Today I am in Falmer village, standing outside The American Express Community Stadium. It holds over twenty thousand football supporters and sits among the South Downs sparkling and new. We will shortly play Doncaster Rovers in the first Championship League game of the 2011/12 season, and the first game to be played in our new home – or ‘nest’ as I like to call it. Well, we are The Seagulls after all.
The first time I was taken to watch Brighton and Hove Albion was in 1971 when I was thirteen years old and they were playing Bristol Rovers. Dad had finally given in to my nagging and agreed to take me along with him to this place he had disappeared to every other Saturday afternoon. Football was already part of my life; I was allowed to stay up late for ‘Match of the Day’ on Saturday nights with Dad while Mum (Enid Dinnis) was out trawling round all the pubs in Brighton. No, she wasn’t an alcoholic, she was in the Salvation Army, and went out every Saturday evening selling their magazine ‘The War Cry’ in pubs, leaving Dad and me to our delicious secret evenings spent watching football and eating honey nougat Toblerones. It seemed to me as I was growing up that I had two different lives with each parent, although we all lived under the same roof. With Mum I would get taken to Sunday school, Girls Brigade and endless young people’s fellowship groups with whichever church she attended at the time. With Dad I enjoyed watching football on TV, caring for our rabbit and playing with my dolls. I found I enjoyed the ‘Dad time’ more, no offense to my mother, so I kept pressing and pressing to be taken to watch a game of football.
It was on Dad’s birthday, the 29th of September that we walked down the road, off to watch my first live football game. We had something of an introductory conversation, I was to quietly stand beside him, not keep asking questions, not nagging about wanting to go home and not asking for the toilet. I’d watched patiently as he counted out his loose change, folded his clean white handkerchief and then popped a couple of Mars bars in his coat pocket for half-time. This was a ritual to be repeated before every game. His old, grey raincoat had huge pockets that seemed to reach down to his knees, and with the first chill of autumn in the air Mum made sure he wore his grey and yellow checked woollen scarf tucked into the neck of his coat. She was preparing for an afternoon of prayer with the women’s fellowship and I was so glad to be going out with my Dad.
We arrived at the bus stop, on the main road outside the local secondary modern school. There was someone already there, in his late teens, bright red hair, freckles and thick rimmed spectacles. I hoped he would ignore us.
‘Hello, all ready for the game then?’ he asked Dad.
‘Yes, should be a good one today, we’ve started the season well, I think we’ll win this one.’
‘I hope Kit Napier’s fit, we need someone like him up front to bang in a few goals’.
‘Yes, we certainly miss him when he’s not there.’
This chit-chat continued, he was obviously someone Dad met here on a regular basis, and I began wondering about this secret life of my father’s. I wasn’t introduced, and I accepted this was how it was to be for the afternoon. Whatever happened, I mustn’t embarrass my father by trying to join in the conversation. I felt a small seed of resentment stir in my gut at this geeky lad butting into our Dad and daughter time, but I accepted this was how it was to be.
So we reached Blatchington Road in Hove, got off the bus among a heavy crowd of shoppers, walked up Goldstone Villas, under the railway bridge where the noise of the crowd gradually built up. Other supporters joined us on our march to the ground, and I felt one of them, a real part of this experience. We smugly walked past the packed newsagent on the corner of Newtown Road, knowing we had our chocolate already.
There was a man in a long white coat, shouting ‘Programmes, get your programmes here’, and Dad stopped and bought one, handing it to me. He looked down at me, smiled, and we continued. I fingered the glossy, shiny new programme and held on to it tightly.
‘The team’s listed on the back’, Dad said, and I turned the programme over to see the familiar names: Powney, Templeman, Napier J and Napier K, Murray, Beamish, Irvine, O’Sullivan and the rest.
Turning right we walked up a steep narrow street with houses on one side and turnstiles on the other. I lifted my hand to shield my eyes from the bright sun, so I could see where I was going.
