Brighton and Crystal Palace: the rise of a rivalry separated by 39 miles

Brighton and Crystal Palace: the rise of a rivalry separated by 39 miles

Many bands have penned odes to their hometowns over time, singing the praises of their local streets and parks. The Beatles waxed lyrical over Penny Lane and Strawberry Fields; The Kinks invited us to enjoy a Waterloo Sunset; while Gerry Rafferty took his saxophone to Baker Street. Each song echoed memories of great days and blissful childhoods.

However, when one considers David Bowie and his recollections of days gone by, it is safe to say that he did not enjoy such wistful memories. When asked about how he would describe something dreary, he could only think of one place that summed it up for him: “It represented everything I didn’t want in my life, everything I wanted to get away from. I think it’s the most derogatory thing I can say about something: ‘God, it’s so fucking Croydon.”

A touch harsh perhaps, but back in the 1970s and 1980s, Croydon did have a reputation as a concrete monstrosity, driven by London banning skyscrapers in the 1960s after which developers had to find somewhere to pour their concrete. And hence the world of architecture was treated to such horrors as the Whitgift Centre, the NLA Tower, an underpass and a flyover.

Oh, and if you think I am being unfair on Croydon town centre, I am speaking from a position of knowledge: I had to spend the first 16 years of my life meeting friends in the Whitgift Centre as the highlight after school. Trust me, the many ways to use concrete were richly celebrated there.

But there did exist an escape route from the London suburb into pastures greener. On a sunny day, it was possible to pack the family up into a Ford Cortina and head off due south down the A23 across the scenic Sussex Downs until land ran out and you were in Brighton. In fact, the road was nicknamed the “Brighton Road” by locals.

Many a school trip was spent going down to that glorious seaside town, enjoying the delights of the pier, drinking too many fizzy drinks and then regretting it on the many fairground rides. A place of fine Victorian architecture, ice creams and sticks of rock. The yin to Croydon’s yang.

But the drive took a while. Croydon and Brighton are separated by 39 miles; even by train it takes almost an hour from East Croydon to Brighton. Again, I talk from experience having once fallen asleep travelling from Victoria to East Croydon and waking at 1am in Brighton – but let’s not get into that. The point is that the two cities are hardly next door and so really should have no reason to notice the other in any significant way.

It means that the football teams that exist in both towns, Crystal Palace and Brighton & Hove Albion, both have closer neighbours to concern themselves with. Palace especially, being in south London, have Wimbledon, Charlton and Millwall in their immediate vicinity, not to mention numerous possible other London derbies.

Brighton, meanwhile, are a little more isolated but Portsmouth is 42 miles away – similar to Croydon – and represents another south coast location. And so there should be no real rivalry, and certainly not enough for it to be called a derby in the same way as Liverpool and Everton or Manchester United and City.

Fans of both Palace and Brighton will happily tell you that it is not a derby in the true sense of the word, but a rivalry it most definitely is. For the reason why such a strange feud exists, one must go back to Tottenham in the 1960s.

Spurs during that time had a competent team, one that won the FA Cup in 1967, defeating rivals Chelsea 2-1. Playing alongside each other for Spurs on that day were two English midfielders, Alan Mullery and Terry Venables. While both played most of their days together at Tottenham, it wasn’t always a harmonious relationship, with Venables having to be second-in-command to Mullery as captain. They were not best of friends and so when both hung up their boots and started managerial careers, any future meetings between the two had the potential for sparks. And it wouldn’t be long before they would come face-to-face as rivals.

The story moves on to 1970s. For many years, Palace and Brighton hadn’t even been in the same division together. That all changed during the 1974/75 season when they met in the third tier. Brighton had just gone through the short spell of leadership under Brian Clough who, having moved on to his ill-fated time at Leeds, had split with long-time partner Peter Taylor, who took over the reins.

At Palace, meanwhile, the colourful Malcolm Allison was in charge – a man to whom the words humility and shyness most definitely did not apply.

