Football: Brighton are starting to rock

Seagulls move up pecking order as new manager Wood inspires south- coast club's revival
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FOR SUPPORTERS of Brighton and Hove Albion, the last eight years have felt like a version of the famous Chinese curse: may you support an interesting football club. Since the Seagulls came within one game of a return to the top flight in the 1991 play-off final, life for players and fans has been very interesting indeed. They have lost the Goldstone Ground, now a retail park and, but for a slightly streaky equaliser on the last day of the season at Hereford in May 1997, would have lost their League status too. There was a vicious civil war between the supporters and their ex-chairman, and they have spent almost two seasons spent playing every match away from home.

It should be time for a year or two in mid-table obscurity, a pause for breath but, at Brighton, things do not seem to work like that. This season, though, it is a cause for minor celebration. After two years as the second- worst club in the country, Brighton have already accumulated more points than in the whole of last season. In 10th place in the Third Division, they are within sight of a place in the playoffs at least. It is, by recent standards, a triumph.

So far, the Brighton story has shown other football fans how quickly a team can decline under bad administration, and also how the supporters themselves can plan and mobilise opposition. Now, it could become an example of the ways to rebuild trust between team and fans.

Dick Knight, who replaced the hate-figure Bill Archer as chairman in 1997, is a former advertising executive, who gave the world, among other things, Eva Herzigova in the Wonderbra adverts. He knows his marketing, and there is now an air of openness about the club, which includes regular meetings with fans' representatives. There is even talk of a "shirt amnesty", to persuade the town's youngsters to trade in their Manchester United and Arsenal kits for a smart new Albion strip.

Yet most of the credit for Brighton's survival, not to mention their current, relative, good form, lies with fans who never lost hope, even when every weekend seemed to bring a new disaster. When Brighton are at "home", hundreds of cars and buses leave town at lunchtime to travel to Gillingham's Priestfield stadium. It is four motorways and three counties away but, at times on the 75-mile journey, it can seem as if every other car on the road has a blue-and-white mascot hanging from the rear-view mirror.

There were more than 4,000 at Gillingham for their last home game, and almost as many for the fixture at Southend last weekend. After both matches, they travelled home angry and gloomy after poor displays, but most, probably all, will be back at Priestfield on Saturday.

These were the first reverses in the short managerial career of Jeff Wood, a former Charlton goalkeeper who arrived at the club in December 1996 as assistant to Steve Gritt. Brighton were 11 points adrift at the bottom of the Third Division, apparent certainties for relegation to the Conference. "I'd just signed a three-year contract to go and coach in the States," Wood says. "I had the visa in my passport and I was due to leave on 2 January. But when I got the call from Steve, it really wasn't any contest, because I knew what a big club this was and what could be achieved."

Wood remembers that, at his first morning training session: "When the players were warming up, it was deadly silent, none of the banter you normally get, so the first thing we did was put some spirit into the team. We had about eight points from 22 games, but we'd looked at what had happened in previous seasons and we reckoned that about 34 points would keep us up. In the end, we had to get 47, and even then we only stayed up on goals scored."

It was an astonishing escape, but the drop would have been merely delayed had it not been for the disastrous and criminal events at Doncaster last season. Gritt departed, to be replaced by Brian Horton, who left for Port Vale last month. When Wood took charge, he became Brighton's fifth manager in as many years.

It is hard to believe that, less than 20 years ago, Brighton could beat Tottenham or Manchester United in the old First Division, and no-one would see it as a great surprise. They were the Leicester City of their time, organised, well-supported and entirely at home in the higher branches of the football tree.

No team has ever fallen so far, so quickly, but Horton, and now Wood, finally seem to have applied the brakes. The arrival of Ian Culverhouse, once of Norwich and Spurs, has shored up the defence, while Gary Hart, a shrewd signing from Stansted (he cost pounds 1,000 and a set of kit) is a quick and promising striker. Yet the decline which was the result of a decade of boardroom incompetence will take at least as long to reverse.

"I would say that the First Division is a minimum," Wood says. "Some clubs, it doesn't matter how well they do, they will never be big clubs, but there are teams in the Premiership who, week in, week out, are getting 15,000 or 20,000. We could do better than that."

But, to do so, Brighton will first need a new, permanent stadium. A site has been identified, near Sussex University at Falmer, and every resident of Brighton and Hove will have a chance to register their approval, or otherwise, in a referendum in May. Even then, however, the planning process will be tortuous, and an athletics stadium on the outskirts of town will be the Seagulls' base for the foreseeable future, probably from the start of next season. It will not be much - 6,000 capacity, and thin air behind the goals - but it will be home.

"We have to get back to Brighton as quickly as possible and build the club around the town again," Wood says. "There is such potential here, the fans believe it, and the players are starting to believe it too. Sheffield Wednesday, Sheffield United and Wolves have all been in this division in recent years, so it can be turned around. This could be a big club again. It will be a big club again."