Gary Stevens made the headlines as Brighton held high-flying Ipswich to a 1-1 draw at Portman Road, and not just because he scored against his former club. From a match report by Philip Osborn in February 1980:
Brighton manager Alan Mullery leaped from the dug-out when the final whistle sounded to acclaim the spirit and perseverance of his men which magnificently maintained their recent League revival. A last-minute equaliser by 17-year-old substitute Gary Stevens earned Brighton their sixth point in their last four away games.
More significantly, it demonstrated that they have the character to withstand a series of cruel blows. Everything seemed to be going wrong for Brighton in a fierce game in which three men from each side were booked. They fell behind to a controversial 28th minute penalty and even saw a possible chance to equalise accidently blocked by referee Jeff Bray.
And to cap it all Gerry Ryan was carried off with an ankle injury after 68 minutes and looks likely to miss Eire’s match against England on Wednesday.
But despite the set-backs Brighton continued to dominate with Peter Ward leading the attack in sizzling fashion and Steve Foster superbly marshalling the defence.
‘To fight back after all that has happened and get a point away from home against a side that has been in such great form recently was marvellous,’ said Mullery. ‘It confirms that we have the skill and application to do well in the First Division.’
The penalty row came when Frans Thijssen drove the ball into the Brighton area and it struck Peter O’Sullivan on the hand.
The Brighton winger could hardly have evaded the ball as he was only two or three yards away, but the referee astonishingly awarded the spot-kick and John Wark hit the ball home. The referee was surrounded by angry Brighton players and he booked skipper Brian Horton for protesting too strongly. Mullery said later: ‘It’s got to be harsh when the ball is blasted at you from close range.’
Brighton, who had provided some excellent football, were furious again in the 60th minute.
Peter Ward, a constant danger with his sharp running and turning, was brought down just outside the Ipswich area. Horton and O’Sullivan combined to find a promising gap for Williams to aim at but as the Brighton man was about to shoot he found the referee blocking his way.
However, Brighton were not to be denied. Gerry Ryan’s injury led to a substitution, as John Vincombe, in the Evening Argus, reported:
Into the fray stepped Stevens, who two years ago was on schoolboy forms at Ipswich only to be rejected by manager Bobby Robson. At the parting, he wished Stevens well. Robson had been perfectly fair. In his opinion there was no future for Stevens, particularly with George Burley a permanent fixture in the League side. He also doubted Stevens’ physical qualities were enough for the pro game.
By sheer coincidence, Stevens, then an apprentice, made his League debut in the 2-0 defeat of Ipswich at the Goldstone on September 15.
He was subsequently offered and accepted full pro terms by Alan Mullery, and shortly before the return match both managers and Stevens met in the tunnel.
Young Gary and his former boss shook hands, and Robson again wished him well.
Once on the field, he went to right back. John Gregory moving up, and Albion started to push Ipswich back once more. Then, with referee Jeff Bray looking at his watch, Brian Horton clipped a short ball to Gregory who promptly knocked it inside for Stevens.
By this time, he was on the edge of the box, and without more ado he hit a right-footed shot that corkscrewed away from Paul Cooper.
As the ball hit the net, Stevens leapt and gave a jubilant V-sign to the crowd. No disrespect was intended. It was his first league goal, and over in the opposite stand his mum and dad went wild.
So did a few hundred Albion fans, who had seen their side claw a way back into an evil-tempered but rousing match. For Stevens, it was a story-book finish. He won’t be 18 until the end of next month, and to score in such circumstances bordered on fantasy.
‘I thought the keeper was going to save it,’ he said. ‘It’s funny, but when it went in I instinctively turned to the part of the ground where I used to watch with my old friends.’
Recalling the incident years later, he told Spencer Vignes in ‘A Few Good Men’:
‘I’d come on late, got the ball on the edge of the box, controlled it with my left and hit it with my right into the net. The following day it hit the papers that I had run towards the directors’ box in celebration and stuck two fingers up in the air, supposedly because the club had let me go. I went into the training on the Monday and all the lads were taking the mickey out of my sticking two fingers up at Bobby Robson. I don’t remember doing that at all. It’s not in my nature to do something like that anyway. I’ve not seen any photographic evidence that I did, and I doubt that there were any cameras there either.’
Whatever happened, Robson was full of praise for Stevens:
‘There was too much competition for him here but he had a lovely time today and good luck to him. He showed our right-back the way to hit cross shots.’
It certainly didn’t hurt the defender’s international prospects as six years later, Bobby Robson, then England boss, chose Stevens to be part of his World Cup squad for Mexico ’86.