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

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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…”


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