Bob Booker’s knowledge of Brighton & Hove Albion prior to his appointment was sketchy in the extreme.
“I knew hardly anything about the club and it was not really on my radar,” he admits. “The phone call from Micky Adams offering me the Brighton job came completely out of the blue, like so many of the opportunities I received throughout my career. Beyond knowing that Brighton were in the Third Division, I was totally ignorant about their recent traumatic history and the trials and tribulations they had gone through in order to survive. At that time I wasn’t a great one for watching football apart from Match of the Day, and had little knowledge of other teams and players, but I knew that this would have to change to meet the demands of my new job. My ignorance was commonplace within the game as there wasn’t much television and media coverage in those days of the lower divisions, and footballers are notorious for remaining within their own little bubble and not bothering with anything that does not directly concern them. I was soon to learn that Micky Adams had signed several players I knew very well from their Brentford days, but again, that was news to me at the time, as footballers never stay in touch. At the end of the season they invariably say ‘See you soon’ to all their teammates, but the next time they meet up is generally at the start of pre-season training. When someone is transferred they always promise to keep in touch, but again, it almost never happens. I had remained in contact with very few players from either my Brentford or Sheffield United days, so I had no idea who was at Brighton at the time I joined.”
“The last time I had played against Brighton was way back in the 1989/90 season when I was at Sheffield United. I recall scoring in both games, a seesaw 5-4 early season win at Bramall Lane and then a vital equaliser in the return match. The Goldstone was a proper old-school, traditional stadium, and my main memory of playing there was of the away dressing room and having to go gingerly down the steps into what was probably the biggest and deepest plunge bath I had ever encountered. You had to be very careful not to slip and fall in. I used to warn Mark Todd, the smallest player in our team, that he needed to wear a rubber ring and tread water or run the risk of disappearing into the murky waters and never being seen again.”
“In the days before the Health and Safety lobby oversaw the demise of the plunge bath, there would be lots of farting, drinking and smoking going on and you would all happily lie there together, excitedly chatting and luxuriating after a good result and letting the stresses, aches and strains of the afternoon’s exertions wash off you. Or, conversely, there would initially be a complete silence after a defeat beyond the lapping of the water, and you would just be waiting for someone to start bitching and moaning and allocating blame. Somehow things never seemed the same after the move towards single baths and showers.”
Dick Knight – and, to a lesser extent, Micky Adams – gave Bob an instant update and history lesson regarding the club during their initial lunch meeting at Topolino’s in October 2000, making Bob realise just how tenuous the club’s situation was; how close they had come to oblivion.
Brighton & Hove Albion FC were slowly coming off life support after barely surviving a horrendous few years which saw the incomprehensible and widely condemned sale of its beloved Goldstone Ground come about thanks to a fifth column from within the club, led by the chairman, Bill Archer. Albion only stayed in the Football League thanks to Robbie Reinelt’s second half equaliser in a winner (or, fortunately for the Seagulls, non-loser) takes all final day relegation clash at Hereford on 3rd May 1997.
The influence of newly appointed manager Steve Gritt, who accepted the poisoned chalice, in conjunction with the positivity engendered by the passion and organisation of a supporter base that would not allow the rug to be pulled out from underneath their beloved Seagulls, heralded the start of an unbeaten run of 12 home matches which, ironically, turned the soon-to-be-abandoned Goldstone Ground into a fortress. But despite their eventual survival, this also represented the lowest ebb of a club with a rich and proud history.
Much of their existence since the Second World War had seen Albion languish in the third tier of the Football League, with the fans enjoying the talent of the odd star player on his way up such as Johnny McNichol, later to win the First Division Championship with Chelsea, and future England international Jimmy Langley. The goals of Adrian Thorne finally saw Second Division football achieved in 1958, but Albion’s eventual Division Three South Championship triumph, by a narrow two-point margin over their nearest challengers, Brentford, was a tainted one, with rumours of match fixing and of Watford lying down before the crucial final game of the season which saw Albion triumph 6-0. Their progress could not be sustained and, despite the efforts of prolific goalscorer Bill Curry, Albion fell into the bottom division in 1963. The arrival the following year of former Spurs double winner and England international centre-forward Bobby Smith, perhaps the biggest name ever to sign for the club, came out of the blue, and his 19 goals, aided and abetted by the likes of Jack Smith, Jimmy Collins, Dave Turner and Jack Bertolini, saw the Fourth Division Championship won and the start of better times for the club, culminating in promotion to the First Division in 1979.
