Perch of peril for Coppell and Seagulls
The survival game: Brighton face a new appointment with fear as the Dons turn their backs to an empty existence
Sunday 04 May 2003
From his window in Brighton and Hove Albion's eighth-floor office in the town centre, the club's chief executive Martin Perry has a fine view of the sun glistening on the English Channel. What he sees when glancing down at his desk is less uplifting.
The First Division table shows the Seagulls perched precariously low, needing two results to go their way this afternoon in order to avoid relegation; worse, in many ways, the bills for a public inquiry into the desperately needed new stadium out at Falmer are piling up in the in-tray and now total more than £700,000. Even if permission is eventually granted (the local council has already voted 11-1 in favour and 62,000 signed a petition in support), a year or more of extra revenue will have been lost, while last season's Second Division champions continue to play in a rented ground that holds no more than 6,800.
"The earliest we could make a start on site now is towards the end of 2004," Perry says. "So the cost to the club is absolutely immense. We've demonstrated that there is no other site in Brighton and [if the proposals are rejected] it really would be back to the drawing board. Attracting additional investment with no prospect of a permanent home, the effect on the coaching and playing staff would be disastrous and it would place the club in a very precarious position."
If there is any consolation, it is that the position was even grimmer a few years ago. Bill Archer, the much reviled previous owner, had sold the Goldstone Ground without having a replacement lined up, attempts to groundshare with Millwall, Crawley and Woking all fell through and the Albion finished up at Gillingham, some 70 miles and a tortuous cross-country journey away. Not surprisingly, average attendances dropped 65 per cent to little more than 2,000.
For three successive seasons, they finished 23rd in the table, and when a new consortium, including Perry, finally took over, the team had to beat Doncaster and then draw at Hereford in the last two matches to avoid dropping out of the League altogether. They managed it, just, and sent down Hereford, who have never returned. "We've rebuilt from a very, very low base," Perry says without exaggeration.
The Withdean Stadium, a run-down athletics track, seemed better blessed from day one, which brought a 6-0 victory over Mansfield Town. But although the Third and Second Division titles were won in successive seasons, the manager soon left each time: the ambitious Micky Adams moved to Leicester City and then Peter Taylor resigned because his transfer fund looked inadequate for the First Division. Taylor was proved right, his short-lived successor Martin Hinshelwood losing 10 games in a row this season after a bright start.
"To go up two divisions is a massive step," Hinshelwood now admits. "The situation at Withdean has been a noose around the club's neck, and we probably went up too quickly. But no manager or coach is going to say you'd rather not be there."
Well, Taylor did, but Steve Coppell was braver – or dafter. When he took on the manager's job in October the club were apparently out for the count, but with a knockout about to be declared, they staggered to their feet and landed some heroic blows, before taking more punishment earlier this month. Then, last Saturday, Watford were given a battering and so the bell sounds for the last round with Coppell's boys back on their feet and still slugging.
Today they visit Grimsby Town, who are doomed to finish bottom, while Stoke – three points ahead with an inferior goal difference – play at home to Reading. Coppell could phone a friend – Reading's manager Alan Pardew scored the winning goal for his Crystal Palace team in the epic 1990 FA Cup semi-final against Liverpool. Unfortunately, Pardew counts Tony Pulis of Stoke as a mate as well and has promised only that Reading will play fair with everyone, as well as serving their own best interests, by trying to win the game.
Coppell admits he would happily have accepted the present position had it been offered when he took over – even more gratefully after his first two games brought defeats by 4-2 to Sheffield United and 5-0 to Palace, Brighton's hated rivals. Realising that the squad lacked players with significant experience of the higher divisions, he brought in Selhurst Park refugees Simon Rodger (Palace) and Dean Blackwell (Wimbledon), subsequently adding veteran goalkeeper Dave Beasant.
"Other than that, all I've done is what I do," he says. Whatever it is, it seems to work. Concentrating on the task in hand is part of a managerial philosophy honed over 19 years and he therefore insists of today's matches: "I'm not even looking at the other game. It's a big enough job for us to go away and win."
After this weekend his contract is up and he has "an open mind" about what happens next. Not for the first time in recent years, the view from where the Seagulls sit is in danger of being obscured by sea fret. After a hazy Sunday afternoon in Cleethorpes, all should be become a little clearer – for better or worse.
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