Football is often hyped up and given a depth of meaning that cannot be justified. That said, there was no need to hype up that sunny day on Saturday 6th August 2011 when Doncaster Rovers came to Sussex for a game of football. This was because it was not just any game of football, but the first competitive game at Brighton and Hove Albion Football Club’s long awaited, stubbornly fought for and much anticipated new stadium. As much of that day’s events off the pitch were going to be memorable, the events on the pitch had to ramp it up a notch to have a chance of sticking in the memory too, and how they did.
The game was to be played against the team Brighton had played in their final home game at their last permanent home the Goldstone Ground back in 1997, Doncaster Rovers. In Dick Knight’s autobiography “Mad Man”, he stated how a few years before the stadium opened he spoke to the Football League asking them if it were possible that when the new stadium was opened the team could be at home the first weekend of the season, not be on tv so it could be on a Saturday at 3pm and be against Doncaster once again, and coincidently that’s exactly where we found ourselves.
On that famous day back in 1997 it was a goal from Stuart Storer that won the day for the Albion. It’s one that will forever be associated with Jim Proudfoot’s famous BBC Southern Counties radio commentary where he simply shouts “Storer!!!” as the ball crosses the line. It’s always memorable when a piece of commentary comes along that sums up the emotion of the moment perfectly like this. In that moment the uncontrollable joy and excitement in the commentator’s voice captured perfectly the relief and elation of: the goal, the eventual survival from relegation out of the Football League and avoidance of what would otherwise probably have been the subsequent inevitable extinction for the club.
That day in 1997 was also Dick Knight’s first game as Chairman-elect. This was before officially taking up the role after the Albion’s dramatic survival from relegation on the last day of the season with a 1-1 draw in that well chronicled game away to the team who we stayed up at the expense of, Hereford. In fact, it wasn’t until well into the following season during the Albion’s 2-year exile in Gillingham that Dick Knight officially took up the role from the infamous Bill Archer. This is another story though, and one best told in Dick Knight’s pre-mentioned autobiography.
Fourteen years on Dick was in Hove Park with the Major of Brighton to unveil a heritage board as a memorial to the Club’s previous home the Goldstone Ground, before marking the official opening of the new stadium ahead of a friendly game with Spurs that ended in a 3-2 defeat for the Albion later that day. This time it was in his current role as Life President of the club with Tony Bloom taking over as owner and Chairman two years before in order to fund the building of the new stadium.
So, a week later it was the fateful day with first game of the season taking place at the new ground. I remember waking up excited, ready and raring to get to the ground early. Sadly, there was still a fair amount of time to burn until we needed to leave. But in the meantime, there was plenty of Albion related stuff to watch and read ahead of that momentous afternoon to get in the mood.
With the Premier League not due to start until the following weekend, the coverage of the opening weekend of the Football League took precedent. And with the narrative of the day already set, the Albion’s game was to be the one to watch. This focus included live commentary of the game being broadcast on BBC Radio 5 Live, a novelty at the time. Adding to the novelty, the BBC One’s Football Focus programme was going to be broadcast live from the stadium, a further sign of the significance of the day.
Unlike today’s level of exposure that the Albion receive, we shouldn’t forget that being on national radio let alone the television was very much then a novelty and a rarity for a club that has spent most of its history in the third tier of English football.
After years of struggle in the lower leagues of English football, us Brighton fans had become used to waiting for a 30 second short video of our game each week as part of a long football league highlights package that jumped between various terrestrial channels and formats. With the only mention of the club’s game on BBC Five Live’s sports report programme broadcast a cursory mention of the score in the weekly classified scores round up.
There were some fans keeping themselves occupied in other ways. Fifteen Brighton fans rode in a charity bike ride between Brighton’s four Stadium’s since they formed in 1901. A lot simpler if the club hadn’t ground shared with Gillingham! Starting at the Goldstone ground they drove to the Priestfield Stadium, Gillingham. They then rode 65 miles to Withdean Stadium and then finally onto Brighton’s new home, The American Express Community Stadium.
I was partaking in a less physically arduous build up to the game. As the hours ticked by, I ensured we left home early to make sure we could take in the atmosphere at ground. So, there was no time to watch the BBC Football Focus team lap up the new facilities. Instead that would be recorded and watched a number of times over the following weeks in my household, as I suspect it was in many other Albion households too.
Instead we wanted to get there early and not miss anything the day had to offer. We took the train to the ground and found ourselves one of many waiting at Polegate station. Clearly gone were the days of recognising the loyal few making the trip to Withdean stadium, now it felt like the club suddenly were a big deal, in Sussex at least.
