Ask the owner of any football club where they want to go these days and the answer you will get is The Next Level. So I entered the postcode in my satnav and found there are two ways to get there. Route one involves a short-cut via any old disused Olympic Stadium that happens to be lying around, and while it may look attractive at first glance it is a rather bumpier road than you might have thought.
Route two, which is nowhere near as fast but considerably more reliable, takes you down an old-fashioned thoroughfare known simply as Proper Way. Brighton and Hove Albion have reached their destination by taking the second option.
Like West Ham, they no longer play in their historic heartland. Unlike us, though, their new stadium is purpose-built for football and popular with a vast majority of Seagulls supporters. I know some who still refuse to go anywhere near the retail park that now occupies the site of the old Goldstone Ground, but that doesn’t mean they dislike the out-of-town replacement now known as the Amex Stadium.
And a smashing ground it is too – regularly being nominated for awards in recognition of the way it treats away supporters. Albion’s journey from the brink of destruction to the Premier League is one that should gladden the heart of any true football supporter.
Let me take you back 20 years to May 3, 1997. West Ham were in Manchester, with nothing to play for. I was in the kitchen, listening to football scores from around the country. In particular, I was concerned with events in Hereford, where Brighton were fighting for survival in the ultimate relegation game that would see whichever side that lost drop out of the football league.
And, following a first-half own goal, the Seagulls were staring disaster in the face. I am no Brighton supporter, but the enormity of what was happening at Edgar Street simply could not be ignored. Britain’s premier seaside resort – and the place that my wife and I had chosen to make our home – was on the point of losing its football team through a trapdoor that led to oblivion. The parlous state of Albion’s finances meant their chances of ever climbing out of the non-league morass were roughly equivalent to an ice cream’s prospect of surviving a sunny day on the Palace Pier.
Defeat wouldn’t just mean the end of league football in the town I love. There was every chance it could mean the end of Albion itself. The Seagulls may not have been my team, but it was essential there was a team. They simply could not be allowed to perish
I abandoned the national stations in favour of local radio to concentrate on the commentary from Hereford. West Ham didn’t need me that day, but Albion needed all the help they could get. With an hour gone, Brighton were clearly being outplayed. The commentary, while striving hard to be impartial, was becoming increasingly desperate.
Then Hereford failed to clear their lines, and in the scramble that ensued a journeyman footballer by the name of Robbie Reinelt scored the goal that ensured he will never be forgotten by legions of Brighton and Hove Albion fans. It was a great moment for them, having endured a terrible season knowing it would be the last at their beloved Goldstone Ground. The board had controversially agreed to sell it to a development company to pay off their mounting debts, even though the club had nowhere else to go. It was a disgraceful act of corporate vandalism.
Such was the supporters’ hatred of their owners there had been a pitch invasion to protest against the sale at the end of the previous season, which landed them with a points deduction even before their final term at their old ground had begun. The contrast between Brighton’s last season at the Goldstone and West Ham’s final campaign at the Boleyn Ground could not have been greater.
While we were treated to some of the best football we had seen in years, Brighton could barely buy a point. And game after game was played against a backdrop of walkouts and protests. It got so bad, fireworks were thrown at the directors’ box. With the club cut adrift at the bottom of the league and heading towards the Conference, Brighton replaced their manager.
Much to everyone’s surprise it worked, and bit by bit Albion nibbled away at a 13-point gap between themselves and the rest of the pack to fan faint hopes of survival. Many consider the turning point to be have been what was known as the Fans United match in February.
That was when supporters from around the country turned up in Brighton to show their support for Albion – who responded to the amazing display of solidarity by hammering Hartlepool 5-0. That prompted an unbeaten home run which set up the relegation decider to end all relegation deciders. And, thanks to Reinelt’s goal, the Seagulls stayed afloat. Not that their troubles were over. With no ground of their own they had to play their ‘home’ games more than 70 miles away in Gillingham for two years.
And when they did go back to Brighton it was to a municipal sports complex where the atmosphere was even worse than that at the London Stadium. Perhaps it had something to do with the running track that circled their pitch (sound familiar?)
Albion finally got a home of their own in 2011. Three years later they got themselves a first-rate manager in Chris Hughton, and began to knock increasingly hard on the Premier League’s door. But when they tried to take that final step up into the big time, they faltered time and again. After moving to the Amex they lost three play-off semi-finals in four years before finally securing automatic promotion last season.
It’s a been tough journey, but throughout it all Brighton and Hove Albion have conducted themselves with style and dignity in the face of what have appeared at times to be overwhelming odds. Yes, I’m West Ham ’til I die. But I do hope that now my hometown club has reached the next level they stay there for years to come. They’ve earned it.