While Albion’s Second Division Play-Off Final victory against Bristol City will provide a lifetime of memories for the 30,000 Seagulls fans present at the Millennium Stadium, if it wasn’t for the last-gasp heroics of Adam Virgo in the semi-final second leg against Swindon Town, then it would have been another set of Robins flying into Cardiff.
Under Mark McGhee, Albion lost just two of their last 15 Second Division [now League One] games to finish fourth in the table, setting up a double header against a Swindon side that had finished one place and four points behind the Seagulls in the table. Virgo had also played a key role in the run, having returned to the side that January.
“I remember Paul Watson being injured and I played against Barnsley,” he recalls. “I was named man of the match and Mark kept playing me. We ended up with a really settled back line of Ben Roberts [in goal], myself, Butts [Guy Butters], Danny Cullip and Dan Harding and we took great pride in the number of clean sheets we kept going into the play-offs.”
While Albion went into the first leg at the County Ground on the back of three successive wins, the hosts created the better chances – only to succumb to a Richard Carpenter sucker punch 18 minutes from time.
“We got absolutely annihilated in that first game,” Virgs recalls. “Sammy Igoe and Tommy Mooney went close but ‘Chippy’ [Carpenter] – one of the best players I ever played with at Brighton – scored at a really good time. It took a wicked deflection as it went in and we felt that going into the second leg we’d keep a clean sheet and would be okay.”
Nothing, however, could have been further from the truth. While the first leg was played on a boiling hot day, the second leg four days later came under a deluge of torrential rain, and the visitors adapted better to the conditions.
Indeed, Sam Parkin scored with 81 minutes on the clock and Rory Fallon netted in extra-time to send the visiting fans into dreamland, with a place in the final now tantalisingly close.
Try as they might Albion couldn’t find a way through, and as the 120-minute mark passed, it looked as if all hope was lost. There would, however, be one last throw of the dice; Charlie Oatway took a throw, level with the edge of the penalty box, Danny Cullip flicked the ball on and Virgo timed his run to perfection, crashing home a diving header to send the game to penalties and Withdean into raptures.
“If you asked Charlie, Danny and I to recreate that goal, we wouldn’t be able to. We could try it 100 times and Charlie would throw it short, Danny would flick it too high, or I wouldn’t connect properly, but on the night it worked to perfection.
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“I remember creeping over the half-way line and I had Tommy Mooney in front of me. My initial reaction was just to mark him but remember Mark screaming at me to get into the box because time was almost up.
“Danny then got this unbelievable flick-on and I just thought the keeper would come and take the ball and me out in one move. But I got my head to the ball first, a good connection, and although I didn’t see it hit the back of the net, I knew it had gone in.
“It was pandemonium then; Dan’s grabbed me, Butts has jumped on my back, the fans were running on the pitch. The strange thing was, I remember watching the other semi-final the night before on TV with my dad, with Bristol City scoring a late goal, and I actually said to him, ‘Wouldn’t it be amazing if I got a goal like that?’”
Albion had to regain their composure with the game going to penalties, and with his adrenaline reaching fever pitch, Virgo volunteered to take one of the spot kicks.
“I still get nervous watching that penalty because what would have happened if I’d missed? I’m the hero, so why put myself in that situation? As it was, I didn’t get a clean strike and my first thought was, ‘oh no’ but then it’s hit the underside of the bar and gone in. My technique was awful though!”
Roberts saved from Mooney and Andrew Gurney hit the post to send Albion into the final – 4-3 on penalties.
“I remember Sam Parkin winding me up during the game, telling me he was going to Cardiff and would send me a picture. Let’s just say we hounded him with texts when we went there instead. He had the right hump about that!”
As we all know, a solitary Leon Knight penalty six minutes from time at the Millennium booked the club’s place back in the Championship, but that is a story for another day...