On another day, it could have been so very different. Maybe if the precocious Evan Ferguson had been fit and available, or if David de Gea hadn’t made a full recovery from the brain-eating parasite that was so clearly nibbling away at his frontal lobe in Seville last week, Brighton could have sneaked this one. Perhaps if Deniz Undav hadn’t exhibited a touch like a spacehopper, or if the Doctor of Dribble-nomics Kaoru Mitoma hadn’t forgotten his research, or if Solly March had just managed to keep his penalty a little lower (as in, somewhere beneath the Wembley arch) they could have been preparing themselves for a first FA Cup final in 40 years.
Alas, it was not meant to be. The Seagulls did what they have generally done all season on Sunday afternoon. There were moments in their semi-final against Manchester United in which they played the Red Devils off the park. They had more possession, completed more passes, and while they had the same number of shots as United, they also squandered a number of golden opportunities to test the aforementioned De Gea from promising positions. In short, they looked every inch the lauded and refined outfit that Roberto De Zerbi has guided to a perch of unprecedented loftiness.
You don’t win trophies for style or likeability, though. Albion fans will no doubt reflect on Sunday’s defeat as a moment of smarting regret. To come so close and to lose in such an arbitrarily fickle manner is never any easy thing to absorb emotionally. Those of a more pessimistic persuasion may fear that this was the sort of once in a generation opening that clubs like Brighton either have to seize or rue.
But there is no reason why that has to be the case with this current Seagulls side. Already, theirs has been a slow burn, not a flash in the pan, and it is one that is sustained by a commitment to intelligent recruitment and the fundamental principle that no one person is bigger than the philosophy of the club. This season alone they have lost Yves Bissouma, Marc Cucurella, Leandro Trossard, and of course, Graham Potter. And yet somehow, they look better for it.
Every departure is made up for with a cheap, ideal replacement, and as a consequence, the whole project just keeps rolling along, slowly but surely getting stronger and stronger, apparent setback after apparent setback. They are the footballing equivalent of the Ship of Theseus, or Trigger’s broom.
To watch this marvelous Brighton side is to feel that their time will come eventually. It won’t be this season, and it might not be next, but they have something special at the Amex, and you have to believe that one day soon it will be rewarded - whether that be with a final, or indeed an actual trophy. When all is said and done, the Seagulls are more than capable of beating anybody on their day.
And in the meantime, supporters should take solace from the words of Paul Barber’s own take on Sunday’s defeat. Speaking to the club’s official website, he said: “We’ve always said that progress isn’t made in a straight line upwards. There will be bumps in the road. Our strength and resilience will be tested. Well, today is one of those days. We all need to demonstrate our strength and resilience today, for the rest of this week and the remainder of the season. There’s a lot of football left to play and so much more we can achieve.”
As with most things pertaining to Brighton, he’s spot on.