So far it seems I needn’t have worried.
As I wrote in issue number three of this fine magazine, I can remember when we went up to the old First Division in 1979. Only two seasons before we had been in the Third, beating teams 4-0 and even 7-0, with Peter Ward rampant in front of goal, and some fans now weren’t happy with goalless draws against Leeds United, or 1-1 struggles with Stoke City.
Fair enough, they were paying customers and entitled to their opinion, but I could not escape the conclusion that we had had too much, too soon and been spoiled. Playing in the top flight after 78 years in the relative wilderness did not bring some people the joy it should have.
It has been different this season, and, I think, for at least three reasons.
First, because of the three play-off disappointments in four years. True, we’d had a near-miss in 1978 when Southampton and Tottenham contrived a goalless draw at The Dell that sent them both up and edged us out, but we’d been in with a chance until the last second of a breathless season.
The play-off defeats were much worse. We didn’t reach the Wembley play-off final in either of those three campaigns and although we all secretly knew that Oscar Garcia’s team didn’t have much of a chance and weren’t too surprised that we didn’t get past Derby County, the defeats by Palace and Sheffield Wednesday were both potentially crushing for different reasons.
And the aftermaths were even worse. These days, you hear so much about the rewards of promotion, the Championship play-off final being ‘the £100 million match’ and all that nonsense. Missing out is talked about in apocalyptic terms. So we have relished being here all the more after having the cup dashed from our lips so many times before.
The second reason is closely related. An author I know very well writes in a book out now (Brighton Up, available in the club shop, City Books, Waterstones and online – an excellent gift for the Albion fan in your life) that there are far worse things in football than missing out on promotion in a play-off semi-final: Archer, Bellotti, Doncaster, Hereford, Gillingham, planning enquiries and Lewes district council, to name but seven. When you’ve been through that, the air up here at the summit of English football smells that much sweeter, even when Wayne Rooney robs you of two points with an 88th-minute penalty, as he did against Everton in October. (And remember, that’s Wayne Rooney, England’s record goalscorer, not some lower-league journeyman.)
The third element is that we’re better-informed. In 1979, there was BBC’s Match of the Day, The Big Match on ITV (don’t get me started on Southern Soccer), the back pages and that was about it. Nowadays, football is ten, twenty, a hundred times bigger than it was then. Sky, BT Sport, and countless online outlets keep us informed about the game in every country and at every level. We appreciate what’s going on off-the-field far more; we understand what we’re looking at on the pitch in far greater depth (apart from that bloke with the loud voice five rows behind me); and messageboards such as North Stand Chat provide instant reality checks for anyone getting too.
Everyone has turned up in numbers and got right behind the team. We didn’t have a single 30,000 crowd for a league game at the Goldstone in four years in the old First Division, in a ground that held far more. Up to now we haven’t had a single attendance below 30,000 at The Amex. Officially, anyway.
I’m also pleased to note that no players have been singled out for criticism. Of course, the odd slack pass, the occasional defensive slip provokes a groan, but the mood has been generally forgiving and supportive. We know what the players are up against because we’ve seen the opposing teams so often on TV and understand what they can do. How good does a 2-0 defeat by Manchester City look now that we’ve seen what happened against Liverpool?
In the past the crowd has taken against certain players, although that is by no means a situation unique to Albion fans. A group of West Ham ‘supporters’ who sat just behind the press box in the old main stand at Upton Park (even before it became trendy to call it The Boleyn) would mercilessly barrack one young midfield player match after match, convinced he was not, and would never be, good enough to represent their beloved Hammers and that he owed his place in the team entirely to the fact he was related to the manager and his assistant. Sadly, they eventually got their wish and he left the club. Whatever did happen to Frank Lampard?
Of course, it helps that the team have done well and have been in every game. But I hope I’m right in thinking fans will continue to do our part even if Bruno and the boys hit a rocky patch.
Nick’s book is out: Brighton Up: The Inside Story of Brighton & Hove Albion’s Journey From Despair to Triumph and the Premier League tells the story of how the Albion bounced back from the heartbreak of missing out on promotion to the Premier League by the narrowest of margins last season, to achieve the ultimate goal.
Tags: Nick Szczepanik