Aston Villa Away – The Final Curtain

Not a game I was expecting to go to. With not quite enough points in the first round of ticket sales and Villa keeping allocations to a minimum (despite a whole closed tier opposite us) we had settled for the beam back. That was until my very good friend came through with tickets via a sponsor and the waiting list. Only a few days notice but enough to round up a crew, car and driver. The West Upper boys were off to Birmingham.

Early morning banter in the car suggested the mood was upbeat, if not over confident. We made excellent time to Oxford services which was full of a coach load of Brighton fans in similar mood. They also included our mate Danny, a man infamous for having worn a very thin suit to the freezing cold Sheffield Wednesday game. Earlier in the season three of our carload plus Danny had gone on protracted beer sampling mission – aka piss up – for my birthday game at home to Aston Villa. Now we were reunited. That game had finished 1-1. It really should have been a sign.

We weren’t doing omens in the car though. We were far too busy trying to follow a silent sat nav round spaghetti junction. Eventually, though, we found our pre-booked parking spot, rapidly decided the pubs of Aston were not for us, had a traditional dog burger from a van (undercooked onions, no Michelin star awaits) and got on the concourse almost as soon as it had opened. A minute later some early morning beers were hitting the spot, driver excepted.

Beer had certainly been the order of the day in Birmingham. Many of our mates had stayed over and slowly they arrived looking like it had been a very long night indeed. At first our only companions on the concourse had been those who had taken advantage of clear roads that morning but, as kick off approached, the familiar faces of those who had seen our twenty year rise to the promised land were everywhere.

Could we go one better and clinch the title? We’d needed to win one game in three, not a problem to date in this most excellent of seasons, but we’d certainly fluffed our last two lines. A party-weary side losing to two identically unfortunate goals is one thing but you couldn’t really want for a better chance to seal the deal than Bristol City at home, a struggling side you’d beaten away from home who were all but mathematically safe, at your fortress. Villa away, on the other hand, would be hard.

Villa Park is a magnificent ground. It’s everything I love about football, big, noisy and traditional but with fans very close to the pitch. Upton Park is gone, White Hart Lane going but I hope Villa Park stays for a very long time. We are going to have to get used to playing in big grounds in front of big crowds and, once again, the occasion seemed to overawe us. This may seem a strange thing to say given the atmosphere at the Amex this season has, at times, been febrile with 25-30,000 regularly packed in, but that is OUR big game atmosphere. We had already struggled at St James’s and Elland Road this season and that’s a worry. We shall have nineteen such games next season. Even Bournemouth and Burnley will sell out.

I’m getting slightly ahead of myself but it’s a fact that our first half here was poor. Villa pressed us tight, as they had back in November in Brighton. Our counter to that on this occasion was the long ball over the top. With Baldock back in the side this at least made some sense but with Murray not noted for his pace, Knockaert marked out of it and Murphy seemingly overcome by the event it wasn’t exactly paying dividends either. At the back there were issues too. Not at centre back where Dunk and Tomori were excellent but definitely at full back. Bruno was engaged in a one man battle with half the Villa team. Pocognoli, selected ahead of Bong, had the full on yips. A deep cross from Villa’s left could have been back-headed out or even let go (though he did not know what was behind him). Instead he chested it back across goal, a mistake that ten year olds would be chastised for, and Lansbury, lurking on the six yard box, couldn’t miss with a free header. Incredibly, he did.

Just as bad was to come as a back pass by the same player was criminally under hit, this time Hogan spurning the chance. As moves were made towards a half time beer queue Hogan was taken out by Sidwell, the resulting injury ending his game and the resulting free kick just about repelled. We went in at 0-0 after prolonged injury time but in truth should have been one or two down.

Half time talk centred on “we couldn’t be that bad again, could we?”. And “I hope Hughton’s reading the riot act”. A goal was needed asap, we all agreed.

