Brighton snuff out Grimsby’s dream on a day brimming with FA Cup charm

At times during this relentlessly entertaining FA Cup quarter-final it was hard to avoid the feeling that the ambient levels of wholesomeness inside the Amex Stadium might just be reaching a potentially dangerous high, the counters starting to fizz and burp.

This was an occasion so polite even the half-time entertainment was a deeply moving presentation from the life‑saving stadium medical team, followed by a mascot race, a kids’ race and then a succession of Mother’s Day announcements so heartfelt you half-expected the match officials to come running out for the second half holding a cake and flowers.

Related: Ferguson’s double helps Brighton cruise past spirited Grimsby in FA Cup

By the end a 5-0 victory for Brighton looked like a chasing. It pretty much was a chasing. But a clinical, friendly, respectful chasing, and one that failed to cast much of a pall over the afternoon for the Grimsby fans in the stadium.

Five thousand had made the first half of an 11-hour round trip from the North Sea coast, even if this kind of boilerplate FA Cup cliche assumes all Grimsby fans do actually live in Grimsby and aren’t simply glory hunters hopped-up on last season’s National League promotion glory.

From the start the black-and-white end was bouncing. The signature inflatable fish were joined by beach balls, human dolls, a flamingo, a Zimmer frame and at least one classic retro tinfoil FA Cup. We can only hope someone in that end was dressed in a combination of three-piece suit, giant rosette and club colours top hat, to be referred to in a Pathe news voice as “Mr Grimsby”.

Before kick-off the Grimsby fans waved their fish en masse to the “So Good” bits of Sweet Caroline and this felt like a cultural moment, a happening, an installation called something like Kingdom of Fish at the End of Empire: A Study.

The Amex Stadium was a lovely airy, open place, with its swooping roller-coaster stands, the patchwork of blue and white overhead, and the sense of a fanbase that is very much still enjoying the ride.

Brighton’s Evan Ferguson (centre) celebrates after scoring his side’s second goal
Brighton’s Evan Ferguson (centre) celebrates after scoring his side’s second goal. Photograph: David Cliff/AP

This never looked like a good match-up for a fourth‑tier team. Brighton are not some complacent basking giant. The players are hungry and ambitious. The traditional route of “getting in their faces” isn’t really available either. Brighton are already there, face‑getting monsters in their own right.

Roberto De Zerbi’s Brighton are more direct, more urgent in their attacking patterns than the Graham Potter version. The chief route to goal is rapid, mid‑range vertical passes splitting the defensive lines. They were 1-0 up here with just six minutes gone thanks to Deniz Undav’s goal. Just after half-time it was 2-0, Evan Ferguson scoring the first of his two goals. And with 40 minutes still to play all the fish had been sold.

There was no disgrace in this for Grimsby, who played well and attacked when they could. This is a team with heart and vigour, but also with skill and nice patterns on the ball. Grimsby played good football, and looked comfortable toe to toe with the budding superstars of the top tier. Every year the FA Cup tells us the same thing, how full of life the lower tiers of English football are, despite all that has been thrown at them.

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The Pyramid is often waved around the place like a holy relic, a set of footballing rosary beads. But there was evidence here also of the fun, the joy, the boisterous life of English football’s matchday culture. Afternoons such as this are not an add-on or a clog in the schedule: this is the elite game’s basic power source, the layers below the layers. Travelling away, finding a shared voice, bumping up against other human beings: this is why football works, why we get to have a billionaire‑backed global product, how this thing was built in the first place.

Even the two club owners here are exemplary in their own ways: Tony Bloom, the Brighton boy turned super-smart gambler-philanthropist; and Jason Stockwood, who is from Grimsby, a former ball-boy at the club, who made his money in tech stuff, from to Skyscanner and whose levels of wholesomeness are such he even writes articles for left-leaning broadsheet newspapers.

Brighton will now play Manchester United in the semi‑finals. With Manchester City favourites to make it back to Wembley in the other semi-final, winning a first major honour still feels like a massive task. But it is still worth taking a moment to praise the work of De Zerbi in his six months at the club.

The Italian has been a wonderfully surefooted presence. But it helps that Brighton have such a clear methodology. There are essentially two types of Premier League club: those who are certain of what they want to achieve, what their level is, and what it should look like; and those who flit between methods and plans, dangling success, toying with failure, uncertain how far or high to go with this, which is a very long way of saying the Tottenham Method.

De Zerbi was suspended from the touchline for this game, and instead sat slumped in the stand beneath a club cap radiating bad-boy vibes. Although even here the bad-boy vibes managed to be persuasive, his chief crime to complain about the terrible standards of refereeing.

De Zerbi just seems to get the game, the league, even the Cup. “We know football is changing but the emotions of the game are the same,” he said before this tie. For all the noise, the money, the occasional remoteness of elite football, it was a day to be reminded of the truth of this.