It’s worth remembering this even today, it was not long ago that the club was a fringe club to support in a county for which it was the only professional football club (that is until Crawley’s relatively recent promotion to the football league, albeit in the furthest reaches of West Sussex). It is easy to forget that up to the end of the Withdean era the club was a much smaller outfit, with little national exposure let alone international exposure, with home games attracting only four figure attendances. But, still to this day the club is fighting that battle to gain superiority in Sussex over the Premier League’s top clubs. At the 2018 fans forum when asked about information on how the club was planning to take advantage of its new found international exposure the club receives as part of the Premier League, with his feet placed firmly on the ground chief executive Paul Barber stated the club were “still trying to dominate Sussex”.
Up to this point the Withdean era was my only experience of following the Albion, so I wasn’t sure what to expect when arriving at the clubs long awaited permanent home. I will always remember the awe I felt seeing the stadium come into full view whilst walking up the slope towards the stadium from the station. After so many years of dreaming, we were finally here. The weather was perfect, and in that moment it felt like everything had come together for the perfect day. This was our day to celebrate our football club and our new home, but whilst it was all this and more we would quickly learn Doncaster weren’t here to roll over and let us have our day, more on that later.
First things first though, when we arrived at the stadium my first thought was how it instantly felt like home. Whilst Withdean was a place that held special memories it always felt temporary, this was different. With the Albion’s name, colours and badge plastered everywhere possible, along with the permanence of the facilities this was an altogether different experience.
After taking in the initial awe of our surroundings we quickly made our way inside. But after going through the turnstiles, I was instantly mesmerised by the smell of the pies and the sight of copious amounts of Harvey’s! After consuming said pie and pint, we made our way to our seats. Every seat had next to it a flag, and as you sat down you quickly realised once again this was no makeshift temporary stand, the padded seat, the legroom, this was our Wembley! Of course, we’d all been briefed on what to expect when buying our season tickets and in various pre-season Albion related previews, but seeing it all with your own eyes was nonetheless a tad overwhelming.
As we approached kick off the noise of the crowd and the music from the PA system got louder, and as the club’s well devised “Fan-zone” started the noise became ever louder and the flags began to fly. This was all in tandem with the club’s new sprinkler system, with the flowing arches that were being unleashed from the sprinklers into the air watering the grass to ensure the pitch was slick for then manager Gus Poyet’s slick passing style.
It all made for some spectacle and if the hairs on the back of your neck weren’t standing to attention yet, they certainly would be when the team came on to the pitch and the Sussex by the Sea music began to play. BBC Sussex co-commentator for the day described the scene as akin to an Italian Serie A game and he wasn’t far wrong.
As the game started it was hard to relax, and the nerves and tension of the crowd clearly got to the players. Understandably it wasn’t long before those emotions over spilled. After a number of successful loan spells with the club Kazenga Lua Lua was finally now a permanent signing for the Albion. A firm fan favourite for his quick dribbling and goalscoring ability, he went on one of his typical jinking runs into the box and went down under what many felt was an unfair challenge by Doncaster striker James Hayter. The crowd and Albion players ferociously claimed it was a penalty, but the ref said no and instead booked Lua Lua for diving. In the aftermath the emotive nature of manager Gus Poyet got the better of him and after what referee Eddie Ilderton felt were overzealous protestations, which comically included kicking over a crate of water bottles, he was sent from the dugout and watched the remainder of the game from the media section.
Not long after striker Ashley Barnes missed a chance to score for the Albion, something that was seemingly becoming a staple of any Albion game of that time. Barnes shot beat the keeper Gary Woods by squirming the ball underneath him, but Woods had nonetheless done enough to take the pace off the shot which was cleared off the line by a Doncaster defender to keep the scores level.
Then more evidence the emotion of the day was getting to the players on the pitch but this time for the opposition. Ashley Barnes received the ball near the halfway line and was on the receiving end of a bad challenge from Richard Naylor, who despite being out of control with two feet in the air was only booked. In this moment it was clear referee Ilderton was losing control of the game, the crowd and players ferociously protested again to no avail. But as the game went on the bad tackles and animosity continued, which would shape the game dramatically.
Then came the first goal at the AMEX, but in classic Albion style it was for the opposition. Billy Sharp’s shot trundled slowly towards goal off the post and over the line, just. The style of the goal was seemingly a poetic symbol of the club’s long journey to get its permanent home, but at the time it was hard to appreciate that due to the pure frustration of going behind on our big day. But this is the unpredictable and sometimes cruel nature of football, and with that Billy Sharp became the first person to score a competitive goal at the Amex Stadium in an Albion first team fixture.
Soon after came half time and another chance for more fans to sample the pies and the Harvey’s beer, but soon we were back underway. Brighton made a change bringing off the already booked and unpredictable Lua Lua for the more dependable Craig Noone. And after another bad tackle, this time from Lewis Dunk on goalscorer Billy Sharp, Sharp was required to be stretched off and a replacement in the form of Giles Barnes was brought on.
