As we prepare to welcome Fulham for the very first top-flight meeting between the two sides, I’m going to look back at a meeting from the other end of the football league, just 22 years ago.
Albion were in complete turmoil, both on and off the pitch. Rock bottom of the entire league, we were staring non-league football in the face. Fans were in open revolt against the regime of Bill Archer and David Bellotti and the immediate future looked about as bleak as it could be.
Just 14 games into the season, we were already six points adrift of Exeter City. At the other end of the table, Fulham were four points clear at the top, with Micky Adams’ men looking odds-on for promotion.
The protests against the board were gaining in frequency and before the game, fans of both Albion and Fulham marched from Brighton station to the Goldstone Ground. The atmosphere inside was very hostile, with many fans taking up seats in the West Stand, to make their point known to Mr Bellotti.
Albion boss Jimmy Case was trying his best with the backdrop of protests, and his programme notes reflected the pressure he was under. He says: “At the moment the uncertainty surrounding the club has meant football has in some ways become secondary to all the speculation and is very contributory to our current demise”.
He goes on to praise the “magnificent” supporters, and finished with a thinly-veiled attack on the regime, saying: “I and the players are the victims of a lot of political manoeuvring which we have no wish to be involved in”.
Elsewhere, the programme provided a stark demonstration of the way in which the club had become detached from the community. The usually thriving player-sponsorship programme showed just seven players with kit sponsors, with one of those being supported by employees of the club.
On the pitch, the players were galvanised by the 8,000-plus crowd, easily the best of the season so far. Fulham were flying high and the team contained a number of players who were to become very familiar to Albion supporters in the years to come. As well as manager Micky Adams and his assistant Alan Cork, the Fulham squad that day included Mark Walton, Danny Cullip, Paul Watson, Darren Freeman, Richard Carpenter, Paul Brooker and Simon Morgan. A real who’s who of Brighton and Hove Albion in the early 2000s!
The game was tight and hard-fought. Fans were torn between getting behind the players and hurling abuse at the Directors’ Box. It was scoreless at half-time and as the second half wore on, the atmosphere became more toxic.
With around 20 minutes to go, Bellotti had had enough and left the Directors’ Box. This brought a huge cheer from the crowd and once he departed, the supporters really got behind the team. There were no goals but the 0-0 draw showed exactly what could be achieved with encouragement from the terraces.
It wasn’t enough to keep Case in his job but the turnaround led by Steve Gritt could well be linked back to that day in October 1996.
Twenty-two years on, the atmosphere around the club couldn’t be different. Let’s hope the 2018 Seagulls can go one better than the 1996 version and secure three points on Saturday.