‘Hello mate, the old age pensioner entrances are just round there’, the steward approached us. Not very helpful as Dad was only 48. He did look older, with his thinning white hair, but not that much older. Never one for confrontation, Dad walked on seething inwardly. I was given a handful of coins and pointed through the kids’ turnstiles, where Dad met me as I came out the other side. Walking up a few steps we suddenly emerged at the top of the world. The east terrace was open and roofless, the terraces led down to the pitch and we were standing at the very top. The green of the grass shocked me, it was just so beautiful. Looking back I wondered why it surprised me, until I reflected that up until now my experience of watching football had been on a small black and white television.
Dad took me down the east terrace, gently leading me to his usual spot, leaning against a crash barrier painted blue, and he lit another cigarette. I stood there, taking it all in, the smell of cigarettes mixed with greasy burgers, chip fat and toilets; listening to the sound of old records blaring out from the tinny sounding public address system, sounds of the crowd chanting ‘Brighton, Brighton’. I stood, clutching my precious programme, one hand on the rusty crash barrier, feeling the flakes of paint and rust beneath my fingers. The players ran out to sounds of ‘Sussex By the Sea’ and the game kicked off.
When Bertie Lutton scored for Brighton everyone began cheering, jumping up and down, clapping, and I knew I hadn’t experienced anything like this before and I wanted it to go on forever.
‘Who scored Dad?’
‘Weren’t you watching pet, did you miss it?’ I could tell I’d disappointed him, and made up my mind to focus intently for the rest of the game instead of letting my mind wander. I’d been more interested in just looking around at everything, and hadn’t concentrated on the actual game. I forgot that it wouldn’t be like watching it on television with the replays.
I quickly became hooked, accompanying Dad to all the home games. By the mid 1990s rumours started spreading that our ground had been sold and we had nothing in place to replace it. In the 1996-97 season things came to a head with Brighton losing their ground and almost losing their battle for survival in the football league.
The last game at the Goldstone Ground on the 26th of April 1997 was also the last game my Dad watched beside me. His coat pockets were no longer large enough, as his grandchildren joined the crowd, leaving Dad with a Tesco carrier bag for the family pack of Mars bars.
The Albion temporarily played home games at the local small athletics stadium at Withdean. It only held 7000 people, so it was season tickets only. I went round to talk about it with my Dad, and he drew me to one side.
‘Here, take this, no arguments. It’s some money for a season ticket, I’d like you to carry on supporting Brighton. If you get a season ticket now, you’ll be able to save up during this season and get yourself one for next season.’ He handed me an envelope stuffed with twenty pound notes. This was most unlike Dad, I don’t think he’d ever given me money before.
Dad passed away in the summer of 2001.
Fifteen long years after the last game at the Goldstone, we finally have our own home again. Some things will always be the same while others will never be the same again.
The smells are different now; it smells of pastry and pies, no chips at The Amex so no greasy cooking smells, no smoking of course, and the toilets are clean and don’t smell. I no longer have to worry if I’m not paying attention, all the action is relayed on huge screens at either end of the ground. The same names keep showing up, Brian Powney, John Templeman, except now they’re middle aged men on the pitch at half-time being interviewed as legends from the past. It’s all seater now, so no more standing and getting warmed by a huge crowd. The amount of personal space is almost too much.
I still get the bus to the ground, it’s the easiest way to get there. I don’t get wet any more due to the huge roof covering us, protecting us from the elements. The number 25 bus stops right outside, so I shan’t ever have to wring my soggy wet programme out again.
I’ve lost my companion, my Dad, but I’m still happy to come along clutching my season ticket and join all the other Brighton supporters. We’re all here for the same reason, sharing the same passion, so how could I not feel at home with them.
We know how to wring emotion out of everything, and the first game at the Amex is no exception. Opera singers, old players and blue and white flags mingle well with the ups and downs of the emotions, and the height of this was a two minute silence in which to remember all our fans that hadn’t made it to the new stadium. I stand to attention, remembering Dad, the pain burning in my throat and tears began sneaking out of my eyes. Then I notice everyone else is crying too, so it doesn’t matter at all. I move my hand into my pocket, feeling the Mars bar. The referee blows his whistle, the spell is broken and another season kicks off.