As the Albion approach another trip to St Mary’s, for those who have memory of it, it’s hard not to cast your mind back to what is at the time of writing Albion’s only win there on 15 November 2009. A night when in Gus Poyet’s first game in charge of the Albion, they ran out 3-1 winners in a victory so memorable the third goal is still played in the game opening montage at the AMEX. But to put into context why this win which began the Poyet era is so fondly remembered, we need to go back to the beginning of the previous 2008/09 season.
The summer of 2008 followed a season of promise but one ultimately of disappointment. After missing out on the playoffs, manager Dean Wilkins was sacked. Then chairman Dick Knight subsequently appointed Micky Adams as manager, bringing him back to the club seven years after leaving the side he’d built and led to win the division three title (and one that would go on to win the division two title after he left to join Premier League Leicester City). Appointing a man loved by the Albion fans meant the team began the 2008/09 season with hope of promotion back to the second tier, but one which was in-fact a season of struggle and heartache.
Micky Adams returned to the club with a buzz and a spring in his step, incredibly excited about the season ahead: “I’m delighted to be back. It’s a smashing place with good people and I’m looking forward to the opportunity.” Whilst the season started with promise as the Albion picked up 7 points from the first three games, the buzz quickly faded as the team then didn’t win a game in the next ten. This was a run that showed the flaws of Adams as a manager, with even the most devoted unable to “keep the faith”. Whilst there were high points that season, notably knocking out Man City in the League cup on penalties, most will remember with horror the 1-0 home defeat to a nine-man Walsall team that preceded it.
To sum up the Adams sequel was a disaster, and when he finally left the club by “mutual consent” in March the club was sat in the relegation zone, far from being in promotion contention as was planned in the summer. In a surprise response from the club (and one which left many feeling underwhelmed after failing to appoint first choice target Stockport manager Jim Gannon) the Albion appointed former Yeovil manager Russell Slade as his replacement. However, what was to follow was a truly great escape, picking up 13 points from a possible 15 in the last five games of the season. This run included a memorable 2-1 win away at Bristol Rovers on a Tuesday night. A game the Albion won despite going behind to a goal from soon to be England international Rickie Lambert, and one that saw them move out the relegation zone with two games of the season to go.
As a university student living in Bristol at the time and against any real logic or reason, I spent much of that season travelling back to as many home games as my student loan and part-time job could stretch to. So, for me and the other 700 Albion fans there, this night felt like some form of payback for all those horrible home defeats. As well as the already mentioned 1-0 defeat to nine-man Walsall, 4-1 to Scunthorpe and 4-0 to Crewe both spring to mind but there were plenty more. Therefore, the celebrations on the terraces that night in the suburbs of Bristol were wild, much out of relief than anything else and I remember little of the celebrations that followed in Bristol City Centre later that night aside from singing Gary Hart name, a lot! Brighton then secured safety with a 1-0 win at home to Stockport on the final day, cue another memorable Withdean pitch invasion. A highlight of which was the sight of manager Russell Slade being lifted aloft on the pitch by Albion fans at the end of the game, I don’t think he ever got his cap back.
In contrast to the Albion’s subsequent rise, opponents Stockport County went into administration just before the end of the 08/09 season and went on a downwards curve from that point on. An Albion target only a few months prior, Jim Gannon was made redundant and after three relegations the club now find themselves playing in the semi-professional National league north, the sixth tier of English football, with Jim Gannon back in charge. Football eh.
A couple of weeks after the end the season an event occurred that would shape the history of the clubs short to medium term future, when Tony Bloom took over as chairman from Dick Knight and took majority control of the club. In doing so he secured the funding for the club’s new stadium at Falmer and what has followed since has been an ever-increasing investment in the club from Bloom coupled with ever-increasing improvement on the pitch.
