This coming Saturday, Brighton & Hove Albion take on Arsenal at the American Express Community Stadium on the outskirts of our most cosmopolitan of cities. A sell-out crowd of over 27,000 will watch the game at one of the most impressive new stadiums in the country.
Brighton are working their way back to the top table of English football, but their recent history has been littered with trials and tribulations, some of which threatened the very existence of a proud club.
This weekend, 16 years ago, Albion were preparing to host Rochdale in a Nationwide Division Three fixture. The Seagulls were rock bottom of the league, 7 points from safety and dreams of a glamour FA Cup tie had been humiliatingly extinguished by Sudbury Town.
Manager Steve Gritt, brought in following the sacking of Jimmy Case, had improved the situation slightly, but even the most optimistic fans were fearing the worst for the end of the season. The Conference beckoned for a club that, just 13 years before, had played in the FA Cup Final.
A 3-0 win that day set in train a sequence of events that ended with glorious, nail biting tension on a sunny afternoon at Hereford. Albion survived that season (just!), but the future was still bleak. Attempts to oust the hated regime of Bill Archer and David Bellotti were still hanging in the balance and Albion's home of nearly 100 years was about to be bulldozed to make way for the likes of Burger King and Currys.
A two-year ground-sharing nightmare followed, with fans facing a 90 mile trip to watch their club play at home. Off the pitch, a new regime was in place, led by the charismatic Dick Knight, the man behind the 'Hello Boys' advertising campaign. Brighton finally returned home in 1999, to a temporary home at Withdean. This was an athletics stadium, which over the years had played host to American Football, Olympic tennis and, at one stage, a zoo.
The lack of a roof, the temporary stands and a backdrop of suburban woodland, made the need for a permanent home even more pressing. In the early days at Withdean, home pre-season friendlies were prevented by the need for the South Stand Seats to be transported to the Open Golf Championship.
By a weird quirk of fate, this combination of quaint eccentricity made The Theatre of Trees into something approaching a fortress. Back-to-back promotions were achieved in 2001 and 2002 on the back of the spectacular goal scoring of Bobby Zamora.
Off the field, plans were now well-advanced for a new stadium at Falmer but the calling of a public enquiry again brought uncertainty to the process. The incredible efforts of a football club to find a new home were once again thrown into turmoil by the planning red-tape and the club had to re-double its efforts to relocate.
The temporary nature of the club's tenure at Withdean was beginning to look somewhat more permanent and once again, the future looked bleak.
Remarkably, events on the pitch once again threw The Seagulls back into the limelight. Relegation from The Championship in 2003 was followed by promotion the very next season, confirmed on a thrilling, if tense, afternoon at The Millenium Stadium. The club used the platform to publicise the fight for Falmer, imploring then Secretary of State John Prescott to say yes to the new stadium.
After two more seasons in The Championship, relegation added to the potent mix of uncertainty. Mark McGhee paid the price for the problems on the pitch but off it, efforts were re-doubled and finally rewarded on 25th July 2007, when Hazel Blears rubber-stamped the decision to grant approval. So, 10 years after leaving the Goldstone Ground, there seemed to finally be some light at the end of a very long tunnel. The credit crunch then intervened and it was only when lifelong fan (and by now Chairman of the club) Tony Bloom agreed to underwrite the cost of the stadium. The first soil was dug in December 2008.
With the bricks and mortar future of the club now assured, events on the pitch assumed massive importance. A new stadium deserves a good standard of football on the expanse of green in the middle, and Tony Bloom's next stroke of genius came in November 2009. The recruitment of Gus Poyet to spearhead the new dawn of Brighton & Hove Albion, was greeted with enthusiasm by the club's fans, but they could not have foreseen how spectacularly his visions would dovetail with those of Tony Bloom.
A recovery in 2009/10 was followed by a scintillating demonstration of 'Poyetry in Motion' in 2011/12. The efforts of Nigel Adkins' Southampton could not keep up with the beautiful tippy tippy football being produced by The Seagulls and after hitting top spot in October, they stayed there until the end of the season, before clinching the League One title at Walsall, in front of hordes of delirious supporters.
The new stadium was growing majestically from the Sussex countryside and in August 2011, the previous 14 years were laid to rest when Brighton and Doncaster ran out for the first league game. The first season contained some exhilarating highs and a few depressing lows, but through it all, Brighton fans gave thanks for what they now have.
Players like Vicente Rodriguez have been enticed to The Amex by the Gospel according to Poyet and the fans continue to flock to the shrine. New seats are in the process of being installed, which will take the capacity to 30,750, a far cry from the 6,000 who made their way to Withdean to do battle with the elements on a weekly basis. The hospitality portakabins have been replaced with state of the art lounges to entertain over 2,000 people each match. Brighton & Hove Albion is a club geared up for life at the top table.
Without the knowledge of the past, you cannot determine your destiny. Brighton believe their destiny is to be a part of the top flight of English football and in pursuit of this, have not betrayed their past. On Saturday, they have a chance to demonstrate their pedigree against one of the giants of English football. It's not just an FA Cup-tie, it's part of a club's redemption, the next step in the exorcism of the demons of the late 1990's.
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