Brighton moving up towards a bright future
At Withdean Stadium
As soon as the final whistle sounded confirming Brighton's promotion to the Championship, manager Gus Poyet made his way towards the sanctity of the dressing rooms with a speed that belied the calf injury he is apparently carrying.
Midfielder Liam Bridcutt was not so lucky and found himself engulfed in a pitch invasion. By the time he left the field, his top, boots, socks and shin pads had disappeared. They were not so much given away as taken, and the 21-year-old had the expression of a man who was relieved to still be wearing his shorts.
The stadium announcer at the Withdean Stadium had repeatedly asked fans to stay off the pitch but, such was the emotion generated during Brighton's thrilling 4-3 victory over Dagenham & Redbridge, his appeals were always likely to fall on deaf ears.
Many people felt that it would be a formality for the League One leaders to defeat the relegation-threatened Daggers on Tuesday evening and thus secure the victory needed to guarantee promotion, but to borrow Poyet's favourite word, it proved to be complicated.
Brighton players have plenty to celebrate at the moment. Photo: PA
His team conceded within 30 seconds and despite battling back to lead 2-1 at the break, Albion fell 3-2 behind as the Daggers came closing to ruining the promotion party.
In the end, a blistering strike from Bridcutt and a header from substitute Ashley Barnes clinched victory for Albion, while fireworks went off over the ground and the champagne started to flow within it.
And there is no doubt that Brighton deserve their promotion to the second tier of English football. They have been top of League One since the end of September and held off the challenge of numerous rivals who at one time or another threatened to topple Poyet's team.
Recent games have come thick and fast - and many of Albion's rivals have been in good form. Southampton and Milton Keynes Dons have won six of their last eight fixtures and Huddersfield five, but Brighton have enjoyed their best spell of form at the most crucial time.
Albion, who have not lost back-to-back league fixtures all season, have won 10 of their last 11 league games, with the other match in that sequence a 2-2 draw at in-form Rochdale. The Seagulls collected a maximum 24 points from their eight fixtures in March and since their 4-3 win over Carlisle on 5 March they have kept six clean sheets in nine games. It is now 11 home games since they last dropped a point at the Withdean Stadium, where they played under lights for the last time on Tuesday ahead of their move to a new stadium. No wonder Poyet was recently heard to suggest that for all its faults he will in many ways be sad to leave the rickety old athletics stadium.
"When you are in front of a race and you need to lead for so long it is complicated," said Poyet.
"But I am so proud of the squad. They knew that over the last month and a half they must make sure nobody could catch us. We did not play our best football at times but we have done it."
Recent away fixtures have included 1-0 wins at Yeovil, Brentford, Oldham and the Daggers, results that suggest Brighton can grind out results when necessary. But overall, Brighton have achieved promotion playing a brand of passing football that is comfortable on the eye and close to Poyet's belief in playing with an attractive and high-tempo style.
The Uruguayan has worked hard with his players on the training ground in the 18 months since he became manager, favouring short but intense training sessions, and the fruits of his labour are clear to see.
Brighton's players seem to have a good understanding of what is required of them at all times. They play with an intelligence that informs their decision making; when to run, when to pass, how to use the available space and pick out the spare man. When a team-mate is pulled out of position somebody fills in and Albion rarely lose their basic shape.
Taking Brighton up to the Championship is a personal triumph for the highly likeable Poyet, who is now celebrating his first promotion as either player or manager. He has never won a league title either but his team now has a 16-point lead and will be crowned champions if they win at Walsall on Saturday.
"There is no doubt that this is my proudest night," added Poyet as he left the Withdean pitch after completing a lap of honour.
"It is up there with the best times of my career. I believe in myself, I know what I want to do but I needed to prove it and what we have done is much bigger than people think."
Earlier in the season Albion drew at home with Bournemouth and some supporters were heard calling for a more direct style of play, but any doubts about Poyet's methods have long since faded. Indeed, Brighton supporters arguably have greater scope for optimism at the moment than any others in the Football League.
Poyet signed a four-year deal at the club last summer and has often talked in terms of building a club, not just a first team. On Tuesday he suggested that some managers might stay at a club for one or two years before leaving if a better offer comes along, but he said that his dream would be to build a club over 10 years.
"I would like to do it like Sir Alex Ferguson or Arsene Wenger," added Poyet. "If we are improving and getting better, even if it is slowly, and if we are playing the way I want to, then I will be here for many, many years."
The Seagulls have been without a stadium of their own since they left the Goldstone Ground in 1997, enduring lengthy trips to Gillingham before adopting the Withdean in 1999, but next season their team will play at the superb new 22,500-capacity Amex Community Stadium at Falmer.
The stadium has been financed by interest-free loans from owner and life-long fan Tony Bloom, who became chairman in May 2009, in the process instantly putting the club on a sound financial footing.
"I call going up this season perfection because the new stadium is ready and it means we will be playing Championship football when it opens," said the Albion manager.
Poyet will now challenge his players to win the title and push towards what he calls "the beautiful 100 points" but beyond that it will be interesting to see whether they can emulate the likes of Norwich, who are pushing for a second straight promotion after winning League One last season.
The Canaries are managed by another determined young manager in Paul Lambert and are third in the Championship with five games of the normal season remaining. After winning the League One title by nine points last season, Lambert strengthened his squad in the summer, bringing in Andrew Crofts, Andrew Surman, David Fox, Elliott Ward, John Ruddy and Henri Lansbury, all of whom have had a big impact this season.
Poyet knows he has to strengthen and it would be a surprise if he did not bring half a dozen players to the club in the summer.
"If we can keep the momentum, there is a great option for the future," said the Albion boss. "I need to start looking at players and planning."
John Stephenson has arrived from Watford as head of football operations. He instigated a six-stage process to signing new players at the Hornets, bringing in the likes of Danny Graham, the Championship's current top scorer. Stephenson is working closely with Poyet to identify new players and the club are likely to strengthen in most areas as they prepare for a step up in class.
The ultimate ambition is for the club to return to the top flight of English football for the first time since 1983.
That might prove to be complicated, but after so many years of flux and uncertainty, there is no doubt that the good times are back in Brighton.