…And so it came to pass, Lord Gustavo Augusto Poyet Domínguez has lead Brighton on a merry dance to promotion with five games to spare and the title with four, to the promised land of the Championship. In the space of 16 months, he has transformed a team hovering at the wrong end of League One into a sleek passing, ball hogging, tippy-tappy outfit destined for greater things (certainly greater than Round One of the Johnstone Paint Trophy).
Football is a fickle business. If you want job security or a job for life, football management would be one of the last suggestions – as secure as an Pan Am test flight . Micky Adams returned for his second spell with much flag waving and trumpeting – the easiest decision he had to make, apparently.
Micky was a man that kick started our first climb to the Championship in this millennium on our return to Brighton, before leaving to prop up Dave Bassett at Leicester. The unwritten rule of ‘never go back’, or curse, kicked in during his ill-fated second spell. Crowds were dropping, relations were tense and the patience of all was wearing thin. We found ourselves in the relegation zone with a third of the season remaining. There was no fight. There appeared to be no hope. Adams was summoned to the Little Chef in Hickstead and was soon picking up his P45.
Step forward, the bald Magician, in the shape of Russell Slade. A man with plenty of lower league experience in operating with limited resources. Performances gradually improved and the passengers of the Adams era were left on the sidelines. Five games to go and six points from safety threatened to send us spiralling back down to the basement league – this was not the plan with a new stadium due to open in 2011. A superb run of performances and a final day victory secured our League One status. Withdean Stadium emptied onto the pitch and Mr Slade was hoisted above our shoulders. Salvation was ours and Russell Slades’ name was sung deep into the warm spring night.
No sooner had we got used to his shiny bonce, cheerful exterior and his Tommy Smith/John Carlos like raised fist, he was relieved of his duties. It was poor old Russell who found himself taking a P45 home (spared the embarrassment of a Little Chef hamburger), as our new chairman and Amex stadium financier Tony Bloom, lost patience after a poor start that saw us stumbling around the relegation zone at the start of November. Names such as Coppell, Solskjaer, Gannon, Ince, Adkins, Tilson, Southgate, Poyet, anyone without a job and the usual journeymen were bandied about in various gossip columns of the red tops and the local news.
A few snubs, failed interviews and more speculation later and Gus was unveiled as the man to take the reins. His first management job, having cut his teeth with Swindon, Leeds and Spurs as a number two – he turned down a post at Real Madrid in favour of the number one spot. He turned down Real Madrid for Brighton – that sounds good, doesn’t it?
I’ll be honest. He had me swooning from day one. His whole demeanour, vigour and confidence left me in no doubt that Bloom had made the right decision and we could banish the troublesome few years that had plagued our performances and the whole aura of the club.
“After I left Spurs I made the decision to become a manager myself. I’d done alright being an assistant and knew it was important for my career, but it was time to step up and be manager. But I had to feel that the job is right for me. I think this is what happened here – I have a very good feeling about being here. I’m convinced we can do well.”
Yes, we can. Yes, we can. Yes, we can.
Ipswich Legend, Mauricio Taricco was rescued from semi-professional football and club favourite Charlie Oatway was installed as a coach. You could see the lift from day one.
Early results did not match up to the visible improvement of the performances, but it was not too long before our home form picked up and we moved into the upper echelons of League One showing playoff form.
The slackers were pushed out and replaced with dynamic, intelligent and tidy footballers. Players began to show their potential and we finished the season on the front foot, brimming with confidence. There were mutterings of playoffs, upper midtable, with a hardy few placing money on promotion and a title win.
There are marked parallels with our stadium and our team. Back in October 2008, a rather tired looking field with a single JCB digger has been transformed into a spell bindingly beautiful football stadium within the space of two years. From the ashes of a struggling team, an exquisite phoenix-like team marauds across the grasses of League One, beating most of what is put in front of us. Our fetching style of ball hogging has infuriated many across the land (including some of our own less patient supporters) and we have proven, without a shadow of doubt, to be the best team in the league.
Scintillating expeditions on the road at Charlton and Peterborough have been backed up with wonderfully controlled performances at the Theatre of Trees (a quasi-affectionate name for Withdean Stadium). We have not been knocked off the top spot since Francisco Sandaza slammed in a 95th minute winner against Oldham, way back in September. Almost seven months at the top of the league and confirmation of our promotion with a spirited 4-3 smash and grab against Dagenham & Redbridge sent the fans in the ground, listening on the wireless or crouched over their laptops into a fit of hysteria. Followed by claiming the title at the Bescot, a few days and another pitch invasion later.
These moments are what make it all worthwhile. The lonely defeats to Somebody Athletic on a wet Tuesday night, sat in an uncovered stand at the mercy of Mother Nature, will be recounted with fondness and sheer disbelief as to how far we have come. The crumbling Goldstone, callously stolen from us by some devious and scheming money men was the first home I knew. Two years in exile, ‘home’ games being played out at the Priestfield, followed by over a decade in a stadium more suited to a school sports day will shortly be replaced with our move to The Amex Community Stadium. Never before have I so enjoyed watching blocks being laid, foundations being dug and even the first sprouts of grass appearing!
It has been a long ride. Almost two decades of protests, an expensive and protracted planning process, marches, political campaigns, furious letter writing to the local and national press/MPs and what-have-you, bucket collections and so on. We can finally move into our new ground with our heads held high. Last day survival against Hereford in ’97 to avoid slipping out of the football league; finishing second bottom to Doncaster in our first season at Gillingham, saved only by Donny mustering a mere four wins all season – by jove, we were poor.
The future is finally looking bright. The patience, generosity and diligence of our board and directors that brought us back to Brighton, is immeasurable. I shall always been thankful to Dick Knight (former chairman), Tony Bloom (current chairman), the money men, the Falmer4All team, the campaigners and all the fans that stuck by us when the club creaked and groaned under the strain of being homeless.
Gus talks of sticking around. Of course, words can be very empty in the footballing world, but I am not scared to believe him. Good things don’t always last forever, but they can be savoured. There is plenty of time to worry about where we might be in five years time or who might be in charge. The gory years are now consigned to the memory bank and the glory years are upon us.
“I always say… with football we don’t realise how happy you can make people. They forget about everything today… they forget about their own problems, about family problems, financial problems, health problems… today is about celebrating, and totally deserved.”
I qualify for a couple of those and Gus is absolutely right. When I watch us play, those worries ebb away, watching us and knowing that we are in safe hands for the time being.
By Paul Baron – Brighton & Hove Albion fan