There was a time, during the back-to-back championships of Leagues Two and One, when Brighton fans almost came to love Withdean. ‘The’ Withdean as it’s mistakenly been called by so many, became a fortress during seasons 2000-2001 and 2001-2002. Just 3 league games were lost in that heady two year period in the Albion’s temporary home, as they charged from the nadir of consecutive near relegations to the Conference, to the nosebleed heights of the Championship.
Conventional wisdom had it that opposing teams did not like the cramped, austere Portakabin changing rooms, the open nature of the ground with no stands behind either goal, and the weird continental style running track around the pitch. Whatever it was, 112 points out of a possible 138 at home over those two seasons meant most fans, at least temporarily, were happy to be there. It wasn’t the Goldstone of course, but it would do, as long as the protracted planning process for the new stadium at Falmer at least crawled forwards.
A different story now though. The progressing construction work on the new stadium is finally a reality, though now the enormous hole in the ground where the stadium will sit seems almost to mock the faithful, the impressive CGIs a tantalising vision of what’s in store in the future, providing of course their faith can survive the stringent test that the team, and Withdean, seem intent on putting them through.
Just four home wins so far this season have seen the team slip seemingly inexorably into the relegation mire, the prospect of League Two football, and its dreaded trapdoor out of the league, a reality again. The team simply can’t win home games, no matter how hard the players try, no matter what combinations of loanees, different formations, new signings, new managers even, have a go at turning a disastrous season round.
And how sick the fans are of the stadium now. This season’s home wins tally is by no means unique. Two seasons ago, the club would have been relegated but for their excellent away record, nine away wins compensating for a paltry five wins at Withdean. Dean Wilkins seemed to have cured the home sickness with an improved return the following season,
12 home wins leaving the team just short of the play-offs. Whatever Wilkins did to improve things at home, his unexpected departure and the Messianic return of Mickey Adams quickly brought a return to form; bad form. Adams departed quickly, and his successor Russell Slade has so far seen his charges win only one of the home games he’s presided over.
Fans’ patience has all but expired with this strange, lopsided, largely uncovered and acoustically poor mish-mash of temporary seating, temporary buildings and temporary ambience. The fans don’t want to be there, the local residents don’t want them there, the members of the sports club which occupied the stadium long before the football club did, don’t want them there.
Albion are due to move into the Community Stadium at Falmer in 2011. Even though many fans will still only believe it when they see the team run out for the curtain-raiser, and the fact that increasingly there’s a chance they may do so as a League Two team, those glorious days of expecting the team to win at Withdean as they stormed to those two titles seems a very, very long way away. Falmer can’t come soon enough.