Hurzeler isn't the only Albion manager in his 30s

Back in 1976, Alan Mullery was in the hotseat at the age of 34.

By Luke Nicoli • 22 June 2024

By Evening Argus
Alan Mullery in the Goldstone dugout in 1976. “I can’t think of a better five years in the game,” he said of his spell as manager.

New Seagulls head coach Fabian Hurzeler created headlines by becoming the Premier League’s youngest ever permanent head coach at the age of 31, but Albion have a history of appointing young managers.

Back in 1976, Alan Mullery was only three years his senior when he took the Goldstone Ground hotseat.

It was the former England and Tottenham great’s first managerial role, but he relished the opportunity to showcase all that he had garnered from an illustrious 18-year playing career.

“The fact that it was my first job and I was relatively young didn’t even come into my thinking,” he recalled of his arrival on the south coast. “I saw it as a natural progression from my playing career and I’d won trophies, played for my country and played in the World Cup, so I knew I what I was talking about.

By Evening Argus
Peter Ward threatens Oxford’s defence in the opening home league game when Albion won 3-2.

“I was confident as a player and I carried that straight over into my management career. Yes, I was entering a new environment, given I had no experience of the level [Third Division], but it was a case of commanding the respect of the players straight away.

“I was still young enough to join in the training sessions and that was important as I could put into practice what I was preaching. I was in my element and I loved the challenge ahead of me.”

Mullery started and ended his playing career with Fulham, sandwiched between a much-lauded eight-year stint at Tottenham Hotspur.

His glowing CV includes FA Cup, League Cup and UEFA Cup honours, likewise 35 England caps that enveloped the 1970 World Cup finals in Brazil.

Having hung up his boots at the end of the 1975/76 season, Albion’s gain was certainly Fulham’s loss, given he had been all set for a place in the Craven Cottage dugout instead.

By Evening Argus
The ‘skinny lad’ Peter Ward scores in the 7-0 win over Walsall.

When Mullery returned for his second stint as a player at Craven Cottage in 1972, he was promised the manager’s position by Alec Stock upon the end of his contract. Yet when that time came, the Cottagers boss reneged on the agreement, which naturally left a bitter taste in the mouth.

“To say I was angry would be an understatement,” Mullers added. “There was my life going down the drain because that’s what I’d been concentrating on, taking the step up from playing to managing. I was so upset. I remember driving back to Cheam, where I was living, walked in the door and took my youngest one, who was then three, to playschool.

“But when I got back, the phone rang…”

News had clearly travelled fast down the A23. On the other end of the line was Ken Calver, the Albion club secretary, phoning on behalf of chairman Mike Bamber.

“He told me Mike wanted to speak to me about the vacant manager’s job at Brighton – and he wanted me to travel down immediately,” Alan continued. “So, I went down and Mike said, ‘I remembered a game you played in, where you struck one of your own teammates [Fulham’s Jimmy Dunne] because he wasn’t trying hard enough. If you wanted to win that badly then I want you to be the manager of this football club.’

“I didn’t know anything about Brighton because I’d never played against them. I’d been to the Goldstone once, to see a reserve game, but that was about it. I knew one or two names but, as I said, I didn’t know what the Third Division was about.”

Time was against Mullers, too, with the new season fast approaching. To help him get a better gauge on the players at his disposal, he set up a half-hour match between the first team and the reserve side – leaning on coach Ken Gutteridge for a second opinion.

“Depending on how that went, we’d have another half-hour with changes made, and so on,” he recalled. “That was the first time I saw the players. I brought Ian Mellor into centre-forward plus this little skinny lad who scored two goals in the first half an hour against the first team. That was Peter Ward.

“It was then a case of moulding a team that was ready to challenge for promotion, and the rest, as they say, is history.”

By Evening Argus
The players take the acclaim of the Goldstone crowd before beating Shefield Wednesday 3-2.

What Mullery’s arrival also brought was a further buzz of anticipation amongst a fanbase that had actually seen their side finish fourth in the Third Division table in 1975/76 under Taylor.

“That was the biggest surprise I got,” Mullers remembered. “We didn’t get many people at Fulham, maybe 14,000, but the first game where I was in charge, we had people standing outside the entrances at 10.30am. We weren’t kicking off until 3pm and the gates didn’t open until 1pm. But they all wanted to get in first and get the best positions. That was such an eye-opener for me.”

Promotion was secured to the second tier in Mullery’s first season, while the 1977/78 campaign saw the side agonisingly miss out on promotion to the top flight on goal difference.

In light of the disappointment, Mullery had promised the Goldstone crowd that they’d go up the following season, but now he had talked the talk, could his team walk the walk? The answer was an emphatic ‘yes’ as promotion was indeed confirmed on the final day of the 1978/79 season with a 3-1 win at Newcastle United.

“Coming back on the train after we won promotion… my word the champagne flowed! The following day I had to come in to Brighton for the parade. The roads were packed and I thought it was just people going to the beach. Then you realise they’re all coming to see us. If it hadn’t been for a policeman on a motorbike, I would never have made it!”

By Evening Argus
Albion fans flood onto the pitch to celebrate promotion after the 3-2 win over Sheffield Wednesday in the last home game of the season.

Against the odds, Mullery guided his side to the relative safety of 16th place, ahead of the likes of Manchester City, Stoke City and Everton, with a notable league double coming against Clough and Taylor’s European Cup holders Forest.

Mullers’ final season was a less comfortable ride with a 19th-place finish – thanks in part to four successive wins at the end of the season – and while he parted company with the club following a dispute with Bamber over the sale of defender Mark Lawrenson, he looks back on his time in the dugout with nothing but fond memories.

“With the help of the board and everyone else at the football club, we were able to buy top-class players, people like John Gregory, Steve Foster, Gordon Smith, Michael Robinson, Andy Ritchie.

“Those people came because they could see we were ambitious. I’ve been involved in football since I was 15 and I can’t think of a better five years that I’ve had in the game – and I wasn’t even playing! It still put the hairs up on the back of my neck thinking about it.”