Steve Penney talks us through his time on the south coast with the Seagulls, as the Northern Ireland international looks back on his eight seasons with the Albion.
You arrived in 1983 following the club’s relegation back to the second tier. How did the move come about?
I was playing for Ballymena United in the Irish League and I was recommended to Albion coach Sammy Nelson by his fellow Northern Ireland international colleague Jim Platt, who was winding down his career with Ballymena at the time.
We were sat in the communal bath after a game and Jim asked me whether I fancied playing in England. I said I’d jump at the chance and the next thing Sammy has sent a scout over from Brighton to watch me.
I then remember arriving in Sussex on the Monday, playing on the Tuesday and Thursday for the reserves, signing on the Friday and making my debut on the Saturday against Barnsley. To say it was a whirlwind week was something of an understatement!
What do you remember about that debut?
I remember getting the better of their left-back and one of my crosses was headed home by Alan Young for the opening goal. I thought this wasn’t too bad at all but then in a flash we had lost the game 3-1.
That was quite a harsh introduction to life as a professional footballer. Technically I wouldn’t say it was much different to what I’d been used to, but the players were much fitter, stronger and had more in the tank. That’s what I needed to add to my game.
You couldn’t just turn it on and off when you wanted, you had to be at it in every game and also in every training session – and that was something Chris Cattlin told me early on when he pulled me into his office three or four weeks after I signed. It was excellent advice at the time.
You were a young lad coming to Brighton from Northern Ireland – was it hard to stay on the straight and narrow off the pitch?
I was always sensible as a youngster anyway, but I always remember wanting my own flat. Chris was very good though; he told me to stay with my landlady in my digs in Shoreham and then in the summer he’d take care of it.
Sammy [Nelson] was also there to help me but I wasn’t going to let anything distract me. Yes, a few of the lads enjoyed a beer, the older players who were at the end of their careers, but it was always done at the right time.
I just wanted to play football and I didn’t even care about the money either. I was a young lad, just happy to be playing professional football for Brighton.
Such was your impact that teams from the top-flight were soon looking at you. Did you come close to joining any of them?
I knew Graham Taylor at Watford wanted to sign me and had offered £200,000 while Ipswich and Crystal Palace were interested towards the end of my Albion career when I wasn’t particularly getting on with Barry Lloyd, but I was happy as Larry and never wanted to leave.
I loved the area, I loved playing for Brighton, and I had a good rapport with the fans – this was the club that had given me my big break, so why leave? I enjoyed playing for Chris, for Alan Mullery and although I’d had a few problems with Barry, I was always happy to pull on that shirt.
Even with all the interest, I wasn’t someone going in and banging on the manager’s door – even though some of the senior players told me I should – I was happy to stay.
You won your first cap for Northern Ireland against Israel in October 1984. What was that like?
A fantastic experience and one that I’ll always remember. It was a good squad to be part of as a young player, with many of the players who had appeared in the 1982 finals still playing.
We had the likes of Pat Jennings, Sammy McIlroy, Jimmy Nicholl, Gerry Armstrong, Martin O’Neill and Norman Whiteside, fantastic players with a wealth of experience. In my first 12 games I was never on the losing side, which tells you all you needed to know about that side under Billy Bingham – a tremendous group.
We also came from both sides of the sectarian divide, a time when the Troubles were still very prominent, but it was never an issue for us, which says much for the camaraderie we had.
You also went on to play in the 1986 World Cup finals…
I played in our first two games, a 1-1 draw against Algeria, in which I was brought down for the free-kick from which Norman Whiteside scored; and against Spain, which we lost 2-1.
During the first half I was caught by their striker Emilio Butragueno and had to go off at half-time with an ankle injury. I never recovered in time for our final group game, against Brazil, and I was so disappointed to miss that.
It was the game in which Josimar beat Pat Jennings from about 40 yards out – a tremendous goal. It would have been nice to play against Zico, but the nearest I got was about 15 yards, which was the position where I was sitting in the stands!
When you look back at your time at the Albion, what is your favourite memory?
I would say the back end of the 1987/88 season, when I’d recovered from my initial knee injury and played the last dozen or so games of the season under Barry.
The momentum at the time just grew and grew and having sat in sixth place, we remained unbeaten in our final ten games, winning seven of them to win promotion back into the Second Division as runners-up to Sunderland. A fantastic achievement.
Injuries contributed to the end of your time with the Albion, didn’t they?
I had already fractured an ankle, followed by that knee injury which, in hindsight, was simply not diagnosed properly. I had my patella tendon cut away, and part of my hamstring taken out and put into the knee as a replacement, but it should never have got to that stage.
In the end I went to Harley Street, and I should have gone there first, because it was actually a simple problem to resolve. I was given a free transfer towards the end of the 1990/91 season and although I had a brief spell at Hearts in Scotland with Joe Jordan, I did have something of a renaissance playing for Jimmy Mullen at Burnley, but was eventually forced to call it a day at the age of 30.
I still keep a keen eye on Albion’s results though and it’s been nice to visit the Amex a couple of times too, where I’ve always received such a warm welcome. It’s great to see the club in the Premier League and you can really see what Graham Potter is trying to achieve with the team.