Manchester United at Home – Safe

WE ARE STAYING UP, SAY WE ARE STAYING UP!

Once again I expect derision from teachers of creative writing as I give the end away at the start, but let’s face it, you’re not reading this to find out what happened. You’re reading this to relive last night vicariously. Or because I’ve bribed you. One or the other.

And, as with other entries on this blog in the past, those expecting a one hundred percent accurate replay of the action may also look elsewhere. Last night I was far too busy being a fan to take anything but the most very basic of mental notes.

Rarely has a game been set up so well. It’s been an odd season in some respects. One thing about the Premier League is that it means fewer games, and far fewer evening games. Holidays and work commitments have seen our regular gang split up for much of the year as one or other of us has failed to make the game, but last night the gang were reunited. A Friday night game may not have been ideal for United – a late return to Guildford and Essex for some he chortled – but we managed a 7.45 Saturday night up there. I managed to leave work on time, feed The Boy and head to The Swan nice and early for the first outdoor drinking session of 2018 as the sun shone down on us. Was this an omen?

Just over a year ago I remember leaving work similarly early, only it was my London office instead of a work from home, and meeting Steve by the Thames to drink beer in the sunshine. Then off to a game under lights on the television. On that occasion we beat QPR with THAT Pocagnoli free kick and walking down South Africa Road afterwards we knew that we’d got promotion to the big time. Not that we’d actually mathematically done it of course, but the feeling among all our fans was that it was our season. Now we had another televised game under lights and a win would keep us there, while a draw would give us a similar feeling of probable, if not actual mathematical success. Lose and squeaky bum time continued, so it was fitting that we were playing Manchester United whose erstwhile boss coined the phrase in the first place.

The atmosphere in beer garden and concourse can best be described as “convivial” as Brighton fans made the most of their last home game of the season. In so many ways, though we have two games to come, the season was incredibly neatly book-ended, having started off in the sunshine against the blue half of Manchester, and now finishing it in the sunny warmth of a spring evening against the red half. Had I written the script of the season it wouldn’t have been half as hackneyed, though if I’d have written it we’d also have beaten Palace 17-0 at Selhurst.

The atmosphere, when we finally reached the seats, was anticipatory, bordering on febrile. And as the game started, with Albion sporting what I would consider our strongest starting line up, and Hughton’s preferred one, and United looking patched up with Lukaku and Sanchez notably missing, the atmosphere was taken in to overdrive by a fizzling start from our players.

Yes, when we were up for the league game, Old Trafford was very much a library, not bothering to come alive for little old Brighton, but make no mistake, United can be loud away from home. They were not given a chance last night by a North and West Stand combination choir determined to sing their heroes to safety. And heroes they were. Early on Propper and Knockaert, back from recent suspensions, showed just what we’d missed.

There was, though, an early scare. A clumsy tackle just outside our box on United’s left gave them a free kick and a low drive from the corner of the box deflected in to the bottom corner of the net with Ryan totally stranded. Deflected, luckily, via an offside United player who could, in any case, have been construed as interfering with Ryan’s ability to get to the ball. Up went the flag and up went our voices, another level reached in the stands.

That was all the players needed. A let off combined with the ratcheted up noise drove them forwards and though United had fractionally more of the ball, all the dangerous moments were ours. Knockaert twisted turned and sprinted his way past static red shirts. On the other side Izquierdo’s pace bothered them greatly. In the middle Gross was involved in everything while Murray ran his socks off despite getting very little change out of referee Pawson.

At first it was just hints of danger, good runs, long shots, corners. But soon we’d forced not one but two world class saves from De Gea. Murray, the ball dropping perfectly, much as it had with Skalak against QPR a couple of seasons ago, hit a wonderful drive from twenty five yards but it was brilliantly tipped away. Then Izqueirdo did a trade mark cut inside and curling shot which was, again, smartly touched over.  We went in to half time level but with the feeling we’d been better against a distinctly under par United. Surely they couldn’t be that bad again in the second half?

