As the sound of James Linington’s final whistle reverberated across the Amex Stadium during the overcast evening of the 17th April, there were few who hadn’t stumbled upon a modicum of the news that the Seagulls were soaring again. The stadium, which is housed just adjacent to the village of Falmer and is right beside the University of Brighton’s campus, the second biggest in the country, was engulfed by a sea of blue, with the mere ten or twenty stewards appearing to be minnows swarming across that sea. They were rendered useless within seconds of the conclusion of the game that sealed Brighton and Hove Albion’s promotion to the Premier League: a 2-1 win over Wigan Athletic.
And as the Seagulls’ fans and players basked in the historic moment, the Premier League cast a welcoming eye at the new-boys. None more so than Crystal Palace. As strange as it sounds to even the most passionate football, there lays an unlikely rivalry between the two clubs. With Croydon and Brighton separated by a distance of as many as 43 miles, it can never be dubbed as a local derby; with the term largely used to define rivalries such as the Manchester derby, the North London derby and the Merseyside derby or the other derbies that pits sides from the same city against one another.
A road trip to the American Express Community Stadium from the boisterously noisy Selhurst Park sees one spiral past the famous Trinity College of London, zoom past a host of streams and take the London Road to finally arrive at the 30,000 seater, which saw Seagulls’ fans hope for Premier League football soon before the 2016-17 campaign. And while the ride from the South of London to Sussex is a rather straight yet long one, the rivalry isn’t entrenched in the geographical closeness or the miles that separate both of them.
As strange as it sounds, Eagles fans don’t seem to hate London rivals Millwall as much as they hate Brighton, despite having played against the Lions more often. A lot of renowned, modern rivalries seem to based on the basis of honours won, but Brighton and Palace have never really been at each other's throats for trophies. Palace’s tally exceeds that of Brighton’s by a massive margin, enough to prove that it isn’t a power struggle between the clubs.
And quite often, rivalries that were born out of geographical proximity are the ones that dominate the hearts, minds and emotions of people across the world. It’s meant to be a battle about determining who has the bragging rights in the city and who has an upper hand over the other. And the name of this derby; The M23 derby, is enough to evoke a substantial form of curiosity among those interested in how it grew and why it became what it is today. Unlike other fierce rivalries, this one is rooted in a power struggle involving personalities that were rivals much before they made their clubs so too.
The clubs had played against each other many times before the eventful campaign of 1976-77, with the first meeting coming way back in 1920. Those were the times when both were unknown clubs and were taking part in the Football League Third Division South; a division that ran parallel to the Third Division North based on the geographical locations of clubs in England.
Before the contentious campaign of 1976, Brighton had suffered 23 defeats at the hands of their would-be fierce rivals and had managed to win 25 times. Palace had won eight honours till then, while Brighton had won only six.
The 1975-76 Third Division season saw both sides finish side-by-side, as Brighton finished as high as fourth and the Eagles finished level on points but behind on goal difference at the fifth spot. They had faced off twice that campaign and both the meetings had resulted in Seagulls’ wins. Despite the fourth placed finish, Peter Taylor’s reign as the Brighton boss came to an end at the conclusion of the season as the board demanded promotion to the second division. Crystal Palace though had the flamboyant Malcolm Allison at the helm of affairs since 1973, but the ambition of the board guillotined the man who had overseen the club’s relegation from the second division in his first season in-charge.
During both sides’ meeting in Brighton during the 1975-76 season, Taylor’s men had come out on top in a rather convincing fashion, thanks to a 2-0 win at Palace. It was during this very game that Brighton fans first used the nickname ‘Seagulls’, as a way of mocking the Eagles in games. And it’s got a decent ring to it still today.
As the new campaign beckoned, the clubs looked set to lock horns in their bid to go up to the second division once again. Palace handed Terry Venables the managerial role after the former Tottenham and Chelsea star had retired at the Selhurst Park due to arthritis in the first half of the 1974-75 season. This was the first ever managerial role Venables had occupied, but the future Barcelona and Spurs boss had worked as Malcolm Allison’s assistant after hanging up his boots in 1975. The Englishman had turned down an offer to succeed Bertie Mee as the Arsenal boss before accepting the Palace offer and was lucky to survive a parasailing accident in the Spanish archipelago of Majorca during the very month of his appointment. He came back unscathed, barring a deep gash on his hand that required 40 stitches and a badly ripped ear.
