In 1983, Brighton and Hove Albion repeated which party trick first performed by Leicester City in 1969? This particular piece was to be repeated in 1985 by both Norwich City and Sunderland, and again more recently by Middlesbrough in 1997, Portsmouth in 2010 and Wigan Athletic in 2013.
It was the ability to reach a major cup final in the same season as suffering relegation from the top flight.
Brighton had been promoted to the First Division for the first time in the club’s existence in 1979 under Alan Mullery. Two promotions in three seasons had seen the club rise from the old Third Division, and after a rocky start to life in the top flight, safety had been secured in 1979-80 and again the following season after a dogged relegation battle.
Mullery then resigned over a dispute regarding the proposed sale of Mark Lawrenson, and Mike Bailey was recruited from Charlton Athletic to take his place. The 1981-82 season was one of pleasing consolidation as Bailey led Brighton to mid-table and the club’s highest-ever league position of 13th.
1982-83 started with the club in widely inconsistent form. Despite beating Arsenal and Manchester United in early-season games, a run of bad results left Brighton near the relegation zone and struggling. Bailey was eventually relieved of his position and in his stead, a temporary appointment was announced.
At 45, Jimmy Melia had the appearance of someone at least a decade or so older. He had been a player at Wolverhampton Wanderers, Southampton, Aldershot, and most famously, Liverpool. Signed straight from school, Melia played for Liverpool for almost ten years, making close on 300 appearances in all competitions and winning a Second Division title medal in 1962 and a First Division one two years later.
After retiring as a player, Melia moved into management and coaching, and after a spell in the Middle-East found himself working at the Goldstone Ground in the guise of Chief Scout.
When Bailey was sacked, Melia was asked to take control of the first team temporarily and it was then that the club entered what was to become almost a schizophrenic period.
League form continued to plummet and from being fifth from bottom when Melia took over, the club dropped into the bottom three nerve to climb out again. However, while relegation was looking a nailed-on certainty, progress in the FA Cup was being made.
A still-talked about third-round win at Newcastle was obtained courtesy of the home side having two goals very controversially disallowed in the closing minutes, and this was followed by a fourth-round victory over Manchester City by four goals to nil.
By the time the fifth round came around, Brighton were deeply embroiled in a relegation battle and Melia was in charge. Nobody gave them much of a chance when the draw pitted them against reigning league champions and runaway leaders, Liverpool, at Anfield.
More in bravado than belief, Melia insisted his side could travel to Merseyside and cause a shock, but not many outside the Goldstone Ground held out much hope.
However, in the first-ever Liverpool home game to be played on a Sunday, Brighton ran out winners by a 2-1 scoreline. It was one of the biggest cup shocks for years and Liverpool’s highest gate of the season bore witness to Gerry Ryan putting the away side ahead after half an hour’s play.
With Jimmy Case locking horns with Graeme Souness in the middle of the park, and Brighton’s front three of Ryan, Michael Robinson and Peter Ward putting pressure on Liverpool’s central defenders, Brighton were able to cope admirably with most of what Liverpool had to throw at them. Liverpool kept pressing, and when substitute Craig Johnston netted in the 70th minute, it appeared that Liverpool had saved themselves.
Old boy Case had other ideas, though, and just two minutes later he netted what proved to be the winner. Phil Neal had the chance to level things up once again from the spot, but his late miss meant that Liverpool were out and Brighton were into their first-ever FA Cup quarter-final.
A dour and considerably more low-key game took place at the Goldstone against Norwich City, and the only goal of the game was enough to see Brighton into a semi-final match-up with Jack Charlton’s Second Division Sheffield Wednesday at Highbury.
Despite being the lower-level club, Wednesday went into the semi-final as slight favourites, such was Brighton’s poor run of league form. Rising to the occasion of a very hot day, Albion took the lead on the quarter-hour mark courtesy of a 35-yard free-kick from Jimmy Case and went into the changing rooms at half-time a goal to the good.
A Sheffield Wednesday equaliser twelve minutes into the second half temporarily threatened to derail the Brighton express, but with twelve minutes to go Michael Robinson struck the winner and Albion were through to Wembley for the first time.
Before the final, Brighton got back to league action and trying to preserve their top-flight status. It was a battle that they were ultimately to lose and so by the time the big day came around Brighton had already followed Leicester City in being the only clubs to reach the FA Cup Final whilst being relegated in the same season.