It was not immediately forthcoming, though we started much brighter. Pocognoli seemed more solid, Knockaert more in the game. Sidwell had been excellent and this continued. Ditto Stockdale. And then, on 64 minutes, the moment that should have won us the title. Baldock released clean through. His tame effort was saved but the pressure exerted by Baker on his back had been unfair. Spot kick. Sending off too. The game changed in a flash. I couldn’t watch but, of course, Murray buried it, the away end went mental, blue smoke on the pitch and the whole team over and going crazy.

Then Elphick – remember him? – hit a tame back pass and Murray latched on to it. Surely this would be 2-0 and game done? No. We somehow contrived to miss, how I do not know. It wasn’t quite action free at the other end, Stockdale producing a magnificent save from a long range Hourihane effort, but Villa were down to ten men and a party was starting in the away end. So what did we do….?

That’s right. We sat back.

Why? Why against ten men with nothing to play for and a home crowd silenced do we offer them a way back in. Nerves? Instruction? It had been the same at QPR but there we held on. Here we did not. A minute to go and heartbreak. A nothing shot from Jack Grealish but Dunk tried to block, unsighting Stockdale. It went straight through him. Quite some noise from Villa Park. Despair from our keeper.

At the end the players were distraught, Stockdale in particular. He should not be but the bloke cares so much and clearly blamed himself. Never mind that he’d kept us in it, that in previous games he’s won us enough points to get promoted in the middle of April, there was no consoling him.  There is no blame at all from this writer. However, from his Twitter today it seems he’s gone.

In a way, though, title aside, this was preparation for next season. A big game in a proper old stadium. I think Chris will have confirmed what he already suspected, that one or two are not up to the step up. In many ways the Premier League started here.

A much more subdued car ride back down the motorway, with special thanks to the back to front in a silver Merc who tried to kill half the M40. “The Portslade Two” returned to The Railway – our Winchester – for a final consolation beer. It will take a zombie apocalypse – or possibly nuclear war – to stop us playing the big boys come August. That is what we should be focussing on. See you at the parade.

 

 

 

 

BBOAH’s Alternative End of Season Awards

Ah, season’s end. The point where hope or despair finally crystallise and you realise there’s nothing more you can do about it until August. Where you can strut about the beach at Ayia Napa in your replica shirt like a peacock or stuff it in to the bottom of your suitcase, never to be seen again. And – of course – where one of your players picks up a lovely new Redifusion Television to recognise their efforts. You young people should Google that and then give thanks you were born in the era of 4K and Kodi sticks.

Anyway, we (ok, me) at BBOAH are no different in wanting to hand out some rewards and brickbats though we (ok, me) have no Redifusion Televisions to give out, let alone a Kodi stick. The winners and losers below will just have to make do with the kudos or shame that comes from knowing that a couple of hundred people have read something vaguely humorous about them. So, without any further ado, let’s go.

Player of the Season

See, here’s where I’m different. Everyone else builds up to this award. I start with it. Get me.

The thing is this may be the only sensible award in the whole piece and the jury (me and The Boy) are very much split. You would think it would be a shoe-in for Knockaert having won the award at both club and Championship level and, indeed, he is The Boy’s PotS of choice. I, on the other hand, am an old pub centre back. Players who tried that sort of fast-feet, drag-back, twisting and turning were shown two pairs of studs and kicked all the way back to the Dog and Duck. Our defence has been outstanding all season – well most of it – and its beating heart is Lewis Dunk.

He’s so much more than that though. He’s a major threat from set pieces, his passing is absolutely outstanding (let me tell you, all that flashy beating players to standing ovations doesn’t happen unless some big lump has won the ball back and given it to you) and he formed, with Duffy, the best centre back pairing in the division. I’m not having this Pontus Jansson nonsense. Leeds didn’t even get in the playoffs.

