Here’s The Guardian’s Peter Nichols report on the events of Tuesday 1st October 1996:
Brighton face the threat of playing behind closed doors and having three points deducted, after supporters invaded the pitch during last night’s Third Division game against Lincoln at the Goldstone Ground. Play was halted for 12 minutes in the first half when Lincoln took the lead.
Shortly after play resumed Brighton equalised but two further goals for Lincoln consigned them to last but one in the league. The second goal prompted another invasion but this time the spectators did not reach the centre circle and they were booed off. Even the faithful had had enough.
The damage, though, may well have been done. Brighton have a Football Association sentence hanging over them after fans rioted and caused the abandonment of a Second Division relegation game against York City at the end of last season. That sentence could now come into effect after the referee Steve Bennett was forced to take the players off the pitch.
Trouble had been anticipated. Fans were angry at the breakdown of talks on Monday between the club chairman Bill Archer and the consortium headed by the advertising millionaire Dick Knight wanting to take over the club. But appeals to stay calm went unheeded. There was already a volatile atmosphere, with cries of “Archer out”. before matters spilled over in the 25th minute.
About 50 supporters from the North Stand invaded the pitch, and the referee immediately took the teams to the safety of the dressing-rooms.
Another 100 or so supporters from other sections of the ground then spilled on to the pitch, and the entire group congregated in the centre circle before leaving en bloc to return to the North Stand. The police adopted a “softly, softly” approach and, as invasions go, by Goldstone standards it was brief and bloodless. There were five public order arrests.
Archer, the object of the supporters’ disaffection, was not there to witness the protest. He had bought into Brighton and Hove Albion for £56.25 and, through dealings that might be described as Byzantine, sold the ground to Chartwell, a company connected to the Kingfisher Group and with which he is also involved. Chartwell paid £7.4 million, most of which went to pay off the club’s mounting debts.
The club now rent the ground back on a single-year lease which costs £480,000. At the end of the season, after 94 years at the Goldstone Ground, Brighton will be homeless. The ground will be dug up in June for a retail development.
Supporters might have been less alienated if Archer had employed a little PR during his tortuous dealings.
Talking to the supporters would have been a start. Nobody in this seaside town has the faintest idea of his plans.
Archer has attended only a handful of games and yesterday’s was not one of them. David Bellotti, the former Liberal MP, has been the front-man and, though he did visit the ground yesterday, he made his excuses and left before the game.
This particular crisis was precipitated by Monday’s meeting at the Park Court Hotel in London, where the FA attempted to arbitrate between Archer’s group and the Knight consortium.
Liz Costa, vice-chairman of the Brighton and Hove Albion Supporters’ Club, was one of many who predicted the worst for last night’s match.
“It will make York City look a like a Christmas party,” she forecast. “There’s going to be bedlam.” In that match almost 3,000 spectators spilled on to the pitch to demostrate against the board.
If those fears were unfounded, there was no disguising the despondency of the manager Jimmy Case. “Since I’ve been here there’s not been one ounce of good news, written or implemented,” he said. “When Liam Brady was here he said he couldn’t work in an unharmonious atmosphere, and it’s got worse.
“All we want as a manager and a football team, and especially the supporters, is a ground to play in. This situation affects everyone, down to the tea-ladies. I’ve never brought it up before but there comes a time. Any good news would be a breath of fresh air for me, the players and the tea-ladies.”
From ‘Build A Bonfire’:
Bill Swallow: I have to say, and maybe this puts me in a minority of one, I wasn’t terribly happy wit the Lincoln protest. I didn’t think it was wise. If they’d opened fire on David Bellotti I wouldn’t have had a problem with that, no difficulty at all. I thought the strategy went off the rails.
Tim Carder: Everyone supported it – I mean there were about two cries of ‘get off the pitch’ because we were under suspended sentence at that point. We knew that anyone going on the pitch and holding the game up was going to cost us points, but we were in such a desperate state at the time that the vast majority of the crowd applauded them. I clapped them. It was all very orderly and the crowd was in full support. We had to show that, even with the threat of losing points – and we were very near the bottom at this stage.
Significantly, after the Lincoln match, there was a marked change in emphasis in the protests that followed. Out went the kind that were liable to cost the club league points and made it easy to brand the loyal supporters as hooligans, and in came the imaginative kind such as the charm offensive at the village of Mellor, Bill Archer’s home in Lancashire.
Can proudly say I was one of the initial 50 from the North stand that night and can see me in video calmly walking to centre spot. Remembered I was of sick from work but had let them know I would be back next day because it was well known that we would be on the pitch and telly. My parents also saw me on the local news which was on just after the news at ten. This protest cost me a ban from the Goldstone for a year, think I still have the letter from Bellotti somewhere.