On May 19, a group of Albion legends gathered for a 1983 FA Cup final dinner.
The word ‘legend’ is overused these days, but for those surviving players and coaches, and indeed those who did not live to join their former teammates, it is one that fits. The team that came within a kick of glory will always be remembered for writing a new page in the club's history with their swashbuckling run to that first – and so far, only – final.
But how will the present squad, which, by most metrics is the finest to have worn the stripes, compare when viewed by posterity? Will the names of Alexis Mac Allister, Pascal Gross and Lewis Dunk ring down the decades as those of Jimmy Case, Gary Stevens and Gordon Smith have done?
The ’83 team was full of characters, none more than Case, the midfield enforcer and the squad’s social organiser. His winning strike against former club Liverpool in the 2-1 fifth round victory at Anfield was the moment when fans began to believe that the Seagulls could go all the way.
He scored further vital goals in the quarter-final win over Norwich City and the semi-final against Sheffield Wednesday at Highbury – a rasping drive that still forms part of the pre-match goals montage at the Amex to this day. The popular Scouser stayed on for almost two seasons and even returned as player-coach at 39, and later manager. Smith is remembered beyond Sussex for the last-gasp shot in the final that was blocked by United’s Gary Bailey. But Albion fans remember the elegant attacker’s header that gave us the lead, one of 25 goals he netted over 125 appearances.
The late Tony Grealish earned immortality when he led the team out at Wembley wearing the suspended skipper Steve Foster’s headband. He had faced the almost impossible task of stepping into the shoes of Brian Horton, but his committed performances won the fans over, and most were sorry to see him leave for West Bromwich Albion in March 1984. Graham Moseley, whose saves in the semi-final guaranteed the Wembley place, had an eventful career, battling with both Perry Digweed and then Joe Corrigan for the gloves.
For some, such as Stevens and the late, great, Michael Robinson, the replay was their last game for the club before going on to greater things. But both had already earned their places in Albion lore, Robinson for his wholehearted attacking verve and youth product Stevens for his poise and versatility. Chris Ramsey, who was kicked out of the final by Norman Whiteside, only played five more games as an Albion player, while Irishman Gary Howlett struggled to live up to his early promise and left for Bournemouth in December 1984.
Others stayed longer. Steve Gatting’s last game for Albion was at Wembley, but eight years later, in the 1991 play-off final after almost a decade in blue and white. Gerry Ryan, a substitute in both Wembley games, stayed at the Goldstone until injury ended his career, and remained in Sussex as assistant manager to Liam Brady and also landlord of the Witch Inn at Lindfield.
Ex-Barnet left back Graham Pearce built on his part in the final, scoring a memorable winner at Leeds and even appearing as sweeper under Chris Cattlin. Neil Smillie was forgiven for being an ex-Crystal Palace player and went on to play for Reading, where he eventually scored at Wembley in the Simod Cup final.
Foster, too, would eventually lift silverware at Wembley for Luton Town. Although he missed the 1983 Cup final and might have wished he had missed the 4-0 defeat in the replay too, he had been a defensive colossus throughout Albion’s four seasons in the first division.
What that team did not have, of course, was any local heroes, while the present squad can boast skipper Dunk and winger Solly March as Sussex-born youth team products, two players we have watched grow into established top-level performers.
And while a few of the 1983 vintage had played international football, only Foster had appeared at a World Cup at that point, and then in only one match. The 2023 version includes World Cup players with England (Adam Lallana, Danny Welbeck), Ecuador (Moises Caicedo, Pervis Estupinan, Jeremy Sarmiento), Japan (Kaoru Mitoma), Ghana (Tariq Lamptey), Joel Veltman (Holland) and of course a world champion in Argentina’s Alexis Mac Allister. That list, of course, excludes Pascal Gross, who is arguably Albion’s most consistent top-flight performer, or exciting talents such as Evan Ferguson and Julio Enciso.
It will take time to judge the relative merits of the two groups. The exploits of the 2023 squad are fresh in our minds and online footage of their triumphs is available at the click of a mouse, while interviews on the club website mean that we know more of their lives and opinions than we ever knew of previous teams.
That they are the best team in Albion history is statistically beyond doubt, but the 1983 team were also relegated and that does not seem to have diminished their legacies. It is the individual stories of the present squad that have entranced us – Ally Mac overcoming isolation in a foreign country during COVID to conquer the world as well as the mysteries of the English language, Mitoma’s university degree in dribbling, the youthful enthusiasm of Enciso, Dunky’s rise from prospect to inspirational captain, roaring to the crowd after yet another victory, Solly becoming the player we all believed he could be.
Perhaps the 2023 side will be eclipsed in future by an Albion trophy-winning team. But for now we can certainly place them alongside the 1983 FA Cup heroes – legends, at least.