ARGUABLY the finest captain in Brighton & Hove Albion’s history went on to have a far less successful spell as the club’s manager having also been a boss at the highest level, at Maine Road, Manchester.
The £30,000 signing of tenacious midfielder Brian Horton from Port Vale on the eve of transfer deadline day in March 1976 proved to be one of the most inspirational moments of Peter Taylor’s managerial tenure at the Albion and for such a fee was widely hailed as “an absolute steal”.
Even though Taylor didn’t hang around long enough to reap the benefit of the man he instantly installed as captain, his successor Alan Mullery certainly did.
In the early days after his appointment, there was some suggestion Mullery would be a player-manager but the former Spurs and England captain reassured a concerned Horton that wouldn’t be the case, admitting that he wouldn’t get in ahead of him anyway!
“Fortunately, that next year went really well. It was my best year without a doubt,” Horton told Evening Argus reporter Jamie Baker. “I’d never met Alan Mullery, and he’d probably never heard of me, so I was delighted and surprised when he made me his captain.”
It was the beginning of a strong bond between captain and manager and Horton added: “We had that relationship for all the five years I was with him.
“That first season was great. We went 20 odd games unbeaten and I was scoring left, right and centre, and I was very proud to be voted player of the year.
“Suddenly everything was coming right for me, although we were disappointed not to beat Mansfield for the championship because we felt we were far better than them.
“You’ve got to hand a lot of our success down to Alan Mullery. He was a terrific motivator of players. He was a bubbly character and it used to rub off on players.
“He was new to the game of management but he brought fresh ideas, and he’d been under some top managers as a player.
“The team spirit during those first three years was incredible. When you are winning games every week it makes a hell of a difference and we had that for three years. You just couldn’t describe how good the team spirit was.
“My treasured memory will always be of the day we beat Newcastle to clinch promotion to the First Division. It was even greater because I scored the first goal. It had always been my ambition to play in the First Division and now I had achieved it.”
In an inauspicious start, Horton found himself in the referee’s notebook as Albion were hammered 4-0 by Arsenal as the season opened at the Goldstone. After a narrower defeat away to Aston Villa, the next game was away to Man City – and Horton had the chance to earn the Seagulls their first top level point.
On 25 August 1979, Albion were trailing 3-2 when Horton had the chance to equalise from the penalty spot with only eight minutes of the game left. But the normally reliable spot-kick taker fluffed his lines, meaning Albion succumbed to their third defeat in a row.
While the superior opposition was clearly testing the Seagulls, it was testament to the resilient skipper that he was continuing to lead them having started out in the third tier and, on 20 December 1980, before a 1-0 home win over Aston Villa, he received a cut-glass decanter from chairman Mike Bamber to mark his 200th league appearance for the Seagulls.
As the 1980-81 season drew to a close, Albion were perilously close to the drop but four wins on the trot (3-0 at Palace, 2-1 at home to Leicester, 2-1 at Sunderland and 2-0 at home to Leeds) took them to safety. What Horton didn’t realise was the Leeds game would be his last for the Albion (as it also was for Mark Lawrenson, Peter O’Sullivan and John Gregory).
“I’d bought a house in Hove Park off Mike Bamber and I was sunbathing that summer when there was a knock at the door. It was Alan Mullery come to tell me he’d just resigned,” Horton told interviewer Phil Shaw in issue 26 of the superb retro football magazine, Back Pass.
Mullery told him how he’d quit over the proposed Lawrenson transfer, how O’Sullivan and Gregory were off as well, and that the club wanted to sell him too, for £100,000.
Although Mullery advised him to sit tight because he still had a year left on his contract, new boss Mike Bailey explained how he wanted to swap him with Luton’s Republic of Ireland international, Tony Grealish.
“I said I didn’t want to go, that I loved the club and the fans, that I’d bought a house, and, at 31 I thought I had two or three good years left.
“I spoke to Mike Bamber and he said: ‘I don’t want you to go but I have to back the manager’.”
Horton chose the platform of the Argus to thank the supporters for the backing they’d always given him and said his one disappointment was that he didn’t get the chance to lead Albion at a Cup Final. “That I would have really loved.”
Looking ahead, he added: “The Luton move gives me a new challenge. You can get in a rut if you stay at one club too long. Six years at Port Vale and five and a half at the Albion is enough. It will probably put a little sparkle back into my game.”
And so, Horton went to Kenilworth Road and under David Pleat the Hatters won the 1981-82 Second Division championship by eight points clear of arch rivals Watford. Looking back in his interview with Back Pass, Horton reckoned two of his Luton teammates, David Moss and Ricky Hill, were up there alongside Lawrenson as the best players he’d played alongside.
An all-too-familiar tale of struggle in the top division saw Luton needing to win at Maine Road in the last game of the season to ensure their safety, and Raddy Antic scored a winner six minutes from time that preserved Town’s status and sent City down.
Television cameras memorably captured the sight of Pleat skipping across the turf at the end of the game and planting a kiss on Horton’s cheek.
After one more year at the top level, he began his managerial career as player-manager of Hull City in 1984, working for the mercurial Don Robinson, and steered them to promotion to the old Division Two at the end of his first season in charge. He is fondly remembered by Hull followers, as demonstrated in this fan blog.
