Brighton & Hove Albion were unable to turn around a 2-0 first leg deficit against Sheffield Wednesday as the Yorkshire side secured their place at Wembley.
An early goal by Lewis Dunk was cancelled out by a dubious Ross Wallace equaliser in a fiery encounter at the Amex on Monday night as an injury hit Albion were unable to make it to the final.
After a turbulent few weeks for the team, with the 1-1 away draw at Middlesborough on the final day coupled with the resulting 1st leg play-off defeat at Hillsborough on Friday night, Chairman Tony Bloom urged the Brighton faithful to support the team as best they could and the Albion fans certainly lived up to it. The Amex was in a jubilant atmosphere, supporting the team in their quest for Wembley but also celebrating the fantastic season Brighton had endured.
Of the four players injured in Friday’s first leg, only Steve Sidwell and Anthony Knockaert were fit enough to feature in the second. Lewis Dunk returned from his suspension to come in for the injured Connor Goldson, and Bong was again preferred to Liam Rosenior.
It was Knockaert’s inclusion which was the at the centre of a much of the fans pre-match optimism, and the Frenchman was at the centre of everything for Brighton in what was the side’s best half of football in recent years.
Knockaert struck a free kick onto the inside of the post early on, and his next free kick was expertly saved by Wednesday keeper Kieron Westwood, who managed to get down in time to save the ex-Leicester man’s delicate shot under the wall. The fan favourite was again involved shortly afterwards when he headed his shot narrowly wide of the goal, with Westwood left astonished that Brighton hadn’t opened the scoring.
To Wednesday’s credit, Westwood and his defence were in terrific form for the majority of the game, with the former playing especially well. However, it was Sheffield’s indiscipline which cost them the opening goal, Bruno won yet another free kick wide right and it was the Frenchman Knockaert again who expertly drilled the ball across the face of goal and for the skipper Dunk.
The goal lifted the atmosphere in the Amex even further, but the lead only lasted 9 minutes as Sheffield Wednesday scored a freak and controversial equaliser on the half hour mark. A rare attack by Wednesday lead to Ross Wallace, who scored a great long range effort in the first leg on Friday night, producing a cross that missed everyone and nestled in Stockdale’s goal. The Brighton players were enraged that the goal stood, arguing to referee Roger East that captain Lewis Dunk appeared to have been pushed by Gary Hooper when attempting to clear the cross, but the goal stood and cruelly pegged the Albion back so soon after going in front. Wallace’s goal was enough to change the entire complexion of the game, with the players seeming visibly taken aback by the untimely equaliser and the chances gradually dried up.
The second half followed a similar mould to the first, with Brighton attacking well but Wednesday doing enough defensively to keep Brighton at bay. However it was Brighton’s inability to convert their chances which cost them on the night. A few sparse chances from set pieces and a Dunk shot deep in extra time wasn’t enough and the game finished 1-1, sending Wednesday to Wembley and residing Brighton to championship football next term.
Tony Bloom said before the game that he wanted the team to “make history”, however, the only record Brighton were able to achieve was being the first team in 111 years to miss out on promotion after losing only 5 league games.
Chris Hughton, speaking to local press after the game about the decision to not give a free kick to Brighton in the build up to Wednesday equaliser, spoke of his anger at yet another refereeing decision which has cost them dearly, following on from Dale Stephens’s controversial red card in the game away at Middlesbrough.
Brighton will look to keep at least the spine of their team intact during the summer, with players like Dunk, Goldson, Kayal, Knockaert and Hemed all likely to be subject of premier league attention in the summer.
Match Report by Robert Bishop