Such is the nature of this season’s League One table that this afternoon’s match between Brighton & Leyton Orient matters. Albion have had a most peculiar season. After a reasonable start, they fell away alarmingly at the start of the winter and it looked for a while as if they might even get sucked into a fight against relegation. The January transfer window, however, proved to be the salvation that they needed. It says something for the financial state that the club has been in for much of the last three decades that the £300,000 that they spent in Glen Murray is the most that they have spent on a player since 1983, but Murray has proved to be the missing piece in manager Dean Wilkins’ jigsaw. They have won their last two games and, with games in hand on the clubs above them, are still in with a shout of a play-off place. Leyton Orient were many people’s pre-season favourites for relegation, but have surpassed all expectations and, in spite of a recent dip in their form, they remain in ninth place in the table. Two clubs that many would have picked before the start of the season for the drop are still in with half a chance of getting promoted.
The weather this afternoon is more forgiving than the last time I ventured up to the Withdean, but this can’t mask the fact that it is one of the worst places in England to watch football at. There are no pubs within a mile of the place, and the onerous conditions of their tenancy mean that they’re not even allowed to serve booze in the ground or even switch the PA on until fifteen minutes before kick-off. There is, however, something of a buzz around the place this afternoon. The club recently made public their plans for the new stadium at Falmer, and there is an eight page pull-out in the middle of today’s programme outlining them all. It all looks, I have to say, very impressive. The added frisson in the air is brought about by something of a rivalry with Orient. Both clubs’ traditional rivals (Crystal Palace for Brighton, Spurs and West Ham) play at a higher level than they do, and the two clubs have built up a healthy rivalry which seems to prove that there is something in the old saying that familiarity breeds contempt. The truth of the matter is that all of these factors have combined to bring in a decent crowd of over 6,000.
The pre-match is hurriedly shooed into the fifteen minutes that the lease allows. The blasting out of a Fatboy Slim original in which DJ shouts “Let’s hear it for Brighton!” several times and in a rather too urgent a voice for my liking, which then stops for the teams to come out onto the pitch to the altogether jauntier and more calming “Sussex By The Sea”. The first half is a tale of considerable energy being expended with very little net result. Brighton look calmer and more assured on the ball, but Murray, who is already taking on talismanic proportions for them, is having an off day. Three times he gets round the goalkeeper with the ball, but each time manages to over-run and finds himself halfway between the goal post and the corner flag and with his back to everyone else. The layout of the Withdean doesn’t exactly encourage a big match atmosphere, and the crowd (even the several hundred Leyton Orient supporters, tucked away in the corner of the ground and so far away from the pitch that they might even be in a different county to it) goes very quiet, very quickly. Half-time comes around rather too quickly, with the score still goalless and the crowd subdued.
Unable to get so much as a glass of shandy at half-time, the crowd lacks its normal start of the second half raucousness as things get back under way. Brighton still look the stronger of the two teams, but are failing to capitalise appreciably on the possession that they are having. It feels as if the game is starting to peter out, when things suddenly come to life. Orient, having not really threatened for much of the second half, are suddenly and out the blue handed a golden opportunity when the ball falls to Jabo Ibehre, six yards out. His shot over the crossbar when he should have scored to hoots of amusement from the crowd, but their laughter is short-lived. A few minutes later, a long, deep cross finds him completely unmarked and his header loops wide of the Brighton goalkeeper Michel Kuipers and into into the corner of the net. Such is the distance between them and the pitch that there is a groan from the home supporters, a couple of seconds of silence, and then a roar the far corner of the pitch. The goal seems to wake the Albion up, but they still seem to lack the incisive movement from midfield required to dig out an equaliser. In the last seconds of the ninety minutes and with the fourth official programming four minutes of stoppage time into the LED board that they show to the crowd, Brighton are handed a ridiculous lifeline, when Adam Chambers needlessly handles an aimless throughball that would have been comfortably gathered by the goalkeeper. After an extensive delay, Nicky Forster shows the value of experience by stepping up and stroking the ball in to level things up.
For the remainder of injury time the traffic is completely one way and Albion manage to have a header cleared through the line and a shot through a crowd of players that brings a decent save from the Orient goalkeeper Morris. When it comes, the final whistle is five or ten minutes early for most Brighton fans – a little more time and the Seagulls would surely have won. It has been a most curious afternoon. On the one hand, Albion should probably have won had they taken one or two of the chances that they created earlier on in the match. On the other hand, though, they were rescued by an unnecessarily conceded penalty and, as such, a draw was a reasonably fair result. So, they contrived to deserve to win, lose and draw this match. On this evidence, either of these two sides could yet scramble into the play-offs, though whether they would be equipped to stay in the Championship should they get there is a different question altogether. Their continuing success at this level is, however, proof that, at least at this level, money isn’t quite everything. Yet.