At some imperceptible point, somewhere between January and March, the football season switches its rhythm. No longer can one look at the league table, work out the gap between your team and the automatic promotion places, and blithely say, “We can make that gap up”. Every match matters, even though three points won in April are, in the overall scheme of things, worth no more than those won in August. Matches between two teams near the top or bottom of the table become “six pointers”, in which a single win or loss can suddenly make the difference between a promotion race that will go to the wire or an insurmountable gap being opened up.
In League One, Brighton & Hove Albion have stumbled upon that most happy of coincidences – they’re playing well and riding their luck. Last Saturday, a last minute winner netted them two extra points from a knockabout match against Carlisle United. On Tuesday night, an own goal goal them all three points from a trip to Brentford. If they may now be considered a shoo-in for promotion at the end of the season (and something particularly horrid would have to happen to them now for them to lose the eight point gap – with two games in hand – that they have built up so far this season), attention now turns to the second automatic promotion spot.
A chasing pack of five clubs has built up on Brighton’s slip-stream, and two of them meet at Dean Court this afternoon. Bournemouth and Southampton both harbour ambitions of promotion this season. Since Eddie Howe jettisoned Bournemouth for the more lucrative climes of Burnley, Bournemouth have, broadly speaking, continued their successful season, although defeat on Tuesday night at Exeter City was something of a blow to their hopes of automatic promotion. Southampton, meanwhile, have recovered from their slow start to the season (the whole of September 2010 could easily be left out from their end of season review and it is doubtful that there would be many complaints from those buying it) and are now themselves knocking at the door of an automatic promotion place.
With only a handful of places seperating those in second place in the table and those from sixth place coupled with the match being something of a local derby – there are just twenty-five miles between Bournemouth and Southampton – means that the crowd has swollen to a shade over 10,000 this afternoon, and there is an appropriate sense of nervousness in the air. Bournemouth are three points ahead of Southampton, but the visitors today have two games in hand. A win for Bournemouth would put them six points above Southampton, but defeat would put Southampton above Bournemouth, still with those games in hand. At this stage in the season, these can be the margins that separate success from disappointment.
After six minutes, Bournemouth snatch the lead. Lauri Dalla Valle only joined them on loan from Fulham eight days ago, but he scored on his debut last weekend against Oldham Athletic and his close range shot hints at a future playing at a higher level than League One. There’s a degree of controversy about it, too. The linesman’s flag has risen because, it seems, the linesman believes that the aborted clearance that was deflected into Valle’s path had hit a Southampton player, but after a little consultation, the goal stands. Southampton seem impressively unperturbed by Bournemouth’s bright start and level five minutes later. Lee Barnard’s downward header should have made for a comfortable save for the Bournemouth goalkeeper Shwan Jalal, but Jalal has what Pink Floyd might have described as “a momentary lapse of reason”, and palms the ball over his own line.
For much of the next hour, this is a reasonably even contest. Both chances have chances and half-chances and both have calls for penalties turned down by the referee that might, on another day, have been awarded. It’s feisty, too, with Southampton’s Radhi Jaidi being perhaps somewhat fortunate not to be sent off over a challenge on Danny Ings just after half-time. Just after the hour, however, comes the moment upon which the final result possibly hangs. Ings, who has been impish all afternoon, gets into the penalty area and seems to be brought down for a penalty by Jose Fonte, but amid furious protests from players and the crowd alike, but the referee waves their protests away.
With just under twenty minutes to play, however, it is Southampton that snatch the lead. A free-kick is lofted into the Bournemouth penalty by Alex Chamberlain from fifty yards which manages to slip through the entire Bournemouth defence to Dean Hammond, who slides the ball in. The goal is rather harsh on Bournemouth, but they almost haul themselves level with six minutes to play when a shot from Anton Robinson is brilliantly tipped onto the crossbar and away by Southampton’s Kelvin Davis. This is the moment at which the afternoon finally slips away from them. With two minutes to play, sumptuous free-kick from Southampton’s most impressive player of the afternoon, Rickie Lambert, into the top corner of the Bournemouth goal. There’s still time for Southampton substitute Oscar Gobern to get himself sent off for a bad challenge and for Liam Feeney to shoot wide for Bournemouth, but by this time it all feels rather academic.
With the cheers and boos that greet the full-time whistle, comes the realisation that Southampton, with three straight wins, may just beat the team to beat for that second automatic promotion place from League One. They rode their luck at times this afternoon, for sure, but they took the chances that they they had and, while the two goal margin of victory was somewhat flattering, they merited their win. Bournemouth, meanwhile, were only promoted from League Two last season and manager Lee Bradbury has done well to hold his squad’s concentration together since the sideshow that was the “will he, won’t he” saga of Eddie Howe’s depature from the club. The two defeats of the last five days have been his first since taking over at the club in the middle of January, and there are still eight points between them and another of the division’s form teams, seventh-placed Leyton Orient. They may have been beaten this afternoon, but they have already accomplished much so far this season and there is still a long way to go.
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