After gaining promotion under Alan Mullery in 1978/79, Brighton and Hove Albion had managed to keep their heads above water for the first two years of their life in Division One. After a difficult start to their first season, the club eventually finished in 16th. A great escape in 1980/81 saw the team win their last four games to stay up, although this was followed by the shock resignation of Mullery, after a row with chairman Mike Bamber regarding the transfer of Mark Lawrenson and proposed adjustments to his coaching staff.
Bizarrely, Charlton boss Mike Bailey would take over at Brighton, with Mullery filling the vacant post at The Valley. Bailey may have changed the playing style to a more defensive approach, but at first the ends justified the means. A 1-0 win at Anfield in March 1982 pushed the team to eighth in the table, yet an alarming slump of ten defeats in the last 14 matches resulted in a respectable 13th place finish.
An unsettled start
In retrospect, the uncertain atmosphere surrounding the club at the start of the 1982/83 season did not bode well. A week before the new campaign it was announced that Steve Foster and Michael Robinson had put in transfer requests, both involved in fruitless discussions with Bamber over a lack of transfer activity and the fact that Bailey did not have a contract at the club. "It seems this club wants to settle for mediocrity," Robinson stated, with Foster adding: "It just seems like the chairman doesn't want to move forward."
Bamber, on the other hand, was seemingly preoccupied with the perilous financial state of the club. Reportedly losing £6,000 a week, Brighton needed an average gate of between 16,500-18,000 just to break even, and with attendances sometimes dipping below 10,000, Bamber was naturally concerned. "I have been bitterly disappointed at the very poor sale of season tickets and wonder if the Sussex public really want First Division football," Bamber said in August, and as the season progressed, he made a number of attempts to improve the situation.
Price categorisation of tickets was introduced; for example, £2.50 for a terrace ticket against Manchester United, as opposed to £2 for Notts County. "Surely you'd expect to pay more to see Frank Sinatra than an ordinary singer? The same has to apply to football," Bamber claimed. He would also offer a Christmas sale, with tickets for the Southampton, Watford and Nottingham Forest matches at a combined price of £6 rather than £7.50. As the season progressed, Bamber would begin to focus more and more on the product on the pitch as a means to solving his falling attendances.
Bailey's safety first approach had been successful, yet Bamber, and reportedly Brighton fans, wanted more entertainment. "It was working as far as results were concerned," Jimmy Case wrote in Hard Case, in relation to Bailey's methods. "But football fans are the same the world over; they want to be entertained and they weren't all that impressed with Mike's tactics." Come Case's second season at Brighton, he had changed his tune, though. "I think we played too open a style and kept getting caught out at the back." Bailey, apparently, couldn't win.
Away day blues
On paper the squad looked more than capable of staying in the First Division. Foster had made an appearance at the 1982 World Cup for England, with Gary Stevens emerging as an Under-21 star during the season. Case and Tony Grealish offered experience in midfield, with Robinson, Andy Ritchie, Gerry Ryan, and Gordon Smith providing options up front. Unbeaten at home in the League up until November, Brighton enjoyed wins over Arsenal and Manchester United, but it would be their abysmal away from that would push the club towards the relegation zone.
A 5-0 hammering at West Brom was followed by a 4-0 loss at Nottingham Forest, and when newly promoted Luton hit five more past Graham Moseley, Joe Melling wrote in the Daily Express: "Brighton were stripped as naked as the sun-worshippers on their nudist beach." Bailey refused to talk to the press after the Luton debacle, and further away defeats at Stoke, Liverpool, Aston Villa, Watford, and Coventry increased the pressure on Brighton's under-fire manager.
Club hero Peter Ward was re-signed on a four month loan deal from Nottingham Forest, and he helped boost the crowd to a whopping 20,490 in a 3-1 win at the Goldstone Ground against West Ham, and he would also score the winner in the 1-0 victory over Manchester United. However, a run of four defeats signalled the end for Bailey, including a 2-0 home loss to Notts County in which the manager turned on his players: "I would have got more effort if I had gone out and picked a kid off the streets than some of my players put in."
Bailey's final match was yet another away defeat, at Coventry, with manager and club going their separate ways on December 6. "Our public need to be entertained and our style of play had become too boring," Bamber said, regarding the decision that was apparently taken with mutual consent. A number of names were linked with the job, including Graham Turner, Jimmy Frizzell, Mullery, and David Webb, but for the time being, chief scout Jimmy Melia and coach George Aitken were put in charge on a temporary basis.
Melia was definitely a character. A successful Liverpool player during the early days of Shankly, and described by Case as "the ideal man to come in and lift everyone's spirits", the balding Liverpudlian would become well known for his white shoes, disco lifestyle, and for dating model Val Lloyd. Promising that Brighton would go for goals under his stewardship, a 3-0 win over Norwich in Melia's first match was encouraging, although the club would soon have the distraction of the FA Cup to take their minds off of their League travails.
The Cup run
After a 1-1 draw at home against Newcastle, many predicted an early exit from the FA Cup for Brighton as the team travelled to face the Keegan-inspired side. But a solitary strike from Ward, and two disallowed Newcastle goals got the ball rolling, and after a 4-0 demolition of Manchester City - John Bond resigned shortly after this match - Brighton had made it into the fifth round for the first time since 1960.
