As Brighton approach only their second ever FA Cup semi final this weekend whilst still in the midst of a relegation battle, the obvious comparisons with the events at the club during the season of 1982/83 have been made, but how close a comparison is it?
At the end of the 1982/83 season, Brighton found themselves relegated from the First Division as the bottom placed club with 40 points from 42 games and runners up in the FA Cup. One of Brighton’s most famous days was that 1983 cup final, a thrilling 2-2 draw with Man United, after which they eventually lost 4-0 in the replay. So whilst the club reached its first, and to date only ever FA cup final appearance, they also ended their first spell in the top flight. A status the club would have to wait 34 years to regain.
In 1983 and in the midst of their iconic cup run Brighton took a modest total of nine points from the last nine league games, which this season would have taken Brighton to a surely unassailable 42 points. But in 1983, with the club already in a difficult position and their last 4 games including defeats to also relegated Man City and bottom half sides Norwich and Notts County, they were relegated as the league’s bottom side.
Whilst we couldn’t go as far as saying this 1983 Brighton side was too good to go down, they were a more established team at the top level than the one of today. After gaining promotion in 1979, they had finished 16th in 1980, 19th in 1981 and a club high of 13th in 1982 (in a 22-team division with 3 teams relegated). As such, they went into the 82/83 season with a reasonable amount of expectation that they would sustain their top-flight status once again. And the subsequent cup run was further evidence of the team’s ability at the time, nonetheless they were unable to consistently reach this level in the league on a weekly basis.
But things weren’t as stable and positive as the previous three years in the league suggests. After 2 promotions in 3 seasons followed by 2 seasons of retaining the clubs top flight status, Alan Mullery resigned as manager after falling out with Chairman Mike Bamber over the club’s transfer policy.
In his place the club appointed Mike Bailey as manager at the beginning of the 1981/82 season. And Bailey set the team up playing a defensive style of football that wasn’t to everyone’s taste, including chairman Mike Bamber. But it at first produced results, with a landmark 1-0 win at Anfield leaving the team 8th in the league, but afterwards a run of ten defeats in the last 14 games of the season meant the club finished in 13th, which whilst a significant fall was still the clubs highest league finish, which stands to this day.
After the slump at the end of the season and along with the negativity surrounding Bailey’s defensive tactics, the club started the following season in unsettled fashion. This wasn’t helped when club captain Steve Foster handed in a transfer request, telling the press at the time: “It just seems like the chairman doesn’t want to move forward.” Foster would end up staying for the 82/83 season but miss the original cup final through suspension before returning for the replay.
It’s fair to say that Mike Bamber had a lot on his plate, with the club financially unstable and reportedly losing £6,000 a week, he needed to get people coming back through the turnstiles. Attendances at times were falling under 10,000 and as far as Bamber was concerned. “I have been bitterly disappointed at the very poor sale of season tickets and wonder if the Sussex public really want First Division football,” he said in August of that season.
But Brighton’s average attendance wasn’t much lower than the average. With their season average of 14,673 making them 18th of 22-team First Division that season and only 5,500 short of the league average, which is of course inflated by the larger attendances of the Manchester United’s and Liverpool’s of the league. And whilst the club’s attendances were on average 4,000 down on the previous season, taking a few of the larger clubs out of the equation, Brighton’s attendances were in fact fairly normal of the time.
Whilst the football wasn’t necessarily entertaining, the bigger reason for the low gates was that in general, English football was at a low ebb. This was two years prior to the Bradford stadium fire that killed 56, five prior to the Hillsborough stadium disaster that killed 96 and still ten years prior to the beginning of the Premier League that came just after the Taylor report was published which instigated a significant investment in upgrading football stadiums across to country to become all-seater stadiums.