For the first five minutes of it, while we were still returning from whatever it is we do at half time, they were not. The delayed resumption of the delirious atmosphere delayed our players restart. But not for long. The Lukaku-less United simply lacked a fulcrum or any real shape at all, while the much lauded (before he got here) Pogba looked as bang average as an ageing Sunday League player who’s going through the motions after a few pints the night before.

Knockaert again terrified them, dribbling through the whole team but then shooting over with Bruno better placed out wide, but we would not be denied for long. When it came it was singularly the most weird celebration I have ever indulged in. Izquierdo jinked free on our left and put in a cracker of a cross for Gross to head past De Gea, only to see it cleared off the line. As players appealed many around me could not believe it hadn’t gone in and then, all of a sudden, everyone around me and in the North Stand was going mental and the players were running to the corner flag and Mat Ryan was on a typical pitch length sprint. Referee Pawson was pointing to his watch apologetically and United were dejectedly putting the ball on the centre spot. It had gone in by an inch and goal line technology had given it. One nil to the good guys.

After that United pushed us back more, but still we defended stoutly and reduced them to shots from long range that went wide or over or straight at Ryan. Our former loan star Lingard, on to muted applause, wasted their best chance with an awful shot under pressure from Duffy, and suddenly we were in injury time and the whole Amex was joyfully, if prematurely, chanting “WE ARE STAYING UP” (see, I told you). Then the whistle and total bedlam. Barely an early leaver in sight in our stands but the away end was already all but empty. Safety. Ladies and gents, we are doing this again next season whether we like it or not.

The brilliance continued as it so often does. A lap of honour that made the humble Hughton almost uncomfortable was notable for the totally hatstand Schelotto (how I love this guy) carrying Izquierdo round the pitch like a baby before the pair of them tried to make off with the Sky analysis machine and mischievously kicking its tyres. Dunk was magnanimous, Knockaert led the singing (again) and then, a personal highlight, saw Skalak roaming the bar where we drink after games. The Boy got a selfie. I thought he was going to explode with joy. The train home was full of Brighton, some of who had taken liquid refreshment. My personal banter favourite was the guy who announced that royalty had entered our carriage as a dead ringer for Prince Harry turned up, before calling him “William” to the derision of the whole carriage.

Same time and place next season yeah?

(Finally a personal note to say thanks for reading. At the moment I am not able to attend every game or write up some of the ones I have been to so this has been more occasional than I’d like. I have also signed back up for next year’s marathon and started a new running blog to document that journey, since I can write about that when I get time rather than on demand. It’s at https://brightonrunnerwriter.com .

Hopefully next season will see the gang together at as many game as possible and the goings on documented here as always.)

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Arsenal at Home – Superb

 

Football eh? It can be a strange mistress. If you’ve followed Twitter, NSC, the various Facebook groups et al and you know who I am posting you could accuse me of being bi-polar with some validity, and I’m by no means alone. Down in the depths one minute, up in the sky the next. Right now you’re going to have to scrape me off the ceiling.

Actually, that’s a bit of a lie. Right now I’m THAT GUY. The one on the train with his laptop out going tippity-tap when everyone else is trying to sleep. Writing at a time when everyone else is in bed, on board something that is a mode of transport rather than, say, a desk. Sorry bloke next to me. So, let’s get the moans out of the way immediately. I hate Sunday games. They leave me about two minutes free to write the blog, in places where one definitely shouldn’t be writing. “Ah, but you could write it on Sunday night” I hear you say. And, if I wasn’t going to eat my dinner, iron my work shirts, pack my bag and put small people to bed I could. Yesterday though, I did none of those things, bar the eating, as I was too busy being in the pub and watching this magnificent game back in almost totality.

