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Fans United, 8th Feb 1997
By Ian Grant
You wouldn't know it from the national media coverage but something truly momentous happened at the Goldstone Ground on Saturday. In a unique event, fans from around the country and Europe came to Brighton for a huge show of unity, protesting both against the current board at Brighton and Hove Albion and, more generally, the financial inequalities that threaten many clubs outside the Premiership.

Build a bonfire, build a bonfire...

The tragic demise of the Albion has been well documented, yet no amount of discussion can make the facts seem any less shocking. Currently marooned at the bottom of the Third Division, facing the threat of relegation to non-league football, a club which was just a shot away from winning the FA Cup little more than ten years ago is now on the brink of extinction.

Financial problems threatened the club's future before Bill Archer and Greg Stanley took control at the helm. However, the sale of the Goldstone Ground to clear the debts has been mis-managed to an astonishing degree, leaving the club without a home for the immediate future. Archer and his chief executive David Bellotti argue that they sought planning permission for a new stadium before selling the Albion's current home to developers. That may be true but the planning application for a site at Toad's Hole Valley, an environmentally sensitive area, was decisively rejected by the local council. Rather than attempt to work with local politicians in finding a new location, the board has consistently antagonised the council - indeed, it has long appeared that the club has sought to use the local authority as a scapegoat for the current crisis. The club plans to re-submit the planning application at some point in the future - it's not difficult to see that it's very unlikely to be successful.

The club was due to leave the Goldstone at the end of last season - the plan at that stage was for a ground-share with Portsmouth. However, after a pitch invasion forced the abandonment of a game and the club engaged in some staggering acts of brinkmanship with the developers who now own the site, the ground was leased back to the Albion for a further season. The last game at the Goldstone Ground is due to take place on April 26th.

Despite Bellotti's consistent claims that the ground-share deal with Portsmouth was signed, sealed and delivered, those plans fell through after objections at Fratton Park. (It is hardly surprising that the fans don't trust Archer and Bellotti, a couple of mercenaries who appear to change their tune as often as they change their underwear.) After an increasingly desperate search for a club to share with, Brighton and Hove Albion will now be re-located to Gillingham for the next two years (or, at least, two years is Archer's estimate - but that's assuming the club manages to find a site for a new ground in the meantime).

In fact, that makes the situation sound simpler than it really is. Even the appalling possibility of moving to Gillingham (look at your map - fancy that journey for every home game?) is far from a certainty. The Football League, having been badly stung by previous ground-shares (Maidstone United being the worst example), are extremely reluctant to permit clubs to move outside their local area. Brighton, who have not even secured planning permission to hold up as an indication of the intention to move back, appear increasingly unlikely to be allowed to break League rules. Once again, Archer and his cohorts have done little to help a very sensitive situation - talk of taking the decision to a vote of all League chairmen (a vote that can only happen on the threat of expulsion) is unlikely to win anyone round.

The Brighton fans have stated categorically that they have no intention of following Archer to Gillingham. Archer, with typical understanding, has replied that the club can afford to play two seasons' worth of games behind closed doors if that's what it takes. Even assuming it is only two years, it's difficult to believe that players will be prepared to sweat their balls off in front of empty terraces every week.

Relations between fans and board are worse, I would guess, than at any other club in the history of English football. At Watford, we've got no idea how lucky we are - Jack Petchey, for all his faults, is Santa Claus compared to Bill Archer. The squabbling over blame continues daily. One thing's for sure, though - it's the Albion fans that will end up as the victims if their club is destroyed. Despite Archer's insistence that they should shoulder the blame for the team's current League position, they've been magnificent - attendances are good considering the quality of football on offer for much of the season and, judging by anonymous comments in the local papers, the players understand the protests far more than the owner does. It is almost certainly true that the turmoil surrounding the club has had a massive effect on a team that, basically, should be more than capable of competing in the Third Division - the fans, however, should not be slated just for protecting their football club.

The story I've told is complicated enough. But, in reality, it's the abridged version - the full saga includes the club's finances (including the potentially disastrous Capital Gains tax bill); the team performances (and the managers - Brady, Case and Gritt); the consortium. One day, someone will write a fairly hefty book on Brighton and Hove Albion - with a bit of luck, it won't be a retrospective.

Football united will never be defeated

The Albion fans' protests have taken many forms - pitch invasions, boycotts, walk-outs, whistle-blowing, journeys to Archer's home - but this was the most ambitious idea yet. No-one had ever attempted to gather fans together in such a way, no-one really knew whether it would work.

