It’s a warm summer’s day and I shout, really quite loudly, ‘Seagulls!’ across the road. I have spotted an Albion shirt and he turns as if I’ve called his name, he pumps his fist in the air and walks on. It’s Whitworth Street West in Manchester outside the old Hacienda club and people think I’m mad. The site of a fellow fan warms me – I hope it’s mutual – and we both just go about our business.
This is the reality of being an exile. A fan in a foreign city of a team that rarely registers on the radar of most fans. To see some stripes, and then for them not to be that of the Wednesday or Wigan variety, is really quite a treat for the likes of us.
That’s not to say there’s not many of us outside Sussex – there’s plenty. The most I saw was in a pub showing the first leg of our play-off game against Palace in 2000-whatever. I had put a note on North Stand Chat inviting exiles to watch in one place and I counted 50 souls in there that night. Not bad, eh? I have been in Manchester over ten years and all these exiles seem to fall into one of four groups.
Firstly, the martyrs. The ones who have season tickets and go. And I mean week in, week out. It’s a long, long drive that costs a significant wedge – hundreds of pounds – every other week. I envy them in ways but we all know those fans who really have not a lot else going on. They’ve made they’re choice. They married Brighton & Hove Albion.
Then there’s the lonewolves. There’s loads of these. Exiles who you recognise from away games, have seen in the pubs when we’re on Sky, but are quite happy keeping themselves to themselves. They’ll wear a scarf but are far happier in the company of a freshly printed programme than that of an Albion fan. There’s the opposite too. Gangs of exiles who snowball in size as a Sussex accent is heard or a car sticker is spotted.
I was part of a gang once. A medley of students and Albion-immigrants who met at Piccadilly Station once and decided to sit together and stick together. Add a few cans and the camaraderie of simply being in a niche group and friendships are formed for life. I met Ant and Annie this way (they went on to start the NSK group) while Sam and Loz, two strangers studying up here, went on to become best mates. We’ve all gone our separate ways now but I love seeing them at the Amex from time to time.
Finally there’s the oddest of the bunch. The actual northerners. The mud-blood offspring of second and third generation Brightonians who moved up a long time ago and brought their kids up the only way they knew how. The accents would cut through the small away crowds at midweek trips to Bury or Huddersfield and you realised what they were. Truly inspirational and a bit of an eye opener to me who thought Albion fans were exclusively born of Sussex earth and whose blood was actually brewed in Lewes.
I’m jealous of those who can go to the Amex week in, week out. A routine potted with pre-match pints in some of the best pubs in England, which you just happen to have as locals down there. Sitting in the same group each game and then seeing regulars in those concourses that act as vast, fantastic social clubs at Falmer. You don’t know how lucky you are.
But we’re lucky too. As exiles we have odd accents, but our identity is forged through our rabid commitment to our local team – a team that people really, really don’t know much about up here. It’s instinct to shout when you see another exile. I’ll never stop, you never know who you’re going to meet, but you know you have one fantastic thing in common.
Sam Swaffield is the co-founder of The Seagull Love Review (TSLR), the Albion fanzine that ran between 2008 and 2014, releasing 60 issues as the club moved from Withdean to the Amex. TSLR now release unofficial Albion merchandise online for fans who aren’t into the whole megastore thing.