The dark clouds on the horizon look threatening and not just in the sense that, in the uncovered South Stand at the Withdean Stadium, we’re going the get soaked to the skin at some point this afternoon. Ticket prices have been cut to just ten pounds and this has pushed the crowd for this match up to almost 6,000, but the nagging suspicion is that only the 900 or so Woking supporters away to our right are the only ones that really want to be here this afternoon. For Brighton & Hove Albion, eight points clear at the top of League One, the First Round of the FA Cup is something of a distraction. They have been in outstanding form recently and a home match against a non-league side is a “no win” fixture for them.
It’s not a great fixture for Woking either, in all honesty. They’ve been drawn away to the best team in the competition at this stage, but they don’t get the relative compensation of a visit to a nice, shiny modern stadium. Rather, their “big day out” is to a barely converted athletics track with no pubs nearby and no cover in the event of adverse weather. Still, a no-win fixture for one team is a no-lose fixture for their opposition, so the pressure is off Woking this afternoon and may prove to be a welcome distraction from their push for a play-off place in the Blue Square South. Somebody, somewhere today will cause some sort of surprise, they may rationalise. Why shouldn’t it be them at ten to five this afternoon?
The Brighton manager Gus Poyet has taken the path of least resistance and fielded a weakened team this afternoon. The forty-six match season of League One combined with the relative paucity of rescources of the lower divisions effectively force his hand in this respect. The flat atmosphere within the ground, however, soon transposes itself onto the pitch and Brighton play a flat, tepid game which Woking, after early nerves, soon start to find easy to deal with. Their pattern is a simple one. Pass, pass, push the ball wide, diagonal cross in the vague direction of the penalty area, clearance. And once Woking establish aerial superiority in their own penalty area, their goalkeeper Andy Little, formerly of Wimbledon, is never in any serious danger of having to exert himself.
Indeed, as the half wears on and Woking build a little confidence they even start to make occasional forays into the Brighton half and in one heart-stopping moment almost snatch the lead, only for a long ball through the middle to end in a scrambled clearance from the Brighton goalkeeper Peter Brezovan. At the other end, Brighton push and push but the chances remain half-baked. The mood of the crowd is not improved by an inevitable downpour, meaning that the only noise in the ground comes from the away supporters and the tippity-tapping of raindrops on the plastic ponchos around us. Half-time is a blessed relief from the torpor on display.
We might have expected an improvement from Brighton in the second half, but it doesn’t really come. Their best chance comes when Agustin Battipiedi finally finds himself a little space on the left-hand side of the penalty area, but his shot is deflected wide for a corner. It is the sole moment of the second half which raises the blood pressure of the South Stand to the extent that they rise from their slumber and to their feet. Woking, meanwhile, are happy to place nine or ten men behind the ball and run the clock down, and this is no great surprise. What is surprising is the ease with which Brighton, three divisions above them and top of that division, allow them to do it. The biggest cheer of the afternoon, meanwhile comes from the cameo appearance of a red flare in the away stand. We may never know whether it was produced ironically. That it was the highlight of the second half says more or less everything that we need to know about the quality of football on offer and at full time the South Stand rises as one, in silence, and leaves. No applause. No booing. It has been that sort of afternoon.
It was a good, solid performance from Woking and they deserve their replay. Their support was excellent and their team was well-drilled and committed. They have had financial problems of late, and the money from this game and the replay will be most welcome – even more so, should the match be picked up for a live television appearance, which is a possibility, to say the least. For Brighton, a defeat this afternoon would have been humiliating. There can be little doubting of that. An abject performance like this and their failure to break through the Woking defence means that they have a lot to ponder and the inconvenience of a replay the week after next. It’s probably not what Gus Poyet had in mind at the start of the day, but his team didn’t deserve any better and the paucity of their performance raises some questions about their strength in depth. They have been excellent in the league so far this season, surpassing all pre-season expectations of what they might be capable of. Perhaps today is a warning against complacency that Poyet would be well served to bear in mind.
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