West Ham beaten at Brighton as fairytale ending eludes Noble

Brighton & Hove Albion's Danny Welbeck (left) and West Ham United's Declan Rice battle for the ball

Brighton & Hove Albion's Danny Welbeck (left) and West Ham United's Declan Rice battle for the ball - Credit: PA

There was to be no fairytale ending to marvellous Mark Noble’s illustrious West Ham career on a desperately disappointing afternoon against Brighton.

The Hammers skipper’s 550th and final appearance ended in a defeat at the Amex Community Stadium that also denied David Moyes' men last-gasp entry into next season’s Europa League.

Although Michail Antonio gave his side an interval lead with his first-ever West Ham United goal from outside the penalty area, Joël Veltman levelled just four minutes after the break.

And despite seeing Manchester United slipping up at Crystal Palace, the Hammers' Europa League hopes faded and died in the closing stages as Pascal Groß and Danny Welbeck condemned the visitors to a disappointing defeat that means that they still have not beaten Brighton in 10 Premier League encounters between these two sides.

Kicking off in seventh spot and with UEFA Conference League football already assured for next season, the Hammers constantly had their eyes on events at Selhurst Park, knowing a victory on the south coast would secure elevation to Europa League qualification if United - as they ultimately did - failed to win at Palace.

Despite Noble appearing in a matchday squad for the final encounter of that fabulous 550-game career, there was no room for any Sussex sentiment with Moyes naming his captain on the bench as the Scot opted for an unchanged line-up following last Sunday’s thrilling 2-2 draw with consequent champions Manchester City.

Only Billy Bonds (799), Frank Lampard (670), Bobby Moore (647), Trevor Brooking (643) and Alvin Martin (596) have made more outings in claret and blue than Noble and, although the man sitting in sixth spot in the all-time West Ham United appearance charts did not start, he did receive an inscribed salver from former Seagulls and Hammers duo Bobby Zamora and George Parris during the warm-up.

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But that was as far as the charity would go on his final day.

Indeed, despite a lively Hammers start, Brighton created the best of the early chances with Moisés Caicedo forcing Łukasz Fabianski into an early save before Marc Cucurella’s angled thunderbolt was bravely charged down by Vladimír Coufal after the Hammers keeper blocked Solly March’s low cross with his legs to deny the inrushing Welbeck.

Brighton had drawn 1-1 with struggling Leeds United last weekend and, already guaranteed to finish the season with their highest-ever Premier League points tally (51), Graham Potter made just one change to his 10th-placed side as Adam Webster came in for Leandro Trossard.

As the quarter-hour mark arrived, West Ham started to find their footing and, after Tomáš Souček found compatriot Coufal’s tantalising cross just a couple of inches too high, Aaron Cresswell’s angled thunderbolt was blocked on the six-yard line.

The contest may well have been ebbing and flowing from end-to-end but neither side could find any quality with their final ball and that was underlined by Groß, who slashed wide with a speculative 20-yarder on the half-hour mark.

While West Ham were chasing sixth spot and that elusive Europa League upgrade, this certainly had the feel of an end-of-season fixture and that was no more in evidence than when Noble stepped from the dug-out for a jog along the touchline, where he was heartily applauded by the generous, shirt-sleeved Seagulls supporters.

But the biggest cheers of the afternoon, to date, came in quick succession as the Hammers fans saluted Wilfried Zaha’s 37th-minute opener for Palace against United, 50 miles away in south London and, shortly afterwards, the travelling faithful were celebrating a goal of their very own.

On 40 minutes, Antonio collected Coufal’s throw-in towards the edge of the Brighton area and, with Lewis Dunk getting himself into a terrible tangle, having outmuscled his marker, the Hammers striker whipped a 20-yarder beyond the dive of Robert Sánchez and under the sprawling Spaniard’s right-hand angle.

Not only was Antonio’s opener his 13th goal of the season but that 61st strike of his Hammers career was also the first that he has ever scored from outside the area and, with the visitors determined to carry their hard-fought advantage into the break, Souček was then booked for scything through Cucurella.

Potter responded by replacing Yves Bissouma with Neal Maupay for the restart and the substitute gave due notice of Brighton’s renewed attacking intentions when he quickly forced Fabiański into an assured stop.

There was to be no such repeat for the Polish stopper on 50 minutes, though, when left-back Cucurella found Groß on the byline and, with the subsequent cross arriving at the far post, March laid the ball off to Veltman, whose 10-yarder squirmed through Fabiański’s body to bring the Seagulls level.

With parity restored it was anyone’s game as the red-faced Fornals turned an attempted long-range lob over Sánchez into a forlorn pass-back, while Welbeck curled across the face of goal before forcing Fabiański to dive into his studs and Webster also sent a thumping header inches over the top.

Still United trailed at Selhurst and, agonisingly, still the Hammers could not regain their advantage and, with the pacy Tariq Lamptey and Enock Mwepu stepping from the bench to replace March and Caicedo, those Europa League aspirations soon sunk to the bottom of the English Channel.

With 10 minutes remaining an incisive, slick Seagulls move on the Hammers 18-yard line saw Maupay and Lamptey work the ball to Welbeck, who squared to Groß and, holding off Souček’s lunge, the German striker let fly with an 18-yarder that scorched under the flying Fabiański’s right-hand angle to give Brighton the lead.

That was the cue for that man Noble to step from the bench alongside Andriy Yarmolenko and Ben Johnson as Fornals, Manuel Lanzini and Coufal all stood down but, alas, there would be no dream ending to the final moments of a wonderfully, well-crafted Hammers career.

Indeed, the retiring skipper could only watch on as Welbeck powerfully headed home Groß’s stoppage-time corner to cement victory and a ninth-place finish for the Seagulls, while the Hammers –  remaining two places above them – now head into Europe next season, albeit in the Conference League and minus their loyal, long-serving skipper.

Brighton: Sánchez, Veltman, Cucurella, Dunk, Webster, Bissouma (Maupay 46), Caicedo (Mwepu 78), March (Lamptey 74), Groß, Mac Allister, Welbeck. Unused subs: Steele, Lallana, Alzate, Duffy, Offiah, Ferguson.

West Ham United: Fabiański, Coufal (Johnson 80), Cresswell, Dawson, Zouma, Rice, Souček, Fornals (Noble 80), Lanzini (Yarmolenko 80), Bowen, Antonio. Unused subs: Areola, Randolph, Fredericks, Masuaku, Král, Oko-Flex.

Booked: Souček (42), Maupay (83).

Referee: Kevin Friend.