s position was so dire that further winding-up petitions were received in 1993. Two directors, Bill Archer and Greg Stanley, took control amidst the chaos by introducing a new bank loan. The new money paid off the immediate debts and by December 1993 the nightmare in the High Court was finally over. The new regime brought in former Eastbourne M.P. David Bellotti as chief executive and Liam Brady as manager.
All seemed well, with the team starting to turn around under Brady, but then the nightmare returned — and with a vengeance.
In July 1995 the local Argus newspaper revealed that Archer, Stanley and Bellotti had done a deal to sell the Goldstone Ground, yet had no acceptable plans to relocate the club to a new stadium. From 1996, it was announced, Albion would play home games at Fratton Park, Portsmouth.
The Goldstone was always a ramshackle ground, and by now it was only a shadow of its former self. But for the club to sell its home with no viable alternative was unforgivable. The Board said it was necessary to clear the debts, but why was there no dialogue with supporters about a restructuring of the club? Why was there no discussion with Brighton and Hove councils?
That action, together with subsequent revelations regarding changes to the club’s constitution and doubts over the timing of debt repayments, convinced fans that they had been betrayed by owners with ulterior motives, and one of the most bitter “wars” in the history of football broke out. The directors dug in and made a hopeless bid for a new stadium and commercial development at Toad’s Hole on the South Downs to the north of Hove.
The new owners of the Goldstone Ground were Chartwell Land, a property development company. They offered Albion another season at a cost of £480,000, but the Board rejected it. The final game of the 1995/96 season, against York City, arrived with supporters believing it to be – unnecessarily – the last-ever match on the ground. The result was a mass pitch invasion with the goals wrecked and the game abandoned.
Suddenly there was a great deal of media interest in the situation, and three days later, within an hour of Chartwell’s deadline, the Board announced that it would accept the offer after all.
On the day following the York City game, Liam Brady, who had felt unable to continue as manager, was introduced as the front man for a takeover consortium. Despite the intervention of the Football Association, the consortium’s approaches were rejected by Archer, the majority shareholder and chairman who had secured control for the sum of just £56.25. A second pitch invasion in October 1996, a direct result of Archer’s televised intransigence, was penalised by the deduction of two points, leaving Albion 11 points adrift at the bottom of the Football League.
The possibility of losing Football League status just 14 years after appearing in the F.A. Cup final was only too real. The vast bulk of the dwindling support felt passionately that their club had to be freed from the unrelenting grip of Archer, Bellotti and Stanley to survive at any level.
Home games in 1996/97 were played amidst a funereal atmosphere with Bellotti, who always attended, and Archer, who never attended, the subject of the most vehement mass protest.
The demonstrations – never violent – were carried across the country in an inspired campaign that included a rally outside Archer’s home in Lancashire; marches through Brighton, Hove and London; and petitions to the F.A. and the Crewe headquarters of Focus, Archer’s DIY company. The boycott of a game against Mansfield Town saw an official attendance of just 1,933 spectators — until demonstrators invaded the East Terrace and West Stand at half time, forcing Bellotti to leave.
In the autumn of 1996, Albion fans took less interest in the form of their team – which was dreadful – than in the protests. Anarchy reigned, and the hated Bellotti was driven out of the Goldstone on several occasions. But an entrenched Board carried on regardless, and when the ground-sharing arrangement with Portsmouth fell through the club agreed a deal instead with Gillingham, even further away.
On 8th February 1997, Albion fans called on supporters of all clubs to stand with them and show their disgust at what was happening. “Fans United” was a unique show of solidarity and an outstanding success (not least because of the 5-0 demolition of relegation rivals Hartlepool United).
In the New Year the Football Association, through the initiative of David Davies, introduced the existing Board and the popular rival consortium to professional mediators. Against expectations, they secured an agreement for the future of the club in March 1997 that was announced the following month before the final game at the Goldstone Ground. Both sides had compromised to produce an agreement in which no single person was to have a controlling interest in the club.
Albion finally said goodbye to the Goldstone with a win over Doncaster Rovers, setting up a momentous showdown at Hereford United. The game was drawn 1-1, a result which saved Albion and instead relegated the home side to the Conference (as they had scored fewer goals). It was an incredible escape and an unbelievable finish to an unreal season.
With the Goldstone demolished for the new retail park, the Football League allowed Albion to share with Gillingham provided £500,000 was lodged as a guarantee that the club would return within three years. The “Seagulls” survived a League motion to expel them and found themselves playing 70 miles away at the Priestfield Stadium.
The deal to restructure the club was finally concluded in September 1997. While Archer retained a shareholding, the new chairman was local advertising mogul Dick Knight who was joined on the Board by his financial advisor Bob Pinnock; Martin Perry of construction giants Alfred McAlpine; and two F.A.-appointed non-executive directors who would resolve any dispute. The new regime brought a welcome breath of fresh air to the club and promised a new, open relationship with supporters. David Bellotti was dismissed as part of the deal, but Archer remained a shareholder until he was finally bought out in May 2002.
