OVER THE years there have been certain players, often strikers, who have fallen victim to the Brighton boo boys.
In recent times there was Chuba Akpom, a little further back Billy Paynter and former Newcastle United striker Leon Best, but, for the subject of this post, I’m going to recall another former Newcastle forward, Paul Kitson.
Kitson clocked up a total of just over 300 games across 16 years for nine different English clubs, and won seven caps for England under 21s.
But, in an unhappy spell with the Seagulls in 2002-03, he managed only seven starts and three substitute appearances and scored just twice.
For whatever reason, he just never seemed to be fit and Brighton fans were short on patience. Even his surname is nearly an anagram of sicknote!
Back in August 2002, newly appointed manager Martin Hinshelwood was like the cat that got the cream. He told The Argus: “I’m very pleased. It’s my first signing and he is somebody we have been chasing for a couple of weeks.
“He’s had a lot of experience at Leicester, Derby, Newcastle and West Ham and he’s played with some quality strikers. That will help the younger players we have got in the squad.
“We have been patient, but it just shows we want to go for a bit of quality. He has played in the Premier League and hopefully he will be right for us.
“We are looking forward to playing him with Bobby (Zamora). It will be a couple of weeks yet before he (Kitson) is fit, but it is a great signing for the club to get somebody of that calibre. It has taken a while, but he has agreed with us and I am really looking forward to working with him.”
The trouble was, initially Zamora was injured and then Kitson suffered one injury after another and made just two substitute appearances between the middle of September and the start of April.
In one of its ‘rolling back the years’ features, The Argus recalled: “Albion fans who had been excited by his arrival had all but given up hope on Kitson.
“But manager Steve Coppell said all along the forward had something to offer and he came good in a Friday night game away to Reading.”
That was on 4 April 2003 and I remember it well having travelled to the game with Kev Bennett, who somehow managed to blag us into the hotel at the Madejski Stadium for pre-match drinks despite a ‘no away fans’ sign on the door!
Although the season would ultimately end in the disappointment of relegation, at the time Coppell’s side were battling to avoid the drop and they stepped up that battle at Reading.
“Paul Brooker put them ahead on 16 minutes but most people felt it was just a matter of time before Reading hit back,” said the Argus.
Cometh the hour, cometh the man – well 77 minutes actually.
Kitson had been a surprise inclusion on the substitutes’ bench, but, five minutes after replacing the ineffectual Graham Barrett to play alongside Bobby Zamora, he finally earned his money when he headed home a Richard Carpenter free-kick to make it 2-0.
Jamie Cureton did pull one back for Reading in the closing minutes but Albion held on to win 2-1 to keep their slim survival hopes alive a little longer.
David Alexander for The Guardian wrote: “Reading’s lone striker Nicky Forster missed three clear chances to level after Brooker’s goal and Glen Little, the Burnley winger making his debut after joining Reading on loan, was twice denied, a header cleared off the line and a fierce volley saved by Dave Beasant.”
Kitson’s goal was his first in 17 months and, almost embarrassed by that statistic, didn’t celebrate. His teammates came out in the media afterwards to defend him.
Beasant, who like Kitson had spent most of his career at the top level, told The Argus: “He came on and did well. He’s a big, strong lad and every time I had the ball he wanted it from me.
“He’s played in the Premier Division and he showed he’s quick in mind as well. He wants to do well now. I think a lot of people have taken Kits the wrong way at this club.
“People are saying he hasn’t justified himself here, but he’s had a problem. He’s been injured and you can’t do anything when you are injured.”
Zamora added: “The lads see him in training, so we know what a quality player he is. Hopefully he will be injury free for the run-in.
“I was looking forward to playing with him when he signed. Nathan Jones has been playing with him in the Reserves recently and he’s had nothing but praise for him.”
Meanwhile boss Coppell acknowledged: “The supporters are like everybody here, we just want to see him play and play regularly.
“It’s like having a present you can’t open. Hopefully now we can take a few layers off and see what he’s made of.”
Born in County Durham, on 9 January 1971, Kitson was picked up by Leicester City as a youngster and came through their youth ranks before breaking through to the first team in 1989.
He scored 11 goals in 63 games for Leicester and was called up for international duty with England under 21s, at the time managed by Ray Harford.
He made his debut as a substitute in a 2-1 win over Senegal in the Toulon tournament in the summer of 1991 when Alan Shearer scored England’s two goals and David James was in goal.
Kitson started the next game alongside Shearer and scored in a 6-0 win over Mexico. He also played in the final against France which England won 1-0, courtesy of a goal from Shearer.
Lawrie McMenemy then took over as manager for the 1991-92 season and Kitson played in four of their seven games, scoring twice.
In his last game, a 0-0 draw away to France in May 1992, he was replaced by future teammate Andy Cole.
By then, his club career had taken a major turn, promotion-chasing Derby, bankrolled by new chairman Lionel Pickering, having snapped him up for £1.3 million (with Phil Gee and Ian Ormondroyd going in the opposite direction as part of the deal).
County missed out on promotion to what would have been the first season of the Premier League when they lost in the play-offs….to Kitson’s old club, Leicester!