But, ultimately, the award has to be shared with Knockaert. Yes, I know I’m copping out, or at least compromising, but to not recognise the Albion’s player of the season, the Championship’s player of the season and The Boy’s favourite Albion player ever seems wrong. Fifteen goals, eight assists (http://www.bbc.co.uk/sport/football/teams/brighton-and-hove-albion/top-scorers) several full backs dumped on their arses and more heart and soul than a rugby team on steroids singing the national anthem. Plus he led the celebrations down West Street.

Anthony and Lewis, we salute you.

The Sami Hyppia Award for Alternative Tactical Genius

Goes to Colin Wanker of Cardiff for having his centre forward man-mark Lewis Dunk. Outstanding innovation. Shame it didn’t work. Talking of Cardiff………..

The Mike Bailey Award for Dullest Match of the Season

Goes to Cardiff away.

I don’t get to go to many away games so I pick the ones I do go to carefully, or should that be Caerphilly. Honk. I chose Cardiff because a good mate of mine is a proper Cardiff fan and promised to show us the sights. Indeed, leading up to the game it was a proper day out and no mistake. He had a shit on the English side of the bridge and me on the Welsh. We walked it to a pub at 10.50 in the morning and it was rammed, not a table to be had. I got a breakfast and a pint for less than I tip the dustmen at Christmas. We saw some superheros and we survived a bar where everyone had a shaved head and had been in the Soul Crew. Except me – I just had the shaved head.

A huge amount of beer was taken which was just as well as literally nothing happened in the game. It had 0-0 written all over it after 5 minutes. Three pigeons that had taken roost on top of the grandstand died of actual boredom. Substitutes warmed up because it was colder than Theresa May’s heart and because they’d have dozed off otherwise. Stockdale nearly got frostbite. The share price of the company that makes their goalnets dived by fifteen percent.

In those circumstances the only thing you can do is sing and jump around like a looney, and the Brighton fans did for 90 minutes, so much so that Chris Hughton came over to acknowledge us afterwards. Or he might have been apologising.

The thing is, though, that it was another fantastic day in a whole season of them, and much more typically Brighton. A good session ruined by 90 minutes of football is my default setting. Great friendships were also made that day. And that’s what it’s ultimately all about, isn’t it?

The “You’re Not Quite Your Mentor Are You” Award for Getting English Football Wrong

Goes, of course, to David Wagner.

People like Klopp. Hell, I love Klopp. There may even be Man United fans who like him. He’s funny and smart in a slightly scruffy way and has the air that he’s just jumped off the terraces. His teams play attractive football. Journalists dine off his soundbites for weeks. And he GETS English football.

His protegee, David Wagner, on the other hand has held a one man pitch invasion, had a fight with Gary Monk and got the whole “intimidating a team in to bottling promotion” so wrong that his quotes will still be fed back to him with a sliver of German mustard and lashings of schadenfreude in July.

Game of the Season

Here’s where I really struggle. How can I pick ONE? And – it might not even have happened yet!

So here’s my shortlist. Norwich at home, Sheffield Wednesday at home, Fulham away, Wigan at home, Brentford away. What to choose, what to choose. A thrashing, an astonishing, against the odds, victory, an unlikely comeback win, the day we won promotion or a last minute equalizer with Tony Bloom going spare at the front of the terraces?

I honestly can’t pick. If ever there was a collection of games that summed up the perfect season then this is them. Goals galore, totally unreal penalty saves, last minute drama, mental celebration scenes and hilarity levels off the scale. How do you choose? These, quite simply, were the games that framed the season for me. You can stick your easy wins over Derby or Reading or your hard fought three points at Barnsley. Football is all about those fleeting moments where you’re lost in utter rapture or where you’re toying with a supposedly good opponent who are making Mark Farrington and Richard Tiltman look like football geniuses, to the extent that you can’t stop laughing. Those games delivered it in spades.

But, if we win the title with a last minute winner at Villa off Stockdale’s arse as he’s come up for a corner kick? Well, frankly, I might not cope.

