Ground Nº 100 – Millenium Stadium
Bristol City 0 Brighton 1 Div 2 Play-Off Final
The 2003/2004 season had been an odd one. Despite making the play-offs straight after our relegation, and finishing fourth, I wasn’t very impressed with them. I have to confess, in fact, that I was a little embarrassed by Brighton. In any normal season finishing in a play-off place would be cause for great excitement and tension, but not this season. I shamefacedly admit that I did secretly not want us to get in the play-offs; to avoid potentially 2 or maybe more long journeys following them. Pathetic, I know. Call myself a proper fan and all that.
Normally I would follow them anywhere no matter the cost or circumstances. The reason for all this is that we’d managed to finish fourth despite playing dreadful, negative, dreary football. It may not be fair to blame this all on Mark McGhee but it did seem a coincidence that since Coppell left early on in the season with us placed top and scoring freely, we’d suddenly turned in to a hard long ball team who ground out 1-0 wins.
I’d seen them 3 times this season, a poor performance and loss at Barnsley. A humiliating defeat at Lincoln in the FA Cup Rd 1; (Lincoln outplayed us from start to finish and made it look easy as if they were the team a division above us and not the other way round). The QPR game was a good one but again QPR deserved their win.
So I’d seen 3 defeats out of 3 in a play-off season. I realise this could just be bad luck but other fans I’d talked to agreed it was a bit of a mystery how we were doing so well in the league as we were so rubbish in most games. I’d lost a lot of respect for the team and it made me feel wretched harbouring all these conflicting emotions regarding the team I loved. It is said that marriages have good and bad years – well my marriage with Brighton was on a bad one, that’s for sure. If Brighton asked me ‘What’s your problem with us, we’ve been doing good this year haven’t we? I can’t understand your problem.’ my rather effeminate response would be – ‘You don’t get it do you? I haven’t got a problem with you doing well, it’s the way you’re doing it. Don’t you understand that?’
After Swindon and Hartlepool settled for a draw on the last day of the season, thus ousting out poor Port Vale from the top 6, we were to play Swindon in the semi-final. As we’d finished higher we were away first leg. I immediately applied for a ticket but was then pressured to sell it by my wife who said it was too much for her to cope alone with the littl’uns while I was away at Swindon and maybe Cardiff. It was a fair point so I reluctantly sold the ticket on North Stand Chat to a very happy Albion fan from Bristol.
It was live on TV so I’d get to watch it anyway. My excitement had started to come back the nearer we got to the Sunday of the game. My disillusionment at the Albion was starting to wane as 3 o’clock approached. By twenty past three however it had returned with a vengeance. We were rubbish again. We didn’t look like conceding but neither did we look like scoring either. I was so glad I’d sold my ticket. Watching us made me squirm. I felt sorry for Swindon; they were obviously the better team and were approaching the game positively, and with passion. We were just their to spoil their day and get a 0-0.
Midway through the second half, and against the run of play, Carpenter had a rare Albion shot from the edge of the area which ricocheted off a defender and flew into the top corner of the net. The fans behind the goal went mad; Swindon were shocked; I was shocked. We’d done it yet again – we were going to win another game 1-0 despite being awful. I was excited now, but only because of the thought of the Millennium Stadium. Hopefully I’d get to tick it off with a genuine Albion visit!
I saw the second leg on TV too. Again, it was dire. Swindon were the better team; again. Swindon were the more positive; again. When they scored very late on to equalise the tie I was pleased for them. When they went 2-0 up in extra time I was again pleased. Slightly disappointed that I wouldn’t get to see the Millennium Stadium but almost relieved at the money I’d save. So in the 120th minute of the game, the 210th minute of the tie, I sat with a resigned smile thinking well done Swindon when a throw in down the left was headed on to the edge of the box where Adam Virgo flung his body at the ball, connected with his head and the ball bounced past the outstretched keeper and into the net. It was pure Roy of the Rovers stuff and despite my floundering support I still almost banged my head on the ceiling jumping up from the sofa.
It was penalties next. Under any other circumstances I’d bet against Brighton at penalties but this night I knew we’d win the shoot-out. Swindon’s psyche just couldn’t recover from that 120th minute blow and it didn’t as we fired home 5 uncharacteristically brilliant penalties to book our place at the Millennium.
We were playing Bristol City in the final. Even though I was looking forward to the trip to
Cardiff I was still ambivalent about the potential outcome of the game. I was a Brighton fan, nothing could change that, but I really wanted Bristol City to win! They had been missing out on promotion to the second tier for what seemed like ages now. They’d finished 3rd in the league, with much more points than ourselves, and should really have bagged an automatic spot; some bad results late on cost them dear. Added to that I’d always liked Bristol City. They played attractive passing football and I admired their manager Danny Wilson, an ex Albion hero on the pitch.
Apart from Brighton being my team I couldn’t find a single other reason why we should have gone up. I was perplexed that I’d be going to the most impressive stadium in the UK with my team, for their biggest match in more than a decade. and I wanted them to lose – it was bizarre. I confessed my sins to my brother who agreed with me entirely. I thought he might. We’re usually on the same wavelength when it comes to football, even when our feelings are inexplicable to most others. We have a very finely tuned sense of ‘football justice’ and this sometimes overrides our biased passion for our club.
I felt like a vicar having a crisis of faith – it was horrible.
My Dad was going to come up to Stoke for the weekend and we’d drive down from Stoke to
Cardiff on the Sunday. We were meeting my stepmother, Val, down there, with my Dad going back to Brighton from there. Andy wasn’t going! His disenchantment with Albion must’ve been greater than mine as he didn’t even attempt to undo other plans he had for the weekend. He said that he didn’t want to go anyway as his confliction of interests was too great – he’d feel too sorry for Bristol City if we won.
I felt the same, and had it been Wembley we were playing at may have stayed away too, but getting the Millennium Stadium in was a must. I didn’t tell my Dad about any of this, it was just between me and Andy – we knew no-one else would understand. We drove down to
Cardiff and agreed to meet the others in a small village pub a few miles north of the City. Val and the others were caught in the horrendous congestion of the M4 so couldn’t make it. We, however, had had a painless journey down the M5 and M50 and were now basking in the sun enjoying a leisurely pint.
The match was a tedious affair, as I might have imagined. Bristol City were fairly awful too. Without meaning to patronise I felt so sorry for them. They’d let themselves down on the big day again. What was worse they were going to lose to an abjectly negative side such as ourselves. As I was so atypically phlegmatic regarding the result I had a feeling we’d win(whereas in normal Albion fan mode I would obviously be fearing the worst). It just seemed like one of those days when the Gods of football purism would be noticeably absent.Leon Knight scored the winning goal in the 81st minute; a penalty.
The hordes of Brighton fans went mad. I felt utterly conspicuous, making a vain effort at feigning enjoyment, but it just wasn’t doing anything for me. It sounds ridiculous. I realise this as I’m writing it, but this promotion was undeserved. I wanted to apologise to every Bristol City fan for our teams behaviour.
The best atmosphere of the day was the walk to the ground where I saw Fatboy Slim wandering along in his customised Albion shirt with ‘FATBOY’ on the back. The first picture shows the view from the street just before the Millenium complex.
Shortly after the final whistle you can see all the empty seats where the gutted Robins fans had left