Danny Cullip was the first player in blue and white stripes many Albion fans in Cardiff would have glimpsed yesterday.

A giant image of the skipper flashed on to the screens behind either goal at the Millennium Stadium as he waited to lead his men out for the fireworks, formalities and eventually the first whistle.

Very appropriate. After all, Cullip was first to everything on a day when his team's steely defence and, in Leon Knight, sharp eye for the main chance brought them a third promotion in four seasons.

Cullip has been at the forefront of all those successes, with his ability as a centre back and his sheer desire to inspire others.

How many times has The Argus featured pictures of him with a grimace on his face and both fists clenched as he attempts to rally the troops in a tough away game.

He even rumbled forward to head the goal which clinched the Third Division title three years ago.

In fact, he has been bossing things ever since Micky Adams brought him from Brentford in the previous season.

You could tell then Adams was pleased with himself. He did not wait to be fired questions about his new man. Instead, he called The Argus at the crack of dawn and volunteered the news himself.

Yesterday, from the moment Cullip shared a presumably nervy pre-game chat with referee Richard Beeby to the moment he was named as man-of-the-match shortly after the final whistle, this was surely his most glorious afternoon.

That is the irony of the play-offs.

In many ways, these games offer more prestige than going up as champions, what with the day out in Cardiff, the build-up and the live television coverage.

The final is a great occasion but one when strong nerves are called for. Albion's nerve held almost without exception.

The skipper set the tone in uncompromising fashion. He hardly allowed City's semi-final match-winner Christian Roberts a kick.

Then, when ex-Seagull Tony Rougier was thrust into a central attacking role after struggling out wide, he was met by two shuddering challenges from his former colleague.

Rougier has surely never had so much attention during his career. City clearly felt he was a prime attacking option wide on the right running at young fullback Dan Harding.

It was a decent theory given the way Rougier's crosses had helped Brentford stun the then table-topping Seagulls 4-0 at Griffin Park earlier this season.

City's fans roared in anticipation and Albion's faithful booed their former favourite whenever the ball went to that touchline. Sky Sports' roving cameraman even followed him across the park at half time but it was Harding who took all the honours in that individual tussle.

With Guy Butters outstanding in the middle and Adam Virgo mixing efficiency with a touch of flair on the right (what about that crossfield ball which released Chris Iwelumo in the second half?), Albion never looked like conceding.

Okay, they were taking it to extremes when ten blue and white shirts were within 35 yards of their own goal as City enjoyed a spell of possession around the hour mark.

But, with two lines of four protecting a keeper high on confidence, there is always the chance of something happening at the other end.

It might had been when Knight hit the bar with his dipping free-kick. Instead it was the little striker's stutter-step and unerring 12-yard finish which sent yesterday's contest into club legend.

The goal was sickeningly late, both for City and Sky, who were allowed precious little time to conjure up those close-up shots of fans in tears which they seem to enjoy so much.

As for the contest, it was never pretty, but plenty of better teams than Albion have won big games this way.

Anyway, what is prettier for the club than 30,000 of their fans celebrating in the sunshine at one of the world's greatest arenas?

When Knight hit the winner, he ran to the corner where substitutes Kerry Mayo, Michel Kuipers and Adam Hinshelwood had just been warming up.

Warming up the crowd that is, gesturing for Albion fans to turn up the volume. It might have been coincidence but the resulting barrage of noise led immediately to the crucial spot-kick.

Mayo, of course, has seen the ups and downs, ever since that day at Hereford in 1997 when the celebrations were as great as yesterday's but the stakes even higher.

He did not get on yesterday but his joy at the result for his home club was clearly unrestrained.

At the end, Albion's players rushed to mob Knight while his namesake Dick, the club chairman, was given a massive cheer when he paraded the play-off cup in front of the one remaining stand from the days of the old Cardiff Arms Park.

That is three promotion-winning managers he has appointed now.

