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.

 

 

 

Wigan Preview

It’s Christmas Eve isn’t it?

Just like Christmas there has been an awful lot more work in the run up to the date, just to get one day of celebration, feasting and drinking. The house has been decorated with streamers and flags, provisions sit in the fridge and an evening has been spent stuffing an animal, though in our case it was Wolves.

Unlike Christmas we don’t know exactly when the big day is or even what time. We just know it’s coming. We all believe now.

So let’s make this clear. In the opinion of this blog I am holding no truck at all with this mathematical possibility nonsense. Beat Wigan and we’re up. To not go up after such a result would take a set of results that even FIFA couldn’t engineer. I would be willing to put my house, car and savings on us going up should we beat them, not that any bookie would even take that bet. Goal difference rules. Mathematics shmathematics.

It is not, though, a foregone conclusion. On paper you couldn’t ask for a much easier game. Our home form has been imperious and we sit at the top of the league. Our league home form to date reads W16 D3 L2.  Wigan are second bottom, though they come off the back of an impressive 3-2 win over Barnsley. However, their away form reads W5 D4 L12. Our home form is the best in the league by four points, their away form is the 17th best.

To put this further in to context I have seen us lose, in person, precisely once this season. I missed Brentford at home because my knee was in so much pain I couldn’t sit in my seat. I was there for Newcastle but had to start work at stupid o’clock so didn’t get to write it up. I have further been to three away games with the record DWW. My disappointment throughout almost an entire season has been limited to shouting pointlessly at the television.

But Wigan will not come to the Amex simply to play a bit part, roll over and die to order. They are fighting for their life in the league. Normally they would probably take a draw away to us and, indeed, that might be the limits of their ambition, giving them four points from two Easter games in their relegation fight. A win, however, could take them level on points with Blackburn and two behind Burton with three to play, a fighting chance of staying up as we know from 1997 when we overcame a far greater deficit to survive THAT game.

A lot has been made of how far we’ve come since Hereford and, indeed, to go from nearly going out of the league and playing home games in Kent to the cusp of the Premier League in 20 years is quite some feat and down to two amazing chairmen in succession. Let’s face it, we needed a good one or two after the rabble that were in charge in the early and mid nineties.

I’d prefer, however, to focus on how far we’ve come in just two and a half years. Just before actual Christmas in 2014 we were in the relegation zone, in a not too dissimilar position to the one Wigan currently find themselves in. The team was full of uninterested, and bang average loanees. The fans were fighting each other. We’d just humiliated ourselves on telly against Millwall in front of what looked like less than 15,000 fans, no matter what the pretendence said. This blog had descended in to the Mad Dog 20/20 fuelled rantings of an angsty teenager screaming in to a void.

Then he arrived.

A couple of threads have been maliciously bounced on NSC to see who it was who moaned that Hughton was boring, negative or not the right man. I know what I felt because I wrote it here.

https://brightononlyathome.wordpress.com/2014/12/31/a-new-year-present-from-tony-welcome-chris-hughton/

I’m glad to say I was right about Hughton, not for egotistical reasons, but because he has transformed our club from top to bottom, going way beyond my expectations in that cautious first blog.

Almost his first bit of business was to bring in Beram Kayal on an absolute steal from Celtic. Head and shoulders above the rest of our midfield at the time he stood out and soon formed a bond with the reborn Dale Stephens. Hughton knew that his sole remit that season was to keep us up and went about making us hard to beat. Those who saw him as negative crowed. But there was a steel about the side in the second half of that season that had been missing in the first, that promised a bit more next season. Maybe we’d have a comfy mid-table season for a change? No.

No, since then Albion fans have been getting neck ache from looking up at the top of the table. So near – SO NEAR – last season, with a points total that would normally have taken us up. I was at Middleboro and I cannot remember being so down after a draw. We headed back to London drowning our sorrows in several miserable bottles of ale, and when we got there we bumped in to Mr Bloom who was more annoyed than all of us put together.

Then that ridiculous, injury ravaged, playoff semi. But with a bit more luck we’d have beaten anyone in that first half at the Amex. And while the fans went off to lick their wounds Chris Hughton was off signing an extended contract and quietly and intelligently planning how we’d go one better. Hence this season.

It will be no different on Monday. While we’re all wondering if Santa will come and if we can finally open that bubbly, Chris will be quietly and methodically planning exactly how to beat Wigan. After that – and only after that – the same with Norwich. And the players will be carrying it out. That’s why I’m confident – because there is a coherent plan, both long term and short term and the personnel to carry it out with deadly effect.