The other moan I have, and let’s get it out of the way quickly, is at those perennial arsehats Southern Rail. One four carriage train every half hour in to Brighton from the Coastway West is nowhere near enough for these big games. I appreciate that extra services may be out of the question due to running the Falmer services but an extra carriage or two wouldn’t go amiss. We just about squeezed on to the delayed 11.40, ex-Portslade, though the crush was actually uncomfortable, not helped by a couple of ladies who point blank refused to move down the carriage when asked, even staring at the crushed masses like we’d shat ourselves in front of The Pope. So yah boo sucks, Southern, yah boo sucks miserable lady. Right, that’s my moan done. Everything else was magnificent.

Off the pitch there was a change, Steve choosing to sit this one out, having been stuck away from his family in Edinburgh all week. In came Josh and his ultra enthusiastic five year old son, in came train cans and a burger from the van. This change of routine would normally have the superstitious part of me chucking a whitey, but, hell, we’d changed everything before the Swansea game and it had worked a treat. And we had a genuine chance here. The talk on the train was that there would never be a better time to play Arsenal, and that seemed to make sense. Demoralised by two defeats to Man City in five days, with fans calling for Wenger’s head, a poor recent away record that included losing to Bournemouth and another game to play on Thursday we had certainly picked our moment. Train opinion was split between us having a real chance and facing a backlash. When faced with actual Arsenal fans in the burger queue we compromised and demurred, stating that a cheeky point would be nice.

That wasn’t Hughton’s team talk. Ok, we took five minutes to settle while the Amex cleared the pie crumbs from its throat and Arsenal tried to enact that backlash. Aubameyang closing the ball down quickly and winning it, Duffy with a magnificent tackle and Murray clearing the resulting corner. Then Dunk tried to extend his personal attempt at a world own goal record, only luckily he missed. But from then on in we were on it. A quick win of the ball by our unchanged team saw Knockaert release Schelotto, the attack ultimately ending in a corner on the East Stand side. The WSU greeted it like a goal. Possibly the rest of the ground did too, I couldn’t see, but what we were all forgetting was that we never score from corners. Gross swung it over anyway to the back stick, Cech flailed, Duffy headed back across and Dunk volleyed home. The Amex exploded in a sea of limbs and blue and white, if such a thing is possible. High fives, hugs, twirling and Dunk leading the celebratory pile back out close to where the corner had been taken from.

One nil up after only six minutes and the life visibly drained from our opponents. Any hint of noise from these most strangely silent supporters gone as the factions began to remonstrate with one another. Wenger back on his seat, barely to emerge, even as he was serenaded with “sacked in the morning”. Players looking at one another suspiciously before fixing their glares on Cech.

And for the next twenty minutes the positions in the table could have been reversed, as far as any neutral was concerned. Brighton playing like a top six side, Arsenal like a team in a relegation battle. We dominated possession and threatened at will (at least the poor chap wasn’t being fired at for a change). We should have scored again, Knockaert and Gross combining with a brilliant back heel and low shot and Gross again almost running in to the ball and dribbling it at Cech when shooting would have been easier. But then suddenly none of that mattered. More lazy play at the back from the Arse saw Koscielny give the ball straight to us, bypassing the disinterested Jack Wheelchair who flitted from the sublime to the ridiculous all game. Our midfield pounced and it was played out to Gross out wide. He’s not really the man to beat full backs for pace but he’s exactly who you’d want to be taking a deep cross with plenty of time. He landed it perfectly on Murray’s head and the ball went through and under the woeful Cech for number two.

Scenes. Absolute scenes.

At that point we were in unchartered territory. I don’t think we’ve ever been two up against a top six side before, certainly not since the 80s, and I’m not sure we knew what to do with it. “Arsene Wenger, we want you to stay” crowed the Albion faithful, joyfully and rightfully bantering Arsenal back to North London. The players knocked it around and strutted like cockerels. And I took some time to admire how magnificently poor Cech was, not only at fault for both goals but distributing the ball like a blind man on LSD. I haven’t seen such a poor keeper since the Withdean days and perhaps even before. Graeme Smith maybe?

Anyhoo, that would all have been great except for the fact that we conceded just before half time. We shouldn’t have, Iwobi put in by poor defending before playing back to Xhaka. A low ball and Aubameyang finished with a cute slice from close in, that Ryan just failed to claw out.