Furthermore, hooliganism was a huge issue and detracted many from going to matches. It’s no coincidence that at this time whilst football was struggling other sports were having their day. For instance, if you talk to anyone old enough to remember and who knows about Snooker, they’ll tell you the greatest World Championship final was the Steve Davis v Dennis Taylor final in 1985. Millions of people stayed up beyond midnight to watch the final frame which was won by Taylor and decided on the final black ball of the final frame. An iconic moment in the sport still to this day, something English football in the 80’s largely lacked from a positive perspective.
The attendances were certainly not because of poor results, Brighton were in fact unbeaten at home in the league until early November that season, including wins over Arsenal and Manchester United in that period. Instead it was their bad away form that was pushing them towards the relegation zone.
Much of this will strike a chord with today, except for one crucial thing, the stable leadership of the club in the modern-day. In contrast to 1983, whilst the club made only its second operating profit last season since the sale of the Goldstone in 1997, the club is now on a stable financial footing thanks to the continued investment of the current day Chairman Tony Bloom.
Furthermore, a typical modern football club’s organisational model allows for whole departments to take care of some tasks that in 1983 would be just one of many areas of the manager’s job description. The people the club have employed such as Paul Winstanley, Paul Barber and Dan Ashworth allow Chris Hughton and his coaches to focus on ensuring the team is settled, happy and well prepared for the next match. A key ingredient to the Albion’s success in recent seasons.
This is demonstrated in the comparison of the current team to Brighton’s record under Bailey that season. Despite their reputation as a defensive side, whilst Bailey remained in charge up to 4th December that season Brighton conceded 3 goals or more on average once every three games. In comparison, in the first half of this season, Brighton conceded three once, in a 3-1 away defeat to Everton. Whilst Hughton’s team can rightly be called defence-minded at times, the record during this period of Bailey’s tenure in comparison makes his side look like a team which was poorly set up defensively.
Back to 1983, it now looked inevitable that with the instability the club had financially coupled with the decreasing attendances that the club were experiencing that it would be panicked into making a change and they did so in December by sacking manager Mike Bailey. Chairman Mike Bamber justified the change by saying: “Our public need to be entertained and our style of play had become too boring”.
In the current day sacking managers is not something Tony Bloom has shown himself to be afraid of, but more important than that is his ability to appoint the right man in their place. Which is something that the almost instantaneous differences between Bamber and Bailey suggest was a skill which Bamber at times lacked. This is not to suggest Bailey did a bad job, he indeed took the club to its highest ever league finish the season before. But quite clearly he wasn’t the man for the brief Bamber was looking for.
In order to turn things around former Liverpool ‘keeper Jimmy Melia was appointed with clear instructions to bring in exciting, attacking football and the cup run was a perfect remedy for that. He won his first game in charge against Norwich 3-0, but aside from the Cup run this win proved to be a false dawn. No wins and just four points from their next 10 games left Brighton bottom of the table. Unfortunately attacking football and an iconic cup run came at the expense of the club’s league form and ultimately, its top-flight status.
Despite a more attacking emphasis in their play and the positivity that came with the cup run, the club couldn’t turn around its poor league form. Then Brighton player Jimmy Case said: “Everyone was lifted by the magic and the dream of Wembley, but against that background, it was difficult to get the team motivated for the never-ending struggle for League points.”
Don’t be fooled though, this team were no bunch of chancers, Jimmy Case was a former multiple time First Division and European Cup winner from his days with Liverpool, Steve Foster had just represented England at the 1982 World Cup and Gordon Smith had signed for the club in 1980 for a then Glasgow Rangers record fee for £440k. In comparison an analysis produced at the start of this season showed how relatively inexperienced the current Brighton squad is compared to the rest of their competitors. Brighton’s squad cumulative experience was the fifth lowest in the Premier League, totalling 563 Premier League appearances, over 1,000 less than next place Newcastle.
