What a curious season it has been for Brighton & Hove Albion. On the one hand work finally started on their new stadium at Falmer, they are ninety minutes from Wembley and they knocked Manchester City out of the League Cup. On the other, though, they have slumped down the League One table after an encouraging start and Leyton Orient’s surprise win at Franchise last week dropped them into the relegation places. This constitutes something of a crisis. Relegation would leave them hovering above relegation from the Football League. The unthinkable – starting their life at Falmer as a non-league club – suddenly becomes a hideous (if slight) possibility.
Hartlepool United have spent much of the last ten years bouncing between the two bottom divisions of the Football League. Having spent much of the 1990s narrowly avoiding relegation to the Conference (between 1995 and 1999 they didn’t finish above seventeenth place in what is now League Two), they were promoted in 2003 and then finished in sixth place in League One two seasons in a row, losing out in the play-offs both times. They were unexpectedly related in 2006, but were promoted straight back the following season and finished in mid-table last season. At the time of writing, they are again sitting just above the relegation places. A handful of wins between now and the end of the season should secure their position in League One again for next season. For now, though, they remain looking nervously over their shoulders at the bottom four places, fully aware that the seven point buffer between the bottom four and themselves isn’t quite a big enough one for them to feel comfortable.
Brighton is cold today. The sky is the colour of slate and a stiff breeze is washing along the south coast. Many people say that Brighton is not a “football town”, but a crowd of just shy of 6,000 indicates that the enthusiasm is still there for the club. Recent results have been a mixed bag. They won at Swindon at the end of December, and then had a break brought about by the weather and the FA Cup until the 17th of January, when they lost 2-0 at home against Leeds United. Since then, they have confounded anyone that would try to predict their results. Luton Town turned up at the Withdean, battered, broken and staring non-league football in the face, and fought tooth and nail for a 0-0 draw in the first leg of the Southern Final of the Johnstones Paint Trophy. The following Saturday two late goals earned them a scarcely deserved point away to bottom of the table Cheltenham Town. Last Tuesday they travelled to league leaders Leicester City and ground out another draw. This draw wasn’t enough to keep them out of the relegation places. This, though, has been the story of their season. Too many drawn matches that they should have won. Too many lost matches which they should have drawn.
There are causes for quiet optimism this afternoon, though. Hartlepool haven’t won away from home since the end of October, and Brighton’s performance at Leicester in the week was much improved. For all of that, the visitors blow into town like a tornado, and take the lead after nineteen minutes when Joel Porter’s sudden burst of acceleration takes him to the left hand touchline and his low driven cross is turned in from three yards out by Mickey Nelson. From here on, though, Hartlepool make a mountain out of this particular molehill. Goalkeeper John Sullivan is the Brighton hero, pulling off a series of excellent saves from debutant Daniel Nardiello, although the nest chance of the rest of the first half sees Jason Jarrett head wide with a free header in stoppage time. In the second half, however, the tide begins to turn with an inspired substitution that sees Sebastian Carole come on. Within three minutes of coming on, he latches onto Dean Cox’s cross for Nicky Forster to level from three yards. From here on, Brighton start to press on but it looks as if Hartlepool are going to hold out until the second minute of stoppage time, when Brighton’s second substitute, Kevin McLeod, creates himself a little space on the left hand side and crosses for Calvin Andrews to glance a header into the top corner for a crucial three points. A couple of minutes later, with the full time whistle having already gone at Withdean, seventy miles north in London, a header from Yeovil Town’s Gavin Tomlin gives Yeovil all three points against Leyton Orient. A two point gap has now opened up.
There is a danger that Brighton & Hove Albion will get distracted by Wembley, but they have to get there first. Their trip to Luton in three weeks in the Johnstones Paint Trophy is, however, a critical game for the club, and the club knows it. They have an allocation of 1,800 tickets for this match and are putting on free travel to the match to ensure that as many people as possible are in Bedfordshire to support their team. Whilst a first cup final appearance at Wembley in twenty-six years would be most welcome to a club that seems likely to incur massive debts to fund the construction of their new stadium. This result hints that they are too good to go down, but they have a long way to go yet to ensure their survival in League One for this season.