It was not just any other spring Saturday morning on 21st April 1979. Brighton were within sight of promotion. Three games, including the day’s match at Luton, separated them for Division One, as reported in Football Handbook in ‘One Stop from Division One’:
At Brighton station there’s a blue and white queue filing on to the ‘Seagull Special’. There are no beer cans, no early morning drunks. These are, they claim, ‘the best behaved supporters in the land’.
Suddenly a murmur of excitement disturbs the quiet. Cat, Whizzo, Sully, Nobby, Tot, Leo… are all walking alongside them on the platform. To anyone outside the close confines of the club, these men are Chris Cattlin, Peter Ward, Peter O’Sullivan, Brian Horton, Graham Winstanley, Peter Sayer and the rest of the Brighton first team.
On board the train, some play cards, some read, some just listen to the radio and look out of the window. They’re keyed up, but confldent. At East Croydon a cluster of fans tdisplays a flurry of derisory gestures. But then this is Crystal Palace country…
At Clapham Junction Alan Mullery and assistant manager Ken Craggs come on board to ironic cheers from the team. ‘Oh no, he’s not still wearing his Marks and Spencer shoes is he?’ It’s a standing joke. Mullery wears the same suit and shoes for every match, home and away.
Outside Luton station the team stands to one side while the police escort the line of Brighton supporters which snakes its way past us. As they disappear down the road a chant of ‘Clark is E-vii’ goes up. Paul Clark is the young Brighton ball winner. When Albion played Luton earlier in the season Paul Fucillo’s leg was broken in a challenge with Clark.
If Clarky is wondering how the Luton fans are going to react to that incident he soon finds out. As the teams are announced over the tannoy at the ground there is mass booing at the mention of his name, and when the Brighton team emerges from the tunnel a Luton fan tips tomato sauce over his head. Just what you need before a vital promotion match.
Brighton’s nerve ends are showing in the first five minutes of the game and Maybank and Sully have a shout at each other. Gary Williams hits a simple pass into touch and his captain, Horton, gives him the palms down, ‘calm down’ sign. Two old sweats, Alan Birchenall and Bob Hatton, organise the Luton side.into some promising moves.
Clark ‘the tank’ is playing in low gear, his usual aggressiveness blunted by the crowd’s reaction to the Fucillo incident. Their hysterical shrieking every time he touches the ball seems to have subdued him. There are none of his usual earth-removing runs through the middle as he looks to play safe, obvious, square passes.
Brian Horton bellows at his team and claps his hands for more effort all round. Clark slips the ball to Maybank, takes the return and almost before the boos are out of the home supporters’ mouths tonks a left-foot drive just wide of the post with the keeper struggling. Donaghy, the Luton number four, panics on finding himself directly up against Ward. He yells ‘Kirk, Kirk’ – and right-back Kirk Stephens scuttles back to help him out.
But the momentum dies. Ricky Hill shrugs off a challenge from Sully and crosses the ball from the right. Alan West shoots tamely but as goalkeeper Eric Steele bends to gather the ball Gary Williams sticks out a toe and deflects it past him for an own goal.
Brighton are on the rack. At the end of 45 minutes those two promotion points look a long way away.
After three minutes of the second half the ball falls to Ward in the box. He takes his time, tees up and right foots it past the keeper, but Brighton’s first shot on target is booted off the line. Within a minute Luton are clean through at the other end. For a split second it looks all over, but Steele rushes out to get an arm to the shot and the ball loops wide of the goal for a corner. Brighton are still alive – but they’re living dangerously.
On the hour a Luton defender appears to handle in the box. Brighton players swarm round referee Clive Thomas but he ignores their appeals for a penalty. Horton stands, hands on head, unable to believe it.
Mullery throws on striker Poskett for full-back Williams. All or nothing now. Birchenall tries to calm the Luton side with a back pass towards his own goal, but it slides under the advancing keeper. Poskett follows the ball but stops running when it looks certain to dribble into the net. The Brighton players’ arms are in the air saluting the ‘goal’ as the ball drifts against the inside of an upright.
‘You’re staying down with us’
Poskett realises to his dismay that it’s not going to go in but Donaghy is fractionally quicker off the mark to beat him to the ball and knock it to safety.
Horton is booked. Nobody knows why. ‘You’re staying down with us…’ The Luton fans revel in Brighton’s despair.
Five minutes to go and the First Division is a million miles away. Brighton get a free-kick. Maybank has a word with Horton and wanders away. Horton’s pass finds him on the left side of the penalty area. He checks, holds, picks his spot and drives it into the right-hand corner of the net.
Horton clenches his fists and the veins stand out on his neck as he screams for that last little bit from his team. Gerry Ryan risks the back of his legs by taking the ball to the corner flag for a classic piece of time wasting, but as Luton boot the ball out of the ground for the third time it’s clear that they’ll settle for the draw.
At the final whistle the players scurry down the tunnel. Relief floods through the dressing-room.
‘Well done, Teddy boy. The King.’ Chris Cattlin applauds Maybank’s goal. ‘I told you never to fluster, my son,’ Maybank is nonchalant. Then: ‘I caught it really sweet. I haven’t hit one of them since I was 17.’
Suddenly the hollering dies and a hush descends as the other results come out of the tranny. Mullery stands arms folded and straight-faced. Hoots and jeers greet the results of their promotion rivals, but Sunderland and Stoke have done well. The pressure hasn’t eased.
Now for the post mortems. Poskett’s miss: ‘He should’ve followed that ball in.’ Mullery is critical. The turned-down penalty: ‘Definite penalty. The ref was looking at it.’ Horton is certain.
‘What did he book you for Nob?’ Lawrenson asks him.
‘Yeah. Facial expression,’ Horton assures him.
‘Was it one of your special looks Nob?’ ‘Yeah, show us.’ The rest of the side request a Horton grimace. He obliges.
‘Good job it wasn’t Tot, he’d have been sent off.’
‘Tot’ Winstanley smiles a toothless smile.
Not a pretty sight…
As the train draws away from Luton the blinds are pulled down so that if stones are thrown at the windows by rival fans the glass will not spray all over the place. The mood is quiet on the journey back. Not the abject gloom which would have accompanied a defeat but silent reflection on the fact that in a 42-match season the dividing line between success and failure can be almost nonexistent. Last year they missed promotion by goal difference. Will today’s draw be enough at the final reckon up? Surely fate would not be so cruel a second time round.
With this result, Brighton dropped down to second place, one point behind Stoke City on 53 points. Quite remarkably, the Albion had amassed the same points total, after forty matches in 1977/78. What an amazing level of consistency displayed by Mullery’s men. Their next fixtures were Blackburn at home and then Newcastle away. No one knew it at the time but a win and a draw would see them through…