“It was just supposed to be a group of mates walking together and raising a few hundred quid”
That’s what Brett Mendoza, Vice Chair of the REMF told me half way round the Jacob Shilt Memorial Walk. Try a few groups of mates Brett. Try a few thousand quid. But let’s start at the beginning.
The real beginning was perhaps the awful events of August 22nd. Those are talked about in previous posts but, in summary, eleven people lost their lives on the A27 at Shoreham as a Hawker Hunter jet flying as part of the airshow crashed on to the carriage way. Each life lost is a tragedy and my heart and the heart of all Sussex residents goes out to the victims’ friends and family. As we now know, however, two were closer to home than many. Matt Grimstone was a club employee and long term fan. Jacob Shilt was an REMF team player and Brighton fan, and, by all accounts, an excellent footballer. Through the REMF Jacob knew Brett who I have known for many years. Never have I been more proud to call Brett my friend though. It is such connections that make this such a Sussex wide tragedy and I’m sure many, many local people know people affected or who had a very near miss.
So we walked. I nearly walked further than most. For the second time this season I have fallen in to conversation with an Albion Roar presenter on the way to an Albion event. Firstly Ady on the way to Fulham. Now Al on the way to the Toll Bridge. Only it turned out we’d both done the bloke thing of tentatively consulting a map for the route before being a hundred percent certain that the street we were heading down was correct. Until we saw a no through road sign anyway. Then it turned out that the other Albion fans on the same route were only on it because they had been confidently following us. One of those conflabs where everyone stares at their phone and then looks for a road sign ensued before we struck out more in hope than certainty to find the very bend we were after and then the bridge. It was before nine thirty in the morning and a large gathering of Albion fans, Worthing United and Mile Oak players and friends and relatives were already at the Toll Bridge. A few of my mates were there. I would need them.
A dignified minutes silence was held and I don’t mind admitting I nearly lost it. After that walking and talking became easier. I settled in with a friend towards the front of the group and we discussed our prospects for the game to come, our signings and the way the club had handled itself so well recently, Sussex cricket, the weather and beer. Like Al had said it was almost like being on the way to an away game rather than a home one. The walk felt easy but then I am currently running thirty kilometres a week to get ready for a series of races including next year’s Brighton Marathon. Others walked with young children or buggies, with a stick or with a group of older friends. But easy or hard, sunshine (which there was mostly) or rain (which there was very briefly) we were all determined. None of us would have been anywhere else.
We reached Worthing United to refreshments, more emotional tributes (the first time I had seen the shirts on display there though I had been to the Toll Bridge before) and buses to the Amex. This was a fantastic touch by REMF, the club and Seagull Travel. A group of us gathered at the back of the bus just as I would have at school but I wasn’t in the mood for high jinks right then. The short journey and the very small time it took to go back along the route just served to bring home to me how unfortunate the victims were. It makes you consider your own mortality does that.
The net result of being towards the front of the group and on one of the first buses out however was to be at the pub earlier than I would ever normally have been. Three pints of Palmers and some cheesy chips and a back-to-normal pre-match chat were very well earned indeed. As summer fades to autumn a last beer out in the open was also more than welcome. Then I went to the ground to meet The Boy who had been taken and looked after by my friend and to ensure we were in our seats for 2.30 for more tributes.
I met them on the concourse. The Boy is a religious programme collector and already places them in a drawer in match order. I knew my friend would have got one for him and indeed he had. I pinched a quick look, a dignified tribute to all eleven victims on the back page, listed with their ages as if a team. My eyes filled again.
The tributes were pitched perfectly. Giant shirts had been created and signed and were walked out. Abide With Me was sung by our regular opera singer. I think we were supposed to join in. I couldn’t and neither could anyone else. Flowers were laid by representatives of each club. A minutes applause was held at the request of the families, something I found easier to get through than the silence at the bridge.
I have never, ever been more proud to be a Brighton fan. Not when we were chasing out Archer and Bellotti or on the pitch versus York. Not when I saw us running out (on telly) at Wembley in 1983 to play Manchester United, nor when we ran back out at Withdean, survived Hereford or finally moved in to The Amex. All of those moments are iconic but none have displayed the dignity and togetherness of yesterday. Paul Barber, Tom Gorringe, Brett Mendoza, Mike Langridge, Tony Bloom, Chris Hughton, Richard Reynolds and everyone else involved in making it happen, take a bow.
The game? Oh yeah, there was that. After everything else it went by in a blur. I can’t adequately describe it which is why I have focussed on the other stuff. We started like an express train and were up after four minutes, Tomer Hemed putting in from close range after a quick move (though the goal was initially credited to Baldock over the tannoy). We should have been ahead by even more just a few minutes later, an absolute sitter missed after good work on our right. For twenty odd minutes we looked unstoppable. Then Hull came back in to it and dominated the ball, ensuring that, for a change this season, it would be our defensive organisation that saved us. Hull had lots of possession but no real chances. At the end we were still 1-0 up and four points clear at the top. We celebrated like we’d won the league itself.
Special mentions? The Hull fans. Thank you. What an excellent set you were yesterday. Rosenior was outstanding in a right midfield role. Bong and Bruno were tested but stood firm and Greer and BFG were imperious in centre defence. Kaz got himself booked as I predicted in the pub and is now suspended. Baldock was a menace, Hemed scored and HE returned for a cameo at the end. A bigger Bobby but still one who doesn’t give the ball away. A club icon on the day the club made itself iconic in Sussex again. The tragic irony is that every single person involved would have preferred it if Shoreham had been just another airshow and Hull just another game.