Venables has revealed in his autobiography ‘Born to Manage’ that his father was an Arsenal fan, but was in the reckoning to become the Tottenham captain after he joined Arsenal’s fierce rivals in 1966. Despite him being a favourite to skipper Spurs after the departure of Dave Mackay to Derby County in 1968, Alan Mullery was handed the captain’s armband by the legendary Bill Nicholson, while Venables was told to make do as the vice-captain.
Venables was desperate to captain the side and was left frustrated with Nicholson’s decision to name Mullery the skipper of the side. It sparked a rivalry between Venables and Alan Mullery, which took a turn when Mullery was appointed the Brighton and Hove Albion boss weeks after Venables became Palace's chief.
It took only a season for them to embroil their clubs in their own rivalry. Mullery has admitted that although it was a rivalry, the former Tottenham team-mates were never really enemies. He once told the Guardian: "I don't really know how it started. I think it was probably because I got the Tottenham captaincy before him. I'm sure Terry wanted to be captain but Bill Nicholson gave it to me and he was made vice-captain. I can't really give you any other reason. But it was a friendly rivalry — we've never been enemies. We used to share a room together at Tottenham and I still bump into him occasionally." What made the case all the more interesting was that both Mullery and Venables were managing a club for the very first time and were set to go head-to-head to determine who would go up in the 1976-77 season.
The very first meeting of that campaign was set to take place at Brighton’s old Goldstone Ground on the 2nd of October, as Mullery’s men topped the league heading into the all important clash. The home crowd was accused of throwing smoke bombs onto the pitch, due to which play was suspended for a while. The situation got worse when Mullery was forced to calm both sets of the crowd down. The game ended 1-1 and did little to extinguish the fire that beginning to ignite between the two clubs.
This was only their first meeting of the campaign and the FA Cup draw for the very first round pitted the sides against one another. The clash, which took place once more at the Goldstone on the 20th of November, was hardly expected to play any part in subsiding the tensions that had erupted between the clubs over the past couple of years. It didn’t really pass by with too many moments that riled up either sets of fans, but contributed a greater good in making the rivalry all the more intensified. And if reports dating back to those times are to be believed, Brighton dominated proceedings, but regularly failed to keep Palace away from forcing them into picking up the leather from the back of the net.
The tie ended 2-2 and Mullery made statements about Palace playing for the draw and even dared them to do the same in the replay fixture. And Venables, seemingly unmoved by his old mates’ attempt to spark something up, did the same thing at Selhurst Park. Palace’s approach to the game and the result to it were almost the same, despite the fact that it was being played out only three days later.
The first replay ended 1-1 and teams were so even that even extra-time couldn’t separate them. Brighton did dominate again, but a second replay clash beckoned. Now, this game wasn’t supposed to be another one of those FA Cup games that would be fought out at the home ground of one of the two clubs. Palace and Brighton were set to go head to head for the fourth time already in that season, weeks before Christmas, at a neutral venue. It was this game that proved to be a very decisive one in shaping what this rivalry currently is, was and is likely to be.
The tie was postponed twice due to bad weather conditions and Stamford Bridge was chosen to be the venue. Phil Holder, who used to be a central midfield player by trade and had joined Brighton from childhood club Tottenham, opened the scoring for Palace in the 18th minute. During this time, the game was heading towards being another one of those cliched FA Cup games that would see the losing side bow out, but what followed afterwards changed the course of history.
Derby-born Peter Ward, who went on to play three more seasons for Brighton, did assist Ian Mellor in scoring in the 73rd minute but the goal was disallowed with referee Ron Challis accusing Ward of handball. The decision was barely drowned in Brighton protests, but defender Jim Cannon later admitted that the goal should have stood.
As per the Daily Express, Mullery said: “The ref was the only one out of 14,000 people who saw Ward handle. I’ve got better eyes than him – and I wear glasses.” This was only a sign of things to come and, as controversy ensued, Challis handed Brighton a penalty after Barry Silkman took down Chris Cattlin in the area. Brian Horton put away the spot-kick with some aplomb, but Challis had other ideas. He ordered a retake, despite the fact that only Palace players had encroached into the penalty area.
