ON 8 February, 1997, fans of Arsenal, Liverpool, Spurs, Chelsea, Charlton Athletic, Preston North End, Crystal Palace, and countless other English football clubs, mingled with Real Madrid, Eintracht Frankfurt and Red Star Belgrade supporters – all in their team colours – on the crumbling terraces of the Goldstone Ground.
They had travelled from across the UK, and beyond, to watch visitors Hartlepool United take on Brighton and Hove Albion, then rooted firmly at the very bottom of the Football League.
But, more importantly, they were there to stand side-by-side with beleaguered Albion fans, as our club teetered on the very edge of extinction.
With supporters fighting a bitter war against the club’s despised owners, home games in the 1996/97 season had been played in front of ever-dwindling crowds, and in an increasingly desperate and hostile atmosphere.
But this was different.
Despite the cold and damp of a foggy afternoon, this felt like a carnival.
The Albion players rose to the occasion, thrashing Hartlepool 5–0.
“We’d like to thank you for coming,” sang the Albion faithful to the many guests.
The story of the Brighton and Hove Albion’s fight against their rogue owners has been well documented previously, both by myself and others.
But the Fan’s United Day, was the sole inspiration of one person, a 15 year-old Plymouth Argyle fan, Richard Vaughan.
His simple message on a fledgling Albion message board, was the trigger:
“It makes me sick what is happening to your club, and it’s an insult to your fans. I’m a Plymouth fan and I think that one week when we’re away, I’m going to come up and support your protest. I think it would be a good idea if loads of fans from different clubs turned up at Brighton (with their shirts on) and joined in. It would show that we’re all behind you 100%”
Anyway, that was then, and this is now… well not quite!
This is a transcript of an interview I did with Richard Vaughan for BBC Radio Five Live’s Victoria Derbyshire Show, back in April 2005.
The transcript has remained buried on an old external hard drive, and the 20th anniversary of that Fans United Day, reminded me where I had left it.
This is the first time it has ever been published.
Apologies to Richard – who is now a married father of three – for the 12 year delay!
What are your memories of watching your first ever football match?
Compared to most other people I was quite a late starter getting into the beautiful game. It was Christmas time 1993, I was 12 years-old and the match was Argyle v Fulham at Home Park.
My dad took me, and my cousin came along who was down visiting from north Wales. Walking into the stadium for the first time I was really taken in by the whole occasion and was completely hooked.
What have been the highs and lows of following Plymouth Argyle?
There’s been a lot of highs and lows following Argyle over the last eleven and a half years, but never a dull moment. The first season in 93/94 we played some excellent football and really should have been promoted. It all came down to the last day of the season but unfortunately results didn’t go our way and we missed out on automatic promotion by just three points.
We then suffered the fate of so many other teams that have finished third, losing in the play-offs to a Burnley side who were a staggering 12 points behind us! I remember feeling completely cheated and thinking this complete miscarriage of justice shouldn’t be allowed to happen, it was the first time I cried at football!
The biggest highs of following Argyle would obviously have to be the three promotion seasons.
The first in 95/96 we were promoted via the Third Division Play-Offs. The semi-final second leg against Colchester at Home Park is still the best game I’ve ever been to. We were trailing one nil from the first leg so the pressure was really on. We scored the decisive goal with just five minutes to go which prevented the game from going into extra time and for the first time in their history sent Argyle to Wembley.
The whole place erupted at the end with everyone running on the pitch to celebrate with the players, I’ve still never seen a better atmosphere at Home Park. We took around 36,000 fans to the final at Wembley to see the Greens beat Darlington one nil, a very proud day.
The Paul Sturrock era at Home Park has to be the biggest high the club was ever been through. When he took over in 2000 we had fallen to our lowest league position in the clubs history. The crowds were at an all time low and were heading for the Conference.
Paul worked miracles without spending hardly any money at all he created two championship winning squads over just three and a half years! The first Third Division winning season would have to be my favourite out of the two as it was so unexpected, we actually won something!
At 15 years-old, how did you become aware of the situation at Brighton and Hove Albion?
I remember listening to Radio Five Live one afternoon back in 1996 and hearing about the York game when people ran on the pitch and broke the goal posts. I then started following the club’s fortunes every week and started reading the fans views on the internet.
Where did the idea for Fans United come from?
One evening I was browsing through the Brighton fans’ website which I had been keeping up to date with on a regular basis since the York match.
The whole Archer situation had really come to a head and things really did seem bleak for the club.
There seemed no way out and I just couldn’t quite believe that a club like Albion with so much history and fantastic support could cease to exist. Browsing through the web site there was an overwhelming amount of anger, sadness and support expressed from supporters of clubs all over the world.
