In the close season Alan Mullery signed Steve Foster from Portsmouth for £130,000, and a player Mullery regarded as a scoop: John Gregory from Aston Villa for a new record fee of £250,000.
Brighton's first appearance in the top flight coincided with the beginning of the recession which affected this part of the south coast particularly badly - for the first time. Fears of hooliganism were very much on the mind of fair weather supporters, so it was only 28,604 turned up for the opening home game against Arsenal. A large police presence stopped any pitch invasions but there were plenty of arrests. Brighton lost 0-4 and it soon became apparent that remaining in the top division would be just as difficult as getting there in the first place. Mark Lawrenson missed a lot of the early games with a leg injury, and after Brighton went down 0-2 against Manchester United at Old Trafford before the biggest League crowd to watch Albion of 52, 641, and followed it by 8 matches without a win including a 0-4 League Cup defeat at Arsenal, it seemed that bottom of the table Albion would be going straight down again.
The turning point came when Mark Lawrenson returned for the visit to the European Champions Nottingham Forest, who had not lost a home match since April 1977. Gerry Ryan scored the goal in Albion's 1-0 victory. Brighton played Arsenal five times during the season without winning before 161,788 supporters. Over a million supporters watched Albion home and away during the season for the first time ever. Brighton finished 16th well clear of relegation.
In the close season, a major fire occurred in the South stand and the
North Stand had to be demolished because it was unsafe. The ground was
unsuitable for a first division club. The capacity was reduced to 24,000,
which was below the average gate for the previous season.
Gordon Smith, a midfielder for £400,000 from Glasgow Rangers, and Michael Robinson, a bustling forward from Manchester City, also for £400,000, were signed before the season started.
The season was a struggle with Albion bottom of the table by November.
Crowd favourite Peter Ward joined Nottingham Forest for £400,000,
but any crowd protests were dimmed by the record signing of Andy
Ritchie from Manchester United for £500,000. However, the gates predictably
fell, and with four games to go, Brighton were still in the bottom 3 with
Crystal Palace propping up the table. Brighton won their last four games
and achieved a miracle escape. Michael Robinson was leading scorer with
22 goals. The average crowd fell to 18,969.
Before the season started Chairman Mike Bamber and Alan Mullery had a disagreement and Mullery's contract was not renewed. Mike Bailey, the Charlton Manager was appointed.
Mark Lawrenson left for Liverpool for a club record sale of £900,000. John Gregory moved to Q.P.R. for £300,000.
Jimmy Case was signed from Liverpool for £350,000. Brighton played a more defensive game which disappointed the fans who voted with their feet. However, with their best start in the top flight and by the end of September 1981 were in eighth spot with pretenders Swansea C. above them.
Steve Gatting was signed from Arsenal for £200,000 and gave valuable service for the next 10 years. Micky Thomas was signed for £350,000 from Everton, but did not prove to be a success. The recession was biting deeply into football attendances which were compounded by the disgraceful state of the Goldstone Ground and the dreadful fences that the club had to put up to separate the fans and prevent pitch invasions. The supporters brought up with attacking football did not like the new style of Mike Bailey. However, the system worked as the club did not have a relegation battle and even beat Champions Liverpool 1-0 at Anfield. They finished 13th but gates were down to 18,247. The average away attendance was 21.886. Brighton were falling into debt.
Mike Bailey signed Eric Young from non-league
Slough T. for £45,000, a record for a player for a non-league club.
He did not play for the first team in Mike Bailey's reign.
Brighton's poor league performances away from home sent them down to
Division 2 in bottom place. They only won once on the their travels 2-1
at second bottom Swansea C. Micky Thomas departed after a very short stay
to Stoke City for £200,000. Mike Bailey departed before Christmas
when Jimmy Melia took over the reigns. Andy Ritchie had not proved a success
and was swopped for Terry Connor of Leeds U. They needed to repeat their
feat of 1980-81 and win their last 4 League games. They did not win any
of them. The only saving grace was the FA Cup run that nearly ended in
victory at Wembley, but was eventually a comprehensive defeat in the replay.
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