Southampton 1 – 3 Brighton – The end of an era of disappointment and the beginning of an era of Poyet

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.

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The Welsh Wizard – Nathan Jones

Nathan Jones time playing with the Albion will be best remembered by many for the trickery and skilfulness that made him a cult figure on the Sky Sports program Soccer AM, but to just remember him for that would be unfair. Signed by manager Micky Adams in the summer 2000, he was a key part of the team that won back to back championship winning promotions, and after the subsequent relegation he was then part of the team that won the playoff final in 2004 to win its third promotion in four years. In fact it was the end of an eventful nine-year period for Jones.

After growing up in the Rhondda in rural Wales, he started out with Welsh club Merthyr Tydfil playing non-league football. It wasn’t long though before he went professional signing for the team he now manages, Luton Town. He spent a year there, but after failing to break into the first team he moved onto sunnier climates in Spain, where he was able to utilise his Spanish A-level.

He initially playing for Segunda División side Badajoz during the 1995/96 season as they missed out on promotion to La Liga, the next season he stepped down a division to play for Numancia where he won promotion back to the Segunda División. He later returned to the UK signing for Southend, in a three-year spell that included a loan spell at Scarborough in his second season. Despite that he still accumulated 99 appearances for the shrimpers, winning player of the season in his final season.

Therefore when he moved to the Albion in the summer of 2000 it was a major coup for then manager Adams. He quickly became an integral part of a team that is fondly remembered by many supporters of the club. Jones showed versatility at the club playing initially as a left winger and later also as a left back, a versatility that helped him keep his place in the team. In the back to back title winning promotion seasons Jones was a regular playing 76 times scoring 6 goals. After promotion to Division One, he found game time harder to come by starting only 16 games, with Paul Brooker battling him for the left winger role, whilst Kerry Mayo had a great season at left back.

After relegation back to the third tier and with Brooker leaving to join Micky Adams at Leicester, Jones was once again a key part of the team that won promotion via the playoffs, with the team winning its third promotion in four years. And with the playoff final in his home country’s capital Cardiff it was a nice way for him to cap off an eventful few years with the Albion. In the build up to the playoff final Jones said of his time to date with the Albion: “The emotions have been up and down over the past few years, but coming to Brighton is one of the best things I ever did – it’s a fantastic club”.

Following promotion and with the team reinforced with new signings, Jones once again struggled to get game time at the higher level, starting just three times. Whilst the Albion reached its highest finish during its time at the Withdean of 20th in the Championship, Jones was ultimately deemed surplus to requirements. At the end of the 2004/05 season Jones was not offered a new deal and with the good wishes of everyone at the club he moved to Yeovil, where he spent seven years first as player and later as a coach.

After being brought in initially just as a player, in 2008 he began his move into coaching by combing his playing duties with becoming first team coach of Yeovil women’s senior team under manager Steve Phelps and assistant manager Nigel Wolfe.

Whilst many Yeovil fans will remember the highlight of his time at the club when he captained the club at Wembley when they lost the 2007 playoff final, for many Brighton fans they will remember a number of games he played in for Yeovil against the Albion.

One such game against the Albion was during Micky Adams doomed second spell at the club, where The sides drew 1-1 on a sunny day at Huish Park. It was so sunny, when I finally arrived home I resembled a tomato shade of red. Despite leaving on good terms Jones received a lot of stick from the travelling Albion fans, which only got worse after the events that would follow. The game saw debutant Joe Anyinsah sent off for two yellow cards, the second yellow was for a high-footed kick on Jones, which manager Adams didn’t take kindly to as his post-match interview shows.

Later that season after manager Russel Slade left Yeovil (who following the sacking of Micky Adams would later take the Albion job), Jones became Player-Assistant manager of Yeovil men’s senior team under player-manager Terry Skiverton. Later that season, Brighton met Yeovil again, this time beating them 5-0, in a defeat branded by Jones as “embarrassing”. With former Yeovil manager Russel Slade having by now replaced Adams as manager, the Albion were on their way to a remarkable escape from relegation and along the way gave Jones a footballing lesson to take forward.

After a few years of consolidation in League One, Skiverton was sacked with Yeovil in the relegation zone and Gary Johnson appointed manager. Subsequently Jones was demoted from assistant to first team coach and following this he only stayed on until the end of the season.

After only a matter of weeks since leaving Yeovil, he started a new coaching job as u-21 team coach at Charlton. But after only a year there he moved on again to take a job as first team coach at the Albion, returning after 8 years away. He first worked under then manager, Spaniard Oscar Garcia, once again utilising his A-level in Spanish. When he left at the end of the season Jones was kept on to work under newly appointed manager Sami Hyypia, in what was a short-lived and unsuccessful spell in charge.

