Brighton ended up winning their FA Cup quarter-final against Grimsby comfortably, but for the visitors there was plenty of reason to hold their heads high.
Merely in getting to this stage of the FA Cup, Grimsby had set records. They arrived at the quarter-finals having already beaten five teams from divisions above them to get this far. In the first round, they put five goals past League One promotion challengers Plymouth Argyle. In the fourth round, they held Championship play-off challengers Luton Town to a draw away from home and then wiped the floor with them in the replay. And in the fifth round they won 2-1 at Southampton.
But there still does seem to be a certain amount of disbelief that Brighton & Hove Albion are where they are in the Premier League on merit. Winning their games in hand would put them, depending on results elsewhere, put them fourth or fifth in the table and they’re in this elevated position on merit. But an indicator of the reality of the gap between these two teams didn’t take long to materialise. Less than six minutes in, Moises Caicedo’s shot was pushed away by the Grimsby goalkeeper Max Crocombe, only for Demiz Undav to get in and convert the rebound.
So at that point, it did look as though things might get bad for the visitors, but slowly Grimsby did start to settle, and Roberto De Zerbi’s decision to give goalkeeper Robert Sanchez a run out in goal for Brighton seemed to introduce a little more jeopardy into proceedings. Claiming the ball on the edge of his own penalty on the very limits of where he was allowed to use his hands was arguably the highlight of a performance which occasionally seemed tailor-made to inspire a degree of nervousness in the crowd.
But the actual chances fell just about exclusively to Brighton, a steady downpour of quarter-chances, half-chances and more. Mitoma’s miss from close range was probably the pick of the bunch, but they had the chances to put the game well beyond Grimsby’s reach before half-time and didn’t. By the time the interval came around they still led by just the one. Just enough to give Grimsby hope that they could turn this around in the second half, and all after admirably withstanding a substantial early setback.
Of course, all of that counts for little if you start the first half in exactly way that you started the first, and that is exactly what happened. Six minutes into the second half, Evan Ferguson dragged the ball under control, spun, and scored into the bottom corner to double Brighton’s lead. Ferguson, who arrived at the club’s academy from Bohemians in 2021, only turned 18 years old in October, but has already shown much of the strength and intelligence required to flourish in the Premier League.
Five minutes later he had the ball in the net again, only for the goal to be disallowed for offside by the narrowest of margins. With twenty minutes to play, he ambled into a space in the centre of an increasingly stretched-looking Grimsby defence and drilled in a third. Late goals from Solly March and Kauru Mitoma added a fourth and fifth.
So far as the match as a competition was concerned that was that, but in a sense this weekend was never really about that, for Grimsby Town. The football supporter will always be that seed of the eternal optimist. There will always be some who will breezily predict a comfortable win no matter who the opposition, but the majority will already have been aware of what an unlikely task winning at the seventh-placed team in the Premier League would be.
That wasn’t really quite the point. The point was a celebration of a cup run which began several months ago, and a celebration of a football club which has had its share of difficult times over the years, including two spells in the National League since the turn of the century. For a club that spent most of the 1990s playing in the second tier, that fall was difficult to take, especially when coupled with a frequently fractious relationship with the club’s owner.
He’s gone now, and for the last couple of years, Grimsby Town have been under the ownership of people who actually care about the club. And while they may be disappointed at not returning to Wembley in this competition, they made an altogether more important trip to London last June, beating Solihull Moors to reclaim their place in the EFL again. More than 4,500 Grimbarians travelled down from the east coast to the south coast, and they made it a celebration, as demonstrated by the shots of them colonising the Brighton Palace Pier on Saturday afternoon that started circulating on social media.
This is also a significant marker for Brighton & Hove Albion. It’s been forty years this year since they made their first appearance in at Wembley, almost winning the first match before losing the replay. They’ve played there three times since – once in a play-off final, once in an FA Cup semi-final and once in a Premier League match against Spurs – but still haven’t won there yet. What better a milestone to achieve in this of all seasons than a first win at the spiritual home of football in England? They now face the wait of finding out whether they play Manchester United or Fulham underneath the arch.
But while this is a significant marker for Brighton, so this match was for Grimsby Town as well. A club that has been through the mill from a town that is pushing back after having been left behind for too long needs the status that comes with an EFL place. It’s important and it means something. That the club should have lost that status twice in this century alone is in itself a condemnation of those running the club at the time. Now they’re back in the EFL and can start to look upwards. They did themselves proud with this FA Cup run, and it certainly will not be forgotten, but on this occasion it was just a step too far.