As the final approached, so did the media interest of course. Jimmy Melia’s dress sense and girlfriend, the model, Val Lloyd, came under scrutiny and Brighton also headed to the recording studios to record the obligatory FA Cup Final song.
It was then that Brighton decided to travel down to Wembley in a slightly more unconventional manner than most cup finalists.
In a tie-up with the airline company, British Caledonian, that sponsored the club at the time, the decision was taken to fly to Wembley by helicopter. It was a risky move because any adverse weather could have affected the players and caused airsickness or nerves to kick in, but from a publicity standpoint, it was an inspired decision.
In a pre-flight interview between the two managers, Melia and Manchester United’s Ron Atkinson aired on the BBC, Atkinson took the opportunity to slip in a casually politically incorrect quip about ‘reminding Melia to advise the Irish lads aboard to leave the fan alone’. He is also said to have wondered out loud ‘how we will spend the afternoon’ if the flight crashed.
In the event, the helicopter landed safely and so the players took their opportunity to stroll across the Wembley turf in their suits for the traditional pre-match inspection. Thirteen years before Liverpool players were to make headlines with their ‘Spice Boy Cream Suits’, the Brighton players turned up wearing cream jackets, black trousers, and white shoes.
“We looked like waiters,” commented Albion right back, Chris Ramsey.
Nevertheless, the vast underdogs Brighton started confidently and took the game to United in an open first half played on a wet, rain-sodden pitch. At half-time, Brighton led by a single goal courtesy of a Gordon Smith strike.
The second half was a different story as finally, United got into their stride and a wonder goal from Ray Wilkins, coupled with a short-range Frank Stapleton effort put the men from Old Trafford ahead and seemingly headed for cup glory. With 87 minutes on the clock, United still led 2-1 but then Brighton got a corner. Jimmy Case played the ball short to Tony Grealish who knocked it into the area and Gary Stevens swooped to equalise and force extra-time.
What happened next has entered into folklore with Smith spurning a chance to win the cup with the last kick of the game. A Brighton counterattack saw Smith and Michael Robinson through on goal with just one United defender and goalkeeper Gary Bailey to beat. When Robinson elected to pass rather than shoot himself, it seemed Smith couldn’t miss. Unfortunately for him, and history, the fraction of a second that he hesitated was sufficient for Bailey to come flying out and save at his feet. Seconds later the final whistle blew and the two sides were consigned to return to Wembley for a replay five days later.
There was a feeling that Brighton’s best chance had come and gone and that United couldn’t possibly play as badly the second time around, while Brighton were unlikely to match the levels they’d reached in the first game.
And so these fears came to fruition as United raced to a three-goal interval lead due to a brace from captain Bryan Robson and a headed Norman Whiteside goal. A second-half penalty converted by Arnold Muhren completed a 4-0 rout and the dream was over.
Jimmy Melia put on a brave face for the cameras but the disappointment felt was palpable. The season had ended in double disappointment with cup final defeat and relegation, and despite everyone’s protestations to the contrary, doubts abounded regarding Brighton’s chances of making an immediate return to the First Division.
As things turned out darker days were ahead for both Jimmy Melia and Brighton and Hove Albion.
When the end came, it came in controversial circumstances that continue to divide some Brighton fans to this day.
Upon relegation to the Second Division, Mike Bamber, the Brighton Chairman, believed that changes had to be made. Notwithstanding the intoxicating cup run, Bamber was not looking forward to second flight football and he had doubts over Melia’s tactical acumen.
It was with this in mind that he made the unilateral decision to appoint Chris Cattlin as first-team coach. This didn’t go down well with Melia and he made his discontent known but unfortunately for him, life in the Second Division got off to a bad start and by October 1983 a second successive relegation fight was looking a distinct possibility.
It was then that Bamber decided to cut Melia loose and appoint Cattlin to the manager’s position. Melia felt betrayed by the initial decision to appoint Cattlin coach and is said to have resigned the manager’s position in protest. Either way, it was a sad end to his relatively short spell in charge.
However, despite reaching the cup final and all the attending drama and emotion that went with that, Melia wasn’t really a success at Brighton. He took over as manager at the start of December 1982 when the side was two places above the relegation zone, and finished that season rock bottom of the table eight points from safety. When he left the club in October of the following season, the side was in 14th place in the Second Division and sinking fast.
Cattlin steadied the ship before leading an, ultimately unsuccessful, promotion charge the following season. Melia, for his part, went on to manage in the lower levels in England with Stockport and Southport but had more success overseas in Portugal and the United Arab Emirates.