 

QPR Away 2016/17 – On the Verge

I wasn’t going to write this up. You can blame the encouragement of Tim Jones, the cancellation of morning football practice and a general urge to be living in the Brighton and Hove Albion bubble 24/7 for that.

Despite the blog title this was my third away this season. I wrote up Fulham, an amazing day when I was still marathon training and devoted to Dry January. I didn’t bother with Cardiff which was very much an alcohol fuelled “what goes on tour, stays on tour” sort of day when almost nothing of note happened on the pitch. Last night was a sort of mix of the two.

It’s a good job that regular readers know not to expect some slight deviations from 100% accuracy in the attempt to write this up as an account of the day out, from memory, rather than just another football report. I do often make little notes in my phone, though I rarely take photos. Last night was all photos and no notes.

But the main reason for not expecting much on the pitch narrative is that we couldn’t see it. £32 for a restricted view seat at the back of the upper tier, where the bit that was restricted was the far corner flag and the goal line. That’s modern football pricing for you. Another reason is the price is the only thing modern about QPR. Everything else screams 1980s, from the horseshit and tacky club façade along South Africa Road, to the death trap of a concourse, a ground that is smaller in reality than it looks on the telly, hemmed in by terraced housing on all sides, the fact you seem to be almost standing on top of the action, and a set of home fans who are quick with the wanker signs and slow with the songs. QPR is old school.

view

For all that it’s what I call a “good day out”. That death trap away end with the terrible view is also conducive to a brilliant atmosphere, roof and corrugated back of stand amplifying chants straight back to you. Having recently got a new job in an office in West London is was also dead easy to get to after work. So it was I left an hour earlier than normal and met Steve in a pub by Hammersmith tube. The sun was shining so we didn’t stay indoors long, heading to a riverside boozer for the first proper outdoor drinking session of the year.

river

From there a tube a couple of stops to Shepherd’s Bush Market, in search of a good looking dirty burger and kebab joint. We found the ideal place, packed with families of every creed and colour chowing down on fast food. The Peri Peri Burger was superb, though I am currently feeling the after effects.

So a decent pre match, just enough beer to oil the voice and arrival at our “seat” just before the game kicked off. No train queues. Perfect.

And then, well, then we started singing and straining every muscle to view, and before you knew it it was half time. We had a fair bit of the play, had two goals ruled out for offside (TV viewers tweeted me to say correctly), while Rangers tested Stockdale with a long range shot and pumped some dangerous looking set pieces in towards Joel Lynch. Remember him?

At half time Dunk went off, clearly not 100% recovered from his bug yet, to be replaced by Tomori who was again excellent. But the away end really got going on 58 minutes and, for once, the action was close to us. Hemed broke the offside trap for once with a great return through ball to Murray who strode clear. He was never, ever going to miss. The away end went fully radio rental.

Six minutes later and we won a free kick for Murray tripping over the ball. While Knocky and Pocognoli had a Gallic-off over who was taking it I focussed on Murray in the centre of the box, convinced we’d need to cross it. The next thing I knew Steve was on top of me and the ball had disappeared. One of the best free kicks ever – by Pocognoli – and I’d missed it. 2-0. Very loud singing.

And then we went in to our shells. QPR scored a good goal from a headed set piece and threatened us non-stop. We wasted time, driving Holloway insane. Hughton took Knockaert off, driving him insane, and my heart rate went up to an astonishing 171. I hit 165 on an intense 5K Park Run. Wow.

watch

Finally the final whistle and Bruno hit the ground theatrically before all the players and the manager came over. It took a good 20 minutes to get out, joyfully singing all the way.

We’re going to do this.

 

 

 

Birmingham at Home 2016/17 – On Our Way?

I’m not sure I need the question mark. We are, aren’t we? Everyone is starting to believe.

If I’ve started at the end again it’s because, over the last two games, the feeling among the fans has been so easy to spot and be a part of at the end of the game. At the start everyone is in their own space, preparing in their own way. Some anxious, eager to stress that this could be another potential banana skin. Others brim full of confidence. Yet more keeping their cards close to their chest, lest they be called out later on. By the end of the last two  games, however, there has been a united feeling of celebration and optimism.

Last time out I talked about how each game in April seems to be huge for the Albion, and that’s still true. There should be no letting off the accelerator. But that is two of them done and out of the way, with maximum points attained. Here’s how.