With Hyypia gone, Jones was appointed Caretaker boss for games with Reading and Fulham. However, Jones wasn’t ever in the running for the job on a permanent basis as chairman Tony Bloom and the board wanted someone with successful managerial and Championship level experience, something Jones didn’t have. In fact Jones stated before the Fulham game that he had ‘no personal ambition’ to take the Albion job at the time, despite his long term goals to be a manager.

After a 2-2 draw with Reading in which the Albion lead 2-0, Jones took charge again as the Albion visited Fulham. That night the Albion put in probably the best performance of the season so far to beat Fulham 2-0. The scenes at the end as Jones celebrated wildly in front of the Albion fans were special, if it were up to me I’d have given him the job there and then, but that is probably why I’m not in charge of making those decisions and Tony Bloom is. You can tell what that night meant to him too by watching his post match interview.

Later that week Chris Hughton was appointed manager and Jones was kept on as a first team coach. Hughton in fact was keen to keep him on board and had some nice things to say about Jones on his appointment. “Nathan Jones will very much be part of my first-team coaching staff and he has done a fantastic job here. I’m particularly grateful for the last two results and as somebody from the outside with a keen interest looking in, I was hoping that the last two results would fare well and he has done very well. I have a lot of respect for him as an individual and also as a coach, so I’m delighted to have him on board.”

During his time under Hughton and following his successful spell as caretaker, there were constant rumours Jones would leave the Albion and get his first job in management.

When Southgate invited him to shadow him and the other coaching staff of the England U21s it was another sign of his growing reputation. And when two months later he left to manage his old club Luton Town no one was surprised, in fact there was nothing but good wishes from the club. Albion Chairman Tony Bloom said, “Nathan has been a great servant to the club”, whilst Manager Chris Hughton said “Since I arrived, he has been an enormous help to me in my first year in the job; and alongside Colin Calderwood, he has played a big part in our progress in the last 12 months. I think he has all the attributes to become a very good manager.”

So it’s no surprise that Jones has done well at Luton, achieving promotion to League One last season, his first full season at the club. So well in fact that he was interviewed for Sunderland job in 2017, but some would say fortunately he missed out to fellow Welshman and former national team manager Chris Coleman. Fortunately as he now manages Luton at the same level as Sunderland following their relegation to League One in the same season and even more fortunately as Coleman is already out of a job whilst Jones’s reputation continues to rise.

One thing you may not know of Nathan is how much his religious faith, Christianity, shapes his life. The Rhondda village Nathan grew up in had a population of less than 2,000 but four practicing churches. He was so devoted to his faith that it was at the expense of a potential football career, missing a number of trials as a youngster because they were on a Sunday. Whilst he is still a devoted Christian his views on the Sunday holy day, have slightly altered. “I went to Cardiff and they had games on Sundays. I went to God and said, ‘I believe you brought me to this opportunity, I need to play.’ It was done in good faith. It was a necessity then. I believe God understands that.”

Through his faith Jones is in full belief he has fulfilled his potential and then some. “I don’t look back and think, I could’ve been this or that. I’ve surpassed any dream that I ever had and I’m very blessed, and in God’s will I did those things. If I hadn’t done all of those things, who’s to say if I’d be here?”. In modern society religion has a bad name and whilst there is much evidence of the evil it is responsible for, stories like Nathan’s shows the other side of the coin. In his case showing the strength it can give to people to achieve their goals.

So, what next for Nathan Jones? Currently he is managing a Luton side in League One who, despite a mixed start, have been tipped as an outsider for promotion to the Championship. As for the medium to long term future, if he continues his progress as a manager he’s certainly left enough of a mark in Sussex to be considered a potential future Albion manager.

13 games without a win

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.

The 2004 Playoff Final Brighton vs Bristol City – A victory built on solid foundations but one with sharp front teeth

30th May 2004 – That day in Cardiff at the Millennium Stadium will always be a special memory for me. It was my first cup final experience as a Brighton fan and currently the only one, unless you count the Sussex Senior Cup that is. And what a day it was, sunny and warm in Cardiff on the Sunday of a Bank Holiday weekend. As a result of which Bute Park in the centre of Cardiff which is over the road from the Millennium Stadium was full of fans enjoying the good weather. I remember strolling through the park with my family before the game anxious with anticipation whilst others joined in kickabouts between rival fans.

We had stayed in a nearby B&B in the south west of England the night before, so to break up the journey to Cardiff and drove the short final leg of our journey on the morning of the game. So, we arrived in Cardiff fairly fresh and parked in Ninian Park Stadium car park and got a park and ride bus to the Millennium Stadium. Ninian Park was an old, run down and later knocked down stadium but one that still felt impressive to see and one that was worlds away from the Withdean Stadium that the Albion occupied at the time.

