Albion 2 Huddersfield 3.
GUS Poyet chose his moment to deliver a thumping great big reality check.
The League One title celebrations were still in full swing when Albion’s manager put into context the size of the task facing the club in the Championship at The Amex next season.
Huddersfield, like Southampton before them, inflicted a sobering late defeat on the Seagulls in the final game at Withdean.
Albion could be facing them both again next season and are unlikely to finish above them again, yet alone so far clear of them.
Poyet declared: “I couldn’t say it before but it’s the right time to say it now. The difference between the teams at the top that beat us – Huddersfield and Southampton – is that they have got better individuals, players earning plenty of money and when the game is at key moments they stand up.
“We are the best team in the league by far, which shows what we have achieved is I would say a miracle, from another planet really. It’s very difficult to beat all the bottom teams and only lose to teams at the top.
“We set up a way of playing that probably 19 teams couldn’t cope with and that was the difference. It’s like Tottenham or Aston Villa winning the Premier League.
“The difference between the teams (Albion and Huddersfield) was unbelievable. One team playing one way and being in control of the game, the other doing their bit that they do well and individuals finishing the game.
“Next year is going to be like that a lot, so if we want to be where everybody is talking that we want to be we need to spend money. If not let’s tell everybody the truth.
“The truth is we were champions with the fifth or sixth highest budget, which is like I said a miracle. I think the players deserve more credit than they are getting..
“It should be a non-stop celebration for them because they have done things which are not normal in football. They have played football that should be in another division, played by players with bigger contracts.”
Poyet is making a valid point. There are exceptions, as Albion have proved themselves this season, but the general rule of thumb in modern football is that clubs finish in a position compatible with their spending power.
He added: “I never complain about how much we spend but I didn’t want to say during the season, because it looks unfair on the opposition. The difference between them (Southampton and Huddersfield) and us is amazing in terms of budget and next year, if they both go up, they are going to always be ahead of us. That’s the truth, that’s reality.
“To compete with them directly one to one is complicated. We need to be better in key moments of the game and that is about individuals, because we were better than them in terms of playing football and consistency over 46 games.
“We are going to have a higher budget, no doubt, probably double what we have got now. The problem is the other teams coming up are going to have double as well, and that is the truth the reality, facts.
“If I am going to sign a player that for me is unbelievable, super-expensive, they can go and sign a player who costs double that.
“That’s not my game, my game is winning through the team, playing one kind of football and everyone doing his job.
“It works, because Southampton won here with two free-kicks and Huddersfield won with a mistake and a couple of individual moments.”
The sub-text of Poyet’s remarks is not to force chairman Tony Bloom into wild spending but to dampen the danger of rampant over-expectation about what can be achieved by Albion in their first season in the new stadium.
They are not a Norwich, a club with a fairly recent Premier League past and a well-established 25,000 fan base. They are going into the Championship from loss-making Withdean, where they have been playing in front of crowds of 6-7,000.
A surge in spending power, even with Bloom’s considerable wealth, is not going to transform them overnight. Bookmakers have over-reacted big time in quoting them as low as 4-1 to reach the Premier League next season.
Bloom says the aim is to challenge for a top six finish. Matt Sparrow, who came off the bench to score the second equaliser against Huddersfield, is setting his sights somewhat lower.
The midfielder, with a wealth of Championship nous behind him at Scunthorpe, warned: “It’s going to be a strong league next season. The Championship is a big step up from League One. They are all big, strong, powerful players with plenty of experience.
“A lot of them have played in the Premier League, so it is going to be a huge test for us. Hopefully we can rise to the challenge. The main thing I think is to stay in the Championship and not get relegated straight away.”
That may not be what fans want to hear but next season Albion will be facing week in and week out strikers of Ben Afobe’s quality.
The livewire 18-year-old on loan from Arsenal scored Huddersfield’s first two goals and set up their last-minute winner for substitute Daniel Ward.
Afobe was given a helping hand. He turned Gordon Greer too easily to give the visitors an early lead from Gary Naysmith’s free-kick and pounced when Inigo Calderon chested the ball into his path, instead of back to Peter Brezovan, to restore the Yorkshiremen’s advantage just past the hour.
Albion were the better side throughout and certainly should not have lost. They looked like winning once Ashley Barnes equalised straight after the break.
Barnes, latching onto Elliott Bennett’s pass in-between two defenders, was nudged over in the box by Lee Peltier. His penalty was saved by Ian Bennett – a mindboggling eighth failure from the spot for Albion in 16 attempts – but Barnes nodded in the rebound for his 19th goal of the season.
Poyet’s champions looked like winning again after Sparrow, within four minutes of his introduction, eased away from two opponents to score his first, and last, Withdean goal with an angled drive into the bottom corner.
Huddersfield, desperate for the points to keep alive their slim hopes of overhauling Southampton for the second automatic promotion spot, threw caution to the wind and were rewarded when Afobe teed-up Ward to drill in the decider.
It was not quite the fairytale finish to 12 years at Withdean that Albion wanted but a worthwhile lesson about what lies ahead.
Albion (4-2-1-3): Brezovan; Calderon, Greer, Elphick, Painter; Bridcutt, Dicker; Bennett; Noone (Sparrow 65), Barnes, Wood (Noone 65). Subs not used: Navarro, Poke, Holroyd, Kishishev, Dunk.
Goals: Barnes (47), Sparrow (69).
Red cards: None.
Yellow cards: Noone (26) foul.
Huddersfield (4-3-3): Bennett; Peltier, Clarke, McCombe, Naysmith (Lee 87); Gudjonnson (Rhodes 74), Kilbane, Arfield; Hunt (Ward 54), Afobe, Roberts. Subs not used: Kay, Cadamarteri, Novak, Colgan.
Goals: Afobe (8) and (61), Ward (90).
Red cards: None.
Yellow cards: Arfield (41) foul, Peltier (46) foul, Clarke (58) foul.