Together with Brighton & Hove Council, the new Board looked to bring the club home on a temporary basis while a permanent solution was sought. The search ended at Withdean Stadium, an athletics and county league football arena. Backed by a supporters’ campaign, the plans to transform Withdean into a 6,000-seat stadium suitable for league football met stiff opposition from some locals, but an innovative transportation scheme and a petition of more than 32,000 names allowed the council to pass the plans in June 1998. However, the threat of legal action and contractual problems with the stadium managers meant that construction was largely delayed until February 1999, thereby ruling out a return until the 1999/2000 season.
Life was hard in Gillingham. In 1997/98 the team was even worse than the previous season, but Doncaster Rovers kept Albion off the bottom of the League. “Home” gates, naturally, fell to their lowest ever, an average of just 2,328 as few supporters trekked 70 miles into Kent. On Bonfire Night 1997, just 1,025 fans saw their team lose 3-0 to Barnet.
The club started to lay on a fleet of matchday buses and performances improved in 1998/99, but the club fell away to finish 17th. All that really mattered, though, was that Albion were coming home.
The team’s homecoming was a triumph against the odds. At a cost of around £1.8 million, the rundown athletics arena at Withdean was transformed into a workable football stadium, albeit a most unusual one with a running track, a small covered North Stand and a large, open South Stand – but it has only ever been a temporary home. The pitch left a lot to be desired, further straining relations between the club and stadium management company, Ecovert South; the latter scooped much of the advertising and catering revenues and charged Albion a small fortune for playing matches at the council-owned stadium.
Withdean hosted its first Albion match, a friendly against Nottingham Forest, in July 1999. As a sop to local residents, amplified music was banned (apart from the traditional Sussex by the Sea), while supporters’ cars were completely prohibited from the local area. The club’s followers ensured the success of Withdean by using public-transport vouchers, park-and-ride sites and walking to games, and by organising litter patrols to clear up after matches.
The boost to the local economy was considerable, and football fever on a modest scale gripped the area once more. Enthusiasm surrounding the club and the backing of local businesses increased throughout the season, while a sponsorship deal with Skint Records ensured that it was “cool” to wear blue-and-white shirts once more.
In line with the council’s conditions, every game was all-ticket, and virtually every game sold out as the “Seagulls” enjoyed their most successful campaign for some time, finishing 11th. In June 2000 the club won council approval for 960 extra seats, taking the capacity to 7,027, and restrictions on amplified music were eased. In 2002 approval was given for an increase in capacity to around 9,000 in the face of fierce opposition, but the scheme is dependent on the provision of a new 200-space park-and-ride site and not expected to be implemented until the summer of 2004.
Albion’s Centenary Year of 2001 saw the club clinch the Third Division championship under manager Micky Adams, the first title triumph for 36 years. The only dampener was the sogginess of the Withdean pitch, and four games had to be rearranged. Despite emergency repairs, the club was forced to spend £130,000 in the summer to bring it up to scratch.
Incredibly, the “Seagulls” went straight through Division Two and became only the seventh team to secure two successive championships in different divisions.
For supporters who had experienced the depths of despair – the “war years” under Archer and Bellotti and the “wilderness years” in Gillingham – two championships represented an incredible success. While a few years earlier it looked as though the club might not reach its 100th year, Albion emerged fitter and stronger to face the challenges of the 21st century. The upheavals of the 1990s changed the club out of all recognition. The directors are now the most approachable in history, and supporters are involved in almost every facet. The pride and passion have been restored, and the title triumphs added greatly to that self-respect.
However, in 2003, Steve Coppell became the third manager (following Adams and Peter Taylor) to resign primarily because of the lack of a decent stadium. The size of Withdean means it can only ever be a temporary home. The very limited capacity for a club of Albion’s potential – the highest seasonal average gate was over 25,000 in 1977/78 – and the restricted commercial opportunities will not allow the club to develop. Hemmed in by a nature reserve, housing, roads and railway, Withdean cannot be developed safely beyond the envisaged 9,000 capacity.
The quest for a permanent stadium with a seated capacity of around 22,000 began in earnest in 1998 when director (and now chief executive) Martin Perry provided Brighton & Hove Council with a detailed report into five prospective sites: Waterhall (north-west of A23/A27); Shoreham Harbour (Portslade); Brighton & Hove greyhound stadium (Nevill Road, Hove); Brighton Station car-park; and Village Way North, Falmer (south-west of A27/B2123). The ruling Labour group backed the club’s preferred site at Falmer, and in February 1999 the council called for a referendum.
Supporters delivered 128,000 leaflets and staged numerous events to publicise the cause, backed by the club’s exciting preliminary plans for a futuristic, multi-purpose stadium. On polling day in May 1999, 56,701 people said Yes to the council’s policy of a permanent home for the Albion (11,194 against), and 44,985 said Yes to Falmer (21,548 against).
