Ulloa leaves it late for Oscar
ALAST-gasp winner from Leonardo Ulloa secured Brighton the Championship’s final play-off place in the most dramatic of circumstances – and boss Oscar Garcia insisted their belief had never wavered.
With Garcia’s Brighton needing nothing but victory from their trip to Nottingham Forest, it looked as though they were going to miss out on sixth spot until an inspired substitution three minutes from time.
The Spanish boss threw on Craig Mackail-Smith, who has endured a nightmare past 13 months with injury and has played less than an hour’s football in that time.
Yet, it was Mackail-Smith’s delivery from the left two minutes into injury time that was headed home by Ulloa to send the 2,000 travelling Brighton fans into ecstasy.
The Seagulls now face third-placed Derby over two legs for a place in the final, and Garcia said: “I know my players and I know they never give up. We kept playing and we got the goal we deserved in the end. It is impossible to score if you don’t believe. I am pleased for Craig because he hasn’t played for a long time, so for him to be involved in the goal is great.
“I didn’t want to know the Reading score in the first half, but in the second half everyone was telling me how they were doing. I couldn’t be more proud of my players.
“They have given me everything right from the start of the season. As a manager, it was the most nervous and tense 90 minutes of my life. Now we have to be prepared and ready for Derby on Thursday.”
The winning goal would have meant a lot to Ulloa, after his miss on six minutes looked to be proving costly. The striker was sent clean through on goal and with only keeper Dorus De Vries to beat, somehow dragged his shot wide.
Matt Derbyshire is a striker in real form at the moment and he made Ulloa pay on 22 minutes with his fifth goal in five games. It was a horror moment for keeper Tomasz Kuszczak, who somehow spilled Derbyshire’s header into his own net.
With Reading losing at that stage, Brighton knew a point would take them into sixth place and they had the ball in the net five minutes later. Inigo Calderon’s ball across the sixyard-box was tapped in by Ulloa but he was offside. Brighton began to dream eight minutes into the second half when Stephen Ward drilled home low and hard to level it.
News filtered through that a point for the visitors would not be enough however and they pushed for the winner. Despite efforts from Calderon and Kazenga LuaLua, it looked as though the winning goal was beyond them until Mackail-Smith’s curling cross was perfect for Ulloa.
Forest caretaker manager Gary Brazil said:“The importance of the game seemed to drain Brighton of their energy a little at the start and I thought we passed the ball around and moved it really well.
“We seemed to give them a leg-up in the second half and allowed them to get back into the game.We had a responsibility to the game and despite the amount of players that we didn’t have available, we were still able to be competitive.
“There should be a lot of optimism going into next season.”
LAST GASP: Leonardo Ulloa celebrates in front of the Brighton fans after making it 2-1 in stoppage time
LEVELLER: Stephen Ward fires home