Beside the seaside
By Ian Grant
In fact, it's not a long way to Brighton at all, although the efforts of (The Organisation Formerly Known As) British Rail are
sometimes enough to convince me that it's the other side of the world. No, it's a relatively simple journey - if you know
what you're doing, and I certainly do after all this time, you can travel from Brighton to Watford in an hour and a half.
That didn't stop me from losing touch with the Hornets when I left Watford for the south coast in 1988 after sixteen
years in Hertfordshire. I'd been a regular at Vicarage Road but, rather than being the town's crowning glory, the club was its
saving grace and I left all that behind, swapping snakebite and black for yellow and black.
If you're going to be a student, Brighton's the place to do it. Thanks to the combined
populations of two universities and an art college in a town that's little bigger than Watford, you're unlikely to
be short of cheap nightclubs to pass out in. And so it proved - in my first year, aside from the usual drunken arsing about,
I managed to see one hundred different bands, starting with Milwaukee's majestic Die Kreuzen and ending with
Birmingham's less-than-majestic (which didn't overly trouble me at the time) Bolt Thrower. Sometimes I
studied as well (I was doing English - two seminars a week, no lectures ever).
The town's reputation is generally well-deserved. That's a recommendation, by the way. It sticks out like a sore thumb among the otherwise
retirement-flat dominated south coast resorts - it's a fun place, a cosmopolitan, permissive place, slightly seedy and sordid, the
kind of town that you never quite know completely. Amsterdam-by-Sea, if you like (except that the real
Amsterdam makes Brighton seem like a haven of British conservatism in comparison).
On my occasional visits home, I still went to see the 'Orns but my heart wasn't really in it. Still, at that time
Brighton and Hove Albion were in the same division so I was able to experience the dubious pleasure of seeing
Watford at the Goldstone Ground for the first time. We were in the corner terrace where you could
only see about a third of the pitch; we lost a terrible game 1-0; it rained real Brighton rain (the clouds
roll in from the Channel, get as far as the South Downs and dump everything); and some of the
Watford fans decided to give an airing to some monstrously offensive homophobic bullshit about my
new home town. None of which made me think that Vicarage Road was a better place to
be than East Slope bar.
Little changed in the remaining two years of my degree, especially not our fortunes at the Goldstone. In my second year we lost
1-0 again and Willie Falconer was sent off; the next season we lost 3-0 and, erm, Willie Falconer was sent off. Yes, the Albion
were actually better than us!
And then it happened. Having drifted through three years without ever, if we're really being honest, caring
much about my football team, two things changed - we nearly got relegated and I discovered Capital Gold. It was
'the Perryman season' and we had been so far adrift at the bottom that it seemed impossible that we could escape relegation. Somehow
we managed to get close to safety just as I found out that, by hanging out of the window and (cough) waggling my aerial around, I could
get radio reports on Watford games. That altered everything - suddenly, although absent from the games, I was involved and Watford
FC mattered to me again. The real crunch was a midweek six pointer against West Brom - it was only a few days before my
finals and I should've been revising but I knew I wouldn't be able to concentrate. So I made my first football-only trip from Brighton
to Watford and never looked back (we drew 1-1 and avoided the drop with a game to spare).
In 1991, I emerged, glowing with the joys of knowledge, from student life and into the welcoming arms of the outside world. Or perhaps not. It
turned out that knowing the lyrics to 'Freak Scene' by Dinosaur Jr (the student angst anthem of the time) was considerably less important
in the employment market than it was on campus. Instantly, I realised my destiny - along with 95% of students on
my course, I went straight onto the dole. As with student life, if you're
going to be unemployed, Brighton's a fine place to do it but that didn't seem like much of a consolation at the time. I
did at least learn how to survive when you've only got five quid to last a week (buy a couple of loaves of cheap bread, some margarine,
some baked beans, some rice and enough vegetables to make a huge pot of chilli - toast for breakfast, beans on toast for lunch,
chilli and rice for dinner) so the time wasn't entirely wasted, I guess.
If anything, life on the dole only amplified my re-discovered passion for football. It's easy to moan at the
unemployed for staying in bed all day but the simple fact is that virtually everything that normal people do in
their normal days costs money. When you're on the dole, there's no point in going out of the house because the only thing you can afford to do
is wander the streets and then return home again. The way we treat benefit claimants in this country is obscene and this week's Budget is only going to make matters
worse (that was a party political broadcast on behalf...). Anyway, apart from the plot of Neighbours and the intense competition of Going For Gold ("The heat is on, the time is right..."),
I had few things to occupy my time - keeping up with the Hornets' progress via the radio was free and,
during the two years I spent on the dole, I can honestly say that there was not a single moment that I
didn't know what the latest score was. My body might've been lying in bed at three in the afternoon but my
spirit was at Vicarage Road.
There was still one season left before the Albion started their desperate plummet towards the Vauxhall
Conference. At the fourth time of asking, I saw us score a goal at the Goldstone - Steve Butler hitting
the only goal of the game with an exquisite turn and curled shot from the corner of the area (no, seriously). Brighton
were relegated at the end of that season and the rest is history - as they prop up the Football League, it's difficult to believe that the same club was just
a playoff final away from the top flight less than ten years ago.
Eventually, after Her Majesty's Government had dumped me on a training course and I'd taught myself to program computers,
I found myself in employment. Suddenly, I had enough money to eat properly. Not only that, I could afford
to move out of the hippy-infested hell-hole of a house I was living in, which had gone downhill to the point where
I was basically paying forty-five quid a week to live in a particularly revolting, incense-clouded squat. And, best of all,
that season ticket was within reach...