Mullery was left seething with anger after the second penalty was saved well by Paul Hammond, who had to go down to his left and deny Horton the opportunity to draw level for Brighton. Horton had attempted to trick Hammond in placing the shot in the opposite direction, but the stopper stood up to the task very well.
The Express famously said: “ Mullery was unrepentant afterwards. He explained: “I asked him [Challis] why he had disallowed the penalty which Brian Horton had scored for us. “He said to me, ‘I can’t talk to you on the pitch.’ I said that I was only asking him a question. I wanted to know how he could turn an advantage he had awarded to us for the foul on Chris Cattlin and then make it a disadvantage because a Palace player had stepped into the penalty area.
“The referee waved me away. He said: ‘I’ve told you you can’t talk to me on the pitch. Get off.”
As Challis’ final whistle echoed across a split Stamford Bridge, Mullery strode onto the pitch and had a face-to- face altercation with the referee. The police had to take charge and separate the duo before things escalated. It wasn’t just Mullery who made his discontent evident, but Brighton fans were just as violent in expressing their anger. So much so that Challis required a police escort to safely take him away from the scene. It’s unknown whether Challis was deliberate in calling off two of Brighton’s goals, but the referee earned the nickname ‘Challis of the Palace’; a mocking gesture by Seagulls fans.
And as Mullery trotted off, still showing no signs of backing away from protesting, Palace fans showed no hesitation in hurling a pile of abuse at the former Tottenham player. Boiling coffee was poured over Mullery as he made his way towards the tunnel. And in what was an act provoked by an embarrassing show of disrespect, Mullery flung a small bundle of five pound notes into the coffee and infamously shrieked: “You’re not worth that, Palace”. And thus, the rivalry took birth in what arguably is one of the peculiar ways possible.
There was, though, another game to be played before the campaign drew to a close. Brighton were to visit the Selhurst Park in March and Mullery’s hunger for revenge following the cup exit forced him into announcing the team late. The plan backfired and Palace picked up a 3-1 win. It was Venables’ tactical nous that played a vital role in carrying the Eagles to the triumph, as every Brighton man in the box was specifically man-marked. It was another physical contest, but the future England boss showed glimpses of the abilities that helped him land the Three Lions job in 1994.
Both sides earned promotion that season and as ironical as it sounds, Brighton ended up finishing above Palace, who finished in third. It was Mansfield Town who earned direct promotion to the second division by finishing top, but both Palace and Brighton were at loggerheads again in the 1977-78 season. Brighton missed out on promotion on goal difference to Spurs, while the Eagles finished ninth.
Forty years on, the hate hasn’t dissipated. Few realise the importance of this rivalry, but it means a lot to the both sets of fans and will always act as that factor that brings them close and also drives them apart, despite the geographical distances. Jack Young, a Seagulls fan from Brighton, says: “It's everything. People question it, but it's a hatred as much as it's a rivalry. I've always said that once Brighton make the step up to Premier League there will be a proper rivalry, and I guarantee next season there won't be an atmosphere like it even in the proclaimed 'famous derbies' which are now only fuelled by money and tourists. Palace are our cup final.”
And the hate and the passion emanates equally from the other side as well. “There is a real misconception that it cannot be as strong as the top derby games in the country but the Premier League will find out on two separate occasions this season,” says TheEaglesBeak editor Jay Crame, a Crystal Palace fan that hails from South London. He continues: “For Palace, we have not had to face any rival for a number of seasons now, not since we beat the South Coast side in the play-off semi finals, in fact. The media call games against West Ham, Arsenal etc as London derbies. They are nothing. This is our rivalry. It may slightly different to others but it’s no less fervent.”
And when James Linington brought an end to proceedings on the 17th of April, 2017 during that overcast evening at Falmer, little did he know that he had played a minor role in reinstating the old rivalry once again. The jubilant Brighton fans had every bit of an idea and as the Palace fans across Croydon smirked in unison, the Premier League realised that it could be set to witness something special next season.
By Kaustubh Pandey. Header image credit goes fully to John Cooper.