On 9th May 1987, Burnley had to beat Leyton Orient at a packed but nervous Turf Moor and hope that Lincoln City or Torquay United would fail to take maximum points from their games. In the end, Lincoln’s 2-0 defeat at Swansea and goals from Neil Grewcock and Ian Britton in Burnley’s 2-1 win over Orient saw the Clarets to safety.
Ten years later, it was Albion’s turn, but this time their fate was in their own hands thanks to manager Steve Gritt. He had taken over at The Goldstone in December 1996 with the team looking doomed, but oversaw a remarkable upturn in the team’s fortunes that sent them to Edgar Street, Hereford, on 3rd May 1997 knowing that a draw would keep them up and send Hereford United down.
When Steve replaced Jimmy Case, the club was 11 points adrift at the foot of the Football League. And with the Goldstone due to go under the wrecking ball after the final game of the season, relegation to non-league could have meant the end.
Whether the club would have been able to mount any sort of comeback with no ground and no League football to keep the crowds coming, we will never know, because Steve worked a miracle and kept us up, winning ten home games. The last of those victories was the 1-0 win against Doncaster Rovers in the last-ever game at The Goldstone, which victory meant that the 1-1 draw at Hereford a week later was enough to secure safety on goal difference. It was surely no exaggeration to say that Steve Gritt had won the most important four points in Albion’s history.
“Thankfully Brighton supporters don’t let me forget that,” he says. “They’ve been very good to me. I got a great welcome at the Amex when I visited a few seasons ago and they still appreciate what happened when I was down there.”
I first spoke to Steve for The Times for a regular feature called ‘The Face Of Football’ in March 1997, just before the vital relegation run-in. He had previously been out of work for 18 months after 18 years at Charlton, where he had been a player and then joint manager with Alan Curbishley before the chairman decided he wanted only one man at the helm. So he had jumped at the chance when controversial Albion chairmen Bill Archer and chief executive David Bellotti offered him what I described (probably incorrectly) as the job nobody else wanted.
I found an instantly-likeable, hard-working, dedicated football man, and he has been the same whenever our paths have crossed over the years. The fans recognised it too, although at first they saw him as the pawn of an unpopular regime, which he had been warned about. “I was prepared to accept it because I’d been out of a job for a bit but I wasn’t quite ready for the intensity of it,” he says. “The first game on the Saturday I got a reception I hadn’t expected either from the graffiti or the boos when I walked onto the pitch to have my picture taken.”
But as the team began to build up a head of steam in home games, the fans swung behind him and even the team’s dismal away form improved at just the right moment. “I couldn’t understand how we were so dominant at home – won ten, drew two, lost none, which is incredible for a team at the bottom – and yet only got four points away. But two were at Cambridge, the third-last game of the season, and Hereford. Very useful and well-timed.
Stuart Storer’s winner against Doncaster and sub Robbie Reinelt’s point-saving equaliser at Hereford are a matter of Albion history, but Steve recalls the other side of the relief felt by fans on that last day of the 1996-97 season as he went to shake hands with Hereford manager Graham Turner.
“In some ways it was probably harder for Graham,” he said. “I doubt they would have expected to be in that position or that we would be the team that would send them down. I saw Graham quickly after the final whistle and you could see he was distraught at the result and the consequences it might have for the club. But later I went to his office and he was bit calmer. Being the man he was, he was very gracious in what he had to say and he knew he had a job to do to try to get them back the next season. A very emotional day, but a fantastic day for me and everyone at Brighton.”
The following season, though, was even tougher. Marooned at Gillingham and without the backing of big Goldstone crowds, the team was effectively playing 46 away games, and the road form, as we know, was poor. “It was very difficult, even more difficult than the first season,” Steve says. “By the end of September, beginning of October I had to release all of my senior players for contract reasons, guys who had been instrumental in keeping us up the previous season, and was able only to bring in a few loan signings. That made it hard, but we were still okay. I never expected us to be where we had been in 1997, because Doncaster were always likely to go down. But the chairmen wanted to get results and my neck was on the block.”
Steve left in February 1998, and returned to his favourite patch in south-east London, but this time with Millwall rather than Charlton. “I had a very enjoyable time at Millwall,” he says. “I was there for five years, first with Billy Bonds, then Rhino and Macca [joint-managers Keith Stevens and Alan McLeary], and finally Mark McGhee. I was looking after the reserves and then was Mark’s assistant for three years before they made a change. I went back to Charlton, first scouting and then as academy manager.”
With typical modesty, he refuses to take credit for the stream of talented young players emerging from Charlton’s Sparrows Lane headquarters in New Eltham. “Some came through during my tenure but you have to give everybody who worked there credit, and continue to do so, because they keep turning out good young players. It has always been very productive because of the people who have worked there.”
After some time scouting for AFC Bournemouth and Birmingham City, in 2013 he returned to familiar territory, albeit a little farther out of London, at non-League Ebbsfleet. “I was asked if I wanted to work as assistant to Steve Brown, one of my old Charlton players. It meant being back in the dugout at the grand old age of 55, but it was a no-brainer for me, a new project with [ex-Charlton managing director] Peter Varney as CEO, trying to get a club up and running that had been on its knees, with faces I knew that made it easy to get back into routine. Eventually, with former captain Daryl McMahon at the helm, we got to the playoffs three years in a row, before it went pear-shaped last season with the finances.”
📝 Two new faces and one familiar one are set to lead The Silkmen.https://t.co/TeOm6KXUqi— Macclesfield Town (@thesilkmen) August 19, 2019
Fleet beat Chelmsford City in the play-off final to reach the National League in 2017 but lost out to Tranmere Rovers in the 2018 play-offs for a Football League place. Even so, Steve is back among the 92, even if geographically he is a very long way from home – as assistant manager, again to Daryl McMahon, at Macclesfield Town in League Two.
“It’s certainly somewhere different,” he laughs. “Daryl and I are sharing a house but it’s a bit easier for me because my kids are working or at university. We both get home now and then and it’s only 200 miles or so, which isn’t the other end of the world, and the trains aren’t bad.
“Macclesfield recognised the job Daryl had done at Ebbsfleet and when they asked him to succeed Sol Campbell he asked me to go with him. He is an up-and-coming manager and I think he has a good future. I have seen him develop into the manager he is now and I always said he would work in the EFL and I think he will go further. Look what Danny Cowley has done at Lincoln, who we used to come up against at Concord Rangers. I think Daryl could do the same.”
No doubt he’ll say he couldn’t have done it without Steve? “I’d hope so! But he’s his own man and I’m just here to help. He doesn’t want a yes man, but I offer some experience and while I’m keeping myself fit enough to carry on doing it, I will. We’ve got quite a young squad so it can be frustrating at times but they’re very receptive.”
Is he enjoying it? “Yes, of course I am. At three o’clock on a Saturday afternoon I’m in the dugout instead of sitting at home watching Jeff Stelling and you can’t beat that.” Albion fans will wish him every success.