So came our only period of meltdown as we looked, briefly, like a school team under pressure from a professional academy. Schelotto blasted over his own bar and any calmness evaporated as a deflected header hit the post with Ryan stranded. 2-2 would have been massively harsh though and we held out to relief and plaudits.

The second half? Not without incident but it certainly wasn’t the first half. Arsenal came at us a lot more, winning the possession and territory battles but without ever looking like having the precision to undo us again. Ryan made a magnificent stop from a long range shot, but otherwise everything else was straight at him. Of other note was Xhaka getting booked (noteworthy for us because The Boy and I have a private joke that if he’s not been booked by 80 minutes he gets booked for being called Xhaka) and Referee Attwell curiously refusing to send off the already booked Kolasinac for an assault on Schelotto, who had the temerity to get to a 50-50 first and received a shoulder in the chin for his trouble. We all thought he’d gone spark out immediately but he’s made of sterner stuff and, I suspect, he might have carried on, given the choice. He wasn’t and after a lengthy delay Bruno came on in his stead. It’s a good place to discuss the officials though, who got an offside call criminally wrong against us in the first half (though our third “goal” was well off), missed handballs and gave every 50-50 to Arsenal like they felt sorry for them, with the one exception of the throw in where no one on the pitch could decide who it came off and we got to take it as a result of some flag based hokey cokey.

But mostly we held out comfortably. The magnificent Murray held the ball up but was too knackered to capitalise on a couple of breaks. Bellarin came on belatedly but stopped Izquierdo in full flight, the only player on the pitch who could have caught him. Pantomime boos were aimed at the foulers and ref – “same old Arsenal, always cheating” – and seven minutes of added time came up. In the last of those we found the corner and contrived to send it back to Cech who capped a forgettable day by rolling it out short to the shrill of Attwell’s whistle. The Amex went bananas, a noise not unlike when we got promoted, and the Arsenal fans, players and manager licked their respective wounds.

Make no mistake, we’ve arrived now. I suspect Wenger will be gone at the end of the season. I’ve never been more confident that we’ll face his replacement next season. Arsenal look like eleven individuals with an agenda. We look like a team. Knockaert – subbed with a massive strop, but rightly because after the assault on Schelootto he was a red card walking – came back on to embrace all his teammates. Everyone stayed to clap. We drank beer. It was superb.

 

 

Coventry City at Home – Cup Fever

Monday night and things are about to move as far away from Graham Kelly’s velvety ball bag as possible. Two asinine presenters are going about their business, which appears to be patronising their normal viewers in to submission. Outside in a car park there are a lot of people in replica shirts who are about to joyfully shake hands. It’s like a dystopian novel where man-made fibre has taken over the world and started to melt people’s brains. Welcome to the cup fifth round draw.

Who did we want? “Someone shit at home” wrote my running mate Darren on NSC. And so it happened, a League Two side at The Amex. Female Vacuous Presenter announced gleefully that “Hove Albion would play Coventry City” and found a Coventry fan to interview about it. His kid spent the whole time trying to throw up over a cardboard replica.

But Coventry weren’t always shit. Under the less than glorious reign of SISU they have become a League Two team, had to groundshare with Northampton, and seen more and more of their current ground given over to use by a “London” rugby team. Their Number 27, Josh Barrett, looked like he’d been borrowed from said rugby club’s front row instead of Reading. We may complain about the train service but at least we can use it on match days.

Yet this was a club who won the cup in 1987 and for most of my youth were as permanent a fixture in the top flight as Everton. The Boy was born in 2006. In that season Coventry finished 17th in The Championship. We finished 18th in League One. Yet, because if his age, he thinks of them as a little club. It has to be said I have a great deal of sympathy for them. They’ve been through very similar to us.

Not so much sympathy that I didn’t want to beat them in to the dust mind you. Thanks to the way the club sold tickets we were in the North Stand, The Boy for the first time. The sun was shining and we’d been pretty much promised Locadia would start. I had a genuine spring in my step on the ten yard walk to the car, since the Coastway West was shut to trains and Steve’s wife had kindly offered us a lift to Brighton Station.

