When Michel Kuipers steps out at The Amex for his richly deserved testimonial on August 7 he will be fulfilling a long-standing ambition.
Having arrived at the Albion in 2000 he was a player who had been sold the dream of the Albion leaving Withdean for a bright future. Having packed his bags and headed west from Bristol Rovers with Bobby Zamora, the big Dutch stopper was not expecting to have to wait 12 years to make his Falmer bow.
But wait he did. And wait. And wait. Kuipers played in 287 games for the Seagulls but none at their new home. For someone who bought into the buzz surrounding Brighton and their grand plans for a new stadium, it was cruel that the move did not happen until he had left for Sussex rivals Crawley. There would have been no more fitting a stage for Kuipers to play on during a decade of at times stunning goalkeeping.
“It was very frustrating,” he said earlier this week. “I can still remember my first day at Brighton. I went to Falmer to training and Micky Adams told me look out of his window. He pointed across the A27 and said, ‘That is where we will be playing in 18 months time.’
“Obviously things did not go quite according to plan on that front.”
That is putting it mildly. With public inquiries and planning processes refusing to politely go away and let the Albion get on with building its new home, Kuipers and his team-mates were left marooned at Withdean. Watching games there, as any fan will tell you, was often a miserable experience. Surely it was the same for the players? Not so according to Kuipers.
“The facilities were not perfect,” he said, “but at the same time we had some brilliant times there which I will never forget.
“We had promotions, league wins and some big cup games as well. It was a great time to be at the club – a successful time in the club’s history and however bad it might have been I will always look back fondly on it.”
For much of that time Kuipers was the Albion’s number one. Although he did spend two spells away on loan, first at Hull City and then at Boston United, Sussex-by-the-Sea was, and remains, his adopted home. There is, he says completely believably, nowhere he would rather be.
“This is my home now. I love it in Sussex which is one of the reasons I signed for Crawley because I wanted to stay in the area.
“This is where I feel I belong.”
Nobody who has ever seen him pull on a Brighton shirt would disagree. A fiercely competitive and determined figure, the 6ft 2in custodian successfully saw off a stack of rival goalkeepers. In fact, the list is as long as Brighton Pier. Wayne Henderson, Ben Roberts, Alan Blayney, Rami Shaaban, Dave Beasant – Kuipers lasted longer than all of them. But, while he always wanted to be the one wearing the gloves on a Saturday, he rarely if ever fell out with any of them.
“I am a strong believer in the Goalkeepers’ Union,” he explained. “I have been lucky enough to play with a lot of good goalkeepers and am still friends with most of them. We speak on the phone and meet up. It is the best way to be.
“Of course everyone wants to play but being a goalie is different to being an outfield player in that you really rely on each. “You train together and on match days you have to support the guy who is playing and help him prepare. If ever I did not get picked I was disappointed but I would sit on the bench hoping whoever was playing would do well.”
Kuipers is the first to admit he did fall out of favour at times. Despite being a superb shot stopper and commanding figure there were times when he was very much second choice. However, he always fought his way back into the first team and was one of the hardest players to dislodge once he was there. His secret? Hard work. “When I was not in the team I wasn’t one for moping about. Anyone who is not starting games should knuckle down and work hard, show what he is worth in training and take their chance when they get it.”
With an attitude like that it is hardly surprising he became such a firm favourite with supporters. Other goalies came and went, but the fans almost to a man stayed true to Kuipers. Even when he was number two, he was number one in their eyes.
“The Brighton supporters are brilliant,” he says. “They really were my 12th man. When you go away from home and have your backs to the wall, their support from behind you makes all the difference. You would hear them singing and it would spur you on.” And Kuipers believes that one of the reasons he enjoyed such a close relationship with the fans was that he quickly became one of them. “I love the club. The fans used to like it when we scored and they would see me celebrating – I was as happy as they were, I was one of them.”
Despite playing for League One newcomers Crawley Town, Kuipers still manages to get his fix of the Albion and can often be seen sitting in the stands at The Amex. And, if he is at a game, you can bet your bottom dollar that he is in his seat at least ten minutes before kick off.
Displaying the broad smile the Albion faithful came to know and love, Kuipers explains the reason behind his clock-watching. “I always make sure I am in the ground when the montage of clips comes on because I love seeing my double save at Wolves up on the big screen.
“It was the best I made in my Brighton career and for it to be included alongside so many legendary players is an amazing feeling. I remember it like it was yesterday, but I still like seeing it again.”
So if that was his best, what was his most important? “I would have to say that as well as the one at Wolves there are two other favourites.
“First was one against Blackpool when I got a hand to a strong shot and it made a big noise. You could hear the save all round the ground. We won that game and went on to win the league.
“The other would be the save from Michael Ball’s penalty against Manchester City in the League Cup. It gave Matt Richards the chance to win the shoot-out and we beat the richest club in the world. It was great publicity for Brighton and really raised our profile. That was a night I will never forget.”
Onto a more delicate issue. If those were his best saves, what was the best goal he let in? There is no pondering. The answer comes quick-fire. “That would be one from another of our big cup games. It was against Tottenham at White Hart Lane and the ball got played up to Robbie Keane. He chested it down and side foot volleyed it into the corner. Some goals you can do nothing about and, in some ways, you don’t mind being beaten by a strike like that.” He also revealed that these days he gets beaten a bit more often than he would like. Crawley fans though, need not worry. It isn’t at the Broadfield Stadium he is being humbled, but it in his own back garden. Kuipers’ son Duke plays for Brighton’s under 11s team and is getting good enough for his old man to not have to pretend to let in his goals. “He is doing well,” said Duke’s obviously proud dad. “I told him to sign for Brighton because I know what a great club it is and how good the people there are.
“He is enjoying his football and who knows, one day I might get to watch him at The Amex. That would be amazing.”
In the more immediate future though, Kuipers has his own day with destiny. Having completed a decade at the club he was granted a testimonial match but had it delayed until the new ground was finished.
That means that come August 7, when Brighton line up against Premier League Reading, Kuipers will once again be in the home dressing room, getting ready for the day he thought might never come.
“I am so grateful to Gus Poyet for letting me join the current squad for the game,” he said. “To play for the Albion at their new home is something I have dreamt about since I first joined.
“It is going to be an occasion I remember for the rest of my life. As a player and a fan I did all I could to help the club, wrote the letters, went on the marches. I was there on the journey and to finally get a chance to see it through is amazing.”
Kuipers, who works closely with the Albion in the Community in helping inspire young people – something he describes as “a privilege” – does not have long to wait now.
He joined thinking it would take 18 months. Instead it took 12 long years. But Kuipers is finally getting a game at the Albion’s new home and, fan, player or behind the scenes staff included, there cannot be many people who deserve it more.
His last appearance for the Albion may just be the sweetest of all.
- A string of packages are available for the match, including 1901 Club slots and Kuipers meet and greet available at £50 and £30.
General tickets go on sale on July 1, and will be £15 for adults, £12 for over-65s and £6 for under-16s. These will be available via all the usual methods.
Parking is also available on site for £10 per car, booked through customer services on 0845 873 0251.
For more information on the hospitality deals fans can contact Jo Brooks or Ashleigh Woods on 01273 878 282 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Packages must be booked before 5pm on Thursday, August 2.