This weekend provides another stark reminder of the significant rise in status that Brighton and Hove Albion’s mens senior team have achieved over the last decade. As they prepare for a trip to Old Trafford to face the most successful club in English Football League history, many of their former competitors from up and down the country are preparing for FA Cup first round ties.
It’s a round of the famous old cup competition that was until recently a fixture of the football calendar that Brighton fans were all too familiar with and one that for a while was anticipated with dread. One particular FA Cup first round tie that will stick in the memory of those who are old enough is the trip to face Hereford United in the 1st round of the competition in 1997.
As fate would have it, the clubs were drawn together just months after Brighton had survived relegation to the non-league on the last day of the previous 1996/97 season away to Hereford, with instead Hereford relegated after a tense 1-1 draw.
This tale of serendipity is one that cup draws often seem to produce, where naturally emotions were still very raw after the last meeting between the sides, especially for the Hereford faithful. And one that drew the attention of the BBC television cameras for a FA cup Match of the Day special.
With both clubs struggling financially, the chance of a cup run was an opportunity to boost their clubs bank balance with some much-needed prize money. This was demonstrated best by the fact that Brighton had recently transfer listed a number of first team players because the club couldn’t afford to pay their wages, and were facing a Hereford team mostly made up of players signed in the summer after relegation on free transfers.
As the Hereford fan site Talking Bull admitted, “tensions were high”. And after it remained 0-0 at half time it was the home side who struck first to go 1-0 up, through Neil Grayson. But this was not before Albion had missed the chance to take the lead themselves after Paul McDonald’s penalty kick was saved by the Hereford ‘keeper.
But it didn’t take Albion long to level things up, when Stuart Storer converted from a corner after a mistake from the Hereford ‘keeper, (who quickly went from hero to zero for being caught out of position after coming for the corner and missing it) left the goal mouth gaping just four minutes later. An action packed twenty-minute spell came to an end when Hereford again took the lead to take a 2-1 lead through Neil Grayson, this time after Peter Smith had wrestled Ian Foster to the ground in the box to give away the games second spot kick.
And so it ended with the now non-league club gaining some form of retribution for the Seagulls relegating them just a few months before. Something Hereford manager Graham Turner admitted after the game when he said: “There was a lot of pride in the way we played today, and we’ve given the supporters plenty to sing about”.
For Albion however this was just another sorry defeat to a non-league club in The FA Cup. The 1990s saw the club have a spate of defeats to non-league sides in the competition, of which Hereford was the last and least embarrassing. There was the 2-1 defeat away to Isthmian Premier League side Kingstonian in 1994. Then there was a defeat to Southern League Premier side Sudbury Town in a replay on penalties in 1996.
This was a run of notable cup defeats that just exemplified the club’s status at the time as the barometer for a poorly run professional football club. Something greatly chronicled in the tales told by Dick Knight’s autobiography “MadMan”. In fact in those barren years for the club between 1993 and 2000 as the club plummeted towards and stumbled along in the bottom tier of the Football League, it failed to make it past the second round, losing in the first round five times and the second round three times.
Things have changed greatly since then. Aside from a freak defeat to eventual National League Champions of that season Lincoln City in 2017, (a game which saw Casper Ankergren’s 67th and final appearance for the club and a calamitous one at that, along with an equally calamitous debut from the now Chelsea and England defender Fikayo Tomori), this was the last time the club had exited the FA Cup to non-league opponents having progressing past 7 non-league sides since then.
In contrast Hereford fans had little to sing about subsequent to that cup match. It took them 9 years of trying to finally retain their Football League status, but they were once again relegated back to the non-league four years later. And after two further seasons they were then expelled from the conference for financial irregularities in 2014 and were wound up by the high court over unpaid debts to HMRC later that year. A new Hereford football club has since been formed that still play at Edgar Street and in the National League North, two leagues below the Football League.
The varying stories of both club’s recent history just show how important that decisive match in 1997 which sealed Hereford’s relegation has been for both clubs. A fact highlighted even more by the cup match which reunited the sides a few months afterwards.
So as Brighton get set to make a trip to Old Trafford on Sunday sitting 8th in the Premier League and two places higher than their hosts, Hereford have a weekend off before they host Alfreton Town in the National League North on Tuesday. And as such, all Albion fans should count our lucky stars that we aren’t instead preparing for another FA cup first round tie with a team full of transfer listed players we cannot afford and journeymen signed on free transfers.