FGR 0 – Brighton Hove Albion 3
They say it’s the hope that kills. And whether that’s in following Forest Green Rovers or just striving for a nice life free from the menace of seaside sewage, soaring bills and Liz Truss, it’s hard to disagree with this fundamental law of emotional gravity.
But as the hammer of reality repeatedly mushed our peach of expectation on Wednesday night, only a fool would not regret going to the Bolt New Lawn with thin skin.
For most FGR fans, that’s become prerequisite kit; our hide’s certainly a tad thicker since we began the small attempts to climb and not fall headlong from the north face of League One.
After all, on the same grass, barely days ago, we’d absorbed a three-nil laceration at the surgical boots of Plymouth Argyle. But having shrugged that off, an ebullient spirit of abandon hung over the jam-packed terraces for Wednesday night’s encounter. The queue for chips wasn’t too bad, but sufficient arm movement to eat them?
The EFL Carabao cup, currently named after some type of moose, is a mischievous mashup of unlikely partnerships, and therein lies the joy, our fate being that having disorientated League two side Leyton 2-0 in the first game, we now progressed to a date night with a Premier League side at the Bolt New Lawn, the main chant we overlooked for visitors being “Our stadium usually looks much bigger than this”.
But enough about our vulnerability: let’s look this at Brighton’s perspective. Chance selected that the Seagulls were sent to a parochial backwater on top of some far-flung hill to play a bunch of vegan hillbillies. Easy job… unless, of course, they bungle the script and thereby exposed their club’s buoyant reputation to the kind of self-doubt Mancunians feel at the word Brentford. FGR 1, Brighton 0: imagine the shame for these lofty prem-adonnas felled by League One newbies.
And you didn’t have to squint too much in the first half hour to detect a certain level of caution and inertia from their team. They were good, if you like that sort of thing. Their passing accuracy and speed was logical, but style and tempo? Brighton wore blue but their colour scheme was beige. This was probably why the 1,200-plus fans who’d made the effort were not never quite bouncing.
Irrespective of dermatological depth, we bounced anyway. In the South Stand, drummer Jack led a hoarse sit-down, stand-up, shoes-off romp through every chant known to fankind, even celebrating faux goals. We went two down by half time (sadly, real goals) but – and I’m not just saying this for necessary reasons of self-delusion – by then we didn’t care. That barrier was discarded at half time, I should explain, because who needs some silver-plated moose in the crammed trophy cabinet anyway?
However, and this is why football is officially magic and not really a sport, come the second half, any collective sense of determination to enjoy the match, whatever the board said, mutated into something else: sheer pride and raw faith, rooted in the reality of what began to play out, right in front of our noses.
Two nil down, FGR went up a gear. And with several debacles unfolding in Brighton’s goal mouth in the last twenty minutes, Forest Green repeatedly took control of the game. Okay, this was not, fate had it, sufficient control to turn the game around, but enough muscle was flexed to show that this is no underdog team. Brighton came, they scored, but seriously, they emphatically did not conquer. FGR gave us grit, throwing everything at their defence and, amid wave after wave of attack, had luck been a glimpse more behind the final geometry, one goal, perhaps two, were likely. At the whistle, if our players left the field beaten, there was so much in the optics of how they played tonight that leaves a feeling of opportunity beckoning on the League One road ahead.
You might call that hope, but I’m not so sure. Let’s call it performance-indicated probability and sleep on this: the way FGR are adapting to breathe in the rarified air of League One shows purpose and direction.
No one is more frank over what we now need to do than Ian Burchnall and his post-match account cut to the crux: we didn’t quite take the chances that we created. “We weren’t brave enough at nil nil,” he said, but “when we went behind in the game we put our shoulders down and showed what we were capable of”.
FGR is blessed with a breadth of talent and now has a manager who clearly puts heart and soul into his mission. And as the world’s greenest football team seeking to put this sport centre stage in a battle that’s far more than about goals, we have a motive for winning that no other team can harness.
On Saturday then, we go again. Sheffield Wednesday will be yet another cold water baptism and I’m packing a snorkel. But if you find hope faltering, try faith. We have reason for that in buckets.