Build A Bonfire, subtitled 'How football fans united to save Brighton and Hove Albion', tells
the story of Seagulls supporters' fight to rid their club of the destructive ownership of
Aside from the saga's three main players - Archer himself, co-owner Greg Stanley
and chief executive David Bellotti - all of the most prominent figures have been
interviewed, providing a chronologically-ordered series of first-hand accounts of the
extraordinary events in East Sussex. In addition, the book draws together newspaper
articles, transcripts of letters and some of Stewart Weir's potent photographs (also published
in a separate book, incidentally).
Don't be put off if all this sounds a little dry. Just as they were a credit to their
town during the campaign, so the fans' frequently astute and eloquent thoughts make this
an engrossing read. If the battle for the Albion was as much about fighting
stereotypes as fighting the board, then these pages are proof of a real victory.
The story should be familiar enough by now - if not, then reading Build A Bonfire
should be something of a priority - but no less shocking for that. Even now, some
of the events described here make my blood boil - the FA's points deduction to punish a
peaceful demonstration, for example, remains an unforgivable obscenity.
However, more than mere repetition of known facts, Build A Bonfire comes as
close to offering insights into the motivations of Archer and Bellotti as anything I've
read. There are plenty of theories but no answers here, yet the portrayal of
Bellotti as the insecure and pathetic lackey for the obstinate Archer is utterly
fascinating. The descriptions of the double act at work are also hugely comical.
Those aren't the only humourous moments. My personal favourite: a letter from Bellotti's
solicitors to Roy Chuter of the Gull's Eye fanzine threatening a libel suit. Clearly a
man after my own heart, Chuter simply circled all the spelling mistakes and grammatical errors before
sending it back, using the words 'illiterate drivel' in his covering letter. Protest
doesn't have to be po-faced.
It's that lighter side which holds the book's real strength. This is not a
doom-and-gloom tale of destruction and chaos. Far from it - there's genuine
inspiration to be found here.
The alliance of supporters, from anarchist poet Attila the Stockbroker to chartered
accountant Paul Samrah, proved that it is possible to find unity among fans from wide-ranging backgrounds when required.
These were more than just marriages of convenience - when Attila talks about the previously
mistrusted Supporters Club members, he does so with real admiration.
There was more than anger driving the fans. The imagination and creativity that saw the protests
encompass everything from poetry recitals outside Archer's house in Lancashire to boycotts of
Focus DIY to lobbying of the local Liberal Democrats to marches, walk-outs, boycotts and, of
course, Fans United ought to be a lesson to us all. The latter
is the subject of a lengthy and moving chapter which asserts the Brighton fans'
belief that that magnificent day represented a turning point, shifting attention back
towards a neglected team. With the fans cheering them on, the players put together a run of results at the Goldstone that would eventually lead
to the seemingly impossible achievement of avoiding relegation to the Vauxhall Conference.
If I haven't already given you enough reasons for buying Build A Bonfire then, finally,
there's this. Poignant, evocative memories of the final game at the Goldstone
Ground ("It's the last time the hot dog stand's going to be there, it's the last
time the players will go in...") and last-ditch survival at Edgar Street against
Hereford ("I actually hugged him [his son] like I haven't hugged him since he was a baby, it was just
incredible"). Despite being 'mere' interview extracts, some of the passages have translated
into prose as powerful as you'll find in any writing about the game.
It's a story that remains unfinished. The occasional notes of triumphalism ring hollow -
while Dick Knight's consortium now runs the club, games are played in Gillingham in
front of record low attendances; there is still no planning permission for a new ground in the Brighton area; only Doncaster Rovers prevent the Seagulls from propping up the Football League; cash is
desperately short, so much so that the most experienced players have been transfer-listed. Archer
may now just be a minority shareholder, Bellotti may have got the sack but the existence
of Brighton and Hove Albion remains precarious.
Don't read Build A Bonfire out of duty or conscientiousness. It's not a
worthy book - it's more significant than that. This is by turns tragic, inspirational,
hilarious, thoughtful and angry as hell. As complex as football fans themselves, in fact.
Read it because it's more than a 'book about football'.
One last thing: the acknowledgements single out a number of clubs' fans for particular
thanks. One of those clubs is Watford and that something we should all feel
proud about. Let's hope we never have to ask the good people of Sussex to return the favour...