Watford at Home 2017/18 – Happy Christmas

23rd December, Portslade, 2am. Several adults who should know a lot better by now are attempting to leave an 80s disco together. I’m vaguely trying to issue instructions but I might as well be talking Swedish. It’s possible it is Swedish. No good, it’s like herding cats. The last time a big group of people talked such nonsense there was a referendum a week later.

23rd December, Portslade, 7 am. The children in my house wake me up. All the children. Noisily. Yep, I was going to have to do the Watford game hungover, sleep deprived and ever-so-slightly grumpy. It had better be good, I thought.

Probably the last thing you need in that sort of condition is to get on the train and bump in to the Honey Monster and Luigi from Mario and Luigi but that’s what happened. “Sit next to the Honey Monster” I told The Boy, probably for the first and last time. These were Watford fans in fancy dress, proper fans who’d been around the block a bit with a real injustice complex to go with it. “How many times is Knockaert going to dive?”. “How many players will Watford have sent off today?”. Then they told me they were shit and we’d win easily. I replied it was highly unlikely we’d take any of our chances. It was nearly all so prophetic.

In the stands there was a forced change. Out went Steve with a chest infection. In came Gareth, a man who once tried to play his own game of human dominoes from the top of the West Upper. Changes on the pitch too. Goldson in for the suspended Duffy, Hemed up top. Meanwhile Suttner had beaten Bong at Christmas Top Trumps and got to start at left back. The game started and we charged out of the blocks

So complete was our early dominance that anyone watching who hadn’t seen the rest of our season would have assumed a goal was coming any minute. Groß was finding a lot of space in between their lines. Knockaert, to a chorus of boos from the away end, was seeing a lot of the ball out wide. March was seeing even more of it, though mostly losing it. Goldson made an early mark on his Premier League debut with a crunching tackle and it was he who really should have opened the scoring with a free header from a corner straight at Gomes. Individual mistakes in front of goal were once again costing us. Knockaert twisted and turned and was free to cross in yards of space when he tried to beat his man once again to a howl of frustration from the West Stand. “He’s gonna cry in a minute” sang the Watford fans. We just wanted him to score, knowing the celebration that would follow, but instead, when he got free on his left peg he hit a weak shot straight at the keeper. Half time came. 0-0 despite our domination.

Unlike Burnley, though, we kept up our domination in the second half. In fact we made even better chances – and missed them again (what’s better than a penalty you ask? A free header from 2 yards, Mr Dunk, or a shot from three Mr Hemed). Again March saw a tremendous amount of ball and gave it away a tremendous amount. Just like Knockaert he had a perfect chance to cross but wouldn’t because he forgot his right foot was attached to his body. Yet, in the middle of all this we actually took one of the harder chances. Groß went wide left, cut inside by himself and shot low. Gomes should have saved it but parried it under his body and in. Everyone went bananas. Everyone.

Three minutes added on at the end and everyone was thinking “don’t mess it up” or words to that effect when we did. Ryan – who’d been excellent up till then – dropped a cross and Watford missed from a yard out, proving at least that we weren’t all that special when it came to in front of goal bloopers.

One nil at the end though and it felt like a cup final. All the players (except Izquierdo who’d been given a 30 second cameo) stayed out and soaked up the cheers. And for all the whinging about missed chances we WERE excellent. Groß put in a huge shift, Propper and “Sideways” Stephens broke up the play and Goldson – and just take this in for a moment – in his first Premier League game and his first game back from heart surgery, was fantastic. Duffy may not get the shirt back.

Other observations? Suttner was marvellous and should start going forward. Watford were niggly. Not filthy but bloody annoying, No wonder they get cards. We need a clinical finisher and God only knows how much that will cost at this level. But we’re more than surviving. Half the games (though Watford twice and Chelsea not at all) and we are 12th and on target for the magic 40 points. For a sleep deprived, hungover man this was the best Christmas present of all. Have a good one everyone.

 

 

 

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Burnley at Home 2017/18 – Toothless?

