It was a romantic story, one to dismiss the dreams of a club and a city, but not the one that neutrals wanted. This FA Cup quarter-final set up for Grimsby to make history, to become the first fourth-tier club to reach the quarter-final of the competition.
Instead it was Brighton who advanced, as was always to be the case; 99 times out of 100 anyway: Roberto De Zerbi’s team wrote the latest chapter of their fantastic season to make sure the puns centered around seagulls feasting on fish.
Grimsby, 15he in League Two, he had brought 5,000 fans and many more inflatable Harry Haddocks, his ubiquitous mascot. They had hope because their club had already achieved something unique in the cup, knocking out five teams from the top divisions in a single season, most recently Southampton.
This was a step too far, Brighton too strong as they advanced to only the third cup semi-final in their history. Tensions of how the club was “going to Wem-ber-law” filled the air as 18-year-old striker Evan Ferguson scored twice to complement Deniz Undav’s opening goal.
Brighton have already done a lot this season, sitting seventh in the Premier League, en route to their best ever finish and score. They want European football for the first time and also a first big trophy. It’s about what they can do next. Could they do better than in the 1983 FA Cup Final when they lost to Manchester United after a replay?
Brighton pulled clear towards the end, their superior fitness playing a part, and additional goals from Solly March and Kaoru Mitoma gave the final score the shine it deserved.
For Grimsby, it was a big payday, but that was minimal concern for the 5,000 fans who made the 473-mile round trip to and from north-east Lincolnshire. It was all about making memories and staying as a united community, the best of days, and of course another chance to brandish those Harry Haddocks. They first moved en masse before kickoff while Sweet Caroline was playing. English? Eccentric? No…
The Harry Haddocks date back to Grimsby’s fifth round tie against Wimbledon in 1989, but the club’s history with the competition runs deeper. Surprisingly, they were chasing a third semi-final appearance, after those in 1936 and 1939.
No one gave them a sentence. Brighton are a much bigger fish than Southampton these days and, if their line-up was impressive (De Zerbi didn’t have to rest anyone with the international break just around the corner), so was their start, Undav he opened the scoring six minutes after goalkeeper Maxime. Crocombe could only save a shot from Moisés Caicedo from the edge of the area.
In the stands, baseball cap pulled low, De Zerbi showed no emotion. He was handed a touchline ban after his fourth yellow card of the season in Wednesday’s home win over Crystal Palace.
Grimsby’s journey to this point had been amazing. No matter what scalp they had taken in this dream run for the cup, they weren’t even a Football League club last season. They earned promotion via the National League playoffs after a sixth-place finish.
Paul Hurst set up with five at the back and four in midfield. The Grimsby manager knew what the order of the day would be, especially with Pascal Gross moving from right back when Brighton had the ball (which was often) to auxiliary midfielder or even inside or outside right, sometimes coinciding with March. .
After the early concession, it was a triumph for Grimsby to go to half-time at 1-0. Scarcely had they crossed halfway, their supporters’ pulses only quickened when Lewis Dunk nearly missed a long-range back pass with Robert Sanchez off his line. But Hurst’s team was disciplined in its form and didn’t let many opportunities slip by.
Gross spun and rose just outside the target of a throwback from Mitoma in the 42nd minute. Before that, from a Gross cross, Mitoma had stretched out at the far post only to have the necessary contact elude him. The gate was open. Undav also made a beeline for Crocombe.
The one-way traffic continued in the second half, only this time Brighton were incisive and clinical. Ferguson’s first was extremely neat. He pulled a chipped pass from Alexis Mac Allister before taking another good touch and spike, while his second was good too, a great run and spike after a bunt from Undav.
Brighton could have had many more. Undav finished off high after a cross from March deflected and hit the far post; Mitoma rolled past the far post; Ferguson was removed after being called offside; Adam Webster hit the post and Mitoma again led wide.
Grimsby just wanted a moment to make their way in front of goal, but failed to do so, despite the best efforts of substitute John McAtee. Sánchez derailed him from point-blank range and also saw the goalkeeper deflect his deflected shot.