Brighton and Hove Albion travel to Sheffield Wednesday tonight in the Championship play-off semi-final first leg as they look to overcome their heart-breaking last day draw at Middlesbrough.
The weekend’s result saw them miss out on automatic promotion to the Premier League – but it’s a world away from the situation they endured just 19 years ago.
On May 3rd 1996, Robbie Reinelt’s equalising goal gave Albion a famous 1-1 draw at Hereford United, relegating the Bulls into the non-league while retaining Brighton’s Football League status at the same time.
To understand how the Seagulls came within 90 minutes off extinction, you have to go back to 1992.
THE MONEY MEN, PROPERTY DEVELOPERS AND PROTESTS
The club’s finances had been poorly managed by chief executive David Bellotti and owners Bill Archer and Greg Stanley, forcing the sale of goalkeeper Mark Beeney to keep Albion afloat.
The trio proposed to fans a plan to sell the Albion’s home, the Goldstone Ground, to property developers so the club could move into a new stadium.
Fans initially welcomed the idea but that soon changed in 1995 when the Brighton Argus broke the story that Bellotti, Archer and Stanley had agreed a deal without any provisions for the future.
The true motives behind the deal became evident when it was publicly announced that Archer had altered the club’s constitution to allow directors to profit from the sale of the ground.
This resulted in the 1996/97 season becoming legendary for fans of many English sides as they joined the Seagulls in protest against their owners.
Fans protested in the town, at the Goldstone and even outside Archer’s company HQ in Crewe. Bellotti became overwhelmed with abuse and fled the stadium on several occasions.
The pinnacle came on February 8th as supporters of clubs across the country shared the Goldstone terraces in solidarity with the Albion fans in what was known as ‘Fans United’.
SUPER STEVE GRITT
On the pitch, relatively unknown boss Steve Gritt was appointed with the club 11 points adrift at the bottom of the league.
Going into the last game at the Goldstone against Doncaster Rovers, Albion knew a victory would mean they would need just a point in their final game of the season at Hereford.
In the 67th minute, Stuart Storer fired in from close range to give Brighton a vital victory.
Had Brighton not avoided defeat at Hereford there is a strong chance they could have ended up like their opponents, who dissolved in 2014.
THE SEAGULLS – OF KENT
Two years ground sharing with Gillingham at the Prestfield Stadium then followed before Albion returned to the town in 1999 at the Withdean, a converted athletics stadium.
Travelling to Kent every second Saturday epitomised Brighton’s plight at the time. With no certain future and a crippling financial debt, lifelong fan Dick Knight took over as chairman from the despised trio in 1997.
During their 12 year stay they would enjoy their best moments in recent history as the club celebrated four promotions in 2000-01, 2001-02, 2003-04 and 2010-11.
Most importantly in 2009, Tony Bloom took over as chairman from Dick Knight after securing a 75% shareholding in the club. He invested some £93 million in the development of the club’s new ground, the American Express Community Stadium at Falmer.
Since winning League One in 2011, Albion have reached the play-offs twice, in 2012-13 and 2013-14, but were unable to make it to the grand final at Wembley.
This time under Chris Hughton, who won the Championship in 2010 with Newcastle, the Seagulls will be hoping that they can go one better and advance past Sheffield Wednesday to the £200m final at Wembley on May 28th.