Brighton’s class, in the end, eased them past a Stoke who were doughty and little else until a late flurry. The Potters threatened from corners and controlled the ball, moving their visitors around, but lacked the class the Seagulls showed in the sequence that created Evan Ferguson’s winning strike, and which has them in the quarter-final draw.
Brighton have never claimed a major honour in their 122-year history and while Roberto De Zerbi was pleased he cooled any talk of glory. “We deserved to win but our priority is not the FA Cup but to work hard every day in a Brighton shirt. We work hard to make the fans happy,” the manager said. “I understand they want to win the trophy and we also want to win, but to win we need to work.”
Sadly this encounter drew only a sparse crowd, perhaps a reflection of the straitened times. Those attending were still vocal and saw, first up, Tyrese Campbell’s shot repelled by Jason Steele, the visiting goalkeeper.
Brighton tapped the ball about as De Zerbi has them schooled expertly. When not in possession, Ferguson pressed from the front in an XI that had five changes but still featured Alexis Mac Allister and Moisés Caicedo in midfield and Lewis Dunk, on his 400th Brighton appearance, marshalling defence, the captain’s importance shown when foiling a Jacob Brown break by extending a telescopic leg. “We are lucky to have him,” De Zerbi said.
This became the tale of the game for a passage: openings snuffed out before they became clear chances. It was Kaoru Mitoma’s fate when thwarted as he hoped to race in, but the next time he received the ball this changed. Dunk slid a sweetly precise pass inside the home right-back, Dujon Sterling, and the Japanese padded in and turned the ball across: Ferguson, at close range, finished.
This was the 18-year-old Irishman’s fifth of the season and had Brighton firmly in control. A Tariq Lamptey squeeze on Tyrese Campbell, Ferguson’s closing down of Bonham, a dash of tiki-taka between the Brighton rearguard, and a mazy Pascal Gross run all illustrated this.
So at the interval Alex Neil was the less content manager though he did see, before the whistle, Jordan Thompson cause Steele to fly right to prevent the equaliser. His side’s second half began with a mini-bombardment of Brighton but the visitors were always too fast or strong to be breached. Perhaps, then, frustration had Lewis Baker chopping down Caicedo for which he entered Darren Bond’s book. Caicedo drew accusations of “cheat” and when Facundo Buonanotte too tasted turf, the midfielder received the same treatment: cue his supporters, in return, abusing their hosts.
Stoke had disrupted Brighton but, then, Jeremy Sarmiento swivelled and skated upfield, scattering those in stripes. He fed Mitoma but his pass to Gross was heavy and Ki-Jana Hoever tackled. Sarmiento’s following act was to blaze hard and Bonham’s reflexes kept the score the same, before, at the other end, Axel Tuanzebe, on his full debut, spurned a header to equalise.
This seemed as close as Stoke would manage. But, then came their rally towards the end: it proved fruitless but though Danny Welbeck hit a post, his side were given a scare. “We did ourselves proud,” said Neil. He was correct.