Withdean to Watford
By Matt Rowson
This Saturday sees our final away game of the season, our first visit to Brighton's Withdean Stadium. It also sees the launch of the "Walk of Trust" fundraiser, which will see a number of hardy(ish) souls walk from the Withdean to arrive in Watford in time for the final match of the season next weekend, raising money for the Watford Supporters' Trust (and if you haven't sponsored them yet, click here).
Not being one of life's great exercisers, I can only speculate at the preparation that each of the walkers will be undergoing. Probably a bit of training, perhaps a toning down of the alcohol intake. A pair of stout trainers or walking boots might be an idea, I guess. A bit of logistical forethought, where to stay when, contingency planning, energy drinks, biting off your left leg at the knee. All good. Ah. Except that last one. Probably not recommended, all things considered. Not likely to make life easy. At all.
Shame nobody told Brighton really. For all that they bullishly won the Second Division Championship last season (ahead of Reading, now chasing a second successive promotion), limited finances that are further curtailed by plans for a new permanent home at Falmer meant that the Seagulls were always going to find staying up tough. They could really have done without playing chicken with the division and, having kicked off with a win and a draw, losing their next twelve games leaving them with four points at the end of October.
Martin Hinshelwood, appointed in the summer as replacement for the graceless Peter Taylor, destined for a comical lack of achievement at Hull, lost his job twelve games in after the Seagulls' spirited defeat at Vicarage Road. Steve Coppell has made a decent enough fist of it in his stead. Since breaking that long losing streak Brighton have gained thirty-seven points, a tally that sees them twelfth in the table of points accrued in that period. Were the season to last a week or two longer you'd fancy Coventry to give them an escape route. As it is, any eventuality other than a Brighton victory and a Stoke City defeat on Saturday will see the Seagulls joining Grimsby and Sheffield Wednesday on the way down to Division Two.
Which, it should go without saying, presents a number of problems. Steve Coppell, warmly accepted and appreciated despite his distasteful Selhurst Park connections, is said to be "keeping his options open", but has a history of leaving jobs where financial constraints have limited his hand. The ongoing battle to secure planning permission for the vital new stadium (which, from this distance, would seem a no-brainer for a catchment area the size of Sussex) is hardly likely to be abetted by a regression in league status. Like everyone, Albion have seventy five hundred players out of contract at the end of the season, and will want to be able to convince the cream of the crop to stay...and centrally, the iconic Bobby Zamora looks certain to be playing his last game in Blue and White at the Withdean having complained in the national press about being priced out of a Premiership move in the last week.
Injury problems haven't exactly been kind to Brighton's small squad either. Michel Kuipers' slip gifted Heidar our winner in October, but he's a decent shot-stopper and his loss for the season is a key one. Dave Beasant has stepped into the breach at forty-four, but appeared to injure himself in the early stages of the last-man-standing clash with Wednesday on Easter Monday. If incapacitated, he will be replaced by the Will Packham, who doesn't seem to have much of a fanclub.
The three central defenders in a 5-3-2 formation are Danny Cullip, Dean Blackwell and Ivan Ingimarsson. Hardman Cullip has been a mainstay of Mickey Adams' sides at Fulham, Brentford and Brighton and is regularly linked with a move to Leicester. Blackwell, contracted for the season, is a former team-mate of Neal and Marcus at Wimbledon and was dismissed in our debut Premiership game. Ingimarsson is on loan from Wolves having played for Coppell at Brentford. Guy Butters is on loan at Barnet and will be released in the summer, Adam Virgo is at Exeter so Robbie Pethick is the first-choice deputy.
Right wing-back Paul Watson seems to have been in particularly poor form this season and provides a source of optimism with Anthony McNamee apparently set for a start at the weekend. On the left, Kerry Mayo is Albion's longest serving player.
In midfield, Paul Brooker is the erratic source of creativity but was marked out of relevance by Sheffield Wednesday on Monday. Simon Rodger has been a success despite his Palace connections, and his presence appears to have contributed to Richard Carpenter's fine form. Other midfield options include bruiser Charlie Oatway, whose eleven middle names honour Chelsea's 1970 Cup-winning team, Nathan Jones, hopefully not named after a shocking Bananarama track, and Geoff Pitcher, who is just as anonymous as he was at Vicarage Road.
Albion's failings this season have been particularly acute in front of goal; they are the Division's lowest goalscorers. Even Bobby Zamora has appeared off-colour of late; he has most recently been partnered by the awkward Paul Kitson, who made his first start since September on Easter Monday following injury. Prior to that, the popular and willing Gary Hart had been used, with the less convincing Arsenal loanee Graham Barrett a further option.
We've managed to donate cheap points to all of Brighton's relegation rivals in recent weeks, so it would be foolish to take anything for granted on Saturday when the Albion will be fighting for their lives. Even should we lose the game, however, the pro-Brighton bias in the BSaD camp is likely to be deprived of the silver lining of the Seagulls preserving their survival hopes. To do so will also require Stoke to lose... and their opponents, Brighton's localish rivals Crystal Palace, are the last side you'd trust with anything. The Walk of Trust crew chewing their own legs off would seem to be a safer bet...