Out of jail. And with the chance to make amends for the misdemeanours that landed City in a holding cell, slammer awaiting, to begin with. Not a compelling FA Cup tie to anyone, it nevertheless looked for long periods like the latest edition of the typicalcity soap opera, the kind which would have a hashtag atop it nowadays.
The draw was probably fair in the end, but goodness knows City made hard work of getting it. Chances were spurned early in the game, then Brighton scored a gorgeous team goal and the Tigers had little response, certainly in terms of fashioning decent chances to equalise. Steve Bruce ended up with six attackers on the pitch and even the spectacle of Ahmed Elmohamady as a (very) makeshift centre back to try to earn at least a replay. And, not for the first time, his willingness to hurl kitchen sinks at sorry situations paid off.
Bruce picked a strong 4-4-2, gratifyingly taking the game seriously enough to plonk both Tom Huddlestone and Jake Livermore in the midfield, while Sone Aluko was not unexpectedly given his first start in 2014. City thus took to the stage as McGregor; Elmohamady, Faye, Davies, Figueroa; Koren, Livermore, Huddlestone, Quinn; Sagbo, Aluko. Conor Henderson again made a Cup XVIII and it was surprising but pleasing to see James Chester return to the fold too.
Brighton had featureless ex-Tigers midfielder Keith Andrews and his peculiar thumbs in the middle of their team and the stepson of Nicky Forster, a chap who featured for both teams in his long career, also on the pitch. Ex-Brighton manager Gus Poyet, and Steve Bruce’s ex-team Sunderland, awaited the winners.
Early first-time passing from Huddlestone and Livermore sent Elmohamady away for the first of many times but Stephen Quinn’s header from a well-aimed cross was so wide it went out for a throw-in. Brighton responded thanks to some generous defending from an oddly cumbersome Abdoulaye Faye which led to Maynor Figueroa fouling Leonardo Ulloa on the edge of the box. Fortunately, the free kick from Will Buckley was overhit.
Huddlestone then miscontrolled in a moment of rare arrogance in space and Buckley had space to shoot but hit the ball too high.
Andrews then hit a vicious drive straight into Faye’s midriff and a Jake Forster-Caskey (that’s the stepson, yes) volley with some aerial prowess flew over Allan McGregor’s bar from an Íñigo Calderón cross.
City responded, eventually, through a Yannick Sagbo shot dragged wide from an Aluko ball as the Tigers began to press more up the pitch, though Aluko himself was struggling with the pace, conditions, his own concentration and probably basic bladder control too, so out of sorts did the returning Nigerian seem.
Sagbo should have put City ahead when an Elmohamady cross found him twisting in mid-air and his volley hit the crossbar and bounced out. Reprieved, Brighton regrouped and Forster-Caskey was sent through on goal but delayed his shot on his wrong foot just long enough for Faye to get a block in.
Brighton then took the lead with a goal that reminded this author of a famous one by Gerry Francis. He (and Stan Bowles) were played by Ulloa and Buckley played the Don Givens supporting role. One twos, flick heels and a chase through the middle with City sliced apart, with Ulloa eventually dinking it over the onrushing McGregor’s spreadeagled frame.
City responded with Curtis Davies crashing a header from a Huddlestone corner on to the bar, then Sagbo’s goalward follow-up was unfathomably misflicked by Elmohamady, hit a defender and bounced straight into Peter Brezovan’s gloves. Luck in all its purity, though Elmohamady had no business heading fresh air from a yard out.
Sagbo was foiled by the dominant ex-England defender Matthew Upson as he raised a boot towards a Quinn cross, then Ulloa had a free header from a counter attack that mercifully flew just wide with much of the goal gaping. City were behind at half time and needed a rethink, but the chances that hit the frame of the goal suggested the time would come, and all that was required was a drop of fortune and some patience.
Huddlestone hit an early corner which went through every pair of legs in the six yard box, before smashing through one of his low, acute-angled free kicks after a foul on Elmohamady which was deflected out unwittingly for another corner, which came to nought.
Bruce, after a long lull in the game, sent for the cavalry. He brought off Faye and Quinn and slung on Matt Fryatt and George Boyd, meaning that only two specialist defenders were on the park. More chances of losing 3-0, more chances of winning 2-1.
Brighton sub Solly March hit a long shot many metres over and Calderón did likewise as the clock began to tick down, and City looked on for an equaliser when Aluko’s reverse pass found Fryatt in space on the right side of the box but his shot was blocked.
Aluko was then dragged down by Forster-Caskey but Huddlestone hit the wall with the free kick and, after David Meyler had replaced the ineffectual Livermore, Aluko popped on the right flank, with Elmohamady having to defend a tad more, cut inside and delivered a ball in to Sagbo who got a touch that took out his leaden-footed marker before popping the ball under Brezovan’s body for 1-1.
Five minutes remained and Brighton, until now sure of themselves and calm, suddenly looked vulnerable. City, in truth, should have won it and how they didn’t remains a mystery. Brighton did come close with a March header that Davies deflected over, but otherwise the remainder of the game was about the Tigers trying to avoid a replay. Robert Koren had a shot in a great position deflected over, then from the corner Meyler’s header was cleared unwittingly off the line – think the last chance England had against Poland in 1973 when not qualifying for the World Cup (4’41” in) – by Forster-Caskey with the keeper miles away.
So still City haven’t won at Brighton’s new ground but given the trickiness of the tie and the inconvenience of its rescheduling, it was a valid performance, if somewhat hairy at times. The replay – markered in for next Monday, maddeningly – will hopefully be less nerve-shredding.
Sunderland still await the winners, and City are now one home game against a Championship side from being favourites to reach an FA Cup semi final. And that, of course, means Wembley. They all at the club have to know how fervently important this is.