What would you queue up for three hours for? The opportunity to see some fame hungry wannabes audition for The X Factor? The chance to see Andy Murray and Rafael Nadal play each other in the semi-finals at Wimbledon? Maybe the chance to charm Angelina Jolie into going on a date with you? Or how about getting tickets to see a pre-season friendly?
The latter is what I spent three hours queuing for recently. Welcome to the crazy world that is supporting Brighton & Hove Albion FC. ‘Why?’ – I hear you all screaming. Well, these are not your normal pre-season friendlies. These are the first ever games at the American Express Community Stadium, the 22,500 capacity venue that Seagulls fans can finally call home after fourteen long years of campaigning.
The snaking queues outside the club shop on that gloomy Wednesday afternoon are just one indication of the massive buzz around the city of Brighton & Hove ahead of the new season. It’s also a sign that the online and telephone ticket systems are still about as useful as a chocolate teapot. New era, same old teething problems. On the playing side of affairs, heights have been reached that no Albion fan ever dared dream possible. ‘How much do you think Gus (Poyet) will have to spend in the summer?’ a mate asked me in April. ‘A couple of million maybe?’ was my optimistic response. How wrong could I be?
To date, our charismatic Uruguayan chief has splashed out on over £4m worth of talent, with up to five more faces expected before the big kick off in August. Our chairman, professional poker player Tony Bloom, clearly has no intention of making up the numbers in our first season back in the second tier. Within days of our last League One fixture at Notts County, Will Hoskins joined from Bristol Rovers for £500,000. Not since our foray into the top flight over thirty years ago has such a large cheque been written in these parts. But that was only the start.
Next was Will Buckley from Watford. The fee? One million pounds. The first seven figure ever paid in the 110 year history of the football club. This was our Trevor Francis moment. Brighton and Hove Albion were officially becoming a big club. Of course, with a huge wad of notes burning a big hole in Bloom’s pocket, there have been rumours galore circulating about possible new signings. One of the more farcical concerned the capture of Michael Owen, with Sky Bet reducing their odds on him being in a Brighton shirt come late August to as low as 6/4 at one point. Sadly, the biggest coup in world football died when Owen penned a new one-year deal at Manchester United in June.
Attention then centered on Peterborough hotshot Craig Mackail-Smith. Poyet liked what he saw of the man who scored over thirty goals last season as Posh joined ourselves and Southampton in winning promotion to the Championship, but so did his counterparts at Wolves, QPR, Leicester and West Ham. You had to admire the clubs ambition, but surely we were aiming a big too high this time?
Not so. Following feverish speculation in the proceeding 24 hours, Mackail-Smith signed on the dotted line at Albion on the afternoon of July 4 for a fee starting at £2.5m. North Stand Chat, the main forum for Seagulls fans, went into meltdown. I was physically shaking when the news was announced. The entire budget I expected us to have had just been spent on one player – a player that had turned down the Premier League to wear a Brighton shirt. It took a long time for that to sink in. I’m not entirely sure it fully has yet.
Then, in the last few days, the longest transfer saga on the south coast has finally concluded… for now. Kazenga LuaLua signed a six month loan deal on July 16th, following months of speculation. It all seemed too simple at the end of last season – we were told the fee was agreed, and LuaLua himself couldn’t wait to sign. If rumours are to be believed, the snag occurred when he failed a medical, presumably on the broken leg he suffered when with us on loan last season, so ourselves and Newcastle have been forced to compromise. But, one way or another, he is now here, and I simply cannot wait to see him tearing down the wing at Championship defenders. The kid has lightening pace and a thunderbolt of a shot on him – I certainly wouldn’t want to be playing against a team with him in their ranks.
With full back Romain Vincelot signing from Dagenham and Redbridge, and striker Roland Bergkamp – nephew of Arsenal legend Dennis – also signing, Poyet’s first Championship squad is taking good shape. For all of the faces entering the club, some have also left. Gary Hart, Fran Sandaza, Agustin Battipiedi, Cristian Baz, Radostin Kishishev and Chris Holroyd were all released, and to be honest, it’s hard to argue that any of them would have cut the mustard this term. Glenn Murray on the other hand left of his own accord. Speculation had been raging over Murray’s future for months. With our main striker out of contract and able to leave on a free, would the club be willing to meet his inflated wage demands? Bloom played his best poker face, and wouldn’t budge. Murray was on his way.
