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Brighton & Hove Albion: It's time to say Goodbye!
So the curtain is about to fall on the theatre of trees. Oh what fun we’ve had over the last twelve years.
Back in 1999 we’d been waiting almost a year to move into The Withdean the fans had to, ‘sweat it out’ for a while. Then on July 24th the Albion finally returned to Brighton & Hove after a two year exile in Kent, and played a pre season friendly against David Platt’s Nottingham Forest That first season under Mickey Adams started off well when we got down to league business , when two weeks later on August 7th the Seagulls thrashed Mansfield Town 6-0 at their new temporary home, and grown men cried, especially Barry Richardson the town keeper!
In those days Withers just had two stands one north and one south.
Neville Southall turned up with Torquay in September big name, big man, big performance, as we lost to a last minute goal.
Players including the Albion seemed a little bemused by The Withdean layout , one player after scoring in an evening game cupped his ear to where the West Stand now sits (albeit it in Hove) how ironic.
99 ended with an incredible water polo type match at home to Rochdale my then girlfriend took me along as she had won an evening at Withdean from her employer. The Albion lost 4-3 and even more incredible my then girlfriend is now my wife.
1999-2000 The Albion players were apparently finding it as difficult to adapt to Withdean as much as the opposition, was one of Mickey Adams variety pack of excuses.
In January down in Bath a young Bristol Rovers loanee knocked in 5 goals in 7 games.
The Albion had their own loanee over Christmas, Lorenzo Pinnamonte scored twice in 9 games but looked quite exciting, well more exciting than Darren Freeman now that he’d had his haircut.
Unfortunately Lorenzo had been recalled by his parent club. Adams then made the decision of his life he brought the young exotically named Bobby Zamora to Withdean to, see if he could continue where he left off at Bath. You know the rest.
2000 continued with the Albion making a late playoff bid and with Gary Hart scoring a late late winner against Southend, who had a player called Jones sent off. He wouldn’t be gone too long.
2000- 2001 The bookies had the Albion as favourites to go up however after losing at Southend and at home to Kidderminster, Adams was on the rack.
Soon though the Seagulls clicked, and every match on a pudding of a pitch you expected the Albion to win. In the end they won the division easily to pick up their first silverware for 36 years.
2001- 2002 In May 2001 I got a letter from Messer’s Knight and Perry advising me that after promotion the previous season Swansea City didn’t invest and came straight back down, nudge nudge wink wink, get the message eh! I dutifully, like many other season ticket holders (well I hope it weren’t just me) Handed over my four hundred quid, and what investment it was. As a year later the seagulls celebrated their first ever back to back championships and returned to the second tier of English football for the first time in 10 years. This was the year David Ellery spotted a hole in the Withdean pitch and Albion celebrated their centenary. And who will ever forget Lee Steele’s last minute winner against Bristol City.
2002-2003 As the Albion took their place in the then Division One, the optimists were enquiring if the Withdean was equipped for the Premiership! Apparently the lights were not quite up to what was required. We need not have worried too much, as after dear old Hinsh found himself out of his depth; Steve Coppell got the Albion ticking at Withers. A memorable 4-1 thrashing of Wolves one of the highlights and the incredulous looks of visiting fans as they walked down Tongdean lane after the match, was interesting. These bigger clubs couldn’t work out if they found Withdean amusing or annoying.
In the end the Albion just failed to keep a grip on their big league and were relegated on the last day.
However a Paul Kitson goal for the Albion at Withdean against Watford was something of a collector’s item.
2003-2004 The Albion kept Withdean as a fortress but had to in the end settle for a playoff place. And that gave us probably the most exciting Withdean moment ever as Adam Virgo leapt to head a 120th minute equalizer on a wet May evening , I still think my throat hurt’s occasionally from that night and the Withdean temporary structure shook like Presley in Vegas.
2004-2005 Mark McGhee said many times how much he hated Withers, he hated it so much he bought a house around the corner. Teams found it difficult to beat Albion at Withdean and the Albion found it difficult to beat them. A match at Withers was an X for any coupon. However they did beat Sunderland and were the main feature on ITV’s highlight show for the first time in years. Ally McCiost disapproving various aspects of the Withers from the touchline.
In the end McGhee just managed to keep the team up in a last day live Sky fixture you know, the ones that usually come from Molinuex Upton Park or the City ground . Except this one came from a run down athletics track in Brighton.
2005- 2006 The Albion installed extra seating in the autumn, a new west stand. However it was almost in Hove and really seemed to annoy one Westdene neighbour. I won’t be catty and tell you his name!
The first club who were able to see hardly anything at all were Crystal Palace in another live Sky game, cant’ remember the score.
The Albion fell back to the now League One with a Withers whimper against Stoke to whom they lost 5-1.
2006-2009 Probably the most depressing, uninspiring and quite boring period of Albion’s tenure. A period that has seen five managers a returning apparent messiah and one very real one. The fans were becoming increasingly despondent with the Withers . The highlight of this period was the guy who invaded the pitch after we beat Manchester City in his mobility scooter many hundreds who also shouldn’t, did by foot. Oh yeah we knocked up the highest ever score 8-0 against Northwhich in the cup.
2010 -2011 No one could have envisaged just how brilliant the final season would be.
People are not bothered about how bad Withdean is as they are so captivated by the football.
I will miss my football Saturday at The Withdean (Stadium) the walk along Snakey Lane, really its Station Road . or the squeeze under Tongdean lane tunnel. The opposing fans trying to work out how to get to the away end without hiring a taxi. The 2 hour wait for a beer in the sportsman if you have the correct headgear of course. I will miss the hammer net and the sand pit. The clock that doesn’t show added time and the sweaty types in the gym who should have bought a ticket.
You’ll never get a bacon baguette quite like the ones they served there or a more expensive ice cream. And no teams will ever find a more precarious route to the pitch.
But I will miss Withdean because it was an unusual and a unique setting for players like Fabrizio Ravenelli, James Milner , Yakubu or even Gary Hart to ply their trade. It was intimidating and ridiculous all at the same time.
I will miss the friends I have made,and the people who have passed on, and the celebrations we have all enjoyed together, Championships, marriages and births.
This Saturday I shall bid a fond and maybe tearful farewell to the Theatre of Trees.
And Gus just for once acknowledge a bit of nostalgia and perhaps a bit of compassion and get Gary Hart who played in the very first Albion match at Withdean 12 years ago, on the pitch at some point.
I don’t think we’ll see too much more of him at the Albion.
So to Withdean and maybe to Gary Hart.....It’s time to say goodbye.
Cue Sarah Brightman!