That the first weekend of the new year should see the coming together of these two clubs is entirely appropriate. Brighton & Hove Albion and Wrexham had differing experiences of 2011, but for both clubs the year ended with the feeling of a clean slate having been managed for both clubs. For Wrexham, the club is finally in the hands of the only people that could reasonably left in charge of it after years of mismanagement, the Wrexham Supporters Trust. Their club still has financial hurdles to jump, but a result this afternoon of any description would bring welcome revenue to The Racecourse Ground. Brighton & Hove Albion, meanwhile, came home, from the unsuitable and ill-equipped Withdean stadium to The American Express Community Stadium in Falmer. This progress was mirrored on the pitch, with promotion to the Championship and the team holding its own once this had been achieved. Hopes of a second successive promotion have receded in weeks after a blistering start to the season, but Brighton & Hove Albion remain set on an upward trajectory themselves.
On top of this, the bonds forged between the two clubs in 2004, when a Brighton-led Fans United demonstration at The Racecourse Ground shone a light upon an attempted land-grab by former owners Alex Hamilton and Mark Guterman, have never fully died away, and before the match the WST makes a presentation to the Brighton & Hove Albion Supporters Club in memory of the help that they offered Wrexham’s supporters during one of their more pressing times of need. On a crisp, winter afternoon on the Sussex coast, the FA Cup’s demise feels exaggerated here, at least. Brighton are weakened through suspensions and injuries, but there are still 18,500 people here, with over 2,000 having made the trip down from North Wales – a remarkable number for a club playing in the fifth tier of the English league system. Moreover, these travelling supporters are in Brighton to enjoy themselves. The pubs around the railway station are, a couple of hours before kick-off, bustlingly busy, yet there is no hint of trouble. They are a credit to their club.
On the pitch, Andy Morrell’s team show little signs of being out-classed, either, although Kazenga LuaLua, a spritely presence in attacking positions for the home side all afternoon, managed a couple of shots that whistled narrowly wide, Wrexham settle well, keeping their cool defensively and passing the ball around with an assuredness that made a mockery of the sixty league places between the sides. Chances on goal, however, remain thin on the ground and largely of the speculative variety. Long range shots from Alan Navarro and Jake Forster-Caskey bring saves from the slightly uneasy looking Wrexham goalkeeper Joslain Mayebi, whilst at the other end of the pitch as Andy Morrell’s cross is nicked away from the foot of Jake Speight by Brighton’s Matt Sparrow. Half-time arrives with no goals and the sense if this game is to properly catch fire, it has yet to do so.
If Wrexham ended the first half with the feeling that containing Brighton was a more comfortable experience than they had been expecting, they are given a rude awakening less than two minutes into the second half. We’re still getting comfortable in our seats again when LuaLua’s jiggery-pokery is took much for his marker and his low cross is poked into the roof of the net by the seventeen year-old Forster-Caskey, who has now scored in both of his full first team appearances for Brighton. Having conceded right at the start of the second half, we might reasonably expect a familiar story to unfold of the non-league side having to commit more men in the search for an equaliser and leaving tracts of land open at the back, to be exploited by the home side. This doesn’t happen, though. Wrexham hold their shape and keep their nerve. LuaLua, a persistent thorn in their side, is replaced thanks to an injury and the noise levels coming from the end of the ground housing the away supporters – which was loud enough to start with – reaches a crescendo as Wrexham push forward in search of a way to pick the lock of the Brighton defence.
They have to wait less than fifteen minutes for the goal to come. When Adrian Cieslewicz collects the ball a little over forty yards from the Brighton goal, there appears no immediate danger, but his mazy, languid run is followed by a burst of acceleration which leaves the two defenders ahead of him flat-footed and his blistering shot beats goalkeeper Peter Brezovan and rockets into the roof of the net to bring Wrexham level. The bedlam is predictable and understandable. One youngster gets onto the pitch before being dumped to the ground by stewards to resounding cheers from all four sides of the ground. With the wind in their sales and Brighton depleted, Wrexham push on for a second goal, but Brighton force a couple of chances of their own before, in stoppage time at the end of the match, Jamie Tolley’s shot is beaten away by Brezovan. Honours end even, then, and the two sides will replay the week after next at The Racecourse Ground.
Supporters of both clubs mingle without incident in the club bar after the match and, back at Brighton railway station, there is an assortment of the dazed and confused in red and white scarves floating about, full of drink, pride and perhaps a little disbelief at the strength of the performance that their club put in this afternoon. Such pride is well-placed. The supporters of Wrexham Football Club fought tooth and nail to keep their club out of the hands of those that represented the disgraced model of football club ownership that got them, more than once, into the mess in which they found themselves last year. The players repaid a little of that commitment with their performance in this match, and they can take their place in the Fourth Round draw with justifiable pride – the last non-league side still involved in this year’s FA Cup. These are the days that they worked so hard for – and their FA Cup adventure hasn’t ended yet.
You can see an array of inexpertly taken photographs from yesterday’s match between Brighton & Hove Albion and Wrexham here.
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