That said, the realities for Chris Hughton managing his modern-day Brighton side are very different. Whilst his first eleven may be relatively inexperienced, the squad depth he has available enables him to prioritise the league over the cup whilst still putting a competitive side out in the cup competitions. This is very different to 1983. For example, the man who infamously missed the chance to win the cup final in the 120th minute, Gordon Smith, was more of a right winger but was playing up front as first choice striker Terry Connor was cup-tied, and club-hero Peter Ward’s loan had ended after parent club Nottingham Forest refused to extend it.
Jimmy Melia’s brief when he was brought in as manager was one of playing attacking football but doing so with a side that had been previously set up to defend first feels a bit like not maximising the potential of your resources. And this is an issue the odd new signing was unable to resolve. In contrast, maximising the potential of his available resources is something Hughton has been an expert at doing since joining the club.
Many will talk of the increase in salary of a first team player since 1983 at Brighton, but this is largely in line with the average inflation seen in the English top flight football since then. But the relative riches and competitive status of English club football compared to other leagues across Europe and further afield, means even the lowlier ranked top-flight clubs in England like Brighton can attract players from all over globe. Brighton’s 1983 squad was made up of entirely British & Irish players but now the club has a first team squad containing 15 nationalities across four continents including Davy Pröpper of the Netherlands, Jose Izquierdo of Columbia, Maty Ryan of Australia and Yves Bissouma of Mali.
Nonetheless back in 1983 the club was financially in trouble, a situation that coupled with relegation most clubs can nowadays limit the damage of due to the Premier League parachute payments they receive after relegation, as well as contracted relegation clauses. But in those days clubs had to fend much more for themselves, especially without the level of revenue clubs now generate from TV rights sales, even in the lower leagues of the English Football League.
Whilst 1983 saw arguably the club’s greatest day competing in the showpiece event of the football calendar, it was achieved with all this chaos going on in the background. This along with the emphasis on playing attacking and entertaining football despite difficult circumstances is more reminiscent of Brighton during the Withdean years than of today.
It will come as no surprise to you that subsequent to relegation the squad was dismantled. With first team players including Gary Stevens, Michael Robinson, Steve Foster, Tony Grealish, and Gordon Smith all leaving the club before the end of the following season. Melia resigned in October of the following season after yet another falling out at the club, this time between him and new chief coach Chris Cattlin who subsequently replaced Melia as manager.
The squad depth of today means selling off the best players would have less of a negative effect. This is shown not just by the success of the fringe players in the cup but also taking into account players who are out on loan and others currently in the successful u23 squad.
Furthermore, whilst the legacy left of the First Division days was little but memories, today is a very different story. Whereas the 1980’s saw the clubs ground the Goldstone become an ever more crumbling mess. The club now have a plethora of great facilities. Most notably a world-class stadium in Falmer and a training ground in Shoreham that is the envy of many other clubs.
After 1983 the club began a demise from possibly its greatest day to arguably its darkest days. The club was again relegated to the third tier in 1987 and despite an instant return to the second tier and a brief flurry with the playoffs during a promotion push back to the top flight in the 1990/91 season, it continued its demise up to 1997 where it was a game from going out of the Football League. After subsequently spending the next two years in exile ground sharing with Gillingham, the club returned to Brighton at the make-shift location of Withdean Stadium, not moving into a permanent home until the AMEX was opened in Falmer in 2011.
Whilst there are obvious comparisons between the 1983 and 2019 teams, after all these are two of the best sides the club has had in its 118 year history, there are far more differences. Many make the comparison to 1983, in part as it’s possibly the most notable season in the club’s history. But the reality is that modern football has changed considerably and as a club Brighton are a perfect example of how much things have progressed.
Will the club repeat the contrasting feats of the 1983 side this season? It’s still possible, but the club is well positioned to attack the relegation battle successfully with any further progression in the cup a bonus, in contrast to the aftermath of the 1982/83 season. Moreover, even if relegation were the outcome of this season, the club’s stability and infrastructure put in place by the investment of Tony Bloom, means it is well positioned to not continue the fall as seen by the club subsequent to the 1983 cup final defeat.