The heroics of Stuart Storer and Robbie Reinelt at the end of the 1996/97 season had saved the club in the most dramatic of circumstances, but the following two years must go down as some of the most depressing times in Albion's history.
Today marks 25 years since our first league ‘home’ game at Gillingham’s Priestfield Stadium; a particularly forgettable 1-1 draw with Macclesfield Town in front of a crowd of 2,336 fans.
Journalist and Albion fan Rob Shaw now works in Tasmania as the sports editor for The Examiner, but had the privilege of covering Albion during those dark days and struggles to remember anything positive about our time in Kent.
“Depressing is probably the right word for that time,” Rob said. “Technically we were worse the year before, but we weren’t travelling for an hour and a half to get to home games and you had the euphoria of the end of that season with Stuart Storer against Doncaster Rovers and then the Hereford game.
“So to go from the exhilaration of survival to the appalling situation we had at Gillingham was tough. The thing is, it suited both clubs. Brighton had somewhere to play and Gillingham were being paid for us to play there. But both clubs hated it!
“We hated going all that way for ‘home’ games and I know Gillingham supporters hated us using their ground. We only went for a pre-match drink twice because you quickly realised that they didn’t want us there. It was unpleasant.
“We were so poor that I really struggle to remember the games. My family take the mickey out of me because I forget the names of people I met two minutes ago, but I can tell you random goalscorers from games in the 1980s! But the Gillingham games all blur into one.
“There was this fear with the way things were going at that time that staying up at the end of the 1996/97 season had just delayed the inevitable. It was starting to feel like if we don’t get a ground in Brighton soon we were going to disappear out of existence anyway.
“Now we look back on it and think without those times, we wouldn’t have such a wonderful time now.
“I brought both my kids over with me from Tasmania a few years ago – my daughter’s first game was the 3-2 win at home to Manchester United and then my son came this time and his first game was the 2-1 win at Old Trafford. Both of them have been totally spoilt!
“They think it’s the norm and I have to remind them that it hasn’t always been the norm, losing 4-1 at Gillingham to Torquay United was the norm once!”
The disdain at the situation from both sets of supporters meant that either would take any opportunity to have a dig at each other.
“What sums up the attitude from us towards Gillingham and vice-versa was when Attila the Stockbroker (John Baine) and Paul Samrah were the stadium announcers for our games. Each game they’d finish with ‘another loss, have a safe journey home, see you next week’.
“We were leaving one week and Atilla came over the tannoy and said ‘here’s some scores from around the country, Leyton Orient 4, Gillingham 0, good night!’ Any opportunity to stick the knife in was taken. It was a dreadful time.”
Albion would ultimately survive the drop with ease due to Doncaster Rovers’ dire form that saw them suffer a record 34 defeats as well as have their stadium set on fire in an alleged insurance scam.
“It wasn’t too difficult to report on our games during those times because you could be so dispassionate about it and just report the facts, rather than getting mixed up in the emotion of it," says Rob.
“I worked the final few games at the Goldstone and it was emotional because you knew what was at stake, but at Gillingham the games were so dire and because we knew Doncaster were bottom by a long way, we knew we weren’t going down. There was that safety blanket so you almost didn’t care as much.”