Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive, but to be young was very heaven! That’s not me, by the way, but a guy called William Wordsworth who’s better at this writing lark than me.
On April Fools’ Day 1989, I was in Brighton with a couple of friends. We were first years at University, with life stretching out before us, no ties, no commitments and no money – but we didn’t need much anyway. We’d made a spur of the moment decision to follow City away to the glamorous South Coast, and there we were, freshly delivered off the M23 in what was, even then, a fun place to be.
Tickets weren’t an issue. We decided to go and paid on the gate – a car full of us. We were watching a young but fragile City team tiptoe towards promotion. The team was built around the 1986 FA Youth Cup Winners and was avowedly local. There were a few concessions to experience dotted around the team, and City had just spent their largest transfer fee since the John Bond days on David Oldfield – who didn’t do much other than become a Manchester Derby immortal a few months after this match.
April 1989 was peak banana. Going to a City game was a cultural event. The spring after The Summer of Love. At the time I was listening obsessively to Technique by New Order – the album that repackaged rave culture into something I could understand and relate to and provided my gateway to Voodoo Ray by a Guy Called Gerald and Wrote for Luck by Happy Mondays. I was finding out about this stuff not as I had learned about the Beatles, The Stones and Motown, but in real time. There was much talk of a band called The Stone Roses and an album due to be released in May 1989. And all this was happening when I was 18 and living away from home for the first time.
The away end was festooned with inflatable yellow fruit and the sweet smell of weed hovered over the away end as people talked excitedly and bought and read the emerging fanzines that were starting to define the culture of City’s support. The atmosphere was happy, optimistic and – of course – fatalistic. Sussex Police were completely untroubled by the blatant drug use on view. They took the view that we were the weirdest, mellowest bunch of freaks they’d ever seen.
City were second in the league – going for promotion. Chelsea (we always seem to be joined at the hip) had broken clear at the top of the table and we now needed to fend off Crystal Palace – a brutal long-ball side sweetened by two strikers in Mark Bright and Ian Wright that were far too good for the division – to secure the second automatic promotion place. Otherwise, it was the play-offs. Brighton and Hove Albion were in a dogfight. We were confident of picking up the points, moving on to the next game and ensuring that we at least ended the troubled 1980s back in the First Division.
Sounds like a footballing Valhalla – the perfect riposte to modern football. No.
To start with the unsurprising – of course we lost. 2-1. To a retaken penalty – do penalties ever get retaken for encroachment? Yes they do, in Brighton, in 1989, against City. And to an unstoppable header from Ian Brightwell. Into his own net. There was also comedy. A man the Sunday papers called “the oldest ball boy in the world” picked the ball up in the final seconds and refused to give it to a City player for the throw-in. Instead he chucked it into the Brighton end in full view of all 22 players, the ref, both managers and the entire crowd. Amid vast mirth, it took geological time to return what was clearly the only match ball in the stadium, with it bouncing down the terrace only for some comedian to throw it back up to the top again. Again. And again. And again..
But the defeat and the comedy stumbles of April and early May 1989 as City staggered over the line with the dignity and poise of a drunken 16 year old was not – even then – the biggest problem.
The match was played at the Goldstone Ground, which was not strictly in Brighton. It was in Hove. A very nice part of Hove where nice people live. Walking to the ground, this wasn’t Moss Side and the local residents weren’t exactly thrilled by our presence. I’d have to agree that about four thousand noisy Mancs did lower the tone. There’s not a serious argument about that.
When I saw the “stadium” I could understand that it wasn’t just us that was attracting the low-level hostility behind the net curtains. In this nice residential area with nice people living nice conservative lives with both a small and a large “C” was plonked an unloved, hulking slum. The Goldstone Ground was a disgrace that needed immediate bulldozing and starting again.
The open terrace I stood on with the dope cloud hanging above me was, even to my 18-year-old self, a completely unacceptable environment to welcome people into. Yes, it was cheap. But it was too cheap. I can’t blame the owners of directors of Brighton and Hove Albion alone for this. Charging 10,000 people a fiver 25 times a year was never going to give them the sort of turnover needed to invest long-term in the business, particularly as people turned up year on year no matter how horrific the facilities. There was mutual contempt between customer and supplier and no incentive on the part of the football club to offer something better or safer. Clubs that spent money on facilities had to sell their best players and got relegated. That is what football was like then and Brighton were no better and no worse than any other club.
And as you know, two weeks later, on a similar terrace in Sheffield, something truly awful happened. The two events connected immediately in my mind and that connection has burned fiercely since. When I think of the 96 I think of myself, the people I was with and the others I know slightly or know by sight that were on that terrace that day. We all got home safely but it could have been us.
This weekend, we travel to the Amex. Brighton still don’t have a stadium in Brighton and the local residents still aren’t thrilled. We will doubtless get the full 2017 corporate experience and while it was too cheap in 1989 it’s too expensive now and impulse decisions to go to the match are a thing of the distant past. The music will sap my soul, the atmosphere will be contrived while in 1989 it was organic, it’s not kicking off at 3pm on Saturday, and if I want drugs, I’ll have to bring my own. But it will be safe, fans will be respected, both clubs are competently run and Gabi Jesus and Sergio Agüero are – to say the least – an upgrade on David Oldfield and Trevor Morley.
So don’t tell me 2017 is worse than 1989. It’s not. The Wordsworth line I began with is of course riven with irony. The dawn he referred to – The French Revolution – didn’t turn out as his younger self expected and should be delivered with the bitterest sarcasm. You don’t need to become the narrow-minded provincial Conservative Wordsworth became – were he in his old age now he would surely have written an appalling poem along the lines of “Brexit is Brilliant” – to accept that the Premier League has changed football more for the better than for the worse. But I do, however, reserve the right to play “Fine Time” by New Order very loud before kick off and maybe “Vanishing Point” afterwards as I reflect on the inevitable 2-1 defeat to a retaken penalty and a comedy own goal.