I felt a bit like a wedding crasher. You know those chaps who sniff out a free party, with free drink and free women revelling on other people’s joy without a care in the world. That was me. I was standing by the side of the pitch in a brand new stadium, the sun bathing the whole arena and 16,000 fans saluting heroes from the past as they walked onto the pitch. And I knew very little of them.
That makes me sound really ungrateful but it could not be further from the truth. I knew the pain, despair, disappointment and anger Brighton & Hove Albion fans had experienced in the past two decades whilst they tried to find their way home. I had been at one of the last games at the Goldstone. A great old fashion ground with real character, assigned to the stadium graveyard in the sky long before its time to make way for a nameless DIY superstore thanks to the greedy owners at the time. Because people need to have these DIY superstores on their doorstep right?
Then there was the Medway era. Playing games in Chav-tastic Gillingham in front of one man and his dog. I remember going to a game on a freezing cold Tuesday in December against Lincoln City. The official attendance was around 900 but during a dull first half I could count no more than 450 in the ground.
Hope came in the sign of a move back to the Withdean. An Athletics track that was impractical for any type of track and field sports. But it was as damn near close to home as the club could get. By being on the doorstep they became a council problem and forced their way on the agenda. It is fair to say that anyone who went to a game at the Withdean would say it was the worst ground in England. But it gave the fans hope. Hope of a brighter future.
And today I don’t think that future could get much brighter. The train on the way down from London is packed with fans in their candy striped shirts. Every new stop to me – Haywards Heath, Wivelsfield and Hasocks – sees more fans getting on. Well, they try to get on but the one factor the club’s “Sustainable travel plan” needs is the train companies to put on trains that are long enough to cope rather than a 4 coach one First Capital Connect. Everyone is talking about going to the ground. The opposition today are irrelevant. Today is about exhaling after holding your breath for a long time. A long long time.
I met up with Danny Last in a pub close to the station. Everyone is buzzing about what the ground will be like, the talk was about the bars, the wall of fame. And Gus Poyet. Last week the club had been on a pre-season tour to Portugal, and had played PSG. That is not the PSG who loiter around the lower leagues in the Algarve. This is the PSG who are tipped to be the Manchester City of France, after some serious cash injection from the Middle East. That is the Poyet factor. He is a name, a serious name in football and people listen when he talks. And he has delivered on the pitch.
The other man behind the revolution is Tony Bloom, the 64th richest man in Football according to FourFourTwo magazine. A local lad made good who is become one of the best and well known poker players in the world and the dream maker for the Brighton Fans. His cash has built the cathedral that is now the American Express Community Stadium.
And here I was standing my the side of the pitch, trying to take it all in. 16,000 fans rising as one to great “Brighton Legends” as they walk onto the pitch, honouring those who have made the difference between leaving the Goldstone and returning to the new stadium. There was also a minutes silence for the “fallen” fans. Observed impeccably by the home fans, although the 1,000 Spurs fans were none the wiser as to what was going on with the PA system only relaying one word in three.
The reason why I was here? Well I asked the club for a press pass, and they gave me a photographers one. Who was I to complain. I love a picture or two so the opportunity to get up close and personal was one I couldn’t miss. But would I suffer “lens envy” with my little Samsung was just a 15 x zoom? Never fear, Boyesie is here, complete with a spare Canon and a lens bigger than a babies forearm. I was in snap heaven.
Out came the teams, Spurs fielding basically a full strength side bar Modric, who was of course “injured”. Just like Fabregas is injured for Arsenal as well then. Redknapp decided to give the first half a miss, coming out initially, chatting with a member of Sussex’s finest, perhaps about his forthcoming trial. It was left to Messrs Jordan, Bond and Allen to motivate the team, playing not only against 11 “boys in blue and white” but 16,000 fans in the stands.
Brighton & Hove Albion 2 Tottenham Hotspur 3 – American Express Community Stadium – Saturday 30th July 2011
The game never had the feeling of a pre-season friendly. This was a great test for both sides. Brighton took the game to the Londoners, creating early chances and having the ball in the net early, although the referees whistle had already blown. But they did get their goal in the eleventh minute when new signing, and I feeling the talisman for their forthcoming season, Craig Mackrell-Smith played in Ashley Barnes who beat Brad Friedel in the Spurs goal.
Spurs fielded the impressive Jake Livermore in midfield. At last a young English homegrown player being given a chance. Who needs petulant foreigners who quote “loyalty” one minute before pissing off the next because they have to pay tax. Livermore looked good in midfield and his shot in the twentieth minutes crashed off the bar.
I was in my element, snapping away, getting down low on the ground to get some grassroots pictures. Point to remember when you are this low – keep an eye on the ball because when it hits you people in the crowd laugh. And take the piss. And say things like “didn’t need you zoom lens for that did you”. Sticks and stones as my Mum would say.
With Bale, Lennon and Van der Vaart providing the pace it was no surprise that Spurs equalised. Or actually it was as nobody in the away end actually realised they had scored until it was announced the scorer was Kaboul . Few could see the ball go in and the reaction from the players and officials hardly shouted “Goooooooooooooooal”. Three minutes later there was no doubt they had scored again. Bale made space, played the ball into the path of Corluka who drilled the ball home. Half Time and a chance for everyone to pitch themselves that they were really here.
Redknapp mysteriously re-appeared for the second half, looking as happy as ever. His bubbly and cheerful demenour didn’t even flinch when LuaLua smacked home a beauty from 25 yards that had the North Stand in sunbathed ecstasy. The lead lasted just a few minutes until substitute keeper Brezovan passed the ball to Livermore whilst trying to clear and the Spurs midfielder easily slotted home.
It was a defeat, but in the grand scheme of things this was a massive win for the Brighton fans. Home at last, and seeing them tucking into the beers in the West Stand concourse post match you could hardly blame them for beaming with delight. As I headed off back to the rugby scrum at Falmer station I walked in step with Tony Bloom. He was literally given a standing (of course they were standing!) ovation as he wandered into the hospitality marquees.
Welcome home Brighton. We’ve missed you.
To read the thoughts and feelings of a real Brighton fan, head on over to EFW.
To have a butchers at some more pictures click here which is our only pictures until we can find the “professional” memory card!