Four decades later, he remains one of the most famous commentaries of the FA Cup final. “And Smith has to score,” Peter Jones said. But Smith did not score and, in a world of many Smiths, Gordon Smith, who had already scored in the 1983 FA Cup final, is the Smith of “and Smith must score” fame.
And so ended Brighton & Hove Albion 2 Manchester United 2. Fueled by Bryan Robson, United won the replay 4-0. They have won 46 trophies since then. Meanwhile, Brighton have been champions of the second, third and fourth tiers, but have less prestige than winning the Champions League.
So if a rematch from Wembley on Sunday feels particularly evocative to those of enough vintage to remember 1983, a year in which United thus ended a six-season wait for a silver medal, it has broader significance. For Brighton, it is another stage in their remarkable recovery after the traumatic times of the 1990s, when they nearly lost their football league status and were left homeless.
They were also semifinalists in 2019, but now the context has changed. The Albion side then limped to safety, the cup run not enough to keep Chris Hughton’s job. Although they went down in 1983, they were a Gary Bailey save away from winning the FA Cup. And this feels like their best chance in 40 years to secure a first major trophy in their history; potentially, too, his prime for quite some time.
It’s not controversial to call this team, en route to Brighton’s highest ever finish, set comfortably on their top-flight points-goals record, with two wins each against Liverpool and Chelsea and a win at Old Trafford this season, the best in its history. It is also evident that the football landscape has changed since Brighton almost won the FA Cup: three years earlier, second division West Ham had done so; four and five years later, Coventry and Wimbledon upset each other in the final. Now, glory tends to be a private members’ club fiefdom. Most other teams, including Hughton’s Brighton, are excluded.
But this Albion is in a sweet spot. They lack the profile, the trophy case, the oversized budget and the global fame of the superpowers. But, looking at the performances and the players on the pitch, they are one of the best teams in the country: better than Liverpool and Chelsea this season and, in a rare case of league table lying, better than Spurs now. . They have the fifth-most points since the World Cup, the third-most goals and around £80m of Chelsea money when, in manager Roberto de Zerbi and left-back Pervis Estupinan, they seemed to have found improvements in Graham. Potter and Marc Cucurella, who failed at Stamford Bridge.
But there is a feeling that it cannot last; an immediacy that makes this a unique opportunity, the best opportunity in Brighton. They are the market leaders in succession planning, but they will have to be. Your recruiting seems too good for its own good right now. Because surely this group will not stick together.
They are fed by the team’s engine room and few better midfielders than Moises Caicedo and Alexis Mac Allister; Liverpool are eyeing both, United may be and Arsenal submitted a £60m offer for the Ecuadorian in January. If he began to feel that Yves Bissouma would leave Brighton, only to disappear in Antonio Conte’s Tottenham, Caicedo and Mac Allister are once again superior. The temptation is to say that a World Cup winner will not stay in Brighton, although there is no precedent as Albion rarely have World Cup winners. However, the probability is that smart traders will end up with two big wins. And if Brighton’s track record suggests the money will be reinvested wisely, the difficulty will be finding players of their caliber.
The same can be said of the manager. De Zerbi has launched into discussions about virtually every job opening. By taking Potter’s technically adept and tactically versatile team and adding in bite, emotion and goals, he seems to have put himself on the fast track to the top. The Italian has an attacking possession game (Brighton have the third-highest participation of the ball this season) and high-pressure tactics to suggest that the spirit of him is one that virtually every other club wants.
It remains to be seen if others, such as the revelations of Kaoru Mitoma and Evan Ferguson, have proven too good for Brighton’s chances of keeping them long-term. But there is plenty of evidence that the established elite tend to react to the rise of upstart challengers by casting covetous glances and raiding them for their best talent. It is one reason why, more and more, trophies tend to be concentrated among the same few clubs. This was not the case in 1983, when Brighton knocked out defending league champions Liverpool and Manchester City. Now they have knocked out Liverpool and can still have an FA Cup final against City. And, 40 years after Smith, it seems that the group of Caicedo, Mac Allister and De Zerbi has a chance to win something.