Sheffield United v Brighton - Why Seagulls hold a place in Chris Wilder’s affections
The south coast club may have been brief stop-off points in the careers of the Sheffield United manager and the footballing icon affectionately referred to as ‘Old Big ’Ead’, but they left a discernible impact upon both.
Clough’s hiatus at Brighton and Hove Albion between leaving Derby County in a fit of pique and his stormy 44-day spell at Leeds United was rewarding in terms of family life and working environment – if not always for results on the pitch.
His time with Albion from November, 1973 to July, 1974 famously saw him preside over a painful 8-2 home league loss to Bristol Rovers at the Goldstone Ground ahead of an even more excruciating 4-0 FA first-round replay defeat to non-league Walton and Hersham.
Yet it was a spell when he learned the value of a good boss, with Clough subsequently classing former Brighton supremo Mike Bamber as the best chairman he ever worked for.
It also underlined the first rule of management; pick your chairman before you chose your club.
Wilder’s playing spell with the Seagulls at the end of the 1990s, at a time when he was at that dangerous age for a journeyman footballer approaching his 30th birthday, is one he treasures to this day.
Being part of Albion’s return home to Brighton in 1999 after the club had played across the border in Kent at Gillingham’s Priestfield Stadium for the previous two seasons following the sale of the Goldstone Ground and experiencing the emotional fervour which surrounded ithe homecoming stirred Wilder’s soul. The soul of a football man.
Wilder said: “It was good and I really enjoyed it. I came out of Sheffield United and got a free transfer under Steve Bruce and it was a really difficult period.
“I got invited down to Brighton through a connection, Derek French – Frenchie was the old physio here – and Micky Adams, who was the manager.
“I went down there in pre-season and signed a short-term contract. It was the season they were back in Brighton and they had played in Gillingham.
“You appreciate supporters who travelled 70 to 80 miles to see their team in a home game. That was obviously something that should never have happened, but did.
“They went back to the Withdean (Stadium) for the first game of the season and won 6-0 at home to Mansfield and I really enjoyed my time there.
“Possibly, looking back at it, I probably should have stayed there longer than I did, but I had a chance to get back up north and the lure of Sheffield was too big and the lure and pull of Halifax was an even bigger pull!”
Now in charge of his boyhood side – whom he recalls watching in Division Four in the early Eighties and attending the club’s famous promotion party in Darlington in May, 1982 – the significance of the Blades and Brighton striding out in their finery as Premier League success stories is not lost upon Wilder.
He knows what top-flight football means to the red and white half of Sheffield, but also to those residents of ‘Sussex-by-the-Sea’ – whose own journey back to the big time has resembled a rollercoaster.
Wilder added: “Brighton was a team that was an established First Division club and FA Cup finalists (in 1983). They had the chance to win with the famous ‘and Smith must score’ line.
“It is fine margins. Within 10 or 15 years, they were trying to stay in the Football League in a game at Hereford and then moved to Gillingham. It happens.
“It is ridiculous that it does happen, but it does. I am delighted clubs like that get themselves off the canvas and up and running.
“I really enjoyed it at Brighton and Micky was fantastic to work under.
“To where the club are now, an enormous amount of credit should go to the chairman at the time and Micky Adams because they provided the small steps to get them back on the journey that obviously resulted in them back in the Premier League.
“It is a great catchment area and a very passionate football club with great facilities and good history as well.”
Given what Brighton had gone through following the reviled Bill Archer and David Bellotti era of the mid-Nineties – which very nearly saw the club go out of existence – the togetherness between the players, staff and supporters who picked up the pieces afterwards throughout the Dick Knight years remains strong and genuine.
Friendships which were forged remain lasting in what was a special time to represent the blue and white of Albion.
Granted, the surroundings of the Withdean Stadium – basically a souped-up athletics stadium – were nothing like the trappings of the club’s present-day home at Falmer, which is positively palatial in comparison.
But home is where the heart is.
Testament to those bonds is the fact that Wilder will welcome a few friends from his south coast days today and a expect a post-match beer or two to flow along with a few reminiscences this evening.
“A couple are coming up to the game on Saturday. When you are in the game, you forge relationships and I look back at the time quite fondly,” added Wilder.
“Warren Aspinall is coming and Paul Rogers, who also I played with Sheffield United.
“Paul Watson, our physio, played in that team as well and a couple of other boys as well. It was an enjoyable time.”