Albion's do-or-die match at Hereford remembered 20 years on
After the emotional final game at the Goldstone Ground the previous week, Albion went to Hereford knowing a draw would keep them in the Football League and relegate their hosts.
Defeat did not bear thinking about, the Seagulls would be out of the league and whether they would even survive was uncertain with the team set to play home matches at Gillingham.
More than 3,000 Albion fans were in a 8,532 crowd at Edgar Street for one of the biggest games in the Seagulls’ history, on May 3, 1997.
Twenty years on, Brighton boss Steve Gritt and members of the squad look back on the lead-up to the game, the match itself and the celebrations at the final whistle after Albion secured a 1-1 draw.
Steve Gritt: “I don’t think we could go to Hereford with the mindset of just wanting a point. I think we had to go there and be as positive as we could, try to get the three points and try to get a lead. That would have probably made it a little bit easier for us.”
Ian Baird (striker): “The build-up to the game was like an FA Cup final because the world and his mother got involved. I remember Des Lynam and various celebrities who support Brighton going on the radio and on the tele and I remember the feeling of a lot of pressure.
“As far as I was concerned, Brighton were always a very big club, steeped in tradition. To be part of the side who took them out of the league, you didn’t want that on your CV, that’s for sure.”
Gary Hobson (substitute): “I was living in the town and knew a few local lads, so realised what it meant to everyone.”
Stuart Tuck (left-back): “People probably don’t think about it but Steve Gritt pulled off a bit of a masterstroke as he signed a fella called Dave Martin. He was an old pro and barely played but he was there to take a bit of pressure off everyone. I can remember sitting in the garden at the hotel and he was appearing in the window of everyone’s room to talk and take the pressure off.”
Mark Ormerod (goalkeeper): “I remember going for a walk in the morning with Stuart Storer and John Humphrey for ten or 15 minutes. I bought a couple of cans of Red Bull and was a bit like ‘if I have a couple of these before the game, it’s really going to get me involved’. Sometimes psychologically, you need those things to take your focus off the true nature of what’s happening.”
Stuart Storer (right winger): “It was a pressurised situation and it was like being in a dentist’s chair and having a root canal. You know you’ve got to go through it and you just hope you got through the other side with a positive result.”
Paul McDonald (left winger): “The season itself was a real mish-mash. There were protests, games been suspended and abandoned and the club was in turmoil. The fans didn’t deserve some of the things that were happening but, right through it all, they stuck by us.”
Ross Johnson (defender): “There was a bull walking round the pitch before the game, there was a massive atmosphere with loads of Brighton fans there and we were fighting to still be professional footballers.”
Kerry Mayo (midfielder): “It was like a build-up to a Wembley FA Cup final, everyone was getting behind us, like they were the Doncaster game. We were like heroes walking around the town, which was quite staggering considering we were close to dropping out the Football League.”
Stuart Tuck: “Everyone went there hopeful we were going to stay up but I imagine there were people making that journey just in case it was Brighton’s last game in the Football League.”
Robbie Reinelt (substitute): “We had a lot of seasoned pros in our team, so they kept the build-up all quite sensible. I’m sure deep down they were as nervous and excited as most but they didn’t let it show.
“I was feeling a bit sorry for myself about not starting, so I was kind of in my own bubble. Selfish I know but I wanted to show them that they shouldn’t have left me on the bench. I think it worked!”
Hereford had a couple of half-chances, before they drew first blood when young Albion midfielder Kerry Mayo turned a Tony Agana cross into his own goal after 20 minutes.
Steve Gritt: “Going 1-0 down made it a pretty tense occasion for everyone. Despite scoring the own goal in what was probably the biggest game the club had been involved in for a long, long time, Kerry did not let it affect him, which showed his character.
“That was the character he showed for the club over the next ten, 12 years. It was typical of the kid. He went through an awful lot that season and came through on the right side of it.”
Kerry Mayo: “I remember the own goal as if it was yesterday. I was playing centre midfield, they played a ball out to the left and I’ve just gone with my runner and tried my hardest to get to the near post. If they put a cross in, it would have to go over me but they’ve whipped it in hard and low, I’ve just tried to block it as they were a couple of Hereford players behind me, so had I missed it, they would have scored.
“I just got my foot there and I remember the ball going into the top corner. It was at that point I wanted the ground just to open up and swallow me. It was right in front of our fans as well and I didn’t want to be the local boy who helped get us in that position become the local boy who was going to be lynched on his way home.
“Dick Knight came into the tunnel at half-time, put his arm around me and said ‘don’t worry about it, you’ve been fantastic, it will work itself out’.”
Gary Hobson: “In the first half, they were a bit better than us and sitting on the bench (at 1-0 down), I was thinking ‘what are we going to do?’.”
Robbie Reinelt: “At half-time I don’t remember Steve being any different from any other game, it was encouragement and calmness.
“I think I went out to warm-up at some point. If Steve did give me any instructions, I can’t remember as I just wanted to prove him wrong for leaving me on the bench.”
