Brighton dreaming of surprise double of first trophy and Champions League football
Four years after their last FA Cup semi-final, Brighton are returning to Wembley – and if their owner Tony Bloom follows the course of his betting at the Cheltenham Festival, bookmakers on the south coast will be quivering at the very thought.
Bloom won £830,000 backing his own horse Energumene on Wednesday, and there is a real chance they will be paying out again in June if Brighton finally win the first trophy in their history.
As Paul Hurst, the manager of Grimsby Town, noted of Brighton after his team had just been overwhelmed by Roberto De Zerbi’s side: “People really need to keep an eye on this club. They are going places.”
Whatever the effort of their players, and the magnificent noisy backing of their supporters, Grimsby did not represent the most challenging of obstacles. For their moment in the spotlight, Hurst’s side looked exactly what they were: the first League Two team to reach the quarter-final in 33 years. Yet despite the three-division gap, De Zerbi did his visitors the respect of picking his strongest line-up.
Serving a second touchline ban, De Zerbi watched from a box. “Two games in the stand,” he said. “We have won one 4-0 and one 5-0. So maybe it is better I get a season ticket.”
From up there, he had a fine view of what a team he has developed.
Astonishingly, since they lost not only their three strongest players but also their manager and recruitment department in the summer, Brighton have only got better. Take Evan Ferguson, their teenage centre-forward who scored twice here and had another ruled out by Var. He looks like a real prospect, the next on the Brighton conveyor belt to be sold on for a huge profit. Probably to Chelsea. But De Zerbi refused to accept he was the finished product.
“My staff are working to improve him to become not only a No 9, but to improve him in terms of understanding the play,” he said. “His quality is to score goals, but in the Premier League it is not enough just to score goals. We need him to work like a No 10.” Everyone appears to have improved under De Zerbi. And that is saying something, given, in Alexis Mac Allister, they have a World Cup winner.
Nobody seems to have benefited more from the manager’s attention than Solly March, who was man of the match here and scored with a glorious diving header. And the manager’s ambition was evident when asked what he would prefer to do this season: take his club into the Champions League or win their first major silverware.
“I can’t decide,” he said. “I don’t know what we will achieve. But we have to recognise we are Brighton, we are not a big, big team. We have to be honest with ourselves and our fans. A semi-final will be very, very difficult. Nothing is won yet.”
Certainly at Wembley he will need his team to be a little more alert than they were in the first half here. After taking the lead early through Deniz Undav, they did their best to keep it competitive: Kaoru Mitoma missed a sitter, Lewis Dunk almost scored the comedy own goal of the season, and Robert Sanchez was within an inch of collecting the ball outside his area, thus being sent off. But, after being on the receiving end of some strong words from their manager at half-time, they quickly put all thought of a giant-killing aside, scoring four more times and created sufficient chances to net another couple. Grimsby were restricted to just two chances, the air seeping rapidly from their inflatable haddocks. Brighton ended up looking what they are: one of the teams of the season.
Not that their manager shows any sign of being satisfied at simply reaching the last four.
“We can decide, do we go to Wembley as a tourist or to win?” said De Zerbi. “I have been as a fan [he was there for the Argentina v Italy game last June]. This will be better. This time we go to write a new history for our club.”