Sitting in pub at midday, there was one Watford fan. By the time we left an hour and a half later, there were fans of Brighton, Watford, Portsmouth, Southampton, Ipswich, Norwich, Man City, Man Utd, Preston, Carlisle, Spurs, Blackburn, others I've probably forgotten - all drinking together in total harmony. Arriving at Hove station, the fans poured off the train with chants of 'Sack The Board'. When we'd been to see Brighton beat Rochdale two weeks earlier, there had been next to no-one in the ground half an hour before kickoff - this time, at about two o'clock, there people everywhere. I could try and list the fans of different clubs I saw but, to be honest, it'd be easier to list the ones that I didn't see. In addition to English clubs, there were fans from Europe - Eintracht Frankfurt, Real Madrid, Red Star Belgrade.

The official attendance for the match was about eight and a half thousand. But it was more than that - a gate was forced open, allowing hundreds of fans to stream into the ground without paying (as an Albion fan explained, we were their invited guests and they didn't see why we should have to give money to Archer).

On the main home terrace, the atmosphere was phenomenal. Anti-Archer chants mixed with Albion songs, banners were paraded, there was no hint of any trouble. It's difficult to convey just what it all meant and perhaps that's one reason why the media didn't give it more than footnote status - unless you've been going to football matches all your life, you can't understand the significance of seeing fans of dozens and dozens of clubs united behind a common cause. It's a memory that will stay with me, and everyone else who was there to witness it, for a very long time. You really should've been there, you know...

The team responded. Hartlepool, their opponents, were on a hiding to nothing and were swept aside within the first half - by the interval, Albion were 3-0 ahead, had had a goal disallowed because the referee failed to play the advantage rule and had hit the woodwork. It ended 5-0, a scoreline which did Brighton a bit of a disservice. It wasn't 'just like watching Brazil', it was just like watching a team that may still avoid relegation to the Vauxhall Conference. The truth is that they've got better players than most sides at this level, they're merely massively short of confidence - if they can get up a head of steam, League survival is more than a possibility.

Two things to bring a lump to my throat at the end. The Albion fans, in brilliant voice (by full time, their proud, defiant songs were ringing round the ground - it was great to hear), started up a chant of "Thankyou for coming, we'd like to thank you for coming". No, thank you for making us so welcome. And, secondly, Craig Maskell, scorer of an excellent hat-trick, ran to the home end with his match-ball, kissed it and threw it into the fans - a marvellous gesture.

A wonderful day, then. It won't shift Archer, who was more entrenched than ever on television the following day, and it won't spur the FA into doing something to earn their wages but, in some ways, it wasn't about that. To me, it was about expressing support for the Albion fans, it was about showing them that they're not forgotten by the rest of the football world. The most appropriate song of the day was "You'll never walk alone".

The FA's done f*** all

Beyond the immediate concerns of Brighton fans (and Brighton residents - it's my home town now, it's a town that I love and the football club is an important part of that), 'Fans United' was also about making a stand on the increasingly disturbing state of lower division football in this country.

Yesterday, Bournemouth survived a winding-up order in court - but they've only got a 21-day stay of execution. Millwall have found themselves in slightly less critical trouble and should survive after the appointment of administrators. Even at Watford, we have a re-built ground with high running costs and small(ish) attendances, meaning that we've been losing upwards of a million pounds every season.

It can't go on like this. The FA's fence-sitting over the Brighton crisis (the only decisive action has been to deduct two points for a peaceful pitch invasion during the home game against Lincoln - Brighton are to have an appeal heard on Thursday) has shown that we can't automatically expect the governing body to look after the interests of its members. If the authorities continue to stand back, to let 'survival of the fittest' run its course, there won't be many lower division clubs left in five or ten years' time - the only choices will be bankruptcy, part-time status or becoming a feeder club, none of which are particularly acceptable to supporters.

Over the summer, the FA used supporters to sell Euro '96. At the same time as ripping people off with outrageous ticket prices (nothing to do with UEFA - the same prices meant a paltry attendance for the FA Cup semi final at Old Trafford just a couple of months before), we were spoon-fed the idea that "football's coming home". You can't have it both ways. If the FA wants to gain prestige (and the 2006 World Cup) from convincing the world that English supporters are shiny, happy people then it must listen to those supporters.

On Saturday, nearly ten thousand people from all over Europe told Graham Kelly that he's got it WRONG. Time to look after your customers or lose them forever...