Had most people in Britain cupped their ears in a southwardly direction at just before five o’clock on Saturday afternoon, they would have heard the faint sound of cheering coming from the Withdean stadium in Brighton. In the midst of a desperate, crazy goalmouth scramble, six minutes into injury time at the end of a match between Brighton & Hove Albion and Oldham Athletic which was deadlocked at 1-1, Francisco Sandaza, whose previous career exploits had seen him play for Valencia’s ‘B’ team and Dundee United, bundled the ball over the line to win the match for Brighton and send the Seagulls to the top of the League One table. It was a goal that was late enough for the BBC’s website to have already reported that Peterborough United had gone to the top of the table with their win which had finished a couple of minutes earlier, but Sandaza’s last-gasp intervention marked a new crowning moment in a season that is starting to exceed all expectations for Brighton supporters.
The story of Brighton’s rise to the top of League One started in April 2009 when, against all odds, they won five of their last seven matches under Russell Slade to stay in the division against what had appeared to be insurmountable odds. A disappointing start to last season saw Slade lose his job, but his replacement, Gustavo Poyet, has made solid progress during his time in charge of the club, securing their League One safety last season with some degree of comfort. Off the pitch, meanwhile, Brighton & Hove Albion have become all about the future. With Tony Bloom having secured the financing of the new stadium at Falmer, Brighton supporters could be forgiven a certain amount of itchiness in their feet as the move grows closer. It is starting to feel as if a groundswell is building up behind the club, and it couldn’t be coming at a better time for them. Brighton & Hove Albion need to persuade thousands of people to turn out regularly at Falmer if the stadium (and, by extension, the club) is to become self-supportive. Going top of the table eleven months before the moving-in date could hardly have been better timed.
Three days isn’t a long time but league football – especially with a forty-six match season – chugs along relentlessly. Tuesday night comes around, and Brighton are at home again, for a match against Brentford. If the expectation levels haven’t quite reached much higher than “surprised and delighted” yet, there is still something of a feeling of muted nervousness in the fervour and excitement of being top of the league this evening. Being at the top of the table brings a whole new set of pressures – not bad pressures, but pressures nevertheless. The expectations of the crowd rise, game by game. The team is “there to be shot at”. To what extent might second from bottom of the table Brentford be able to raise their game this evening, in the knowledge that they could knock the Seagulls, as it were, off their perch?
For half an hour this evening, there isn’t an enormous amount between the two teams. It’s pretty unprepossessing fare, but Brighton move up through the gears and start to assert themselves more and more as the half wears on, firing pot shots in on the Brentford goalkeeper Ben Hamer, who manages to repel everything that is being thrown at him, including one particularly outstanding save from a long range shot fired in by Ashley Barnes. Brentford, meanwhile, can only muster a header from the former Brighton striker Nicky Forster which falls wide of the post. It’s goalless at half-time, but enough of the chasing pack in the division are stuggling to impose themselves upon the opposition in their matches – Peterborough United, in particular, are doing them a favour in being 3- 1 down at home to Notts County – for home supporters to be able to feel quietly confident that the second half will see some degree of improvement.
As the second forty-five minutes wears on, however, a slight tetchiness starts to fill the air. Within a minute of the start of second half, Sam Wood hits the crossbar for Brentford and Brighton are too often being crowded out in the middle of the pitch and the extent to which Poyet is being frustrated with proceedings becomes apparent with three substitutions in five minutes just before thee hour mark has been reached. The changes, however, breathe new life into the Brighton team and they start to push forward more intensively in search of a goal. The Brentford goalkeeper Hamer, however, is on top of his game this evening and, it occasionally feels single-handledly, keeps them at bay. With twelve minutes to play he saves brilliantly from Kazenga LuaLua and Barnes, who has played with a curiously frustrating mixture of efficiency and inefficacy all evening, sees his rebound deflected wide of the post. The frustration, however, is short-lived and finally, finally the deadlock is broken. From the resulting corner, LuaLua works himself a chink of light and drives the ball into the corner of the net to give Brighton the lead.
The last ten minutes are nervous, as they are at any match in which one of the teams is holding a one goal lead, but Brentford have looked pretty poor this evening and Brighton hold on with relative comfort. They started the season with reasonably high hopes of having a decent season, but defeat this evening leaves them bottom of the table. The contrast with beating Everton on penalties in the League Cup just week couldn’t be much starker. Tonight, for all the experience that they had on the pitch, they looked lethargic and lacking in the guile required to unpick a reasonably well-organised defence. Their manager, Andy Scott, brought them up from League Two two years ago and to an excellent ninth place finish last season. This evening, though, his team felt like a flat tyre. There’s a long way to go, but they need to improve rapidly if they are not to get sucked into a long, grim winter.
Brighton & Hove Albion, on the other hand, feel fresh and effervescent. This won’t be their best performance of the season and this is a far from perfect team – many might question how it took them almost eighty minutes to break down a Brentford team that is in the relegation places, but Gustavo Poyet is riding a wave of confidence at the moment and his substitutions were more about boldness and a willingness to change a tactical system that wasn’t working than about any interpretation of desperation. They travel to Tranmere Rovers on Saturday, but their next home match will prove to be their biggest test of the season yet – at home against second placed AFC Bournemouth a week on Saturday, in front of live Sky television cameras. At that point, we may see how genuine the credentials of Poyet’s team are for a place in next season’s Championship, but it is saying a lot for the progress he has already made that the possibility of the Albion starting their first season at their new home in that division is starting to look like a possibility, to say the very least.