The following year Brighton & Hove Council included a community stadium at Village Way North, Falmer, in its new Local Plan. Eleven months later it reaffirmed that commitment following further public consultation. In the year (2001) that Brighton & Hove became a city, the council formally recognised that a modern community stadium befitting the towns’ new status was a necessity.
Although there were still problems to be resolved with the University of Brighton (one of the landowners along with the city council), Albion submitted a full planning application in October 2001. Once again the supporters swung into action, this time submitting a massive 61,000-name petition, with signatures from all over the country, and almost 10,000 letters of support. After months of detailed examination, the plans were approved by the city council in June 2002 but were then “called-in” by the Government for a public inquiry.
The site itself is on the north-eastern edge of Brighton and comprises part of the University of Brighton’s campus and part of an adjacent ploughed field. To the north is the A27 dual-carriageway trunk road and the Brighton-to-Lewes railway line, including Falmer station. To the west is the university. To the east is the rest of the field, a busy B-road and then Falmer village. To the south is the access road for the university (Village Way) separating the site from the lower slopes of the South Downs. (See "Where Will The Community Stadium Be Sited?".)
Although part of the site is a heavily-ploughed field, the ambience is that of an urban location with constant traffic noise and the ever-present university buildings. However, much of the area (including the two university campuses and the field) was designated as part of the South Downs Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty in 1966 and thereby requires particular criteria to be satisfied before any major development can be permitted.
The stadium itself would seat 22,438 spectators and is designed with graceful curves to acknowledge the rolling landscape. The transportation strategy would build on the existing model successfully used at Withdean. Tickets would carry vouchers for public transport – buses and trains would serve the stadium directly – while spectator car-parking would be restricted to existing shared-use car-parks. Satellite park-and-ride sites, again using shared-use car-parks, would also serve the stadium. Residential areas such as Falmer village would be protected from spectator parking by stewarding.
The stadium at Falmer, as well as providing a home for the city’s football club, will provide huge benefits in terms of employment, health promotion, education and crime-reduction, and will also allow the club to develop its award-winning community programme to its fullest extent. It is also proposed to provide some office accommodation for high technology businesses; sports science and sports medicine units linked to the University of Brighton; and conference and banqueting facilities.
The stadium will not proceed until the money to complete it, around £48 million, has been secured. Funding will come principally from grants, sponsorship, catering rights, loans secured against season-ticket sales, and contributions from the football club.
During October 2003 the University of Brighton reached agreement with the club and the city council. The stadium as proposed is now backed by Brighton & Hove City Council, the Universities of Brighton and Sussex, the Football Association, the Football League, the Football Foundation, Sport England, City College Brighton & Hove, the Learning & Skills Council and the South East England Development Agency – and, of course, thousands of ordinary people in the city, throughout Sussex and across the country.
A lengthy and complex public inquiry was held between February and October 2003, with 40 days of sessions. Albion and the city council presented compelling evidence as to why Falmer is the only viable site in the area; how it provides the best transportation solution of any available site; and how it will benefit the city, especially the deprived areas of East Brighton
Other evidence was presented by the national football and sporting bodies to show that a stadium for Brighton & Hove (which lies at the heart of the 10th largest urban area in England and Wales) is in the national interest. Without it a huge chunk of the country would be deprived of modern stadium facilities.
The public inquiry ended in October 2003. At the beginning of December, supporters delivered a further 6,200-plus letters to 10 Downing Street, imploring John Prescott, the Deputy Prime Minister and First Secretary of State who will make the final decision, to approve the plans.
Mr Prescott’s decision could come at any time. It may be sooner, it may be later. There is no indication when it might be announced. Supporters are currently in a state of “limbo”.
However, at the beginning of February 2004 a report on the Brighton & Hove Local Plan was issued which recommended that the site at Village Way North should not be allocated for a stadium. The Local Plan inspector sat through all the public inquiry sessions, yet came to some astonishing conclusions.
He suggested that a better option might be Sheepcote Valley, a site which cannot be developed in line with Government policy on sustainable transport. He does not regard the need for a stadium for the benefit of a “provincial city” as being a national consideration. And he recommends that policy decisions should take into account the outcome of the inquiry into the proposed South Downs National Park, which is not expected until 2005 at the earliest.
This report is not legally binding on the city council or Mr Prescott, but its publication is, to say the least, unhelpful. Just how much influence it may have is unknown.
The adverse Local Plan report has galvanised Albion supporters to renew their campaign for a permanent home. The decision by the Deputy Prime Minister will be based on a number of factors, including the report of the call-in inquiry inspector and political considerations.
It is a battle which Albion dare not lose. If Falmer is refused then the future of the club is bleak indeed. Without a permanent stadium it will die a slow death, never able to fulfil its potential or widen its role in the community. Yet there is no other viable site in Brighton & Hove, or even within a reasonable distance outside the city. Even if there was, the club could not afford another planning application –Falmer has cost £2.5 million so far – and there would be no chance of funding any stadium.
Falmer is the be-all and end-all of Brighton & Hove Albion. That is why, after more than 11 years of crisis, supporters have to win this fight.
9th February 2004