Football: Tears of grief and relief

It's hats - and hairpieces - off to Brighton as their barnstorming run carries them through to League safety at the expense of poor Hereford. Greg Wood reports
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The Independent Online
It started with more than a century of League history on the line, and it ended with a chubby, cheerful middle-aged man waving a toupee in front of a huddle of reporters and then perching it on his gleaming crown. Such was the mood at Edgar Street on an afternoon when the tension threatened to drive everyone mad.

Strangest of all, the jolly man with the wig was Peter Hill, chairman of Hereford, who had just watched as his team, the ultimate victims of Brighton's astonishing run of results in 1997, were stripped of their League status - unless the League's plan to bring in 16 Conference teams and regionalise the Third Division comes to fruition.

The hairpiece, Mr Hill assured us, was "to wipe the tears away", and on the terraces at least, there were plenty of those, whether of grief or relief. This was perhaps the scrappiest 1-1 draw all season in a division which sees more than its share, yet for the 3,500 among the sell-out crowd of 8,000 who had travelled from the South Coast, no point could be more precious.

Their hero, too, is far from fully thatched, but as the Brighton fans love to sing of Steve Gritt, "he's got no hair, but we don't care". The Seagulls' form since Gritt's arrival late last year, when the side were 11 points from safety, has been exceptional, particularly at the now defunct Goldstone Ground. If they can pick up the same thread next season, wherever their new home might be, any late-season dramas are likely to concern promotion, not relegation.

Not that you would have thought it during a desperate first half. Hereford, who had to score, lined up 3-4-3, and proceeded to swarm all over the visitors. Tony Agana was magnificent, winning four out of every five of the long balls which were fired at him with tedious regularity, while his pace and strength were a constant problem for the Brighton defence. Within minutes, they were nervous to the point of panic, and never more so than after 20 minutes, when Kerry Mayo attempted to put a low cross behind for a corner only to find his own net instead.

The Seagulls had one foot in the Conference, and the second might have followed after 34 minutes, as Agana beat Mark Ormerod's wild rush outside his area and crossed for Adrian Foster, whose headed attempt was blocked. In the final analysis, though, what condemned Hereford was their defeat at Orient seven days earlier.

Brighton's salvation arrived with 26 minutes left. Craig Maskell's excellent long-range volley beat Andy deBont and then passed him once more on its way back from the far post. Robbie Reinelt, a recent and influential substitute, applied the finishing touch.

The tension was now unbearable, and it was Hereford who felt it most as they set off in search of another lifeline. Passing and discipline disintegrated, but even then, Foster wasted two excellent chances - as, admittedly, did Maskell - before they finally slipped out of the League.

"I feel totally responsible," Graham Turner, Hereford's manager, said afterwards. "I'm going to take Monday off, it's a Bank Holiday after all, and then I'll come in on Tuesday morning and do the decent thing by handing in my resignation. Then it will be up to the people around me."

What a contrast with Gritt and the thousands of Brighton supporters, who now fully believe that a new stadium for seating 15,000 is only a matter of time, and know that their new chairman, Dick Knight, has promised pounds 2m of spending money for the summer. "We've got the biggest supporter base of any club outside the First Division," Gritt said. "If Brighton are doing well, they'll fill it." Time and again in the last two seasons, it seemed that Brighton could fall no further. Now, surely, the long climb back has started.

Hereford's hope, page 2

Goals: Mayo og (21) 1-0; Reinelt (62) 1-1.

Hereford United (3-4-3): deBont; Norton, Brough, Matthewson; Warner, Hargreaves, McGorry, Sandeman; Foster, Williams, Agana. Substitutes not used: Turner, Wood, Pitman. Brighton (4-4-2): Ormerod; Tuck, Morris, Johnson, Humphrey; McDonald (Reinalt, 54), Mayo, Minton, Storer (Hobson, 85); Maskell, Baird. Substitute not used: Rust.

Referee: Neil Barry (Scunthorpe).

Man of the match: Minton.

Attendance: 8,532.