As we look forward to yet another full house at the Amex, for the visit of Swansea City, it is almost impossible to believe that when the two sides met in September, 1998, it was in the fourth tier.
Albion were starting a second season at Priestfield Stadium, the home of Gillingham, after the trauma of the last years of the Goldstone Ground. Swansea too were in transition, after a series of boardroom re-shuffles.
As all Seagulls fans will know, at that time we faced a 150-mile round trip just to see home games. Albion manager Brian Horton had enjoyed a decent start to the season and we were comfortably placed in mid-table after five games. The previous season had seen perhaps Albion’s worst ever campaign and the re-building process was slow, but was beginning to show signs of life.
In his programme notes, Horton recognised a more resilient side to Albion’s game, saying “Sometimes you can hit on a system that works with the players you have, and I think this may now be the case”.
It was certainly true for new signing Gary Hart. He arrived in the summer of 1998 from non-league outfit Stansted. Much has been made of the transfer fee - £1,000 and a set of tracksuits – but the investment was beginning to pay off. Harty had scored in each of Albion’s two previous games and he was to make it three in three against The Swans.
Horton’s influence on the club as a whole was also beginning to be felt, and he went on to say, “Throughout we are starting to look a lot more professional and strong in all the things we are doing”.
Efforts were continuing to bring Albion back to Brighton. The fortnightly trip to Gillingham, although it became the outlet for gallows humour, was not fun and the club were desperate for some good news.
This came just a few days before the game against Swansea, when Withdean residents withdrew their appeal against the council decision to allow the Seagulls to return to Brighton. This was the start of a process that, after years of negotiations, planning committees and relentless hard work, led to where we are today.
On that day in September, 1998, 2,931 were in the ground to see a 1-0 win for Albion.
On Saturday, more than ten times that number will be inside the Amex, hoping for a similar result.
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