SUNDERLAND'S first trip to the seaside this season saw the Seagulls make a big mess of their automatic promotion hopes.

On their first half performance alone Sunderland fans could have been forgiven for thinking their side had packed their swimwear, buckets and spades instead of their football boots.

It wasn't that the Black Cats played badly, they just never got out of first gear.

Before you could say 'Kiss Me Quick', Sunderland found themselves two down before the break, despite the home side being down to ten men.

The Black Cats improved after the break, when manager Mick McCarthy shuffled his pack from a 4-4-2 to 4-3-3, sacrificing the industry of Jeff Whitley and Dean Whitehead for the flair of Sean Thornton and the height of Chris Brown.

But despite Julio Arca pulling a goal back nine minutes from time, the Wearsiders could not breach Brighton's stubborn rearguard, and now find themselves trailing second-placed Wigan by three points after their 3-0 home victory over Leeds.

When Sunderland did get past the Brighton back four they found debutant goalkeeper Rami Shaaban performing heroics and the post acting as the 11th man.

But don't take anything away from the Seagulls' performance.

They made a mockery of their lowly league position and thoroughly deserved their victory.

They were snapping at the heels of the visiting high-fliers like a pack of starving sea birds from the first whistle. To record their first in four league games with ten men for the last hour spoke volumes for the spirit of a side with a bleak future.

In July it will be ten years since Brighton last played at their former stadium, the Goldstone Ground, which was sold to property developers. They've since been forced to play at the Withdean Stadium, an athletics venue which is a poor man's version of Gateshead Stadium, and all that after a spell ground-sharing with Gillingham.

McCarthy blasted his side's marking as 'unforgivable' in the lead up to the second goal, and admitted had they not conceded just before the break they would have been in with a shout.

"The game wasn't going anywhere until we lost the ball and they get a deflected goal,'' he said. "That was disappointing, but it's the second goal which killed us when we weren't marking from a corner kick.

"The sending-off should have worked in our favour. Had we come off 1-0 at half time instead of giving a stupid goal away from not marking, which is unforgivable, it could have been a different story."

Despite his disappointment, McCarthy was magnanimous in defeat and hailed the efforts of his opponents.

"They were very committed. More so than us in both boxes to be honest, because McCammon scored with a header unmarked and we didn't.

"We had enough crosses but perhaps we didn't have enough shots. We had lots of play and they tried hard to stop us but it is disappointing to have lost.

"We have to give the other side credit but the biggest disappointment is giving away two goals. You know what it is like against ten men. I think they were very committed from the start and that's probably why they went down to ten because of the two challenges and that was perhaps indicative of their team, but they earned the points.

"We lacked a bit of quality and they chased and pressured us into not playing our normal football in the first half.

"I've no qualms about the effort the players have put in, but we've never shown our usual quality.

"I know Wigan have won and we can't do anything about it but win our next two home games."

There was no sign of the storm brewing on the south coast when Julio Arca's shot flashed across Shaaban's goal inside the third minute. But the competitive side were certainly exerting their home advantage soon afterwards.

With George McCartney tracking his man inside the box, Seagulls' full back Paul Reid was allowed acres of space to whip in a dangerous cross.

Steve Caldwell managed to make a clearing header but unfortunately it found Richard Carpenter on the edge of the area and he hammered the first nail in the Black Cats' coffin.

Despite Adam Virgo seeing red for two over-zealous challenges three minutes later, the home side looked the more likely team to score.

That they did four minutes before the break came as no surprise. With skipper Gary Breen rooted to the spot, Mark McCammon rose to head home Leon Knight's corner.

Sunderland dominated after the break and Arca pulled a goal back nine minutes from time with a splendid strike from 20 yards.

Thornton hit a post, Stephen Wright had a header saved from close range and Arca had earlier stung the palms of the former Arsenal goalkeeper.

But the Seagulls doggedly hung on to claim three crucial Championship survival points, and the Black Cats can only reflect on missing out on another opportunity to put pressure on the top two.

Result: Brighton and Hove Albion 2 Sunderland 1.

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