At home to a lower league side in the FA Cup third round, a tie that you’d always expect to win. Especially one where your opponent is 91st in the Football League and without a win away from home in the league all season having lost their last five games on the road.
That’s where Brighton found themselves on 5th January 2008 for the FA Cup 3rd Round. And it wasn’t just the oppositions relative position to us that meant we thought we’d win. Our recent head to head record against Mansfield was good too, with the last two Brighton home games between the sides ending in 6-0 and 2-0 wins for the Albion respectively.
And that 6-0 win on the opening day of the 1999/2000 season was a truly special day, a day which the Albion returned home to Withdean Stadium, and which marked the end of some dark years for the club throughout the 1990’s.
The six goals scored that day included an iconic hat-trick from striker and new signing Darren Freeman. Local boy Darren’s look of long-untamed hair and scruffy appearance meant he could pull off the new Skint Records sponsored shirts better than most. But subsequent injuries hampered Darren’s time with the Albion and only nine more goals would follow in the remaining 43 appearances he made that season. Eighteen more appearances and no goals followed the next season, at the end of which he emotionally announced retirement, conceding the injuries had got the better of him at the age of just 27.
With these memories considered, drawing Mansfield at home seemed like a good omen, and the team could also take confidence from the cup-run they’d had so far that season. In the first round the team beat Cheltenham in a replay, at the end of a two-week period where the two teams met three times. The first was the original FA Cup tie which was a 1-1 draw in the West Country, then the following Wednesday there was a 4-1 win for the Albion in the Football League Trophy, which was followed by a 2-1 win for the Albion that saw them make round 2, where they were drawn away to Torquay United. So, it was another trip West in the name of the FA Cup, and this time the Albion won 2-0 to make it to round three and face Mansfield.
But unlike the previous games already mentioned, this day wouldn’t end in success for the Albion. And it became apparent things weren’t going to plan early on when Mansfield’s Matthew Hamshaw opened the scoring to give Mansfield a 1-0 lead after just ten minutes and it was a goal where the Albion defence was caught sleeping. In particular Joel Lynch and Adam El Abd, who were caught out by some neat play from the Mansfield attack.
Joel Lynch was one of the many players at the club at that time who’d been brought through to the first-team from the youth ranks. And having made his debut away to Southampton in January 2006, he had soon become a regular and went on to make 79 appearances for the club before leaving for Nottingham Forest in September 2008.
Some still resent Joel for the manner in which he left by forcing the clubs hand with a transfer request, but given his talent and the rut that the club were in at the time, both competitively and financially, I find it hard to hold any animosity to a young, ambitious and talented footballer who moved on in hope of bigger and better things elsewhere. Players like Dan Harding and Dean Hammond amongst others also did the same during that period to varying degrees of success, but I doubt any will have regretted leaving much. And given the fact that Joel’s four-year spell with Forest was followed by a four-year spell with Huddersfield before moving to QPR where he is still now, it’s hard to argue with his decision. Throughout that period he’s been playing at a bigger and better standard of football than he ever was for the Albion.
At this time the team was full of players that originated from Sussex and Dean Wilkins dream was to manage and lead a team full of Sussex players into the AMEX Stadium. But this dream wasn’t to materialise, and Dean Wilkins would in fact be sacked at the end of the season following three mixed years as first team manager. In his book “Madman” Dick Knight speaks of his difficult relationship with Dean Wilkins during his time as manager and how Dean Wilkins would almost always opt for homegrown talent over bought in talent, at times to the detriment of the team. You could even say that it was youthful naivety that was a big part of the Albion’s downfall against Mansfield.
But despite this, it wasn’t long before normality was resumed, for a time at least, as Alex Revell equalised via a Dean Cox free kick. Unbeknownst to many at the time, this was to be one of his last appearances for the Albion. A certain Glenn Murray would sign from Rochdale later that month for £300k, leaving Revell surplus to requirements and later that month he signed for Southend.
Revell showed during his time with the Albion that he had tenacity and quality in the final third in abundance, and after being plucked from the obscurity of level 7 of English football where he was playing for Braintree Town that was even more pleasing for the club. But after signing in the summer of 2006 and scoring ten goals by early December, his time with the Albion was then continuously set-back by injuries, and he scored only three goals between then and the following Christmas, when he returned from a two-month spell on the sidelines with a hernia injury. Despite his return being met with a flurry of five goals in three games, including the consolation goal here, it appears that it was too little too late and that the club had decided Glenn Murray was a better long-term investment, which ultimately proved to be a good call.
