Brighton supporters pinching themselves as European adventure lands in Marseille

Jonathan Batt’s eyes welled up. His voice broke with emotion as, sitting on the terrace outside a restaurant in Marseille, he explained what it was like for a lifelong Brighton & Hove Albion fan to be at the club’s first away game in Europe.

“I just couldn’t have imagined it,” he said. “We were always a third division team and to get here to this is incredible, beyond comprehension when you are going out of the (Football) League, 92nd, 91st two years running. It’s an incredible journey.”

The journey still has legs for Roberto De Zerbi’s side in the Europa League this season as they came from 2-0 down at half-time to collect their first point in the group amid a cacophony of noise at the Stade Velodrome on Thursday evening.

For £30million ($36.5m) record signing Joao Pedro — who equalised with his fourth penalty of the campaign in the 88th minute after replacing Ansu Fati midway through the second half — his Brighton adventure is only just beginning.

The 22-year-old Brazilian forward, bought from Championship side Watford in June, kept a cool head to secure parity after Pascal Gross halved the arrears on the German midfielder’s return from a three-match absence.

Gross sustained a muscle injury in Brighton’s first match in Europe, a 3-2 home defeat by AEK Athens.

For supporters such as Batt, the five words of that previous sentence — Brighton’s first match in Europe — are still scarcely credible.

The 63-year-old went to his first Brighton game as a boy in 1969. The club played then at the Goldstone Ground, their home for 96 years until it was sold in 1997 for retail development by former owners Greg Stanley and Bill Archer, leaving the team with nowhere else to play.

Jonathan Batt savours Brighton’s rise in Marseille (The Athletic)

They almost went down from the fourth tier that season and the following season, when they were ground sharing at Gillingham 75 miles away after a consortium led by Dick Knight took over the club.

Batt, working as a quantity surveyor, was involved in costing and planning consent for Withdean. The converted athletics track brought the club back to Brighton under former chairman Knight’s leadership in 1999 for 12 years until they moved into the Amex Stadium in 2011 — funded by current owner-chairman Tony Bloom — after a protracted fight for building permission from the authorities.

“You couldn’t have predicted it,” Batt said contemplating Brighton’s debut campaign in Europe. “It’s beyond belief. I’m looking to enjoy it. It may never happen again, so you’ve got to grab hold of it.”

Jonathan travelled to the Bouches-du-Rhone with his 32-year-old son, Alex, and a group of friends and fellow supporters. Alex is due to be married on October 14, so the trip to the south of France had been combined with his stag do, organised with military precision by his best man.

“Whatever the fixtures were, whereever it was going to be, that was the plan,” Alex said. “We had accommodation booked for Athens, Marseille and Amsterdam (Ajax are the fourth team in Brighton’s group) for every permutation.

“We had flights on a spread sheet, ready to go, with a link. It was very well prepared. It just happened to be Marseille. It’s great to have my nearest and dearest here.”

Jonathan took his son to his first Brighton match at Withdean in 1999. “It’s unbelievable,” said Alex. “Words can’t really describe it. I never thought we’d get here.

“I always thought we’d get to the top flight one day, just because I saw Hull do it with a new stadium. Reading did it with a new stadium, too. But I never thought, realistically, we’d get into Europe — so it’s special.”

Brighton’s 3-2 home defeat by AEK left them playing catch-up in the group and, while they are still sixth in the Premier League with five wins from seven games, Saturday’s 6-1 thrashing at Aston Villa destabilised their strong start to the domestic campaign.

“We have to just enjoy it, whatever happens,” Alex said. “It would be nice to qualify from the group, or finish third and go into the (Europa) Conference, although we may get Villa, so maybe not!”

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The group enjoy the pre-match build-up – Alex Batt in fourth from left (The Athletic)

Even finishing third in the group felt implausible at half-time against Marseille.

De Zerbi made five changes after the hammering at Villa — conservative by his standards given that is the lowest number of tweaks across the last six matches as he wrestles with injuries and a congested fixture schedule.

He named nine of the starting line-up who began the team’s last away win, the 3-1 success at Manchester United in mid-September, including the entire back seven in the 4-2-3-1 formation he uses regularly.

De Zerbi also opted mainly for experience, which was understandable in the circumstances. But two goals conceded in a minute in the first half made a mockery of those pre-season predictions by English bookmakers that his team were third favourites to win the competition.

It wasn’t much reward for Bloom, who had morphed into a member of the cabin crew on a flight packed with fans which was delayed by three hours.

Bloom announced over the aircraft’s loudspeaker system that an emergency coach and tickets collection had been organised by the club to ensure they arrived in time for kick-off.

The changes made by De Zerbi in the final quarter of the contest, bringing on Evan Ferguson, Billy Gilmour and Simon Adingra as well as Joao Pedro, were a further indication of a greater depth of quality in the squad this season as he muddles through a challenging period. The team’s second-half rally claimed a point.

Having denied his compatriot Gennaro Gattuso a win in his first home game in charge of Marseille, De Zerbi said: “I want to be honest. We’re not playing well. It’s a very tough period for us. It’s difficult for us to show our quality.

“But it’s important playing with heart, with passion. I’m really proud of the performance. The reaction (from 2-0 down) was incredible.”

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Italians De Zerbi and Gattuso at the final whistle (Jonathan Moscrop/Getty Images)

His team ended up making the 2,800 away supporters proud too — such as husband and wife Colin and Philippa Hudson, season ticket holders at the Amex who flew out from Gatwick airport early on Wednesday morning.

Philippa has been a staunch fan since 1977. She was at Hereford for the last game of the 1996-97 season, when substitute Robbie Reinelt’s second-half equaliser in a 1-1 draw saved Brighton from relegation to the fifth tier at their hosts’ expense.

“It was by far the most stressful game I’ve ever been to,” Philippa said. “It was just horrendous. If they’d scored, it would have been the end of us. Time just stopped, it went so slowly.

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Phillipa and Colin Hudson en route from Gatwick (The Athletic)

“It’s unbelievable (now). I don’t think any Brighton fan in their wildest dreams thought this would happen. Getting to the Premier League (in 2017) was the ultimate dream. We all thought that was the ceiling.

“When Graham (Potter) left (for Chelsea a year ago), we were devastated. We all thought: ‘That’s it.’ But De Zerbi has come in and it’s just gone to another level.”

It’s Ajax at home next in the Europa League, after the small matter of hosting Liverpool and visiting Manchester City either side of the upcoming international break. Brighton are bottom of the group but still in the hunt, just a point behind both Ajax and Marseille.

For supporters such as the Batts and the Hudsons, the pinch yourself moments keep on coming.

(Top photo: Mike Hewitt/Getty Images)

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