The bulldozers moved in at the Goldstone Ground 25 years ago today. And within just a few weeks, a place that had meant so much to so many Albion fans for so long was no more.
Whether your abiding memory of the view along Old Shoreham Road was the back of the old corrugated-roofed north stand or the more modern blue steel structure that replaced it, something was missing once the diggers had done their work.
And it remains badly missed by many, even though we now have the wonderful Amex Stadium.
True, the Goldstone was never one of the most beautiful of football grounds. It was an odd collection of mis-matched stands, the north-west corner was empty, the triangular east terrace was exposed and crumbling, and let’s not even mention the toilets. But it was home.
A big part of the immense sense of loss that many of us felt on saying goodbye to the Goldstone back in 1997 was the fact that we had no idea whether we would ever have another ground to call our own.
Leaving a much-loved family house for another, perhaps more up-market dwelling is one thing – but this was a brutal eviction into a squat, or worse.
Our equivalent of a friend’s floor could have been Portsmouth or Millwall but ended up being Gillingham. And our ‘friend’ ended up charging us for three seasons when we only ended up using two.
Of course, things would get better. Much, much better. Even as we looked up rail routes and journey times to the Priestfield Stadium, plans were being laid to bring the Albion home. But it didn’t feel that way at the time.
Any road back to Brighton & Hove looked like a long one. Locations, both temporary and permanent, were suggested and ruled out until the board settled on Withdean Stadium, and even then we had to fight to secure our temporary refuge at an unsuitable athletics venue, however much some of us might grow to love it. The even longer struggle to identify and get planning permission for a site to take us into an uncertain future was still far away.
In the meantime, all we had to look forward to was exile in north Kent while, to add insult to injury, the ground that we had played at for 96 years was being torn down. And some spectacularly ugly retail units were going up instead.
In fact, an informal demolition of sorts had begun immediately after the final whistle has sounded at the Goldstone’s last-ever game, against Doncaster. Fans had grabbed souvenirs that included seats, signs, sections of goal netting and lumps of turf. So much of the pitch had been uprooted that manager Steve Gritt’s plans to train at the ground in advance of that crucial match at Hereford had to be abandoned.
(And here I must confess that a tiny chunk of the lush Goldstone sward forms part of what might laughingly be described as the lawn in my back garden, while a seat from the old press box can be found nearby.)
Soon, piles of earth and twisted metal were forming where football had been played, mechanical diggers lined up instead of players in a defensive wall. The floodlight towers and crush barriers were snapped off. The stand roofs sagged, the concrete of the terraces was ripped up.
Now the occupants of the houses in Goldstone Lane that overlooked the ground had far worse to contend with than the inconvenience of large crowds every fortnight – well, large during the good seasons. The blank walls of the retail units and the car park that replaced the northern half of the pitch would test the descriptive powers of even the most imaginative estate agent: “boasts breathtaking views over burger restaurant and the loading bay for a clothes outlet” is hardly going add much to an asking price, is it?
Of course, many fans refused to set foot in the so-called Goldstone Retail Park for a long time, and a number will still not go there now. Some even go out of their way to avoid driving past. Personally I have never shopped there, and probably never will. I vowed never to go until the Albion had a new permanent home of their own, but even after the Amex opened in 2011, I found that I still didn’t want to.
So I can’t tell you what a visit to the pet shop or the recently-opened supermarket is like. But I want to believe that, if I ever went there and found the place in one of the shops that exactly corresponded to where I used to stand on the south-west terraces, I would look round and see the same rain-coated gent who used to stand a little way behind me, apparently permanently disgusted with everything his least-favourite player did. Only now, instead of directing his ire at a certain Albion number eleven, he would be shouting, “You’re a disgrace" at piles of pet food or displays of bedroom furniture.