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Sad tale has a happy ending

Simon Barrett looks at the highs and lows on the journey to Falmer, as reported in The Argus.

Our scoop that exposed the plot to sell the Goldstone Ground in 1995 sent shock waves throughout Sussex.

Our sensational front page splash on July 7 told how the club was plotting a ground-share with Portsmouth, and The Argus has remained steadfastly behind the bid to find the club a permanent home ever since.

Bill Archer, who was then Albion’s majority shareholder and became chairman less than two weeks later, said Albion would share Pompey’s Fratton Park while a 30,000-seat stadium was built at Waterhall.

A day after breaking the initial story, The Argus revealed that Brighton Council – as it was then – had already rejected the scheme.

A month later, we revealed Albion had sold the Goldstone to developer Chartwell for £7.4 million. After research by chief reporter Paul Bracchi and Albion fan Paul Samrah, The Argus also revealed Archer’s controlling shareholding had cost only £56.25, while Greg Stanley’s minority share was £43.75, a total of £100.

Other money injected by Archer and Stanley had been loaned with no personal risk while the value of the ground exceeded the club’s debts.

In another front page exclusive The Argus revealed a £600,000 loan from the Stanley Trust had clocked up £131,250 interest against the club in less than three years while Stanley was due a further £250,000 as Albion had failed to pay the interest on time.

Mr Bracchi travelled to Bill Archer’s home in Lancashire and offered him a cheque for £58.23, the amount he had paid for his shares.

The stunt got The Argus banned from the Goldstone for a short while.

Mr Bracchi, who now works at the Daily Mail, said: “We had to go out on a limb really, and it was real investigative journalism.

“If we had not been sure about what we had uncovered, the paper would have been in serious trouble.

“It was credit to The Argus because I think many local newspapers would not have had the resources or even the inclination to run those stories.

“It was a team effort between myself, Andy Naylor and others, and remains one of the most important and rewarding stories I have ever worked on.

“I am not an Albion fan as such but it was about much more than football. We had to expose what was going on.”

Told through the pages of The Argus, the continuing controversy incensed fans, who staged pitch invasions, walkouts, boycotts, marches and petitions against Archer, Stanley and then chief executive David Bellotti.

The Argus later collected 6,500 Archer Out! signatures and organised a phone poll, which suggested 98 per cent of Albion fans would not attend matches at Portsmouth.

Goldstone owner Chartwell threw Albion a lifeline by offering to lease back the Goldstone for an extra season but fans were again angered when The Argus revealed Chartwell had sold the Goldstone site for £23.86 million, £16 million more than Archer had negotiated.

Then began two dismal years ground-sharing with Gillingham 70 miles away. The idea of moving to Withdean was floated, although the athletics track required major improvements to satisfy Football League requirements.

A phone poll by The Argus revealed a narrow margin of supporters were against the idea but a group of fans keen on the move launched a campaign to Bring Home The Albion.

Adrian Newnham, who headed the campaign, struck up a good relationship with The Argus editor Adrian Faber and news editor Claire Byrd, even marrying Claire in April 2004.

During the campaign The Argus handed out 12,000 supporter packs and pressed hard for the Withdean cause.

Eventually more than 32,000 fans signed a petition in favour of the plans and it was approved by councillors. The Seagulls flew back to Brighton in 1999.

Falmer was identified as a possible site for a new stadium that year, and The Argus enthusiastically supported the vision of a new stadium.

We urged members of the public to vote Yes to Falmer in a city-wide referendum and 61,000 residents duly obliged. When the stadium application was called in for public inquiry, our reporters sat through hours of evidence, which only served to confirm Falmer was the only viable site in Brighton.

We told of the furious backlash when two separate Government inspectors, Charles Hoile and John Collyer, rubbished the Falmer bid.

Determined fans wore John Prescott masks from The Argus for the play-off semi-final at Swindon in 2004 and held a carefully choreographed display of banners during the final in front of the television cameras in Cardiff.

The Argus continued to ensure Falmer remained at the top of the news agenda and reminded candidates of the massive public support for the stadium in the run-up to the general election two years ago.

We backed Dick Knight when he asked the fans to put their hands in their pockets and bail the club out of a financial crisis in 2005.

In May that year we published the comments of hundreds of Albion fans who filled in our coupons with messages for John Prescott.

In October 2005, news of Mr Prescott’s decision appeared instantly on our website, www.theargus. co.uk, while work in the newsroom began immediately on getting a special edition out onto the streets by lunchtime.

A month after the decision sparked joyous scenes of celebration across Sussex, The Argus revealed Lewes District Council’s plans to block the bid by launching a legal challenge.

The following day The Argus called on Lewes District Council’s cabinet to listen to our readers, Albion fans and its own electorate to “stop this madness”.

We printed pictures of the Cabinet members and told how the Liberal Democrat-dominated cabinet, led by Councillor Ann De Vecchi, decided behind closed doors it wanted a judicial review of Prescott’s decision.

The next month The Argus’s reporters hit the streets of Lewes and surveyed a random sample of 242 members of the public. We found 74 per cent believed it was wrong to seek a judicial review and again called on the council to drop its appeal.

In January last year The Argus ran a front page story warning how the council’s High Court challenge could cost Lewes taxpayers up to £160,000.

Some three months later we revealed how permission for the stadium had been sensationally quashed after John Prescott admitted making a blunder in his letter of approval.

The following October, The Argus revealed how Lewes Council’s High Court bid against the scheme was dropped at the last minute.

Since then we have printed countless stories on the imaginative Falmer For All campaign, including how fans sent thousands of postcards to then Communities Secretary Ruth Kelly. In April, on the tenth anniversary of the last game at the Goldstone, we printed a 20-page supplement entitled Ten Years On – Looking Back At The Goldstone, Looking Forward To Falmer. Our front page splash that day was an editorial piece urging Ms Kelly to say yes to the stadium.

In May, the Argus website was first with news from the local elections in the Lewes district, where the Seagulls Party helped to give the anti-Falmer Lib Dems a bloody nose.

Earlier this month we revealed how the decision on the stadium had been put back following a Cabinet reshuffle.

Hazel Blears became the third minister to take charge of the decision on the stadium.

The Argus then broke the news of a leaked inspector’s report on the proposed South Downs national park.

The report boosted hopes for the stadium after it was revealed the site was to be excluded from the park’s boundaries.

Paul Samrah, chairman of the Falmer For All campaign, said: “The Argus has been an incredibly useful tool for us to get our arguments across and help us to win hearts and minds.

“Most of the people who read The Argus look for news of Sussex sport, and the stadium saga has moved that from the back pages to the front pages.”

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