Brighton vs Crystal Palace: The Unlikely Rivalry That Sparked A War

Brighton and Crystal Palace share one of the bitterest rivalries in English football, but even some of their own fans are at odds to explain why, I set about finding out why the Eagles and the Seagulls don’t get on…
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“Ben, you’re a Brighton fan, right?” said the lad sat next to me. “So tell me, why do your supporters hate Crystal Palace so much?”

It was my first day at university, and the inquisitive chap next to me was a Notts County season ticket holder who couldn’t understand why Brighton and Palace, two clubs with no obvious means for dispute, and who played one another so infrequently, harboured such hostility.

Only now it’d been put in such a concise and direct manner did it occur to me how strange our rivalry with Crystal Palace was. Until then, without rhyme or reason, it just seemed normal: We are Brighton, so by default we hate Palace. I never asked why, but then I was never a bona fide hater. How can you hate something if you don’t understand why you’re meant to hate it?

Nevertheless, I didn’t want to seem soft.

“They’re Palace, they’re scum,” I declared, vehemently, in reply. “We just don’t like them.”

Brighton’s rivalry with Crystal Palace was something I took for granted and didn’t query when I first started attending games in the ‘90s. Our anti-Palace agenda was omnipresent on the terraces at the Goldstone Ground every week – it was as hard to ignore as it was to understand.

In an environment beset by diminished responsibility, we grew up singing about Steve Coppell’s supposed sexual health problems and it became second nature to bellow words to the effect of ‘shooting the Palace scum.’ But me and my friends were at odds to explain why. For starters, we never played against Palace, and besides, why were we bothered about a Premier League team – surely we were too busy trying to survive in the Football League.

Our anti-Palace agenda was omnipresent on the terraces at the Goldstone Ground every week

As a talented young footballer, while I was always a Brighton fan, I spent time training within (and being released by) the youth systems of both clubs. Meanwhile, I couldn’t quite get my head around why they despised each other. Even during youth team matches in the South East Combination, tension would be rife among the respective coaches. I recall a time when my Palace coach discovered I was from Brighton, and said it’d be best if I “relocate to a proper city.”

Ten years later, as a young adult, and off the back of the conversation I’d had with my class mate on the first day of uni, I set about finding out why we hated Palace so much.

There’s a chant to the tune of Hark The Herald Angels Sing, that can be heard reverberating around Albion’s North Stand at every game to this day. It references a particular Boxing Day when, legend has it, Brighton fought forever more, but the Palace fans ran away. That chant is a pertinent clue to the origins of the rivalry, because it was on Boxing Day that we traditionally played against Palace throughout the 50s and 60s, and it was during this period that the urban Palace and bohemian Brighton fans first clashed.

Brighton and Croydon are linked by the A23 and the London to Brighton railway line, and as the years went on the easy access helped the animosity grow. With Brighton isolated in coastal East Sussex with no obvious rival to bicker with, and Palace the forgotten club of London, a team on the outskirts that the cockneys were disinterested in, this rivalry emerged as one of the fiercest between fans. 12,000 Palace supporters came down to the Goldstone for league fixtures, and Brighton regularly sent much the same numbers up to Selhurst.

12,000 Palace supporters came down to the Goldstone for league fixtures

But while the geographical link is undeniable – Selhurst Park is closer to Brighton than any other football league ground, bar newly promoted Crawley – it wasn’t until the 1970s that the rivalry went into overdrive. Bridges had already been burned in the previous decades, but the abhorrence as we now know it, was about to be crystallised for generations to come.

Brighton and Palace were both up and coming sides striving for promotion out of the old third division in the 1976/77 season. As it played out, both teams would be promoted, but the controversy that surrounded the process of promotion became firmly etched into the tapestry of each club.

In the respective dugouts were former Tottenham team-mates Alan Mullery (Brighton) and Terry Venables (Crystal Palace,) who themselves had fallen out years earlier when El Tel was overlooked for the role of Spurs captain – instead Mullery being handed the armband by Bill Nicholson.

