The end of the football season brings out the mathematician in us all. Brighton & Hove Albion supporters spent most of yesterday morning poring over fixture lists but, behind the permutations and logarithms, there was a simple equation. Beat Stockport County, and you don’t have to do any sums. Beat Stockport County and you will stay up, regardless of results elsewhere. At lunchtime, there were four teams that could yet go down, and the fixture list had been kind to Brighton & Hove Albion. While they are at home to Stockport, recently placed into administration, Crewe Alexandra are at home against Leicester City, Northampton Town are away to Leeds United and Carlisle United are at home against Millwall. In other words, their rivals are playing three of the top four teams in the division.
London Road, near Brighton town centre, is crowded as ever, but is also peppered with button-down, beer drinking likely lads. For once, a hint – albeit slight – of menace is in the air. Brighton town centre usually seems quietly oblivious to the goings on up the road at Withdean Stadium, but there is something in the air today. This match was sold out by the middle of last week, a small glimmer of the clubs potential, and there is a crackling sense of nervous energy in the air. It feels as if the reality of the relegation dogfight in which they find themselves has finally come home to roost. The club has already warned people to turn up early, and the fact that there is no drink for sale inside the ground means that some people seem to be starting even earlier than usual.
Back in the day, the transistor radio. Glued to the ear of the seasoned enthusiast, it give a crackly, badly received window on the world while the game was in progress. These days, though, the options available to the technology savvy football supporter are considerably greater. Some opt for mobile phone text updates, whilst others prefer money-sapping websites and some go for phone or text updates from friends and family who are at home in front of the television or their computers. It doesn’t take long for the first piece of bad news to filter through. Seven minutes in, Carlisle take the lead at home against Millwall. This is bad news. A cursory look at the league table tells you that, while Crewe Alexandra are virtually gone, Carlisle United are the team most likely to cause Brighton a headache directly this afternoon.
On the pitch, things aren’t going too well either. Stockport start brightly, exhibiting none of the signs of a team with one eye already on the end of season break. Gary Hart, who has been a critical component of Brighton’s revival, limps off after eighteen minutes with an injury, and Oli Johnson’s shot from outside the penalty area brings a fine save from Brighton’s Michel Kuipers. At the other end, Hart’s replacement Calvin Andrew hits the top of the crossbar and damages his knee in the process. Dean Cox tumbles in the penalty area and the referee waves play on, but some better news filters through from Elland Road, as Luciano Becchio scores for Leeds against Northampton Town. If things stay the same at half-time, it’s Northampton and Crewe for the drop, but all it will take in the second half is a goal for Stockport or Northampton to change everything.
Into the second half, then, and still there is no respite for the 8,600 crowd. Nicky Forster, Andrew’s replacement, flashes a header narrowly wide, but it is still fresh in everybody’s mind that a single goal for Stockport will send them down. The news is good from elsewhere, though. Carlisle have doubled their lead against Millwall, but Leeds go two up against Northampton and Crewe, who needed little less than a miracle in order to stay up anyway, have finally capitulated against the champions Leicester City with three goals in twelve minutes. With sixteen minutes to play Brighton finally work a way through the Stockport defence. Gary Dicker, himself on loan to Brighton from Stockport, has his shot saved by the Stockport goalkeeper Logan and Forser taps the ball in from close range.
Finally, the nerves start to ease. The sequence of events now required to relegate Brighton & Hove Albion is now too unlikely for even the most nervous of observers. As the clock ticks over ninety minutes, Leeds add a third goal against Northampton but Brighton are holding out comfortably against Stockport. In injury time, the referee blows for a free kick, and some more excitable elements of the crowd rush across the running track and onto the pitch, thinking that he has blown for full time. There is a moment of panic, but those that have encroached soon realise the error of their ways and disappear as quickly as they appeared in the first place. Thirty seconds later, the full time whistle does blow, and Brighton & Hove Albion have somehow survived. Not only this, they have clambered up to sixteenth place in the League One table.
The credit for this turnaround surely belongs with their manager Russell Slade. Drafted in after his surprising departure from Yeovil Town, he will surely now be offered a full-time contract at the Withdean Stadium. Commiserations are also due to Northampton Town, relegated with forty-nine points. They will probably be amongst the candidates for automatic promotion straight back next season. The question now is whether Brighton will treat this shot across the bows as a fillip to not find themselves in this position again, or whether they will find themselves struggling to avoid the drop again next season. They’ve played their Get Out Of Jail Free card this season.