The game at Brighton’s Goldstone Ground saw a higher-than-usual attendance and resulted in police arrests due to fighting between fans after reports of heavy drinking. The next season saw both teams fighting for promotion, which obviously heightened tensions somewhat, and the game at Selhurst Park saw Palace win 1-0 in front of their largest crowd for two years, despite what Allison described after as an overly physical approach from Brighton.

It is Allison who brings us nicely onto the theme of club nicknames. Until 1973, Crystal Palace had been known as The Glaziers in reference to the famous glass palace after which they are named. But Allison felt that this was not sexy enough, and so after glancing around Europe’s greatest sides and noting that Benfica were The Eagles, the nickname was changed to just that. Hence, a new terrace chant was born.

Brighton were known as The Dolphins, a name voted on by locals and reflecting the opening of a local Dolphinarium in 1969. But “Come on you Dolphins” just lacked a certain something. Therefore, when the sides met in 1976, a group of Brighton fans decided to answer Palace’s chants with “Come on you Seagulls” – a reference to their fine seaside setting. It was popular and soon became the official nickname, resulting in a fire sale of dolphin-themed merchandise on the south coast.

So now, Eagles vs Seagulls existed as a thing. But having rhyming birds as mascots hardly makes a rivalry. The game that saw the birth of the Seagulls also saw the game almost abandoned due to Palace fans throwing smoke bombs and other missiles onto the pitch. There was something starting to rumble.

1976 saw both sides eventually miss out on promotion, and both subsequently saw a change of management. Palace promoted Venables from coach following Allison’s resignation while Brighton gave Mullery his first managerial post. As such, promotion from the Third Division was a priority for both.

Despite their playing careers being well in the rear-view mirror, there was a simmering tension between the two ex-Spurs men, and their first meeting would occur at the Goldstone Ground, a game once again interrupted three times by smoke bombs. As if to add fuel to the fire, they drew each other in the first round of the FA Cup. The famous tale of ‘Challis of the Palace’ came into existence.

The initial tie was a draw, with Mullery complaining about Palace’s negative tactics, and the replay also drew a stalemate. As was the case in those days, a second replay was scheduled – and then postponed twice for weather before finally occurring at Stamford Bridge in early December – raising the tension. The Eagles took an early lead, which was then followed by a disallowed goal for Brighton when Peter Ward was adjudged to have handled. After the game, Jim Cannon admitted pushing Ward into the ball to cause the handball. 

And then came the moment that still lives in infamy between both sets of supporters. The Seagulls were awarded a penalty by referee Ron Challis after 78 minutes. Brian Horton converted but, to his astonishment, was forced to retake after Challis adjudged that a Brighton player had encroached, the player protesting that he had been pushed into the area by a Palace man. The second attempt was saved and Brighton ended up exiting the cup. Mullery was not best pleased.

Angry, he had to be escorted off the pitch by police while being heckled by Palace fans. According to his recollection, “A chap there [in the stands], I’d like to meet him again actually, he was up there and he poured a hot coffee all over my head. Literally I had about 30p in my pocket and looked up and said that’s about all you’re worth.”

Finally losing his cool, he flicked V-signs at them, swearing at the same time, in an image that is famously revered by Brighton fans still to this day. The gesture ended up costing him more than 30p when the FA slapped him with a £100 fine.

The season ended on a high for both teams as they achieved promotion to Division Two, meaning that the simmering rivalry would continue. And both were on a roll: the 1978/79 campaign saw both clubs promoted together once again, this time to the big time, with Palace snatching the title from Brighton in their final match. Their destinies seemed entwined at this time and it is really this whole period which created what some now call the A23 derby.

Since then, the rivalry has seen many infamous moments. 1982 saw Mullery appointed as Crystal Palace manager – a move that didn’t sit well with Palace fans (think Rafa Benitez at Everton). It didn’t help that he then oversaw two losses to Brighton which in part led to his dismissal two years later. Both sides slipped back to the Second Division, while a 1985 clash saw Brighton’s long-serving Irishman, Gerry Ryan, have his career ended by a tackle which broke his leg in three separate places. 

