Brighton 0 Reading 1

Ian Harte’s free kick flashes past the keeper into the net to put Reading 1-0 up.

Brighton & Hove Albion 0 Reading 1 (10/04/2012)

There are some away wins, most in fact, that are a joy and pleasure to attend. There are others that are just 90 minutes of nail-biting tension. This game definitely fell into the second category.

My away attendance at Reading games has reduced significantly over the years, but Reading’s good form, not to mention the prospect of seeing a good new stadium, tempted me over to West Sussex on a Tuesday night.

Brighton have suffered more than most over the years with ground issues. The Goldstone Ground was sold by an unscrupulous owner, meaning exile at Gillingham for a couple of years, followed by over a decade at the dreadful Withdean Stadium, sapping support levels to a degree than even its tiny confines were usually not sold out.

All changed for the start of this season with the move to the 22000 seat Amex Stadium, meaning Brighton were at last “truly” back, rather than being back in Brighton, but having to play at a borrowed stadium that looked like it’d been built out of Lego.

All is not perfect though. The ground is in the fringes of Brighton, surrounded by countryside, which means pretty harsh restrictions on traffic to the area. This causes a reliance on public transport to get the bulk of the fans to and from the stadium. Falmer Station, next door, might have been expanded to cope with the larger crowds, but the local rail company doesn’t seem to have bothered laying on extra trains to cope with the crowds, resulting in journeys that claustrophobics and the impatient best avoid.

The ground itself is impressive from the outside. The curves of the roofs and the stone cladding on the outside avoids the “Matalan Superstore” look which blights most new stadiums, although the place could certainly do with a bit more signage to promote it as the home of Brighton & Hove Albion. A large logo on the floor to roof glass wall of the West Stand would look stunning, but instead a tiny board high up is all there is.

Once inside, it’s impossible not to be drawn immediately to the huge main stand on the West side. It is vast, holding around 12000 in three tiers, and looks like a stand of a ground fit to host World Cup matches, not games in England’s second tier. The lower tier alone is larger than many sides at newer grounds. It also seems to be the most popular part of the ground for the “hard-core” fans, as it’s the first time I’ve ever heard a main stand being the focus for the singing in a ground. Above the seats, a high arched roof hovers overhead, with translucent sheeting letting in light from the blue spring sky above.

Opposite, with a similar high roof, but with a much smaller capacity, is the East Stand. This is one tier of seats holding about 5000, but with provision to add a second tier behind. The large and high roof rather masks the obvious disappointing comparisons with the stand opposite, making it look larger than it really is.

At both ends are the most disappointing parts of the ground. Two shallow stands of around 2500 seats don’t even stretch the full width of the pitch, and almost look like afterthoughts. It’s almost as if the architects were trying to pay homage to the Withdean Stadium, by adding temporary looking stands behind each goal. Had these ends been allowed to go full width, filling in the corners, it would have looked so much better.

The small size of these ends isn’t helped by the high roof above, and in particular the plain back wall behind. An asymmetrically placed scoreboard, and a police box tagged onto the wall like a hanging ornament, don’t really help either. The ends just look incomplete.

The interesting but slightly awkward link between the West and East stand roofs, with them being of differing heights, means the end roofs slope from West to East at a diagonal angle. This gives rise to something of an optical illusion, making it look like the pitch slopes downwards from East to West, like they borrowed the pitch from Wycombe’s old Loakes Park.

Overall though, mainly because of the West Stand and the quality of the finish around the stadium, it’s certainly one of the best new stadiums in the country.

I got to see it nearly full too, which is so much more important in a seated stadium than one with terraces. The Brighton fans were in good voice early on as the home team took advantage of the patched-up Reading midfield to look really threatening. It was Reading who struck first though, with an Ian Harte free kick deflecting into the far corner past a helpless keeper.

It took Reading a long time to settle, although it was still Brighton who had the best chances, including hitting the crossbar from close in, and there’s no doubt Reading would have gone in at half-time much the happier team.

At half time I felt Reading would need to score at least one more to win the game, as we’d be very lucky to survive another 45 minutes of the same without conceding. Clock-watching for 45 minutes is agonising, so I just went back to my seat taking each five minutes in turn, get through this five minutes, then the next one.

Reading didn’t even manage one five minute chunk though. A loud penalty appeal was waved away, only for another, just a few seconds later, to be awarded. With the way Brighton were playing, I couldn’t help but feel we’d be very lucky to escape with a 1-1 if Brighton scored from the spot. We don’t save many penalties, and Brighton’s Ashley Barnes doesn’t miss many, but on this occasion Federici dived low to his right to palm away Barnes’ effort.

It was a key turning point in the game. Not only because it kept the score at 1-0, but because it seemed to signal the moment when Brighton lost a big chunk of belief, as if they felt in their hearts that it was just going to be “one of those nights”. Sure, Brighton had loads of possession still, and probably had the most shots after that, but most seemed to be shots without conviction, as if the strikers themselves didn’t believe they’d score.

Reading were having breakaways, plenty of them, but it wasn’t quite clicking up front, and many good opportunities went begging.

Despite Brighton having the better of things, it was actually Reading who came closest to adding the game’s second goal. A thundering header from Alex Pearce rocked the underside of the crossbar, before somehow bouncing to safety. It would have settled the jangling nerves in the subdued Reading end, not to mention the match, but Reading held out anyway, to the relief of the players and the travelling fans. Now it was a case of trying to get a train back from Falmer Station. With the long snaking queues outside, the away win started to look like the easy part.

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