Goals, goals, goals. This game had none, but almost everything else, meaning almost twenty thousand people departed a goalless game with contentment easily outweighing the disappointment of a blank scoreboard. This was as good a nil-nil as you’re likely to see. And yet, hundreds of long journeys north will have featured conversations liberally studded with the refrain “if only…”
This was a greatly anticipated fixture for a variety of reasons – two of the division’s more progressive sides, a new stadium to visit and the prospect of a good game with genuine bearing on play-off prospects. Even Brighton’s contemptible conduct concerning the kick-off time hadn’t deterred many from travelling, with a healthy fifteen hundred making the trek to East Sussex.
On a pleasant autumn evening with conditions and pitch both ideal for football, Nigel Pearson opted for an XI looking rather like this: Basso; Rosenior, Hobbs, Chester, Dudgeon; Pusic, Koren, Evans, Brady; Mclean, Fryatt.
No place even on the bench for Waghorn then, whose hamstring injury sustained on U21s duty was the subject of discussion during the week. The manager probably did the right thing in not risking a injury notorious for being easily aggravated. Barmby was also unavailable, meaning the bench consisted of: Gulácsi, McShane, McKenna, Cairney and Adebola.
Brighton started the livelier of the two sides, attacking the South Stand in which the Tiger Nation was assembled. There was an early alarm when Brighton had a corner from which former Scunt Matt Sparrow sent a crashing volley towards goal – it was courageously deflected over the bar via the head of Dudgeon. Dunk should then have given Brighton the lead on six minutes, but wastefully planted a header wide from less than ten yards. City had made a slow start, and were probably lucky not to be punished for it.
Both sides knew it, and the Tigers made a visible effort to get going. Brighton’s initial dominance was quickly repaired, though it took City until 20 minutes to fashion a real chance of their own. It was a good one though, when a burst from midfield by Corry Evans saw the ball run to Fryatt – he blatted a shot straight at goal, his striker’s instinct functioning once more, but the effort was well charged down.
It was an attractive game, with both sides fancying themselves to overcome the other. Play went from end to end at a brisk pace, and Brighton were the next to carve a chance – a helpful deflection seeing the ball break to Mackail-Smith, whose shot ought to have been struck across goal instead of whacking it to the near-post, where Basso batted it to safety. It’s not hard to see why they’ve started so well, with neat passing and clever movement a prominent feature of their play.
City’s turn next: an excellent passing move starting at the back and involving half of the outfield players eventually set up a chance for Fryatt, but Ankergren had little difficulty keeping it out. The balance of play now narrowly favoured City, and another gem of a move involving the ubiquitous Evans saw Koren slam a shot just over.
So the Tigers tried again, and a neat ball by Koren after a sweeping counterattack from deep saw Fryatt fed seemingly in space for a shot – what happened was difficult to judge from our end, but it appeared that a combination of the Brighton keeper and a rapidly retreating defender combined to smother the effort.
Half-time, and the match was level and underservedly goalless. We repaired to the spacious concourses, and pondered. What a curious affair the American Express Community Stadium is. Hosting Brighton but not actually in it, it lies in the village of Falmer, roughly equidistant between Brighton and the attractive town of Lewes, where many a Tiger National could be spotted before the game. From the outside it looks decidedly arresting, yet inside…well, it just doesn’t quite look finished.
To our left was a colossal three-tiered stand, providing over half of the ground’s capacity. This lent it a lopsided aspect with the other stands being much smaller, all isolated from each other, with large grey expanses above them – slightly reminiscent of Coventry’s grim Ricoh Arena. The atmosphere was very good though, as you’d expect at a new ground with fans on a promotion high. The customisable colouring for away fans is an interesting quirk, the supplying of a beer linked to the visitors is a wonderful idea and the overall experience was good. Grounds out of town are generally to be scorned, and ultimately it wasn’t as good as much of its publicity suggested. It’s no Circle, but it is better than the dreadful bowls that litter the Championship (I’m looking at you, Leicester). Future visits will not be a chore.
Back to the football, suitably refreshed, with City attacking an increasingly febrile away end. And they did it very well, with a spell of football as good as we’ve seen all season. The first chance was a tricky one, when a powerful run by Rosenior fed Mclean – his shot flew off-target.
Mclean and then Evans then entered the referee’s notebook for fouls – a referee who, it should be noted, played his part in ensuring an entertaining game by allowing the game to flow. Well done Mr Linington.
Mclean had a superb chance after being released into space for a genuine one-on-one, aided in no small part by an untimely slip by Dunk. His early shot was sweetly hit, low and on target, but too close to the keeper, who deflected it away. Good save, but if we’re being critical then Mclean ought to have made it a lot harder for him.
Mclean was a massive handful all afternoon, and he came desperately close to securing the goal his play deserved midway through the half. A nice dribble by the impressive Pusic ended when he fed the ball into Mclean on the left hand side of the penalty area. His control was instant and he walloped a left-footed volley over Ankergren, which almost broke the crossbar and bounced down, staying about a yard inside the goalline. The ball fell to Brady on the right, who jinked past his marker and curled a left-footed effort to the far-post. It looked in for a second, only for the Brighton keeper to pull off an outstanding save to tip the ball wide. Marvellous play.
Brighton weren’t having the best of it, yet had a superb chance to steal the lead minutes later when Mackail-Smith was unwisely left unmarked just six yards out – Basso pulled off a great save of his own to deny the Scotland striker.
Those two had another encounter shortly after, when Basso rather more comfortably tipped over a shot from distance by the one-time City transfer target, though for one horrible moment from our viewpoint it seemed he’d let the ball through his hands. It landed safely on the top of the net, to considerable relief.
However, the action was mostly at our end, with the Tiger Nation urging encouragement and sensing a goal was imminent. A few minutes from time Koren collected the ball about 35 yards from goal, out of range for most yet easily within his, and he sent a looping volley over Ankergren – only for the crossbar to again be struck. The ball fell to Mclean, but he blasted disappointingly over. Fifteen hundred heads were held in hands.
Still City came forward with an intent to warm the hearts and silence the naysayers, and in injury time we nearly grabbed the win when a Mclean shot took a deflection and span about a foot wide of the keeper’s right-hand post. The corner came to nothing, and City’s bid for victory was unsuccessful.
Still, the applause at the end told its own story, as the team was lustily cheered from the pitch. By their very nature, nil-nil draws tend to not to provoke acclamation or indicate progress, but this one did. If Cardiff a fortnight ago was our best result of the season, gamely overcoming fellow play-off contenders, then this was our best performance in outplaying a good side in great form.
It leaves Nigel Pearson with some interesting selection problems. The back five is picking itself at the moment, but the emergence of Pusic as a reliable and thoughtful operator on the wing complicates things, as does Koren’s recent shift to the centre. He’s been outstanding in the middle recently, as has Evans – meaning no places for Cairney or McKenna, two men in form themselves. Mclean is our player of the season thus far, but can you drop Fryatt even though Waghorn is obviously the real deal at this level?
Pass. Mr Pearson is handsome remunerated for making such difficult decisions, and he’ll understand if we don’t extend too much sympathy. However, the fact that we now have strength throughout the squad, a side playing increasingly well and serving up entertaining football – for that we extend our admiration. The next game can’t come soon enough.