Four years later, one of the most famous – and indeed bizarre – games between the two took place. Their meeting at Selhurst Park saw referee Kelvin Morton in the thick of the action. It all started after about 16 minutes when Ian Wright scored a screamer of a goal for the Eagles, hitting it from the left wing over goalkeeper John Keeley when most were expecting a cross. Four minutes later, things went from bad to worse for Brighton as a nasty challenge by Mike Trusson on Palace’s Eddie McGoldrick saw him red-carded. Palace fans were enjoying the afternoon thus far.

And then things started getting surreal. A high ball into the box saw Brighton defender Larry May seemingly strangle Mark Bright as he climbed for the header. Referee Morton had no hesitation in awarding a penalty. Bright himself took responsibility and powered it into the bottom corner. Two-nil to Palace and with an extra man.

Two minutes later, McGoldrick tormented the Brighton defence on the edge of the area before finally being cut down, resulting in a clear second penalty. Up stepped Bright again, but this time he was denied by a save from John Keeley, who diverted the ball away for a Palace corner.

The corner was taken, the ball played around outside the area, before returning to a Palace player, who duly went down under a tackle and was awarded … another penalty. The crowd chanted for Wright to take responsibility, which he did – and duly hit the post.

Three penalties in three minutes: one scored and two missed. And we were still only in the first half.

With that, the Eagles entered half-time 2-0 up and a man to the good but knowing that the game should have been dead and buried by now. The second half started off with the commentator’s sage words, “I am sure the referee is probably hoping he doesn’t have quite so many controversial decisions to make.” That wasn’t to be the case.

Just three minutes into the second half, a long kick from Keeley bounced into the Palace box; to much amazement, another penalty was awarded for what looked like an innocuous tussle. At least it was Brighton’s turn this time. The penalty was coolly put away by Alan Curbishley and suddenly the Seagulls were back in the game. 

Eleven minutes then managed to pass without major incident before a cross aimed towards Wright was cut off by Brighton’s Ian Chapman, looking suspiciously like handball. Referee Morton felt so, awarding a fifth penalty, again to Palace.

By now everyone was confused as to who should take it. Bright had a record of scored one-missed one, while Wright had missed his effort. And so, John Pemberton was trusted with this fourth – a right-back who had never taken a penalty for Palace before – the reason becoming clear as he skied it over the bar.

Five penalties across the space of 27 minutes – two converted and three missed. The rest of the game was relatively uneventful given all the preceding drama, leaving Palace with a useful 2-1 victory and memories for the fans to savour. To make it even sweeter for them, the Eagles gained promotion that season while Brighton remained in the second tier.

The next 21 years saw the rivalry fade as Brighton suffered lower-league football and financial difficulties, resulting in only four meetings across that time. It is periods like this when fans suddenly realise that however much they may dislike each other, not having the friction active is worse. As one Palace fan nicely put it in an interview, “We are like two brothers that hate each other but love each other at the same time. A superhero needs a villain, and a villain needs a superhero. I think we need each other to make us realise how great football is and how much we love our teams.”

It was only in the 2012/13 season when the rivalry sparked back into life. And, like the bizarre game discussed above with the five penalties, one of their clashes again caused jaws to drop. 

The two sides met at the end of the season in a playoff semi-final in the Championship, with Brighton having finished fourth, one place above Palace – a two-legged meeting that would decide who could gain access to Premier League riches. The first leg was a damp squib, a goalless draw at Selhurst Park. But the second leg would see the strange occurrence of what became dubbed “Poo-gate”.

As the Palace team entered their changing room ahead of the match, they were met with a disgusting odour from within. To their horror, the smell emanated from human excrement that had been smeared onto the toilet floor. The rivalry being what it is, there was immediate suspicion cast towards the source being someone of a Brighton persuasion, which if it was the case, just helped fuel Palace’s determination to gain revenge.

