Cardiff arrive at The Amex this evening for a vital game in both clubs’ quest for survival in the Premier League. A win for Brighton & Hove Albion will surely mean survival for another season, and condemn the Bluebirds to a swift return to the Championship.
It doesn’t seem all that long ago that we were battling to stay in the Football League itself, yet in 1997, that was exactly the scenario. Cardiff were looking to cement their place in the Division Three play-off positions, while Albion were desperate to claw back more ground on Doncaster Rovers, who were four points ahead.
The March 1997 fixture between the two clubs was crucial, a fact not lost on Seagulls manager Steve Gritt: “The importance of each match becomes greater and greater after each game we lose as fixtures are now beginning to run out”.
Despite some encouraging displays at home, our away form was of some concern to Gritt, as he referred to the previous game at Hull City: “We were without doubt the better team and had the majority of possession, but unless you make the most of your dominance, then you will come a cropper”.
The Goldstone Ground was beginning to resemble a fortress following the appointment of Gritt in December 1996. Since then, the eight home league games had yielded six wins and two draws, but Albion still had a lot to do to ensure survival.
After conceding seven in his previous two games, Nicky Rust was dropped in favour of Mark Ormerod. Across the back, centre-backs Ross Johnson and Gary Hobson were partnered by John Humphrey and Stuart Tuck. The midfield comprised Paul McDonald, Jeff Minton, Kerry Mayo and Stuart Storer, with Ian Baird and Craig Maskell up front.
As with all games at the Goldstone towards the end of that season, it was a tense affair, with both clubs knowing it could be settled by a mistake or a touch of genius.
That mistake came from the visitors’ defence as they conceded an early penalty. Crowds had begun to return to Hove and the vast majority of the 9,293 in the ground held their collective breath as Paul McDonald stepped up to take the kick. He made no mistake and you could almost feel the tension lift. This was further eased when Ian Baird made it 2-0 before half-time.
It was more of the same in the second half and although there was no further scoring, Albion were good value for the three points. This result took us ever closer to safety, which was confirmed on the last day of the season in the most nerve-wracking game in our history, against Hereford United.
It is unlikely that tonight’s game will generate the same levels of nail-biting tension, but it is no less important than that game 22 years ago. The stakes are very different, but the value of the win will be equally important. Just as we did all those years ago, we have to bounce back from a disappointing defeat to compete for precious points.
One feature of the 1996/97 season was the ability of the Goldstone crowd to get behind the team, despite the turmoil off the pitch. Things could not be more different in terms of the stability of the club, but the need for the Amex crowd to get behind Chris Hughton’s team is no less.
Let’s hope for a similar outcome this evening.
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