It seemed to have touched every real fan in some way and something big really had to be done to make people stand up and notice how money a greed were killing this great club.
What sparked you to write the message?
I was so wound-up with everything that was going on that I stated on the message board that I was going to come along to an Albion match wearing my own colours to show my support for the cause and that others should join in too. As there was so many messages of support from other clubs it seemed the best way we could all show the football world that fans were united in their support for the Albion.
What are your memories of the Fans United Day?
I was really overwhelmed with the immense support of unity shown on the original day, it was action packed from start to finish. We met up mid-morning with a few of the main organisers on the green opposite the Goldstone Ground.
Crowds were already starting to form everywhere, including people from all walks of the media. AFC Bournemouth were themselves in financial trouble at the time and there was also a group of fans from the club doing a collection of their own.
I thought this was really good as it showed what Fans United was all about, truly a day for all fans of football. It was amazing seeing so many teams colours, I think all of the 92 league clubs were easily represented, quite a few from Europe and a fair few from non-league as well.
The turnstile queues around the ground were huge, it was quite a wait to get into the ground. One of the funniest moments I remember was an Albion fan opening one of the emergency gates in the ground and shouting to people in the queue “Quick come in this way, Archer won’t get any more money of us then!”
A good few hundred fans managed to get in for free, nobody cared as this was all part of what the day stood for. The atmosphere behind the goal was immense before kick-off and didn’t let up at all throughout the game. It was really heart-warming to see so many groups of fans all mixing together and all in good nature, I think I even had a chat with an Exeter fan!
Did you follow Brighton and Hove Albion’s fortunes closely in the immediate months and years following February 1997?
Since Fans United I have always made a point of checking the results to see how Albion are getting on every week. I was really nervous listening to the Brighton v Hereford game on the final day of the Fans United season, I was going through the motions as if it was my own team playing!
The worst Albion moment was seeing you guys get promoted at Home Park it was horrible! Although we made up for it by winning the league the following season so I’ll let you have that one. I’ve also been keeping up to date with the ground situation at Albion. It’s an utter disgrace they still haven’t been given the go head to build a new stadium. The Withdean is no way near good enough for a club like Brighton. They could easily be attracting crowds in the region of 15 to 20 thousand and the current capacity is tiny.
I was annoyed with one of the Talk Sport presenters the other morning as he was trying to put Albion down for getting such low home gates, typical I suppose of the ignorant Premiership worshipers!
Have you followed/been aware of the financial crises facing many other football clubs during the past few years? For example: Bradford City, Notts County, Exeter City, Wrexham and Cambridge United.
It’s really sad there seems to always be a club in the news these days that’s in financial trouble. Something drastic really needs to be done soon or we’ll be facing a situation where the country only has two or three professional leagues.
There’s so much money being thrown around by the bigger clubs it seems crazy, Wayne Rooney’s wages over two weeks would probably be enough money to save one of the struggling clubs. One the best ideas I heard once would be to bring in a transfer tax in the Premiership whereby one or two percent of every transfer fee is kept by the FA and put into a kitty. This money could then be distributed around the lower leagues to keep the smaller clubs going.
What are your views on the financial structuring of professional football in this country?
The television money from Sky was improved recently but I still don’t think we all get a fair share of it. If Sky chose to show so many games in one league per season then I think each club should get their fair share of appearances.
It’s also quite worrying how expensive it is to get into a grounds these days. If prices continue to spiral our of control the way they are now the normal man on the street won’t be able to afford to go anymore which is a tragedy. This is one of the reasons the atmospheres in Premiership grounds with the exception of the newly promoted clubs seem to be non-existent as the real fans just can’t afford to go.
What are your views on the whole Fans United movement and how it has developed?
I have mixed feelings that Fans United is still going strong today. One side of me is very proud that fans are still coming together to try and fix the wrongs of the beautiful game, which is great to see. I still have to pinch myself sometimes that all this came about from one of my teenage rants one night over the internet!
The other side of me is quite sad that we still have to go to these lengths to save the clubs that generations have supported all their lives. It’s now a regular thing in the news to read about a club going into financial crisis. It’s now just a case of which one next. In an ideal world there would be no more need for Fans United but unfortunately with the way things are going this isn’t the case.
Do fans have the power to make real changes in the game?
Yes definitely, without the fans football is nothing. We’re the reason football is here today and the people making money out of it should try and remember that sometimes.
How does it feel eight years later?
It still feels very surreal that all of this came about from one night’s ranting over the internet. As I said before I have mixed feeling that it’s still going but it makes me very proud that fan power is alive and well.
- Thank you, Richard. Thanks too, to Warren Christmas for the introductory few paragraphs, taken from his wonderful blog: The inside story of Fans United – How Danny Baker helped to save Brighton & Hove Albion FC