Last Wednesday Bradley Wiggins’ big yellow Tour de France victory parade passed near to a town synonymous with its greatest ever champion – Mourenx, site of the coming of age of the indomitable Belgian, Eddy Merckx. From the moment his breakaway victory there on the 17th stage of the 1969 Tour, people spoke in hushed tones about Merckx’s achievement.
In leaving his great rival Felice Gimondi for dead in the upper reaches of the Pyrenees then attacking close suitors of the calibre of past champion Roger Pingeon and the darling of the peloton, Frenchman Raymond Poulidor, over the summit of the formidable Col de Tourmalet, Merckx birthed his own legend.
At the Tour, to win with ‘panache’ is to win the hearts and minds of the ultra loyal cycling fans who walk the Alps and Pyrenees to ‘run’ with their heroes.
At Mourenx, in his taking all of four competitions in that year’s Tour (General, points, mountains and combined), in winning the tour by a record margin (17’54”), in pressing a firm boot to both pedals and the neck of his rivals, Eddy Merckx passed from merely being a cyclist of outstanding pedigree and potential; he became ‘the Cannibal’, the immortal stuff of legend.
In recent years cycling fans have yearned for more like Merckx. Raised on a diet of the defensive, team based, Tour winning tactics of Lance Armstrong, since replicated to great effect by Cadel Evans in last year’s event and again by Wiggins this time round, they have had to make do with crumb of panache falling from the table by way of Mark Cavendish’s audacious sprinting exploits, Andy Schleck’s solo efforts in the mountains or, in this year’s vintage, Peter Sagan’s very ‘being’.
The same is true of lower league football fans. Raised on a diet of bread and butter, long ball guff we’ve learned to gape and yaw the moment a single player dares to beat a man on the outside, to slow clap once the pass count crests half a dozen and to feint in shock when a player like Michael Bridges (a man of genuine ‘panache’) graces our own club with his deified presence.
Or, at least that was the case until the 2010/11 season when a motor mouth Uruguayan grabbed League One by the scruff of its neck and treated it to a 12 month long primal roar so fierce and arresting it blew all in sight to smithereens.
That man was Gus Poyet, and his team was Brighton & Hove Albion. Lower league football’s own champions of the Merckxian spirit.
I recently discussed that season in dispatches with a regular correspondent of mine – he suggested that the ‘Albion’ in Brighton’s name was most apt since they played that year like something born of Blake’s wild fancy. He wasn’t wrong – to see Poyet’s men in full flow was to take a dispiriting trip to the heart of English football’s shortcomings.
Their shape, ability to retain the ball and move it efficiently and wisely, to never panic, to take advantage when a chance came their way but most importantly, play like a team – more than the sum of their parts – was a joy to behold.
Many have suggested that this owed much debt not only to Poyet but to the clutch of imports he brought from the Spanish and Argentinian leagues to spice up life at the Withdean. It may be so that the likes of Cristian Baz and Agustin Battipiedi’s skill rubbed off on the training ground but they were hardly ever seen on the pitch.
Only right back Iñigo Calderón and the yeoman goal poacher Francisco Sandaza (more SuperPippo than Messi at any stretch) had any real impact of Poyet’s foreign legion.
Instead the team was built of the type of sick, lame and lazy flotsam that usually drifts ashore at such clubs in pre-season. No-one had Gary Dicker, Adam Al-Abd or mummified left back cum assistant manager Mauricio Taricco pencilled in as part of Britain’s best passing side over that season on August 7th.
Similarly the Merckx path to glory started in inauspicious surrounds. Born in Brussels in June 1945, the son of a greengrocer, the young Merckx overcame a great number of setbacks before eventually meeting his potential in the late 60s and early 70s. A gangly, cumbersome rider, many thought he would never reach the heights of his near contemporary Rik van Looy in the hearts of the Belgian public.
Like the Gary Dickers of this world, Merckx was also disadvantaged by accident of birth. While Dicker’s breeding sees him bound as a lumpen clogger, the young Bruxelloise was always outside favour in the great Belgian heartlands of Flanders. Even as Merckx brought home honours from the classic ‘monuments’ of cycling at Milan-San Remo and Liege-Bastogne-Liege many in his homeland cocked a snook.
Merckx also took in a failed attempt to win the Olympic games and aborted attempt to ride alongside his fêted countryman, and bête noire, van Looy in the Solo-Superia team on the path to glory.
Some of Poyet’s finer players in 2010-11 had similar fates. The collected journey of Glenn Murray from Workington via Wilmington Hammerheads, Carlisle and Rochdale hardly spoke of a man whose cool, dead eye and knack on the turn sashayed him 22 goals.
