Wednesday, 2 November 2011

Gone But Not Forgotten - Withdean Stadium, Brighton

This week we take a trip to Brighton's Withdean Stadium with Tom Biggs, co-editor of The Sports Desk . You can also follow him on Twitter @TBiggs90

It was a ground no opposition fans or players ever wanted to visit.

Not because the home team were so brilliant, so dominant, but because there was no real closeness to the players, no cover from the south coast storms and most of all no atmosphere.

It must be said, the lack of atmosphere wasn’t down to the loyal home fans, it was down to the stadium. With a huge running track around the outside, only one stand covered and the other three assembled from scaffolding, it would’ve been hard to feel any real atmosphere had England won the World Cup there.

The Withdean Stadium
Brighton and Hove Albion finally waved goodbye to their temporary accommodation, the Withdean Stadium, at the end of last season as they moved to the new state-of-the-art 25000 all-seater American Express Community Stadium.

When their previous permanent home, from 1902 to 1997, the Goldstone Ground, was sold to private developers Albion went in search of a new home. For two seasons they played at Gillingham’s Priestfield Stadium, over 70 miles away, before moving temporarily to the Withdean in 1999 while a new stadium was built at Falmer.

Despite being only a temporary home, many Albion fans will never forget the memories they experienced in their 12 years at one of the most uninviting stadiums the football league has ever seen.

It’s not often you can feel so far away from everything at a football match - the dugout, the players, the away fans, the rest of your fans, but at the 8,850-capacity Withdean, it felt like you were all on your own.

It was voted the fourth worst stadium in the UK by The Observer, and after numerous visits to the stadium, it’s hard to disagree. You could argue it was even worse.

My first visit to the ground was in early 2002, to watch Brighton take on Cambridge United, in what was then Division Two. I’d been to other grounds before; Highbury, Old Trafford even Selhurst Park (home of bitter rivals Crystal Palace), so I thought I knew what to expect.

How wrong I was.

The atmosphere outside the ground was excellent, fans, as passionate as ever, hoping Albion could win for the first time in six matches. In truth, I couldn’t have picked a better game. My father and I, along with the 6,573 fans that day, witnessed a spectacular 4-3 Albion victory, with a certain Bobby Zamora scoring a hat-trick.

It was a topsy-turvy kind of game, with the Seagulls thrice going in front, only to be pegged back by a resurgent United on all three occasions. An 81st minute penalty looked to have secured the away side a share of the spoils, and despite being so far away from the fans, the home players could tell they were unimpressed.

They wouldn’t have been able to hear the groans, sighs and swear words, but they’d have known we weren’t best pleased. But, with just two minutes left on the clock, desperation turned to adulation as Zamora rose highest to complete his hat-trick.

Usually, the roar would be electric. A goal two minutes from the end in a seven-goal thriller on most occasions would be too noisy for most, but at the Withdean it was different. The fans were just as happy, just as elated, and just as loud individually, but together it wasn’t exactly ear-splitting.

Sat in the North stand, I could see the South stand celebrating – but I couldn’t hear them. It must have been difficult for the players. When they play away from home, the noise from the home fans would be deafening, but at home, despite their fans cheering just as loud, they’d have struggled to really soak up the celebrations.

The AMEC Stadium
You always remember your first game, and while I’d been elsewhere, this will always stick in my memory simply because of the stark contrast to what I’d previously experienced.

I’ve sat in all three of the home stands and the atmosphere is so different in all three. On the cold and wet Tuesday nights when Brighton were struggling, you sometimes felt as though you’d rather be anywhere else in the world.

But despite the lows, the Withdean has seen a number of highs that will forever remain in the memory of those fans who love the club most. Back-to-back promotions in 2001 and 2002 that saw the club reach Division One, regaining promotion back to the second tier in 2004, and of course, lifting the League One trophy after the final game at the Withdean.

These are moments that will never be forgotten. These moments took place at a stadium that will never be forgotten. It may have been one of the worst in the country, but for Albion fans, it holds some of the greatest memories.

Despite that, it’s a ground they’ll be hoping they never have to revisit.

Last Gone But Not Forgotten: Highfield Road, Coventry

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