Storm clouds by the sea

Derrick Whyte traces a year of anger which boiled over at Brighton
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The Independent Online
Thirteen years after they came within a whisker of beating Manchester United in the FA Cup final when Gary Bailey denied Gordon Smith a last- minute winner, Brighton and Hove Albion find themselves back in the spotlight as a club in turmoil on and off the pitch. It is possible that they will cease to exist in the near future.

The catalyst for yesterday's pitch invasion that forced the abandonment of their game against York was the decision last summer of their chief executive, David Bellotti, to sell the Goldstone Ground to the developers Chartwell, in order to clear debts estimated at pounds 6m. At the same time, rules preventing the owners making money from the deal were removed from the club's constitution. The "no-profit" clause was re-instated after a Football Association inquiry.

Chartwell move into the Goldstone on 1 June with plans for a retail park. Work cannot start for a year so Chartwell offered the club a deal to stay for a season while they find a new home.

Therein lies the problem. Brighton, already relegated to the Third Division, have until tomorrow to pay pounds 480,000 to secure a year's stay of execution and Bellotti has offered only pounds 200,000. A further complication is that Brighton have been given until 24 May to inform the Football League of their plans for next season or face expulsion.

Bellotti maintains that the best way to resolve the debt, pounds 4m of which must be paid off by June, is to share with their bitter south-coast rivals Portsmouth - proposals greeted by supporters as the straw which broke the Seagulls' back.

The club's last hope for survival could lie with an unidentified consortium, which holds a news conference for today opposite the Goldstone Ground.

Bellotti was advised by police not to attend yesterday's match - possibly the last at the Goldstone after 94 years - advice he heeded. The ground was broken into on Friday night and slogans reading "Sack the board" and "Bellotti out" were daubed on the pitch and directors' box.

The campaign against Bellotti had been gathering momentum for some time. As long ago as September Brighton fans invaded the pitch at Bournemouth during a Second Division match shown live on regional TV.

The fans even won support from the local authority, which questioned the sale of the ground, but last night the council leader, Ivor Caplin, was downcast. "Unless the club's owners sign the lease, I believe Albion will be playing their last match at Walsall on Saturday," he said.

The fans' anger boiled over after just 16 minutes yesterday. Hundreds made for the goalmouths, advertising hoardings were pulled down and an attempt was made to storm the tunnel.

Duncan Johns, a supporter, said: "The way this club has been allowed to curl up and die is disgusting. David Bellotti deserves everything that happened today."

As the riot police moved in and the fans trickled away Brighton's clubcall line was still trying to cheer up the faithful. A hour after the abandonment, the Seagull Line reported: "About 1,000 people invaded the pitch, but Brighton went close in the eighth minute ..."

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