That’s why we go to football

I am drenched in sweat. My throat is sore and my voice has a weird hoarseness to it. I cannot quite think straight, but I am extremely happy.

You see I’ve just been to one of those magical games that come along once in a blue moon for most ordinary football supporters. When you’re a Brighton fan, you have to take your excitement where you can find it.

And boy, did we find it tonight. Let me set the scene: Brighton’s home form this season has been less than stellar while visitors Manchester City are now officially the richest club in the world, having spent and spent and spent, and having just stuffed Portsmouth 6-0 without really trying.

We have just lost 1-0 at home to a Walsall team reduced to nine men after half an hour. We are, on paper, going to get totally stuffed. Humiliated. Embarrassed by footballing geniuses.

Except it doesn’t quite work out like that. For starters, the ground – a converted athletics track with the atmosphere of a dull post office queue – is full. And the locals are determined to enjoy themselves, whatever the score. It’s noisy, the banter is flying and the script is being written for a classic Cup upset.

At times, we look like we might be able to play football. City stroke the ball around but do a lot of falling over in expensive boots. The Seagulls players toil and tackle, sweat and bellow and the nouveau riche are unsettled.

Suddenly, a great move – Thomson bursts through, the crowd rise as one man to their feet ready to explode but his shot cracks back off a post and misses Loft following in. Was that our moment?

City spend an awful lot of time with the ball, but either contrive to finish poorly or forget to shoot in the first place. 0-0 at the interval, so far so good.

A few more near things in the second half, and then City take the lead via a deflected shot. Come on! We’re not rolling over yet, and lo and behold David has pinged Goliath where it hurts and we have a scrambled equaliser minutes from the end.

Extra time. The big boys are getting nervous as their junior rivals push and harry, deliver last ditch tackles and generally make a nuisance of themselves. Suddenly, heaven opens – loan winger Joe Ansinya finishes a classy passing move, and we’re 2-1 up. The ground is rocking, we haven’t heard singing like it since the play-off semi-final years back against Swindon, and the impossible could happen.

Rats.

A long ball from the City defence misses everyone except Stephen Ireland who finishes clinically. 2-2 and there’s frantic City pressure for the winner. A succession of corners are somehow repelled and the ref blows for the end of extra time.

Penalties. That TV drama on a plate. Heroes and villains. Except we’ve already won a moral victory by even getting this far. We can’t lose.

And we don’t. It goes to 3-3 with immaculate spot kicks until a nervy Michael Ball steps up for City, Kuipers picks the right way and parries his less than perfect penalty.

Matt Richards can score to take us through. Everyone is holding their breath fit to burst. The ball ripples the net, the place goes bonkers, we’re jumping up and down and before you know it half the crowd is on the pitch, and it’s like we’ve won the Cup itself.

It’s only a game of course. But it’s a glorious game where golden tinged moments like these make up for all the frustration, boredom and despair that often colours the bulk of the fan’s experience.

And it’s wonderful. And totally inexplicable too.

I guess you had to be there.

September 24 2008 11.56pm

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