From Mods and Rockers to ‘dirty presents’ left on changing room floors, a surprisingly fierce rivalry has developed between two English clubs 45 miles apart.
Some of the greatest events in every football season unfold because of rivalries both on the pitch and on the terraces; shaped by geography, history, politics and decades of competition. Most of these rivalries are easy to understand. Arsenal, for example, crossed the Thames out of Woolwich in 1913 and stepped into Tottenham’s territory, from which they became London’s most successful club. West Ham’s hatred of Millwall goes back to the glory days of British shipbuilding and events surrounding the 1926 General Strike. The dockers of the East End, in West Ham’s supporter heartland, observed the strike but further down London’s narrow waters, in the Isle of Dogs, Millwall’s dockers went back to work after an initial brief period of solidarity. From that point on, the Hammers’ hatred of the Lions has been ironed into history, lasting to this day, and sometimes spilling over into brutal, communal violence such as the 2009 Upton Park Riot.
Such intense rivalry, though, is not limited to London, or even England. Heading north, Leeds United boast that nine other teams list them as their rivals stretching from Huddersfield to Middlesbrough. Liverpool and Manchester United both find themselves locked in football’s equivalent of a love triangle; with one another and with their respective neighbours Everton and Manchester City. Then there’s the Old Firm of Glasgow’s Celtic and Rangers, or Linfield and Glentoran across the water in Northern Ireland. There, in the battle of Belfast’s historical big two, you might automatically expect one side to have British affiliation and the other Irish. But no, they’re each as Protestant and hardcore working class Ulster Unionist as the other, with ‘Catholic’ Cliftonville nothing more than secondary rivals. That’s almost the opposite of the Spanish situation where the El Clasico battle between Barcelona and Real Madrid often appears to have deeper roots than either team’s clashes with their same city rivals thanks to politics, and the echoes of the Spanish Civil War. Similar echoes are found in the Derby della Capitale between Roma and Lazio; often regarded as one of the most politically loaded games in Europe.
It’s strange then to move from the flares and fury of the Stadio Olimpico to the junctions and exits of England’s M23 that takes you out of London’s rush into serene Sussex and Surrey. However, somewhere beyond the slow grind towards Crawley and beneath the flight paths of Gatwick Airport, there’s a rivalry to match the battles of Mods and Rockers on England’s seafronts in the 1960s and 70s. As these two gangs fought a war over motorcycles and musical taste, another rivalry was hatching that had nothing to do with a battle of the bands. Before then, for most folks in South London, Brighton was a place where you went for dirty weekends, rainy Bank holidays, sticks of rock, walks on the pier and an escape from the city.
Brighton’s football team, after all, was hardly synonymous with greatness, despite being winners of the 1910 Charity Shield. That was in the days when the Football League, as founded in 1888, was mainly composed of teams from the north of England and the Midlands because southern teams wanted the game to remain amateur, and as such, set up their own Southern League. Brighton, as champions of this league, thus played and defeated Aston Villa, Football League Champions, to achieve possibly the most significant honour of a history that has been largely played out in the second and third tiers of the modern league system.
It was in the third tier in 1976 that this rivalry came out of its shell and took flight. Even though these clubs, fifty miles apart, had faced one another consistently through the 1940s and 50s, there was no deep rivalry until the appointment of two men who shared a mutual animosity. Indeed, at this stage of their history, Brighton and Hove Albion were known as the Dolphins on account of the town’s official crest and not the Seagulls, as they are known today.
That was all to change with one hostile season where the road from Selhurst to Sussex would never be the same again. In June 1976 the charismatic Terry Venables became manager of Crystal Palace, followed one month later by Alan Mullery’s appointment at Brighton. It was these two men, whose careers overlapped during their playing days at Tottenham where Mullery was captain, who brought a sense of competition to the M23 derby – assisted to a large extent by a twist of fate in the following November.
Drawn together in the FA Cup, shortly after a fiery league encounter as both sides fought for promotion, they played out a contest that required a third replay at neutral Stamford Bridge. Palace emerged victorious, winning 1-0 after a series of controversial decisions from the referee, leading to insinuations from the Brighton management that something fishy was going on. Indeed, Brighton fans still remember the referee as ‘Challis of the Palace’, even though Mr. Ron Challis had his finest career moment in refereeing the classic 1979 Arsenal vs. Man United FA Cup final.