Albion remained in the top division for four years, buttressed and inspired as they were by the talent of two of the club’s greatest ever players – Mark Lawrenson, who left for Liverpool in 1981, and goal machine Peter Ward, who Bob had encountered in his initial trial for Brentford. FA Cup glory was so nearly theirs in 1983, but Gordon Smith’s last-gasp miss let Manchester United off the hook and manager Jimmy Melia was denied a Wembley victory jig in his famous white shoes. Smith has been mocked and vilified for nearly 35 years, but it is often forgotten that it was his perfectly-placed header that gave Albion the lead. The season would end with a relegation and cup final defeat double.
“Some Albion fans see that defeat and relegation as the beginning of a decline – or at least a malaise – which directly led to the sorry state the club found itself in by the mid-1990s,” says journalist and Albion fan Ben Miller. “Two years after a 3-1 playoff final defeat against Notts County denied the club a return to Division One, only the last-gasp sale of goalkeeper Mark Beeney to Leeds United staved off a winding up order. But the saga was about to worsen beyond belief, as the club fell into the clutches of northern DIY mogul Bill Archer. Dick Knight, the advertising guru and lifelong Albion fan who had to sit through years of poisonous negotiations in order to eventually wrestle the club away from him, succinctly described Archer as ‘a chancer,’ emphasised by the princely sum of £56.25 which he paid to become the chairman of a club in dire straits. His henchman and acolyte, local politician David Bellotti, swiftly became despised by the fans for his petty-minded banning orders and seemingly endless stream of inventions about the way the club was being run and its future. Paul Samrah, a staunch Albion fan, fortuitously noticed that the club’s Articles of Association had been brazenly altered so that any profit from the sale of the ground could legally go into the pockets of the owners. When Bellotti was confronted in his office by fanzine editor and undertaker Ian Hart about this amendment, his complexion is said to have gone as white as a goalpost, even if, typically, he denied the change had anything to do with the sale of the Goldstone Ground, which Archer and Bellotti had insisted was the only way to clear the club’s considerable debts.”
They had, predictably, exaggerated the club’s predicament, continues Miller. “While it owed considerable sums to debtors, the decision to sell the ground – a move clearly being made for the benefit of the club’s predatory owners, rather than the books – was a horrific idea which would bring almost a century of football opposite Hove Park to an abrupt, unnecessary and heart-breaking end. The Goldstone was part of Sussex’s fabric, a fabulous old place, which had witnessed the Albion as champions of England in 1910 when as Southern League Champions they then beat Football League winners Aston Villa in the Charity Shield, England Under-21 matches, David Beckham’s debut and even a performance by Slade. It had a magnificent terrace in the North Stand, which reverberated and throbbed with passion on match days, as well as the old Chicken Run, scene of many a run-in with visiting fans throughout the decades.”
This was a club and ground loved by its local community, and the suggestion that the Goldstone would be demolished for reasons which could at best be described as dubious caused uproar, protests and, the season after a last-minute decision by the board to stay for one more year, an incredible Fans United event. 14,000 supporters from around the world converged on a home game against Hartlepool to show solidarity with Albion supporters and spur the team on to a 5-0 win – a vital result given that the team was languishing several points from safety at the bottom of Division Three.
Some clubs can withstand the trauma of relegation from the Football League, licking their wounds, cutting their cloth, regenerating and eventually coming back even stronger, as has been the case with Lincoln City in the 2016/17 season. At worst, stabilisation within the non-league pyramid is usually possible. Brighton’s situation was entirely different and it is more than likely that Albion would have gone out of existence had journeyman striker Robbie Reinelt not carved his name in Sussex folklore by equalising at Hereford on the final day of the 1996/97 season, thus condemning the home team to the relegation trapdoor and oblivion. The club was on its last legs, penniless, holed below the waterline, and would surely have had little or no hope of either survival or recovery.
