THE most spectacularly daft ground-share in football history will come to an end on Saturday when Gillingham lose their tenants. It will not be a fond farewell. For the last two years Brighton and Hove Albion's supporters have had to make the following four-hour 150-mile round trip to see their team play 'at home': M23, M25, M26. What larks. What good business for Esso and Shell.
This Thursday the people of Brighton and Hove will vote in a referendum on the club's plan to build a community-based stadium at Falmer, next to Sussex University. An overwhelming endorsement of the council-supported scheme would play a crucial role in providing the club with a new permanent home in the town. Builders are rushing to convert a small athletics stadium at Withdean into a temporary base for the team while the convoluted process of building a replacement for the much-lamented Goldstone Ground unfolds.
Following Brighton these past two years has meant rushing off to Saturday matches before Football Focus and staggering home to find the dinner burnt. It has meant leaving work two hours early and suffering the hell of the M25 to catch Wednesday night Auto Windscreen games.
The away trips were even worse. But the stoicism of a hardcore of Albion fans knows no bounds. A home game against Rochdale on Saturday will bring the torture to an end. To outsiders it must have looked like they were wasting petrol and shoe leather to follow a hearse.
Gillingham's Priestfield Stadium was a symbol of everything that had gone wrong: the selling of the Goldstone to property developers, the rock-in-a-sock plummeting of a patchwork team and the failure of a luvvie-ish New Labour local authority to comprehend the loss to ordinary people in the town.
All that has changed. The council support the Falmer plan despite objections from some local residents who say the stadium will disturb the peace of their parish. Withdean is a guaranteed sell-out. The new board is made up mostly of people who care passionately for the club, though the perpetrator of the wretched Goldstone sale, Bill Archer, still refuses to do the honourable thing and walk.
Micky Adams, the new manager, will be giving an underachieving team an almighty kick up the rear. People may even stop pinching the sign on the outside of a Brighton office block which is, or was, one of the few bits of physical evidence that the club belong to the town.
Another is the club shop where fans gather to dream of the stadium that might one day be attached to it. That's when they're not out trying to raise money for the Buy-a-Player fund or the Year for Youth or handing out leaflets urging the town's 240,000 residents to vote yes-yes (yes to the club coming home, yes specifically to Falmer). This is the club that will not die, because it is sustained by a century of history and the love of supporters who consider it an essential element in the diverse culture of the town.
Brighton's supporters know the rest of the country got bored with their problems. Other clubs were having an equally rough time. Bournemouth, Oxford, Portsmouth, Doncaster and Chester have all been close to the abyss. The fans of these clubs struck up a brotherhood of the oppressed. Before Doncaster's 'benefactor', Ken Richardson, went to prison for torching his own grandstand, the Brighton stadium announcers played Firestarter whenever Rovers came to town. Here was solidarity among the damned. Brighton and Doncaster both hammered on the lid of the coffin until somebody let them out.
The Premier League treats the lower divisions like an embarrassing relative to be avoided at all costs. It is forever "in a meeting" when the Nationwide League calls. But not too long ago some Brighton fans wrote to Premiership managers to ask them to endorse the campaign to repatriate the club of Mark Lawrenson and Peter Ward. Several replied with encouraging messages but one, in particular, was passionate in his support. He wrote a two-page letter full of personal recollections.
"Communities identify with their local football team," he wrote. "It is a common interest which brings people together from all walks of life. It is obvious to me that the people in Sussex have a real and genuine affection for their club. Brighton will only flourish again in their own surroundings and the sooner, the better."
Impressive, given that this was one of football's busier managers. The letter was from Alex Ferguson.