Walk down Brighton’s Lanes at the right time of day and you may well hear a familiar tune echoing off of the narrow walls and across the 18th-century cobbles. The sound of Gerry and the Pacemakers iconic You’ll Never Walk Alone.
Make your way inside former church-turned pub, The Font, and you’ll find worshippers of a different kind gathered inside: the Brighton Kop, or to give them their official title The Official Liverpool Supporters Club – Brighton & Sussex.
Founded by Benny Punk in 2013 – the group is more than fans swilling booze and making a racket. These Brighton Koppites stick close to the core identity of Liverpool Football Club, they’ve forged a family-like bond. The Brighton Kop is as much about Liverpool as it is community and friendship. They’ve challenged the stereotype of who a football fan should be, and what they should stand for – this is football for all.
Benny has lived in Brighton for 23 years, but the supporters club started in 2013. Benny explained that initially he and his friends would watch games in various pubs but began to notice more and more Liverpool fans in each one. Slowly the group formed. He also handed cards out to people in Brighton wearing Liverpool shirts, just to let them know where they could find their fellow Reds – this included chasing down a van, on foot, which had a Liverpool flag on the dashboard.
The Brighton Kop’s first Kop was the Ye Olde King & Queen pub on Brighton’s Malborough Place. It’s a pub with an atmosphere – not one that always feels inviting. Sadly in football it is not hard to bump into a boozed-up buffoon itching for a bust-up. Thankfully, Benny explained to me that they haven’t met much hostility as they’re a friendly bunch, and should someone wish to disturb the peace they’ll aim to “kill them with kindness.” A cold pint is often a successful olive branch.
Ye Olde King & Queen is where the banners that now hang proudly in The Font made their debut. It started with just one solitary banner hanging below the fireplace. Benny describes the landlord marching towards him, asking if he had put it up. Expecting an ear lashing Benny replied that he had; to his surprise, the landlord said “you can put as many as you like up.”
I’m lucky enough to attend the clash with West Ham United. Sadly, I didn’t get to meet Benny himself, he would be attending the Horsham chapter (there are Chichester, Horsham and Eastbourne Kops).
Instead, I’m greeted by Gary, we bump into each other by chance at the bar. I’m met with a handshake, the offer of a drink and a smile from ear-to-ear that Klopp himself would be proud of. I already feel welcome.
I explain to Gary that I’m a Portsmouth fan, but he hopes to convert me. I’ve arrived whilst The Font is in the process of being transformed into Anfield. Gary, his wife Sam and a young supporter named Charlie unpack the banners from the suitcase and start unfurling them. Soon the pub is ablaze with red.
Five banners now wash over the top floor of The Font. The layout of the pub only adds to the magnificence: the pub is horseshoe-shaped inwards, the bar is sunken down below the floor you walk in on. As you wait for your pint you look up and you can see the enormous projector, turn 180 degrees and there it is behind you. The unmistakable sight of Anfield-by-Sea.
I’m introduced to more members of The Brighton Kop. I meet Niall, who also greets me warmly – I can see how, for any Liverpool fan attending their first game here, it would be infectious. Niall will be taking Charlie, who was helping to set up, to the real Anfield for the first time next week.
Gary’s set-up job is now finished so it’s time for a pint. His wife Sam takes on the now major task of check-in, he says she’ll be okay though “As she’s the brains of the operation.”
I then meet Mark. We spend most of the game together, his love for the group and Liverpool is infectious. He tells me how his partner often attends the games with him but as she’s an air-hostess she’s not there this weekend. Just a couple of weeks before, they had taken a young supporter in the group out for a pizza after a game. People in this group have problems bigger than football, they wanted to check on him and make sure everything was okay. You won’t walk alone here.
The game is a hectic affair. Liverpool’s first goal is on the stroke of half-time. Trent Alexander-Arnold bends in a magnificent freekick and the place explodes. It feels like the floor might go through – it’s a good thing they built things properly in the old days. People, who I have only known for at most an hour, grab me in celebration like I’m a lifelong friend.
Late on West Ham’s third goal seals three points for The Hammers. Sadly, that puts a stop to Mark and Gary singing the Thiago Alcantara chant – that is sung to the tune of ‘Cuba’ by The Gibson Brothers – during which, Gary is displaying his repertoire of impressive dance moves. He told me that he doesn’t play football with the group anymore as his legs have gone, but the footwork on display here says different.
People downstairs start singing Forever Blowing Bubbles, the famous West Ham chant, trying to wind up the Reds. They don’t bite though; it’s simply drowned out by a rousing rendition of You’ll Never Walk Alone. So loud in fact that when the final whistle goes, you can’t hear it.
We live in a very divided world – but here in the Lanes of Brighton, people of all creeds come together to celebrate as one. Loving Liverpool FC isn’t even a pre-requisite as I found out. If you love football and long for friendship and fun, you’re welcomed. As more and more Kops begin to grow across Sussex it will morph into a monster operation. It’s a “beautiful monster,” as Gary puts it.
It’s poignant and makes me think about what Sam said earlier: “Football is a reason for this to happen, it’s everything else that matters.”