12,000 Pies & 14,000 Pints: Brighton & Hove Albion Are Spoiling Their Fans

15 years ago Brighton were on the brink of dropping out of the football league. Now, with a shiny new stadium and star-studded team, they are on the brink of the Premier League.
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15 years ago Brighton were on the brink of dropping out of the football league. Now, with a shiny new stadium and star-studded team, they are on the brink of the Premier League.

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“Bollocks to bloody Brighton”, says a haughty Brian Clough while stood akimbo on the beach in Majorca. “We’d all go mad down there”. In this scene from The Damned United, Clough abandons his promise to join Brighton & Hove Albion in 1974 after being offered the manager’s job at the reigning English champions, Leeds United. In truth, he spent nine damp months down south at the old Third Division club before his ill-fated 44-day reign at Elland Road. In the actual Clough’s 1995 autobiography, he begins a chapter on his dreary time in Sussex:

“People go to Brighton for various reasons. For a holiday, for a day-trip, for a place to retire, for a Tory Party conference. Or for a dirty weekend. With all due respect to the club and its fans, you don’t go there for the football.”

Old Big ‘Ead was seemingly never meant for the seaside, and in his later years he probably thought the beautiful game had no place there either. Brighton & Hove Albion spent most of the 1990s fighting relegation, bankruptcy and eviction at the same time. The clubs home since 1902, the Goldstone Ground, was furtively sold to property developers without a replacement site lined up. The two best suggestions at the time were to move to a converted greyhound racetrack or ground-sharing with Portsmouth, which only heightened the public outrage. Ultimately, the club had to lease the Goldstone back for an extra year before its demolition in 1997 to make way for a retail park and drive-thru Burger King. For the next two seasons the team ended up playing their home games 70 miles away in Gillingham before a ‘temporary’ stay at the Withdean athletics stadium lasting 12 years. And in leaving the Goldstone, the club lost an estimated £50 million in revenue between 1997 and 2011. But after all the struggles, it’s clear when you visit the city these days that it can now offer a lot more than caucuses and fresh air.

League attendances are up roughly 400% on 2010/11 and the club now has the tenth highest season ticket sales in the country

Ignoring the expenditure seen at the select Premier League elite, the £93 million spent on the American Express Community Stadium was a huge investment for any team – let alone one accustomed to League One. Opened in July 2011 and funded outright by chairman and gambling tycoon Tony Bloom, Albion’s long-awaited second coming has transformed a club once synonymous with instability into established second level fodder. Hanging on the fringe of the South Downs and surrounded by two universities, a bypass and railway line, this pasty, undulating bowl has been squashed into the Falmer landscape. But as many residents will tell you, there was nowhere else. It took the best part of 15 years and two public inquiries to get the go-ahead, plus a few doubts about whether a region historically rather blasé about football could rediscover its passion overnight. As it turned out, the lost generation have returned in force.

The commercial numbers speak for themselves. League attendances are up roughly 400% on 2010/11 and the club now has the tenth highest season ticket sales in the country. The Amex has already hosted Liverpool, Newcastle and Chelsea along with two Fatboy Slim concerts, trade exhibitions and global media companies that bring television money and greater exposure. For a city that owes its good health to the tourism industry, away fans are given a hospitable welcome and visitors usually arrive in jovial droves. Five thousand more seats were added during the summer and more planned expansion work will take the capacity to 30,750 by next August. All this equals a perfect year for the shareholders, but now attention shifts to the suit on the touchline. Manager Gus Poyet must be feeling this considerable rise in expectation since winning League One in his first full season in charge. And now with the Amex entering its sophomore year, even the high-rolling Premier League dropouts can’t compete for hype.

Last Friday evening’s home game against Sheffield Wednesday is a case in point. Goals from Wayne Bridge, Craig Mackail-Smith and Will Buckley gave Brighton a comfortable 3-0 win in front of their biggest home crowd since 1983, in arguably the team’s most impressive performance under the Uruguayan. The club was proud to mention afterwards that a record 12,000 pies and 14,000 pints of beer were consumed by supporters on the night, but most importantly the result took Brighton to the top of the Championship. Based on this evidence, further success awaits. However, they were in the same position last year after five games and finished in 10th. On Tuesday at Watford, Mackail-Smith scored his sixth goal in four games to secure a 1-0 win and another three points. Even the most pessimistic of Albion fans will admit that a serious play-off challenge is the logical next step.

The club was proud to mention afterwards that a record 12,000 pies and 14,000 pints of beer were consumed by supporters on the night

A glance at Poyet’s summer recruitments suggests that both eyes are soundly fixed on immediate promotion. Tomasz Kuszczak, Wayne Bridge, Bruno Saltor and David Lopez all bring European experience and highlight a crowd-pleasing transfer policy of buying from above. High-profile signings were perhaps inevitable after their Championship introduction, particularly with regards to their away form. Poyet’s attractive style of football disguised the worst disciplinary record in the Football League last season (8 red cards & 92 yellow), with the team managing just three wins from their last 17 games. Tony Bloom is a loyal supporter with family ties to the club, but his wallet will not offer a failsafe against stagnation. Brighton are one of only six Championship teams not to have played in the Premier League, many still wearing the scars of relegation whilst trying to manage on diminishing parachute payments.

The south coast has a habit of pushing clubs unsuspectingly towards the big time before dragging them back down with velocity. Albion have played just four seasons in the top flight during their 111-year history, while Portsmouth have tumbled down the English football pyramid with the much of the same anguish and whiffs of mismanagement that look very familiar along the shore. This combined with Plymouth Argyle’s near-collapse last season paints an ostensibly dispassionate and incompetent image of football in this part of the world. On the other hand, Southampton gained back-to-back promotions to the Premier League and just up the A23 Crawley Town also leapt up two divisions in succession. The fact that both clubs went into administration less than seven years ago tells us that drastic change is never far away. And the Seagulls now know what it’s like to stand on both sides.

In two decades, Brighton & Hove Albion have gone from being one of the unluckiest clubs in the country to one of the most spoilt. In 1995 the Goldstone Ground was the club’s best asset, sold for £7.4 million apparently to pay off debts. The shady board of directors hoped to profit from the sale, news of which led to levels of ardent protest rarely seen before in Sussex, let alone English football. Then and now, home means everything. Had Brian Clough visited the Amex today, he might have been pleasantly surprised of what became of these “bloody midgets”. If Brighton manage to gain promotion to the Premier League, just 16 years after surviving relegation to the Conference on the final day of the season, then that may finally be a reason to go there.

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