In a similar vein to the 1990 book of the same name this is an account of my favourite year, part one.
Brighton & Hove Albion – Second Division 6th place (losing Play-Off finalists) – FA Cup 4th round – League Cup 1st round.
The motley bunch above, looking ridiculous in their lurid pink away strip, is the team from my favourite ever season, 1990-91. The kit, incidentally, was voted as one of the worst five kits of all time. Not helped much by the words NOBO emblazoned on their chest. I still have this top in my wardrobe.
I’ve supported the Albion since 1980, which includes five promotions and a Cup Final appearance; but those seasons still don’t compare to 1990-91. Just looking at that picture amuses me, even forgetting the pink tops; every player on it is more familiar to me now than 95% of those who have played for Brighton since. Most of the matches from this season still remain vivid in my mind, much more so than most from the nigh on 25 seasons since.
Ultimately, they weren’t good enough for promotion, (losing to Notts County at Wembley) but whatever they lacked on the field was more than made up for in charisma and sheer entertainment. Take the kits for a start – not just the garish away kit but also the comedy home kit, that looked like an upended Tesco carrier with a hole in the bottom.
Brighton were not expected to do much that year. Having narrowly avoided the drop to Division 3 two seasons running, and with no money to spend, the likelihood was that our tenuous grip on Division Two was finally going to give way to relegation. Two signings from abroad, namely Johnny Byrne and Mike Small from Le Havre and PAOK Thessaloniki FC, did not cause a stir around the pre-season Goldstone Ground. Nobody had heard of them (Byrne played for QPR a while back but that didn’t raise any eyebrows). Optimism for the coming season was low.
As it turned out, they were two of the best signings Brighton ever made; their partnership together producing over 30 goals and taunting Division Two defences all season. Added to this exciting front-pairing was the fact that our games were high scoring; 3-2 wins commonplace, as were crushing defeats, as in 4-0 at home to Sheff Wed, 4-2 at home to Middlesbrough and 6-1 at Oldham. When we lost we really lost it, none of that 1-0 nonsense for us.
It was also my first season at University in Preston – and as luck would have it the away games in the far north seemed to be in term time, the London and south east games in the holidays. Consequently, I went to 20 away games that year.
Brighton were also playing very attractive football. This seems to be a feature of Brighton throughout the years, and none more so than this year. In fact, at times, our football was almost non-contact, which was why we tended to fair so badly against the bruisers and cloggers in the league. It’s funny how clubs seem to retain a reputation through years and decades, despite the complete change of personnel, from players to backroom staff. It is said the human body has a complete change of cells every seven years or so, but something within us keeps us the person we are. It is as though clubs, too, have this indefinable something, a soul perhaps, that stays true despite complete physical change.
Our manager, Barry Lloyd, had been with us three and half years, and despite a very enjoyable promotion in 1987-88 from the third division, with Garry Nelson and Kevin Bremner, another pair of characters, partnering up front, he was the cause of a lot of frustration amongst fans at times. This was directed at his apparent inability to get any grit in the team; to get stuck in when needed, to change plans slightly to accommodate the more physical sides.
It was a typically inauspicious start to the campaign, showing no foretaste of what was to come. I missed the opener at Barnsley (not missing another until October) but remember where I was when I heard the final score. Hardly a JFK moment, I know, but memory can be a tad unpredictable, especially where football is concerned. I was mooching around the Peter Pan amusement arcades down the beach, on the way to the marina, playing slot machines and games, when I heard from the change man’s radio that Garry Nelson had put us 1-0 up! At the start of the second half, too – maybe Brighton could win an opening day match for the first time since goalnets were invented?
No. Brighton lost 2-1, and I walked home from Peter Pan amusements both skint and depressed. I had that out-of-all-context depression that comes after a summer holiday of anticipating a new season, followed by opening day defeat. The coming Wednesday it was to get worse. It was time for the annual Goldstone-League-Cup-defeat-at the-hands-of-lower-division-opposition event. I think this particular match made it five seasons on the trot losing our home leg to a lower league club – the benefactors on the night, Northampton Town, 2-0. Although, for some reason, this scoreline was probably what persuaded me to go up to the County Ground for the second leg; as it at least gave me the chance to see an amazing comeback. (Well, I was young and naive.)