Miller outlines how the fans responded, “The NIMBY brigade had their moments in the torrent of council meetings and letter-writing campaigns that followed, but Albion fans always faced the battle and responded persuasively and with good humour. Characteristically determined and witty, supporters had to continuously use both of those qualities to orchestrate protests and drag the club out of the hands of the businessmen who shamelessly sought to destroy it. Once Knight had control of the club, bright green t-shirts were a signature of the campaign to bring the club back to a temporary home in Brighton, and John Prescott, the then-deputy prime minister who was ultimately responsible for a decision over the club’s proposed permanent home at Falmer, received sacks full of Valentine’s Day cards from Albion fans at his constituency office in Hull.”
The club even survived a dreadful two-year exile to Gillingham and a traumatic 23rd place finish in 1998, with relegation only averted by the fortunate presence of a quite appalling Doncaster Rovers team that lost 34 times that season and were somehow even worse than Brighton. The second season in Kent saw a slight improvement under former Brighton legend Brian Horton, but his departure to Port Vale presaged a slump, which his successor, Jeff Wood, was unable to reverse. A disastrous run of nine defeats in ten games again placed Albion’s Football League status in jeopardy and Dick Knight was forced into yet another managerial change, which this time paid dividends.
Micky Adams was an unpolished managerial gem. He was his own man who had fallen out with a couple of egotistical chairmen at Fulham and Brentford and walked out of a job at Swansea after a mere 13 days when the goalposts were changed over promised transfer funds. He needed and deserved a chairman who would believe in him, and found one in Knight. The boost of his arrival ensured that survival was achieved with a 17th place finish.
Money was tight with what little income there was, given the meagre gate receipts from playing at Priestfield Stadium for two seasons, channelled into the ongoing and seemingly never-ending political struggle to obtain a new stadium within the city. The club relied upon the generosity of its directors, fan donations, the begging bowl and, later, even the proceeds of a Coca-Cola fans’ competition to subsidise the signing of a player in Colin Kazim-Richards, an unpredictable and temperamental striker who became known as the “Coca-Cola Kid.” Gary Hart was a rare cash purchase from Stansted who cost the vast sum of £1,000 plus a set of tracksuits (just as Bob had done back in 1978), repaying that sum many times over with 13 years of dedicated service.
The summer of 1999 finally saw good news for the club, with the tireless efforts of the supporters rewarded with the granting of planning permission for a temporary home ground at Withdean Stadium, an athletics venue which was, with great difficulty, converted into a rickety football stadium that was barely fit for purpose. Crowds were likely to increase significantly over the minuscule numbers of heroes who had braved the ridiculous three hour and 150 mile schlep to Gillingham and back, although much of the increased revenue would have to be earmarked for the significant transportation and infrastructure costs required to meet the stringent conditions imposed upon the club in order for it to be allowed to return to the city.
Adams was given some funds to strengthen a squad that was patently unfit for purpose. He generally relied upon the tried and tested – experienced players who he knew well and could rely upon and trust, and he spent wisely on the likes of Paul Watson, Charlie Oatway and Paul Rogers. The revamped squad celebrated its long-overdue return to Brighton with a confidence-boosting 6-0 mauling of Mansfield Town. The team took time to gel, needing the goals of Bobby Zamora, an inspired loan signing from Bristol Rovers, to galvanise the Seagulls to an unbeaten run of 14 matches and an eventual 11th place finish.
Most fans were just happy to be able to watch their team play in their own city again, even in such cramped and uncomfortable surroundings, but expectations were rising and it was hoped that the 2000/2001 season would see Adams and his sidekick, Alan Cork, lead the team to promotion, particularly as even more players arrived, including the skilful but woefully inconsistent Paul Brooker. The talismanic Zamora was signed for an eye-watering £100,000 fee. Adams favoured an aggressive brand of high-tempo and often direct football, which did not always find favour with either the chairman or some of the supporters, who preferred a more measured approach. But the early signs and results were promising. The unexpected departure of Adams’s close friend and confidant, Cork to Cardiff, where he eventually took over as manager from Bobby Gould, threatened to derail the promotion bid, and it was crucial that Micky Adams found an immediate replacement who was on the same wavelength as him and could act as his sounding board. Luckily, he knew just where to look.