I remember turning to the person next to me before kick-off and saying: “won one, drawn one, we are due a loss”. I didn’t quite know at the time to such the extent that this was true. A 12-game run of defeats was to follow that left the club facing an instant return to the third tier.
It was 17th August 2002 and after back to back title wins the Albion had appeared to have taken to life in the second tier of English football with relative ease. Winning 3-1 away at Burnley on the opening day, followed by a goalless draw at home to a Coventry team facing a second consecutive year outside the top flight for the first time in a decade after relegation from the Premier League in 2001.
After the Burnley win, the newly appointed manager and former director of youth Martin Hinshelwood spoke, of the possibility of a third consecutive promotion: “It has to be rated an impossible dream to have three successive promotion seasons; but that still does not stop us having ambition.” But the next 13 games would prove to make a mockery of the mere suggestion.
So, with four points from the first two games, the following Saturday the Albion hosted Norwich on a bright summers August day, but one that would soon turn gloomy. Bobby Zamora was the talisman of the team at the time and the main goal threat. But to the Albion fans horror towards the end of the first half he hobbled off injured, with what turned out to be a knee injury that would keep him out for much of the run of defeats that were to follow. With Bobby out this ultimately left the Albion with a hole in their side of monumental proportions for a run of games that would prove pivotal in the season.
The game itself was from there on in a comfortable 2-0 win for Norwich, one in which Brighton failed to register even a shot on target. With Bobby gone this left youth team graduates Shaun Wilkinson and Daniel Marney to lead the line and neither did so with much success. These were young players of potential who were thrown into first team football ahead of schedule because of the limited finances available at the time and it showed.
The honeymoon was over for Hinshelwood and he had to find a solution to the missing goal threat. After the Norwich game he admitted the team needed to strengthen and the next day they did just that by signing veteran striker Paul Kitson. A signing met with an initial air of excitement but one that would turn out to be a bad one. Kitson’s time at the Albion was dogged by injury and when he did play he was ineffectual, that winner at Reading aside. Since retirement Kitson has been declared bankrupt following some failed investments and large betting losses, a sadly common story amongst retired professional footballers.
Later that month after three defeats in a row the club was getting panicked. As a solution they added more new signings to the squad, including a young striker on loan from Arsenal, Graham Barrett. Another striker who would struggle to make an impact in front of goal that season.
Barrett signed on the same day as veteran centre-back and soon to be Albion legend Guy Butters. Although for him this would be a season to forget, he would later redeem himself by helping the Albion make an instant return to the second tier via the playoffs the following season. They both made their debuts in a spirited 4-2 defeat to eventual champions Portsmouth, a game in which the Albion played well and led 2-1 but ultimately lost again. Sadly, for Barrett it was a debut to forget after he was dismissed late on for violent conduct, a sign of more frustrating times ahead. However, Portsmouth manager Harry Redknapp said the Albion had given the eventual champions them the best game so far that season and it left the Albion with some optimism to take forward.
However, what followed would kill off any post-promotion and post-Portsmouth optimism that remained. First there was a 1-0 defeat away to Millwall when the hosts broke down the Albion’s resistance to score a late winner and continue Albion’s run of defeats. Next a 4-2 defeat at home to former landlords Gillingham, and despite the return of talisman Zamora in a home game against Grimsby, a run of four one goal defeats left the Albion bottom of the league and facing an unwelcome record of ten successive defeats.
The pressure got too much for Hinshelwood who was inevitably sacked, but it was his replacement that caused a surprise. Steve Coppell was the most successful manager in the history of the Albion’s fiercest rivals, Crystal Palace. So, when in early October he was appointed Brighton manager, it wasn’t met with resounding support. Coincidently it was also almost two weeks from the first competitive match between the two rivals in a decade, which added an extra spice to proceedings.
First though came a 4-2 home defeat to Sheffield United, which was a fiery start to Coppell’s reign. A game after which as the Argus put it Coppell will soon realise that the Albion “don’t do boring”. Six goals were scored that day including a hat trick by Carl Asaba for United and Graham Barrett’s only goal for the Albion. But it is a defeat that will mostly be remembered for the late Albion capitulation after leading 2-0. This capitulation included two late penalties that won the game for United and left referee Phil Prosser with an infamous reputation at the Withdean, one that would stick for years to come. With a surname like that it will be easy for you to imagine the chants that followed these contentious decisions.
Then there was the trip to Selhurst Park, the home of arch rivals and Coppell’s former club Crystal Palace. What followed is one of the most infamous defeats in club’s history. An Andy Johnson hat-trick contributed to a 5-0 score-line. Any hope that remained was killed that day and the Albion had hit rock bottom.
After the excitement of consecutive promotions this terrible run had an incredibly demoralising effect on the club. Despite a turnaround under Coppell and a spirited fight against relegation, ultimately the run of 13 games without a win left the club with too much to do and the club were relegated to the third tier at the end of the season.