The build up to the game, in fact the season as a whole had been dominated by the campaign to get planning permission to build our new stadium at Falmer from the then Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott. Most notably the “We’re pleased to be here, but we wish we were here” postcards we were given with our playoff final tickets and were encouraged to send to John Prescott’s office. At that time, it was always a balance between fighting for the new stadium and focusing on matters on the pitch and the requirement to fund the continued legal battle was stretching resources at the club. Former manager Steve Coppell said during his time as manager whilst the club struggled against relegation:

“The football has almost been a sideshow. If that money had been spent on the pitch, we wouldn’t have found ourselves in this position.”

Despite the off field troubles, it had been another good season for the Albion, after last seasons instant relegation back to the third tier that followed two consecutive promotions up to that level. And whilst after all that a year of mid-table mediocrity would have been welcomed by the more faint-hearted, another promotion campaign was anticipated. Ultimately though despite playing well during the season and being driven forward by the goal-scoring exploits Leon Knight, we missed out on automatic promotion and had to settle for a place in the playoffs.

Mark McGhee had come in as manager just after the start of that season following the resignation of former manager Steve Coppell who left in the September of that season to join Reading. Coppell had been brought in to save the Albion from relegation the previous season. This was despite relegation looking likely after a terrible start to the season had the Albion looking doomed, Coppell ensured there was a fight at least and the Albion were ultimately only relegated on the final day of that season. When McGhee came in he built on the organisation and experience that Coppell had instilled and constructed a solid, defence-minded team that conceded only 43 goals in 46 games, the third best in the league that season. McGhee also added a much-needed injection of Scottish Charisma to post match interviews, something Steve Coppell’s dry monotone nature lacked.

Whilst McGhee wasn’t that popular during his time at the Albion, I think history looks back fondly on the three years he had with the Albion. He got the best out of the limited resources available at the time and persevered with the circumstances the club found themselves in, whilst others like Steve Coppell and Peter Taylor had given up and jumped ship. In doing so, the following season he would achieve the Albion’s highest place finish at the Withdean, 20th in the second tier, becoming the only Albion team playing in the second tier not to be relegated during the Withdean years. And despite a terrible season the following year that ended in relegation and a bottom place finish, overall, he did as well as could have been expected under the circumstances at the time.

When McGhee joined he will have quickly realised he had a rebuilding job to do as the Albion had lost a few key players in recent months. None more important than the three years running top goal-scorer Bobby Zamora, who left for the bright lights of the Premier League in the form of Tottenham Hotspurs. But in his place came Leon Knight, a young striker from Chelsea who quickly filled the void left by Zamora scoring 27 goals in league and cup that season and giving Albion the bite they needed up front.

That said, Knight wasn’t alone and forged an array of striking partnership with loanee target men throughout the season, some more productive than others. McGhee had the Albion playing a game based mostly on long balls up to the target man with a compact two lines of four in behind. This target man role was key to McGhee’s system if under appreciated. That player was instructed to win headers, hold the ball up and supply Leon Knight with chances, who would use his pace in behind the opposition defence, as well as being expected to chip in with goals himself.

Knight started the season playing with Darius Henderson but Henderson only netted twice and soon returned to parent club Reading. Then there was Trevor Benjamin, my personal favourite, a man who came on loan from Leicester and scored 5 in 10. After which McGhee was keen for him to stay but he returned to Leicester when a deal couldn’t be reached. Finally, to fill the position there was his partnership with Chris Iwelumo, who would partner him in the all-important Playoff final and have a key impact that season. It was a partnership notable for the height differential of the pair, dubbed ‘little and large’ and whilst all Knight’s partners were taller than him, Iwelumo towered over Knight by just under a foot at 6 foot 3 inches. Iwelumo seemed to bring the best out of Knight and as a result their partnership helped to secure the Albion’s place on the playoffs.

There’s far more that could be said of Leon Knight, he went on to become as infamous as he would famous in football circles. Maybe that’s for another blog, but this was his season and without his goals, the Albion simply wouldn’t have been in the playoffs at all.

However, this was a team built primarily with solid defensive foundations, particularly when playing at home conceding only 11 in the league at the Withdean that season. Now Albion coach Ben Roberts played in goal that year having deposed stalwart and fan favourite Michel Kuipers who had been involved in a horrific car crash early in the season. This was a car crash that had a significant impact on the Dutchman and gave him a new lease of life that would eventually spur him on to winning his place back in the team and he would stay at the club as a player until 2010. The Dutchman made 247 appearances for the club and is a player who is synonymous with the Withdean years, but this wasn’t his year. Pictures of the crash and the aftermath were plastered over the front of the Brighton Argus, ones not for the faint hearted. But thankfully Michel walked away from it and is one of the members of this team who now works for the club as an ambassador for the club’s community support charity.

