To celebrate Martin Perry’s 20 years as a director of the football club, below is the third in a series of stories on brightonandhovealbion.com to celebrate his achievements at the Albion.
Brighton & Hove Albion executive director Martin Perry spoke about the move back to Sussex in 1999, when Withdean Stadium - a small athletics venue on the outskirts of Brighton - was identified as the club’s new home.
After two seasons at Gillingham’s Priestfield Stadium in Kent - some 75 miles away - the Seagulls returned to Brighton for the start of the 1999/00 Third Division season, but the move was far from straightforward.
Perry said, “We just had to get back to Brighton. Attendances were falling at Gillingham and it was obvious we were not going to survive. In addition, the Football League had imposed a bond on the club for £500,000 which would be forfeited if we did not get back within three years.
"This was huge drain on our already stretched cash resources. The fans started a campaign called ‘Bring Back the Albion’ and we started talking to the Council and they suggested Withdean. I remember going to look at it and, at that stage, it was a crumbling athletics track.
“Weeds were growing up in the terraces, there wasn't proper seating and there was a grass bank on the far side. It probably had a seated capacity of less than 1,000 and we needed a ground with the capacity of 6,000.
“We needed approval from the Policy and Resources Committee at the Council to lease the stadium and then planning permission to convert it to meet the Football League ground criteria.”
"We were very surprised at that time by the strength of opposition from local residents, who filled the public gallery at the Town Hall when the Policy and Resources Committee met.
"Dick Knight calculated that we would be using the stadium less than 1% of the total time available for other uses at the stadium and ran a huge poster campaign on this theme. Little did we realise, that would be the start of nearly 10 years of campaigning to get us to the Amex!"
At that stage, Perry was a director at the club on a part-time basis, while continuing to work for construction company Alfred McAlpine, and he explained the complexity of upgrading the Withdean Stadium to meet Football League regulations.
“We were granted planning permission to convert Withdean in January 1999 and McAlpine were awarded the main contract. We took on a sub-contractor called Adenstar to carry out the civils works. The managing director of that company at the time was Derek Chapman [current Albion director].
“We had a very short period to convert the stadium. We had to take out the existing stand and rebuild the terraces, bring in a new roof and create a new car park in the top corner.
“A new floodlighting and safety system had to be rebuilt. We used an existing changing room when we started, but we added a number of temporary portacabins to provide toilet facilities for the supporters and a small hospitality suite and directors lounge.
"The stadium capacity was 6,000, but it didn't fully comply with the Football League ground criteria, because there was a requirement for 2,000 seats under cover. The maximum we could get, with the new roof that we’d built, was 1,300 and we never increased the number under cover.”
“We were only allowed in the stadium on match days. We had a small office in one of the cabins and we had to bring the computers and printers with us on a match day and take them home in the evening.
"The ticket printers were really temperamental. They would not print the tickets if the conditions were damp or humid and Sally Townsend used to bring a hair dryer with her and was frequently seen giving the ticket printer the hair dryer treatment!”
“The seats in the South Stand and the Away Stand were hired and were used for the Open Golf Tournament in the summer, so at the end of each season, as soon as we had played the last game, they would be removed go to the Open Golf and then returned in time for the start of the new season.
"It meant we needed a new safety certificate and inspection each time they were returned and rebuilt, which meant the timing was really tight. Sometimes we did not get the safety certificate until late on a Friday evening before the match the following day.”
“We finished converting Withdean the night before a friendly against Nottingham Forest. We got the safety certificate at around 5pm that evening and the game went ahead on the following day.”
After Albion’s pre-season schedule came to an end, the Seagulls opened their league account with an emphatic victory at their new home, and Perry reflected on a memorable day that restored an element of happiness on the south coast.
“We then went on to the opening game of the season against Mansfield Town, which we won 6-0, and we were home at last. It was a cracking day and the perfect start.
“After the Nottingham Forest friendly and Mansfield game, I remember going home absolutey exhausted, but Dick then asked me to come on board full-time and, of course, I accepted.”
“There was a real fear that people got out of the habit of going to watch us on a Saturday afternoon. But we sold out the games at Withdean, and we then started the process of increasing the capacity. By the time we left Withdean, we had increased the capacity to just under 9,000.
“Although we were at Withdean a lot longer than anticipated, it was the perfect start to an era where we punched massively above our weight. There were many happy memories at Withdean.”