FOOTBALL might well have changed a lot over the years but there are few sights that please fans more than seeing a great pair of strikers doing the business for their team.
The first excellent striking duo I witnessed playing for the Albion were Peter Ward and Ian Mellor, who complemented each other ideally in the mid ‘70s.
Kevin Bremner and Garry Nelson provided a potent third tier pairing, especially in the promotion-winning season of 1987-88, and Brighton’s next top pairing nearly took the Albion back to the top, only for Wembley play-off final heartbreak to dash all our hopes.
Step forward Mike Small and John Byrne, forever etched in the memories of those Albion followers who go back as far as the 1990-91 season. Small scored 21 goals in 49 games that campaign while Byrne chipped in with 11 in 38 (plus four as sub).
The history books haven’t always looked favourably on Barry Lloyd’s time in Brighton’s managerial chair but few could deny him the plaudits for bringing together two players who had drifted away from the UK in pursuit of developing their careers.
Small had what could only be described as a nomadic career. Born in Birmingham on 2 April 1962, his talent on the football field earned him England Youth international honours and he joined Luton Town under David Pleat.
His first team chances were limited with the Hatters because of the form of Brian Stein, Steve White and Paul Walsh although in December 1981 I witnessed, along with one of the smallest crowds ever seen at the Goldstone – 2,282 – a brief substitute appearance Small made for Luton.
It was in the 1981-82 season when I was briefly a news reporter on the Luton Herald. In what was quite a bad winter, several postponements left certain teams with empty Saturdays. Division 2 Luton and Division 1 Brighton filled one of these with a friendly at the Goldstone Ground.
Knowing my affiliation with Brighton, the editor kindly allowed me to dust off my sports reporter notebook and take myself off to Hove. It was my one and only time in the Goldstone press box, sitting alongside that Argus veteran, John Vinicombe, and I dutifully recorded how Small got a run-out as a sub for the last 20 minutes of a game which finished 1-0 to the Albion.
With playing time limited at Kenilworth Road, Small had a brief loan spell at Peterborough before taking himself off to Europe where he started showing his goalscoring capabilities.
In two spells with Go Ahead Eagles (1983-85 and 1986-87) he scored 22 goals in 78 appearances either side of 25 games for Standard Liege in Belgium.
The goals dried up in 23 games on loan to NAC Breda but at Vitesse Arnhem in 1987-88, he scored 12 in 26.
From the Low Countries, he travelled to Greece and had two years with PAOK Salonika, where he encountered some unwanted fanaticism from their supporters, on one occasion ending up with a cut eye after an attack by 50 local ‘fans’ at a practice session and also receiving letters threatening his life.
In an article about the striker’s arrival at Brighton by the aforementioned Vinicombe, he wrote: “Nobody knew much about Small save a thumbnail history of his low-key wanderings in Europe. Even the fee to PAOK Salonika was undisclosed, but the grapevine whispered £70,000 and Lloyd issued no contradiction.
“It was as if Small had returned to his native land by stealth after an absence of nearly ten years and Lloyd, through a close-linked chain of overseas contacts, soon realised he might be on to something good.”
Vinicombe summed up the goalscoring Small’s contribution thus: “A muscular six footer who weighs over 13 stone, he cuts a fearsome figure for opposition defences. Off the pitch he’s a remarkably quiet guy who doesn’t really relish the ‘big target man’ tag.”
Small told the Argus man: “I like it when the ball is played through and not just lumped up the middle. John Byrne is a great foil and a good link-up player and I don’t think I should be in there crowding him out.
“John is a real showman. When he takes a breather, I take over and we work as a team.”
Of Small’s 21 goals in 1990-91, seven were from the penalty spot.
“His coolness and accuracy in one-for-one situations has served Albion well on many an occasion and the only interruption during the season was recovering from a pulled hamstring,” Vinicombe observed.
The story of Small’s partnership with Byrne was told in the short-lived Seagull News magazine, when an interview with the pair revealed some of the chemistry that produced what it described as the “hottest Goldstone striking duo for over a decade”.
In a relatively parlous state at the time, Albion had been forced to sell ‘keeper John Keeley to Oldham (£238,000) and Keith Dublin to Watford (£275,000), but it meant Lloyd had funds to pay reasonable fees for Small and Byrne; a £120,000 fee acquiring Byrne’s services from Le Havre, where he’d been playing up front with his Republic of Ireland teammate, Frank Stapleton.
