The Albion squad who played in the last-ever game at the Goldstone Ground recall their memories of the never-to-be-forgotten match 20 years on.
The curtain came down on Brighton & Hove Albion’s 95 years at the Goldstone Ground on April 26, 1997.
Lifetime memories had been made at the ground, which had been sold off owing to the club’s debt amid mounting off-field issues.
In a turbulent final few years at the ground, the Seagulls went into their penultimate match of the 1996-97 season, at home to Doncaster Rovers, bottom of the Football League and three points behind Hereford.
Steve Gritt had taken over from Jimmy Case as manager in December of that season with the Seagulls 11 points from safety and Albion had not lost a home game under the former Charlton joint boss.
A win was a must to give Brighton a chance of staying in the league when they travelled to Hereford the following week.
After many highs, lows and lifetime memories at the ground, a sell-out 11,341 crowd was there for what was sure to be an emotional occasion for the 1,534th and final league game at the ground.
Here’s how manager Steve Gritt and Albion players – 20 years on – remember a game that will never be forgotten.
Steve Gritt: “By then, I realised how big it was. I’d heard and seen enough of what had been going on. It was pretty apparent it was going to be an emotional time for a lot of people.
“We needed to treat the week leading up to the game as normal and try to do what we could on the day to win it.”
Kerry Mayo (midfielder): “Destiny was in our hands, really. We had to concentrate on doing the job in hand.
“In and around the city, you felt the pressure. You’d be walking around and near enough everyone walking past would recognise you, pat you on the back, shake your hand and wish you all the best for the weekend. They’d say how proud they are we were in a position where we could potentially save ourselves and that everyone’s behind us.
“It was a bit of a carnival atmosphere but I think that was more nerves and excitement. The club sadly had to sell the Goldstone to cover debts and that will never be forgiven in any football fans’ eyes.
“They were dark days at the time but we had to put all that aside and just think about our job ahead. That was to do whatever we could to get the three points.”
Stuart Tuck (left-back): “I was a local boy, so it was added pressure. From my point of view, and a couple of the other lads, we had to focus just on playing at the time.
“Had I not been playing, I’d have been in the stand as edgy as everyone else – really worried that the club was leaving its home and could lose its whole existence. We just had to try to stay professional and focused.”
Paul McDonald (left-winger): “The final game was the culmination of us pegging back the teams above us and we knew we needed to win.
“We won nine out of ten at home in the second half of the season and in the build-up to the game, there was a lot of pressure and it was intense.”
Ross Johnson (defender): “The last game at the Goldstone was rather special with a packed house and that was something we didn’t see too often at that stage when we were at the club. But it was just massive pressure and the last game was almost unbearable.”
Mark Ormerod (goalkeeper): “The atmos-phere was just incredible. It felt like a cup final, it’s an old cliche as all our home games were cup finals but they actually were and felt like that, with the mentality in the dressing room. The Hartlepool ‘Fans United’ game gave us the belief that we had a chance. We realised we just had to concentrate at home and pick up the odd point away and we might be okay.”
Ian Baird (striker): “Going into the game, we knew full well we had to win to give us a chance to stay up. Hereford seemed to keep getting sucked into it with their poor results and there was all the emotion because it was the last game at the Goldstone Ground.”
Robbie Reinelt (substitute): “I tried not to read too many papers, you try to just prepare for any game in the same way. I don’t think it was until after the game that I realised how important and emotional that final game was.”
Stuart Storer (right-winger): “I didn’t realise how big it was at the time, not at all. For me, I was just focused on ‘we need to win’ and was in a bubble. We had clawed our way back from so far that we couldn’t throw it away.”
The game got off to a cagey start, before Albion striker Ian Baird and Doncaster defender Darren Moore were both sent off for violent conduct after 17 minutes.
Steve Gritt: “Whether the sending-off relaxed us a little bit, I don’t know, but it certainly took a little bit of the edge off the atmosphere. It suddenly made people sit up. Both sides had ten men and there was a little bit more room on the pitch.
“I was disappointed to see Bairdy go off because he’d been a pivotal figure through that half of the season for me, among a lot of the players. But I wasn’t too unhappy to see Darren Moore go off because I knew how much of a threat he could be at set-plays.”
