Step by step, home by home, the memorable story of Brighton's rise to a thriving club with a glamour FA Cup date on its mind
Rarely have I felt so moved inside a football ground. Rarely have I felt so compelled to clamber out of the press box, pelt down the stairs and scamper on to the pitch. That was the sensation on the last day of the Goldstone, when it felt like a significant uprising was taking place which stretched far beyond the boundaries of Sussex. This was a moment to sum up the need for football lovers to resist clubs being bought and sold by investors who saw them as concrete, iron and conveniently strippable assets. Nothing more.
Albion were teetering over the abyss. The DIY tycoons Bill Archer and Greg Stanley had first appeared four years previously to provide £800,000 to save the club from a winding-up order. But it was no benevolent donation. It later emerged the money was a bank loan, secured using the stadium as collateral. When they sold the Goldstone, and arranged the demolition date, no provisions had been made for where or how the club would continue to play. They were being left to rot.
Against this backdrop, the team were in danger of falling out of professional football. It felt like everyone in town wanted to be part of this crusade.
Behind the sloping, half-decrepit East Stand a few hundred Albion fans who missed out on tickets for the final home game went knocking on doors, offering to pay to stand in the gardens of houses overlooking the stadium. Even the opposition team offered a moving gesture during the warm-up, parading a "Rovers players salute Brighton fans" banner. There but for the grace of God went they.
Looking back on an excerpt from the report written while watching the Goldstone's farewell, there was powerful defiance amid the frustrated sadness.
Observer report: Brighton 1 Doncaster Rovers 0
This was Brighton's equinox, the moment when the past met the future, a time for retrospection and anticipation, when golden memories gave way to a brighter future. In the 67th minute, Stuart Storer scored possibly the most important goal in this ground's 95-year history. It was a strike, lashed in from close range, on which Albion's past was celebrated and future hopes pinned.
Inevitably, Brighton's delirious fans streamed on to the pitch at the final whistle, ecstatic. Even the FA, having already deducted two points from Brighton for a pitch invasion, surely wouldn't object to such heart-warming scenes. Grandmothers were walking out holding seats and chunks of turf.
It was a proud rebellion. The Goldstone was lovingly ransacked for souvenirs. When the final farewell was over, I left the ground with mixed emotions. The people who really owned this place, spiritually if not financially, had set an uplifting example. The investors who unfortunately held the paperwork left me sickened.
Albion avoided relegation on the final day of the season, at Hereford, who went down instead. With one fire put out, the bigger inferno needed dealing with. Archer and company needed running out of this football town, and fortunately for Brighton, a man whose name suggested he would unfailingly fight the good fight – Dick Knight – was onside. All that was missing was the armour. He would be the perfect saviour.
Knight had been introduced to Liam Brady, the former Brighton manager who took it upon himself to gather a consortium of local, forward-thinking businessmen who loved the club to try to wrestle control. Together they plotted, and started to administer the medicine that today sees Albion in such rude health. Knight was a dreamer. Determined, persuasive and creative. But most wonderfully, he was a man with expansive dreams. The polar opposite of Archer. Exactly what Albion needed.
Knight had to play a longer game than he had banked on. With Brighton renting at Gillingham, Archer wouldn't go away. For a while he refused to sign over his majority shareholding and kept his people inside the club. Meanwhile Brighton's supporters faced a long trip to watch "home" games in Kent.
Observer report: Brighton 1 Macclesfield 1
The attendance of 2,336 was a decent turnout, in spite of the two-hour train journey. For the homeless club, finding more reasonable temporary accommodation is the big issue and Knight, the chairman-designate, has a meeting planned with the League to try to replace Priestfield with the New Den as soon as possible. "My priority is to get to Millwall, which is half the distance for our fans," he said.
An alternative port of call for the fans is Mellor in Lancashire. Supporters are planning a weekend camping in Archer's home village to increase the pressure on their unpopular owner … It is about time Archer relinquished his position as chairman and endorsed the takeover. Then, perhaps, the club can move on.
The club were in their second season as tenants at Gillingham, but with Archer finally ousted, and Knight working tirelessly to get his club back in familiar surroundings, things were looking up.
Observer interview with Brighton manager Brian Horton
Was the job what he expected? "No," he replies, without a second's hesitation. "Tougher. But now the club is a lot more stable." The cleansing process has trickled through like a waterfall. When Horton took over, the reserves and youths were propping up their respective leagues as well as the first team. Now all are encouragingly placed in mid-table. The kids are in the FA Youth Cup third round, and the club are working hard to develop more like Gareth Barry, who could earn Brighton as much as £1m from Aston Villa.
