Brighton & Hove Albion: From the brink to the big time

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20 years ago Brighton & Hove Albion were battling for their lives at the foot of English soccer’s fourth division.

The Seagulls survived and now they’re soaring.

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On Monday Chris Hughton’s squad sealed promotion to the Premier League for the first-time in history as Brighton are back in the top-flight once again after exiting in 1983.

There will be plenty of fun next season in the English seaside resort as “Sussex by the Sea” will be belted out by Brighton fans across the Premier League.

It’s been a long, hard, and often dark road back to the top but Brighton are the latest example of a club being rewarded for coming back from the brink, rebuilding sensibly and eventually being back by wealthy owners, such as Hull City, Swansea City and Stoke City. 

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Their South Coast rivals Southampton and Bournemouth, who were both in administration and at the bottom of the third and fourth tiers respectively less than a decade ago, are perfect examples for Brighton to follow. Next season there will be three South Coast clubs in the Premier League (barring an almighty collapse from Bournemouth in the final weeks of the season) and with Plymouth and Portsmouth both securing promotion to the third-tier this weekend after similar tales of administration and woe, we’re in the midst of the English Channel’s soccer heyday.

Back to Brighton, though, and their suffering was particularly brutal both two decades ago and also in recent seasons.

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After securing a 1-1 draw on the final day of the 1996-97 fourth division season against Hereford United (Robbie Reinelt scored a late equalizer to keep them in the Football League at Hereford’s expense as the Seagulls needed a win or a draw) they then controversially moved from their Goldstone Ground home and had to play at Gillingham for two years, a town over 70 miles from Brighton.

Eventually they secured a lease to play at the Withdean Stadium, a council-owned athletics track which was converted into a stadium by temporary bleachers and had a capacity of under 9,000. Anyone who has had the pleasure of visiting the Withdean will tell you of its bizarre quirks and the fact that some fans were sat some 50 yards behind the pitch, behind a long-jump pit and running track, made it an uncomfortable setting. Brighton’s kit sponsor back then was “Skint”, the record label of local DJ Norman Cook (AKA the world renowned Fatboy Slim).

In England, being ‘skint’ is a colloquial term for having no money. That was exactly the case for Brighton as fans were just happy to have a club and that was about it as long-time chairman Dick Knight tried desperately to bring in funds.

Hamstrung by their temporary home, Brighton nonetheless rose up through the leagues to the second-tier on two occasions and they eventually financed their stunning 30,000 capacity AmEx Stadium through current chairman Tony Bloom who took over from Knight, the man who saved them from extinction. However, the stadium move was delayed by over five years as planning permissions were turned down and court battles took place.

Brighton’s fans are used to being patient and seeing the future of their club hanging in the balance. Gaining promotion to the Premier League will now secure their future for generations to come.

Before this season the Seagulls came close to promotion to the Premier League in 2012-13 and 2013-14 but lost in the play-off semifinals on both occasions, leaving supporters frustrated and the owners going back to square one to try and rebuild the playing squad with their dream of reaching the top-flight so close, but yet so far.

Over the past two season Hughton has delivered a solid, dependable side and Brighton agonizingly lost out on automatic promotion to the PL on the final day of last season with a draw at Middlesbrough who were instead promoted automatically ahead of Brighton on goal difference. Brighton then once again lost in the playoff semifinals (the third time in four seasons) but this season they’ve been pretty much ever-present in the top two and they’ll seal the Championship title with a win at Norwich City on Friday.

Brighton have been knocking on the door to the Premier League for much of the past four years and now it has finally opened you can expect them to hand Hughton plenty of funds to help them become an established PL outfit as they look to take on bitter rivals Crystal Palace.

They’ve been to the brink and back and like we’ve seen with plenty of others PL teams promoted in the past few years, that’s usually a recipe not only for success but also perspective as they plan ahead for the next challenge.

When you’ve come from the depths of the fourth division, had no stadium and seen the abyss of non-league starring at you in the face, battling against relegation in the Premier League (which will almost certainly be Brighton’s task next season) suddenly doesn’t seem that scary.