This was a Friday the 13th Brighton & Hove Albion will not forget in a hurry. Statistics suggest a third-placed finish is anything but a curse in the Championship play-offs but after leaving the first leg of their semi-final against a rampant Sheffield Wednesday four men and two goals down they might not believe it.
Six of the previous 10 sides to finish third have been promoted. But Brighton have it all to do to make it seven from 11 with their crocked quartet – Connor Goldson, Tomer Hemed, Steve Sidwell and Anthony Knockaert – unlikely to feature in the second leg on Monday night, according to their manager Chris Hughton. They will have well-taken Ross Wallace and Kieran Lee goals to claw back at the Amex Stadium, and must do so without the suspended midfielder Dale Stephens.
A week ago, Brighton’s season was still fizzing. They entered their 46th league match at Middlesbrough with the chance to secure a place in the top flight for the first time since 1983. After managing only a draw on Teesside, they had only six days to come to terms with the disappointment of missing out on a top-two finish. No side in the second tier has ever lost so few matches as their five and not been promoted automatically. Now, with disappointments stacking up, they are battling to stop it going completely flat.
The balance of power in the tie was obvious as Hillsborough’s Kop rocked more vigorously at the final whistle than just about any time in the 16 years since Wednesday’s exit from the Premier League. Not that either manager was anticipating a straightforward conclusion.
“I am always confident when we play at home,” said Hughton. “We are realistic enough to know it’s a tough task, Sheffield Wednesday are a good team, as we knew before this game, but it is something that can be achieved. We can draw something from the fact that we limited their goals with 10 men. Now let’s try to make it a night to remember at the Amex.”
Teams sent out by Carlos Carvalhal –whose transformation of Wednesday has drawn crowds in excess of 30,000 – do not sit back. “We are happy with the score, of course, but we have won nothing,” the Portuguese said. “The first of two games has finished, now we must play the second part, and we will try to play it as if it was 0-0.”
The side he sent out on home turf, in contrast to their opponents, had been energised by the events of the final day of the season. While Brighton began without Stephens and Lewis Dunk, their defensive rock, Wednesday were at full strength and able to field a completely different XI to the team that were defeated in the dead rubber at Wolverhampton Wanderers last Saturday.
“We headed into these games physically and emotionally fresh and this is a good sign,” Carvalhal added. “Our teams tend to finish seasons strongly.”
As if to emphasise his point, Wednesday tore out of the blocks. Fernando Forestieri had already caused penalty area panic on a couple of occasions when he had a goal disallowed for offside in the 20th minute. Latching onto Kieren Westwood’s raking clearance, he arrowed the ball beyond David Stockdale’s left hand and into the bottom corner. Celebrations were 30 seconds old before it became apparent that the referee, Andre Marriner, following advice from his fellow officials, had ruled it out. Wednesday’s top scorer was yards offside from Westwood’s initial clearance and no one subsequently touched the ball on to the forward. Hillsborough voiced its displeasure.
But momentum swung back Wednesday’s way when Hemed and Goldson departed to muscle injuries late in the first half. Brighton barely had time to reorganise before going behind.
Gary Hooper swept the ball out to the right flank to launch a counterattack and, instead of heading for the outside, Wallace cut infield on his left foot and unleashed a ferocious 25-yard drive past Stockdale.
Further disruption followed for Brighton the other side of the interval as the on-loan Stoke City midfielder Sidwell hit the turf. Hughton opted to throw on the Towell. It was some occasion for Richie Towell, a 24-year-old former Irish youth international, to make his debut. The towel could have gone in on the hour when Knockaert jarred his knee.
With all three substitutes already made, Brighton played with 10 men for the final half-hour for the second time inside a week. Sensing an opportunity, Carvalhal re-shaped his own side. The reshuffle forced Forestieri into more of a No10 role and it was from the pocket between Brighton’s defence and midfield that he threaded the assist to Kieran Lee, who picked his spot and finished with the precision of a striker to get Wednesday dreaming of an end to their 16-year top-flight absence.