Lloyd Owusu cuts an unlikely figure as a possible season saving hero. He is thirty-two years old now, and has spent much of his career as a nearly man – Brentford’s all-time highest scorer, he scored with his first touch for Sheffield Wednesday in a derby match against Sheffield United in 2002, but failed to settle at Hillsborough and ended up cutting something of a journeyman existence around the lower divisions. In 2006, it seemed likely that he would go to the World Cup finals with Ghana, before injury in a warm-up match robbed him of that ambition as well. This season, however, there is a chance – just a chance – that he will turn around a moribund Brighton & Hove Albion team that were odds-on favourites for relegation from League One a few weeks ago.
This evening, Albion were at Bristol Rovers for a critical league match. Anybody that doubts the potential of Brighton & Hove Albion should consider the away section of the crowd this season. On a warm April night, with work tomorrow, almost seven hundred Albion supporters have made the tortuous trip to Bristol. This season, the team has been infuriating. After finishing just one place of a play-off spot last season, a mixture of injuries to key players and the ineffectual management of Mickey Adams (who was brought back to the club at the expense of the somewhat unfortunate Dean Wilkins) has seen them plummet down the table like a sinking stone.
If there was one key match in all of this, it was the Southern Final of the Football League Trophy. Until then, Albion supporters had been able to convince themselves that a Wembley bounce would see them safe, but their penalty shoot-out defeat at Kenilworth Road hit the club. Like waking up after a heavy night on the town, the reality of the club’s desperate plight was suddenly thrown into very sharp focus. Adams was replaced (until the end of the season) by the former Yeovil Town manager Russell Slade. Slade had left Huish Park in bizarre circumstances in February, with a disputed allegation of gross misconduct whilst in charge there. He took over a team that seemed destined to slide into League Two.
Since then, it has been a case of two steps forward and one step back for Brighton. Successive defeats in six pointers against Crewe Alexandra and Leyton Orient seemed to have more or less condemned them, and even a 5-0 win against Yeovil (presumably a very satisfying one for Slade) was followed by a further four matches without a win. Since then, however, the tide has started to turn. A win at almost relegated Hereford United showed a glimmer of daylight, but the following Saturday’s home defeat seemed to reinforce their position in the relegation zone. Owusu, however, was waiting in the wings, scoring the winner at Colchester and two goals in a home win against Oldham Athletic on Saturday.
Suddenly, the insurmountable has become possible. With the side one place above them, Northampton Town, at home against Scunthorpe United this evening, this could have proven to be a pivotal evening in Brighton’s season. It seemed like everything was going wrong for them when Paul Lambert scored for Bristol Rovers and Northampton took the lead but, in the five minutes before half-time, everything turned upside down. First, Owusu scored from close range from a cross by Gary Hart. Then, a couple of minutes later, Scunthorpe levelled things up at Sixfields. At half-time, then, Brighton were out of the relegation places for the first time in over two months.
Seven minutes into the second half, Gary Hart crossed and Calvin Andrews headed Brighton in front. From then on, the excitement all came at Sixfields. As Brighton hung on for dear life at the Memorial Ground, Scunthorpe took a 2-1 lead at Northampton which was then pegged back, and went ahead again before Northampton levelled things up at 3-3 with fifteen minutes left to play. Seconds turned to minutes and minutes turned to hours as the clock ticked down, none of which was helped by the referee adding five minutes of stoppage time at the end of the match.
There is still further drama in the third match involving teams at the bottom of the table. Yeovil had been sliding towards the relegation zone for a few weeks, and had gone 2-0 down at home to Hereford before clawing it back to 2-2, with a goal in the sixth minute of stoppage time from goalkeeper Chris Weale. It’s a goal which is probably enough to ensure Yeovil’s survival in League One for another season. For Brighton, though, this is ahugely significant result. It has lifted them above Northampton Town, Carisle United and Crewe Alexandra and into nineteenth place in the table. They have an away match at Huddersfield Town and a home match against administration-threatened Stockport County. If they win both of these matches, they’re safe. One win will probably be enough.
It seems likely that Brighton will keep Russell Slade on after the end of this season and, should he manage to keep them up, he will have deserved a full season in charge at Withdean. Changes, however, are necessary if they are to avoid a similar fate next season. Their team has a considerable amount of experience – the likes of Kerry Mayo, Michel Kuipers and Gary Hart have been at the club for years, but there are question marks over this ageing squad. Whether Brighton can afford to invest money in the team with the cost of building the Falmer stadium starting to mount, however, is a different matter. For now, however, Brighton have given themselves half a chance of avoiding relegation, which is a start.