That has not deluded anyone about their status, though. "Albion Aid" continue to raise funds for the club, though how far the £800 in the buy-a-player kitty will go is open to question."
Things are about to change. The good news is that a return to their heartland on the Sussex coast finally looks realistic. Work is under way to upgrade Withdean athletics track into a 6,000-seat temporary home. Plans for permanent accommodation at a site near the university in Falmer, north-east of town, have been proposed. "Knowing we are coming back to Brighton has certainly given me a lift. It's a travesty what happened to this football club," adds Horton.
Knight chooses one of his favourite haunts for lunch. He chain-smokes, talks relentlessly, and serves up more zealous fervour for his football club as a cause than any chairman I have ever seen. He also shows me the plans. Unrolling some architectural drawings, the future for Brighton & Hove Albion looks too good to be true.
Observer interview with Dick Knight
Brighton's miraculous recovery, based as much on imagination as determination, has become a blueprint for how beleaguered clubs can rise up to save themselves. As chairman Knight points out: "Everything that is happening to this club is all the sweeter because of where we were four years ago." Comparing their darkest hours to their current cheerfulness is like looking at before-and-after pictures in adverts for cosmetic surgery. To complete the makeover, though, Brighton have one crucial issue on the agenda: the stadium.
"A team going places needs a place to go" is the slogan fronting the plans for a 23,000-capacity, £40m arena at Falmer. Two months ago the club submitted a planning application for what would be an extraordinary new home. On the edge of the South Downs, it has been designed to blend into the natural environment. "It is moulded into the hills, sculpted into the landscape, as smoothly curved as a Henry Moore. In fact the only square lines are the pitch," enthuses Knight. "I want to call it the Beautiful Stadium!"
The long, complex – and typically passionate – battle for planning permission is under way. Come the end of the season, another booster. Brighton win promotion.
The seasons they spent at Withdean were a positive example of making the best of a bad hand. An athletics stadium that used to have a capacity of around 1,000 was upgraded as far as possible. But the limitations were there for all to see. No accommodation for fans behind either goal, pitchside portable buildings as dressing rooms. On the pitch, though, Brighton flew. Another promotion came. The manager, Peter Taylor, watched it confirmed on teletext as their rivals faltered. The top scorer, Bobby Zamora, was in the car, receiving updates from his mum on the mobile. The next weekend, they turned "promoted" into "champions". After watching the celebrations, a bear hug from Knight made it all the sweeter.
Observer report: Brighton 0 Swindon 0
The Brighton miracle just gets better and better. A club who five years ago were on their knees, homeless, broke and on the brink of toppling out of the league, will today be nursing hangovers in honour of a remarkable revival.
Becoming Second Division champions, one year after topping the Third Division, is a momentous achievement. Winning successive leagues is a feat only managed six times before in English football.
In the League's quirkiest arena, leafy Withdean, where the most intrepid fans climbed trees in the woodlands behind the temporary stand to lend their support, they will see First Division football next season – a tier they left a decade ago on a tumble towards despair. The chairman Dick Knight said: "This is living proof that miracles do happen."
You said it, Dick. You said it. And there would be more.
John Prescott's office sends the message that the new stadium at Falmer gets the green light. It is all systems go. This epic struggle for a football club to have a beautiful, spacious home to call their own is finally headed for a happy ending. The prolonged move, from their Goldstone eviction to opening the doors at the Amex, would take 14 years in the end.
About 48 hours before a glamour FA Cup tie against Arsenal, a delivery of seats is stuck on a boat from China that has been delayed because the ports have been struggling with the snow. Somehow, the club plan to get them in position for what will be a record crowd of more than 27,000. That is some distance from the 2,336 that traipsed to Gillingham. Right now, a retail park lies on the site of the Goldstone. The Withdean is back in its guise as a neat, municipal stadium (Brighton's Ladies team play there). The Amex is a modern footballing monument nestling on the fringes of the South Downs.
Some people thought Knight was too much of a dreamer, that he was unrealistic and had ideas that sounded like sheer fantasy. But he was a visionary. "The travails of Brighton & Hove Albion have become a parable of what can go wrong in football," he once told me. "But it also serves as a beacon, to show how you can fight back against the money men and the manipulators, and survive." And thrive.