THIS was a game that defied the atrocious conditions, a clash between two of the best footballing sides in the Championship.
In the end, a controversial penalty aside and one that Oscar Garcia’s Brighton will question for some time, Cherries will consider themselves unlucky to have departed the Amex Stadium with only a single point.
In the second half, they were the better team. They hustled and pressed Brighton, counter attacking and playing with a confidence and certainty that had come from two successive wins on the road and a productive festive period that has now yielded eight points from 12.
Like the trips to Reading and Sheffield Wednesday, this was so nearly a perfect away performance.
At half-time, it had looked as if Cherries would have to weather a storm fiercer than the wind and rain that swirled around the Amex.
Brighton fin-ished the first half looking as if an equaliser, and possibly more, was on the cards.
But the longer the game went on, the more comfortable Cherries looked defending their lead. They did struggle to hold on to possession at times, which can often come back to bite against a side boasting the same kind of intricacy and footballing principles.
But Brighton failed to take advantage of Cherries’ little mistakes and, but for a 10-minute period at the start of the second half, it looked for all the world as if the visitors would aquaplane back on to the A27 with all three points.
After Andrew Crofts had seen his early shot spooned on to the post by Cherries keeper Lee Camp, the half-time debate revolved around a highly-contentious opening goal.
In the 14th minute, Marc Pugh went to ground inside the penalty area under a robust challenge from Inigo Calderon.
Calderon looked to have won the ball, before Pugh hit the deck as the Spaniard slid along the wet turf in front of him.
But referee Simon Hooper pointed to the spot as the boos rang out from the home supporters.
Lewis Grabban stepped up and made it 1-0, sending Tomasz Kuszczak the wrong way.
It was Grabban’s 10th goal of the season.
Three minutes later, as rage in the stands continued, Leo Ulloa’s shot was beaten away by Camp – the second of several key saves from the Cherries goalkeeper, whose loan spell has now expired. The club should push the boat out to sign him.
Rohan Ince fired wide moments later, before Camp was on hand to dive at full stretch to his left and deny Kazenga LuaLua. It was a wonderful stop.
Midway through the half, the Brighton players appealed for a penalty of their own but Ulloa appeared to have made a meal of the challenge. After Pugh had blazed wide from distance, Andrew Surman went down under a tackle from Liam Bridcutt, but referee Hooper also waved away those pleas for a spot kick.
Harry Arter, back in the starting line-up having missed Sunday’s 1-1 draw at home to Ipswich due to a one-match suspension, entered the referee’s notebook for a silly challenge on Bridcutt after 31 minutes.
Boss Eddie Howe turned away and shook his head over what was a crazy sliding tackle in poor conditions.
Arter’s disciplinary record continues to blight him.
As the half drew to a close, Camp raced off his line to smother another Ulloa chance.
The match officials were led into the sanctuary of the players’ tunnel by a fearsome chorus of boos before being welcomed back on to the playing surface by more of the same at the start of the second half.
Cherries fashioned the first chance but Grabban was denied by Kuszczak, while on 56 minutes, LuaLua sparked some positive life into a frustrated home crowd when his stunning 25-yard curler thumped against the crossbar. Camp, for the first time, was well beaten.
As the atmosphere crackled in the rain, Matt Ritchie’s own long-range effort failed to trouble Kuszczak. Adam El-Abd then joined Arter in Hooper’s notebook after a cynical foul on Charlie Daniels, who had looked to bomb towards the Brighton penalty area.
Ritchie was replaced by Ryan Fraser, whose 74th-minute shot through a crowd of players was easily gathered by Kuszczak, before Camp bettered his opposite number’s effort when his hand denied substitute Ashley Barnes a header inside the six-yard box following Kemy Agustien’s cross in the 79th minute.
Ten minutes to play and Cherries still seemed perfectly happy in their work.
An Arter shot four minutes from time was pushed away by Kuszczak but Cherries were dealt a blow when Stephen Ward nodded home, via the head of Simon Francis, in the 89th minute. Cherries will be disappointed with the goal. They had chances to clear, through both Tommy Elphick and Elliott Ward.
In a frantic spell of stoppage time, Barnes’s looping header hit the bar, before Daniels ran the length of the pitch, only to shoot straight at Kuszczak. Calderon skewed his own shot horribly wide at the other end.
Completing a superb individual performance, Camp made yet another point-blank save moments before the final whistle.
The draw was a fair result given the controversial nature of Cherries’ penalty. There should be minimal disappointment with a point here – despite leading with a minute to go.
Looking at the bigger picture, Cherries marked the dawn of the new year by proving they have grown into a Championship side. They now look comfortable in this division after the ups and downs of the first half of the season.
Their aim between now and the beginning of May will be to really make it feel like home.
Brighton: (4-1-4-1) Kuszczak; Calderon, Upson, El-Abd, S Ward; Ince; Lopez (Barnes, 71), Crofts (Agustien, 64), Bridcutt, LuaLua (Orlandi, 85); Ulloa.
Unused subs: Andrews, Dunk, Chicksen, Brezovan (g/k).
Booked: El-Abd, Bridcutt.
Cherries: (4-1-4-1) Camp 8*; Francis 7.5, Elphick 7.5, E Ward 7.5, Daniels 7.5; O’Kane 7.5; Ritchie 7 (Fraser, 70), Surman 7, Arter 7, Pugh 7; Grabban 7.5 (Pitman, 82).
Unused subs: Harte, MacDonald, Addison, Rantie, Allsop (g/k).
Referee: Simon Hooper (Wiltshire).
STAR MAN – LEE CAMP
The chances of Lee Camp signing a permanent deal at Dean Court appear to be slimming. On this performance, it would be worth the club sitting down with Camp and trying again to tie him to a contract.
This was his best performance in a Cherries shirt and he was key to Eddie Howe’s men leaving the Amex with a point.
In a game where the hosts created the better chances, Camp was the difference.
He was twice assisted by the woodwork when seemingly well beaten, but was brave when needed and made a terrific first-half save to deny Kazenga LuaLua. Sign him up.