Brighton & Hove Albion’s dreams of automatic promotion were scuppered in controversial circumstances at the Riverside.
- Cristhian Stuani gave Middlesbrough the lead
- Dale Stephens equalised for Albion
- Albion ended the match with 10 men after Stephens was sent off
- Brighton now face Sheffield Wednesday in the play-offs
With the Seagulls having got themselves back in the game thanks to a Dale Stephens 55th minute equaliser, the Albion midfielder was shown a straight red for a challenge on Gaston Ramirez soon afterwards.
Referee Mike Dean initially brandished a yellow card, before changing it to red on what looked like an instruction from his assistant.
It made what was a difficult task even harder, with Albion needing all three points to secure promotion, but they performed heroically in the face of such adversity.
In a powderkeg atmosphere at the Riverside, it was always going to be an afternoon of high drama – and the game started at breakneck speed with both sides looking to attack at every opportunity, albeit Albion with, of course, the greater need.
The visitors created their first real opening on 14 minutes when Beram Kayal was fouled 30 yards out and from the resulting free-kick ,a Stephens pile-driver was deflected wide.
Albion maintained their attacking momentum and Connor Goldson was inches away from connecting with a teasing Anthony Knockaert cross.
However, it was Boro who broke the deadlock on 19 minutes, when a deep Ramirez free-kick from the right was met at the far post by David Nugent and Cristhian Stuani was on hand to stab home.
No team in 43 games had scored more than a goal against Boro at the Riverside and that was the task now facing the Albion.
Stuani could have made it two soon afterwards, when he met Albert Adomah’s cross on the volley but Albion escaped thanks to a heroic block by Goldson.
The young centre-back almost turned hero to villain when he misplaced a header back towards David Stockdale, but Ramirez could only lift the loose ball onto the roof of the Albion net.
Another slip also let in Adomah, but a poor ball across the face of goal was cleared by Liam Rosenior. Adam Clayton then tried his luck from distance, while Stuani also fluffed his lines.
The Seagulls managed to ride out the storm, but when they did break forward, the quality of their final ball was lacking – and a dragged effort wide on the stroke of half-time by Knockaert was indicative of the side’s attacking fortune in the opening 45 minutes.
Chris Hughton replaced Sam Baldock with James Wilson at the break and Albion had the first opportunity of the second half when Tomer Hemed glanced a header wide from Knockaert’s free-kick.
Albion got back on level terms on 55 minutes when another Knockaert deep free-kick from an almost identical position on the right was met at the far post by Stephens and the ball looped across the face of goal, before nestling in the back of the net.
Yet just as Albion had gained the momentum, disaster struck for Stephens three minutes later when he was sent off for the challenge on Ramirez. Deemed dangerous play, the Boro man was stretchered off soon after with what looked like a nasty injury.
Steve Sidwell came into midfield, replacing Murphy, and Albion had the difficult task of pushing for the winning goal, while trying not to get too stretched at the back.
They managed the task admirably and with nine minutes remaining the side went for broke with Kazenga LuaLua replacing skipper Gordon Greer – who returned to the side in the absence of Lewis Dunk.
Try as they might, Albion just couldn’t find the breakthrough required and now the play-offs and a trip to Sheffield Wednesday awaits next Friday.