In front of Roberts was captain Danny Cullip and centre back partner and player of the season Guy Butters who together had forged a wonderful centre back partnership. For Guy Butters, the turnaround from the previous season was striking after a poor first season at the club as Brighton were relegated from the second tier. He didn’t win many fans over that year, in fact somewhat unfairly he became a figure of mockery. He has since spoken about how as a result his kids were bullied at local schools and notably during the summer before the 03/04 season, as a cruel joke, one Albion supporter put Guy up for sale on an online auction website. However, Guy had the last laugh that season and He and Danny both still also work for the club as ambassadors for the club’s community support charity.

The Albion showed their defensive prowess in the first leg of the playoff semi-final. The club drew Swindon, and through a clean sheet and with a Richard Carpenter long range special, won the away leg 1-0. But were then poor in the return home leg and needed a late goal from defender Adam Virgo to take the game to a penalty shootout, which was won to get into the final. That Virgo header still goes down as a favourite Albion goal of mine. We were beaten, some fans had already begun to leave and it was a last throw of the dice to get as many players forward as we could and launch the ball into the box. The scenes when he scored and then when we won the shootout were like little seen at the Withdean. It was hard to not feel sorry for Swindon, but I still enjoyed mocking Swindon striker Tommy Mooney who missed a penalty.

Watch the goal here

So, we came into the final on a high. And that high led to great demand for tickets with long queues at the Withdean Stadium when they went on sale. I personally enjoyed the novelty of queuing up around Withdean Stadium to get tickets, it added to the anticipation of the big day but I wasn’t keen to do it again. However, after our arch rivals Palace won the Division One playoff final over West Ham to get promotion to the top flight the day before our final, an extra pressure formed and it made it all the more important that we won, we couldn’t have them getting one over us again! That said it wasn’t all bad that day, the Palace fans put our rivalry aside whilst they displayed a banner proclaiming their support for a new stadium in Brighton. A nice gesture I’m sure you’ll agree, but I was still disappointed that they won.

We got to the stadium and took our seats ready for the game. We were in the top tier and I remember the steps leading up to the seats seemed incredibly steep and we were only in the second or third row! Our vantage point felt very high up, this was very different to the Withdean. The teams came out to loud cheers and horns blowing from the crowd and this noise was accompanied by two large flamethrowers either side of the tunnel that the players appeared from. As they lined up and sung the national anthem this suddenly felt incredibly surreal and somewhat overwhelming, very different to Withdean. A proper cup final!

The game started and we set out our stall to defend and spoil the game from the off. As a result, it was a poor game and one I have little memory of. That said, I like many fans in attendance was incredibly nervous and was unlikely to enjoy the game either way. Ultimately, we won the game when we were given a penalty through debatable foul on Chris Iwelumo and as soon as he won it, there was little doubt that Leon Knight would put it away. 1-0 Albion and after a tense finish that’s how it ended.

This wasn’t just a side with a solid back four, the midfield were solid and disciplined too. Centre midfielders Carpenter and Charlie Oatway were almost ever present that year, both great workhorses whilst Carpenter added a bit of skill and creativity, particularly from set pieces. Out wide the personnel had varied throughout the season, but that day on the left was the now Luton manager Nathan Jones, a player who had played long spells at full back so knew how to defend but also offered some skill and trickery going forward as well as some much-needed pace. On the right was the wonderful Gary Hart, Oh Gary Hart! What a player he was, incredibly talented in the final third yet his selfless work rate and endless stamina meant he spent many years at Brighton on the wing or even at full-back defending. Just ask Zamora though what a talented provider of goals Gary could be, a true Albion legend.

The celebrations afterwards were great, over 25,000 Brighton fans in one place cheering a victory was an experience I hadn’t had before and was nothing like a win at the Withdean. That said, the overriding emotion was relief that it was over and we’d done it. As the pressure subsided we could enjoy the day and the celebrations, inevitably some a little too much. As the players celebrated on the pitch the base of the trophy was bent and broken, no permanent damage was done we were assured though as back up keeper for the day Kuipers bent it back into place.

When we got back on the coach and started our journey home the talk quickly turned to next season, let’s be fair the game itself didn’t leave much of an impression. With that talk the achievement started to hit home and the excitement of promotion and teams like Sunderland and West Ham visiting the Withdean again was overwhelming, particularly after getting the taste the season before.

Promotion is always special but the jeopardy and the anxiety of the playoffs makes winning all the better. That said the hope and anticipation of promotion makes losing all the harder as Albion fans have learnt well subsequently in recent seasons. Therefore, whilst I will always look back on that day in 2004 on a sunny May Bank Holiday weekend with glee, I will look forward all the more to the playoff finals this weekend knowing that all we have to worry about is who we will be playing next season.