Under Arthur Cox at Derby, Kitson scored 49 goals in 132 appearances over two and a half years but not long into the season after they lost 2-1 in the play-off final – again to Leicester – he was heading back to his native north east.
It seems remarkable to think that Newcastle paid Derby an eyewatering £2,250,000 for Kitson in September 1994 (the equivalent of £4.2m at today’s prices), especially as he was mainly a back-up to first choices Andy Cole and Peter Beardsley.
Nevertheless, maybe the Magpies knew they would be selling Cole to Manchester United in January 1995. That departure gave Kitson the chance to start up front and he finished the season with eight goals in 26 games.
Goalscoring centre forwards are part of football folklore on Tyneside and the summer of 1995 saw the arrival of Les Ferdinand to fill that famous role.
With Faustino Asprilla also added to the mix as Newcastle challenged for top spot, only to finish five points behind Manchester United, Kitson’s chances were limited and he played only seven league games in the whole season.
It didn’t get much better in the summer of 1996 when a certain Alan Shearer arrived for a £15m fee. By February 1997, Kitson had played just three league games and, after playing only 36 games in three years, he was sold to struggling West Ham for £2.3m.
Manager Harry Redknapp also spent £3.3m on the bustling Welsh striker John Hartson and between them they scored the goals which kept the Hammers in the top division. Kitson scored on his debut in a 4-3 win over Spurs and finished with eight in 14 league games.
When he signed, Redknapp’s assistant, Frank Lampard senior, said: “The last man we signed from Newcastle was Bryan ‘Pop’ Robson in the 1970s and Paul has the same qualities. He is quick, sharp and has good physical attributes.”
In a game against Everton at Upton Park, Kitson scored twice for the Hammers but missed a penalty that would have given him a hat-trick and Everton nicked a point with a 90th minute equaliser from Duncan Ferguson.
Redknapp was fuming in his post-match interviews, telling Dave Hadfield of the Independent: “If we had scored it, the game’s over,” he said. “But we’ve given it to a boy who isn’t interested in taking penalties. What is it? A testimonial match? We’re in a relegation battle.”
Normal penalty taker Julian Dicks was injured and Hartson was West Ham’s designated penalty taker but a heart-rules-head decision gave the task to Kitson. “That was the killer for us. I can’t believe the unprofessionalism of it,” Redknapp railed.
Hadfield reported: “Kitson, up to that point, was having the sort of game in which anyone would have backed him to put away the spot-kick with ease. His failure to do so could prove monumentally costly at the end of the season, which is a harsh judgement on a player who had looked a world beater in that first half.”
But the great escape was achieved and is re-told in the media from time to time. For example, it was recalled by Sid Lowe in The Guardian in 2010, when he described the signing of Kitson and Hartson as “footballing Red Adairs”.
“On the final day of the season, they slaughtered Sheffield Wednesday 5-1 to complete an implausible survival,” said Lowe. “Kitson got a hat-trick; Hartson got two. It could hardly be any other way. They had scored 12 in the last 13 games. ‘Without them, we would certainly have gone down,’ insisted Redknapp.”
At the time, West Ham fans hailed Kitson and Hartson as the best striking partnership since Tony Cottee and Frank McAvennie. While he would ultimately spend five years on West Ham’s books, it was never as good for Kitson after those final months of the 1996-97 season.
He did, though, get the chance to show Newcastle what they were missing when he scored against them in a 2-0 win at Upton Park in March 1999. After a couple of glaring misses, he finally got on the scoresheet in the 83rd minute, as described by Gerry Cox in The Guardian: “The former Newcastle striker chased a long ball from Lampard, turned defenders Charvet and Andrew Griffin on the edge of the penalty area and slotted a low shot into the far corner of the goal.”
Kitson’s appearances became fewer than a handful, especially after Glenn Roeder became manager, although in November 2001 he produced a hat-trick in a 4-4 draw with Charlton that he has said was the highlight of his career.
The game was live on Sky and, after scoring the opening goal, Kitson twice equalised for the Hammers to claim the matchball…but they were the only goals he scored in the 2001-2002 season, and were his last in claret and blue.
West Ham sent him out on loan spells to both Charlton and Crystal Palace before finally releasing him on a Bosman free transfer to Brighton in the summer of 2002.
After his injury-plagued season with the Seagulls ended in relegation for the club, Kitson was released and moved to Rushden and Diamonds, who, at the time, had risen to the dizzy heights of English football’s third tier.
They were managed by the former Ipswich, Arsenal and England midfielder Brian Talbot.
On 30 September 2003, I recall my one and only visit to Nene Park to watch Brighton take on Rushden.
Goals from Guy Butters, Leon Knight and Zesh Rehman earned the Albion a 3-1 win. Kitson was on the Rushden subs bench and, although he did get on in the 62nd minute in place of David Bell, he wasn’t able to score against his old club.
At the time, he was on non-contract terms and playing for nothing but eventually he managed 28 appearances for them and helped himself to five goals.
The following year, Aldershot was to be his final club before retiring after just one game for them.
Reports say he returned to the north east after his playing days were over.