The Frank Spencer Award for Comedy Gold

Honourable mentions again to the Norwich games, both for their defence at the Amex and Stockdales total lack of luck, and phlegmatic acceptance of same, at their place but there is only one winner here; Leeds.

Thank you Leeds. Let’s just remind ourselves of that moment at Elland Road where Liam Bridcutt stated, without any irony, that they were on for the automatics. Twitter was full of predictions that they’d do the same, at our expense, because “Brighton bottle it”. At this point the current chairman of the irony club has just sold his gaffe and moved lock, stock and barrel to West Yorkshire.

Not even in the playoffs. Fans across the division joining each other in matey renditions of “Leeds are falling apart”. And, of course, it’s all so damn UNFAIR.

That this MASSIVE club are once again bereft of Premier League football is a crime against everything the game’s about. After all, having huge attendences (four times a season), selling out away ends all over the land (never mind how close your opponents are or that you have a large London supporters club because lots of people love Leeds so much that they left it the second they could), and having every game moved by Sky (oh, wait, no, that’s us) should be enough. Forty Six games of football and keeping your nerve under pressure shouldn’t even enter into it.

I am slightly disappointed though. Only the other day I paid about twelve quid to see Stephen C Grant, Steve North and Atilla make me laugh. I could have spent the night on the #lufc hashtag and got the same amount of hilarity for free.

The Boy’s Award for Referee of the Season

And finally, it’s the one you’ve all been waiting for. This season has seen several rants, a few marks of minus several million and genuine OUTRAGE at the end of Brentford at home, but there has been nothing – so far – to compete with The Shyster (who we may well get next season, who said this promotion lark was good?).

There have – incredibly – been a couple of positive marks. Such things are almost unheard of. So it is, without further ado, that Chris Kavanagh, who reffed the Derby home game, strolls home with an astonishing 7 out of 10. We shall never see the like again.

Bristol City at Home 2016/17 – Anti Climax

Consider your social life for a minute (so long as it’s not completely tragic which, if you are reading this, I’m sure it’s not). How often does a big night out, months in the planning and looked forward to excitedly on social media and elsewhere, go exactly to plan? Sometimes they do but more often than not the weight of expectation lends the night a stilted angle. Then, another day, you’ll just end up somewhere with your mates totally out of the blue and you’ll end up talking about it for months.  The best parties are the spontaneous ones. And they don’t feature sodding opera singers.

Brighton had decked itself out for a party. The issue was it had already had one. You can bunting the station, streamer the stadium, get a brass band in the pub carpark, dig out the circa 2001 replica shirt from the attic that now makes you look like you’ve been eaten by a deck chair and have all the hooky vendors on street corners that you want, but you’ll never beat the passionate release of three plus decades of hurt, Tony twirling his scarf and the players crowd surfing on trains. In fact, not untypically, just getting a train seemed to be a tall order yesterday. Talking of parties, Southern Trains are the creepy uncle who sits glowering in the corner and tells everyone to sod off at 9.30 in the evening.

So we got to The Swan and so did everyone else except the one person I’d told I would be there. The Sally Anne were playing trumpets in the corner, the beer queue stretched to Bevendean and Del Boy and his mate had sold all the kids vuvuzelas. We lasted a pint.

The ground was slightly better. Smaller queues and staff who’ve had a season’s experience serving now (and are no doubt about to graduate) meant beer plus food plus a chance to chat to a few friends while the boys read their commemorative programmes. Up in the seats flags waited, as did streamers. Pre-match was living up to the hype. There was Bobby. There was Wardy. There was Stuart Storer. There was a tear inducing montage accompanied by joyous flag waving (I have a video of the whole stand joining in apart from Steve’s son who is glued to his mobile phone, I will be saving it for blackmail purposes). There was a big “Alllbion” and another “we’re on out way”. There was Donna Marie. And were we all thinking the same thing? Tremendous voice, but we never win when she turns up. We were saying it openly in our section. And that was as good as it got.