Brighton and Palace met five times that season. The first game, a 1-1 draw, was marred by smoke bombs being thrown onto the pitch. Mullery had to appeal for calm before play continued. Then, with each yoyo-ing between the top spot and second in Division Three, they were drawn together in the FA Cup first round – and a triumvirate of epic encounters ensued.

They were drawn together in the FA Cup first round – and a triumvirate of epic encounters ensued.

On 20th November 1976, Rachid Harkouk, an unknown Algerian kid Palace had plucked from the Sunday leagues, came off the bench for his debut and duly scored a memorable solo effort to snatch a late equaliser in a pulsating 2-2 draw. Harkouk was (hopefully affectionately) known as ‘Ratsh*t Hardcock’ by many Palace fans and became something of a cult hero.

“Give them their due, they came for a draw, really worked hard for it and that's what they got,” said Mullery, after Brighton had dominated the game. “I dare them to do it at Crystal Palace.”

In the replay at Selhurst three days later, Brighton dominated, but were pegged back to a draw again, while fans clashed outside the stadium in bloody scenes that were picked up on by the local Croydon newspaper. With no penalty shootouts sanctioned as yet, a second replay was scheduled at a neutral venue, but it was twice postponed due to bad weather, allowing a build up of heightened anticipation.

The second replay finally kicked off at Stamford Bridge on December 6th. Palace went 1-0 up early on, but Brighton had a perfectly good goal disallowed soon after. Peter Ward, Albion’s talisman, was shoved in the back before scoring, yet incredibly a free kick was given against him. Albion’s players and fans were incensed, but what was to follow late in the second half further tested emotions, and turned things more bitter than ever.

Albion’s Chris Catlin was felled in the box by future greasy football agent Barry Silkman

After Albion’s Chris Catlin was felled in the box by future greasy football agent Barry Silkman, Seagulls midfielder Brian Horton stepped up to drive the ball home from 12 yards. However, referee Ron Challis made him retake take it due to encroachment, even though everyone agreed the only players encroaching were wearing the red and blue of Crystal Palace. Horton’s retaken effort was saved by Hammond in the Palace goal and the game ended 1-0 to the Eagles.

Brighton manager Alan Mullery was apoplectic at the final whistle, approaching the referee – forevermore dubbed ‘Challis of Palace’ – in the centre circle.

“He said it was retaken because of encroachment,” Mullery later revealed. “But it was Crystal Palace players who were encroaching, not Brighton players. It was a terrible decision."

An enraged Mullery marched off the pitch, but encountered a further altercation in the tunnel.

“As I was walking up the tunnel,” he told The Guardian, “a load of boiling hot coffee was thrown over me by a Crystal Palace supporter. So I pulled a handful of change out of my pocket, threw it on the floor and shouted, ‘That's all you're worth, Crystal Palace.’ And I'd shout it at anybody who did that.”

Mullery added further insults, and gestures involving his fingers, before storming into the Palace dressing room to confront Terry Venables. It is reported that Mullery threw a fiver on the floor and told El Tel he wouldn't pay that much for the entire Palace team. Finally, Mullers was led away by police and later fined £100 for bringing the game into disrepute.

To spite the Eagles, Brighton, whose nickname had always been the Dolphins, were rebranded as the Seagulls.

Rachid Harkouk starred again as Palace beat us in the final meeting that season, but while both of us were promoted to the second tier, neither won the league – that honour was bestowed upon Mansfield Town.

The 1976/77 season had made an indelible mark on both clubs, and the relationship between the two had reached an irrecoverable state. To spite the Eagles, Brighton, whose nickname had always been the Dolphins, were rebranded as the Seagulls. Palace then pipped us to the second division title by a point two years later, as both sides progressed to the top flight.