It was initially feared to be a leg break for Sharp, but it wasn’t as bad as first thought and Sharp was back in the team within a matter of weeks. After the game Doncaster assistant manager Richard O’Kelly said it was a “horrendous” and “spiteful” tackle on Sharp despite the referee only deeming it worthy of a yellow. Lewis Dunk subsequently apologised to Sharp wishing him a speedy recovery. That said rather than being spiteful, this was a challenge from Lewis Dunk that instead showed his inexperience and over eagerness to impress. He had been drafted into the team due to injuries to more the experienced centre backs Tommy Elphick and Adam El Abd, but whilst Elphick was out Dunk would go on to do enough to convince manager Poyet that with him along with Adam El Abd and captain Gordon Greer available, Elphick was surplus to requirements and didn’t feature in the Albion’s plan once he’d returned from that injury. With at the time of writing Lewis being included in last week’s England squad, I can’t help but wonder if a red card for Dunk that day could not only have cost the Albion their impending comeback that day, but potentially limited Dunk’s chances of first team football and harmed his subsequent progression.
Instead things were beginning to fall the Albion’s way on their big day and with Doncaster’s star man out of the game, Brighton took advantage and a number of chances arose. First substitute Noone was put through on goal but hit his shot high and wide. Then Craig Mackail-Smith had a good chance to equalise only to put it straight at the keeper from just outside the six-yard box. This was Mackail-Smith’s debut after becoming the Albion’s record signing from Peterborough that summer and it was a game in which he made a bustling performance whilst lacking that quality in front of goal, a trend that would define his time with the Albion.
Then Brighton made another roll of the dice bringing on another new signing, £1m man Will Buckley for the less than effective Matt Sparrow. And soon this was to have an impact as after a Liam Bridcutt free-kick was headed clear to the edge of the box, Buckley rifled it home to equalise. Cue pandemonium in the stands and almost as if it was choreographed, thousands of Blue and White flags were flown in the air to celebrate. This would have been enough to salvage the momentous day from ending on a sour note, but more joy was to come.
But first came another Doncaster injury. This time it was to frontman James Hayter who injured himself whilst attacking a corner as his swinging leg collided with Inigo Calderon’s head. This was more dangerous from Hayter than anything, swinging his leg wildly in the area whilst Calderon bravely stooped in an attempt to clear the ball with his head. Hayter’s leg inevitably ended up on the wrong end of that battle though but having just used all their subs Doncaster ended up down to ten men for the remaining minutes.
This gave the Albion a further advantage, which they indeed took. With time running out, players were streaming forward in search for a winner and it eventually came. Substitutes Craig Noone and Will Buckley combined when a Noone through pass in behind the Doncaster defence found Buckley one-on-one with the keeper to score the winner. Cue further pandemonium, flag waving and an incredible out pouring of emotion. Ultimately the result wouldn’t have mattered as it was the stadium that mattered, but by winning the team had topped off a wonderful day in fairy-tail style.
Having watched the team’s ups and downs throughout the Withdean years it was hard to keep my emotions under control as I leapt around life a 5-year-old who’d eaten too many skittles. But as a fan who didn’t experience the torture that was the end of the Goldstone ground it’s hard to imagine how that felt for those fans. Surreal is how one described it to me.
After the game we celebrated with another beer on the concourse and at the same time took advantage of the great new facilities the club had, what a day it had been. The atmosphere now and on the train home later was still buzzing. How different this was to the season before when it was a case of spot the Albion fan on the Brighton to Eastbourne train home. Now you couldn’t move for Albion fans!
It’s at this point many loyal and more long in the tooth Albion fans would reference the sudden appearance of “plastic” fans or “Johnny Come Lately’s”. But let’s be honest without these fans we’d have a pretty empty stadium; the club needs the new fans to prosper.
Furthermore, those of us who were present in the pre-AMEX era are aware of the many reasons why some fans chose to stay away. The club was a lower league outfit with severe financial restrictions and little realistic ambition beyond the upper reaches of the third tier. Now suddenly it felt like the world was our oyster, who wouldn’t want to be part of that?
Many who saw the events of that day may well have thought, why the fuss? But to finally have a proper modern stadium where the local team could not only be a sustainable proposition but also go on to fulfil its potential meant a lot, not just the loyal fans of the club but the local area as a whole. If you need any evidence of that, just look at how many people took to the streets of Brighton and Hove to celebrate promotion to the Premier League on the day of the open top bus parade. Many more than the thirty-thousand or so that filled the AMEX stadium on a Saturday afternoon during the season.
This wasn’t just a football stadium, it was also a symbol of the fight the fans took on to first oust the owners who’d sold the Goldstone Ground and then led by chairman Dick Knight to gain planning permission for the now finally built new permanent home.
The stadium meant this battle was now a period in the past, a period of Albion history. We now had a club the local area could be proud of and not just use as a self-deprecating joke. It wasn’t just the end of an era of struggle and turmoil, it was the beginning of an era of prosperity.