by Jason Heaver
The Evening Standard once described Brighton & Hove Albion and Crystal Palace as hating each other ‘with a passion rarely seen outside the Balkans’, but admitted that the reasons for this rivalry seemed obscure to the rest of football. Their assessment is not far wrong – this is the first fixture both sets of supporters look for every June and matches between the two are old-fashioned derbies, with plenty more than just the three points riding on the outcomes.
It is, in truth, an enmity which has waxed and waned with the contrasting fortunes of the two clubs in the last couple of decades. Beginning in the 1970s, with a twice-replayed FA Cup tie in which Palace eventually prevailed 1-0, Brighton scoring with a penalty which the referee ordered retaken, Brian Horton missing the retake, (a result which prompted then Brighton manager Alan Mullery to ‘salute’ the Palace fans on his way off the pitch, using only two fingers to do so, and deride the value of their side), the two sides seemed to grow in dislike for each other as they spent long periods in the same divisions. Promoted together into the top flight, the only league team in Sussex at the time against the only league team in Surrey became a rivalry to match almost any in its intensity. Brighton’s travails during the 90s meant that both sides had to look elsewhere for rivalries temporarily, but the recent resumption of hostilities has seen it pick up as if it had never gone away.
So Brighton went to Selhurst Park keen enough for a result anyway, but also looking to avenge the 1-3 home defeat suffered at Palace hands earlier in the season. Add in Glenn Murray, the former Brighton front man who let his contract run down and joined the old enemy on a free transfer, and Paul McShane, who not long ago scored the only goal for Brighton at Selhurst in this fixture, both playing for Palace, and the mixture was just right for a noisy, passionate, potentially nasty evening. With Palace’s form patchy but having been rested from not having a game the previous weekend, and Brighton’s form excellent but having played Newcastle just three days previously, this always looked a close one. So it proved. In truth, the first half lacked the fixture’s usual vitriol and aggression. It had seemed noisy and expectant, rather than hostile, around the ground beforehand, in stark contrast to the serious crowd trouble which marked the Amex encounter, both in town and at the stadium. Surprising empty blocks of seats in the home sections may go some way to explaining that – a baffling sight given the fixture’s importance to both sets of fans.
The second half was a bit more familiar. A bit more needle, a bit more aggression on the pitch, a bit more noise in the stands. Two penalties, both of which must go into the ‘dubious’ category, exemplified a night in which the officials did not exactly cover themselves in glory. Dougie Freedman evidently complained long and hard about the award of the Albion penalty, but given the nature of the one awarded to Palace, he can have little to complain about. Martin and Barnes both did the business from the spot, so it could have gone either way in the last quarter. As it was, it was Brighton who pressed hardest for a winner. Long periods of possession and decent chances created, most notably a long-range drive from Inigo Calderon which the excellent Speroni did well to tip over, right at the death. Had that gone in, McShane’s place in Albion folklore, which he’s sullied rather by joining Palace, would have been handed over to the Spaniard, polished and gleaming on an engraved plinth. But 1-1 it finished, with a measure of honour restored for those in blue and white.
After the game, with the tannoy announcer telling Palace fans in certain sections of the Arthur Wait stand to stay in their seats ‘for their own safety’ (it was Brighton fans leaving the ground, not a horde of sword-wielding, drug-crazed orcs, for crying out loud), we were then herded around the Norwood streets by the Met’s finest, and taken to West Norwood station, whether we wanted to go there or not. Lines of police in riot gear, plenty of horses, 8-ft metal walls temporarily closing off streets and separating fans, you’d have been forgiven for mistaking this for sections of Belfast during the Troubles. At this fixture though, it’s par for the course. Eventually, waiting on the platform for a train going vaguely near where I live (in darkest Palace territory, not Brighton), and fortunately not wearing colours, I found myself surrounded by those in red and blue who’d been held back earlier, lest we charge at them with murder in our hearts. A very attractive red-headed girl and I seemed to catch each others’ eye. She looked at me, I looked at her, and back again. But it could never be – she a Palace fan, me a Brighton fan, that’s never going to work. Just ask the Standard.