It has already been the most improbable of cup runs. Every match in FC United’s run to within grabbing distance of the Third Round of this year’s FA Cup has been enveloped in the sort of drama that would not, in a quite literal sense, have looked out of place in a children’s comic from the 1970s. The last minute winner at Rochdale in the First Round, a goal that feels like years and years ago. The trip to Brighton, the delirium of snatching the lead, the agony of having it snatched away and the tumultuous disbelief of the last minute penalty save that saw them in the Third Round draw and playing off tonight for the right to play last year’s beaten finallists, Portsmouth.
All of this has been done while building bridges and making friends at every turn, and this manifests itself this evening in the ticketing arrangements. In comparison with the first match, when reason seemed to be swamped by police advice so wide of the mark as to seem absurd, it’s pay on the gate this evening, with places available for just £8. With such a policy, the idea of FC United profiteering from this year’s competition – another idea pushed by some after they agreed to play their First Round match at Rochdale on a Friday night – is also blown from the water. To this extent and many others beside, a battle has been won before a ball has even been kicked, and it’s a battle that may well prove to be more important than can even be won on the pitch tonight.
None of this is to say that this match doesn’t also mean something to Brighton & Hove Albion, as well. They have been slipping of late, and their teamsheet, which includes six changes from the first match, demonstrates this as much as anything. It has now been six matches since they last won a match from open play and the easy-going confidence of just a few weeks ago may be starting to run a little dry. In addition, there is a definite incentive for them to win this evening. Portsmouth might not be Crystal Palace, but it is still a derby of sorts, and the chance of meeting them in the Third Round may have informed their decision to play a stronger team for this match.
For all the work of a cover over the pitch and hot air blowers, conditions at Gigg Lane remain difficult. The pitch is firm, to say the least, and is surrounded by a thick layer of frost. It is Brighton that defrost first, and within the first six or seven minutes that they have fired a couple of warning shots, Francisco Sandaza bundling the ball over the line and Glenn Murray shooting wide from a decent position after the FC United defender Chris Ovington gets the ball trapped under his feet and allows Elliott Bennett a free run down the left-hand side. Brighton are running the midfield and, although FC United play some tidy football when they are allowed the opportunity to, those opportunities remain thin on the ground. Brighton mean business tonight.
After twenty-five minutes, the deadlock breaks, and it is a goal with a touch of luck about it but which also demonstrates the quality that Brighton have at their disposal. Elliott Bennett cuts in from the left-hand side and takes what may not be a shot, the ball skids across the penalty area and Francisco Sandaza sticks out a foot to turn the ball in. It’s unlikely that he knew too much about, but professional players are, in no small part, paid for reactions like that. The timing of the goal is critical for Brighton. After an early assault, FC United had just been starting to get a foot in the door of this match. Any nerves and insecurities to Brighton may have been carrying with them are that bit more likely to fade away now.
The singing, of course, doesn’t stop. Indeed, if anything it redoubles in volume and urgency with the Brighton goal and FC United respond positively. They have half a shout for a penalty for handball turned away by the referee and the Brighton goalkeeper Peter Brezevan, hitherto no more than a spectator for much of the half, has to come and collect a couple of crosses. The concern for FC United is how little threat they are directly posing to Brezevan’s goal. Carlos Roca corkscrews a shot well wide of the post, but this is as much as FC United can muster in terms of goalscoring opportunities and deep into stoppage time Brighton double their advantage with a close range header from Inigo Calderon.
Is this all a bridge too far? FC United evidently feel not and, whilst conceding that second goal on the stroke of half-time could have had an extremely deflationary effect on their morale, they start the second half very positively and within five minutes of the restart have created their best chance of the match, but Nicky Platt, who scored in both the First and Second Rounds of the competition, shoots narrowly wide of the post. Still, they are hanging on in this match and just after the hour Roca cuts in from the left and forces a save from Brezevan at the goalkeeper’s near post. Then… well… then. The chance comes, the big chance, and they can’t take it. Ben Deegan may even have been outside of the penalty area when he is brought down by an uncharacteristically ungainly tackle from Calderon. Jake Cotterill is charged with the responsibility of taking the kick, steps up and shoots agonisingly against the post.
With that moment, the dream finally slips away. Brighton seem content enough to prod and poke, and occasionally push forward on the break. With four minutes left to play, they add a third goal when Elliott Bennett rolls the ball past Sam Ashton and, with the clock set to tick over ninety minutes Gary Hart, a Brighton player since approximately the time of the druids, breaks through and touches the ball across goal for Matthew Sparrow to tap the ball over the line to make the score 4-0 while the FC United defence stands, waiting for an offside flag that doesn’t come. It’s tough on FC United, who have pushed hard during the second half, but Brighton & Hove Albion are well worth their place in the next round of the competition, and they can pause to reflect upon a job well done this evening. Moreover, after a shaky period, this may prove to be a vital confidence booster ahead of their top of the table trip to play Huddersfield Town on Saturday.
On the pitch, it has been an evening of what ifs for FC United of Manchester. What if the half-time whistle had blown twenty seconds earlier and denied Brighton their second goal? What if Nicky Platt’s shot early in the second half and sneaked in? What if Jake Cotterill’s penalty had sneak in off rather than out from the post? On other, more fortuitous evenings, any or all of the above might have happened, and the eventual outcome might even have been different. On a day-to-day basis, however, football doesn’t work on the basis of what ifs. It was a cold, hard night, and the harsh glare of the floodlights coupled with the lung-scouring air felt apposite for the reality of the gap between these two clubs to finally make itself clear.
As one door closes, however, another opens. With planning permission to build their own ground at Ten Acres Lane in Newton Heath, the ultimate goal, to build their own club, for the benefit of their supporters and their local community and to demonstrate that there is a different way of running a football club that doesn’t betray principles, price supporters out or inconvenience those supporters in the pursuit of the false god of money. Around 7,000 people were at Gigg Lane tonight – proof as if it were needed that this is no mere experiment. It’s a clear, workable vision of what our game has the potential to be. On this FA Cup run, they have given their supporters and all of us watching from the sidelines memories that money simply cannot buy and, moreover, used their platform to push their vision. The dream didn’t die, tonight – it’s only just beginning.
It is probably appropriate that we end FC United of Manchester’s run in this year’s FA Cup by enjoying the goals from their First Round win at Rochdale, one of the most extraordinary matches that any of us will have the pleasure of seeing all season for many different reasons, one more time.
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