February 18 ~ Since becoming Brighton manager in November 2009, Gus Poyet has done little wrong in the eyes of Seagulls fans. The nearest they have come to open complaint came when weakened teams were sent out against Woking, then FC United of Manchester in rounds one and two of this season's FA Cup. Each tie went to a replay and in both, Brighton were a few minutes from elimination. The momentum of a team that had steamrollered their way through October was checked, and five league games then passed without a win.
However, since the New Year the Seagulls have returned to form. Impressive Cup wins over Portsmouth – last season's beaten finalists, remember – and away at Watford have boosted confidence not only for this season but for next. Brighton remain clear favourites to win the League One title and, having fended off Championship suitors for some of their table-topping squad in the January transfer window, must be confident of taking their well-coached, entertaining football up to the next level in 2011-12.
Next season will also see them move into the brand new American Express Community Stadium for which the club and fans have waited nearly a decade and a half. The impact of new stadiums can be unpredictable, but this is not an example of a new ground built at the expense of an outdated but much-loved traditional home. The Goldstone is long gone and Withdean utterly inadequate for league football. With a real stadium behind them and the confidence engendered by this season's performances against Championship opposition, Brighton may surprise a few next year.
The only blot on the horizon is an accumulating pile of outstanding fixtures. The postponement of Bournemouth's midweek game averted the possibility that Brighton could be knocked off the top of League One tomorrow for the first time since September 25, but they have still played two games fewer than their south coast rivals. While having games in hand and still being top is obviously not a problem, fixture congestion may start to tell later on.
Nor should the Albion necessarily expect that their Cup commitments will come to an end on Saturday. Stoke away is a tough tie because of the quality of the opposition, the passion of the home support and, also, the mild disappointment many Brighton fans may feel that the draw was not more glamorous, in their first fifth round appearance since 1986. But the Seagulls are playing well enough to believe that the tie could be won, though perhaps not at the first attempt. Indeed, many might see a draw as the most likely result this weekend. Either way, Brighton fans have definitely not seen an end to the season''s excitement. Drew Whitworth