Paul Newman: Blooming Brighton find green setting to end homeless life
The Football League Column: The team will move into a new stadium next summer, by which time they will also hope to be back in the Championship
Monday 11 October 2010
There have been times when Brighton fans must have wondered whether it was all a dream. Were they really playing in the top flight 27 years ago? Would they really have won the 1983 FA Cup had Gordon Smith not missed a last-minute sitter against Manchester United?
Since leaving their historic home at the Goldstone Ground in 1997, Brighton have mostly toiled away in League One while fighting to find a new home. Having spent their first two seasons in exile sharing Gillingham's ground 75 miles away, watching their crowds dwindle to little more than 2,000, they have been playing in temporary accommodation for the last 11 years at the Withdean Stadium, an athletics arena in Brighton with a capacity of under 9,000.
The long wait, however, is nearing an end. Brighton will move into a new stadium next summer, by which time they will also hope to be back in the Championship. Gus Poyet's pacemakers lead League One by three points and would have been further ahead but for a controversial late penalty that secured a 1-1 draw for Bournemouth at the Withdean on Saturday.
Promotion would be the perfect way to celebrate the move to the American Express Community Stadium, which is being built at Falmer, four miles from the city centre on a site next to the University of Sussex. Buckingham Group, the main contractors, are on schedule to hand the stadium over to the club in time for the start of the 2011-12 season.
After 13 years playing in front of crowds which have rarely topped 7,000, a move to a 22,500-capacity stadium might seem overly ambitious, but the Brighton public's enthusiasm for their new home has been remarkable. At the Withdean, the club entertain just 150 corporate guests; at the Amex they will have 2,100, of which 2,000 have already been sold for the opening season.
A total of 15,500 season tickets will go on sale later this year and the club expect to sell out. The stadium has been designed with a view to being enlarged, subject to planning permission, to a capacity of 30,000, which was the sort of crowd the club attracted in their heyday.
Martin Perry, the chief executive, said: "There's a huge pent-up demand in the south-east for the club and for a new stadium. Anecdotally, we've heard so many people say: 'I won't go to Withdean, but I will go to the new stadium.' Initially we weren't sure how much we could rely on that information, but the corporate sales have shown it's true."
Perry was one of those who helped to save the club from oblivion in 1997, but the current revival has been made possible by Tony Bloom, chairman since June 2009. Bloom comes from a family of Brighton supporters – his grandfather was a vice-chairman of the club and his uncle has been involved for more than 20 years – and has amassed a fortune through the sale of a betting website he set up, as well as his property and finance interests.
Bloom has kept Brighton afloat and backed Poyet, but his major commitment has been to support the new stadium, which is costing £66m to build. The Football Foundation and the regional development agency have helped with grants, but the final bill totals £93m, including the price of the land and planning. It took two public inquiries and 10 years to secure planning permission.
As befits a city with the country's only Green MP, the stadium will be environmentally friendly. There will be only 150 new car parking spaces as supporters will be encouraged to travel by train to the adjoining Falmer station. The stadium should also be of architectural appeal. The roof is designed to reflect the landscape of the South Downs, which will be visible through two curved arches.
Perry believes the excitement created by the new stadium – there is even a live webcam on the club website showing the construction work – has inspired Poyet's team. "The training ground is on the other side of the road from the stadium, so the players drive past it every day," he said. "They can see where this club is going."
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