DENIS Smith literally jumped for joy at the final whistle after table-topping Sunderland held on gamely to clinch three vital Third Division points.
The Rokermen extended their unbeaten run to 11 matches with a hard-fought 1-0 home success, courtesy of Paul Lemon’s 10th goal of a productive campaign.
But Smith leapt out of the dug-out at the final whistle with sheer relief, after a nerve-shredding match which saw Sunderland lose Gary Owers to a fractured foot 12 minutes into the second half, while Reuben Agboola was forced off by a dead leg nine minutes later.
Brighton, under the management of Barry Lloyd, pushed hard for an equaliser, but Sunderland stood firm to hand the Seagulls only their second defeat in 22 league games.
Smith, delighted to find out that closest rivals Notts County had lost at Bristol City, extending Sunderland’s lead at the top to four points, told the Echo: “It was a game I looked forward to all week. I would settle for winning the rest of our matches 1-0, but I will be a lot older by the end of the season if they’re all like that!”
Sunderland were fired up from the start, eager to atone for a 3-1 defeat at the Goldstone Ground four months earlier, and Brighton were lucky not to concede a third-minute penalty when home striker Marco Gabbiadini struggled to break free of defender Steve Gatting and fell just inside the box.
Gabbiadini was more than a handful for the visitors all afternoon, and he went desperately close with a 42nd-minute drive which thumped against the base of the post, with Eric Gates, getting to the rebound first, firing inches too high with the goal at his mercy.
By that point, Sunderland were already ahead, with Lemon on target in the 32nd minute following a free-kick when visiting skipper Doug Rougvie felled dangerman Gabbiadini as he got on the end of a long clearance from Iain Hesford.
Steve Doyle touched the ball to Gordon Armstrong, whose low drive was charged down by a defender. Owers failed to make a clean contact on the rebound, but Lemon stepped in to beat Keeley wth a left-foot shot went in off the upright.
Brighton were more adventurous on the restart, but Hesford made a fine stop with his feet to deny Kevin Bremner after he was released by Keith Dublin, then Trusson powered a header straight at Hesford.
Gates missed a good chance to double the lead when Keeley could only punch half-clear, with his mis-hit shot stopped on the line.
Hesford turned over John Crumplin’s 25-yarder in fine style as Brighton rallied again, then Crumplin turned saviour for the visitors, clearing off the line after John MacPhail sent a header goalwards from Lemon’s corner.
The loss of Owers and Agboola saw Frank Gray and Keith Bertschin brought on, with Gabbiadini dropping into midfield for the closing stages.
Brighton kept going and had Sunderland on the rack, with MacPhail having to get back to clear off the line after Garry Nelson beat Hesford, who launched himself at the feet of Crumplin a minute later to preserve his clean sheet.
Owers, 19, was gutted by the fracture, saying: “I don’t know how it happened – there was no-one near me at the time. I just seemed to go over on my foot.
“Although I tried to carry on, it was no use. It’s a great pity because I was really enjoying the match and, for the first time in a while, I felt I was playing to my capabalities.”