The run of tough games supposedly never ends in the Premier League. A sequence that has recently seen a local derby at home, and us take on Liverpool and Tottenham was punctuated by a trip to Huddersfield, a winnable game on paper but never on grass, and Burnley coming here. Burnley who many see as our model going forwards. Burnley who went down but went straight back up (at our expense, Joey Barton stamp and all) and stayed up. Burnley who recently spent a day in the Champions League places and have been sitting comfortably in the top half all season. Burnley who beat Chelsea at the Bridge. That Burnley.

Many on Twitter and elsewhere still felt this was winnable. The Boy did too. Steve and I weren’t so sure. The general consensus was that it would be tight, maybe a goal in it either way. Goals are not something we do right now, not even from four yards out or from a penalty. Or even in the warm up.

March was returned to the side with Murray up top. Having been nagged constantly by the boys we went to our seats earlier than normal, just in time to see the warming up team enter shooting practice, with March and Murray prominent. I think they hit one on target between them. It would prove to be prophetic.

Before the report I’m going to drift off, prompted by social media discussions last night, in to what constitutes a good game and just how toothless we are. Yes, the title of this blog entry references an NSC thread from last night but with the addition of a question mark. I tweeted at the end about how poor the game had been. I’m still on 140 characters, which are not enough after a beer or two, to explain poor in terms of actual skill and quality. Not action, there was plenty of action yesterday, but both teams conspired to serve up sub-Championship quality and zero goals. That’s the net effect no matter how many times the ball crosses the goal mouth. The referee had a mare too and, I’m sorry to say, the crowd were much quieter than recently. It was like going back three years. IMHO like. I predicted we’d be last on MOTD and, guess what, we were.

And in terms of threat? In terms of threat we created plenty in the first half. So that’s not toothless at all. In fact, after an awkward first fifteen minutes we bossed the rest of the first half to the extent that it was only us really playing. Three decent penalty shouts (one given) and other point blank chances created. I should be ripping the positives out of that. After Huddersfield and Tottenham, here we were back at our fortress, dominating a team and setting up chance after chance after chance. But, just like the warm up, we never looked like taking them. And then there was a second half in which each substitution weakened us, both centre backs committed acts of gross stupidity and only Ryan kept us in the game. Is my glass half full or half empty? I genuinely don’t know. It’s just half.

So, anyway, the action. Burnley swapped ends on us after winning the toss, meaning we were attacking the North Stand first. The first fifteen or so were evenly matched with Burnley winning an early corner, sure to test us, but dealt with more than adequately. Credit to the team for work on this area in the last week. But, as we eased in to the game Burnley were troubled. The front players were closing them down high, Gross in particular with a fantastic work rate. Knockaert and Bruno were in best partnership form, weaving the shapes that trouble defences. Propper and Stephens were breaking play up and, with more time on the ball, using it, even if in Stephens’ case that still means sideways or backwards more often than not. But it paid off.

Both wide players were seeing a lot of the ball and Gross was joining them, interchanging in attacking positions and forcing crosses in. From one such cross by Bruno Murray headed in to Pope’s gloves when it was easier to score.

Then we broke quickly and Stephens, Knockaert and Propper combined. The ball came across the six yard box at, to be fair, a real speed. Knockaert still managed to turn it goalwards but somehow it hit the post rather than the back of the net.

Corners were also being forced and we looked like we’d worked just as hard on attacking set pieces. A near post corner from the left was perfectly met with a Dunk header but Burnley had a man back to head off the line. From another the ball spat out to the right and Duffy chased it down, going down under a challenge with the crowd howling for a penalty. Nothing doing from referee Chris Kavanagh.

But then the moment it looked like we’d get what we deserved. An excellent long ball over the top down the right channel saw Murray on side and controlling the ball perfectly before driving in to the box. He too went down under challenge – arguably a more benign one than Duffy had suffered – and Kavanagh pointed to the spot. Here we go we thought. Murray rarely misses from twelve yards but this was one of those rare moment. The net remained conspicuously absent of bulge, the only people troubled by the penalty being those stood in Row Z of the North Stand.

