Brighton rocked by civil war

Greg Wood on the strife-ridden Sussex football club who are all at sea beside the seaside
Click to follow
The Independent Online
It is five past three on Saturday afternoon, and the match has just kicked off. At first sight, it could be a scene from any game on any weekend, anywhere in Britain. But this is the Goldstone Ground, where things are rarely as they seem. When you go to watch Brighton and Hove Albion these days, you enter football's Twilight Zone.

There are the chants, their tunes familiar to any fan, but the words customised to reflect Brighton's desperate problems: "We've got no home, we've got no home, Brighton's got no home." Then there is the sight of hundreds of supporters turning their backs on the game to concentrate instead on the main grandstand.

And at the centre of their attention is the most extraordinary spectacle of all. Surrounded by empty seats, in a directors' box to which he and his wife have been escorted under police guard, is David Bellotti, Brighton's chief executive. He is middle-aged, balding, frail and bespectacled. It is hard to believe that he is also one of the most hated men in Sussex.

But hatred is the only word. It is in the faces and the pointing fingers as, individually and collectively, hundreds of Brighton's supporters hurl insults, threats and curses at Bellotti for as long as he remains in view. They hate him and, even more, they hate the man he represents. Most of them lay the bulk of the blame for the Seagulls' plight - bottom of the League and nowhere to play next season - squarely at the feet of Bill Archer, the club's chairman. Or rather, they would, if Archer's feet ever carried him within 100 miles of the ground. In his continuing absence, Bellotti takes the abuse for both of them.

What makes these scenes all the more remarkable is that these people are not skinheads or the casual crew, but Brighton fans. When the team spent four seasons in the old First Division in the early 1980s, at a time when awayday violence was all but taken for granted, the Brighton programme regularly printed letters from the managers of pubs and service stations, praising the supporters' impeccable behaviour. Barely a decade later, they are bitter, furious and close to despair as the team they love slips towards oblivion.

Before last Saturday's match with Fulham, about 800 fans marched through Brighton to demand the board's resignation. As a percentage of the current home gate, it was equivalent to 15,000 Manchester United fans taking to the streets. They knew that both Archer and Bellotti would have stepped aside months ago if either took the slightest notice of demonstrations, but the march served a purpose none the less. "The young people and the ones who want to start smashing things because they're so frustrated have to be kept occupied," Liz Costa, vice-chair of Brighton's Supporters Club, says. "The hard action is going to take place behind closed doors.''

Keeping the lid on a boiling pot of frustration is not quite what Costa signed up for in 1983 when she joined the Supporters' Club committee. Brighton had just been beaten in the FA Cup final, and though they were also relegated from the First Division, a swift return to the top flight was a credible ambition. Thirteen years later, she is involved in a rancorous war of attrition.

"Everything we do is legal and eye-catching," she says, "and we're getting quite expert at it. Every time we think we've run out of ideas, we think of something else. By the time we've finished, we'll have learned everything there is to know about this and, if there are any other clubs in a similar position, we'll be able to share our knowledge with them.''

The fans' grievances with their team's administrators are many and varied. Some are obvious, such as the sale of the Goldstone Ground when no firm plans were in place for an alternative stadium. Then there was the amendment to the Articles of Association, shortly after the sale of the ground for pounds 7m, which would have allowed directors to benefit in the event of the club being wound up. At the insistence of the Football Association, a clause preventing directors taking out more than they had put in - in Archer's case, pounds 56.25 - was re-instated. The board claimed its removal had been an oversight. Relations with the fans had been damaged beyond repair, and subsequent talk of a groundshare with Portsmouth, 50 miles distant, did nothing to improve them.

Careful digging by those who know where to look has unearthed further causes for concern. Paul Samrah, a chartered accountant, has spent many hours at Companies House sifting though Brighton's published accounts, and now specialises in immediate rebuttals to Bill Archer's rare public statements on the club's problems.

"Every comment he makes, we've got a factual retort for," Samrah says, "and this is all from published records. All he has personally invested is pounds 56.25, to buy a controlling share in the off-the-shelf holding company which he set up to administer the club."

A consortium led by Dick Knight, a local businessman, and which includes the construction firm, McAlpine, is attempting to take control of Brighton. Both the local Council and the FA appear to believe that it has the plans and backing to turn the club around. The consortium has satisfied four criteria which Archer himself laid down as the conditions under which he would step aside. Yet still he refuses to budge, or even to allow access to the accounts.

If Brighton's dreadful run of form continues, frustration and anger can only increase still further, not least as the realisation dawns that, without a ground to play at, it is far from certain that they will be allowed into the GM Vauxhall Conference should they finish in 92nd place. The Dr Martens League - or rather, oblivion - beckons.

Shortly before Brighton's chief executive was persuaded to leave the directors' box for his own safety after 65 minutes of Saturday's match, one fan offered a hint of what may lie ahead. "If you think this is bad, Bellotti," he yelled, "just you wait.''