Football: Seagulls stuck with the Visigoth factor

Brighton's life as the nomads of the Football League is not guaranteed to have a happy ending. Greg Wood reports
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The Independent Online
IF YOU supposed that football had finally shaved the grizzle off its chin, retrieved its civvies and checked out of rehab, ready for its reintroduction to the community, then consider this. Ronen Palan, a lecturer at Sussex University, is preparing to sell his house and uproot his family as the result of a proposed development at the bottom of his road in Withdean, a suburb of Brighton. He claimed, with such grim conviction that you can only believe him, that "if I lose pounds 30,000, I'll be happy."

The anticipated blot on his landscape is not a germ warfare research laboratory, or a nuclear power station. It is professional football, or at any rate the approximation of it which is played by Brighton & Hove Albion, the nomads of the Nationwide League. The club who have endured a miserable year of exile in Gillingham, 75 miles away from their supporters, have applied to use Withdean Stadium, an athletics track owned by the local council, as a temporary base for the next three seasons. Almost 40,000 people have signed a petition begging the council to give the plan official approval. Only the still more desperate problems of Doncaster Rovers kept Brighton in the League last season, and there is a belief that Withdean offers the team not simply their only hope of serious progress, but perhaps their best chance to avoid extinction.

In the immediate area of the stadium, however, the mood is rather different. There is fear and loathing in leafy suburbia. And there is also SWEAT, which stands for Save Withdean Environment Action Team, a hastily formed pressure group which opposes the move. To discuss the issue with its members is to realise that for all the confident swagger about modern British football, there are still plenty of people for whom "football fan" is a synonym of Visigoth.

There are, of course, some genuine and reasonable concerns, particularly with regard to the extra traffic which may be attracted to the area on match days. There are also understandable fears that, since no firm plans are in place for a new, permanent home for the Seagulls, the arrangement may not be as temporary as is claimed. Others, meanwhile, point out that while Brighton's itinerant status is unfortunate, it is a problem of their own making, since Bill Archer, the former chairman, sold their old home at the Goldstone Ground without first arranging a long-term alternative. It is not just the locals, but also many Brighton fans, who worry that Archer, while no longer in control, remains the club's largest individual shareholder.

Yet still it is hard to credit the extent to which many Withdean residents dread the possible arrival of a football team in their midst. One leaflet which circulated in the area warned that fans would be "urinating in front gardens". There is talk of "inevitable" fights between supporters, of a community which "will break up because we will all move away from here."

It is an apocalyptic vision, but not one which is shared by the residents of another quiet, tidy middle-class residential area barely two miles distant. Where the Goldstone Ground stood for almost 100 years, a retail park is nearing completion. Toys 'R' Us and a Burger King Drive-Thru will occupy the land which once hosted Arsenal and Manchester United.

There may be some locals who were glad to see the back of the Goldstone, but if so, they were not at home on Monday morning. Among those who were, there seemed to be complete unanimity that living next door to the Seagulls had never caused any problems. Muriel Cater lived just a few yards from the entrance to the old North Stand for 65 years. "It was never any trouble," she said, "in fact, it was very pleasant to have around."

A couple of doors further down the street, Mark Wilkins remembered that "the old lady who lived next door wasn't a football fan, but she used to love sitting in her window on match days, watching the people go past. The people in Withdean talk about having gardens smashed up and fences pulled down, but we never had any of it."

The man who is trying to persuade the residents of Withdean that their fears are groundless is Nick Rowe, Brighton's general manager. If the move is approved (12 June is likely to be decision day), he expects that most, if not all, of the 5,400 home supporters that can be accommodated at the stadium will be season- ticket holders.

"It will be almost like a contract," he said. "People will be asked to sign a code of conduct, asking them to respect the vicinity of the ground and the immediate neighbourhood at Withdean, and to use public transport of park-and-ride schemes to travel to the ground.

"If they transgress, their tickets will be suspended, but our fans are so desperate to have us back that I know they will meticulously observe the rules."

For all his efforts, many Withdean residents remain unconvinced, and similar prejudice would no doubt be exposed by an equivalent proposal in many parts of the country. Football may approach the millennium in apparent good health but, for some, it will be stuck in the 1970s forever.