If I hadn’t been placed in to bonded slavery to Brighton & Hove Albion as a youngster, I would most likely be indifferent to Football as an adult. But the game, as we all know, is so much more than a sport, and our affiliation to a team goes way beyond our love for the game itself. For me Rugby, probably my favourite sporting pastime when emotions are withdrawn, is somewhat different. My passion for the game means I am just as happy attending a match when my beloved Harlequins are not on show, the annual Aviva Premiership Final being just such an example.
So this evening brought a rather unique, if slightly surreal, occasion. The deciding match of the U20s Six Nations was to be staged at the AMEX. It was to be the first time I would visit the ground for something other than an Albion match. I soon felt at home.
I’ve never been in the North Stand at the AMEX before, so today was my first experience. As I entered the concourse I wished I had decorated myself in Harlequins apparel- a decent number of our supporters were present. In fact it was the only Premiership identity I saw. Chest pumping in pride-Harlequins has a large Sussex, and Albion, fanbase- I took my seat in the North, just as God Save The Queen was being belted out over the tannoy.
As the match kicked off it became apparent that the 12,000 attendance, the largest in the UK for such a match, was not wholly a Rugby crowd. Although a large number were, of-course, diehards. Some were understandably present out of intrigue, others just wanting to see an England international of any sort, some were probably unsure as to why they were there at all. A few Albion fans present took it upon themselves, to the bewilderment of most, to start a few Saturday songs. Sometimes this was amusing, other times irritating, the crowd being mostly unresponsive, although ‘Swing Low’ was always received well.
The match itself was not a classic, England winning 24-11. The AMEX is a large pitch, and the conditions were suited to an expansive running game. The nature of the occasion seemed to afford a battle of attrition, although, surprisingly, the French youngsters seemed to be best equipped to bring fluency to a tense encounter. Yet once they had broken the English zest of the first twenty minutes they failed, by tight margins, to produce the healthy half-time lead that their possessional play demanded. It’s a while since I’ve seen a team score so many turnovers, and prove so strong in the scrum, yet fail to dominate the scoreboard. And this was pretty much the end of their challenge. In the second half England’s physicality proved the clincher. It wasn’t pretty, but in the end the result was not in doubt.
The evening ultimately brought much of note. Firstly, the AMEX is a fine Rugby venue. I was unsure at first, but the posts on the pitch did not look out of place. 30,000 Rugby fans in this September’s World Cup will enjoy this experience. Secondly, to allay the fears of a few, the pitch is more than capable of coping. Most recent large scale football venues have modern grassing systems. Think Swansea City. They share their venue with Ospreys, a Celtic League outfit. Finally, and most pertinently, events like this make me proud to know that Brighton & Hove has become, and will continue to grow as a major venue of sport and entertainment, thanks to our new home. Tonight gave us another one of those growing acorns. I honestly believe that, if England is successful in its bid for the 2028 European Football Championships, the AMEX may well be one of the host stadiums.
It is doubtful that I will return to see Rugby at the AMEX, unless it is for a Rugby match with a full Rugby crowd, no insult intended (I’m like this with the London Double Header in which Harlequins feature), it’s just my preference as a Rugby purist. But tonight has made a further step forward in putting our town on the sporting map.