That summer a spending spree followed as Bloom got his cheque book out to give Russell Slade the money to build on the impressive survival of the previous season. But once again after a summer of optimistic talk of promotion the club found itself at the wrong end of the table competing with a Southampton side faced with a 10-point deduction due to going into administration. Whilst Elliott Bennett turned out to be a great signing, Liam Dickinson and the on-loan Forest duo Matt Thornhill and Aaron Davies were less successful. The club also failed to renew the signing of the talismanic striker Lloyd Owusu who had been so key to survival the previous season and others who had thrived in that period found their form declined, such as Albion legend Gary Hart.
After the underwhelming start to season and with the club still scarred from the horrors of the season before, Slade was sacked in November. This was Tony Bloom first sacking as Chairman and proof he had the ruthlessness required for the job. Whilst in hindsight it looks a clear and obvious decision to make now, many of the Albion faithful wanted to show loyalty to Slade after the heroics of the previous season. This was a ruthlessness that it could be said former chairman Dick Knight lacked in his final season, giving Micky Adams enough time to disprove the faith shown in him ten times over. Bloom said on sacking Slade: “Russell is a good man, which made it an even harder decision to take, but it is one which has been made in the club’s best interests.”
After Steve Coppell ruled himelf out of a return to the Withdean, in his place Bloom appointed Gus Poyet. Gus was a man who unlike Slade and Adams had no managerial experience to fall on despite his high profile reputation in England from his playing days. As a result of his profile and outspoken nature, Gus was a man who attracted headlines in the national press for good and for bad from the moment he was appointed to the moment he left the club somewhat in disgrace. That day at St Mary’s in mid-November started his Albion career with a bang and there were plenty more to come.
So, going into the game at St Mary’s the Albion were once again down the wrong end of the table, sitting just above the relegation zone with only 14 points from their opening 15 games. They were however above opponents Southampton by two points on account of the previously mentioned points deduction Southampton had received. The relatively close league positions meant this was a big game for both sides, with the loser set to be sitting in the relegation zone at the end of the game.
With the game live on Sky Sports it meant the Albion were introduced to the majesty of what a Gus Poyet led Albion side could achieve in front of the whole country. And for those not at the game as it was an international break it was also watched with the backdrop of the iconic commentary sounds of Martin Tyler. The team did so whilst wearing the wonderfully awful yellow and navy striped away kit, a shirt I still wear to the gym with a distorted level of joy. This was a kit that the Albion had used a lot the previous season as it’s second kit and was now getting a rare outing the following season whilst being used as a third kit.
The game started well for the Albion after current-day man of the moment Glenn Murray turned in a first time cross from Dean Cox. Murray then scored a second minutes later, where after a nice one-two with Nicky Forster, he turned the ball home after initially hitting the post. Murray had missed much of the previous season with a hernia injury and when he did play often did so clearly not being fully fit. Nonetheless he impressively still managed to score 12 goals in a struggling side. This season he would play more regularly, but only better his goal total by two, often at this point gaining some rightly made criticism about his work-rate and discipline.
These frustrations mostly arose from the fact he was clearly the most talented player in the team but often didn’t show it. Russell Slade comments showed he agreed with that thinking. At the beginning of the 2009/10 season he called Murray the “best striker outside the Championship”, but then in October publicly criticised Murray for a sending off in a home defeat to Tranmere stating it cost the team the chance of a comeback. The following season the Albion would consistently see the best of Murray, top scoring with 22 goals as the Albion won League one in its final season at the Withdean.
Just before the end of the first half Southampton pulled a goal back through a penalty from a veteran of last season’s win for the Albion at Bristol Rovers, Rickie Lambert. The penalty was given after another future England international Adam Lallana was brought down by the prior season’s player of the season Andy Whing. He was a player who caught the heart of the fans playing at right-back and was the antithesis of the generally accepted perception a young Glenn Murray. Despite Whing’s limited skill and talent he made up for it with his commitment and hard-work. Whing was a typical lower league fan’s favourite and after a successful season personally signed an extended contract with the Albion amid reported interest from Leeds United.