The enmity was further stoked by two matches at Selhurst in the ‘80s, one remembered for an incredible five controversial penalties, and a later battle in which Brighton favourite Gerry Ryan had his leg broken – and his career ended – by a horrific tackle from Palace full-back Henry Hughton.

With the rivalry fierce and violence on football terraces commonplace, incidents of hooliganism had become as much a part of the ‘derby’ occasion as the football itself. Brighton fans are alleged to have chased Palace out of the Goldstone Ground and across Hove Park after one league defeat, as well as filling shopping trolleys full of gas canisters and pushing them down a hill into a cluster of Eagles fans. Meanwhile, there were regular disturbances on special train services between Croydon and Brighton, and even rumours that Palace supporters had tried to burn down Brighton Pier.

We lost 3-1 to County that day, a miserable result that made for a dismal drive home down the A23.

The last clash of the 20th Century, and the first in my own living memory, came in 1991, courtesy of the all-too-forgettable Full Members Cup. Palace were enjoying a fruitful period having reached the previous season’s FA Cup final and were flying high with a bright young side containing the likes of Ian Wright – who Brighton had deemed too small for professional football some years earlier – Mark Bright and John Salako. Palace ran out 2-0 winners at the Goldstone Ground that day. The two clubs were seemingly headed in opposite directions: Palace, who eventually won that year’s Full Members Cup with victory over Everton at Wembley, were destined for the new Premier League era, meanwhile Brighton were on a crippling downward spiral.

Albion’s ‘90s descent can be traced to the 1991 play-off final at Wembley, where we took on Notts County for what constituted a place back in the top flight in time for the launch of Sky Sports and all the fortune that the re-branded Premier League would’ve offered. We lost 3-1 to County that day, a miserable result that made for a dismal drive home down the A23.

“We were deflated after that game,” recalls Norman Cook, aka Fatboy Slim, the world-renowned DJ and Brighton and Hove Albion director. “And as if things weren’t bad enough, the drive home was made ten times worse by a group of Palace fans who’d watched the game on telly and then made their way up to the motorway bridges on the Surrey/Sussex border. There they were rubbing salt in the wound, waving derogatory signs and flags.”

Just five years on from narrowly missing out on the top flight that day at Wembley, the Seagulls would be without a nest, scrapping for Football League survival in the old fourth division, and on the brink of financial ruin.

It was more than a decade before the two sides crossed paths again. Eleven years is a long time in football, and the fabric of each club had changed immeasurably. While the Eagles had lost their golden generation and become an also-ran in the second tier – thanks in chief to their haphazard chairman, Ron Noades – the Seagulls had come back from the brink, and while renting the stop-gap Withdean Stadium, we were on the cusp of achieving planning permission for a new stadium.

There was a veritable buzz within the ranks; our date with destiny was upon us and the hype was all-encompassing.

Furthermore, things on the pitch were looking genuinely rosy for the first time in my living memory. We’d just achieved back-to-back league titles with our own breed of young pretenders. Peter Taylor’s Seagulls included a rookie sensation by the name of Bobby Zamora, and with him leading the line, we’d cruised to the League Two championship in 2001 and then again to League One honours in 2002. Now we were back in the second tier for the first time in a decade, and it was there that we’d finally get the opportunity to reacquaint ourselves with the auld enemy.

Palace away was the first and only game we looked out for when the fixture lists were published that summer. I was one of a new generation of fans who’d never experienced a Brighton Vs Palace match. The date was Saturday 28th October 2002, and that morning six thousand of us gathered at Brighton train station for the special service direct to Thornton Heath. There was a veritable buzz within the ranks; our date with destiny was upon us and the hype was all-encompassing.

