Kingfield looks decidedly Dickensian this evening. Fog hangs low in the air, silently and slowly covering in a fine mist of moisture. An hour before kick-off, it even feels as if this evening’s FA Cup replay might be in jeopardy, and it wouldn’t be difficult to imagine that at least Brighton supporters wouldn’t be too unhappy if this match were to be put off by a few days or so. A fortnight ago, the Seagulls were, to coin a cliché, flying high. Unbeaten in the league since August and eight points clear at the top of League One, they could perhaps afford to rest a couple of players for a home match against mid-table Blue Square South side Woking… couldn’t they?
Well, the answer to this turned out to be a reasonably resounding “no”. The two sides played out a tepid goalless draw a week ago on Saturday, both managing a half-chance upon goal each, so here we are this evening for the rematch. Moreover, Brighton’s unbeaten run in the league came to an end last Saturday at Hartlepool United – the blitheness of a minority of Brighton supporters, who claimed not to care if their team got knocked out of the FA Cup, is starting to feel just a little misplaced now. It has been a jolt to the system, and it places a little more importance upon this match for Brighton than we might previously have expected. A win is the bare minimum this evening for the League One leaders.
The reward for the winner of tonight’s match is a tangible one. FC United of Manchester await the winners in the next round of the competition. On the one hand, the Evostik League club will almost certainly sell out their ticket allocation, no matter how many they are given for the match. They remain, however, a division below Woking, meaning that the winners of this match will have cause for optimism that they can make the Third Round of the competition should they win this evening. Woking have had their share of financial issues of late and could certainly welcome the additional revenue that such a run would bring them. Brighton, although promotion will remain their main aim for the season, might well fancy testing their mettle against opposition from one of the top two divisions.
We have covered the infintestimal differences between footballers on this site before. Woking may be three divisions below Brighton, but their players are all footballers, all paid to play football to some extent. Woking raised their game in the first match and Brighton were below par. Sometimes, that’s all it takes to force a surprise. In keeping with this, the home side start the match brightly, forcing a couple of half chances which, on another day, might have become something greater. As the half progresses, however, Brighton start to assert themselves and, although it would be a stretch to say that the Woking goal leads a charmed life, the visitors certainly have the better of the player over the remainder of the half with the Woking goalkeeper Andy Little making smart saves from Elliott Bennett and Matthew Sparrow. One hundred and thirty-five minutes into the tie, however, we are still awaiting the first goal and it still feels as if the two sides are sparring with each other.
Brighton start the second half with as much purpose as they ended the first, and it takes thirteen minutes of the second half for them to finally take the advantage. The long ball through the middle looks optimistic rather than purposeful, but Brighton’s class finally fully shines through. Ashley Barnes flicks the ball on and Matthew Sparrow strokes the ball into Andy Little’s bottom left hand corner with no fuss whatsoever. This should, of course, be a formality here on, but Brighton have been shaky all evening and they fail to kill the game off when they have the opportunity. Woking react well to the goal and Brighton’s lead lasts just fourteen minutes. Elvis Hammond turns smartly on the left hand side and his low cross is touched in by Gordon Greer.
With the equalising goal, the boot is suddenly on the other foot. It is now Brighton that are making the mistakes, slipping on the greasy surface and giving possession away when under no pressure. Woking continue to press, but their possession largely comes to nothing. However, a big chance – and it is a big, big chance – falls to Brighton with two minutes to play. A floated free-kick from the right-hand side falls to Sparrow, largely unmarked and seven yards out, but he is leaning back as he shoots and the ball sails over the crossbar. Seconds later, Glenn Murray shoots through the Woking defence but instead of shooting opts to drag the ball back for… no-one, and the moment passes. At the other end, Elvis Hammond has another chance for Woking but shoots wide. There will be extra-time, and it is no less than Woking deserve.
The first period of extra-time initially follows the pattern of the second half. Brighton would really be suffering against a team with more attacking edge than Woking. They continues show flashes of the quality that has taken to the top of League One, but they are merely flashes and Woking continue to soak it up with ease. Without knowing which team was which, it would be difficult to tell which was three divisions above the other, and with two minutes to play of the first period Charlie Turnbull’s corner finds Ola Sagbanmu completely unmarked, five yards out, and his downward header puts Woking in front. “1-0, and you fucked it up”, the Woking supporters start singing as if by reflex reaction and, as if by magic, Brighton equalise almost immediately with a low shot from Elliott Bennett. There’s still time for Mauricio Taricco, who is (somewhat inexplicably) making his first appearance in several years, to get himself sent off before a frantic fifteen minutes comes to an end.
The second period of extra time passes by in a flash. Brighton have the best chance of the second period, a low shot that is deflected just wide of the post, but they are still sloppy and dislocated. The majority of the final fifteen minutes is played in the Woking half, but Brighton don’t, over the two hundred and ten minutes, deserve to have won this. If penalties really are a “lottery”, then Woking thoroughly deserve their lottery ticket. Under the cold, hard floodlights and with the time approaching half past ten, they finally waver and miss all of their penalties. Brighton manage to pad it out momentarily by missing one themselves, but with a finally, cheeky lob from Cristian Baz, they are through, just, just, just to the Second Round of the competition.
Woking deserved better than this tonight, but they may come to regret not pushing on more in the second period of extra-time, with a one man advantage against a team that had clearly been out of sorts all evening. The money from their live television appearance may settle the nerves of the club’s accountant somewhat, but this may come as scant consolation to the club’s supporters and players. They found themselves in this penalty shoot-out on absolute merit, based not just on their performance this evening but also in the first match at Withdean a week and a half ago. Brighton & Hove Albion, however, have had a poor couple of weeks. These have been three bad performances and if they are to maintain their place at the top of League One they will need to improve significantly on their recent performances. For now, though, they can look forward to an FA Cup Second Round match against FC United of Manchester, a weekend that may just prove to be a more remarkable weekend than they are anticipating at present.
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