Still we should have had another and Burnley should have had a red card, Tarkowski’s elbow in to Murray’s ribs unnoticed by Kavanagh. Somehow we went in 0-0 but the only disheartening thing at this stage was the missed penalty. We were massively on top. Surely a goal was coming?

But if ever there was a game that proved you need to take your chances at this level, this was it. Dyche rallied his troops and Burnley got more of the ball and began to hit us on the break. Enter Mat Ryan and a series of outstanding point blank saves that earned him a deserved man of the match. A ping-pong series after a quick break actually ended with Burnley scoring, but from an offside position. One of Burnley’s three ex-Brighton strikers, Chris Wood, was put through on the right but his chip was brilliantly clawed out of the air by Ryan. Our attacks were becoming fewer and fewer but there was still another nearly moment, Knockaert weaving his magic and shooting from an acute angle, which got a deflection and sent the ball agonisingly ahead of Murray’s sliding boot and then agonisingly wide of the post. The subsequent corner came to nowt.

The worrying thing for Brighton fans was our substitutions, each of which weakened the side rather than providing fresh impact. Burnley dealt with Hemed, on for Murray, far better than they had with Murray. Izquierdo came on too late to have an impact. And then there’s Brown. Now, you can imagine it’s not been easy for him. Injured early on, asked to play lone striker at Arsenal of all places, and then used mostly off the bench he still hasn’t settled. Yesterday he looked like a 10 year old who’d never had to make a decision in the top third of the pitch.  Horribly ponderous and about as bothered as Leon Best, every touch said “I wish I’d stayed at Huddersfield”. The nadir was his with Izquierdo haring in to space, and Brown with all the time in the world to find him, the ball was still played behind, slowing the whole move down and forcing a pass wide to Bong who produced a ball of sheer horror quality.

Did I mention that Duffy won’t be playing  next week due to the most blatant and unnecessary hand ball in history? Or that Dunk is now one off suspension because he couldn’t keep his mouth closed?

Should I be more positive? I was reminded today that this is the Premier League after all and, of course, we were never going to find it easy. We’re still 13th. There are a lot of teams in the same points bracket as us. We’re getting 30,000 at home, 3000 away and seeing football from the best league in the world. We’re famous in India. But we’re also missing penalties, missing from four yards out, having our keeper be man of the match every week, getting silly bookings and failing to score or convert winning positions at home against relatively poor sides. As a fan it’s an interesting ride. As a blogger I’m compelled to point out both sides of the story.

Palace at Home – Shambles

Thank Christ. With my loyalty points nowhere near enough for the return, should I be interested, which after last night I’m not, that’s that for another season. Frankly we’ll have to draw them in about the semi-finals of the Cup for me to want to bother with all that again.

Something I’ve heard a couple of times on trains and in the ground, presumably from people who share a season ticket in a group, is ‘the one game I really wanted was Palace’. I can vaguely understand this. Yes, if we beat them then you want to be there, yes the atmosphere is febrile, but everything else is a massive pain in the arse. Last night that included the football.

So bad was it that it’s barely worth discussing, so I won’t for a bit, except to say that if you’re as bad going forwards as Palace are then it’s no wonder you end up cheering as a bunch of repressed Mummy’s Boy teenagers from Reigate, dressed as a cross between a Gothic polar explorer and an 8 year old who’s borrowed his brother’s hoodie, throw rook scarers and snort baking powder. This is as exciting as it gets at Palace right now. Last night we went down to their level.

All day I had the feeling I was dreading the evening, for you live on your nerves in these games. I left early and went straight to the ground, avoiding an incident that was later described to me by a friend as “Brighton fans attacking other Brighton fans that they thought were Palace fans”. I’ve no idea if this was actually true but it sums up the general idiocy that engulfed just about everyone involved last night. Arriving on the concourse I was one of the first, though beaten to it by another couple of people heavily involved in Brighton Fan media and also experienced enough to know it’s best to get there early.