April doesn’t only mean big games, it can mean beer gardens and that, in turn, means The Swan. Sitting outside drinking ale it’s easy to forget there’s a game on at all, save for the large number of other people, many of them in colours, and the football chatter. The football chatter centred around team selection (and there was to be a surprise) and the aforementioned confidence levels. Even here I got a sense that more of those I knew were edging away from anxious towards confident, very  much so in the case of one particular Facebook status that had made me laugh as I’d sat on the train to Falmer.

From The Swan to the ground to meet Steve and The Leader of the Cheese Eating Poker School, a man who’s entrance is rarely reticent. Last night was no exception as, at the very moment I asked if he’d been seen, he arrived waving a large flag. This was to form the part of a game within the game, but more of that later. A quick chat and we were up in our seats. We seem to be getting to them earlier and earlier lately and we’re not the only ones.

What is always nice when you’re in a big match is to score early on. At some point I might dig out the stats to prove it but it feels like we’ve scored quite a few in the first twenty minutes at home, though this is rarely, if ever, achieved away. Birmingham kicked off and kept the ball nicely for about a minute finally launching an attack down their right. And here’s the surprise. Facing it down was not Rosenior, nor Pocognoli but Bong. I swear we change left back every week.

Credit here to my old friend Mark who has been through the whole post-Goldstone journey with me. He dragged my sorry behind to Gillingham when my mojo was at its lowest, sat with me in the rain at Withdean and we have been together every season at the Amex. So Mark knows a lot about our former players. Since it was the very start of the match he was in the middle of explaining how long shots would be easily saved by Tomasz Kuszczak, but that he would be vulnerable to a ball played across him.

At that precise second Bong created what we Level One football coaches like to call “transition” (get me). In layman’s language he got a toe on the ball in the tackle and changed the direction of play, setting us off on the break. Konckaert was in acres of space on the right and a long ball from midfield found him. Bruno gambled on a classic overlap, Knocky found him, the ball was played across our former keeper and Murray did the rest. There was still a “1” on the time section of the scoreboard and it didn’t have another number on either side of it.

Nerves were settled and so we were free to concentrate on our new gambling game, “corner flags”. This was less that a stellar success apart from the fact that I won it. The idea is that everyone puts a small token in to a kitty and the flag that was being waved on the concourse is passed to the next person each time there is a corner. The person holding the flag at half time is the winner and takes the pot. Therefore I can report with absolute confidence that there was one corner in the whole first half. How’s that for a stat?

But back to the game. When you go one up that early it’s sometimes hard to know whether to stick or twist and Birmingham came back in to the game with some direct running and balls over the top. Some inconsistent refereeing was also leading to them gaining free kicks for their efforts, the most dangerous of which was twenty yards out and dead centre. Craig Gardner rapped it against our bar to remind us we had to stay honest. Meanwhile there was defensive reorganisation needed when Dunk had to come off. He’d already blocked a chance when Birmingham has seemed through and had a stint on the wing in his bid to become the Championship’s answer to Total Football (copyright Steve) but now he looked not injured but as if he was about to blow chunks across the Amex pitch, something confirmed on Twitter at half time.

So half time. We were one nil up, but Birmingham had had the best chances, there had been one corner and Dunk was out sick. Exciting and frustrating at the same time.

A second goal would settle us. It sounds really obvious – hell, it is really obvious – but getting back on the front foot would settle some nerves and send Birmingham back in to their shells. The players obviously agreed because, within three minutes of the restart they delivered, Knockaert just about keeping the ball in with his left foot, when the right would have been easier before squaring back to that man Bruno again. A high far post cross this time, Murray headed back across goal and Hemed converted from what seemed like about a yard.

Duffy’s injury has given Hunemeier a chance to shine and the German has taken the chance with both hands. He was once again magnificent at the back and he capped off his performance with a goal, possibly his first for us, certainly the first time I’d seen him score. A free kick out on our right was headed straight up in to the air but a spot of woeful keeping and defending later it dropped perfectly to him about in line with the penalty spot but to the left of the goal. A fierce drive was deflected in.

Birmingham had replaced Gardner who had looked dangerous from free kicks with Frei Koyunlu and the number 21 provided their first bit of real flair, showing Knockaert like feet in the 85th minute to set Adams away, whose shot was similarly deflected in to the absolute disgust of Stockdale. With the game already dead it was quite clear that there is a clean sheet target, officially or unofficially, and the annoyance shown at conceding is another measure of this great side. We’d been perfectly relaxed for most of the second half however, and now the whistle came and so did “we’re on our way”.

I can only describe the post match as “convivial”. Much ale, more talking and a real sense of anticipation. Those collective wet sheets from after the Forest game seem a long way off now.