The 1996/97 season will forever be associated with the club’s turbulent final season at the Goldstone Ground. Off-field protests against the board were further fuelled by a sorry campaign which saw the club hit rock bottom of the Football League for the first time in 50 years and, by October, some 11 points adrift of safety.
Yet following the arrival of Steve Gritt as manager, the Seagulls embarked on an astonishing 12-game unbeaten home run which ultimately took the club’s survival hopes to the last game at Hereford. The previous week, the curtain came down on the Goldstone with an emotional 1-0 victory against Doncaster Rovers – a result which saw Albion switch places with the Bulls.
Our survival hopes came down to the final 90 minutes at Edgar Street and the equation was simple: a draw would ensure survival at the expense of the hosts. A defeat? Well, that wasn’t worth thinking about.
“We kept things simple in the build-up, why change something that was working?” recalls Reinelt, a February signing from Colchester United. “In fact, there was always a good atmosphere in training. I know that sounds strange because of the situation, but the older pros took a lot of the pressure off us. I felt confident we would survive.”
This wasn’t uncharted territory for Reinelt either, having made 16 league appearances for Aldershot before the club went out of business in March 1992. “It was a very similar situation,” he added. “I was just starting out. It was a really sad time for the club so I knew what was at stake and didn’t want to see the same thing happen to Brighton.”
Given Albion’s volatile off-field situation, Robbie could have avoided history possibly repeating itself by staying at Layer Road, but here was a player ready to roll his sleeves up for the cause – a trait which soon endeared him to the fans.
“Steve [Gritt] didn’t really mention what was going on; he rarely did, and just said that he thought I would fit in with the football he wanted to play. He said if I was prepared to fight it would be worth it. But I always gave 100 per cent anyway, which the fans appreciated.”
Reinelt had already paid back a chunk of his £15,000 fee with a fine goal in a 1-1 draw at Cambridge, a week before the Doncaster game. Yet as the side travelled up to Edgar Street, the 23-year-old found himself consigned to the bench.
“I was told a couple of days before that I wouldn’t be starting and it did hurt,” he admits. “But I kind of expected it as we had two good strikers [Ian Baird and Craig Maskell] and Steve knew what he was doing.
“Maybe it was because I was on the bench, but I never got nervous beforehand. I actually slept in and nearly missed breakfast!
“But if you think too much you can get overtaken by the day, so I just treated it like any other game. I don’t even recall anything out of the ordinary being said in the changing room either.”
Not that the 3,000 travelling fans were as calm when Kerry Mayo scored a 21st minute own goal. Yet there would be no pressing the panic buttons - “I knew we had a good team of fighters and wouldn’t go down without a fight.” Ten minutes into the second half, Gritt made the change that would transform the game.
Enter Reinelt for Paul McDonald and, with 62 minutes on the clock, Maskell smashed a left-foot volley against a post. The ball bounced back out leaving the super sub to drill home.
“It was on my left foot and I was not thinking anything other than ‘just hit it!’” he recalls. “It was only after the final whistle that I realised what had happened. It was quite surreal; on one hand you have survived relegation, but on the other you have sent another club out of the Football League.
“I remember a lot of the younger lads went out in Brighton when we got back and it was like we had won promotion. I didn’t have to buy a drink all night!”
Naturally, Reinelt receives a hero’s welcome whenever he returns to the club – not that he gets many opportunities these days. “Most of my time is spent following my daughter with her trampoline-gymnastics, as she competes for Great Britain. “She has far more talent than me but saying that, I am very humbled to be part of this great club’s history.”
Defender Kerry Mayo looks back on that memorable day 23 years ago…
“I remember the coach journey going to the ground. It was just a sea of blue-and-white fans, like an FA Cup Final. We were either going to stay in the Football League or drop out of it, simple as that. For a club as big as the Albion to be in that position, it was quite remarkable really.
“For their goal, I just remember the ball deflecting off my foot and going into the top corner. It was right in front of our travelling fans and I laid there with my hands over my head. I just wanted the ground to swallow me up.
“Robbie Reinelt then scored the goal in the second half to equalise, but it was a very nervous ending when they went through one-v-one and Mark Ormerod made an absolutely world-class save. If it wasn’t for Mark and Robbie, the club would have gone out of the Football League that day.”