Brighton edged a step closer to automatic promotion to the Premier League as Anthony Knockeart’s 14th and 15th goals of the season gave Chris Hughton’s side a sixth win in seven matches and an 11th of the campaign away from home.
The result means victory over relegation-threatened Wigan at the Amex Stadium on Monday would effectively confirm their return to the top flight for the first time since 1983, their goal difference over third-placed Huddersfield – the only team still mathematically able to deny them a place in the top two – being so superior as to be as good as an extra point.
Huddersfield face Derby away on Monday, their match kicking off two hours after Brighton’s. Of course, if Brighton win and they fail to do so, celebrations on the south coast can start for real.
Hughton talked afterwards about needing his players to keep their focus but he wore the look of a manager who can already feel the satisfaction of achieving his target.
“Everybody will feel we are in touching distance and a win on Monday will all but mathematically see us up but as a manager and as a group of players you shouldn’t think of it that way,” he said.
“We know at the moment four points will definitely do it and would like to do it as quick as we can. But we have to keep everybody as level leaded as possible because if you lose the next game it all changes so the focus has to be on winning on Monday.
“What is pleasing if that we have been able to produce a performance, because we are at this vital stage with what it meant to dig out a result, that was as good as we have given away from home all season.”
Last night’s win takes Brighton to 89 points, the same total they achieved in 46 matches last season but which was not enough for automatic promotion.
Hughton’s team missed out on goal difference to Middlesbrough and then flopped in the play-offs, losing their semi-final against Sheffield Wednesday.
To have bounced back from that disappointment and put together an even more impressive season reflects huge credit on Hughton, who will surely now have another chance to prove himself an effective manager at Premier League level.
He took Newcastle up with the Championship title in 2009-10 only to be removed after only four months in the top flight and was sacked by Norwich in April 2014 after two seasons, with the Canaries on the brink of relegation.
Wolves, who have been led to safety by Hughton’s Norwich predecessor Paul Lambert with some much improved recent form, showed three changes from the line-up from the defeat at Bristol City last time out that ended a run of five straight victories, although they were still missing top scorer Helder Costa.
They began in a manner that suggested a return to winning form was within their capabilities, keeping the visitors largely inside their own half for the first 20 minutes.
Yet, on a counter attack following Romain Saiss’s loss of possession, Brighton were close to taking a 15th-minute lead. Knockaert’s well judged pass found Tomer Hamed breaking into the inside-right channel and, despite a difficult angle, he struck a good effort against the bar.
As Brighton now began to take control, Hemed went close again with a header tipped over the bar by Andy Lonergan – although not according to referee Geoff Eltringham, who gave a goal-kick – and Solly March fizzed a shot into the side netting.
Their opening goal came on the stroke of half-time. It stemmed from a long clearance missed by Kortney Hause, allowing Knockaert a run down the right.
Ivan Cavaleiro got back quickly to cover for Hause, but the French winger turned the Portuguese one way then the other before shooting left-footed inside the near post, Lonergan getting a hand to the ball but with insufficient strength to keep it out.
In the second half, Wolves refused to step aside and allow Brighton to coast towards the finish line. Goalkeeper David Stockdale and his defenders were increasingly under pressure.
But, with eight minutes remaining, just as nerves might have begun to creep in both among the blue and white contingent occupying the length of the Steve Bull stand, and among the Brighton players, came the clincher of a second goal.
Again it came on a breakaway, again it was Knockaert applying the finishing touch as the race towards the Wolverhampton goal concluded with Glenn Murray heading the ball into the path of the Frenchman, who again beat Lonergan at the near post with his left foot. Now Brighton must feel they are almost there.