The fact he then rocked up at Crystal Palace, our fiercest rivals, should have added insult to injury. In reality, I can’t say I’m particularly bothered. No player is bigger than the club, and we shouldn’t be held to ransom by someone who values money more than ambition. If rumours are to be believed, he will earn £2,000 a week more at Palace than he would have here, and I hope he enjoys every penny. His bank balance won’t mean a thing when he walks out to a wall of abuse at the Amex on September 26 – I hope he remembers to bring his tin hat.
Another man who went through the exit was Elliott Bennett. Following a strong offer from Norwich and a subsequent transfer request from Bennett in January, this move always looked on the cards. The only doubt was whether or not Paul Lambert would deem him good enough for the Premier League following their promotion. He did, and come June 14, Bennett was unveiled at Carrow Road. Bennett showed true professionalism when his transfer request was rejected back in January, and was a massive part of our run-in which saw us win League One at a canter. Unlike his former team-mate Murray, he will be due a very warm reception should he ever end up in these parts again.
Anyway, back to that grizzly Wednesday afternoon outside the club shop. After two and a half hours of small talk with the others in the queue, I actually made it through the front door of the shop. With stocks slowly being transferred from the city centre location to the store at the Amex, the stock appeared to be completely out of date. Who would want a photo of Glenn Murray for 50p for example? Maybe that’s what Murray himself will be spending some of his extra £2,000 a week on.
Thirty minutes later, it was finally my turn. I purchased a total of sixteen tickets for various people, setting me back over £250. My only proof of this purchase was a flimsy receipt – our ‘tickets’ were uploaded to our new smart cards, rather than given over the counter. ‘What happens if our smart cards don’t arrive in time?’ I asked. ‘Come back to the club shop, and we’ll replace them with paper copies’ the guy behind the counter replied. After queuing for so long, I prayed it didn’t come to that.
It didn’t, but only just. My smart card arrived the day before the first game at the Amex – the Sussex Senior Cup Final between Albion’s Development Squad and Eastbourne Borough. Torrential rain meant that anything bar a brief look outside the ground was impossible, but that didn’t stop myself and many others spotting one major omission from the ‘Wall of Fame’. As good as the likes of Guy Butters, Paul Rogers and Leon Knight were in their day, none of them should be there ahead of Gary Hart.
Hart, who was released in the summer after thirteen years at the club, was given the honour of captaining Albion, and fittingly scored the first ever goal at the Albion’s new home when he headed in a flick on in the 70th minute. For the record, Steve Cook added a second late on for a comfortable 2-0 victory. But that wasn’t what the day was about. It was all about the stunning surroundings that the game was being played in. After twelve years of toughing it out in the wind, rain and snow at Withdean, it’s hard to fathom that the place is actually ours. The seats are probably more comfortable than the settee I’m sitting on right now, the pies are top quality (there’s no stereotypical lukewarm mush being served up here), and, unlike at Withdean, the away fans will actually have the luxury of being able to see the pitch!
As you would expect, there were a few minor issues. The main problem seemed to be with queue times for refreshments. As nice as the pies were, I won’t be spending twenty five minutes waiting for one every game! The crowd for the game was around a third of the stadiums total capacity, so this has to be a worry ahead of the new season. After the last fifteen years though, it’s great to be able to grumble about such a minor thing.
The next visit to the Amex will be on July 30th when Harry Redknapp’s Tottenham Hotspur visit for the clubs ‘flagship friendly’, before the real action gets underway against Doncaster Rovers on August 6. Ironically, Donny were the last ever opponents back at the Goldstone Ground in 1997 – it is sure to be an emotional occasion for all.
For all of the hype in these parts, and talk of back to back promotions, I would say that a season of consolidation would represent success for Poyet. I’m going to stick my neck out now and predict a 12th place finish – we’ll see in May how accurate that is!
Whatever happens, it is sure to be a rollercoaster season. Make sure you strap yourselves in.
Written by Liam Dawes – We Are Going Up’s Brighton and Hove Albion Blogger