Brighton went into their 3rd round FA cup tie at home to Preston in 2002 with plenty reason to be optimistic. Having won the Division Three title the previous season, the club were on their way to a second consecutive title in Division Two as well as promotion to the second tier of English Football.
But whilst there was optimism, they faced a tough test having been drawn at home to Preston North End of the second tier. Albion’s opponents had been catching the eye for a little while. Then managed by David Moyes (who two months later would be appointed Everton manager), Preston had narrowly missed out on a second consecutive promotion themselves the season before having lost the Playoff final to Bolton Wanderers to miss out on a place in the topflight. And they would only narrowly miss out on a playoff place this season too despite Moyes exit.
Brighton had recent lost their own highly rated young manager, after Micky Adams had left the club in the October of that season for Leicester City and had been replaced at the club by the former Leicester City manager Peter Taylor.
The team Taylor had inherited from Adams was full of players that are still well renowned by Albion supporters. No less so than star striker Bobby Zamora who during this period would enter his best goalscoring spell at the club and break a longstanding goalscoring record.
The team were on a high when they went into their first round tie at home to Shrewsbury. Having won five out of their previous six games, new manager Peter Taylor now had his feet placed firmly under the managers desk. And this one went the same way as the last three, as Albion achieved a 1-0 win with the only goal coming from Zamora.
A further five points followed for Albion in their next three league games ahead of their second round tie. This run predictably included three more Zamora goals in as many games. One in a 2-0 win away to Bury which has gone down in club legend. The in-form Zamora chipped the Bury goalkeeper from midway inside their half to score a goal ranked by many as the best he ever scored for the club.
It was a goal that showed both his brilliant technique and his superiority over Albion’s third tier opposition. By this point it was clear it was when rather than if that Albion’s star striker would get a big move to the topflight but despite interest, Albion would hold onto Zamora for another 18 months before he moved to Tottenham in the summer of 2003 following the club’s relegation straight back down to the third tier.
The game against Albion’s eventual successors as Third Division champions Rushden and Diamonds in the 2nd round saw yet another goal from Zamora open the scoring after just five minutes, heading the ball home from close range after a messy goalmouth scramble. It was his ninth in nine games and meant he broke Peter Harburn’s 42 year old club consecutive goalscoring record. A record he then extended to ten games in Albion’s 2-2 home draw with Chesterfield later that month.
This tie was being broadcast live on Sky Sports and it’s no wonder given the club’s recent success and all the national media attention that Albion’s star striker was now getting. So when I say Albion extended their lead over Rushden with a goal described by the Argus as a “wonder goal”, I know many would expect him to have been the scorer. But it was instead through the unlikely source of Albion defender Danny Cullip, with his first goal since the headed winner over Chesterfield the season before that won Albion the Third Division title. It was indeed the type of goal we’d become accustomed to see Zamora score, as Cullip neatly turned his marker on the edge of the box and fired home in the bottom corner past the helpless Rushden ‘keeper.
Rushden piled on the pressure and pulled one back with a Richie Barker penalty that made things a bit nervy. But the Seagulls secured yet another one goal victory.
It was a win that secured the club its first 3rd round appearance for 9 years. After getting to that stage of the competition for 15 straight season previous to that. The recent decade had seen the club make a succession of early exits throughout what is inarguably the darkest period of the club’s history, many of which to non-league outfits. So this was yet another sign that things were on the up at the club.
But with the drainage of the Withdean Stadium pitch in the early years of Albion’s stay there particularly poor, this was one of a number of winter games that was postponed. So rather than it being played on the traditional first Saturday in January, it was eventually rearranged to a cold Wednesday night in mid-January.
The game represented a chance for this promotion chasing Albion side to pit their wits against a prospective second tier opponent the following season. But Albion would unfortunately have to meet this challenge without either first choice ‘keeper Michel Kuipers due to injury or the on loan Simon Royce who was cup tied. So the young back up keeper Will Packham made the second of his four appearances for the club and unfortunately it wasn’t one to remember.
First Kerry Mayo saved his blushes by clearing a shot off the line but not long after the visitors took the lead when Packham had been left exposed by Mayo and the rest of the Albion defence and Preston’s newly signed French striker Erik Skora got his first goal for the club.
Albion had a chance to get back in it soon after when on loan striker Daniel Webb was brought down in the area. But the usually dependable and in-form Bobby Zamora saw his spot kick easily saved by the Preston ‘keeper.
Brighton attacked rarely and when they did it was usually without much purpose, which was fittingly summed up when a Zamora volley was so wayward it nearly hit the corner flag.
When Preston got their second from Jon Macken it simply made certain a victory that was already looking likely. But unfortunately for Will Packham it wasn’t his finest hour as he allowed the ball to bounce off his arms, underneath him and into the net. Jon Macken’s goalscoring exploits were a huge part of what fired Preston to playoff success the previous season, and he would earn himself a move to topflight Man City later that year.
After beating Sheffield United at home in the next round, Preston’s FA cup run ended with a 3-1 win away to eventual runners up Chelsea. And despite making the playoffs in three out of the next six season are still awaiting a return to the topflight after a period away that will have been 60 years come the end of this season.
For Brighton this defeat on a cold January night won’t go down in history as a memorable one. It was mostly written off at the time as one of that season’s very few off nights against superior opposition. But this comfortable defeat was perhaps an indication of the clubs struggles that would follow in the second tier next season.
At the end of the season following the club’s promotion to Division One, the fans spilled onto the Withdean pitch chanting “Brighton are back!” But it wouldn’t be for long. Despite this team that Micky Adams had built being feared by all those in the football league’s bottom two tiers, as we would soon learn, the step up to the top half during the Withdean era was one that Albion unfortunately was not capable of making.