‘The Brighton Game’ – A heady night of high drama and subversion

The Brighton Game’, to most Crystal Palace fans, does and always will conjure up memories of that fateful night in 2013 when Sir Wilfried Zaha scored both goals to fire Palace to Wembley and then onto the Premier League.

You remember it. The night when sh*t was smeared across the away dressing room at the Amex stadium (it was later discovered to be the coach driver with a dodgy tummy), when an apoplectic Ian Holloway had to calm down rather than hype up his players before the match.

When Zaha single-handedly produced two pieces of magic to show why Sir Alex Ferguson bequeathed him to his successor at Old Trafford, David Moyes, as his parting gift.

But now there is another famous night in the Palace pantheon, on a bright cold night in February when the clocks struck thirteen, hope hung heavy in the Sussex air and the high drama subverted and surpassed expectations.

One to rival the first Brighton game if not in its historical importance then in its sheer bloody-minded stubbornness, in which ‘smash-and-grab’ represented the understatement of the millennium and Palace ecstasy mingled with the bittersweet and profound wish you were there to witness it in the flesh.

To call it a ‘robbery’, as Brighton defender Joel Veltman did, would be to deduct from the totality of Brighton’s domination. They had exactly three-quarters of the possession, 706 passes to 204, 13 corners to zero, and 25 shots to three.

Despite that, in the first half 23-year-old Parisian Jean-Philippe Mateta scored his first goal for Palace in his third game with a double-nutmeg backheel, which tells a thousand stories in itself.

Veltman then equalised – deservedly, albeit via a fortunate ricochet – and the laws of expectation and momentum dictated Brighton would score the winner.

Danny Welbeck, Lewis Dunk, Leandro Trossard (twice), Pascal Gross and Adam Lallana went close. Less knocking on than dismantling the deteriorating barrier of Palace’s defence.

Brighton embodied adventurous, ambitious, pretty football with moves involving the whole team, overflowing with ideas, imagination and rapid high-pitch pressing. Palace struggled to string two passes together and tried – with little success – to keep it in Brighton’s half for more than five seconds.

Graham Potter’s side seemingly played on a completely different footballing plane, dazzling with theoretical tiki-taka and neat one-twos on an elevated aesthetic and metaphysical stage as if to emulate prime 2008-09 Barcelona against National League North Curzon Ashton.

Palace, marshalled by the heroic Gary Cahill and Cheikhou Kouyate, scrapped and blocked and played penalty-box pinball several tactical levels below. Why were Palace defenders throwing their bodies in the way of Brighton shots with such reckless abandon?

Why do neutrals watch FA Cup ties between David and Goliath? Because of what might happen next.

Before the game Palace fans would have needed an epoch of belief to conceive of Christian Benteke’s glorious 95th minute volleyed winner.

Yet in that divine, blissful moment before Andros Townsend’s floated cross kissed Benteke’s instep, you could sense it might just happen. Potter, on the other hand, will need several epochs of incredulity to fathom quite how his side lost.

Despite all their plaudits, unlucky losers are still losers and Brighton cannot pass up opportunities like they did on this wintry, despairing evening. After poor recent results and uncertainty about the futures of both players and manager, Palace may enter Spring with a little more hope.

And hope, indeed, springs eternal. Enlivens rather than kills you. Hope is the reason Palace fans flicked on the TV tonight. Not because they expected to breach Robert Sanchez’ well-guarded goal for the first time in 343 minutes at the Amex, but because of what might happen next.

Because maybe once in 100 matches you get a scarcely deserved, biblically unjustified three points at your bitter rivals’ place after you’ve been under the cosh for 94 minutes.

A heady night when your injured talisman tweets videos of Big Narstie praising Benteke, and statistics about how bad you are without him can be consigned to the bin.

When you have more points (four) than shots on target (three) against your rivals this season, when voice boxes disintegrated and fans imagined how many serious casualties there would have been in the resulting tangle of limbs.

When tattoo requests of Dunk throwing his hands up in frustration went up 823%, when your new striker battered the defenceless corner flag in front of three stony-faced Seagulls substitutes and your old striker pulled out the Silencer with the last kick of the game and potentially the last meaningful contribution of his Palace career.

Brighton had all of 52 touches in Palace’s penalty area, and allowed the visitors just two in theirs, which on paper is a footballing masterclass. The trouble is, both those touches were goals.

This was a special evening, to neutrals a superficially colourless game in an esoteric rivalry between lower mid-table sides, but to two sets of supporters a fixture imbued with nearly five decades of hostility and antagonism, seasoned with a year of lockdown frustration and existential angst and a seemingly meaningless oversaturation of football.

Undoubtedly its importance is tempered – but not extinguished – by the fact there were no fans, in the asterisk season. That said, there was no lack of emotion in the front rooms of Selhurst, San Francisco and Sydney.

It was just displaced rather than concentrated, discrete but unified. A night when supporters rejoiced in the capricious, mercurial, senseless beauty of football.

So yes, the first Brighton game will forever be the night Zaha inexorably carved his name in Palace folklore and took a huge stride towards the side reaching the promised land, which they haven’t left since.

But this radiantly bizarre evening in Falmer on Monday does mean something. It means when fans’ eyes glaze over and nostalgic tales are recounted through red-and-blue-tinted glasses, there is now more than one story from which to choose starting with, ‘The Brighton Game’.

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Max Mathews

Freelance Gold Standard NCTJ journalist and sports writer

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