When Brighton take on Arsenal in the FA Cup fourth round at the American Express Community Stadium on Saturday, many supporters will reflect that, in part, they owe their handsome surroundings – and even the existence of their club – to one of their opponents' living legends.
Liam Brady is an Arsenal great, immortalised in the giant murals on the walls of the Emirates Stadium in recognition of seven memorable seasons in the Gunners' midfield, and he continues to serve the club as head of youth development. But Brighton are also close to his heart after he managed them for two years from December 1993 to November 1995, and he decided to take a hand when the club faced its darkest hour.
Brady had resigned, disillusioned with a board of directors who were overseeing a near-terminal decline in the fortunes of a club that had played in the top flight for four seasons in the early 1980s. When it became known that they had sold the club's Goldstone Ground to developers, fans' fury boiled over. A home match against York City in April 1996 was abandoned after a pitch invasion and an attack on the directors' box.
The next day, Brady met reporters outside the Goldstone and announced that he represented a consortium that hoped to buy out the existing owners – a remarkable display of solidarity with a previous club from a departed manager. "I just felt I had to do something to stop what was going on," he explained. "It was a bad time in the story of Brighton & Hove Albion, but I really enjoyed myself as manager and you could see that there was a real passion in Sussex and in the city for the Albion and they deserve a really good football club. I certainly thought that the people in charge didn't really care about the club at all, and that it needed to get some people in who would try to move them out and would have the club's interests at heart."
Part of Brady's announcement included an offer to pay £40,000 that the developers wanted in order to allow Brighton to play one more season at the ground that had been their home since 1902. "The directors were saying that they had to ground-share with Portsmouth or Gillingham because they didn't have 40 grand. So as a bit of a publicity stunt I said I'd pay it out of my own pocket to keep the club at the Goldstone. Dick Knight was pulling the strings behind the scenes, but because I was saying it, it probably got more coverage than it would have done."
Knight, the key member of the consortium, became Brighton chairman a year later, but too late to save the Goldstone. Instead, he led the struggle to bring the club home from a two-year exile in Gillingham to temporary accommodation at the Withdean Stadium while a new home could be found and built – a struggle that would last 14 years. "I was first introduced to him when we were trying to help youth development when I was manager," Brady said. "A guy called John Keehan was trying to help me get a minibus and start looking after the younger age groups, because there was no money forthcoming from the people in charge. John mentioned that his brother-in-law Dick was an astute businessman and was somebody I should talk to. Dick led the campaign brilliantly, supported by a lot of people down there who are a part of the story as well."
Brady had intended to take a fuller part, but a call came from north London that he could not refuse. "Within about six or eight months I got the offer to be head of youth development at Arsenal and it was just too good to turn down," he said. "I had my family to think about and it was a dream job for me. Dick understood completely although we both had it in the back of our minds that he would be the chairman and I would be the manager – but with the number of managers he sacked, it's probably best that it didn't happen.
"I still live in Hove. Arsenal are very much the No 1, but Brighton are right up there among the clubs I have huge feelings for, and it's great to see where they are compared to what it was like then. The supporters are happy and you can see on their faces the pride that they feel about where they are now."
And for Brady, this weekend's fixture feels somewhat overdue. "I always wanted this match. When Dick really needed the money, I was hoping Brighton would draw Arsenal at Highbury or the Emirates in a cup-tie for much-needed finance. They're in a different position now, which is great to see, and you have to give credit to Tony Bloom [the present chairman] and the Bloom family for taking it to where it has got to. Dick had to fight tooth and nail to get the stadium planning permission and some of us helped keep the club going, but when Tony got involved he brought with him the financial clout that was needed." So Brady put his hand in his own pocket? "I did indeed. I was one of Dick's financial backers. And no, it wouldn't be polite to ask the figures.
"I hope to be there on Saturday, but we have an FA Youth Cup tie against Fulham that's due to be played on Thursday. If it's called off because of the weather it will have to be played on Saturday. Otherwise I shall be at the Amex." Enjoying watching some of the graduates of his youth programme, no doubt? "Yes, we've got Jack Wilshere, Kieran Gibbs and Wojciech Szczesny, all from our youth development. We're pleased with the contribution we've made."
Brady predicts an Arsenal win, even with Brighton unbeaten in 2013. "I watched them beat Newcastle in round three and it didn't surprise me, you smelt an upset," he said. "But the fact that Brighton play football might suit us – and by 'us' I mean Arsenal – and we can win through. There's a determination among our players. Winning a replay at the Emirates might be the nicest way, but I don't think Arsène Wenger would want that."
And there is no part of Brady that wishes the Goldstone, now a retail park, was still there to stage the game. "No, the club is where it had to go. We all realised the club was snookered at the Goldstone. It was never going to be a stadium for the Championship or the Premier League. But the people involved were prepared to cash in on the location and bugger the consequences. That had to be stopped, and it's a great story for all of football where Brighton have got to. It just shows you what can be done with people who are passionate about their clubs and about football – and not interested in just making money."
Chippy's: CV: Liam Brady
Born 13 February 1956, Dublin
1971 Joins Arsenal as apprentice. Makes debut v Birmingham in 1973.
1974 Makes Republic of Ireland debut against the Soviet Union.
1979 Wins FA Cup with Arsenal and named PFA Player of the Year
1980 Signs for Juventus, winning two Serie A titles. Later plays for Samp-doria, Inter, Ascoli and West Ham.
1991 Appointed Celtic manager.
1993 Resigns at Celtic, moves to Brighton, then in the third tier.
1996 Starts running the Arsenal Academy. Still there.
Bill WestReuse content