From there a train to The Amex full of noisy Cov fans on the sauce, determined to enjoy their day out. I paused to buy a pair of blue home shorts to use in next week’s Brighton Half and then we entered the hallowed area of the North Stand, which looked like it had been taken over by a Farmer’s Market. A true eye opener for the WSU regular. These people have a SPECIALIST pastry area. They have artisan looking pizzas. They have tiny beer queues and yet EVERYONE is drinking. I considered asking for a permanent move.

Once out – and kick off was delayed for 15 minutes – the reason for picking the WSU again became obvious. The atmosphere where we were was excellent and I do love watching from an end. It was the default growing up, Goldstone North Stand at home and away “end” away. Only recently have clubs started to shunt the away fans in to a distant corner. Plus, when I played, I was a centre back – I’m used to seeing the ball come towards me. But still the view was not great. Some people standing, some sitting (make your minds up) and the crossbar sort of in the way. And it’s much harder to spot tactical changes and how close players are to the far goal. Which is why I’m blethering away. The game passed by in a pleasant but undiscernible mush of beer, song and pastry.

We did, though, have a lot of changes, but also a very strong side with Locadia and Ulloa starting up front. It took the Dutchman hardly any time at all to make his mark. From a corner he swung the loose ball on to a post, missing out on a debut goal by inches. Then Coventry nearly took the lead from a set piece, hitting the bar. But just 15 minutes in our man had his goal. Knockaert, who’d been wasteful up to then hit a low cross (did he mean it? – couldn’t tell from the NS) and Locadia was first to react, driving home from close range. Ladies and gents, we have us a striker.

He could have had a first half hat trick, air slicing a March cut back and sliding agonisingly wide from another low cross. It was up to Goldson to make the whole place relaxed though, adding a second with a header from a corner and stuffing the ball up his shirt in a manner that suggested his good lady may be expecting.

The game was put to bed with one of those moments that made me glad we’d picked exactly the seats we did. Knocky back to Bruno, an excellent diagonal cross and That Man From Argentina got another goal at The Amex, right in front of us with a trade mark header. A thing of beauty, The Boy loving it. After that we sat back and had the odd break but it was job done, despite a consolation goal from the excellent Clarke-Harris who’s bothered us all game, drilling a loose ball low in to the South goal sparking celebrations that saw a smoke cannister and one of their Neds being led out by stewards the way the bouncers at The Gloucester used to chuck out moshers during a Nirvana record back in the day. Baldock, on for Locadia, hit the angle of bar and post in return and that was that.

My reward, later that evening was a most excellent gig by the man himself Paul Weller. Our reward, as I was sat in the pre-gig bar, was a trip to Man U. Oh well, at least there was no walking female answer to Hello magazine calling us “Hove Albion”.

 

 

West Ham at Home – Magnificent

“Must win game”. Is this an overused phrase? In reality there are only a few and we should know all about them. Cup finals, playoff games and Middlesbrough. We all know what they meant, win or lose. But games in February? Isn’t that a bit hyperbolic? And yet I’m sure at some point in the build up I described West Ham at home as “must win” and I’m sure a few of you did too. With the bottom of the Premier League massively congested and West Ham down there with us, and with a mass of players out injured, this was a genuine six pointer. Wednesday’s game against Saints may have divided the crowd between a point gained or two dropped (for me a point gained, albeit with a frustratingly poor and unambitious performance) but there was no doubt the Amex wanted, expected, demanded a win.

Talking of Wednesday I will never complain about getting to and from the Amex again. Having taken three and a half hours to get to Southampton via Chichester in rush hour traffic and still having to park miles from the ground, here was a return to normality. Nice easy meet up at the station, trains on time, walk to ground from Falmer. A bit crushed perhaps but otherwise all good.

