So near, yet so far. Brighton & Hove Albion travel to North-East London to play Dagenham & Redbridge in a league match for the first time this evening with the scent of promotion heavy in the air. That Gus Poyet’s team has been the stand-out team in League One this season is inarguable, but in recent weeks they have started to give the impression of being a team that is starting, just starting, to run on empty. They keep on winning – Saturday’s 2-1 win against Swindon Town at Withdean was their seventh in a row – but their performances have become somewhat scrappy in recent weeks. While this deterioration may be a cause for concern in some respects for their supporters, others may interpret it in a more positive light. Brighton have been a little lucky in recent weeks, but that can be even more valuable in the long term than playing well. With a fourteen point gap between the Seagulls and third-placed Peterborough United, the finishing line is almost in sight.
Dagenham & Redbridge, however, will provide a stern test this evening. It seems difficult to believe that, just four years ago, they were a non-league club (the most visible remaining remnant of which, their Victoria Road ground, remains a non-league ground at heart in spite having had a smart new stand built at one end of it), but their progress in recent years has been startling. They were odds-on favourites for relegation at the start of the season and spent much of the first part of it living up to those predictions, but in recent weeks manager John Still has managed to drag his team out of the relegation zone by the scruff of its neck, and they start tonight in twentieth place and with, crucially, at least two games in hand on each of the four teams below them in the table. They are six games unbeaten, including wins against Colchester United and Charlton Athletic and will, regardless of their need for points this evening – which remains huge – fancy this match as a test of how far they have come in recent weeks.
For forty-five minutes, they have Brighton on the rack. Gus Poyet prefers his team to keep the ball on the ground and the Victoria Road pitch has seen better days but Brighton are defending too deeply, allowing Dagenham to much space in attacking positions and within four minutes Romain Vincelot’s shot is blocked by his own team-mate, the former Brighton striker Baz Savage. After sixteen minutes, though, comes Dagenham’s big moment when Josh Nurse’s angled shot is only parried by Kasper Ankergren and falls to Savage, but Savage fails to turn the ball over the line with the Brighton defence scrambling on the goal line. The chances keep coming for Dagenham, but at every turn the ball is a couple of inches from their nearest striker, too close to the goalkeeper or cleared by the visiting defence. Half-time is goalless, but Brighton are lucky to be level.
It is often said that one of the key skills of a good manager is the ability to adapt his team if all is going well. Gus Poyet, it has to be said, seems to have this ability in spades. Brighton are both tighter and looser in the second half, less dependant upon vaguely optimistic long balls towards their strikers, and just before they hour they take the lead. Dagenham have started brightly – Savage, again, forces a good save from Ankergren no more than a couple of minutes prior – but are hit with a goal that carries that key element of Brighton’s last few weeks, luck about it. Craig Noone’s acrobatic shot fires across goal and Glenn Murray, at the far post, turns the ball in off the underside of the crossbar. It comes right in front of the Brighton supporters – the 1,400 of whom make up not far short of half of the 3,600 strong crowd – and it results in predictable bedlam behind the goal.
Seven minutes after the goal, Dagenham make a surprising substitution in replacing Savage, who has been intrumental in so much of their best football this evening, but their half-chances keep coming. With twenty minutes left to play, Abu Agogo’s cross flies across the face of the Brighton goal but nobody can get on the end of the ball. Brighton & Hove Albion, not for the first time this season, are reducing the nails of their supporters to shreds, but as the clock runs down Dagenham also start to run out of steam as well and the best chance of the closing stages falls to Brighton with three minutes left to play, but Murray’s shot runs just wide of the post. Four minutes of injury time follow, but the final whistle marks another important win for Brighton & Hove Albion. They are now thirteen points clear of second placed Huddersfield Town and seventeen points clear of third placed Peterborough United.
Dagenham & Redbridge remain in the danger zone, but their performance this evening demonstrated that they are plenty capable of staying up this season, especially with Sheffield Wednesday’s season having apparently turned into an feature-length episode of The Twilight Zone. At the other end of the table, well, we have noted before on this site that the margins between victory and defeat in football can be extremely slim. Brighton & Hove Albion had a golden March, winning eight out of eight matches in a packed month. Of those eight wins, however, seven were by a one goal margin and in five of them they won with the only goal of the match. If nothing else, they have proved their determination of late and the ultimate double-whammy of promotion and that long-awaited move to their new stadium at Falmer is now within grasping distance.
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