Even Crystal Palace’s chairman, Steve Parish, is too young to remember exactly why. But last night’s first leg of the Championship play-off semi-final against Brighton & Hove Albion became the latest instalment of one of the fiercest grudge matches in English football.
“I’d only just started going to games when all this began but I’ve always known we don’t like Brighton,” Parish admitted. “Now it usurps any other rivalry we have.”
A trip to Wembley and a shot at the £90m jackpot that comes with a place in the Premier League next season will be the prize on offer in Monday’s second leg at the Amex Stadium. Yet what must be the unlikeliest “derby” in the country has its roots in the second replay of an FA Cup first-round tie played almost 40 years ago.
Alan Mullery and Terry Venables had been team-mates at Tottenham Hotspur and landed their first jobs in management within weeks of one another at the start of the 1976-77 season at Brighton and Palace respectively. Both were ambitious Third Division clubs at the time fighting for promotion and – separated by just over 40 miles down the old A23 – had built up a healthy rivalry. That all changed over the course of 90 minutes at Stamford Bridge on 6 December 1976.
After the first two games at Selhurst Park and the Goldstone Ground finished level, Chelsea’s ground was chosen as the venue for the second replay. The match eventually went ahead following two postponements owing to bad weather, with Palace booking their place in the next round courtesy of a goal from Paul Holder.
However, it was Mullery’s reaction to two decisions by referee Ron Challis – subsequently rechristened “Challis of the Palace” by Brighton fans – which sealed the mutual hatred that exists to this day.
“I don’t think there was any love lost between Terry and Alan,” remembered Jim Cannon, the former Palace defender who played in all five of that season’s matches between the two. “They were winding each other up through the press and that helped build up the atmosphere among the fans. I think it was all about Alan in the end because he went crazy on the touchline about the disallowed goal and the penalty.”
What happened next has gone down in terrace folklore. Having approached Challis after the game to remonstrate, Mullery was making his way down the tunnel when he claims to have had boiling coffee thrown over him by a supporter.
He reacted by taking some change out of his pocket and hurling it on the ground, shouting “You’re not worth that, Palace” and flashing a V sign. His actions earned the former England midfielder a £100 fine and a lifetime of notoriety in south London.
“I don’t really want to talk about it. That was nearly 40 years ago and I’m not really interested in what happened in a Cup tie,” Mullery told The Independent this week.
“I think it’s a waste of time. It’s ridiculous. I was a manager for 12 years and that one thing – because Crystal Palace are playing Brighton – stands out. I find it quite strange, actually. The rivalry was between two managers. We were rivals when he was at Chelsea and then he came to Tottenham for two years. We became very good friends and used to room with each other and then after two years he went off to QPR.”
When both sides were promoted, hostilities resumed the following season and culminated when Palace pipped their arch-enemies to the Second Division title in 1979. By then, the battle lines had been drawn.
“It was a bit of give and take – we’d beat them and then they’d beat us but we still used to go out and have a drink with the Brighton lads because they were all mates of ours,” said Cannon. “Obviously, things were different when we got on the pitch and we’d go out there and kick lumps out of each other.”
After Venables departed in 1980 to embark on a career that would eventually take him to Barcelona and the England manager’s job, Mullery even had an ill-judged spell as Palace manager after they had been relegated from the top flight before returning to Brighton for a second spell in 1986. Violent battles between supporters outside the Goldstone Ground after a Boxing Day fixture led to police using CS gas to disperse the crowds.
Three years later, a remarkable game ended with Palace winning 2-1 despite somehow contriving to miss three out of four penalties they were awarded. Just for good measure, Brighton had also missed their only one.
The clubs’ contrasting fortunes meant the rivalry lay largely dormant for the best part of a decade before former Palace manager Steve Coppell returned at the helm of Brighton in 2002. More regular meetings in the last 10 years have helped to rekindle the animosity, which resulted in 28 fans being arrested when Palace visited the new Amex Stadium for the first time in September 2011.
Away supporters travelling to yesterday’s game and Monday’s second leg were warned by Sussex and the Metropolitan Police that they must carry identification with their match tickets at all times, although Parish believes both clubs have since made great progress in improving relations between the two clubs.
“I applaud what they’ve done for their football club and the sacrifices they have made to get the new stadium,” he said of Brighton supporters. “The biggest problem that we have sometimes is that people are quite apathetic towards us so to have 30,000 Brighton fans singing ‘We hate Palace’ gives me a sense of pride. I don’t think you can be considered a proper football club unless you’ve got a proper rival.”
As for the man who made it all happen, Mullery expects the winner to go all the way to the promised land of the Premier League.
“It’s very important to both teams and it will be a huge financial boost to both clubs if either of them can go up,” he said. “But other than that it’s just another game of football as far as I’m concerned.”
Not any more.