It looked as if the run would end at this point, however. Drawn away at a Liverpool side going for a grand slam of four trophies, not many gave Brighton a hope as 5,000 of their supporters made their way up to Anfield on Sunday February 20. But in a stunning shock, goals from Ryan and Case, and a missed penalty from Phil Neal gave Brighton a barely believable 2-1 win, with Melia running to the Kop in celebration, as he started to get a taste for the limelight.
Case would be the match winner again against Norwich in the sixth round, and a stunning free-kick from the rejuvenated midfielder, along with a scrappy Robinson goal, saw Brighton defeat Sheffield Wednesday in glorious sunshine at Highbury, as the club reached Wembley for the first time in their history.
Jekyll and Hyde
"The Cup run was brilliant, the fans turned out in their thousands," Case reveals. "Everyone was lifted by the magic and the dream of Wembley, but against that background, it was difficult to get the team motivated for the never-ending struggle for League points." Brighton's Jekyll and Hyde team were about to pay a big price for their FA Cup exploits.
The Norwich win had proved a false dawn. No wins, and just four points from their next ten games, saw Brighton drop to the bottom of the table. A first League victory away from home in a year (at Swansea) sparked a mini recovery, and with Melia repeatedly stating that his team were too good to go down, Brighton achieved fine draws at Old Trafford and The Dell, drew 2-2 with Liverpool after going two goals up within 21 minutes, and also beat Tottenham at home.
Melia had been appointed as permanent manager after the FA Cup win over Norwich, and informed the press that he didn't want to be known as the man who took Brighton to the Second Division. But as the games came and went, the possibility of relegation became a reality. Setting a target of four wins from their last six, Melia remained confident that his team possessed the ability and attitude to stay up.
Alas, just one win in these matches, against Coventry at home, pushed Brighton towards the trapdoor, and a defeat at home to Manchester City sealed the fate of the club. Just 38 League goals in the season, the poor start under Bailey, and Melia's record of four wins in 25, combined with disastrous consequences. Brighton would now join Manchester City (1926) and Leicester City (1969) as clubs that had reached the FA Cup final but suffered relegation in the same season.
Foster goes to court
One defeat in particular was damaging in more ways than one. The 1-0 reverse at Notts County was compounded when captain Foster picked up a booking for dissent, thus taking him to the 31 point mark, and earning him a two-match ban that would see him miss the FA Cup final. Due to a loophole in the system, a sending off would result in a one match ban, but try as he might, Foster could not handball or foul his way into the referee's notebook again, and he was facing up to his own personal agony.
Foster and Bamber wrote letters to the FA, yet when these appeals fell on deaf ears, Foster and Brighton announced that they would be taking the FA to the High Court just five days before the final. "Of course we shall defend the case," FA secretary Ted Croker said. "The regulations are fixed, we cannot change them."
After a five hour hearing, Foster lost his appeal, and his dreams of walking out at Wembley on Saturday May 21 had gone. "I feel sick for myself and desperately sorry for everyone associated with Brighton," Foster said after the verdict. "I can't say I enjoyed today. It was like having all your teeth pulled out...slowly."
And Smith Must Score
Of course, everyone remembers the 1983 FA Cup final for the "And Smith must score" moment. But there was a miscellany of FA Cup nostalgia before that moment. Foster and Bamber not shaving during the Cup run; Bamber offering fans an FA Cup final ticket if they bought a season ticket for the following season; Jimmy Case and Gordon Smith on Top of the Pops; the obligatory Cup final song, The Boys in the old Brighton Blue; Bob "The Cat" Bevan entertaining the players in the build-up to the final; Brighton's flight to Wembley in a British Caledonian Airways helicopter.
Stand-in skipper Grealish wearing a headband in the tunnel in tribute to the absent Foster; 20-year-old Gary Howlett, released a year previously by Coventry on a free, completing the journey from scrapheap to Wembley, as the Daily Express called it; a soaking wet boggy Wembley surface; some of the tackles - Case on Robson and Wilkins, Whiteside on Chris Ramsey; Smith, who had been loaned out to Rangers earlier in the season and had played in the Scottish League Cup final, opening the scoring; Stapleton scoring in his second Cup final; Wilkins' superb goal; the outstanding Stevens equalising when all looked lost.
Inevitably we arrive back at Smith's golden chance in the 120th minute, though. "You don't get many chances to win an FA Cup medal and ours had come and gone," Case writes. "We'd put everything into that game and when the replay came round a few days later, we had nothing left." Case, whose mother sadly died on the Sunday morning after the Cup final, was right to be doubtful. Foster may have returned for the Thursday night replay, but Brighton's ship had sailed. A 4-0 defeat ended the dream emphatically.
Stevens and Robinson left for Tottenham and Liverpool respectively, with Foster, Grealish, and Smith departing before the end of a turbulent 1983/84 season. Melia would also be out of the club, resigning in October after a "clash of personalities" with new chief coach Chris Cattlin. Bitter at his treatment, Melia turned up to the next home game and stood on the terraces to join in the "Bamber out" chants. An odd ending to Melia's 311 day reign, a time of such highs and lows for the club.
It's taken Brighton 34 years to get back to the top flight, and in that time they have suffered more Wembley heartbreak, near extinction, avoided dropping out of the Football League, and left the Goldstone Ground, and via Gillingham and the Withdean, arrived at their spanking new home. Things are rarely dull down on the south coast, but Chris Hughton will be hoping for relative calm during the 2017/18 Premier League season.