On the Saturday we met Wolverhampton at home and drew 1-1 in an even game. We looked better that day and maybe showed some signs of potential brilliance, but it wasn’t anything to get excited about yet. A curious fact about this match is that it was the first time Wolves had ever not lost to us. Before this game our record against them was Pld 10 W 10 D 0 L 0. It was surely the biggest bogey in football history. To take the bogey metaphor further it was like one of those stringy ones that dangles from your nose for a good inch. However Wolverhampton finally picked the bogey as they got their first point off us.
On the Tuesday it was a drive in my Dad’s car up to Northampton to the County Ground for the second leg of the Rumbelow’s (or whatever) Cup. I’d manage to persuade my mate Steve to come, despite his general lack of interest in football. He was a football hedgehog, hibernating for three years and eleven months, only to appear during the World Cups, suddenly watching every match like a man possessed and talking football like a Goldstone regular. He did come along to the odd Albion match; but i think it was more for the day or night out, more than anything. We were only just eighteen and driving was still a novelty.
The County Ground was a little affair, the smallest ground I’d seen since Aldershot; smaller still in fact. The side adjoining the cricket pitch just had duckboards separating it from the football pitch. I couldn’t believe a league team had such a small ground – and they were bloody well beating us, too. It was a fairly dismal night, standing on the open terrace behind the goal, forlornly drinking coffee in the late August night, waiting for what looked like an inevitable 0-0. It briefly flickered to life in the 87th minute when we took the lead; but before the expectation of a dramatic equaliser and extra time could play in our heads, the cobblers scored at the other end for 1-1 and 3-1, on aggregate. Out of the League cup yet again.
Mike (Micky) Small is my favourite Albion player of all time. He was a powerful imposing striker, in the mould of Emile Heskey, who could hold the ball up and strike fear into opposition defences. He had a way of ploughing through defenders like an ice-breaker through icebergs. Added to his strength was an eye for goal and speed. At nearly 30 already, he had somehow gone under the radar of bigger clubs; a hidden gem plucked from Greek football . He was the kind of player you could pin your hopes on for some magic if you were trailing in the last five minutes. He very fast became a hero down at the Goldstone. His song was:
He’s tall, he’s black, he’s lethal in attack…Micky Small…Micky Small
John Byrne, too, was approaching, or may have been 30 when he joined us from Le Havre. He was a very skilful player and cut quite a figure dashing down the line with his leonine hair. His speed and skill matched with Small’s power was an awesome combination.
They are pictured in the pics below along with the rest of the squad.
The next league fixture was away at Watford. Vicarage Road would become the first away ground I’d been to twice. In those days away fans were made to do ‘the long walk’. Having arrived at the ground you were forced not just on the obligatory one and a half times round the ground to the away section, but an almighty trek encircling the biggest allotments in the world. It took, literally, about twenty minutes to walk to the turnstile. In those days they were famed for their singing family section, the only noise you heard off them was the regular childish squeak of ‘Watford…[clap, clap, clap]…Watford. I also remember the Brighton fans singing
Elton John is a homosexual
which seems strange now based on its bland factuality. Also, very rich, coming from fans from gay capital, Brighton, with their team playing in a pink kit!
It was another Albion hero, Gary Nelson, who slotted our winner home under the keeper in the second half. The triangle of Albion fans around the floodlight went berserk as we notched our first win of the season. These were the days when away fans were often shepherded into a triangle of terrace beneath a floodlight, usually open to the elements, while the home fans sit or stand in relative luxury.