Albion went into half-time 1-0 down and were still trailing when Robbie Reinelt was introduced as a second half substitute. On 62 minutes came one of the most famous goals in Brighton’s history - Craig Maskell’s shot came back off a post and Reinelt was on hand to fire home and make it 1-1.
Steve Gritt: “I wouldn’t say it was the most important substitution I’ve made but it was the one with the most impact, given what the goal meant to so many people.”
Robbie Reinelt: “Right place, right time, I suppose. It was a great volley by Maskell, it rebounded to my left foot and I hit it.
“If I had time to think, it would have been chance gone. It’s only after when I see it back that I think my left is just for standing on usually!”
Kerry Mayo: “I was first to go and jump on Robbie’s back in front of our fans. It was a massive relief and a big weight lifted off my shoulders.”
Paul McDonald: “I’d actually come off for Robbie, so I’m going to claim the assist but I’d have probably missed that chance.”
Stuart Storer: “I thought I might have been offside for Robbie’s goal, that would have put me in some serious bad books.”
Jeff Minton (midfielder): “We didn’t play a great game to be fair but we got the goal to equalise out of the blue through Robbie.”
Stuart Tuck: “It was one of the most amazing feelings in the world but that feeling quickly turns to reality as you know you’ve got plenty of minutes on the clock to see it out.”
Gary Hobson: “We got the equaliser and then had a few chances to take the lead. We wondered if those missed chances would cost us and I came on for the last ten minutes.”
Hereford piled on the pressure in the closing stages as they looked to regain the lead and send Albion out of the Football League.
Gary Hobson: “They had one really good chance. I pushed their striker in the back as he was about to shoot and Mark Ormerod, who was outstanding that day, fortunately kept it out.”
Ross Johnson: “All I remember of the game is that in the last ten minutes, one of their guys went through and, I’ve since watched the video back, I literally jump on his back and I don’t know how I didn’t get sent off.”
Steve Gritt: “That last ten minutes felt like it lasted about 100 minutes. They put us under an enormous amount of pressure because of what the game meant to them as well.
“They had a tremendous opportunity with a couple of minutes to go when their forward got through and tried to lift it over the top of the keeper. Fortunately, he lifted it over the bar.
Mark Ormerod: “Tony Agana came straight through one-on-one at the end and tried to dink the ball over me but put it straight in my hands. At that time, I thought ‘everything’s going to be okay, we’ve got this game’. If it was going to happen for them, that was the moment.”
Kerry Mayo: “There was a heart in mouth moment when they’ve gone through one-on-one but Mark Ormerod made a save of the season. Any other time that would have gone in but he pulled out a worldie, had he not done that, we’d have been out the Football League.”
The full-time whistle blew and Albion had secured their survival in the Football League - to sheer relief for the Seagulls staff, players and supporters.
Ian Baird: “The game was extremely edgy. I wouldn’t say it was one for the purists but Robbie managed to score the goal that kept us in the league and afterwards the celebrations started.
“I remember Dave Martin came back to Southampton with me. The coach dropped us off at Chieveley and we went back to Southampton and certainly had a good night.”
Steve Gritt: “It had been a crazy season, a crazy time for me to come into the club but one that I’ve always looked back on with immense pride.
“It was just a massive, massive relief. With everything that was going on with the club, with the takeover, no money, there was nothing to point the club in the right direction if we’d gone out of the league.”
Stuart Storer: “The pressure on that game was massive but the relief afterwards and the party afterwards was such a joyous occasion, it was like we’d won the World Cup.”
Paul McDonald: “To get that outcome after the season we had and to stay up was great.
“I still keep tabs with some of the lads and was speaking to Kerry Mayo recently about some of the tough times we had at Brighton. I haven’t been down since I left but it’s something I’d like to do as the club is like night from day since I left.”
Ross Johnson: “It was probably the worst game on record to watch but afterwards it was just such a massive relief.”
Gary Hobson: “The euphoria afterwards is something I’ll never forget, it felt like more than football. Steve Gritt was outstanding for us that season and I’ll forever be grateful for what he did.
“The celebration and journey back afterwards felt like we’d won something. I had relegations and promotions in my career but that was the nearest I’ve ever been to playing in a cup final.”
Stuart Tuck: “The size of that last week was mountainous, I don’t think it will ever be repeated again. There’s lots of situations now with clubs in financial difficulties but to have that, fighting relegation and losing your ground all in one year - I’m biased because I’m a Brighton fan - but I don’t think there could have been many clubs that could cope with that and come through it on the other side, like they now are.”
Mark Ormerod: “You look at where the team are now and it’s moments like Hereford and coming through the dark days that makes me feel immensely proud.”
Jeff Minton: “It was a brilliant day, mainly for the fans, because going out of the Football League would have been disastrous. We couldn’t get a win away from home that season but our home form was brilliant and got us out it.
“It’s a fantastic club and is the best I’ve played at. I’m over the moon to see them in the Premier League and I’ll definitely come down to watch some games.”
Robbie Reinelt: “To see Brighton in the top flight will be amazing - just to see a club that shouldn’t have been in the struggle they were, finally be in the place that they should.
“Scoring that goal will always be at the top of my list as a career-high, along with my first ever pro goal (which happened to be against Brighton, sorry!).”