Whilst this moment in the game was overshadowed by the brilliance of the Albion performance, it signalled the end of Whing’s time with the Albion. As Poyet imprinted his expansive possession-based approach on the team, Whing’s limitations were exposed. He made only two more league starts for the Albion, both in three goal defeats to Leeds and Norwich respectively, and in both of which he was substituted before the end of the game. Whing ultimately lost his place in the team to Arsenal youngster Gavin Hoyte, a man originally brought in as his back-up. He initially left on loan to Chesterfield and then moved to Leyton Orient the following October, initially again on loan but subsequently permanently, linking up again with former his Albion boss Russell Slade.
Then came the moment in the game still played on the screens at the AMEX to this day. Gary Dicker received the ball midway inside the Southampton half and played the ball to the already infamous Liam Dickinson. In one of Dickinson’s few high points playing for the Albion he received the ball out wide, beat the full-back and squared the ball to Andrew Crofts on the edge of the box who turned it home. Despite the pass ending up slightly ahead of him, Crofts stretched out his right foot and turned the ball home to finish off Southampton.
Whilst that Southampton team contained several players who would go on to achieve better things, a notable face to Albion fans playing for the Saints that day was former Albion captain Dean Hammond. Despite playing for the Albion over a hundred times after graduating from the club’s centre of excellence, he was often a maligned figure and was only fully appreciated at the club when he returned on loan for the 2012/13 season after going on to achieve consecutive promotions with Southampton. Hammond clearly surpasses his reputation in Sussex, underlined by praise I remember him receiving in a piece of Match of the Day analysis from Alan Shearer two year later. This was received as he featured regularly in a Leicester side that would remarkably beat the drop before losing his place in the side as the club went on to win the league the following season.
Over the course of the season Poyet made his mark on the club on and off the pitch. There was a large turnaround of players, with only three of those that started that night at St Mary’s starting the first game of the following season. In successfully implementing his vision Poyet led the club to promotion to the Championship after just over a season and a half since joining and only two seasons after the club was close to facing the possibility of trips to Morecambe and Accrington in the bottom tier of the football league.
The two seasons with Poyet as manager at the AMEX that followed is one of the most exciting times I remember as an Albion fan. With the club playing self-professed “F’ing brilliant” football and with the new stadium finally opened, that team created some memories many Albion fans will hold dear for many years. Having seen the club struggle in the league below in a converted athletics stadium only two seasons before, the way fortunes quickly turned around was a testament to Poyet’s quality as a coach and a tactician.
That said Poyet wasn’t the perfect manager, as he often said himself, its complicated. His time at the club was often tainted by his sometimes-absurd media outbursts and his relationship with the board of directors was often strained by his constant criticism of the club’s transfer policy and threats that he would leave if he felt the club had “reached its ceiling”. This rollercoaster ride culminated in a fittingly chaotic climax which began with the play-off semi-final defeat to rival Crystal Palace. After the game Poyet made several comments suggesting he might resign and with the ultimately unrelated story of human faeces being found in the away dressing room at the AMEX hanging over the club like a bad smell, Poyet was initially suspended and later sacked for allegations of Gross Misconduct.
Whilst Poyet has gone on to have a mixed record in management since, his time at the Albion still stands out as a remarkable period of work in his career. Whilst he was far from perfect, we should remember that he inherited a poor side and despite this he quickly improved the club’s fortunes remarkably. Whilst much of this was whilst riding the crest of a Tony Bloom/new stadium wave, to take a club from the brink of the bottom tier of the football league to the brink of the top tier is some achievement.
To fully appreciate how good Poyet was as manager for the Albion amongst all the tiresome chaos that came with him, we must first take into account the tiresome chaos at the club that proceeded him. Whilst as the saying goes, the grass is always greener on the other side, with Poyet the grass was always green and that night at St Mary’s demonstrated that as much as any game.