Next up were two home matches in four days, Charlton on the Saturday, then Portsmouth on the Tuesday night. I dreamed of six points as supporters are wont to do; the rational part of my brain shaking its head in a patronising manner. These two matches didn’t just provide the dreamed of six points, it showed Brighton to be a high scoring attacking force. In both games we trailed 1-0 early on, but in both games we cruised back to two goal advantages; against Portsmouth all before half time.
They looked like a side that could score with every attack. The combination of Byrne and Small, with little Clive Walker (the Phil Collins lookalike) on the wing and midfield class act Dean Wilkins, not to mention the likes of Robert Codner and Mark Barham, we looked like we had plenty of goals in us. It is reassuring to have a high scoring team, as going a goal behind does not signal the death-knell for getting any points out of the game. Brighton fans were starting to get a bit excited about the season, especially as the two wins had leapt us in to fourth place.
As I mentioned the team was full of larger than life characters. Clive Walker, the bald grinning ex Chelsea and Sunderland player with loads of top flight experience and a League Cup final to his name (in which he missed a penalty), was getting on a bit, but still capable of some genius down the wing. He was one of those players that was occasionally brilliant, but probably more of the time jaw-droppingly hapless. In fact, this polar tendency seemed to run within the team to varying degrees. A lot of our players were both capable of sheer sparkle but also comedically bad football.
Central defender Gary Chivers was generally a very reliable chap but would then occasionally think it a good idea to try header keepy-uppies in the middle of a packed Albion area in the ninetieth minute, with us holding on to a slender one-goal advantage. He was reputed to be a bit of a joker in the changing rooms, and occasionally this comical side of him would appear at the most inopportune moments on the pitch.
Robert Codner was another of those players with two faces. He was a talented midfielder, who a few times a season scored an absolute blinder, but the crowd had a love hate relationship with him. He was much maligned for having another job ‘in the city’ as some kind of financier. No one ever knew exactly what he did but apparently it was a sore point with Barry Lloyd who was often at loggerheads with him for his time-keeping and commitment to the club. But you can’t not love a guy who, at Hartlepool’s Victoria ground in 1993, while the away fans were shielding themselves from freezing sideways daggers of rain blowing in off the North Sea on to the exposed corner terrace, unleashes a 35 yard thunderbolt thwang-er-wang-er-wanging off the underside of the bar to score. You just can’t. His chant was:
Ooh aah Cod-er-ner
I said Ooh aah-Cod-er-ner
But perhaps the player who most encapsulated the Jekyll and Hyde tendencies was local boy John Crumplin. I think he was signed from Bognor Regis Town. He was immortalised in Brighton folklore for the ironic chant:
Johnny Crumplin, Football Genius
When he first started playing for us, as a youngster on the right wing, he was so bad as to attract ridicule from the North Stand, amusement from the East Terrace and probably anger from the West Stand. He was one of those players that every club has from time to time, where you seriously wonder how they slipped through the net of school football and trials to become a professional. Passes were mis-hit, clearances were sliced into the stands and running was often followed by falling over. So the North Stand would sing Johnny Crumplin, football genius after one of his Charlie Chaplin moments.
However, John Crumplin worked his socks off and he certainly wasn’t lacking in determination. Moving to his preferred right back position, he gave his Albion performances the proverbial 110% each time (which may well have made his cock-ups even more amusing). After a season or so Crumplin improved dramatically, to the extent where the chants of Johnny Crumplin, football genius were more often than not serious rather than ironic, although the chant was still sung for the mistakes too. He did actually start to become the football genius he was mockingly labelled from the start.
For me the whole football genius thing came to a head, a perfect dénouement to the legend of John Crumplin, in 1993, at home to Burnley. He took the ball from inside the Albion half and his right back position, on a charging run; he took it inside one Burnley player, then another…and finding himself 25 yars out near the middle of the pitch, thought he’d have a go. The ball went fizzing sublimely over the keeper’s head, off the bar and in. I’ve never seen the Goldstone erupt so violently. Even the West Stand were singing his song. Crumplin had graduated the school of football genius. It was a prize Albion moment.
