It started in the mid-1970s, the feud between the Eagles and the Seagulls. Crystal Palace and Brighton, two underachieving clubs who felt they needed to invent a rivalry that has become quite bitter at times. The meeting of the two clubs in the semi-final of the Championship play-offs evokes a time when they were both desperate for recognition.
There is a theory that Palace fans manufactured the hostility because they didn’t fancy squaring up to their real local rivals – Millwall. Who could blame them, especially as the period in question, the golden age of the “Millwall brick”, was when “F Troop” and “Halfway line” were at their peak. Likewise, Brighton were short of a sparring partner.
But there’s another version, one that owes its roots to the rivalry between Terry Venables and Alan Mullery when they were both Tottenham players. Mullery was made captain of the Spurs at a time when Venables, never slow to court publicity in his playing days, anticipated that the great Bill Nicholson would hand him the job.
Venables and Mullery were appointed managers at Palace and Brighton, respectively, in 1976. Palace had been rebranded as “The Eagles” in 1973 by Malcolm Allison, who discarded the old nickname of “The Glaziers” (hardly a dynamic moniker for a go-ahead club). Likewise, Brighton (and Hove Albion), in response to Palace’s ornithological approach, dispensed with a series of lame nicknames that included “Shrimps”, “Lugworms”, “Limpets” and “Flounders”. Enter the “Seagulls”.
Both managers were dynamic, relatively young and represented good copy for the media. Mullery, invariably wearing shades, chewing gum and wearing loud jackets (ok, it was 1976), was full of bravado and hyberbole. Venables was the thinking-man’s coach and was closely connected to the England set-up. Brighton and Crystal Palace were both expected to coast (no pun intended) through the Third Division in 1976-77.
Brighton, who had some exciting talent in their ranks, including the prolific goalscorer Peter Ward (pictured), finished second. Palace, thanks to a late surge, ended up third. The two clubs also met in the FA Cup first round, with the tie decided after three games. Mullery had a heated exchange with Palace fans after the London side had won 1-0 in the third meeting at Chelsea. This served to ignite the feelings between the two sets of fans.
The rivalry continued into the second division, but this time, Palace won the title in 1978-79 and Brighton were a point behind in the runners-up spot. The club’s rise from third to first division, with a young and vibrant side, spawned the Palace myth of the “team of the 80s” – I wonder who coined this phrase? And whatever happened to Vince Hilaire, the jewel in the Palace crown?
By 1983, Palace were halfway down Division Two and Brighton were relegated from the top flight, although they had a FA Cup final to remember. Palace’s self-appointed “golden generation” was dotted around the divisions, thwarted by over-expectation.
Venables left Palace in 1980 – with a win rate of just 36% – and Mullery departed Brighton in 1981. So a relatively short period laid the seeds of a hostile relationship that was named among the top 10 local rivalries in British football. It’s odd, because the two clubs are just under 50 miles apart – hardly a goal-kick away from each other, is it? It’s almost as if football needs to create its “little wars” to add spice to the product.