How have Brighton gone from this... this?

A CLUB IN CRISIS: At noon today, the Seagulls may cease to exist, wound up amid wranglings that have consumed the South Coast club. Greg Wood, a lifelong supporter, traces Albion's troubles and unearths a few Goldstone gems
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The Independent Online
Try to contact Ian Hart, the former editor of the Brighton fanzine Gull's Eye, at his place of work and the greeting is not encouraging for anyone with an interest in the team's desperate problems. "Good morning," a woman's voice says. "Funeral directors."

If that made you smirk then touch wood, not least if you support one of the 60 or so clubs which, for all the coverage they receive from the national sporting media, might as well be playing in the Albanian Second Division.

Thirteen years ago, Brighton and Hove Albion were preparing to face Manchester United in the FA Cup final, a match which, but for the last-minute intervention of a blond South African goalkeeper, they would have won. The Cup run included defeats of Newcastle at St James' Park, Manchester City (4-0) and Liverpool at Anfield. In 1991, they took almost 35,000 fans back to Wembley for the (old) Second Division play-off final, one game away from a return to the top flight. At midday today, five years short of their centenary, Brighton and Hove Albion may effectively cease to exist, and if it can happen to them, maybe it could happen to your team, too.

Last year, Brighton sold the Goldstone Ground for pounds 7.4m, to pay off debts of - depending on who you believe - between pounds 4m and pounds 6m. The new owners, Chartwell Land, agreed as long ago as 17 March to lease the stadium back to the team for one final season, at a cost of pounds 480,000. Noon today is the deadline for agreement.

The club's board has offered pounds 200,000, and may instead decide to pursue a ground-share with Portsmouth, more than 40 miles away, next season, despite the Football League's insistence that such a move will not be permitted since Brighton have no clear-cut plans for a subsequent return to Sussex. In any case, beyond the boardroom no one believes that the club could survive even a single season on gates of maybe 500 or less.

Long-festering resentment among fans at the board's apparent indifference to impending disaster resulted in some ugly scenes at the Goldstone on Saturday. How- ever, John Baine, the founder of Brighton's Independent Supporters' Association, insists that "when the press called it a riot they devalued the language. No one was fighting the police. There was one thicko Nazi skinhead there and that was totally out of order, but 99 per cent of the people were peaceful, concerned Brighton supporters.

"They were confused and frustrated too, unable to believe that their team is so close to extinction. It is, after all, one of the few things that people feel they can depend upon. We know that as we get older we will lose people who are dear to us, that friendships may falter and relationships disintegrate, but no one expects their football team to die, least of all when pounds 480,000 will save it for another season, and the board has about pounds 2m in the bank."

"The only way the club can survive is to stay at the Goldstone," Ivor Caplan, the leader of Hove Council, says. "Cost is not an issue. But I just don't think they care about the fans. If they did, they wouldn't put them through this."

"They" are David Bellotti, Brighton's chief executive, and Bill Archer, the chairman and majority shareholder, although since the club's finances are controlled by a pounds 100 off-the-shelf company, Archer's 56 per cent shareholding represents a personal investment of just pounds 56.25.

"That's all he's put in and now he's able to play with people's emotions," Baine says. "Archer lives in Blackburn and works in Crewe. He rarely attends games and has no real interest in Brighton. David Bellotti is the name a lot of people have heard about, but he's just the monkey: it's Archer who's the organ-grinder.

"He's banked on getting away from the supporters' anger, but if Archer does not sign the leaseback and relinquish his shares, we will start demonstrating, in a non-violent way, outside his house. I've got his address. He thinks he's going to get away with it, but he's not."

The relationship between fans and board started to deteriorate with the sale of the ground, but it fell apart totally when it was revealed that the club's Articles of Association had been amended to allow directors to take a share of any proceeds should it be wound up. After League intervention, the original intention that any surplus should go to local charities was reinstated - Bellotti said that the change had been an oversight - but the board's public image had been damaged beyond repair.

Nor is opposition limited to the terraces. Caplan's public observations about the management of the club leave few locals in any doubt that while the council is eager to find a site for a new stadium, a working relationship with the current board is out of the question. Nor did it help when the club announced plans for their new home, having already been assured by the council that planning permission for their chosen site was out of the question.

Since even a temporary move to Portsmouth - in the unlikely event that the League allowed it - would surely mean death by a thousand empty seats, most fans now hope that Archer will sign the leaseback agreement before relinquishing control to the consortium fronted by Liam Brady, the former Brighton manager.

Brady and his backers, it seems, appreciate Brighton's potential to be a significant club once more. Set in a major conurbation and with an extensive catchment area - Crystal Palace, not Portsmouth, are their nearest neighbours - the Albion could and should be hovering around the play-off places in the Endsleigh First Division. Instead, it will be Third Division next season, while today supporters must tune into the local radio or nervously punch away at their Teletext as noon approaches to find out whether there is likely to be a next season.

As they do so, they may recall the moments in their association with Brighton and Hove Albion that gave them the greatest pleasure (the ones which did the opposite, of course, are more easily forgotten, although the scandalous final-day draw between Spurs and Southampton which guaranteed both promotion at Brighton's expense still rankles).

There was the Cup run, of course, and the game against Sunderland in the late 1970s when they came from 1-0 down with two goals in injury time. There were defeats of Liverpool, Tottenham and Manchester United and a double in the League against Nottingham Forest when they were the best team in the country - "Gary Williams has beaten Peter Shilton from 35 yards," as the commentator memorably yelled, "and you don't beat Peter Shilton from 35 yards."

A more personal memory is of Mastermind in the mid-1970s, when as a pre- teen, a correct answer in the general knowledge section was even more of a rarity than it is today. "Two English League sides have the word Albion in their name," said Magnus Magnusson to a typically owlish contestant. "West Bromwich is one, which is the other?" He did not know, and my sense of achievement was considerable.

It could soon be a different question with the same answer: Which was the last League club to be wound up? Many thousands of prayers will be offered up this morning that, in 12 months' time, the correct response will still be Maidstone United.