Brighton take to the skies
With Brighton now a Premier League club, FFT revisits Albion’s last game as a top-flight side in 1983 and the unconventional transport they used
It’s May 1983 and 12 men wearing matching white suits are walking across a school playing field and climbing into a waiting helicopter. They are the first-team players of just-relegated Brighton & Hove Albion and are en route to face the might of Manchester United in the FA Cup final.
The previous evening, they stayed at the well-appointed Selsdon Park Hotel close to Croydon, also the base camp for surprise cup kings Sunderland and Southampton in ’73 and ’76. However, Brighton won’t be following their route to Wembley via the A23. The Seagulls are taking to the skies.
Much like their return to the top flight 34 years later, Brighton didn’t do things the obvious way. Wimbledon might back their own FA Cup final outing five years
later in ’88, but Albion were the original Crazy Gang.
This was a raggle-taggle collection of promising youngsters and – in the case of Jimmy Case, Gordon Smith and Tony Grealish – been-around-the-block pros. Case had visited Wembley a few times before, even scoring in the 1977 final for Liverpool, also against United. Grealish (below, left) had graced the pitch too, playing Gaelic football for London side St Gabriels.
Forty-five-year-old Jimmy Melia, the follicly-challenged Scouser who’d only graduated to the manager’s office the previous December from the position of chief scout, presided over the team. At the time, mention of Melia (below, right) was invariably prefaced by ‘flamboyant’, thanks in no small part to his trademark white shoes. The Guardian described him as looking “like a Minder villain on a trip to Studio 54”.
The other reason for his persona was his girlfriend – the model Val Lloyd. “She was a good few years his junior,” recalls right-back Chris Ramsey of the unlikely pairing. “It was like the Mrs Merton line: ‘What first attracted you to millionaire Paul Daniels?’”
Melia certainly imposed some of that flamboyance on his team that day. The Seagulls turned up in matching cream jackets offset by, of course, white shoes.
“People still talk about the Liverpool Spice Boys,” protests Ramsey, “but we were doing that in the ’80s. We looked like waiters.”
The man who appointed Melia wasn’t exactly conventional, either. A property developer and part-time jazz drummer, chairman Mike Bamber thought big and thought free. This was the man who, in 1973, had managed to persuade Brian Clough, a First Division title-winner with Derby County the previous year, to drop down two divisions and take charge at the Goldstone.
Cloughie would later hail Bamber as, “a wealthy, nightclub-owning gem of a man who turned out to be the nicest and best chairman I ever worked for”.
The decision to fly to the Twin Towers by chopper might not have been solely Bamber’s idea, though he definitely had a significant hand in it. Differing stories suggest either Tony Millard, programme editor for Albion, or British Caledonian’s marketing department to be the initial source of the scheme. Either way, it all made perfect sense for the airline, who sponsored the club’s shirts at the time.
With the BBC signed up to broadcast a live transmission on the short journey to north London, this was unparalleled exposure for the airline on the cup final edition of Grandstand.
The BBC had also nabbed a fantastic spectacle from under the noses of their ITV rivals. Alan Parry, the corporation’s roving reporter who was broadcasting live on board the helicopter during the flight, remembers that it was a hell of a coup for the channel.
“There used to be behind-the-scenes wars going on in those days about who could get the first interview and who’d get the scorer of the winning goal,” he says. “All kinds of skulduggery went on – it was so competitive.”
Not that the success of the operation was a given, however...
“There needed to be two helicopters,” reveals Parry. “One taking the Brighton team and one with a camera on board to take shots of the other helicopter in the air. But they had to test this out the day before the cup final.
“The actual helicopter was all the way up in Aberdeen, as it was normally used to ferry people to the oil rigs. So I had to catch a scheduled flight from Heathrow to Aberdeen, then take a taxi out to this remote bloody airfield, climb into a huge helicopter and fly back down again. We rendezvoused with the BBC’S helicopter above Wembley Stadium – the irony is that the signal didn’t actually work, so we didn’t know if it was going to work on cup final day or not.”
Once airborne on the Saturday, Parry slowly worked his way backwards down the chopper’s aisle, stopping at each row to chew the fat with the Albion players. Spirits were high, which made for easily distracted interviewees.
“Jimmy Case had never been an easy man to do an interview with as he was slightly deaf,” chuckles Parry. “And if he was slightly deaf, he was very sarcastic.” There was another problem, though. “I was working my way back down the rows but the cameraman had trodden on the lead for my earpiece, which had popped out. I couldn’t hear the studio. Apparently they were going, ‘OK, hand back now.’ And then louder. ‘For Christ’s sake, hand back!’ They kept asking but I just kept going. I’d have been talking to the pilot or the stewardesses if they hadn’t faded me out...”
During his interview with Parry, Case expressed surprise at how smooth the ride was. If he was on message for the live TV audience, he reserved his more poetic words for his autobiography.
“Most of the lads had never been in a helicopter,” the midfielder penned, “and that could easily have affected them. The last thing you want before an FA Cup final is a dickey tummy and a touch of the trots.”
Even if any of Brighton’s players had confessed to a Bergkamp-esque fear of flying, non-compliance would not have been tolerated.
“Those were the days when you did what you were told,” recalls Ramsey. “Because we were sponsored by British Caledonian, and because of where we were in the country, we used to fly to games a lot anyway.”
As it was, the ride distracted from the task at hand. Had they been on a team coach gear-jamming through traffic on the North Circular, nerves would have kicked in. Instead, Albion could just rise above it. Literally.
Butterflies did make an appearance when – shortly before touching down on the pitches of another school – the chopper flew over the iconic stadium.
“It was a fantastic sight to see all of the fans crammed in,” explains Parry. “And they responded when they saw the helicopter in the sky. Scarves and banners were waved up at us – it was quite an experience.”
Once they were back on terra firma, a short drive took the Seagulls to the Twin Towers. Yet even that trip had an element of the unconventional about it, when Melia asked the after-dinner comedian Bob ‘The Cat’ Bevan, who’d entertained the players the previous evening before a snooker tournament, to do a turn for them.
Whether the journey suitably relaxed them or not, Brighton put in a spirited performance come kick-off, matching United stride for stride as the showpiece ended 2-2 after extra time. They nearly snatched it at the end too when Smith was put though with just the keeper to beat. “And Smith must score,” said the commentator Peter Jones, but the shot was smothered by United’s Gary Bailey (above left). For the replay, Albion went to Wembley by bus only to lose 4-0 to Ron Atkinson’s men.
But Brighton had inspired others. The following season, when Everton played Watford in the cup final, the Toffees also chose to use an unconventional mode of transport; that morning, they got the train down to London.
And Alan Parry was handed the role of roving reporter again.
“As a lifelong Liverpool fan on a train full of Evertonians, I took out a red scarf to wind them all up. It worked, too…”
“PEOPLE TALK ABOUT THE LIVERPOOL SPICE BOYS BUT WE WERE DOING THAT IN THE ’80s. WE LOOKED LIKE WAITERS”