WITH doubts hanging over Wrexham's future at the Racecourse, sportswriter and Brighton fan Spencer Vignes recalls his own club's ground problems
JULY 7, 1995. It is a date still indelibly printed on our minds, the day Sussex woke up to the news that the county's only football team, Brighton and Hove Albion, had sold its ground, supposedly to pay off mounting debts.
From the beginning of the 1996/97 season, the club would be playing its home games 40 miles along the South Coast at Fratton Park, Portsmouth.
In time, a 30,000 all-seater stadium would be built to the north of Brighton in an area called Waterhall, financed by profits from a new leisure development at nearby Patcham Court Farm. Bolt out of the blue? You had better believe it.
There was one problem with this. Brighton Council had rejected plans for the Patcham Court Farm scheme two weeks previously.
The men who ran Brighton and Hove Albion FC had, in effect, sold our beloved Goldstone Ground without any concrete plans for a replacement home.
What followed is now regarded as one of the most celebrated (albeit bitter) struggles anywhere on the planet to save a football club.
You may ask why Wrexham's demonstration at the Racecourse on the final day of the season received such vociferous backing from Albion's visiting fans?
The short answer is because we've been there. It wasn't fun, but we're still alive. Wrexham's supporters would do well to remember this. Now read on.
It may have been high summer, but dark clouds were gathering over our club on that July day nine years ago.
Stunned groups of supporters soon banded together against what our then manager, Liam Brady, has since called "a certain style of management at director level that brought a club to the verge of extinction".
It continues to this day, as we await a "yes" or "no" answer from deputy prime minister John Prescott regarding plans for a new stadium at Falmer on land next to Sussex University (an announcement was expected in February, but now looks like taking place after the European elections).
Shaken from their summer hiatus in 1995, fans demanded to know what exactly was going on. Others turned detective, seeking answers themselves.
Then one supporter, a chartered accountant by the name of Paul Samrah, made a trip to the Land Registry, accompanied by local journalist Paul Bracchi.
There, they discovered that the club had sold the land occupied by the Goldstone to a property company called Chartwell, developer of retail parks, superstores, shopping malls and such like.
The land was worth £7m. The club's debts were said to be around £4m.
The two Pauls considered who would benefit from such a sale. Scouring the small print, it became evident that Bill Archer - club chairman and managing director of Focus DIY - had gained control of the club for just £56.25p, the equivalent of 5,625 shares bought for one penny each. He had then reorganised the structure of the club by creating a holding company called Foray 585.
To their horror, they then discovered that a single paragraph in the club's Memorandum and Articles of Association had been changed - one that would now allow Archer and the other shareholders in Foray 585 to benefit from the sale of the ground.
Archer later claimed that this had been "an oversight", but the damage had been done.
As far as the vast majority of fans were concerned, the board had no plans whatsoever to return from Portsmouth.
The club would steadily vent supporters as the strain of an 80-mile round trip to watch a struggling side proved too much, before being wound up.
Unable to decide on the best course of action, supporters staged a pitch invasion that September during an away fixture at Bournemouth to draw attention to their plight.
With the FA doing nothing to help, a second organised pitch invasion took place during the final game of the season at home to York, forcing the match to be abandoned.
On both occasions, the national media regarded the fans as hooligans. Still the FA did nothing - apart from imposing a suspended points reduction sentence on the club in an attempt to deter further "trouble".
A deal was done for the club to stay at the Goldstone for one more year, but that only delayed the inevitable.
Albion's supporters decided to organise a series of alternative protests over the following season, designed not only to grab the national media's attention but also the support of fans of other clubs across the UK.
You name it, they staged it - boycotts of Focus DIY stores, a march through London, mass walkouts at home games, the burning of effigies of Archer and club chief executive David Bellotti on Bonfire Night, and so on.
Most memorable of all was a "Fans United Day" coinciding with a home game against Hartlepool. Supporters of clubs throughout Europe converged on Brighton for a good natured, yet vocal demonstration. Our message was loud and clear - if it can happen to our club, it can happen to yours.
Having imposed a two-point fine on us after yet another pitch invasion, the FA finally bowed to increasing pressure from fans and the media by agreeing to act as mediator in talks between supporters, the board and a new consortium reportedly interested in rescuing the club.
Despite being subjected to almost unimaginable levels of abuse, Archer and Bellotti still refused to budge from their posts.
It was almost as though they got some perverse kick from all the hostility, revelling in the notoriety that issuing writs against law abiding supporters - or ignoring police advice to stay away from games - brought with it.
In September 1997, Archer finally signed a deal giving up his majority shareholding in the club, surrendering power to the consortium led by the man many regard as Albion's saviour, longtime supporter and former advertising guru Dick Knight.
By then the Goldstone had been demolished to make way for a retail park, and the team was playing its home games at Gillingham, a round-trip of 150 miles. But at least we still had a club.
In 1999, we returned to Brighton and our current temporary home of Withdean, capacity 6,800 - totally insufficient for a club that this Sunday will take 30,000 supporters to Cardiff for the Division Two play-off final.
Without Falmer - the only viable site in an area sandwiched between the sea and the rolling hills of the South Downs - Albion's future remains uncertain. Archer and Bellotti may be history, but their legacy still burdens us.
In hindsight, it's amazing to think how naïve we all were. You take it as gospel that the men in charge of your football club have its best interests at heart.
Unfortunately, that's not always the case, as we discovered to our cost.
In the words of the spontaneous chant that rang around Brighton's North Stand on Fans United Day - 'Football! United! Will Never Be Defeated!'
WHAT YOU CAN DO... by SPENCER VIGNES
* Identity the exact nature of your problem. Find qualified accountants and solicitors among your fanbase who will happily transcribe accounts and legal jargon.
* Unite the wide range of supporters into a broad alliance with a broad leadership. Sing from the same hymn sheet.
* Debate the situation openly at public meetings, and through smaller groups in pubs, on the phone and through the internet. Keep rumours to a minimum, and learn to spot false information.
* Communicate your concerns clearly to the Press, media, politicians and the FA. Make friends with journalists.
* Enlist the solidarity of fans from other clubs, especially ones who have had similar problems. Call a Brighton supporter!
* Make your protests imaginative.
* Don't resort to violence, no matter how tempting.
* Never take the word of your enemy for granted. It's not true until the document is signed.
* Never give up. Be brave. Better to feel stupid and intimidated than to sit back and do nothing.
GIVE US A SHOUT
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