By the way, mocking reference to the West Stand can best be described by an unknown North-stander who put it brilliantly. The only peep you’ll hear out of the West Stand is if someone farts or drops their handbag.
Crumplin remains to this day a major part of Albion history. Ask any Brighton fan over about 30 to name ten famous Albion players and I’m sure he’d make most lists alongside the likes Mark Lawrenson, Jimmy Case, Peter Ward, Terry Connor and Dean Saunders. He now manages Walton & Hersham Town, apparently.
Next to Crumps in the picture are two other local lads. In the middle Ian Chapman was the first graduate of the FA school at Lilleshall to play in the league and became Albion’s youngest player at 16. He played for us for almost 10 years, during that time was probably our most reliable player. On the right is John Robinson, a youngster who started looking like a decent player by the end of the season. He always looked thin and delicate on the pitch, like a small gust of wind would blow him away; though his awkward gait and dandyish running style didn’t affect his football adversely. He was to score a vital goal for us in the play-offs. He later went on to play top flight football with Charlton.
Back to the season, Brighton were in fourth after the two home 3-2 wins. Next up was away at Briston City. It was also the weekend I was going up to the highly auspicious Lancashire Polytechnic to do I’m not sure what. My Dad took me up on the Saturday, via Bristol, of course. By a coincidence my brother Andy (RIP) had just moved to Clifton in Bristol, so it was a good excuse to meet up with him.
After the six goals I’d witnessed in the previous seven days my expectations were high, but Albion put in a stinker of a performance and lost easily 3-1, with the one a lucky late consolation. It’s funny how your football team seems to mimic one’s life and current mood sometimes. That weekend I was feeling lacklustre and worried about the whole university(sorry Polytechnic) thing; the Albion performance mirrored this exactly.
Just one week into Poly life and, as if I’d written the fixture list myself, Brighton are away at Blackburn. Reflecting my renewed optimism in life generally, Brighton got an unexpected away result at Ewood Park. This was before Blackburn became fashionable, before Shearer and Dalglish et al. The ground was an enormous shed-like affair and the hundred or so Albion fans were like flotsam and jetsam behind the goal in a vast sea of concrete terracing. As such the atmosphere wasn’t great and the winner was one of those goals that crosses the line, but doesn’t hit the net; a goal where the fans look expectantly at the linesman for the goal signal, rather than the satisfying whump of the net. The celebration is obviously less spontaneous and rather comical. Rather than the explosive release than normally accompanies goals, it’s more of a mexican wave of ‘whooa’ noises, followed by some tentative arm waving, yessing and hopping about. However…win it was.
This pattern continued throughout the season. Disappointing defeat followed by unexpected win, embarrassing mauling by blinding victory. The players seemed to blow hot and cold together and when they were cold it could be Siberian. They didn’t draw many games, it was very much an all or nothing side. Intense heart pounding frustration and anger one week was elation the next.
Highlighted perfectly the following week with a 4-0 drubbing at home to Sheffield Wednesday. All thoughts of play-off contention seemed to evaporate quickly with that result. The next few games were also winless. Home to Swindon we threw away a 3-1 lead to finish the game 3-3. Then I made my first trip to the Hawthorns to meet Steve, an arrangement we’d made before we left Brighton for our respectively educational institutes. He was at Hatfield so it seemed about halfway. We got a respectable 1-1 there. Then we got thumped at Oxford 3-0 (I didn’t go) before finally getting a win at home to Hull, 3-1.
We were now mid-table with a record of W5 D3 L4
Then just as we thought we’d got the winning touch again Middlesbrough came away from the Goldstone with a 4-2 victory and some very soft goals. It was clear our defence was very pregnable and to win we needed to get a lot of goals. Perry Digweed (who was twinned with Watford keeper Fraser Digby) was another of those players that could be very frustrating. A superb shot stopper, his achilles heel was actually his midriff, that seemed to have a football-sized hole either side, so any shots hit across him always went in. One-on-ones with Perry, you knew the outcome.
