Brighton are still in the hunt for a Champions League place, but recording a first-ever win at Wembley would be a huge statement of the club’s progress.
The post-match headlines wrote themselves. With Brighton playing on March 15 – the Ides of March – there was something faintly inevitable that the only goal would be scored by Solly March in the 15th minute. It was a warning to which Crystal Palace didn’t seem to have paid enough attention.
This was a win of both symbolic and literal importance to Brighton. Their games against Palace might not be ‘local’ derbies as such, but it’s the match that most supporters of both clubs look for first when the fixture lists are published every summer. It’s also one in which Brighton haven’t had much success recently. This win was their first in eight attempts, stretching back to March 2019.
But that literal importance is of more tangible use to the club in the present. The three points didn’t shift them up the Premier League table from seventh place, but it did put them level on points with Liverpool with a game in hand, while cutting the gap on Newcastle United to two points and Spurs to five – and they still have two games in hand on the latter of those two.
There remain many caveats, but Brighton are right in the mix for a top four finish and the possibility of Europa or perhaps even Champions League football. To achieve this would be little short of sensational, a sharp reminder that long-term strategic planning still has a place in a game that increasingly seems to believe problems within a club will just vanish if enough money is thrown at them.
But this isn’t the only front upon which Brighton are fighting at the moment, and the other one might be even more intriguing. It’s the FA Cup quarter-finals this weekend, and not only are they still in the competition, but they’re in this position in a season during which a lot of the tournament’s biggest guns have already been eliminated. And with a favourable home draw against League Two Grimsby.
Brighton have played at Wembley five times in their history, but have yet to actually win there. It took until 1983 for the club to make their first appearance against Manchester United in the FA Cup final, and when they did they almost won it, an infamous Gordon Smith miss in the closing minutes meaning that the match ended in a 2-2 draw, with United winning the replay 4-0.
They’ve never come closer than that near-miss. They were back eight years later for a Football League Division Two play-off final against Notts County but were beaten 3-1, lost 2-0 to Spurs in the Premier League in December 2017 and 1-0 to Manchester City in the FA Cup semi-final in 2019.
Their only win in a match of this sort of profile came in 2004 when they beat Bristol City in a League One play-off final, but this was played at the Millennium Stadium in Cardiff. Reaching the Champions League remains an aspiration which, for now, is realistic enough, but getting to Wembley and winning a game there is clearly achievable, even if this year’s FA Cup is already being talked of as a carve up between Manchester City and Manchester United.
And at a point at which it can feel as though no-one really cares that much about the world’s oldest football competition any more, perhaps it may do the FA Cup itself some good to have a club in the latter stages of the competition for whom this tournament may mean more than being just a mild inconvenience or the least important aspect of a multi-trophy assault. Brighton would actually appreciate being at Wembley in the centenary year of the original stadium opening.
Because even though it was 40 years ago, that 1983 final miss does still hurt. Brighton had played a full part in a terrifically entertaining game and Smith had scored first, giving Brighton the lead after a quarter of an hour. United came back to lead 2-1 thanks to goals from Frank Stapleton and Ray Wilkins, but a Gary Stevens goal three minutes from the end brought them level and forced the game into extra-time, and then…
The moment itself became lodged in the memory thanks in no small part to the breathless words of BBC Radio commentator Peter Jones. In the 119th minute of an overcast and rainy afternoon, Brighton broke. On the left-hand side of the Manchester United penalty area, Michael Robinson was in a decent position to shoot but opted instead to pass for Smith, seven yards out and with only goalkeeper Gary Bailey to beat.
In some respects, it wasn’t a ‘bad miss’. The shot was on target, and after 119 energy-sapping minutes on a heavy Wembley pitch it’s unsurprising that it wasn’t laser-targeted for the top corner. Smith was an experienced striker, who’d scored a last-minute winner for Rangers against Celtic five years earlier in the Scottish League Cup final, but on this occasion luck was against him. His shot was low and powerful, but it was also too close to the goalkeeper, who made a fine save.
The following Thursday evening, United won the replay 4-0. Brighton had been relegated from the top flight just a few weeks earlier. This ultimate defeat only compounded that misery.
The miss itself is a moment that has been pored over by supporters of the club ever since. A fanzine was named after that line of commentary, and a book was written about it. A podcast takes its name from Jones’ line to this day. Brighton may have lost the replay in that moment, because when you’re the smaller club with an opportunity like that, the thought that you’ve spurned your one chance to win can easily pass through your head. And 40 years on, it’s a boil that has never been fully lanced.
It should go without saying that Grimsby Town shouldn’t be taken lightly. They may be in a somewhat lowly 15th position in League Two, but they beat League One promotion chasers Plymouth Argyle 5-1 in the first round, Championship play-off hopefuls Luton Town 3-0 after a replay in the fourth round, and Premier League Southampton away from home in the fifth. With a large and doubtless noisy travelling support behind them, to assume that all Brighton have to do to win this match is turn up would be very premature indeed.
But the opportunity is there to make a little bit of history and while European qualification, Champions League football, or any of the carrots that have dangled themselves before the club with this season’s performances are all important, winning at one of the spiritual homes of English football for the first time or perhaps even – whisper it – lifting an actual piece of silverware would not only be a major indication of the club’s progress in recent years, it might also finally mark a little closure for those Brighton supporters whose eyes still involuntarily twitch whenever Smith’s name is mentioned.
And if March, the local lad who’s been on this journey with the club for 11 years since signing from Lewes when he was 17, just a few months after they moved into the Amex, could get on the scoresheet there too, well, that would be quite the feelgood story upon which to end this season, although Crystal Palace supporters may well beg to differ. European football is great and all, but even now nothing quite beats that feeling of actually lifting a major trophy, and Brighton haven’t had a better chance of doing so in four decades.