The players may have barely turned up themselves but the same must be said of the fans. Once the flag waving was out of the way we settled in to a soporific state of just expecting the business to happen on the pitch. I’d expected a cauldron of noise, I hardly got a ladle.

The first indication that this was transmitting to the pitch came early on. We’d made a bright enough start without tearing up trees, but were suddenly presented with a gilt edged chance. A high clearance saw two Bristol City players slash at the same ball and lob it to Murray. It was spinning horribly and he was on a slightly wide angle but he had so much more time than he realised. He slashed across the bouncing ball, playing neither shot nor cross to Skalak, arriving late on the back post.

Maybe this was why it was subdued? It feels wrong picking out players in a season that’s been so great but there is no doubt that while the presence of the utterly hatstand Mr Skalak on social media is a delight, his presence at left midfield is less lauded by the Albion faithful. Here he absolutely had one. Slow and ponderous he also completely missed the ball on a couple of occasions and totally lost his head. He was very lucky to stay on the pitch having committed two horrid looking tackles, only the latter of which received a card. He went off at half time but you sensed the momentum was out of us by then.

He was by no means the only below par player. Early on Knocky dumped a Bristol City defender delightfully on his backside to loud cheers but that was about it. You could not fault his effort – you never can – but he had one of those games where the ball just seems to stick under his feet instead of in front of them. Bong was all over the place – something we’ll return to shortly – Kayal looked unfit, Bruno flitted from the sublime to the ridiculous and Hemed and Murray got in each other’s ways. Only Stephens seemed truly on his game.

Their goal was horrible, an object lesson in how not to defend when you play 4-4-2. With just two minutes to close out the first half at 0-0 and regroup, Brownhill cleverly sat between our midfield and defence as Bristol City moved it forward with purpose. He received it, drawing in Bong like a moth to a light. It was quickly played out wide to their right, also drawing in Bong like a moth to a light. Where the covering centre backs were I wasn’t sure. Brownhill sailed unchallenged in to the gap and planted a free header from the resulting cross pass Stockdale. There wasn’t a Brighton player within five yards of him.

March came on at half time for Skalak, a change the whole Amex would have made, but it made little difference. Too often we played it to him standing still. Too often we overhit crosses from deep. Too often we had a lot of ball and little penetration. For this you have to give Bristol City credit. They kept us out, throwing everything at crosses but preventing us exploiting gaps with careful and clever defending. They looked like a team fighting for their lives, as they were, and we looked like a team that had already done a job, had two massive parties and were now thinking about the beach, contract negotiations, and who would be staring against Arsenal and Chelsea.

Stephens apart, our other stand out performer was Stockdale. Towards the end City hit us on the break and the newly arrived Reid went clean through the middle unchallenged. Stockdale produced the save of the match, another one for the highlight reel. Yet these are two players out of contract. Stockdale’s lap of honour mannerisms suggests he won’t be here next season.

A well deserved victory for City then, who stay up. The trophy on hold for us, hopefully for a week and a day only. Surely Chris can get a better performance than this out of them at Villa, who have nothing to play for. A party pooped before the bouncers had let everyone in.

Southern screwed the trains up royally on the way home. We went back from Hove station in separate cabs, waving a glum and sober goodbye. It seemed apt.

 

 

Wigan at Home – The Promised Land

 

This is, in no way a coherent match report. You’ll find those, no doubt, this morning, in all the proper papers, since we now appear to be above the radar. I urge you to read them. Twice.

I took no notes. I have a couple of dodgy photos on my Twitter feed and my memories and that’s it. This is all going to be written from feel.

But what a feeling. Friday was massive enough. The Boy and I watched the Wolves game with growing joy, disbelief and pleasure and then I went out and celebrated it large. Saturday was just one big hangover. Sunday dragged. Monday? I’ve never known a day go slower.