Idiocy you say? Well let’s take the security, just for a minute. As kick off arrived some 150 Palace fans were locked outside, some with tickets according to our club statement, as others had taken their seats, unentitled, unsearched and unsniffed. Such a selfish act I cannot imagine and the hope is very much that those ticket holders locked out have a “little word” with those who took their places over the coming weeks. They certainly should do. This whole thing just served to prove several things that we all knew all along:

  • The game should have been a Sunday lunchtime, not an evening
  • Restricting Palace’s allocation was counter productive
  • The “special train” serves only to inconvenience Brighton fans.

The game? Oh, if I must. Talking to @TimJones15 on Twitter last nigh it was clear that the best phrase to describe the midfield action was “inexplicably gave the ball away”. We inexplicably gave the ball away. Then they did. Then we did again. To me, to you, to me, to you. Chuckle.

Duane Dibley was casting a figure as a hilariously bad panto villain, played out of position by Hodgson and accompanying the equally woeful Benteke in not doing much. Still, the one time they did get it right up front they cut us open and Ryan produced an unbelievably fantastic double save, our best moment of the evening. Where Palace did excel was in closing down the space we operated in, shutting down and crowding midfield. Knocky huffed, puffed, twisted and turned but Murray and Gross didn’t have the pace or guile to get on the end of anything. In the first half Stephens shanked a decent looking left footed second ball in to the scum and in the second Murray’s header was cleared off the line by Hennesey from our 565th corner of the half, each of the previous ones having either been adequately dealt with or kicked out before curling back in.

Sorry, this is short but it’s as much as I want to write about a night to forget. As an advert for the Premier League it was up there with those shit Pearl and Dean cinema ads for the corner shop that sold Razzle.

 

 

 

 

 

Stoke City at Home – The Lee Mason Show

Scene – Lee Mason’s enormous mansion. Lee is watching Homes Under The Hammer in his pants, with his iPhone conveniently by his side. Suddenly it rings.

Lee Mason: Hello?

Mystery Voice: Lee? Lee Mason?

LM: Er, y-y-y-yes, oh God, Jamie, is that you?

MV: I’ve told you never to call me that over an unsecured phone line. Now, anyway, listen and listen good.

LM: Ok, w-w-what’s up?

MV: My bosses have seriously screwed up again. Somehow the idiots have chosen to cover Brighton v Stoke, live, and to make matters worse it’s on a Monday. The audience is likely to literally be two men and a dog. It’s the equivalent of trying to sell Steve Parish face masks in down town Saltdean.

LM: That does sound a bit shit.

MV: It will be. Fortunately, I’ve used my mysteriously persuasive powers on the FA and they’ve appointed you as the ref. Now all I need is something to talk about. A nice controversy, if you get my drift. Something we can recycle over SSN in the morning too would be even better.

LM: O-o-o-or what…….?

MV: Or they get to see that tape of you in the Hartlepool game when you weren’t the centre of attention for 90 minutes, voice overed by “Big Pammy”………

LM: Consider it done…..

Usually conspiracy theories are the preserve of over-herbalised students at a post club “chill out” and orange, chin-smuggling oxygen thieves with a nuclear button at their beck and call, yet so awful was referee Mason’s performance last night that saner men then me were reaching for varieties of the above before even getting on board the hideously inadequate excuse for a “service” that Southern Rail once again served up for the paying (ok, paid in advance via their match ticket) public. Regular readers will have noted the disappearance of The Boy’s Ref Watch. Indeed, regular readers may have notice the disappearance of the blog all together (if you want to stop me writing, play on a Sunday afternoon), but the former is down to the fact that, up to now, the referees at this level have been pretty decent. Yet now, one has taken over the whole report.

It’s a shame because it’s helping to gloss over an inconvenient truth, though Andy Naylor picked up on this on Twitter too. At this level we are good, but perhaps not good enough. Home form, so crucial last season, is ostensibly ok. We’re scoring and we’re not losing. But, we’re also conceding and not winning, and as each draw goes in to the score book, the famous Amex noise levels are decreasing, just a little. It’s a sign of respect that established Premier League sides like Stoke are coming for a draw, yet it’s a sign of frustration that little errors, here and there, are giving them it.