In to November, Brighton restore every fan’s hopes with a win away at Ipswich, 3-1, (one of the few aways I didn’t get to). Then with yet another 3-2 win at home to Plymouth, our season looked back on track for a potential play-off place. With this spike in our form, I decided to book a train from Preston to London for the West Ham game. West Ham were top of the league, so it was a tempting fixture, and I’d never been to Upton Park before. Andy was going too, from Bristol. We agreed to meet beforehand to soak up the pre-match atmosphere.
The atmosphere before and during the game until half time was the best ever. The buzz around Barking Road and Green Street, fans milling about everywhere, a slightly tense, edgy feeling in the air; anticipation for the game mixed with a little bit of worry about trouble. Upton Park before the Taylor report was the best atmosphere ground you could get. Big terraces, low roofs, excellent acoustics and stands so close to the pitch you could almost touch the players. The Albion contingent sang deafening choruses of all the songs in their repertoire, rejoindered with raucous responses from the Hammers.
The script was written for the best game ever. Until half time, it was the best game ever. Despite playing the team at the top of the table, we murdered West Ham. It was the best performance of the season by far. It almost became exhibition stuff as the interplay between the team was sublime. It really was just like watching Brazil. Small headed us into the lead to give us the much deserved advantage before the break.
Thanks to Hammers’ sub Stuart Slater and his wonder goal we conspired to lose 2-1. Even the West Ham tannoy announcer, in introducing a song called Throwing it all away alluded to the Brighton performance. That half was, to this day, the best I’ve ever seen the Albion play; how we managed to lose the match still rankles.
We were still mid-table W7 D3 L6
What was worse after the Hammers game was that the fans who went knew we were better than mid-table, we should be up there. It’s somehow worse to follow a side you know can be brilliant and not fulfilling their potential as it is watching a crap side fulfilling theirs.
I went home to Brighton the following weekend to watch a frustrating 0-0 at home to Millwall. Then, back in Preston the following week, got the train to Oldham Werbeth. Another station is called Oldham Mumps. I wondered what other stations in Oldham might be called – Oldham Hepatitis? Oldham St Vitus’ Dance? I hoped I didn’t catch the Werneth at Boundary Park.
Oldham were near the top, too. They also had a plastic pitch. Brighton just could not get to grips with plastic. They were like monkeys on ice skates on the plastic. It was going to be a tough one. And it was. A 6-1 defeat was about a fair result. Dean Wilkins gave us a nugget to carry home, with a trademark free-kick, curled into the top corner.
Dean Wilkins’ nickname was Wendy due to his reluctance to tackle and get stuck in. He was the younger brother of England player Ray Wilkins. Jokes abounded about him upsetting his perm if he got tackled. He needn’t have bothered, as his hair went the same way as Ray’s. He was pure skill, Wilkins, he had a deft touch and was scoring Beckham style free-kicks long before Beckham came on the scene. He could be a bit of a pain in the arse if you were 2-0 down to some cloggers and needed some grit, though.
Dean actually came back to manage Brighton briefly in 2007-08. I thought he was doing an excellent job and really enjoyed watching the Seagulls under him. He had obviously passed down his attractive play to the youngster in the squad, that he was nurturing. I was very disappointed to see him go.
After the defeat at Oldham it was home for the Christmas holidays and some Goldstone action. A 1-0 win against Barnsley was a much needed three points. Then I went to meet two friends for the night, shortly before christmas, who hailed from Biddulph near Stoke. I saw Small slot away a second half goal for another 1-0 win, from the wooden seats at Vale Park.
Boxing day was one of the most frustrating games I’ve ever seen. The match should never have taken place, such was the water on the pitch. The ball was splashing into puddles with no bounce, players trying to kick the ball were like cars driving through a ford, it was ridiculous. Bristol Rovers’ 3rd minute goal was enough to win them this farcical game.
Thus ended 1990 and the first half of the season. We were still in mid-table with a record of W9 D4 L8. However the new year was to bring a dream cup tie, five of my top ten away games of all time and a dramatic finalé to the campaign.