Kerry Mayo: “Bairdy did a good job for us. That was perhaps the experience from him knowing that if Darren Moore was off and he’s got to go with him, that’s fine because they’d lost their biggest asset, which allowed us to make the pitch bigger.”
Stuart Tuck: “From a defensive point of view, I was quite pleased because Darren Moore looked like an immovable wall that day.
“The game sort of turned on its head a little bit. Even if we’d been absolutely brilliant that day, you just knew it would be very close because of the occasion. The fans were magnificent, it was like playing in front of 50,000 at times. It was so noisy but at the same time you could feel on the pitch there was a tinge of edginess and a tinge of sadness.”
The teams went in level at half-time and Albion introduced Robbie Reinelt at the break. Chances were few and far between, with Reinelt having Brighton’s best opening, before the Seagulls went ahead on 67 minutes. After a bit of pinball in the penalty area, Mark Morris’s header came back off the bar and Storer volleyed home from close range.
Stuart Storer: “It was a corner, there was a bit of a melee in the penalty area and it’s come off the bar and it’s one of them to not get excited about and make sure you hit the back of the net. Gladly I was quite close to the goal, my technique held up and to score was a relief because the game wasn’t really going as we planned.”
Ross Johnson: “I think I headed it first and as the rebound came out to Stuart, he tapped it in and we all ran over and got him. I was out of breath by the time I got back to position.”
Robbie Reinelt: “The Storer goal was a bit of a blur, I just remember it going mental.”
Kerry Mayo: “I was covering the edge of the box, hoping the ball would come out and I’d volley it into the back of the net but it didn’t come to me and in the melee, it fell to Stuart Storer and he’s deadly from a yard. It was a great finish.
“Everyone ran to the South West corner flag and all of us did some sort of superman dive. The crowd were going crazy and it was just absolute delight.”
Stuart Tuck: “Stuart put the ball in the back of the net and it was mayhem. It was absolute chaos. From a defender’s point of view, you run up and want to celebrate and go mad but then you think about how many minutes are left and that the rest of the game is going to be nervy as nervy can be.”
Steve Gritt: “It was a tight affair, very few chances and as soon as Stuart got that one, I think we were pretty confident we could get over the line.”
Albion held on to win 1-0 and the three points took them off the bottom of the table for the first time since October. It also meant a draw at Hereford in their final game of the season the following week would keep them in the league.
Mark Ormerod: “I remember it being a little bit cagey after that. There was a little bit more nervousness around but the belief we had installed just seemed to carry us through.”
Ross Johnson: “We kept it quite tight, Bairdy had got their biggest man Darren Moore sent off and that relieved a bit of the pressure.”
Ian Baird: “I watched the game pretty much from the tunnel. I felt a little bit bad for getting sent off and Darren Moore probably felt the same way, so I remember the celebrations afterwards more than anything else.
“As soon as we heard the result from elsewhere, we knew a draw would do us away from home in the final game.”
Gary Hobson (substitute): “I had an ankle injury a couple of weeks beforehand, so was only on the bench and they’re the games you want to play in.
“Although I couldn’t affect anything, we pulled out a massive result and I still felt part of it.”
Stuart Tuck: “After the game, I left the pitch in my pants. I gave my shirt and everything away. It wasn’t like modern football where you have 20 shirts, I was stripped of everything and, as stupid as I was, I made a mistake and gave my boots away. That meant I had to play at Hereford the next week with a brand new, different pair of boots.”
Robbie Reinelt: “Coming out after the game and standing in the directors’ box looking out at all the fans on the pitch, chanting ‘we are staying up’ was quite a powerful moment.”
Steve Gritt: “To get the winning goal and then come in to find out Orient had won (against Hereford) and we’d suddenly got ourselves off the bottom of the league at that stage of the season just put the icing on the cake for the day.
“It made it a terrific day all round.”
Kerry Mayo: “We knew the stadium was going to be torn to pieces as fans wanted to get their memorabilia. All we got told at the start of the game, whatever the outcome, was at the final whistle to just get in the tunnel as quick as possible.
“Hearing the Hereford result was when the celebrations started and reality really hit home. It meant we had to go to Edgar Street the following weekend and it was all about not getting beaten. We knew a draw was enough to retain our Football League status and the rest, as they say, is history.”
Albion went on to seal their survival in the Football League with a 1-1 draw at Hereford the following week on another day Brighton fans will never forget.
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