It may seem fanciful to talk about the title in relation to a club that eventually finished in 13th position but the club seemed to be in good shape in 1981/82. Brighton and Hove Albion were fifth in Division One in late September following Andy Ritchie’s winner at Wolves. It was the club’s highest ever league placing. In December, the Seagulls were still soaring high, getting to sixth spot after a 2-0 win against Southampton at The Dell. A place in Europe beckoned.
“I am an ambitious man. I am not content with ensuring that Brighton survive another season at this level. I want people to be surprised when we lose and to omit us from their predictions of which clubs will have a bad season.
I am an enthusiast about this game. I loved playing, loved the atmosphere of a dressing room, the team spirit, the sense of achievement. As a manager I have come to realise there are so many other factors involved. Once there on that pitch the players are out of my reach; I am left to gain satisfaction from seeing the things we have worked on together during the week become a reality during a match.
I like everything to be neat – passing, ball-control, appearance, style. Only when we have become consistent in these areas will Brighton lose, once and for all, the tag of the gutsy little Third Division outfit from the South Coast that did so well to reach the First Division.
We sold Mark Lawrenson, Brian Horton and John Gregory. I believe it was necessary because while I agree that a player of Lawrenson’s ability, for example, is an exceptional talent, it is not enough to have a handful of assets. We must have a strong First Division squad, one where very good players can come in when injuries deplete the side.
We brought in Tony Grealish from Luton, Don Shanks from QPR, Jimmy Case from Liverpool and Steve Gatting and Sammy Nelson from Arsenal. Now the squad is better balanced. It allows for a permutation of positions and gives adequate cover in most areas.”
In an unusual managerial swop of sorts, Bailey had been appointed at the Goldstone in June 1981 from Charlton Athletic, with ex-Brighton boss Alan Mullery eventually taking over the vacancy at Charlton.
The new Albion boss certainly made Brighton a hard team to beat by mid-November 1981, with only two League defeats by then. A surprise 1-0 victory was even recorded against Tottenham Hotspur at White Hart Lane in October, thanks to Michael Robinson’s goal.
‘Don’t concede away from home and try to nick a goal’, seemed to be the Bailey plan. The very cautious, defensive tactics he employed may have made the Albion a force to be reckoned with, but it bored many supporters who had been used to the free-flowing, attacking football played under his predecessor Alan Mullery. Only Liverpool attracted over 20,000 to the Goldstone before Christmas.
The return fixture against the Reds in March 1982 was the high noon of Bailey’s spell as Brighton manager. A backs to the wall display led to a famous 1-0 win at Anfield against the European Cup holders, with Andy Ritchie getting the decisive goal and Ian Rush’s goalbound shot getting stuck in the mud! The club stood eighth but the wheels came off thereafter with ten defeats in the last fourteen matches. With the club safe from relegation, Bailey had been persuaded by supporters at a fans forum to get the team playing a more open, attacking game.
And with that, the genie was out. The team was never the same solid, defensive force under Bailey’s reign, in this or the following campaign, and were never again lording it in the top half of the top division. If Bailey had stuck to his guns, and not listened to the fans, would the club have enjoyed a UEFA Cup place at the end of 1981/82?
What is clear is that it was important to keep the supporters on side, as gate receipts were the lifeblood of the club. The days of Sky Sports and big television money for top division clubs had not yet arrived. Falling attendances at the Goldstone had led to concern from the board. While many blamed the ‘boring football,’ in the Shoot! article, Bailey saw it more to do with a bigger problem, that of the club’s infrastructure:
“We don’t have a training ground. We train in a local park. The club have tried to remedy this and I’m sure they will. But such things hold you back in terms of generating the feeling of the big time. On the other hand, I must compliment the people who are responsible for getting the club where it is. They built a team, won promotion twice and the fans flocked in. Now is the time to concentrate on developing the Goldstone Ground. When we build our ground we will have the supporters eager to fill it.”