The players went out and defeated Brighton through two goals from Wilfred Zaha, thus eliminating them and gaining perceived justice. Considering how it may have driven the Palace players, Brighton manager Gus Poyet sent an angry email to the Brighton stadium staff demanding an explanation – shortly before then being suspended for a breach of contract.

The email famously stated, “For some reason that is still not clear to me, someone during the day had access to the away dressing room and done something terrible, trying to upset everyone related to Palace. To say it in clear English, someone had a poo all outside the toilets, over and around the toilets.”

While the case of Poo-gate has rumbled on, a former Palace player has stated that the real cause was actually internal, stating that the Eagles coach driver that day had lost control of his bodily functions while rushing to the porcelain. Whether that is true or not, no-one can say. But it was a classic way to rekindle a dormant rivalry.

2018 saw the rivalry reignite once again in a spicy encounter. Brighton were home against Palace at Falmer Stadium and took an early lead through Glenn Murray. We should take a moment here to pause and talk about Murray, who has a close relationship with the Brighton-Palace dynamic.

His career really took off when he played for Brighton between 2008 and 2011, scoring 54 goals in 118 games. But then he shocked the Seagulls by signing for Palace, which was compounded by scoring against Brighton in a couple of meetings. However, he suffered a serious knee injury at the end of the 2013 season – where the opponent was, of course, Brighton.

In 2015, he joined Bournemouth but from there was loaned on to the Seagulls, joining them for a second time. He later signed permanently, resulting in him facing his former club Palace once again in this 2018 tie. As stated, he gave them an early lead, but through what the Palace players saw as a very harsh penalty award.

Shortly after, Brighton claimed another penalty which was refuted. Palace players felt Brighton were guilty of play-acting and a melee broke out, during which Brighton defender Shane Duffy headbutted Palace defender Patrick van Aanholt. Brighton then went on to win 3-1 with ten men.

More recently, the Brighton-Palace games have been notable for late drama. A 2020 meeting saw Alexis MacAllister rescue a point for Brighton with a last-minute equaliser. The next game, in early 2021, saw Christian Benteke score a winning goal for Palace in stoppage time. The third game then saw Brighton rescue a point with a stoppage-time equalizer from Neal Maupay, leading to tense scenes with fans after the final whistle.

As with any rivalry, there is an unwritten agreement between both sets of fans that they need each other to fuel excitement and that, deep down, it is really something that is primarily saved for the 90 minutes of competition for most. And a great example of this is the story of the Robert Eaton Memorial match.

Eaton was a Brighton fan who tragically lost his life during the Twin Towers attack of September 2001. A memorial fund was set up in his name to raise money for youth sports clubs across the world and fans of both teams decided to raise money for it by hosting an annual game between them.

Supported by the two clubs, games have been held in various locations and have included ex-professionals such as Peter Ward, Ricky Marlow, Simon Rodger, Peter Taylor and Paul Rogers. Ten of thousands of pounds have been raised and, despite some occasional spicy challenges, great enjoyment has been had by all for a great cause. As one fan commented, the game represents “a kind of Christmas Day truce.”

And so, the Eagles vs the Seagulls all really stemmed from the mid-70s. Unlike a true derby, it developed due to managerial personalities and both clubs being often linked in promotion battles. While the 70s was the true birthplace, it has since continued as generations of fans pass down the rivalry from parent to child.

There are probably many current fans of both teams who don’t know the origin story and may well not care – to them it is just something they have always taken for granted: cats chase mice, dogs chase cats and Palace don’t like Brighton. But it is interesting to see how friction can develop from almost 50-year-old origins. While it may not have the status of Arsenal-Tottenham or Aston Villa-Birmingham, to both sets of fans it represents the biggest league game of the season.

By Dominic Hougham

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