Alex Revell was playing up front that day with Veteran Nicky Forster, who was the club’s top scorer that season with 16 goals, having been the top scorer with 19 goals the season before and would be the top scorer with a further 16 goals the following season, despite the signing of Glenn Murray. But in contrary to his good goalscoring record for the club, Nicky Forster missed a number of good chances that day and whilst he knew where the goal was, he couldn’t do it on his own.
Someone who perhaps underlined this best was Jake Robinson. Another youth team product and Albion’s Youngest ever goalscorer at the age of 16 in a Football League Trophy tie four seasons before this one against Forest Green Rovers. But after breaking through as a striker, he was now playing on the right-wing and had found further goals harder to come by. In all honesty after early promise, Jake didn’t manage to live up to the hype and soon found himself out of the first team. After a loan spell at Aldershot the following season, he left the club the following summer and after subsequent spells at a few Football League clubs now plays in the non-league at Maidstone United.
Despite the Seagull’s recovery it was the Stag’s who would have the last laugh when Ian Holmes met John Mullins’ teasing right-wing cross just before the half-time interval to give Mansfield the lead again. It was a sickener for the Albion from which they wouldn’t recover.
After a horror first half for Joel Lynch who was playing in a less accustomed role of left-back, he was moved to centre back after half time as Dean Wilkins brought off veteran centre back Guy Butters who was replaced by Sam Rents, another youth team product, who moved to left back. And whilst the defence was a bit more organised and Mansfield wouldn’t score any more goals, the Albion were still one behind and needed to find a goal from somewhere to stay in the cup.
But it was still Mansfield creating the best chances. And it could have been 3 or 4 were it not for the superb shot-stopping of an albeit by this time in-decline Michel Kuipers. Mansfield had plenty of chances and were playing some neat football with a real tempo that was well above the expectations of their league position and recent form.
But the second half was most notable for the Mansfield rear-guard performance. They would impress the most with some resolute defending as the game went on, which mostly restricted the Albion to speculative long shots from distance. Albion Substitute Striker Nathan Elder came close to finding the equaliser late on, and in desperation as chances and possession kept being wasted by the Albion, they pushed everyone forward, even including ‘keeper Michel Kuipers, but Mansfield held on and claimed a not-so-famous FA Cup upset.
But for the Albion it was a memorably frustrating and disappointing day, and that frustration was evident on the post-game BBC Sussex radio fans phone-in. A phone-in which featured a rare if ill-timed appearance from Chairman Dick Knight, who took the brunt of it. Whilst there were other factors at play, in part the frustration was due to the novelty that it was for the club to get to the 3rd round of the FA Cup. Unlike now we had to earn our place at this stage of the competition. That said it was not a novelty in some respects, as this was the Albion’s sixth appearance at this stage of the competition in the previous nine years since the move to Withdean. But we had lost all of the previous five, and with this being probably the best chance to finally get a win at this stage, instead made it six third-round defeats in-a-row.
The record reads –
01-02 – Preston home 2-0 defeat
02-03 – Norwich Away 3-1 defeat
04-05 – Tottenham Away 2-1 defeat
05-06 – Coventry home 1-0 defeat
06-07 – West Ham Away 3-0 defeat
And now add:
07-08 – Mansfield home 2-1 defeat.
Hardly an illustrious record, which reflected the club’s relatively lowly status at the time. But, after losing in round one the following season in the subsequent ten years the Albion have qualified for or entered due to our league status, round three every year, losing just once in the 15/16 season, 1-0 away to Hull City in a game where both sides made seven changes.
This good record would have been unthinkable on that frustrating afternoon at Withdean Stadium back in 2008, an afternoon that was the beginning of the end for Dean Wilkins reign as manager. Mansfield went on to be drawn away to Middlesbrough, a tie they lost 2-0. It’s another one of those many signs of how far the club has come that at the time it was a big disappointment to miss out on what was deemed an exciting away tie to a big club. Whereas when we drew Middlesbrough away at the same stage of the competition last season it was met with an audible groan on the concourse of the AMEX, with some suggesting that they’d prefer to lose in the third round to Palace than make the trip!
There are many lessons from that defeat to Mansfield, but whilst this game is not one that will live long in many Albion supporter’s memories its evidence of the great show that the FA Cup continues to consistently deliver every season. The nature of the knockout competition brings fans both romance and nightmares, with very little in between. So lets just hope we end up on the good side of that combination.