Beloved Brighton worth enduring highs, lows for

Kick-off for the English football season with Brighton and Hove Albion taking on Sheffield Wednesday at the Amex Stadium.

Kick-off for the English football season with Brighton and Hove Albion taking on Sheffield Wednesday at the Amex Stadium.

THE day began with excitement about the long season ahead, but finished, paradoxically, with concerned predictions that it was ‘‘going to be a long season’’.

Nine months is not only the approximate length of a human pregnancy but also a professional football season, a similarly testing time span promising both joy, pain and an unpredictable outcome.

A brief visit back to the UK offered me the chance to experience anew the unique cocktail of optimism, pessimism and realism that accompanies the first game of a season, and also refer to the sport I grew up with by the name it enjoys everywhere except Australia and North America.

The English premiership began at the weekend, but the country’s lower tiers kicked off a week earlier and I seized the chance to watch my beloved Brighton and Hove Albion host Sheffield Wednesday in the championship, one division down from the overpaid big boys of Arsenal, Manchester United, Chelsea and, er, Burnley.

Returning the favour from when I had taken him to see Hawthorn against Brisbane at Aurora Stadium in March, my mate Ian had foregone his usual season ticket seat to accompany me.

‘‘This is just like Christmas Eve,’’ he told his daughter the night before the match, his excitement not exactly reciprocated by the rely: ‘‘You are so sad Dad.’’

From well before midday, supporters were flowing into the Amex Stadium, a vast amphitheatre of a place nestling against the South Downs and about as distant as you could get from the Seagulls’ former homes of a crumbling ground sold from beneath the players’ boots, an athletics track and a stadium share with Gillingham — a mere 90 minutes away.

There was much to learn about the team. Leonardo Ulloa, last season’s top scorer and as tall as he is Argentinian, had been sold to Premiership newcomer Leicester for £8 million (about $15 million).

I appeared to be the only Brighton fan disappointed by this, all others united in the agreement that the deal represented excellent financial sense given that Leo wasn’t worth a quarter of that, lacked pace and was virtually incapable of scoring with anything apart from his head.

Filling his aerial void was Rohan Ince, a relative of former Manchester United and England midfielder Paul Ince.

This came from Martin, another long-time fellow supporter who once responded to the question of why he didn’t buy a season ticket even though he attended every game, with the irrefutable logic: ‘‘Well I might die and I don’t want to lose money.’’

After partaking of the customary balanced diet of pint and pie, the match began to much fanfare before a crowd of 26,993.

However, it was to be the 2700 supporting the visitors from Yorkshire who ended the game singing — a goal five minutes before half-time and a stupid sending off five minutes after it prompting a 1-0 win for the Owls.

We sought solace in another pint and a meeting with Gus, a truly legendary figure whose encyclopaedic knowledge of the club is matched only by his attendance record at its games.

While I have now attended one Brighton game in the last decade, Gus has been to all of them — his football habit always accompanied by a similar addiction to real ale.

In fact, Gus has only missed one match in 20 years, and that was a minor cup competition when he was involved in a court case.

Asked if he can remember the outcome that fateful day in 2005, he replied: ‘‘We lost at Cardiff. But we won the court case.’’

The away game at Leeds United tonight will be his 900th consecutive league game.

Asked how he looks back on those 20 years and whether he would change anything, Gus said: ‘‘I’m quite impressed with myself. The only thing I’d change would be the date of that court case.’’

As I left the ground to the joyous chanting of the Wednesday fans with a flight to Australia looming at Gatwick Airport, a  big sign declared: ‘‘Next game: Capital One Cup v Cheltenham Town.’’

Launceston may have been calling for me, but I suspect Ian, Martin, James, Paul, several thousand like-minded devotees and especially Gus would be there. Especially after hearing that the Amex had introduced Hobgoblin to its range of real ales.

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