Palace v Brighton: The Enduring M23 Derby

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Amex Brighton

Brighton’s Amex during the 2015-16 play-off semi-finals against Sheffield Wednesday

This is the story of Eagles and Seagulls. Just how did football fans from the south coast’s liberal party town and a suburb of South London 50 miles away come to blows? And why does the Crystal Palace v Brighton rivalry still persist?

It’s the early nineties. A lanky teenager from Kent sits uncomfortably with the ghastly whiff of a dirty burger and cigarettes in the air. There’s an iron pillar blocking his view of the determined Millwall winger Jimmy Carter darting towards the corner flag. Estuary English-accented jeers fill the air when Carter’s cross cannons off the defender in blue and white stripes.

This was my introduction to the Goldstone Ground in Hove, an old school concrete and iron jumble hemmed in by housing estates and rusted by Atlantic weather.

A song goes up from the crowd. It’s not about Millwall. It’s not even about the home team Brighton & Hove Albion – Something about how the Palace run away again; Something about Boxing Day; Something about perhaps the strangest rivalry in English – or world football. Brighton v Palace. Seagulls v Eagles. The M23 Derby. 

The origins of the Brighton and Palace rivalry

For those unfamiliar with the geography of the south east of England, the M23 is an arterial highway that snakes its way through rolling hills to join London with the south coast. It traverses the North Downs – the hill range believed to be the birthplace of cricket – and provides access to the UK’s second busiest airport, London Gatwick. It also becomes the A23 and connects Crystal Palace FC from Selhurst in South London with Brighton & Hove Albion 50 miles to the south.

Crystal Palace, a yo-yo team that fluctuates between on regular periods in either of the top two tiers of English football, does not lack for cross-capital rivals in either division. South of the river alone, it has the much-unloved Millwall, and former tenants Charlton Athletic and – for while – pre-MK Dons/AFC Wimbledon, post-Plough Lane-era Wimbledon FC (are you still with me?). Yet its key rival lies southwards at the end of those 50 miles of meandering tarmac.

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The origins of the distain between Palace and Brighton stems from a series of incidents between the clubs in the 1970s when former team-mate managers and arch-rivals Alan Mullery and Terry Venables were bossing Brighton and Palace respectively. There were cup ties, controversies, coffee thrown from the stands. The story is well documented and you can read more here, but what Outside Write really wants to know is why a seemingly innocuous personality clash should lead into 40 years of hate, has had DC Comic sketches drawn about it, and the inevitable Downfall parody. How can two clubs that didn’t even play each other for 13 years until relatively recently really feel such antipathy?

Outside Write asked fans born after the Mullery-Venables days on Twitter for their thoughts.

The M23 Derby: Closer in sport than geography

Lacking a true local rival and now with the injected spice between the two, Palace and Brighton became the best of enemies.

The rarity of fixtures makes the occasion of their meeting that much more special, as did the fact that they are among the closest derby matches in England.

“I think the relative scarcity of fixtures probably helps to fuel it,” says Brighton fan Tom Wiggins. “Not to belittle other rivalries but when you play each other at least twice a season there’s only a few months before the losers get a chance to reclaim some bragging rights. For me that makes those games against Palace even more nerve-wracking.”

No rare match-up between the two was more critical to both teams’ fortunes than when they met in the Championship play-off semi-finals in the 2012-13 season. At stake – a Wembley final and the chance to ascend to the Premier League, the richest, most-watched league in the world.

The first leg finished goalless at Selhurst Park and Palace won 2-0 at the Amex in the second leg. Palace won the play-off final and managed to stay in the Premier League in its first season, dashing Liverpool’s title hopes with a late, late comeback from 3-0 down in the process.

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Palace fan Ryan Sketchley, who grew up in Brighton, explains the significance to Palace fans of that play-off. “The second leg of the 2013 play-off semi-final, for me, still tops being in the crowd at Wembley versus Watford or standing in the Holmesdale when we completed the 3-0 comeback versus Liverpool,” he told Outside Write, citing incidents which marred the second leg. “The plastic clappers, the dirty tricks by the security guards, the ‘toilet incident’ in the changing room – it was all supposed to be part of Brighton’s coronation as a Premiership team. Then came Wilf… [Wilfred Zaha, who scored both Palace’s goals at the Amex]” [Continues…]

Brighton fans North Stand

Home fans in North Stand at the Amex, Brighton.

Contrasting old and new

While Crystal Palace has stayed true to its ‘traditional’ league ground Selhurst Park, nestled between redbrick terraces with its (until recently, at least) wooden seats, during its fluctuations between the top leagues, Brighton’s journey has been markedly more fraught.

The Seasiders’ wonderful new Amex Stadium – accessible, expandable and built with clear Premier League ambitions – is a far cry from the nomadic post-Goldstone era, spend at the 7,000-capacity Withdean and even the far-flung Thames Estuary residence of Gillingham’s Priestfield Stadium, a 150-mile round trip for ‘home’ fans. Unlike Palace, Brighton fans have not enjoyed top-flight football since 1983.

Yet the nouveau riche perception of the 30,500-seater Amex, a host stadium for the 2015 Rugby World Cup, has added recent spice to the rivalry.

Sketchley continues: “But my real bugbear are the Albion fans that have no concept or memory of these – they were too busy buying a box fresh Brighton shirt to replace their United one, checking into AMEX for the first time at 28 for all the world to see.”

As you would expect, this is a claim Seagulls fans reject. “Brighton fans are quite rightly proud of how far we’ve come since being evicted from the Goldstone and like to use the club’s new facilities as a stick to beat Palace with, while Palace fans often try to turn it against us, suggesting the ground is full of wet-behind-the-ears part-timers, ignoring the fact that you can only fill the seats available and Withdean maxed out at 7,000-odd,” Wiggins argues.

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“The fans were there, we were just forced into a position that meant we couldn’t accommodate them. Now we have 21,000 season ticket holders at one of the pricier places to watch football in the division. That’s quite a commitment for someone who’s just looking for something to do with their Saturdays when Chelsea aren’t at home,” he says. [Continues…]

Crystal Palace FC

Pre-match at Selhurst Park, home of Crystal Palace FC.

Old habits die hard

Palace fan James McCollum adds that while – unlike the Merseyside, North London, Manchester or Tyne-Wear derbies – M23 Derby fans are unlikely to work together and share banter. Yet the rivalry has become a part of both clubs identity.

“If I’m being brutally honest I see it as a generational rivalry that as a Palace fan I should respect,” he told OW. “It’s become part of the fabric of the club’s history. Those who were there in the 1970s – when the two clubs were pitted against each other regularly and fought it out for progression up the football pyramid – they’re the ones who lived it, and on both sides they’ve ensured it’s a rivalry that needs to be continued. But as a fixture it has nothing like the bile and hatred of a tie, home or away, against our local rivals, Millwall.”

Millwall fans, however, have more truck with former cross-river dock worker rivals West Ham United than with Crystal Palace. For Brighton, Portsmouth is too far removed and Crawley Town too new and irrelevant to factor as rivals. Is it a case that they almost need each other? As Real Madrid president Florentino Pérez said, if FC Barcelona did not exist Madrid would have to invent them to attain higher.

Seagulls fan Wiggins concludes: “I like that we only have one major rival though. I think a lot of rivalries are largely manufactured (or at least exaggerated) by TV, to the point where every London derby is turned into something bigger than it is, which eventually dilutes the proper ones. At the end of the day, one of my best mates is a Palace fan, so it’s all a load of nonsense really.”