Irish international pals brought wing wonder Steve Penney to Brighton

BRIGHTON & Hove Albion can thank a former Middlesbrough goalkeeper for landing one of the most exciting players ever to play for the Seagulls.

Jim Platt was the Teesside club’s man between the sticks for 12 years and, during his call-ups on international duty with Northern Ireland, he struck up a friendship with Arsenal defender Sammy Nelson, who joined Brighton towards the end of his career.

When Platt took over as manager of Ballymena United, he quickly recognised that a talented teenage winger at his disposal –  Steve Penney – could make a career for himself in England.

Platt tipped the wink to his old pal Nelson, newly-appointed as Albon’s assistant manager to Chris Cattlin at the time, and the youngster was invited for a trial.

Penney was put up in a house near the Goldstone recently vacated by the sacked Jimmy Melia. His housemate was another young triallist: Ian Wright! Penney was taken on while Wright was released. Whatever happened to him?!

Penney’s Albion story is told in fine detail by journalist Spencer Vignes who devotes 12 pages of his excellent book A Few Good Men (Breedon Books) to a player who, for the record, played 148 games (plus 14 as sub) in eight years with Brighton.

Unfortunately, that rather low figure tells its own story, a succession of injuries robbing him of probably twice as many games as you might have expected him to have played over that length of time.

“He was, in short, a breath of fresh air, a flying winger whose close control and devastating pace left opponents and spectators alike lost for words,” said Vignes.

Among former teammates who voiced their appreciation of Penney, full back Graham Pearce told Vignes: “I always thought of Steve as a bright young winger, very naturally talented, who had all the attributes you need in that position, especially pace.”

Born in Ballymena on 6 January 1964, the son of a teacher and a nurse, although he played football at primary school, he went to what he described himself as “a fairly posh grammar school” where rugby was the preferred sport for boys, and he was a scrum half.

He got the chance to play football in the Boys Brigade, where Nigel Worthington, who later managed Northern Ireland, also played.

“I had to choose between rugby and football and when I decided to join Ballymena United, the school were so furious they suspended me,” he told interviewer Dave Beckett in a matchday programme feature.

“Playing for my home town was excellent, although I had the chance to join Linfield who were one of the best teams in the country.

“I guested for them in Holland a couple of times so I knew they were interested and that’s where I expect I’d have ended up if I hadn’t moved abroad.”

Instead, Platt alerted Nelson and, bearing in mind Albion’s high profile having only recently played against Manchester United in the Cup Final, Penney didn’t take much persuading.

Beckett recounted: “Penney, at 19 years old, made his debut in a 3-1 defeat by Barnsley but was soon a hot favourite on the terraces. Even in his opening match he set up the goal goal for Alan Young, and John Vinicombe wrote in the Evening Argus: ‘The eye for an opening that Penney unquestionably has will serve Albion well. The Goldstone are going to like him’.”

It wasn’t long before he was playing to a much bigger gallery when he was part of the Albion side who toppled Liverpool in the FA Cup (for the second season running), winning 2-0 in front of a live television audience.

Penney tormented the experienced Liverpool left-back Alan Kennedy and his perfectly-flighted pass over the top of the Liverpool defence played in Terry Connor to score the decisive second goal.

His first goal came in a 3-0 win at Derby County in March 1984 and such was his impact in that first season that he was voted runner-up to Jimmy Case as player of the season.

Away from football, Penney was a decent golfer, his regular companions on the golf course being Dean Saunders, Chris Hutchings, Steve Gatting and former Albion favourite Peter O’Sullivan.

During the winter, he loved nothing more than playing snooker at a club in Hove, especially taking on Saunders and competing for a trophy awarded each week to the winner.

So, life was sweet for the young Irishman and it got even better when his form with Brighton led to full international honours.

SP w Irish shirt

At the time of writing, he remains the highest-capped Albion player, all of his 17 caps for Northern Ireland being won while with the Seagulls.

After making his debut on 16 October 1984 in a 3-0 friendly win over Israel in Belfast, he was a regular for four years, playing his last game on 21 December 1988 in a 4-0 defeat to Spain in a World Cup qualifying match. He scored twice for his country, in a 1-1 draw with Israel on 18 February 1987 and in a 3-0 win over Malta on 21 May 1988.

