COMMENTARY : Brighton's home day blues

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The Independent Online
Brighton & Hove Albion 1 Macclesfield Town 1

Sammy McIlroy has experienced some unusual times in football, such as being relegated with Manchester United, but he had never come across a situation like Priestfield Stadium on Saturday.

"It was the strangest atmosphere I've ever known," said McIlroy after his Macclesfield team had drawn 1-1 with Brighton. "I kept looking around at the directors' box because I thought it was going to `go off' at any moment."

Welcome to the surreal world of Brighton & Hove Albion. They may have a new home and new hope but there is still a lingering odour of unfinished business around the club.

The object of attention in the directors' box was David Bellotti. He is the public face of the board which many of the clubs fans feel has brought Brighton to its knees and forced the highly unpopular exile to Gillingham. He was partnered by his wife, for whom the afternoon could not have been an edifying experience. Not only were they surrounded by stewards and police for their own protection but also abused by Albion fans.

Given the history behind Bellotti and Bill Archer's reign at Brighton (briefly, they sold the Goldstone for pounds 7m without finding a new ground then changed the Articles of Association so directors could profit from any assets if the club was wound up) one could understand the Brighton fans' ire - especially after making an 80-mile journey on a steaming day to see a "home" game. Moreover, they arrived to find the ground over-equipped with police, complete with video surveillance and dogs, but understaffed at the turnstiles which meant 200-odd missed the start.

However, their mood was not easing the team's transition to their new ground. Even Brighton's two former Gillingham players, Robbie Reinelt and Mark Morris, looked ill at ease, with both being booked. "I never thought I'd say this but they [the fans] are not helping the cause," said Steve Gritt, the manager who inspired Brighton's seemingly impossible escape from relegation to the GM Vauxhall Conference last season. "Bellotti didn't come to games after I took over last year, and the fans got behind the team rather than being distracted."

Quite why Bellotti comes is a mystery. Last week police ejected him at Bridgend from the train back from Brighton's game at Swansea for his own safety. This week the man who was jailed for threatening to kill him - and sent a copy of his letter to the Brighton Evening Argus - is released. Dick Knight, the leader of the consortium which is seeking to take over the club, said: "He has been advised not to come by police but it is a free country. They even asked him not to watch the second half. Soon, however, he won't be a director and the issue will be over."

Knight was referring to the takeover which has been delayed amid rumours that Archer, an absentee owner who lives in Lancashire, has imposed new conditions. When, and if, it is completed Archer and Knight will each have 49 per cent of the club with McAlpine, the builders, possessing the balance. They are to build a new stadium but, so far, Brighton have not even got planning permission though they have identified a site north of the town.

In the meantime the priority, according to Knight, is to move their exile to Millwall, which is more accessible to Brighton fans. Albion meet Football League officials later this week before asking permission from the League chairmen on 28 August. Gillingham, however, will be seeking full compensation on the pounds 300,000 two-year contract - especially as they have just completed a new stand to comply with the Taylor Report.

"I don't know where we will be playing," lamented Gritt, who is understandably concerned about a season of "away" games. Albion have only won one away game in 17 months and only survived last season through their home form (they took 29 of the last 33 available points). "I'm trying to make it feel like a home game so everyone comes in their own car rather than together in a coach. It's a long trip for some though and they can get caught in traffic, or arrive very early because they've worried about the traffic."

Gritt played for Charlton when they were exiled to Selhurst Park and he added brightly: "We won promotion that season. We had a lot of players with character and spirit and we have the same here - that showed last year."

Ability, however, appears in shorter supply, judging by Saturday. Brighton were poor and Macclesfield were unlucky not to win. Ahead through Richard Landon's well-taken volley, they were pulled back when Paul McDonald drove in a cross from the lively Stuart Storer. They recovered to finish the stronger and their neat football almost brought reward when Steve Payne headed against the bar in injury-time.

The Nationwide League's newcomers had understandably been concerned about the step up and will be content with a season of mid-table stability. Most of their players have given up jobs and thus taken a pay cut to go full-time and their determination was summed up by the motto on defender Efetobor Sodje's headscarf - "Against All Odds". Brighton know the feeling.

Goals: Landon (39) 0-1; McDonald (63) 1-1. Brighton & Hove Albion (4-4-2): Ormerod; Humphrey, Johnson, Morris, Hobson; McDonald, Minton (Armstrong, 85), Mayo (Westcott, 38), Storer; Reinelt, Maskell. Substitute not used: Allen.

Macclesfield Town (4-4-2): Price; Tinson, Payne, Sodje, Howarth; Askey, Rose, Sorvel, Wood; Mason, Landon (Power, 76). Substitutes not used: Edey, Mitchell.

Referee: P Taylor (Cheshunt).

Bookings: Brighton: Morris, Reinelt. Macclesfield: Wood, Sodje.

Man of the match: Sodje.

Attendance: 2,336.