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”.

 

 

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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.

 

Chelsea At Home – Hazard Warning

Too early, That was my immediate thought. While the rest of the world walked its dog, did its shopping or went to gymnastics or karate lessons we were stood at Portslade Station waiting for a train to the Amex with tens of other Brighton fans. The journey over was memorable only for a frankly incoherent half-and-half scarf seller outside Falmer station, The Boy nearly forgetting his change from his programme and an all out Gully attack outside the club shop. Once upstairs in the concourse pints were purchased for me and Steve’s friend who was shaking off a post-party hangover, and a Bovril for Steve who is absolutely smashing Dry January, the poor sod. Five minutes later we were collectively spluttering in to them. FIVE at the back? No Knockaert AT ALL? Wow.

At one level it made sense. We’ve been struggling on set pieces and an extra head there would be useful. Schelotto is a born wing-back and it would suit Suttner too. What we couldn’t work out was what the rest of the formation would look like. It turned out to be a sort of 5-3-2 with Gross back in midfield and March up with Hemed. At least I think so. That might have been what we moved to, since it only took Chelsea three minutes to disrupt it.

We’d barely kicked off. Chelsea were in full voice though the Albion faithful seemed to be fast asleep, the North Stand strangely muted as if many of its inhabitants don’t see that time of day often (clue lads, it’s normally about when you stagger off the train for your away day). Certain other parts of the ground were either too busy creaming themselves over Chelsea or just being please to be there, of which more later, Anyway, before we’d mustered song for whatever reason, Chelsea put together a nice attack down the right, Hazard and Willian playing the roles of conductor and Moses providing the width. A low cross and Stephens, who found himself playing fourth centre back, overstretched, flicking out a boot and sending the ball straight to Hazard who buried it. Celebrations for Chelsea. A belated “Albioooon” from us.

What we really needed to do at this point was get back among them and equalise quickly. Instead, three minutes later we were two down. I’ve seen the goal again and, grudgingly it is indeed a thing of beauty, the sort of goal that if we’d scored we’d add instantly to the pre-match highlights reel. Yes Dunk and Propper gave it away, the former under-hitting a pass and the latter reacting too slowly, but after that it’s all one touch and backheels, Willian starting and finishing the move that inevitably involved Hazard. Even the finish was perfect. Nothing we could do about that, five at the back or not. Unfortunately this left our tactical plans in ruins, a bit like that bit in Pirates of the Caribbean where Captain Sparrow ends up marooned with the boat disappearing in to the distance. Or something. “We’ll get done five or six here” I said to my companions.

To our credit we didn’t. We went back at them with renewed vigour. Enter the game’s villain, referee Jon Moss. A great diagonal ball looked for Gross in the box and out came Caballero to punch, but only as far as the marauding Schelotto who won the loose ball, took it past the keeper and was clearly brought down – clearly that is if you could see it which fatty Moss, in totally the wrong position, couldn’t. We still wasted an open goal anyway, Gross crossing over Hemed’s head in the confusion.

Then just as good a chance, Gross crossing after a cross field ball for March and Hemed’s free header inexplicably saved by Caballero’s feet as he went the wrong way. Then a second penalty shout, Schelotto again winning a loose ball and catching Chelsea on the wrong side, going down under a challenge from Bakayoko that was, while minimal, nevertheless present and from behind. The enraged Schelotto almost walked off the pitch and was lucky to still be on the pitch for his reaction. Half time and referee Moss left the arena to a justified chorus of boos.

Still we tried to claw it back, Schelotto again causing no end of problems for Chelsea down the right before Propper headed a cross agonisingly on the post.

Chelsea were next to hit the post with a brilliant Wilian free kick producing an even better save from Ryan, who was excellent all game, pushing it on to the woodwork. Gaps started to appear as we chased the game and inevitably we went three down on the break. Again we gave the ball away sloppily but after that it was all about Hazard who sent the whole of the Amex the wrong way with his finish.

Then a great long ball over the top and Moses found himself ahead of the tiring Suttner to slot in the fourth. And that was that. A slow start, some Hazard brilliance, two awful referring decisions and some more Hazard brilliance deciding the game. That’s what you seem to get at this level, World Class players who punish you and pub league referees, in love with the big six, who punish you some more.

And we seem to be in love with the big six too. I usually sign off with a cheery story of beery banter and delayed trains but not today. We need to decide if we want to stay in this league. If we do we need to stop all this fawning, forget shirt swapping and selfie sticks, play our own game and back the team from the start. Too many yesterday seemed just pleased to be there watching Hazard work his magic. Unless we develop a bit of nastiness that’s only going to last one season. You wouldn’t catch Burnley at Turf Moor being so nice.

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.