Similarly Ashley Barnes’ charge sheet – abject failure at relegated Plymouth and a dreadful loan spell at Salisbury City didn’t gird the loins of the Withdean faithful – yet he weighed in with 20 goals of his own. While captain Gordon Greer’s embittered move from Swindon echoed Merckx own – leaving a club he’d outgrown for his own good.
Brighton’s two standout players were the wingers Elliott Bennett and Kazenga LuaLua, both, like Merckx, virtuosos capable of defibralating a somnambulant crowd with moments of laser guided brilliance. But for every Merckx there was Jos Spruyt and Patrick Sercu who helped percolate Merckx’s embryonic talent with a chorus tapped out at the front of the peloton to their maestro’s chosen beat.
And at Brighton there was Dicker and, even more so, Liam Bridcutt, there to change the tempo like a pair of crabbed midfield metronomes picking out their own brand of tiki-taka pizzicato, setting the scene LuaLua and Bennett’s swooping strings and the rampant percussion of the relentless Barnes and Murray.
League One fans and players had never seen the like, nor are they likely to again. By the end of September Albion had notched six wins and only a single loss to Sheffield Wednesday at Hillsborough. But it was in October, with 3-0 and 4-0 victories away at fancied sides Peterborough and Charlton that the world sat up and watched.
Poyet’s side had panache alright, and took with Merckx’s intention to win absolutely every race they entered - the Belgian was not only a Grand Tour specialist but won 535 individual gongs, from town centre kermesses to the classic one day ‘monuments’ of cycling.
An early New Year’s spree saw Poyet’s men picking up garlands like Merckx notched grand tours – a New Year’s day massacre of Leyton Orient (5-0) preceded an outrageous run of three straight weeks scoring four goals in February as Bristol Rovers, Hartlepool and Plymouth were dispatched with sundry aplomb.
Although regular sorties to the Brighton page of the BBC website to view their weekly showreel became a regular guilty pleasure that year I saw Poyet’s outstanding team only once; as my own club Carlisle visited the ramshackle Withdean on the March 5th. Like Merckx, it mattered not if the stage was a local velodrome, Alpe d’Huez or a converted municipal sports track; Poyet’s Brighton always came out to entertain.
And they gave me the best game of football I have ever witnessed live.
Carlisle took an early lead before former Brunton favourite Murray scored his first goal against us in a hatful of attempts, his muted celebration at odds with the inflatable throwing melee in the home stands. Barnes took Brighton clear in the first half before a solo effort from Ben Marshall restored parity.
This being Carlisle that lasted a whole three minutes as the pairing of Dicker and Bridcutt maintained a vice like grip on midfield; Barnes coolly slotted home a second of the game. There followed a crazy half hour where Carlisle did all but score, inviting the goading home crowd to share the wit so present in fans of those on the ascent.
With two minutes left, though,Carlisle’s debutant substitute Harry Arter found space at the far post and crashed home past Casper Ankergren in front of a handful of delirious Cumbrians before sprinting across the Withdean’s forsaken running track to share his glee.
For a moment we all forgot ourselves. But this was Brighton, they were channelling the spirit of Merckx. They didn’t DO losing.
As the Cumbrians invited their trademark late doors pressure the ball fell to the edge of the area, there was Bridcutt the metronome set to tap the ball left or right on demand. Only, with the air of a man set up to win he judged his instincts, planted his ‘good’ foot and swung through his left.
The ball nestled in the net’s corner and sent the home fans wild. This was Mourenx. This was where 10,000 Brightonians pressed their foot to the neck of the chasing pack, became League One’s own Cannibals – almost unbeatable and entirely uncatchable. Like Merckx, they always had the edge at the bitter end.
And I didn’t care. As a fan of football it was one of those few times I was able to unhitch my own colours and say ‘I’m glad I was there’.
To see Poyet’s Brighton that year was truly to see something special.
Some fans spoke of Brighton’s stranglehold on League One that year (they eventually won by only three points after a late stutter post promotion) as though some ill born disease had swept through and affected their young. That is to ignore the genius of their absolute domination and it’s magical brand of mesmerising, almost poetic, football.
When asked about Merckx’s imperial dominance of the peloton the French writer Pierre Chany produced the unbeatable comeback:
“has anyone wondered whether Molière damaged theatre… Bach harmed music?”
The same was unquestionably true of the 2010-11 Brighton side. Quite probably League One’s greatest ever.
Asked the secret of his genius, Merckx was apt to dismiss his interviewers with the pithy sobriquet ‘ride lots’. Poyet’s genius was to burn his own Merckxian maxim onto his squad of hillbillies and also rans. The secret of League One genius?
Who’d ever have thought.