Walsall 1 Albion 3.
ALBION may not be United by name but they are united by nature.
That, above all else, explains why they have walked away with the League One title before Easter.
Of course, you need good players and, of course, some are more influential than others.
But there are no ‘Big Time Charlies’ in the squad assembled so skillfully by Gus Poyet.
Instead an overwhelming sense of the collective has carried them through a memorable season, right through to a crowning 28th win in 42 games at Walsall.
Poyet said: “It’s a team effort. That was what we talked about before the game. Don’t even try for a second to try to be the hero on your own, to do something different now when we are so close to winning the championship.
“It’s not about three or four players or just the ones that score. The key is the defending, the organisation, the desire – the basics of the game.
“We made a decision not to bring in loan players for a month, which gave me the chance to make a team, to make a group, to understand why we do things, to understand what is needed every game.
“People get upset if they are not in the team, that’s football, but there is always a reason. We tell the players the reason, we try to explain why if they don’t understand, we talk to them, we get some feedback so everything is clear.
“There is nothing hidden and there are no lies. That is why the team is so strong and so powerful and why we have maintained that consistency you need to be champions, without any doubt.”
The dignified Elliott Bennett epitomises Albion’s team ethic. He made the first two goals and scored the third, another absolute belter, but deflected questions about his own performance to praise the contribution of team-mates, staff and supporters alike.
To describe Bennett as a winger no longer does sufficient justice to the player he has become under Poyet. His stunning game and title- clincher was struck once again from a central position.
Poyet said: “When I got here Elliott Bennett was seen as a right winger and that was it. I know his qualities, his delivery, his pace, how much he can give you wide but how much he can give you in the middle as well.
“That’s why every now and then I fancy him to play there, because he is unstoppable. He is the best at shooting at the club, he is the best in terms of delivery. That is why he is in charge of set plays.”
No wonder Norwich tried their best to buy Bennett during the January transfer window. His form suffered for a spell following the saga but he is finishing the season on top form once more.
“I am pleased for him,” Poyet said. “It has been a very difficult last four months. Benno put in a lot of effort. For three or four weeks there were too many things going through his head.
“The chairman did a great job of not letting him go. It was quite complicated but he has got his reward. His reward is going into the division where he was going.”
At least for the time being. Albion fans would be well advised to become Cardiff or Reading supporters for the remainder of the campaign. A move to Norwich would be far less attractive for Bennett now if they miss out on promotion to the Premier League.
Poyet said: “There are things you cannot control. Ronaldo left Manchester United when everybody thought he would never leave.
“Of course there are key players we need for next year and without any doubt Benno is one of them.”
Calderon has now joined Paul Watson and Jimmy Langley as Albion’s most prolific full-backs in a season after the Spaniard headed his eighth of the campaign from Bennett’s early corner. In fact make that most prolific out on his own, since Watson and Langley were both penalty-takers.
The Seagulls could have been three up before conceding in soft fashion with just 11 minutes played. Liam Bridcutt sliced a corner skywards, a cluster of defenders stood and watched as Casper Ankergren stayed on his line, and skipper Andy Butler restored flattering parity for relegation-threatened Walsall with a simple header from three yards out.
Murray put Albion back in front with a glancing header at the near post from another Bennett corner two minutes into the restart.
Walsall’s hopes of a second equaliser evaporated when Argentinian substitute Emmanuel Ledesma, a former Albion trialist, was sent-off for jumping into a challenge with Adam El-Abd with both feet.
It is hard enough trying to get the better of Poyet’s side with 11 men, yet alone ten. Bennett produced the perfect finale, advancing to unleash a shot from 20 yards which swerved over keeper James Walker into the roof of the net, his eighth of the season and second in three games.
It was another spectacular strike, close to home territory for the Telford-born former Wolves trainee, to add to his collection in front of the Bennett clan. “I had to get ten tickets,” he said. “My girlfriend came up from Brighton. I had my girlfriend’s dad, my mum, my brother, my uncle.
“To get the championship, I couldn’t have asked for anything more. What a feeling.
“Everyone involved in Brighton deserves this for all the things they have had to go through. Thank God we have made it and we’re champions.”
Bennett and his team-mates celebrated with a fake trophy but their record is for real. An average of four wins every six games emphasises what a phenomenal season it has been for team Albion. Albion (4-1-2-1-2): Ankergren; Calderon, Elphick, El-Abd, Painter; Bridcutt; Sparrow (Noone 64), Dicker; Bennett (Navarro 90); Murray, Barnes (Wood 76). Subs not used: Sandaza, Kishishev, Noone, Dunk, Brezovan.
Goals: Calderon (7), Murray (47), Bennett (90).
Red cards: None.
Yellow cards: None.
Walsall (4-4-2): Walker; Taundry, McDonald (Lancashire 68), Butler, Williams; Cook (Byfield 72), Laird, Gbarssin, Richards (Ledesma 60), Macken, Gray. Subs not used: Westlake, Nicholls, Grigg, Bevan.
Goal: Butler (11).
Red card: Ledesma (79).
Yellow cards: Walker (10) unsporting behaviour, Gbarssin (75) foul.