BRIGHTON substitute Robbie Reinelt's 62nd- minute goal at Edgar Street on Saturday left Hereford fans utterly desolate as it ended their club's 25-year membership of the Football League and plunged them into the GM Vauxhall Conference.

Both clubs started Saturday's Nationwide League Third Division crunch relegation battle on 46 points. Hereford had to win to escape demotion, but Brighton's better scoring record meant they needed only a draw to leave their rivals with the wooden spoon. For almost an hour from the time teenager Kerry Mayo's own goal put Hereford in front until Reinelt equalised, the majority of the 8,532 crowd 3,300 were Brighton supporters held apprehensive hopes that Hereford could win the day.

The Bulls went desperately close to snatching a second goal but, as in so many home matches this season, they could not put away their scoring chances. Brighton's unpalatable reputation for pitch incursions this season strong rumours circulated that, if Hereford were winning after 70 minutes, there would be a mass invasion meant there was a biggest-ever police presence at Edgar Street.

Consequently, when Scunthorpe referee Neil Barry blew the final whistle, a platoon of riot-clad police, supported by a troop of dogs, marched on to the pitch to station themselves in two ranks along the half-way line.

Their impassive expressions contrasted starkly with those etched on the faces of the opposing teams and their supporters. A mightily relieved Brighton squad acknowledged their ecstatic fans on the Blackfriars terraces; many United supporters stood in unbelieving silence, some in tears.

Others swarmed from the Meadow End on to the pitch, but with no malign intent, just to put comforting arms around United players who slumped dejectedly to the ground deserved commiseration as there could be no complaints about Hereford's commitment, endeavour or courage.

United director of football Graham Turner sprang a pre-match surprise by giving the goalkeeping berth to Andy Debont rather than Trevor Wood, who had figured in 19 successive games since signing from Walsall. Turner explained: ''I decided for this match we needed Andy's bigger, physical presence, especially for set pieces.''

Debont had little to do as the tension-charged, boisterously noisy first half opened and during which the Bulls held a cautious control. Brian McGorry's volley was not far off target. Then United striker Tony Agana fell in a tussle with John Humphrey and was booked for 'diving', a pedantic decision at best. In the 20th minute, however, Agana's persistence paid off. He fought for possession and hammered a shot across the goalmouth where teenager Mayo turned it into his own net before lying stricken on the pitch as the home fans roared in jubilation.

Soon after Agana hit a fierce angled drive into the side netting and a little later was robbed in a decidedly unfair looking challenge by Brighton keeper Mark Ormerod. This time Agana made sure he kept his feet, however, no doubt worried he might again be deemed to have 'dived' and ended up with a red card.

At the other end Hereford's back three of inspirational skipper David Norton, the outstanding Trevor Matthewson and John Brough snuffed out virtually all the Seagulls' counter-attack attempts. After the interval Brighton did become a little more adventurous but there were no alarms for Hereford until the fatal 62nd minute. Debont's poorly-directed clearance went straight to an opponent. Even so, United's defence still had a couple of opportunities to avert danger before Craig Maskell lashed in a shot which Debont pushed on to a post. Reinelt was quickest to the rebound and the Brighton contingent erupted into delirious delight as the substitute fired, what will probably be his most memorable shot, into the net.

Thrown off their stride for a while, the Bulls eventually embarked on some final, desperate charges. Agana's header drifted agonisingly wide of the woodwork and Ormerod made a fine save to turn away a sizzling shot from Bradley Sandeson, having one of his best games for United. Adrian Foster then broke through, only to shoot straight into the arms of the advancing keeper.

In breakways Maskell and Ian Baird each squandered a chance to give Brighton victory. But it was of no matter, the die had been cast. Reinelt's goal was enough to eject United from the Football League.

Hereford: Debont, Norton, Brough, Matthewson, Sandeman, Hargreaves, McGorry, Warner, A. Foster, Agana, Williams. Subs not used: Turner, Pitman, Wood.

Attendance: 8,532.