Home at last. Over 14 years since Brighton & Hove Albion played their final game at the Goldstone Ground, the Seagulls finally have a place of their own again, with today's friendly against Tottenham Hotspur marking the official opening of their new 22,500-seat American Express Community Stadium.
Few clubs, if any, have had to fight as hard or as long to secure a new ground. Made homeless in 1997 by the decision of a previous board of directors to sell the Goldstone to developers, Brighton were forced to groundshare with distant Gillingham for two seasons before moving – temporarily, they hoped – into Withdean Stadium, the tiny council-owned athletics facility.
However, finding a new permanent home took much longer than expected. The only possible site, at Falmer on the eastern edge of the city, was close to downland and attracted objections from nearby villagers and Lewes District Council, the adjoining local authority.
There were reviews, appeals and lengthy public enquiries that required the club and its fans to petition, demonstrate and even stand in local elections before local government minister Hazel Blears finally gave the go-ahead in 2007. Then the global credit crunch struck, causing the club to reconsider its plans for financing a £93m project
Dick Knight, the chairman through most of the years of exile, said: "The achievement of building the stadium is so great because the battle was so hard. The place has got a history before we even play a game here."
The funding solution was for Knight to hand over to Tony Bloom, a lifelong Brighton fan and multi-millionaire, who has bankrolled a showpiece that has already won awards for its architecture and provides an unmatched level of spectator comfort, with all seats padded. Even the away fans are well looked-after, with their own guest beers and concourse lighting in their club colours.
More importantly, after years of turning away fans from the 8,000-capacity Withdean, Brighton can now begin to rebuild their traditionally strong fanbase. They have sold 17,500 season tickets, helped by the attractive football played last season as the team cantered to the League One title under Gustavo Poyet. "The stadium is unbelievable, different class," Poyet said. "We can't wait to see it full. Changing from any stadium to this one would be nice, but we are coming from Withdean, so the change is even bigger. This place is spectacular. It was a long, long fight and I think that the fans won a great battle."
If progress continues on the pitch, there will be pressure to expand, and space has been allowed to bring the capacity up to 30,000. First, the club needs to find out that its sustainable transport plan, based on subsidised bus and train travel and an absolute minimum of car parking, is workable.
However they get there, most supporters are delighted to have a stadium with a roof and a view that does not involve peering across an athletics track. "After 12 years of campaigning we now have a fantastic stadium and we all feel incredibly proud," said Paul Samrah, the fan who chaired the Falmer For All campaign that coordinated supporters' efforts. "The moral is: never give up. Now we can just look forward to the football, which is what it's all about."