Any young Brighton and Hove Albion fan reading this article may think that the most recent football campaign was as bad as one can be. Missing out on promotion to the Premier League on goal difference alone and then being ravaged by injuries in the playoffs meaning you get knocked out is painful beyond measure. Well let me talk you through the 1996-97 season which has to be ranked as the worst in the club’s history. For months I witnessed firsthand crushing defeat after crushing defeat. Thankfully this depressing trend did not last and right at the climax of the season I witnessed the greatest goal in the greatest atmosphere that I will ever experience.
When supporters of Brighton and Hereford United woke up on the morning of the 3 of May 1997 they knew that by the end of the day one of their sides would no longer be in the Football League. Relegation from the deepest depths of Division Three meant that only this relegation play-off between the two sides at Edgar Street on the final day of the season would settle the matter. Before the game kicked off an unbelievably calm and composed Steve Gritt was quoted as saying, "There's an awful lot at stake here today." Playing down the fear of thousands of football fans the Brighton manager showed everyone that he was the master of understatement.
Faced with ever increasing debts, Albion fans were left disgusted, betrayed and devastated at the board's plans to illegally sell off their beloved Goldstone Ground in order to fund their ill-gotten gains. The abhorrent mismanagement of the club resulted in a pitch invasion to protest against the sale at the end of the previous season where they were relegated from Division 2. This demonstration of anger and frustration meant that the new season got off to the worst possible start; a two-point deduction from the Football Association was incurred before a ball had even been kicked within the lowest league.
Being the stadium’s final season, the atmosphere was depressing from the very beginning. The player’s performances on the pitch were poor, which was not surprising considering the environment they were being forced to perform in and as a result no-one ever blamed the squad. Mass walkouts, whistle protests, fireworks being thrown towards the director’s box and an ever increasing atmosphere of hostility meant that the club was soon adrift at the foot of the division and the feeling of the cold hand of the Conference was on their shoulder.
A change was needed to break the cycle of poor results and Steve Gritt arrived. Replacing the departing Jimmy Case he inherited the impossible task of salvaging the Albion’s league status. What followed in the coming months was little short of a miracle. Results steadily improved and the real turning point was the Fans United match in February. A strong media interest resulted in supporters from around the country showing their support of the Albion’s perilous plight. Standing there on the North Terrace behind the goal I can remember vividly being surrounded by people sporting shirts from clubs all across the country. Chelsea, Tottenham, Liverpool, Nottingham Forest, Yeovil Town, Leeds United the list went on and on and the electric atmosphere drove Brighton on to a 5-0 victory over a shell shocked Hartlepool United. From winning just two home games before his arrival Steve Gritt somehow inspired a strong unbeaten home run. The very last game at the Goldstone was a victory over Doncaster Rovers which saw fans taking away their own pieces of stadium memorabilia at the final whistle. The huge gap between the club and Hereford United was whittling away until the two sides ended up level on 46 points with Brighton just ahead on goal difference. Everything was set up perfectly to make this a match the ultimate relegation decider.
I have never seen any other game as stressful as the one that played out before me at Edgar Street. The feeling of nervousness around the ground was palpable and before half time Albion were one nil down due to a Kerry Mayo own goal. As things stood Brighton were relegating themselves from the football league with no stadium and no future. The club with such a long history was finished. Whilst I stood there on the terrace at the Blackfriers Street End during the interval everyone around me had the reluctant acceptance that this was going to be Herefords day. They were playing better and the terrible condition of the pitch seemed to favour them. Despite fearing the worst the travelling support shouted out encouragement at a deafening volume as the most important 45 minutes in the club’s 96-year existence kicked off.
Brighton were just about managing to keep the deficit to one nil. There was no sign of where the club saving goal would come from but then on came Robbie Reinelt, the name may not mean much to you but it has gone down in history with Brighton fans. On 62 minutes Craig Maskell controlled a hashed clearance and smashed a volley against Herefords post. The ball cannoned back out; the crowd held their breath as the ball rolled across the box where it was met by the heroic Reinelt to angle it home. Madness ensued; I was swept along by a wave of hysterical fans, surging to the very front to embrace the players and celebrate this momentous moment in the clubs history.
I have never known time to go as slowly as it did during the rest of that game, the home side piled on the pressure but Brighton held on and Hereford were down.
Yes this season has been heart breaking; the frustration at just missing out on the Premier League is difficult to take, but it is important to remember that without that one goal back in 1997 there may not have been a club to support at all. The Seagulls really have come an incredibly long way.