I couldn’t sleep. I got up early to go for a run to sort myself out, logged on to Twitter and found everyone else couldn’t sleep either. An eight mile run along the seafront at seven in the morning in my running top and Albion shorts. A bloke in a blue and white striped shirt walking his dog. Another runner in an old away kit. Flags in the window. Such a massive buzz. A whole long run completed by pacing myself with an earworm of “we’re on our way”.

Finally, after what seemed like a millennium, it was time to go to the pub. Steve and his son met us there. They’ve been with us since I started taking The Boy but today his wife and daughter were coming too for their first games. What a first game.

A diversion here. It was nearly twenty years ago that we played Hereford and stayed in the league. I wasn’t there. I was pacing round the flat that my new girlfriend rented in town, apparently in a totally maniacal fashion. God know how she stuck with me, but she did. As we left, now my wife and The Boy’s mother, she was putting my massive St Georges flag in our bedroom window. It feels like club and person have been on a parrellel journey. Anyway, back to yesterday.

The train to Brighton was quieter than normal, indicating everyone had got an early start. An easy transition to a Falmer service, a slight problem with Steve’s ticket, and we were up. Harvey’s, lager and sweets. No pies though. Pies were out.

Finally up to the seat for the build up and there was another man who’d done the whole journey with me. Mark and his three kids, already in their seats. Mark is the man who rescued my Albion mojo at its lowest and dragged me, kicking and screaming, to Priestfield on more than one occasion, got me involved with the mailing list. The next thing you know we had Withdean season tickets, I was on litter patrol with Paul Whelch (RIP) and wrote an article for Scars and Stripes. Sucked back in. Blue and white blood flowing. Mate, I cannot thank you enough.

Calde had returned for the day and, at 2.45 was being interviewed. Or rather sang at. I think Richard Reynolds got two questions in between the chants. Then the players came on. Deafening noise, me in tears, a bit like someone who takes the X Factor seriously when someone with a decent back story turns out to be able to sing.

The match? It passed almost in a flash. Wigan pressed us high and had a lot of the ball to start with but, for all that, created nothing. They had one corner in the whole first half and no shots on target. We gradually eased them back, finding space and getting plenty of corners. We looked the better side but we needed a goal, and finally it came via that man Murray. Hemed who’d put himself about the whole half forced an error and Murray lashed the ball low in to the net. I can’t adequately describe how mental we went.

Half time took longer than the preceding weekend. Finally we restarted, a cagier game, knowing a second would seal it. It came on 65 minutes from our two wing wizards, Knockaert making the space and March applying the finish. I hugged The Boy. Handshakes all round. We were going to do this.

We don’t make it easy though. We’ve conceded so many goals this season from absence-of-full-back-itis and we caught it again, Wigan finding a whole mile of space down our left and Nick Powell heading in the cross brilliantly. Ten minutes or so to hang on. Nails bitten. I couldn’t watch and spent ten minutes staring at the floor with tears in my eyes. Finally the whistle. On they came.

Hugs and high fives all round the WSU. General whooping. Then I felt an urgent tugging on my sleeve. “Dad, I REALLY want to go on the pitch”. If you knew where we sat you’d know how funny that was.

But it’s a dad’s duty to try and help his son, so we went downstairs and then in to our favourite bar and back out to the stadium and there was just enough room on the blue outer turf and no one stopping us. The players, freshly debagged, were in full voice. As we turned to face them Dunk got the mic. “Let’s go fucking mental” he sang. “What was that?” asked The Boy earnestly.

Steve, who was on reduced alcohol rations (Imagine that) took his wife and their youngest home. I stayed with the two boys. While they flipped bottles in the corner I sought out, yelled at and hugged everyone I knew and some I didn’t. A brief trip to the North Stand to watch the Huddersfield game but they were 1 up at half time and it was time to get small boys home.

A massive sing song on the train and a naughty KFC later we got in to see my Mrs had turned the telly on to SSN and Derby had forced a draw. We were up properly.

I expect I’ll post more over the coming days. I have an important meeting in London this morning so am writing this, annoyingly, on the train. Let’s just say I’ve taken paracetamol.