For now we’re winning away, though against basket case teams. I wouldn’t expect this streak to continue on Saturday. But the big league comes up and hits you in many different ways. Playing Man City first and only losing 2-0 almost looks fortunate, Arsenal beat us in second gear, and on Saturday we face Pogba, Lukaku et al. But Stoke City gamed us. They knew Lee Mason was shit and exactly how to play on the edge of the laws, sneaking fouls on the blind side because the baldy porker couldn’t keep up with play. They knew just how much time to waste, just how many fouls to commit, just how many yards to steal, not even respecting the shaving foam lines at a free kick. And when we got frustrated they punished us. Stoke are an established Premier League side. They showed us that we are not.

This is now reading more like a rant than a report, yet it informs everything that went on. But here’s what happened, end to end, like you’re used to.

A filthy Monday night is not the ideal time for going to football, or indeed, doing anything much except sneaking home from work, microwaving an average ready meal and watching something slightly disappointing on Netflix. Commuters will certainly tell you that Monday night is not a time for working railways and a broken rail at Preston Park didn’t disappoint. I left four hours to get to the game from Middlesex and, at one stage at Lewes station, that didn’t seem enough.

Having finally got to the ground and finally found Steve we got a beer and decided that the game would be difficult but winnable. In the seats the rendition of Sussex By The Sea was stirring enough, but the traditional Ring of Fire Mexican scarf twirl thing was cut short by Sky. Therein Mason took centre stage, ably assisted by panto villain Ryan Shawcross.

Not just Mason and Shawcross. One player in red and white was giving a display of creative mastery and that was Shaqiri. For the Albion, unchanged, Propper had a slow start, similar to his Man City match. He was to redeem himself but he nearly played us straight in to trouble early on. At the other end Izquierido was left unfathomably free on the left and did a trademark cut in, his low shot missing the goal by inches, though he should have scored.

We were soon punished for such profligacy, Shaqiri playing an almost impossible through ball to Chupo-Motting who looked marginally offside to the naked eye. Either way Dunk lost sight of both player and ball and the finish was one I could have put away. 0-1.

And then it happened. Murray was released and wriggled ahead of Shawcross in the box, in a race that looked more dad’s race at Sports Day than Usain Bolt. Nevertheless, Shawcross had no chance of catching Murray and blatantly tripped him as he drew back to pull the trigger. A stone-wall, all-day-long penalty. Everyone in the ground could see it except Mason, who’d been too slow to keep up with play, and his assistant who had a perfect view and had, presumably, received a similar pre-match mystery phone call. Shawcross later admitted it was a penalty.

The Amex erupted, and not in a good way. Everything else that happened from then on was informed by that decision. Not only did we not get a penalty, had it been given it was a borderline red card. Now Mason missed an obvious hand ball by them and let Murray off an assault with just a yellow. As the swear words descended from the West Upper only one man was calm, and that was the afore-mentioned Propper. Picking up the ball in midfield he did one of those dribbles you see kids at school doing where they always lose it, only he didn’t. Instead he hoofed it in to space out wide and Stoke stood still. His whipped in low ball was put through the keeper’s legs by Pascal Groß. 1-1. The Amex erupted in a good way.

We should have gone in with that at half time and just needed to survive a corner. To be fair, usually watching corners I’m not too worried, but here I was thinking “don’t mess it up”, something Steve said out loud. Maybe this got in to the heads of our defence because, instead of doing a normal professional job we panicked, screwed up and handed Zouma a gift of a goal. The choreographed celebration went on for a full ten minutes, Lee Mason playing the part of “bemused interloper” at various points, and we went in 1-2 down.

The second half was better entertainment than the first, though just as hopelessly refereed. Stoke fell back on their lead and we began to dominate the ball, though with an approach play that was too slow. It was going to take a mistake by them to equalise and, fortunately we got it. Izquierdo was released by Murray and crossed from an impossibly tight angle. Luckily the ball rebounded off the defence and, with the route to goal cleared, he stuck his second effort in first time.

There was still time for March to come on and act the nuisance, though he did give a free kick away for waving, but at the end 2-2 was a fair result. The Albion need to start turning these home draws in to home wins. We may think we’re “professional” at this level but teams like Stoke have got years on us.