At 9pm on Christmas Eve 1996, Paul Samrah, a well-to-do partner at mid-tier accountancy firm Kingston Smith, sorted through the last of his mail in preparation for the festive break.
“It was the last envelope I opened,” Samrah recalls to City A.M.. To his horror, he had been slapped with a two-year ban from Brighton and Hove Albion, the football club he had followed through thick and thin for 25 years.
Samrah didn’t know what to do, saying:
I mean, who do you ring at 9pm on Christmas Eve?
Just five months later, Brighton would come within 25 minutes of falling out of the Football League.
With no ground and owners who were about to sail off into the sunset, the prospect of Premier League football in front of 30,000 fans was unthinkable.
Yet this season the Seagulls are back in the top flight for the first time since 1983 and, far from being excluded, Samrah is hailed as a hero for his instrumental role in dragging the club back from the brink.
Samrah’s expulsion was for alleged “incitement”. The ugly scenes of 1980s hooliganism were fresh in the memory at the time, although his brand of incitement was much different.
In 1995 the club were in and out of the High Court, facing action from unpaid creditors. Intrigued, Samrah attended some of the hearings and decided to put his professional skills to task, reviewing the club’s accounts filed with Companies House.
The founders of retailer Focus DIY, Bill Archer and Greg Stanley, had bought Brighton two years earlier for £100. Samrah’s suspicions were roused when he found out the duo had made large loans to the club secured against Brighton’s Goldstone Ground.
While these attracted an interest charge of around £40,000 per quarter, if unpaid, £250,000 of penalty interest was charged.
“I wrote to Companies House and said I strongly believe these accounts are inaccurately representing the full picture,” he says.
Samrah also looked the club’s articles of association, which dated back to 1904. He noted a clause stipulating that if the club went bust “any surplus should be allocated to a similar sporting institution in Sussex”.
But trawling further through the microfiche, Samrah found a new set of articles, dated in 1994, with the “no profits clause” removed.
“I went to the Football Association and had meetings with [then-chief executive] Graham Kelly,” Samrah says.
He was like a rabbit in the headlights. Premiership football was in its infancy. We were at Lancaster Gate and he couldn’t really understand how a supporter could be in front of the FA.
The no-profits clause was not uncommon for English football clubs. However, for the clause to be removed, permission needed to be granted by the FA.
Samrah, who had by now built a considerable following among supporters, then led the first mediation between fans and the owners of a club in January 1997.
As talks to keep them from being liquidated continued, Brighton were having a tumultuous time on the pitch and at one stage slipped 13 points adrift at the foot of Division Three.
In April 1997, exhaustive mediation talks concluded with local businessman Dick Knight agreeing to formally take up ownership of the club in September – the 20th anniversary falls on Saturday.
Meanwhile, the team rallied and eked out a draw against Hereford United in the final game of the season, saving them and condemning their opponents to non-league football in the process.
And with the bulldozers ready to move in at the Goldstone, a two-year deal was agreed with Gillingham for Brighton to play home games at their Priestfield Stadium.
Under Knight’s stewardship a long turnaround commenced. The businessman poured millions out of his own pocket to fund the club.
When Dick Knight took over, there was no building and the place had been demolished. There was a skip with all the records in.
Knight, Samrah and the fans led a campaign to secure a lease of the Withdean Stadium for home games. The Brighton athletics ground became the club’s home from 1999.
From there sprouted plans to build a new stadium in nearby Falmer.
The campaign attracted high-profile support from celebrity Brighton fans including DJ Fatboy Slim and sports presenter Des Lynam.
But lobbying local and central government was slow, despite the “Falmer For All” campaign sending 92 red roses – representing every club in the league – to then-minister for the regions John Prescott.
Samrah says: “Sussex was united behind it. The only problem is that there were a few nimbys who were against it. Now they are season ticket holders.”
With the financial backing of a new owner, poker player Tony Bloom, the dream of a new stadium was realised in time for Brighton’s return to the Championship for the 2011-12 season.
Earlier this month The Amex, as the Falmer Stadium is known for commercial reasons, hosted its first Premier League game, when the visit of former champions Manchester City attracted a new record crowd
But the 58-year-old accountant worries the lessons may not have been learnt.
“This is a club that has been brought back from nothing,” he says.
“My only disappointment is that I sat in front of the FA and said ‘you have stop people being able to sell the grounds, because this could happen again’. Owners of football clubs should be custodians of community assets.”