“I knew of a John Byrne in France but didn’t know what he was like or how he played,” Small told Seagull News. “But we soon hit it off. He’s such a good player on and off the ball and he’s got bags of experience which helps me a lot.”
The two got to know each other well when staying in the same Brighton hotel after their respective moves, before finding homes for their families.
Both made the most of the limelight of a high profile FA Cup tie between Liverpool and Brighton and got themselves on the scoresheet.
“It’s been a tremendous season for us so far,” said Mike. “We’ve developed a great understanding but it’s Budgie who leads. He’s involved a lot more in the play linking midfield and attack and creates a lot of openings and situations – far more than people realise – by dragging players away.
“Opponents have been finding it difficult to cope with us because we both like to run at defences and get behind them.”
Byrne added: “We hit it off from the very beginning. We’re great mates off the pitch and that helps. But the big boost for us and the team is that we always feel we can score.
“Mike’s impressed me immensely. He’s got great touch for a big man, he scores goals and is a real handful for any defender – I wouldn’t like to mark him!”
Small’s last goal for the Seagulls came in one of the most memorable games: the 4-1 play-off first leg win over Millwall at the Goldstone.
Sadly, Albion’s failure to win the play-off final spelled the end of the glorious goalscoring partnership and, in that canny way he had in the transfer market, Lloyd managed to get a sum of £400,000 for Small – quite amazing considering the club’s initial outlay barely a year earlier – but West Ham were prepared to stump up the readies and Brighton were more than happy.
Likewise, Byrne was sold to Sunderland for £235,000, delivering a sizeable profit on the club’s original investment.
Manager Billy Bonds must have thought he was a managerial genius when Small continued his rich vein of goalscoring form in the top division. He scored 13 goals in just 19 starts.
A West Ham side that included current Albion boss Chris Hughton in its defence had been promoted but was in need of new firepower after only Trevor Morley (12) and Frank McAvennie (10) had hit double figures. Iain Dowie and Jimmy Quinn had also chipped in but, with Dowie departed, Bonds needed a physical presence up front.
Writer Sid Lambert on thewesthamway.co.uk takes up the story.
“Small fit the bill perfectly. He was in-form and, more importantly, very affordable at just £400,000.
“Incredibly, Small took that red-hot form straight into the top tier. He took just two games to get off the mark, scoring in a 1-1 draw at Sheffield United. In the next home game he scored as the Hammers beat Aston Villa 3-1.
“We had five points from our first four games and had only suffered defeat once. Things were looking promising. As is the West Ham way, that promise started to fade. But Small’s ruthlessness in front of goal didn’t. He scored in successive games against Chelsea, Norwich and Crystal Palace, where a precious three points kept us out of the relegation zone.
“It wasn’t just sheer volume, Small was scoring every type of goal: tap-ins, headers, one-on-ones. The Birmingham-born man was brimming with confidence. Everything he hit turned to gold.
“A seven-day spell at the end of October 1991 was Small’s finest hour in claret and blue. He scored the equaliser – cancelling out an early strike from Gary Lineker – as we beat Tottenham 2-1 at Upton Park. In midweek a penalty helped us to a 2-0 League Cup win at Sheffield United before we travelled to Highbury to face George Graham’s Arsenal.
“After absorbing heavy pressure throughout, the marauding Mitchell Thomas led a rare Hammers’ break into the Arsenal half. Tim Breacker fed the ball to Small, who easily eluded Tony Adams before unleashing a left-foot screamer past David Seaman. In a split-second he’d embarrassed two of England’s very best.”
West Ham were 14th place and Small could seemingly do no wrong.
“By now, he was the country’s in-form striker and there were even whispers that Graham Taylor might consider him for England duty,” said Lambert.
“The only thing to match his meteoric rise was the fall that followed. It took three months for Small to score again, a winner at Luton Town. By now, we were mired in the bottom three. Small’s confidence, like the team, had completely evaporated. The first touch was less assured and the finishing hesitant.”
A niggling back injury was thought to have contributed to Small’s malaise but he and the team failed to replicate their early season form and finished rock bottom of the division.
When Clive Allen arrived at Upton Park, Small fell down the pecking order and towards the end of 1993-94 was sent out on loan to Wolves and Charlton.
After leaving the Hammers, he played briefly for BK Häcken in Sweden, Stevenage Borough, then Sligo Rovers and Derry City in Ireland, but the heady days were well and truly over.
A brief foray into coaching and management saw him involved with non-league clubs Haringey Borough, Kingsbury Town and Waltham Forest but all were shortlived.