Brighton, though, would have the last laugh out of this unholy mess in a season where teacups were thrown, gesticulations made, and smoke bombs shot onto the pitch. The Dolphins’ last salvo was to finish in second place in Division Three by the end of the season, one position beneath champions Mansfield Town and one above Crystal Place in third. These were the days of three teams getting promoted automatically, with no play-offs on the horizon.
Change was coming though. As the south coast side attempted to scale new heights, they replaced the dolphin nickname with that of their present day seagulls, again born out of the Palace rivalry.
Legend has it that Palace fans in a pub in that fierce promotion season taunted their new-found rivals with cries of ‘We are the Eagles’, to which Brighton fans chanted back ‘Seagulls, Seagulls, Seagulls.’ Out of that moment, a new name and identity was born as the sides resumed their fight for promotion to the First Division. Sure enough, after one season of consolidation, battle resumed. Crystal Palace pipped Brighton to the Second Division Championship in May 1979, and then began the next season in spectacular fashion, leading the First Division table at the end of September before a gradual decline brought them down to thirteenth position by the end, three points and three places above the Seagulls.
The season after, 1980-81, Palace got relegated as Brighton survived. They did so again the following season and then in 1983 found themselves in the unusual position of contesting an FA Cup final against Manchester United at the same time as finishing bottom of the First Division. They almost won the FA Cup in the first game, denied only by a Gary Bailey save from Gordon Smith, but lost the replay 4-0. From coming so close to their finest ever moment, the decades that followed brought suffering for Brighton as the club slipped down the league and faced extinction.
At the same time, Brighton fans had to watch the Eagles soaring high at the end of the 1980s and early 90s, thanks to an excellent team put together on the cheap by manager Steve Coppell. These times too gave birth to a rivalry closer to home, as Charlton Athletic became tenants at Selhurst Park from the mid-80s onwards.
That rivalry, though, is one that many Palace fans see as being unrequited, for they claim to have no interest in the team that took great delight in relegating them from the Premier League in 2005, as belated revenge for what Charlton fans perceive as bad treatment during their tenancy, in their days of exile from The Valley.
For Palace the real rivalry of recent decades has always been Brighton, and this was the one greeted with most enthusiasm when seasons 2011-13 brought the three parts of this London triangle into the same division. For one year, 2012-13, the three clubs battled together in the Championship, with Palace and Brighton at the opposite end to struggling neighbours Charlton. Palace, at one point, looked odds-on for promotion but slipped down the table and into the play-offs alongside Brighton, Watford and Leicester City who all seemed more likely victors in the end. Palace on the slide had far worse form in the closing weeks of the season than even Charlton who had risen from just outside the relegation zone to a respectable ninth placed finish under the management of former Palace player Chris Powell. Palace were to surprise everyone thanks to the goals of teenage striker Wilfried Zaha in a semi-final victory over Brighton that was inspired by the antics of a shadowy figure amongst the Seagulls’ flock.
Somebody, on the night of the Championship play-off semi-final, hatched a very bad plan to enter the away dressing room and defecate on the floor. Rumour has it they even smeared the walls. The Eagles reacted with fury, going out and claiming victory at Brighton’s spanking new Amex Stadium, and sparking a series of events that would result in the departure of Seagulls’ boss Gus Poyet. To this day, the exact circumstances of his departure remain a mystery, as does the identity of the guilty seagull.
Crystal Palace, on the other hand, managed to put the mess behind them very quickly. A few weeks later, in a game billed as a £120million battle, they defeated outer London opponents Watford in the play-off final at Wembley thanks to a goal in extra time from veteran striker Kevin Phillips.
From there on, with a few changes in management, the Eagles have soared up to their present lofty heights in the Premiership, and the Seagulls too are recovering the form that was lost in the days after what became known as ‘Shitgate’. There’s a chance then that in the year ahead we’ll see football’s strangest rivalry, the M23 derby, renewed in the Premier League – a very long way from teacups at twenty paces back in the 1970s.
PAUL BREEN – @CharltonMen
PAUL BREEN is the author of The Charlton Men, a work of fiction set in London – http://www.amazon.co.uk/The-Charlton-Men-Paul-Breen/dp/178308166X