Brighton and Hove Albion in Amsterdam: Fans in dreamland after putting European giants Ajax to the sword after 'scarcely believable' turn of events
The journey the Sussex seaside club have been on is scarcely believable – and beyond the wildest fairy tales.
"When we drew Ajax, we were all buzzing – this was one of the games you put a circle around.”
Those were the words of Brighton’s Dutch goalkeeper Bart Verbruggen who was playing on home soil at club level for the first time since moving to the south coast.
Buzzing doesn’t come close to describing how Albion’s giddy fans would have been feeling as they arrived in the beautiful city of Amsterdam this week.
As journalists, these are the kind of moments and opportunities that make the job that little bit sweeter. After we arrived in Amsterdam on Wednesday morning, there were not too many obvious Brighton fans visible but we did come across a group of lads outside a bar.
They were impossible to miss – mainly because of the superb seagull costume one of them was wearing and the England / Brighton flag they were holding up. It was barely 12pm but they were clearly a few drinks down and loving life – and why not?!
After stopping for some lunch at a picturesque spot by the canal, soon it was time to travel to the Johan Cruyff Arena for the pre-match press conference with Roberto De Zerbi and Jan Paul van Hecke.
It was the second time I had been inside the stadium – I went for a tour at the famous arena during a city break in Amsterdam last year.
When I walked through the press conference room and mixed zone area at the time, I remember thinking ‘how cool would it be to cover a European game’ here. I could never have dreamed it would actually happen within 18 months.
From the outside, the stadium – based near a big cinema multiple restaurants and an arcade – looks deceptively huge in size. It is effectively a museum dedicated to the late, great John Cruyff, who is worshipped in these parts for good reason. There are statues or pictures of him almost everywhere you look.
Four-time European winners Ajax has its history firmly at heart, with pictures of momentous achievements up on the walls. In the press conference room, there was an picture showing Gregory van der Wiel as a youth player crying tears of sadness, despite winning the league, because he had just been given a harsh telling-off by his coach. Unusual? Yes. But a signal that nothing short of perfection is accepted at this club.
When the microphone came round to me during the press conference, I asked De Zerbi if Ajax, and their infamous playing style, influenced his own footballing ideas.
"I respect a lot the style of Ajax,” he replied. “It is clear for every coach in every part of the world. They are used to changing a lot of players year by year. They are very good with young players. Then they sell but they reach the right level. The history of this club is clear.”
The Italian, eloquent and respectful as ever, spoke of the honour it was to manage his Brighton team at the Amsterdam arena.
He threw a light-hearted line in, quipping that he felt sorry for Albion’s former Ajax man Joel Veltman: “I never see him on the wall and I’m sorry for him.”
Jacob and I then had a unique opportunity – a first for us both – to watch some of Brighton’s training session. That was a surreal experience to be standing almost on the touchline watching as the players prepared for one of the biggest games in the club’s history.
We took some time afterwards to enjoy Amsterdam’s vibrant nightlife and bumped into some more Brighton fans, from Worthing, who couldn’t wait for the day ahead. It really did feel like the calm before the storm.
Brighton fans continued to arrive in their droves and made their presence known – in style – with the famous Dam Square awash with blue and white shirts, scarves and flags.
The rain did nothing to dampen spirits as the supporters introduced the locals to the ‘Sussex by the sea’ tune in unison.
It was a privilege to speak with so many fans, young and old, to hear their stories and pure excitement at being in Europe to watch their beloved club.
Despite the 2-0 win over the sleeping Dutch giants at the Amex, there remained some scepticism among the fans, when we asked for their score predictions. The hosts had put together two wins in a row under new manager John van't Schip – and it was an inevitable they would be far less pragmatic on home turf.
But the result of the game almost seemed irrelevant for many – the experience would be unforgettable regardless.
Jacob and I jumped on a tram to the stadium and ended up surrounded by Ajax fans, who were in fine spirits themselves, proudly singing their own songs – and rudely asking ‘Who are Brighton?’ with more than one expletive.
If they didn’t learn enough about Brighton at the Amex, well, they were taught another harsh lesson in their own backyard.
In fairness to them, the home fans generated the loudest noise I’ve ever heard in a football stadium. It was almost deafening – especially when calling for a penalty.
The stadium was spectacular – and the atmosphere intimidating – but Brighton made light work of things. It was almost a perfect night, scoring two wonderful goals, keeping a clean sheet and temporarily going top of Group B. Pascal Gross’ even did his trademark Cruyff-turn in the perfect stadium for it.
The only downer was the triple injury blow for Lewis Dunk, Pervis Estupinan and James Milner. They are all expected to be absent against Sheffield United on Sunday but Roberto De Zerbi is optimistic they won’t be out for the long-term future.
Ajax may not be at their best – with a notable lack of experience in key areas – but that takes nothing away from Brighton’s achievement. The Seagulls faced their own adversities head on, with the injuries mounting. To put together back-to-back wins against a club of that size is nothing short of outstanding.
The victory sparked jubilant celebrations long into the night and, the best bit is, the fans get to do it all over again in Athens in three weeks time.