When he parted company with the Tigers in April 1988, his old Brighton teammate Lawrenson, by then manager of Oxford United, invited him to become his assistant. United at the time were owned by Kevin Maxwell, son of the highly controversial Robert Maxwell.
When Dean Saunders, who Brighton had sold to Oxford for £70,000, was sold against Lawrenson’s wishes – astonishingly he went to Derby for £1million – Lawrenson quit. Horton took over as manager and stayed in charge for five years, during which time he recruited former Albion teammate Steve Foster to be his captain.
Horton’s managerial break into the big time came in August 1993 when Man City sacked Peter Reid as manager four games into the 1993-94 season. Horton didn’t need to think twice about taking up the role, even though City fans were asking ‘Brian who?’
In Neil McNab, Horton recruited to his backroom team a former playing colleague who’d been a City favourite. “I played with McNab at Brighton and knew his strengths and knew he was well liked here,” he told bluemoon-mcfc.co.uk.
Horton brought in Paul Walsh, Uwe Rossler and Peter Beagrie and City managed to stay up.
The new boss acquired the services of Nicky Summerbee (to follow in the footsteps of his famous father Mike) along with Garry Flitcroft and Steve Lomas and at one point City were as high as sixth in the table.
They eventually finished 17th but fans to this day still stop Horton (who lives in the area) and ask him about a terrific match which saw City beat Spurs 5-2.
It was Horton’s bad luck that when City legend Francis Lee took over the club from previous owner Peter Swales, he was always looking to install his own man in the hot seat, and Lee eventually got his way and replaced Horton with Lee’s old England teammate Alan Ball.
Ball took City down the following season while Horton embarked on a nomadic series of managerial appointments either on his own or in tandem with Phil Brown.
Initially he was boss of Huddersfield Town; then he was a popular appointment when he took over as Albion boss during their exile playing at Gillingham, but, because he wanted to live back in the north, he left in February 1999 to join another of his former clubs, Port Vale.
He led Vale for five years and pitched up next at the helm of Macclesfield Town, where, on 3 November 2004, he marked his 1,000th game as a manager. It was at Macclesfield where one of his players was the self-same Graham Potter whose stewardship of Swansea City came mightily close to upsetting City in the 2019 FA Cup quarter-finals.
A bad start to the 2006-07 season saw him relieved of his duties in September 2006 but, by the following May, he was back in the game as Brown’s no.2 at Hull City. In March 2010, he was briefly caretaker manager following Brown’s departure, until the Tigers appointed Iain Dowie.
Next stop saw him as no.2 to Brown at Preston North End; then a second brief spell as Macclesfield boss at the end of the 2011-12 season.
In June 2013, he was appointed assistant manager to Paul Dickov at Doncaster Rovers, a role he filled for two years before linking up with Brown once again during his tenure at Southend United. Horton was his ‘football co-ordinator’ but left the club in January 2018. He followed Brown to Swindon Town but, in May 2018, decided not to continue in his role as assistant manager.
Born in the Staffordshire coal-mining village of Hednesford on 4 February 1949, Horton went to Blake High School in Cannock. Spotted playing football for the Staffordshire Schools side, the Wolves-supporting youngster served a two-year apprenticeship at Walsall. But at 17 his hopes of a professional career were dashed when he wasn’t taken on. He ended up finding work in the building trade while continuing his football with Hednesford Town in the West Midlands (Regional) League.
It was there he acquired the moniker Nobby because he gained a reputation for World Cup winner Stiles-like aggression. It was a nickname that stuck.
At the time, he was playing up front and scoring a lot of goals so he caught the attention of a few league clubs, but only Gordon Lee at Port Vale made a move. Lee sealed the deal by buying the Town secretary a pint of shandy and promising to take Vale to play Hednesford in a friendly.
Vale had little money so the squad was made up of free transfer signings but Horton said it made them strong collectively with “a fantastic spirit” and it wasn’t long before he was made their captain.
Vale legend Roy Sproson took over from Lee as manager and in March 1976 the cash-strapped Potteries outfit were forced to sell their prize asset.
When Vale headed to Selhurst Park that month, Crystal Palace player-coach Terry Venables got a message to Horton before the game urging him to sit tight until the summer and they’d sign him then. But Albion stole a march on their rivals and Sproson told him: “I’m sorry but we’re selling you to Brighton for thirty grand. We need the money.”
Funnily enough, the previous summer Horton had a chance holiday encounter in Ibiza with Albion’s Peter O’Sullivan. He later told the Argus: “Sully asked me if I fancied a move. Little was I to know that I would be joining him soon after. There was a wealth of ability in the Albion side when I joined them and it was outrageous that we didn’t go up that year.
“I felt they had to go places and I wanted to be part of it. I’d never been in a promotion side but then to be made captain of it was really the icing on the cake.”
Albion’s gain was certainly a loss to two other clubs who’ve since encountered similar troubles in their past. Horton explained: “I knew clubs were interested although Roy Sproson said he wouldn’t let me go to another Third Division team. I think he released me to Brighton because at the time they looked certain for promotion.
“Also, it was the highest bid they’d had. Hereford and Plymouth had offered £25,000 and I would have been happy to have gone to either club.”
In November last year, Horton reflected on his long and varied career in an interview with The Cheshire Magazine.
Pictures mainly from my scrapbook, originally from the Argus, Shoot / Goal magazine, the matchday programme and various online sources.