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Loyal fans will need more fightong spirit
After the yes decision, Adam Trimmingham takes a look at how Albion fans’ never-say-die attitude helped the club win its long-running battle for a new home.
It has been the longest battle in the history of Brighton and Hove Albion, lasting for more than a decade.
Several times it has seemed that the contest against conservationists and neighbours was over, only for the referee to wave “play on”.
But now, after periods of extra time which appeared to last for ever, Hazel Blears has given what should be the final go-ahead to the scheme for a community stadium at Falmer.
The sighs of relief from everyone connected with the club could be heard all over Sussex. This is the most important moment in Albion’s history.
It’s bigger than when they played Manchester United in the FA Cup Final and greater than when Albion rubbed shinguards with the elite in the top division of the Football League.
At the other end of the scale, it is more significant than the time they escaped losing League status on the final day of the season.
No club can prosper without a decent ground and since Albion played their last match at the Goldstone ten years ago, they have been lacking a vital home.
Two years at Gillingham 80 miles away in the wilds of Kent were enough to test the loyalty of the hardiest fans.
It has been almost as trying to spend four times as long playing at Withdean, a converted athletics track with all the atmosphere of a morgue.
There is no easy way to seek permission for a big scheme in the most landlocked coastal resort in Britain.
There are projects which have taken even longer to reach fruition. It took half a century to build on land next to Brighton station and almost double that to produce a new central library.
Over in Hove, they’ve been talking about a new King Alfred sports centre for 40 years and nothing has happened yet.
There is no ideal site for a new community stadium in a city sandwiched between the sea and the South Downs.
Much of the past decade has been spent arguing whether any site is better than Falmer. An initial list of 40 between Newhaven and Shoreham was whittled down to eight.
After exhaustive debate and a plethora of public inquiries, the Government has agreed with thousands of Albion fans that Falmer is the best option.
It’s not a site that would be chosen in a city like York where there is plenty of green space between the built-up area and the ring road.
But it does have advantages. It is within walking distance for many people, bearing in mind how far fans will stride out to Withdean.
It is close to one of the busiest roads in Brighton with the city’s best bus route already serving both Sussex and Brighton universities.
It is right next to Falmer railway station. Yes, the land is in the countryside, which is why organisations such as the South Downs Society put a perfectly legitimate case against the stadium.
But the rural nature of Falmer was dented 50 years ago when Brighton council first agreed to a new red-brick university next door. Then it agreed to site the college of education – now part of Brighton University – on the other side of the road.
The biggest blow to rural tranquillity came when the Department of Transport agreed to that misnomer, the Falmer Diversion. Far from diverting the A27 away from the village, it sliced Falmer in half with a roaring dual carriageway. The Brighton bypass increased traffic further.
It’s not as if there haven’t been other plans for the site now earmarked for the stadium. In the Seventies, the NHS wanted to build a new hospital there but instead settled for augmenting the current Royal Sussex County Hospital site.
Albion’s splendid new stadium will not be all that visible from the Downs because it will lie in something of a dip.
Where it can be seen it will augment the views in much the same way as Goodwood Racecourse does north of Chichester. The stadium has been designed as an object of beauty reflecting the pride people feel in their club.
That pride has been consistent ever since the dreadful days when Albion decided, against the wishes of their fans, to sell the Goldstone Ground. Even today there are many supporters who will not set foot in the soulless retail park that has been erected in its place.
There have been celebrity supporters such as DJ Norman Cook and sports presenter Des Lynam.
There have been politicians of all parties in Brighton, although not in Lewes where the Liberal Democrat-controlled district council has persistently opposed the club’s plans.
Most of all there have been ordinary fans, thousands of them, prepared to take direct action in order to gain the stadium they desire.
They have waged a campaign which has been imaginative, inventive and largely goodnatured. They have never given up hope even when, to the outsider, it seemed to have gone.
Albion have been on a rollercoaster ride during these ten homeless years. They have been up to the Championship, one step below the elite, and down to the depths of the League. They have had to build teams without a proper ground and with almost no money.
Good managers such as Micky Adams, Peter Taylor and Steve Coppell have left the club because they could not see any future for it. Without a permanent home, Albion would have been condemned to die a lingering death, for Withdean is simply not big enough or properly equipped to be the base for a professional football club.
With the stadium Albion can prosper. They are the only League club in Sussex and the nearest teams, Portsmouth and Crystal Palace, are an hour’s travelling time away.
A few thousand loyal fans have shown that week in and week out they will go to windy Withdean in order to cheer on their team. Many more will be tempted to Falmer in a 21st-century stadium, especially if Albion are promoted or have a good cup run.
We have been here before. Back in 2005, John Prescott, who then had planning powers, gave the go-ahead for the stadium.
The delay of more than 18 months has been caused by Lewes District Council, which made a legal challenge to the decision before eventually letting it drop.
The Government and its lawyers have taken their time to ensure the current ruling is legally watertight and cannot be challenged again. And that should be that.
There will be tough times ahead. It will take years to build a stadium and money has to be raised by a club left in penury by bad decisions and by being at a tiny temporary ground.
The spirit that has sustained Albion in the past ten years will be needed in the next two or three before that long dream becomes a reality.
But the community stadium at Falmer is on its way at last. The Seagulls are soaring once again.