Not bad considering the last one was initially dubbed Mid-Table McGhee by some doubting fans. Mid-table? Captain Cullip and his men might just settle for that next season.

Albion Player Ratings:

Ben Roberts: Kept his seventh clean sheet in eight games which speaks for itself. One fumble in the second half and distribution lacked at times but was never seriously troubled and his handling was generally excellent. Roberts looked like a man in form which gave his defenders confidence. Rating: 7.

Adam Virgo: Got forward well in the first half and showed enough confidence to have an early crack at goal. His passing was good and was not unnerved by a yellow card for a foul on Matthew Hill. Pinned back in the second half but kept Bristol's exciting young midfielder Craig Woodman quiet all afternoon. Rating: 7.

Danny Cullip: Albion's Captain Marvel. Deservedly collected the man-of-the-match award for a towering display in the centre of defence. Bristol's Christian Roberts is a threat to any defence but Cullip and Butters did not give him a sniff of goal for the 90 minutes. Cullip sums up everything about Albion: passion, determination and will to win. Rating: 9 Guy Butters: A rock in the centre of defence alongside Cullip. The performances of Butters and Cullip in the closing weeks of the season have been the key to Albion's promotion. Considering Butters was in the wilderness nine months ago, it has been a marvellous season for the Seagulls' player of the year. Rating: 8 Dan Harding: Bristol's main attacking impetus in the first half came down Albion's left which meant young Harding was stretched. But the fact that Tony Rougier failed to deliver a telling cross from the right summed up the job Harding did. Even the introduction of Murray failed to ruffle the feathers of one of Albion's finds of the season. Rating: 7.

Gary Hart: Looked lively throughout but didn't see enough of the ball in the first half when a lot of Albion's attacking play went through the centre of midfield. Mark McGhee had put his faith in Hart ahead of Paul Reid for the final and the decision was justified by Hart's display. Showed good defensive qualities. Rating: 7.

Charlie Oatway: Pushed Danny Cullip close for the man-of-the- match vote. Oatway was Albion's heartbeat in the first half, running the midfield. His passing was crisp and he tackled like a demon, always first to the second ball. Oatway has his critics but Albion would not be celebrating a third promotion in four years without his contribution. Rating: 8.

Nathan Jones: Looked a real threat when going forward and won the free-kick from which Leon Knight struck the bar. His attacking thrusts were limited, though, as Jones was often forced to double-up on the dangerous Rougier, providing support for Harding. His 77th-minute substitution was no reflection on his contribution to the game. Rating: 7.

Richard Carpenter: Thanks to Carpenter and Oatway, Albion ran the midfield in the first half when the tempo of the game was set. Bristol probably had the most skilful midfielder on the pitch in Doherty but he was kept quiet by Albion's midfield marvels. Tackled and passed well until being forced off by injury after 60 minutes. Rating: 7.

Leon Knight: Albion's matchwinner and deservedly so. Knight has not been in good form lately, having failed to score for five games prior to this match but he looked back to his best, causing Bristol problems. Came in for some rough treatment but shrugged it off and confidently buried the 84th-minute penalty for his 27th goal of the season. Rating: 8.

Chris Iwelumo: Iwelumo looked up for the challenge from the start. While he may not have threatened the Bristol goal, he won a lot of headers, providing his team-mates with plenty of possession. Wasted a good chance in the second half when he had time to home in on goal but, crucially, won the penalty from which Knight scored. Rating: 7.

Paul Reid: Albion did not miss Carpenter when he went off, which speaks volumes for the contribution of the Aussie midfielder. Picked up the tempo of the game straightaway with plenty of tackles and pushed forward at every opportunity to worry the Robins. Rating: 7.

John Peircy: Had little chance to make an impact after being introduced as a 77th minute substitute for Jones but sent over one particularly dangerous cross and tracked back when called upon in the closing stages. Rating: 6.

Subs not used: Kerry Mayo, Adam Hinshelwood Michel Kuipers