Harty on Albion’s opening game of the season

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NO doubt there will be a collective groan from football widows everywhere this morning when the fixtures for the new season are published.

While we all look forward to the publication each year, the opening of the Amex stadium has intensified fans’ anticipation. In fact, to my mind only 1979 and 1999 come close.

Back in 1979, Alan Mullery’s side had been promoted to the 1st Division and the first visitors to the top flight in August, 1979, were Arsenal, who at the time were the holders of the FA Cup, and had in the midfield Liam Brady, arguably one of the most gifted players in the country.

By the time the Gunners arrived, the mood at the Albion had reached fever pitch. Mullery himself on the eve of the game had to stand firm when a threatened players’ strike over bonuses was settled. The Goldstone was packed to the rafters, or rather it wasn’t.

Allegedly, the turnstile counters packed up and the official attendance, with most people paying cash, was under 29,000 (ironically having had a number of 30,000-plus crowds in the lower divisions, during their four-year stay in the top flight, the club never recorded a crowd above the 30,000 mark), although having attended the game, I will go to my grave swearing there were at least 30,000 in the ground by a country mile.

The Albion almost made a dream start to Division One life when Gerry Ryan missed a chance very early on, but then reality well and truly kicked in. Arsenal had three chances in the first half and went in 3-0 up, they got a fourth from the penalty spot in the second period, so it was a 4-0 final score. Welcome to the big league!

Who in the ground could have imagined that 14 years later, Brady would end up as Albion boss in what turned out to be the start of a tempestuous time, which nearly saw the club go under (not his fault, I hasten to add).

Having been made homeless, the Albion returned to the Withdean stadium in 1999 and the visit of Mansfield marked the return of the club, an emphatic 6-0 win, with a Darren Freeman hat-trick getting the new ground off to a great start.

And so, to 2011, with a new stadium to be opened, the club have put in a request for a home game on August 6, although, unlike in the 1970s, there are other factors.

I understand that policing is a major factor, and would be very surprised if the following home games will feature on the opening weekend: West Ham, Cardiff, Crystal Palace, Southampton, Millwall, Portsmouth or Leeds United (what an eclectic mix of supporters!), as I believe both the club and the police have put in a request to the league along those lines.

I also understand that with the whole loss of the Goldstone back-story, the BBC have indicated that it could be the start of their live coverage this season, so a 5.20pm kick-off on Saturday or even a Sunday kick-off might be on the agenda.

For safety and sentiment, I wouldn’t be surprised if the computer threw up the visit of Doncaster Rovers to open the stadium, as they were the last opponents at the Goldstone in April, 1997.

Then again, we are talking about the computer that sends Plymouth fans to Carlisle on a bank holiday weekend, and even the Albion up to Hartlepool one New Year’s Day.

Anything’s possible.