The highlight of his international career was playing for Northern Ireland at the 1986 Mexico World Cup.

“The whole experience of going to the World Cup was something I’ll never forget,” he said three months later, in a matchday programme interview.

“Six weeks away from home is a long time, but the spirit in the squad was very good and I wouldn’t have missed it for the world.”

Steve had been in the side that qualified for that World Cup by drawing 0-0 against England at Wembley. “We only needed a draw to get to Mexico and we got it,” he said.

“(Manager) Billy Bingham had been a right winger and obviously appreciated what I could do, which was a source of great strength to me. He’d been part of the team that had played in the World Cup in Sweden in 1958, a lovely man who was very good at getting the best out of his players and encouraged me no end, something I’ll always be grateful to him for.”

Unfortunately, Steve’s World Cup came to a juddering halt after Spain’s hard man Emilio Butragueno went over the top in a tackle and did his ankle in only the second group game.

On his return to Brighton, Penney found himself sufficiently impressed by Cattlin’s successor, Alan Mullery, that he was persuaded to sign a new, three-year contract.

However, it wasn’t long afterwards that Penney started having problems with his left knee and, although he played through the pain barrier, in a game against Derby County in March 1987 a bad tackle damaged his ankle ligaments, sidelining him for the rest of the season.

Barry Lloyd had succeeded Mullery and Penney was in the team at the start of the next season but, after only two games, found himself back on the treatment table after a chip of bone was found floating in a knee.

That kept him out for an agonising seven months before he was able to return to the side in March 1988 to play a crucial part in the final 11 games, scoring three times as the Seagulls earned promotion in second place behind Sunderland.

Penney told Vignes: “At that time, playing for Barry was great. The two of us were getting on even though I always thought there was something not quite right between us. To be honest, he had to play me because I strengthened the team and made a difference.”

Halfway through the 1988-89 season, Crystal Palace tried to sign Penney but weren’t prepared to meet Albion’s £175,000 asking price. And then his left knee went again.

Vignes tells the whole gory story in detail, which I won’t repeat here, but, suffice to say, the wrong treatment by one doctor had to be put right by a Harley Street expert.

Manager Lloyd and Penney also fell out, principally over Penney putting country before club. “He’d play for them, then come back injured. That didn’t please me,” said Lloyd. “It was a crying shame. He just wanted to play but was so plagued with injuries it was beyond belief.”

The split came in 1991 when Lloyd clearly thought the player’s level of fitness didn’t merit a new contract. Interest was shown in him by Heart of Midlothian, managed by Joe Jordan, and Charlton Athletic, where the joint manager was his ex-Albion teammate Alan Curbishley.

Having played a couple of trial games for Hearts, he plumped for them but suffered a groin strain early on and only played 14 games all season.

A 15th game would have triggered the award of another one-year deal – and it quickly became apparent that it wasn’t going to happen. Freed at the end of the season, he signed for Burnley, newly-promoted from the old Fourth Division, in August 1992.

“I went down for a week’s trial, did well, signed a two-year contract and scored the winner in my opening game against Swansea,” Penney told Vignes.

Sadly, the mini revival in his career was not to last. He started having Achilles problems and managed only 10 games (plus one as sub) in two years, and decided enough was enough.

His last-but-one game came as a substitute for Burnley against the Albion at the Goldstone. “He took to the field for the final 20 minutes to a rousing and heartfelt reception from the home fans,” Vignes wrote.

“I’ll always remember that as long as I live,” said Penney. “It was fantastic.”

It’s perhaps not surprising to learn that Penney has twice topped a poll of Argus readers asked to name Albion’s best ever right winger and reporter Brian Owen caught up with him to reminisce in 2015.

Being forced to quit the game at the age of 29, Penney returned to Ballymena and, with his wife Valerie, took on the running of a Specsavers franchise in his home town.

Dack's Penney v Chels  

Earlier this season, photographer Simon Dack spotted Penney amongst the Albion crowd  at the Amex for the Chelsea home game.

Main picture selection from Albion matchday programmes.

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