A pint then and a chat. The boys, now familiar with the whole place, getting sweets and a programme and sitting in their favourite spot. All so very normal and routine that it seems mad to remember that without Hereford which was, of course, a must draw none of this may be happening. But it feels like we’re already taking the Amex for granted. In return, yesterday, it staged a beauty for us.

Now. Wednesday had seen us dominate the first fifteen minutes, and in that time we’d missed a sitter after only a couple, and then scored a penalty. After that we’d sat back and invited Southampton back in to it (for my money anyway, but the debate rages on, I appreciate you may not agree). So was scoring early here going to be a good thing or would it lead to a bus parking? We were about to find out anyway, thanks to the best piece of refereeing all season. Stephens picked up a loose ball in midfield and fed Knockaert who was chopped in half by Cresswell. The ref had the whistle to his lips but the loose ball fell to Groß who fed it instantly through to Murray. Play on was the call and Glenn coolly slotted past the keeper to give us an early and deserved lead. After the celebrations had finished I turned to Steve and grinned “eighty three minutes of defending now”. It was meant only half-ironically, but luckily I was to be proven completely wrong.

And the early signs were all about West Ham being there for the taking. Is there a slower and more obviously deficient centre back combination in this league than the one they put out yesterday? Collins looks about eighty bless him. Someone should have nipped on to the pitch and given him a hat, some Sanatogen and a rug. As Creswell picked up a yellow for his challenge (and replays suggested it was quite red-like) I really should have been weighing up how many we’d score.

So while we’re talking refereeing let’s discuss this. Who understands the handball rule better, Roger East or The Complete and Utter Shyster (aka Mike Dean). I say that because exactly the same incident – a shot blocked from point blank with a raised arm – resulted in a free kick against Dunk at Southampton, thanks to Dean, but now did not get us a penalty after good work from Bong on the left, thanks to East. Two identical incidents, one given, one not. Both going against us. Had it been given we’d have had a great chance for two and the game would have been buried. The boy howled, though he habit of marking referees in the minus one millions seems to have gone for now. Besides, East was still in credit for our opener.

So, for a while we sat back and, guess what, West Ham had their only decent passage of the game, culminating in a lovely goal. At this level it doesn’t matter who you are playing, you can never switch off, and there’s always some quality just round the corner. Would Burton or Bolton have scored a goal like this? No way. It was a beauty. Hernandez picking up a loose ball and exchanging two quick one-twos before dribbling in to a gap and driving in to the top corner. One all and we needed to get back on top.

The rest of the half played out evenly. The boy was tense, the North Stand tried, West Ham sang Bubbles and Sack the Board at alternate moments and we went in at 1-1. Half time chatter thought we could win it though, that West Ham were poor, there for the taking and it proved prophetic. It took though, a moment of genius and one that will live with me no matter how old I get. Indeed, when I’m dribbling porridge over a copy of TV Weekly during my bedbath, all but incapable of speech, I will still manage to bore the nurses with the story of Izquierdo’s brilliant goal and celebration.

It started innocuously, the ball scrambled forwards and West Ham putting it out for a corner under pressure from Schelotto, who we decided on last week’s Albion Roar, is a marauder. The ball in was knocked out to the corner of the penalty area where it found Izquierdo. He curled, quite deliberately, an absolute beauty in to what the Boy calls top bins. The. Very. Top. Corner. Then he took off down the length of the Amex wing, ripping off his shirt, before Ryan put his skills as an Aussie to use and rugby tackled him. BUNDLES! We, meanwhile, were going just as potty, though without the ability to do a length of the stadium.

West Ham were vanquished there and then, you could see the heads go down. We, however, were not done. The woeful Collins gave the  ball away to Propper under pressure and he found Groß who turned in to space and fired a wonderful shot in to the corner, in a similar finish to the one Hazard had produced at the same end against Chelsea. And there was more. Groß again having a shot saved with Izquierdo missing the rebound, and March firing over an open goal.

Were we happy? Yes. Did I have TWO beers afterwards? Hell yes. Was The boy grinning from ear to ear? Absolutely. Was it a must win game? Certainly.