We took up the entire Arthur Wait stand (that’s long-ways) at Selhurst Park and as the players walked out our noise was deafening. The opening few minutes of that game still represents the best atmosphere I’ve ever experienced at an English football match. We were so charged up, a decade’s worth of pent-up adrenaline coursing through every one of us. We’d nearly gone out of existence, but fought to save our club, and now here we were, back where we wanted to be. Back at Palace. Back in the big time. Back for good…

I still quiver when I hear the name: Andrew Johnson. Even when he was on fire in the Premier League and got called up to the England team under Sven Goran Eriksson, I couldn’t bear to watch. The bald Eagle pounced to put Palace ahead inside five minutes on Saturday 28th October 2002, and went on to score a hat-trick that day. Each of his goals was greeted by the most annoyingly overzealous Tannoy announcement: “Eagles goalscorer is number nine Andy Johnson. That’s ANDY… JOHNSON!” My skin still crawls.

While we stood powerless, bricks and bottles were thrown at us out of nearby blocks of flats

Alongside Johnson, Wayne Routledge, who I’d played alongside during my spell with Crystal Palace’s academy a decade earlier, ran riot for Palace. I was devastated for more reasons than one – it felt as if someone had taken the batteries out of me. It was clear our League One title winners were out of their depth, while our one superstar, Bobby Zamora, had one of his quietest games in the blue and white stripes.

Humiliatingly, we were 5-0 down before the hour mark, but due to security concerns, we were kept inside the stadium for the remainder of the game, which, with Palace knocking the ball around us like Brazil against Kuwait reserves, was a mild form of torture.

The final whistle seemed to take an eternity, but when it came it was something of a relief – A) because we hadn’t been beaten by more than five, and B) we could now get the hell out of here. Or at least that’s what we thought.

Unfortunately, Palace fans had made their way to the exit of our stand in an attempt to goad us – they’re good at that, it seems – so we were held inside the stand for the best part of an hour after that. When we finally saw tarmac it was pitch black and we were rounded up like sheep; thousands of us penned into one street in Croydon’s depressing concrete jungle and held there for another hour, although it may have been longer.

While we stood powerless, bricks and bottles were thrown at us out of nearby blocks of flats. I’ve never been involved in any violence at a football match, and having been smashed 5-0, collectively we had no fight left in us. Yet apparently we were being punished for the behaviour of previous generations. It was definitely up there with the worst days of my life.

Riot vans guarded the parameters of every train station in and around the city, and as far a field as the quiet seaside town of Seaford

Tonight we travel to Selhurst Park again. Palace are four places below us in the Championship’s lukewarm pool of mid-table respectability. A mass scale police operation surrounded our last meeting, at our new stadium back in late September, with riot vans guarding the parameters of every train station in and around the city, and as far a field as the quiet seaside town of Seaford.

Having taken the lead in the seventh minute through our latest hero, Craig Mackail-Smith, a pretty mundane game ensued. Until the last ten minutes, that is, when Palace came alive. Quite how we conceded three goals in the last tenth of the game is bewildering. But somehow we lost 3-1, with Glenn Murray, the striker who walked out on us for Palace last summer, scoring in the 87th minute to rub salt into a pretty severe wound.

We have recovered since then, and tonight, for the first time in my living memory, the Seagulls can feasibly claim to be soaring on a higher flightpath to the Eagles. Both clubs have burgeoning sides full of exciting young players, but Palace are about to lose theirs. While they might’ve reached the semi-final of the Carling Cup recently, we’re flying with a trailing wind having beaten Newcastle in the FA Cup at the weekend.

"I would love to be playing in this game,” says our gaffer Gus Poyet. “I'm sure the players know how much it means to the fans and this is the one game we want to win this season.” You’ve got that right Gus.

Whether we’ll avenge the latest disappointment by turning them over on their own patch this evening, I really don’t know. Fact is, we could get done 5-0 again.

But a decade on from Andy Johnson’s hat-trick, and 35 years since Alan Mullery’s tantrums and Ratshit Hardcock’s heroics, the wider football community can be in no doubt that the strange and unlikely rivalry between the Seagulls and the Eagles is very much alive and kicking.

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