As we’ve seen both recently and down the years, a number of players have risen through our youth ranks to wear the blue and white of Albion’s first team. Spencer Vignes looks back at the young guns who made the grade, starting with one of our most versatile performers of recent decades...
Adam Virgo is that rarest of things – a public schoolboy who became a professional footballer. Born into an Albion supporting family [his dad was at Wembley in 1983], Adam attended Ardingly College from the age of 13 which, as he explains, might actually have been a disadvantage for someone intending on playing football for a living. Talent will win out, as they say, and the rest is history. He is, and always will be, an Albion legend.
Adam, your story is a little different to the vast majority of players who’ve come up through the Albion system, isn’t it?
In a way, yes. I didn’t grow up with a state school education. I was always at private school. When I was 13 I was actually very good at rugby [union] and people felt I could have gone that way rather than football. But back then rugby was still amateur. I had the choice of either going to Eastbourne College to play rugby or Ardingly to play football. My brother had gone to Ardingly and I’d seen it was a really strong footballing school. Academically, I was never going to be a doctor or anything like that. I knew sport was going to be my pathway to a future. So I chose Ardingly.
Did your choice not hinder your chances of getting spotted?
The only thing about going to a private school was that the scouting system back then was quite prone towards state schools. I probably didn’t get spotted until I was about 15. We won the Sussex Cup and went on to represent Sussex in what was like the Champions League of counties for all schools, state as well as private, so I was getting recognised a little bit more. The other thing that happened that season was Martin Hinshelwood came to Ardingly as a coach. For some reason Martin took a real liking to me, felt I had something, and slowly introduced me to Brighton.
How did that work, seeing as you were still at school?
During the holidays I’d go and train with the youth team and, if I had a Saturday off, I’d either play or be on the bench for the youth team. Martin also introduced me to Selsey Football Club where his son Danny was the manager. I was there for about six months and it was the best education I ever had in football. I went into a dressing room of men with a bit of a reputation locally as an up-and-coming player. It was very much the old-school element of ‘Let’s kick him. Let’s see what he’s made of’. I learned to look after myself and, even though I was 16, I was standing out in men’s football.
Is that when the Albion really showed an interest?
Although I wasn’t at Brighton, I did play in a couple of FA Youth Cup games, and that’s where Micky Adams came and watched me. He originally offered me a YTS contract which we turned down. I was still at school and I think my dad wanted me to finish my education. Then Micky came back to me again with another contract that ended up being a pro contract. I just felt it was too good an opportunity to turn down. That’s how I broke into Brighton & Hove Albion.
You played in so many different positions over the years. What did you consider yourself to be?
I was a central midfielder growing up, but I remember Graham Dawtrey, my school manager at the time, and Martin Hinshelwood both saying, ‘If you want to be a footballer, you’re going to have to be a centre-half.’ Back then I kind of argued against it. Little did I know they were actually right! So I signed for Brighton as a centre-half and played the first three years there. I didn’t play much under Steve Coppell but then Mark McGhee took a big liking to me, although the only way he could really fit me into the side was at right-back because Paul Watson had picked up an injury. So I went in at right-back and played there for two years.
You famously played in attack too...
It wasn’t until we reached the Championship under Mark, when we couldn’t sign any players and had no money, that he put me in as a centre-forward. The problem with that, because I did so well to start with, was the higher up I went, the more I got found out. When Celtic signed me from Brighton [in 2005], and Gordon [Strachan, Celtic manager] played me as a centre-forward, I was not good enough at that level to play in that position… because I wasn’t a centre-forward! Some people still see me as a centre-forward but I only played one whole season up there in my entire career. There was the odd game during my second stint at Brighton when I played up front, and Micky [Adams] also played me there occasionally when I was with him at Coventry, but it was always more a case of ‘Stick him up there and see what he can do’ rather than anything permanent. I’m happy to be remembered as a defender who had a one-off season as a centre-forward!
What was your favourite game for the Seagulls?
In all honesty, my favourite is my debut against Brentford in the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy [in January 2001]. Then there’s my first league start which was against Mansfield. We won 1-0, I played really well and got Man-of-the-Match. Making your debut is a significant game for anybody, and I was no different. It was my hometown club and it represented a journey I’d made from Hollingbury Hawks to that moment. You’ve become a professional footballer and nobody can ever take that away from you.
What about the Play-Off final against Bristol City or your dramatic role in the semi-final against Swindon…
As special as the above games were, I will never, ever forget travelling on the bus to the Millennium Stadium and, when we turned left on the final approaches, the sight that greeted us – the sheer number of Brighton fans, the flags, everybody with a beer in their hands on what was a boiling hot day. We were quite a boisterous bunch back then and we all just kind of went quiet. I couldn’t help but think, ‘It’s my goal against Swindon and the penalty in the shoot-out afterwards that’s created this.’ It’s a team effort, don’t get me wrong, but the significance of that goal really hit home. When I saw kids with their dads in their old Brighton shirts, you realised how it brought a lot of people together, some of who had supported the club from way back, so yes, both those games were so memorable too.