29th April 1978 is known to many Brighton supporters as the date of the Great Stitch Up. While Albion won 2-1 against Blackpool at a packed Goldstone in front of 33,431 supporters, to give themselves a chance of promotion to Division One, Southampton and Tottenham secured a mutually-beneficial 0-0 draw at the Dell to deny the Seagulls. Rather suspicious, eh?
Over the years, I’ve heard many anecdotes about the day, not all of them consistent with each other: such as how the two managers Keith Burkenshaw and Lawrie McMenemy walked out arm-in-arm out of the tunnel, how Alan Ball hit the bar and never received a pass from his team mates again, how the players spent the match passing the ball around to no great effect around the centre-circle, and how Southampton missed a few sitters via a chap born in Eastbourne.
Playing Devil’s Advocate, one immediate question is how Albion fans seem to have accumulated such detailed knowledge of what was happening at the Dell when chances are they were busy cheering on the Seagulls in Sussex. The answer is that the highlights to Southampton v Spurs were broadcast on Match of the Day that evening. However, with emotions running high, there is the obvious danger of angry Brighton fans amplifying a viewing of any cautious play or missed chances as proof of a cosy deal having been done rather than big match nerves. Due to the effects of what psychologists call confirmation bias, there was a likelihood that many Albion supporters had already decided what they wanted to think about the drawn match at the Dell by 4.45pm, and then watched MOTD to reinforce this perspective, filtering out any contrary information.
Another sticking point is: why would Southampton wish to play out a 0-0 draw? They were virtually up anyway and it would have taken a massive swing in goal difference to deny them promotion. Besides, with Phil Boyer and Ted MacDougall up front, that Saints team had hit 44 League goals at the Dell in 1977/78. It seems incredible that they would play for a 0-0 draw in front of their own fans. Furthermore, a victory would give them a fantastic chance of winning the Second Division championship. When a discussion took place on the ‘He Shot. He Scored. It Must Be Peter Ward’ Facebook page recently, Ian Hine of seagullsprogrammes.co.uk suggested that a draw benefited Southampton as it would keep Spurs fans sweet. Their fans had smashed up the Goldstone in a 3-1 defeat a few weeks before, after all. Even so, put yourself in Southampton’s players’ boots: would you really give up the chance of a champions’ medal because of what an opposition’s hooligan element might do? I know I wouldn’t.
Certainly it would be great to get hold of the Match of the Day footage after all these years to re-watch and decide once and for all. However, in the absence of this, I can bring you the Daily Express match report. Will it strengthen or weaken the case that Albion were the victims of an underhand deal? Over to you, James Mossop:
It was the day Spurs manager Keith Burkinshaw “died a thousand deaths” – the day his team returned to the First Division with knees buckling, nerve ends smouldering like clawing Marathon men collapsing within sight of the tape. The Dell was alive with the electricity of the occasion as Spurs arrived in search of the vital point they needed.
Behind one goal thousands of Spurs’ fans kicked holes in the £6,000 steel fencing specially erected for the occasion.
The managers Burkinshaw and Lawrie McMenemy came out and shook hands. Alan Ball kissed his Player of the Year trophy, but nothing could quell the fury of the occasion.
When it was all over, after Spurs had survived a series of Southampton attacks, Burkinshaw was full of sighs.
Over the year he had seen his team establish a three-point lead at the head of the Second Division, falter dramatically and arrive with one match to go and the solitary point needed.
He said: “After last Saturday’s home defeat by Sunderland I began to wonder whether it was all worth it. But these players have shown great character and strength.”
Skipper Steve Perryman, a glass of champagne in his hand, said: “It could have been a real travesty if we had not made it. There was a lot of pressure on us. It’s amazing how we have given goals away late in the season. We used to call ourselves the Bank of England.
Bit high and mighty to invoke the word ‘travesty’ there! Had Brighton made it, they would have ended the season showing the quality and form befitting a side ready for the top flight, unlike Spurs who won just two of their final eight Second Division matches.
The report continues:
McMenemy was not so cheerful about his team’s role in the 0-0 draw. He said: “It was disappointing that we did not score. We will not do very well in the First Division if we play like that, although it was no occasion for judging anything.”
But the spotlight was on Spurs. They were the team on the rack. On the terraces hundreds of transistors brought bulletins from Brighton, the late challengers, and Bolton, the new champions, in the most thrilling promotion race for years.
Could Spurs survive as the pressure mounted? Peter Taylor tried to win a penalty with a spectacular dive when Glen Hoddle sent him into the box, but most of the action was at the other end, and Funnell twice lifted the ball over the bar from good positions.
Spurs sent on substitute Gerry Armstrong in place of John Duncan and he may have sent the confirmation that promotion seemed assured because the match became even more of a holding job than ever.
As referee Don Biddle sounded the last whistle of a long, arduous season, the tension finally evaporated. There was delight and celebration all round the ground. The Spurs players did cartwheels. It had all been worthwhile.
Saints’ supporters spilled on to the pitch and danced in front of the stands, waiting for their heroes to emerge and take a bow.
For a moment, as the Spurs fans broke through as well, it seemed there might be a bitter and ugly confrontation. But a line of police and stewards – some of the police with dogs – managed to keep them apart. Bottles flew between the factions and ugliness had taken over what should have been an occasion of mutual joy.
Meanwhile, at the Goldstone, Alan Mullery said: “I feel bitterly disappointed and shattered at getting 56 points only to be foiled at the last minute. But this is a very progressive club. Already we are making plans for next season and the realisation of our ambitions – First Division football.”
In the years that followed, Neil McNab, Gerry Armstrong and Peter Taylor in that Spurs team all joined Brighton & Hove Albion. It seems bit of a missed opportunity that none of them appear to have been asked about whether the sides did go easy on each other in that Dell game. If you ever encounter them, please ask!