Game of the Week – FC United of Manchester vs Brighton and Hove Albion

In 1996/97, Manchester United were winning the Premier League while Brighton and Hove Albion, their FA Cup final opponents and members of the top division 14 years earlier, battled to retain their league status and in all likelihood their existence as a football club. The disastrous reign of Bill Archer had seen the Goldstone Ground sold from underneath Seagulls supporters, and in many ways the team that subsequently played at Priestfield in Gillingham and now at the Withdean Stadium is that of a phoenix club in all but name. Next season they finally move into their own ground in Falmer and the ‘new incarnation’ of Brighton will have the home of their own they craved and deserved for more than a decade. One can only hope that Steve Gritt and, more to the point, Robbie Reinelt are amongst the guests of honour at the first game there. It would not have been possible without them.

Standing between Albion and a perfectly winnable third round tie against Portsmouth are a bona fide phoenix club, in fact the living, breathing embodiment of proletarian rebellion against the tyranny of corporate megalomania. FC United of Manchester’s rise through the divisions may have halted as the Evostik Premier Division proves a more significant challenge than the levels previously subjected to the red, white and black steamroller. However, after four victorious qualifying rounds, they scored a shock 2-3 away success in a televised derby with the relative might of Rochdale. Then Sam Ashton’s save from Elliott Bennett’s penalty got them a second crack at Albion on ‘home’ turf at Gigg Lane. They also have a new stadium in the pipeline in Newton Heath (where else?) and things are looking up for both clubs. There is a lot more common ground here than one would first imagine, if you look hard enough.

Brighton need to come through this tie unscathed not only to avoid the embarrassment of defeat to a side four levels lower, but also as part of getting the momentum back into a season that had seen them accelerate away from the rest of League One, only to stutter in recent weeks with a run of two points from nine. Gus Poyet’s side have been credited with playing football easily compatible with a higher level, and his work in turning the Seagulls from basement fodder with a phobia of playing at home into an enterprising, winning machine has slowly been noticed by the mainstream media. Fans at the Withdean will also have been encouraged by the Uruguayan’s commitment to the club when his name and a vacancy at Stamford Bridge were placed in the same sentence by some commentators. Poyet seems to be there to stay, but he needs his side to regain the winning habit that was second nature to them only weeks ago.

This being the FA Cup, and with FC United having already scored one upset, there is of course the possibility of form being thrown out of the proverbial window. After all, while Nicky Platt and Jake Cottrell were demolishing ‘Dale, Albion needed a penalty shoot-out to squeak past Woking in round one. If Cottrell or another in a red can produce a ‘Ronnie Radford’ moment like he did in the last round then the shock is indeed on. One cannot escape the feeling however that the underdog’s best shot is invariably the first time round, regardless of the venue. It is hard to see beyond a hard-fought but decisive victory for Albion here.

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