It would be hard to dream up a better redemption story on a football pitch. After flapping at a stoppage-time cross to gift Newport County of League Two an extraordinary equaliser, the Brighton goalkeeper, Jason Steele, made four fine saves as the Premier League strugglers survived a nailbiting penalty shootout to advance to the fourth round of the FA Cup. Adam Webster, whose own goal paved the way for extra time, scored the decisive spot-kick as Brighton won 4-3 on penalties following Scot Bennett’s miss.
Newport’s form for an upset has been one of the most charismatic stories in recent years and they almost topped the lot when Kevin Ellison powered at goal with only seconds of extra time to play. A day which began with Ellison, who turns 42 next month, winding up the club physio by calling to say he was overcome with “FA Cup fever” ended up with the former Morecambe winger wondering how Lewis Dunk managed to block a thunderous half-volley. The game went into extra time after Newport levelled following Solly March’s strike.
Michael Flynn, the mastermind behind Newport sending Leicester, Leeds and Middlesbrough packing in this competition in recent years, promised Brighton a bobbly pitch and, within three minutes, Dunk was guilty of failing to read the conditions. The captain undercooked a back-pass but Padraig Amond, who finished as the joint top scorer alongside Gabriel Jesus in the 2018-19 FA Cup, fluffed his lines.
A protective dome was erected before and after Dragons lost to Ospreys on this pitch on Saturday to preserve a surface that, in patches, was covered by sand and the groundsman, Jon Raymond, slept on a sofa at the stadium before awaking to tend to the surface in the early hours. Even the Brighton right-back Ben White, whose first taste of senior action was a near-flawless loan spell in the heart of the Newport defence, miskicked wildly after losing his bearings.
Newport have made hay from the Cup, taking Manchester City the distance in the fifth round two years ago and Tottenham to a replay 12 months earlier, and, despite vying for promotion from League Two, the finances of the competition meant they were never going to take this lightly.
For different reasons, Brighton were always going to take the match seriously, despite this being the first of three away trips in six days. Except for handing Steele a rare start in goal, Graham Potter named arguably his strongest available team, with Tariq Lamptey, Danny Welbeck and Adam Lallana absent through injury. It was Steele who was guilty of gifting Newport another golden opportunity before the interval, with Dunk hooking clear acrobatically after the goalkeeper made a mess of a clearance.
Brighton, whose dressing room constituted a marquee behind the away terrace, looked jittery in defence but Tom King, the Newport goalkeeper, had to showcase his smart reflexes when Andi Zeqiri diverted a corner towards the far side of the net. King also saved well to deny Dunk from a powerful header and the Brighton midfielder Yves Bissouma from distance.
King’s save to deny Zeqiri his first Brighton goal was stunning; Dunk swiped at March’s outswinging corner, the ball skidded to an unmarked Zeqiri at the back post and an off-balance King, who had rushed to his left, dashed to his right to make a fantastic stop with his right arm. Zeqiri headed over a White cross approaching the hour but clear-cut chances were limited. Flynn, meanwhile, pleaded for more bodies in the box as Brighton hoovered up another aimless cross.
March popped up with what he thought was the winner, only for Steele to make a mess of a teasing cross and Webster diverted the ball past his own goalkeeper under pressure from Jamie Proctor. Extra time brought another fine King save but his opposite number would eventually prove the hero.