There is something strangely appealing about a really bad pitch. In an age in which so many aspects of football seem to be so sanitised, there is something quite comforting a pitch with puddles on it or one that is completely and utterly devoid of grass. Colchester United have only been at The Community Stadium for a couple of years, but the pitch there is in a ruinous condition already. Large patches of it are covered in sand, but those that describe this sort of thing as “a great leveller” aren’t strictly correct. The inconsistency of the surface surely favours the team that plays upon it regularly.
It would be facile to suggest that Brighton & Hove Albion, being from the seaside, should be more favourably disposed towards playing on a beach than most. Quite asides from any other considerations, Brighton beach is stony rather than sandy. For all that Colchester’s home form – thirteen wins from sixteen home league matches this season prior tonight – is eyebrow-raisingly impressive, Brighton’s away form this season contradicts the preconception of a team that has spent most of the season rattling around in or near the relegation places in League One. Brighton have only lost four away league matches this season, and their lowly league position is largely due to cripplingly poor home form. In their last two away matches, by contrast, they drew against second placed Leeds United and beat third placed Charlton Athletic. They have had a curate’s egg of a season.
In the opening stages of tonight’s match, they adapt about as reasonable as one could expect to the trying surface. In truth, neither side is adapting particularly well to it. Every bounce seems likely to become a bobble. Sometimes the ball seems to hold up upon bouncing whilst on other occasions it picks up pace of the surface. Colchester’s tactics seem focussed upon pushing the ball into the more verdant areas of the pitch, and they only seem fluid when they push the ball into the comparatively lush, green spaces of the wings and it is from the right hand side that they create the best chance of the opening twenty minutes, a low cross that Adam El-Abd elegantly rolls away to safety.
Brighton, though, are more than holding on and after a fairly tepid opening half hour the game starts to spring to life. A deep free kick sees El-Abd sneak in with the Colchester defence flat-footed but the angle is too tight and the Colchester goalkeeper Ben Williams blocks comfortably. Shortly afterwards, Glenn Murray has half a penalty shout turned down and then Inigo Calderon works himself into some space and Williams tips away his angled shot. Brighton are playing the more attractive football, are the better of the team and seem to be building up something of a head of steam. At half-time, it’s still goalless and Brighton may rather wish that they could have had an extra five minutes.
Adrian Boothroyd, the Colchester manager, is clearly unhappy with what he has seen and makes two changes at half-time. The result is an instant improvement in the home team’s performance. They look more fluid in the early stages of the second half and Brighton start to look a little pedestrian in comparison. After an initial flurry of high tempo football, however, it all starts to get a little scrappy. In the space of about ten minutes, the match goes from being that either team could win to being to one that, in all honesty, neither team deserves to. There are half chances at both ends, but the game ends goalless and both managers leave with a likely feeling of vague dissatisfaction.
Colchester, then, lose a little ground at the top of the table. With Leeds United and Charlton Athletic both having shown signs of instability over the last few weeks in terms of their form, there is still half an opportunity for Boothroyd’s team to challenge for an automatic promotion place. Set against this backdrop, the crowd of 3,900 and the failure to beat a team that has spent most of the season in or near the relegation places will probably come to be seen as a disappointment, but Colchester remain on target for an exciting end of season, at least. Whether they will be able to maintain the place chasing the coat-tails of the top three unless they considerably improve on tonight’s performance, however, is a different matter.
Brighton & Hove Albion, on the other hand, remain a slightly frustrating team to watch. They look and play like a team that is too good to go down and their recent form has offered a little daylight between them and the League One relegation places. This evening, they were a touch away from grabbing a goal that would in all likelihood have led to an another away win against a team near the top of the table. It’s not the away form that is the problem, though and any team with only two home wins all season is likely to find itself struggling to avoid relegation. It is starting to feel as if that long-awaited move to Falmer can’t come quickly enough.