As we’ve seen both recently and down the years, a number of players – some of them local, others talent-spotted from further afield – 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, continuing with yet another gem unearthed from the ‘Emerald Isle’.
It was so nearly the debut to make, or potentially break, a career. In April 1983, Kieran O’Regan was selected by Albion manager Jimmy Melia to be the lone substitute in our FA Cup semi-final against Sheffield Wednesday at Highbury. The 19-year-old had just been handed his first professional contract, having come over to Sussex from his native County Cork on trial the previous August. The transfer deadline had already passed, making Kieran ineligible for league games, but that didn’t prevent him being available for cup ties. And so, with Albion bedevilled by injuries and suspension, Melia stuck him on the bench.
For 70-odd minutes the teenager sat there watching the drama unfurl. Jimmy Case puts us 1-0 up with a thunderbolt free-kick in front of our fans at Highbury’s clock end. Ante Mirocevic equalises in the second-half for Wednesday. Albion keeper Graham Moseley pulls off a couple of miracle saves as the Yorkshiremen pour forward sniffing victory. Time for a change, senses Melia. “Kieran, warm up,” he barks. What Kieran really wants to do is run down the nearby Holloway Road screaming “Noooooooo!” But he doesn’t. He starts warming up ready to replace… who? Gordon Smith? Tony Grealish? Not Michael Robinson, surely? Talk about reality bites.
And then, out of the blue, Robinson goes and scores. Albion are back in front. Our massed ranks of supporters go crazy. Our players go crazy. Wednesday are visibly deflated. “Sit down Kieran,” says Melia. Panic over, the rookie does as he’s told.
Kieran, how did a Cork lad such as yourself fetch up on the shores of Sussex?
I was playing for Tramore Athletic in Cork. We had a very good team which won the FAI (Football Association of Ireland) Youth Cup in 1982. With the success of the youth team, you kind of get involved in the international scene. I used to always reach the trial stage but I’d never get across the line into the actual team. There were two of us from Tramore, myself and a striker called Dave O’Connor, and Dave got called up to play for the international youth team against the Welsh schools side in Neath. I was on standby. Then somebody dropped out and I was called in. I came on at half-time, played right-side midfield, scored twice and had one disallowed. Bizarre! That was on the Friday. I thought no more about it and travelled back to Dublin with Dave ready to play in the FAI Youth Cup final on the Sunday against Athone Town. And we won that comfortably, 3-0.
So what happened next?
Maybe a week later, our manager said to me and Dave, “Listen, there’s been a scout at the game, and he wants to know if you’d be interested in going to Brighton on a week’s trial?” Of course we were! I’d also been asked if I’d like to sign for Limerick, so that was in my back pocket if things didn’t work out. So, in August (1982) Dave and I came over to Brighton. Mike Bailey was manager and Jimmy Melia chief scout. We did the week, and they asked us if we’d do a second week. Yeah, no problem, so we stayed. Then they asked us to stay for three months. I said yeah but Dave said no. So I did the three months and played in the reserves. At the end of that I was called in to see Mike. He said, “We’d like you to stay until the end of the season.” I said, “Thank you very much, but I’m going to go home.” My thinking was I’m either good enough, or I’m not good enough. They’d seen enough of me by then. There was no fall-out or anything. I said, “Thanks for everything, I’m going back to sign for Limerick,” and Mike wished me all the best.
But it wasn’t necessarily over, right?
Well, I walked out, straight into Jimmy. He said, “How did you get on?” I said, “I’m going home.” He said, “What?” So I explained what had just happened and that I was going back to sign for Limerick. Call it fate or whatever, Jimmy persuaded me to come back to his house after training for a chat, go home for the weekend, but then to come back again on the Monday. It was bizarre and I didn’t know what to make of it. By the time I came back on the Monday, Mike Bailey had been sacked.
So Jimmy clearly knew what was about to happen?
Listen, there’s the bit of luck you need. I wasn’t the most talented player in the world, but Jim obviously saw something and thought, “I like the kid.” And you need that bit of luck if you’re going to make it. Jim became caretaker manager. By the time I eventually signed it was after the (transfer) deadline so I couldn’t play in the league, but Jimmy was very good to me. He took me to Old Trafford and all these places with the first team just for the experience, which was incredible. I finally made my debut in the last game of that season at Norwich after we’d already been relegated. Six months before, I’d been watching football at home on Match of the Day. The week after the Norwich match I was at Wembley watching Brighton from the sidelines in the FA Cup final. Brighton was a wonderful place and I went on to have a wonderful time there. I’ve still got my ‘Wembley 1983’ tracksuit top framed upstairs. That’s going nowhere.
You emerged as something of a utility player, right?
I played 99 games for Brighton under five different managers over five years which, looking back, wasn’t exactly a good thing. The other thing that worked against me was… me! I could play in lots of different positions. I even went in goal later on in my career at Huddersfield after the goalkeeper got sent off. Right-back, sweeper, middle of midfield, right side of midfield – you name it, I played there. I never had one settled position. You could see that as a positive, or you could see that as a negative. But, listen, I wouldn’t change anything. To play 99 times for Brighton will always be special to me. And the players I played with! Jimmy Case, Steve Foster, the late departed Tony Grealish, Michael Robinson who’s also no longer with us, Frank Worthington – another who’s recently gone. It was a brilliant time.
If you had to pick one stand-out game, what would it be?
It would be the time we beat Charlton 7-0 (at the Goldstone in October 1983). It was probably the best 90 minutes of football I was ever involved in. Jimmy Case scored a hat-trick and the standing ovation he got when he came off still lives with me. For one of the goals I went on a little bit of a dribble in my own half, nutmegged somebody, knocked it wide to Gerry Ryan who flew down the wing, crossed it, and Jimmy smashed it from the edge of the box into the roof of the net. Thank you very much! There’s another game that sticks out in particular because, although we got beat, I scored a screamer. Portsmouth at home (March 1986) – we were 3-0 down at half-time, got it back to 3-1, then won a corner in about the 86th minute. When it came across I was standing on the edge of the box, volleyed it first time, and in it flew. You couldn’t hit a sweeter shot. Well, I couldn’t!