Most of football’s great rivalries involve clubs thrown together either by geography – Arsenal and Tottenham, say, or Dundee United and, er, Dundee – or by years of high-profile, high-intensity competition for the game’s biggest prizes – which explains Liverpool’s ongoing ding-dong with Manchester United, or Real Madrid’s with Barcelona.
The rivalry between Crystal Palace and Brighton falls into neither of those categories. While Croydon and Brighton are handily linked by road and rail, football’s hardcore rarely make an easy commute their first priority and Palace are not appreciably closer to the Seagulls than they are to Reading in the west, to Southend in the east, to Watford in the north or to any of the London clubs. They have played each other quite frequently — the Eagles’ first visit to the Amex Stadium on Tuesday night will be their 89th meeting — but Palace have played the considerably more local Millwall four times more and don’t really hate them any more than everyone else does, while Brighton have faced, for example, Leyton Orient more often. And neither can it be said that they have regularly spent seasons vying with each other for major honours.
As it turns out, though, they did not need to: for these two clubs, once was enough.
In June 1976 Palace appointed Terry Venables as manager. The following month Albion named Alan Mullery as their new manager. The pair were already fierce rivals, a situation that dated back exactly a decade to their time as team-mates at Tottenham. “I don’t really know how it started,” Mullery says now. “I think it was probably because I got the Tottenham captaincy before him. I’m sure Terry wanted to be captain but Bill Nicholson gave it to me and he was made vice-captain.
I can’t really give you any other reason. But it was a friendly rivalry — we’ve never been enemies. We used to share a room together at Tottenham and I still bump into him occasionally.”
Their two clubs had identical ambitions that year — both managers were expected to lead their clubs out of the Third Division at the first attempt. As it turns out, they both succeeded but such was the drama and discord along the way that by the summer of 1977 the two clubs had become irrevocable enemies.
The first of five meetings that season came in October at the Goldstone Ground, where the teams drew 1-1. “They’ll be with us at the last, you’ll see,” said Mullery, whose Brighton side had topped the table going into the game. Play was briefly stopped when three smoke bombs were thrown on to the pitch, forcing Mullery to appeal to the crowd for calm.
But the fun really got going when the teams were drawn together in the first round of the FA Cup. The first game, played on 20 November, was drawn 2-2. Rachid Harkouk, whom that Monday’s Guardian described as “part Moroccan, part Maltese” but who was born in Chelsea and went on to play for Algeria in the 1986 World Cup, came off the bench to score a remarkable equaliser for Palace. It was remarkable not only because of its quality — he dribbled past two men before scoring — but because it was his first appearance for the club and came days after the end of a two-month FA ban for being sent off twice in a single game for his Sunday league team, Pinner Gas.
“Give them their due, they came for a draw, really worked hard for it and that’s what they got,” said Mullery, whose side had dominated much of the game. “I dare them to do it at Crystal Palace.”
At Crystal Palace three days later Brighton dominated much of the game but Palace came for a draw, really worked hard for it and that’s what they got.
The second replay, to be held at a neutral venue, was twice postponed because of bad weather and had been, said The Guardian, “prefaced by much verbal propaganda of the chest-thumping variety”. It was eventually played at Stamford Bridge on 6 December, and it was on this evening that the nascent rivalry between the teams was to be elevated to the now familiar level of bitterness. Paul Holder put Palace ahead in the 18th minute and soon afterwards Brighton had a goal disallowed because Peter Ward was adjudged to have handled — though Palace’s Jim Cannon later confessed that the striker had touched the ball only because he had shoved him into it. If that caused grumbles, what happened in the 78th minute provoked fury.
Palace’s Barry Silkman fouled Chris Cattlin in the area and Brighton were awarded a penalty, which the future Manchester City manager, Brian Horton, converted. The referee, however, made him retake the kick because of encroachment — even though everybody agreed that the only players to have done any encroaching had been wearing Palace colours. This time Paul Hammond saved it. The game ended 1-0.
At the final whistle Mullery approached the referee, Ron Challis, whose actions that night earned him the nickname “Challis of the Palace”. “I was angry but it wasn’t because we’d lost,” Mullery says. “It was because of the referee’s decision to force Brian Horton to retake the penalty. After the game I approached him and asked him why he had made that decision. He said it was because of encroachment, but it was Crystal Palace players who were encroaching, not Brighton players. It was a terrible decision.”
Still furious, Mullery marched off the pitch. “As I was walking up the tunnel,” he says, “a load of boiling hot coffee was thrown over me by a Crystal Palace supporter. So I pulled a handful of change out of my pocket, threw it on the floor and shouted, ‘That’s all you’re worth, Crystal Palace!’ And I’d shout it at anybody who did that.” Mullery accompanied this gesture with some others involving his fingers, described in The Guardian as “none too polite signs”. Finally, he was led away by police. Mullery was fined £100 for bringing the game into disrepute and warned as to his future conduct. He wrote to the Palace chairman, Ray Bloye, to explain that his subsequent remark that the Palace team was “rubbish” had been misquoted.
“I don’t think it was just the Cup run that started it off,” says Mullery, “I think it was the rivalry between their manager and me. That’s where the rivalry came about. Because we were in the same league, doing the same thing — trying to get into the first division at the same time. I used to find it very difficult to understand what their problem was. Portsmouth and Brighton are 20 miles apart, Arsenal and Tottenham are about three miles apart. When you’ve got clubs 45 miles apart it does sound a bit silly.”
The clubs’ fifth and final meeting of the season came in March, when Palace won 3-1 at home with Harkouk scoring two Palace goals and creating the other in what the Guardian called “a display of uncontrolled manic aggression”. Richard Yallop, writing our match report, was so impressed with Venables’s tactical nurdlings in that game — an eyebrow-raising five of Brighton’s players were man-marked — that he decided this was “surely a man with the tactical nous to be a future England manager”. Such was Harkouk’s hex over Brighton that in one fixture the following season Venables played him even though he was injured, just to scare Mullery. Before the same match Mullery refused to announce his team until 2.45pm, just to scare Venables. They drew again.
Though both teams went up that season, neither won the league — that was Mansfield’s privilege — and later that year Brighton, who had briefly been nicknamed the Dolphins, rechristened themselves the Seagulls, a direct avian response to Palace’s Eagles. After a season of consolidation in the Second Division the two teams, and their warring managers, battled for promotion again in 1978-79, and this time it was even closer. Brighton, whose transfer budget was more than double their rival’s, finished their season at the top of the Second Division table only for Palace to win a previously postponed game against Burnley the following weekend to pip them to the title by a point.
Mullery later spent two seasons in charge of Palace, some achievement under Ron Noades’ trigger-happy chairmanship — Mullery was his sixth appointment in 20 months and Dave Bassett, who succeeded him in 1984, lasted only three days — but his appointment prompted fury and a short-lived boycott from fans. “By the time I got the job it was already long forgotten from my point of view,” he says now. “You’re the first person to ask me about it in the last 30 years.”