Oscar and the End of Season Awards

As Derby’s fourth goal went in on Sunday evening (ok, as their second did in reality) our season ended. My thoughts turned to what was good (and bad) about an eventful season and I started to construct the Brighton But Only At Home end of season awards. Then I thought I’d rest my keyboard until at least the World Cup or first marquee signing. Thanks Oscar.

The subsequent resignation of Oscar Garcia has meant that, instead of sloping off to the metaphorical beach and sticking its collective feet up, everyone associated with Brighton and Hove Albion has endured a torrid and argumentative few days.

Whenever there is a parting of ways between two people or groups of people it is, to a degree, acrimonious. I can remember our old next door neighbours divorcing. When the husband left he assured me it would be amicable and they had just grown apart but it didn’t take long for solicitors’ letters and battles over money, property and care of the children to properly tear them apart. While the Oscar / Brighton split will never come as close as the Poyet / Brighton split for intrigue and rancour there has been some airing of dirty laundry over the last couple of days. In a way this is healthy proving that we not only live in a country that supports free speech but that we have a club and press that understand that.

Firstly Andy Naylor wrote a piece in The Argus suggesting that Oscar had left over transfer policy and that he had presented the club with a list of transfer targets. Cracks, it said, appeared in the relationship as early as October when Leo Ulloa got injured and we were left with only Ashley Barnes to play up front.

Yesterday Tony Bloom in an audio interview with the BBC quashed some elements of that article. When asked specifically if the club had failed to deliver Oscar’s targets he said “yeah, that’s not true at all” before qualifying that statement by saying that while Oscar had some targets they were unrealistic due to price and availability. He also suggested some naivety on Oscar’s part as to how the transfer market works here as well as some communication difficulties. This was expanded on in an NSC discussion of the interview with a fairly solid suggestion that Oscar was unavailable on transfer deadline day in January (contrast with Poyet who stayed in his office till the deadline passed).

Going further than this risks conjecture but it is useful to set the scene. It is also useful not to forget the key fact of the season, that, league position wise, it was just as successful as the preceding one. Yes we finished sixth rather than fourth and with three less points but the net result was still a defeat in the playoff semi-finals. The other thing borne out by both pieces is a confirmation that Oscar was perhaps never quite settled here and that his introverted, phlegmatic personality, whilst a welcome contrast to Poyet’s bombast, actually caused communication issues and rifts around the club. I am a written word extrovert but a real world introvert and I can feel for Oscar here in some ways knowing you would have the spotlight on you in a language that was not your own. Perhaps he didn’t realise the intensity of Championship football? I mention this last thing because it frames who I would prefer as a replacement.

Given everything that’s happened since we arrived at The Amex I would prefer the next appointment to be a forward thinking coach but with English as a first language. The sort of person who is not going to have communication issues with Messrs Burke and Barber, who can deal with the press confidently and communicate with and get the best out of his players, ideally without those players forming cliques. My ideal candidate would be Steve Clarke who appears to fit all those requirements, though whether he would be available, willing and affordable is another matter. This is merely my starter for ten. There has been talk about the bookies’ favourite Tim Sherwood. On him I am far from convinced. He certainly ticks the boxes marked “English” “prepared to play youngsters” and “flexible attacking football” but he also, for me, ticks the boxes marked “media circus” “outspoken” “tactically naive” and “using us as a stepping stone back to the Prem”. With Sherwood I worry we would be out of the Oscar frying pan and in to the fire that was set by Poyet.

Whatever happens though I trust Tony Bloom to deliver. His interview last night combined the intelligence of a man who has made his fortune with the passion of a fan and included a frank admission that he was still learning. I expect the lessons learned from the last two appointments to be fully implemented in the recruitment of the next manager.

So – on to those end of season awards. After all, I really do want to put my feet up on that metaphorical beach, at least until a replacement manager is appointed. Who was hot and who was rot in 2013/14?

Player of the Season

That I would only consider defenders speaks volumes for our season. Upson as club player of the season is a pretty good shout. He has been excellent as expected and I’m so glad he returned to us. However, my own award is going to be for Stephen Ward. When he came to us – indeed still at the end of this season – I was seeing rather cruel comments on him from Wolves fans, central to which was that he was not a left back. Well for us he was. Defensively solid, excellent in the pass and very willing to push up he prevented and created goals in equal measure. Never gave anything less that 100% and was almost ever present. I was genuinely worried when we lost Bridge. That Ward was a more than adequate replacement speaks volumes for him.

Moment of the Season

Obviously THAT header from Ulloa at Forest. Not for my son though. His special moment was sitting a few rows from the front of the West Lower against Reading in the cup when KLL dribbled round half of Reading’s defence on the left wing just to retain possession, before earning a corner by deliberately flicking the ball of a Reading player’s shin and then gesturing to the crowd like a DJ trying to get hundreds of tired ravers to the their feet.

Away Fans of the Season (Ground)

Leeds again. Honourable mention to Middlesboro who brought 500 down when they were on a terrible run. They sang all afternoon as their team took us steadily to pieces. Overall one of the reasons it felt like such a damp and boring season, despite our final position, was the procession of teams from Oop North who came down with a few hundred fans and parked the proverbial bus before wasting time from the twentieth minute on. Next season will be different with Wolves, Fulham, Brentford  and possibly Leyton Orient arriving and Barnsley going. Thank Christ.

Away Fans of the Season (Social Media)

Occasionally something really good just falls in to your hands. So it was when Reading’s Tilehurst End blog were put on to me by TSLR and asked me to do a preview of our league match. We have stayed in correspondence and I have regularly read their excellent site. Believe me they are in a deal of financial trouble and will have a difficult season coming up. Yes their fans false pitch invasion was highly amusing but the Tilehurst lads have been intelligent and sporting in their comments and this deserves mention.

Pie of the Season

Chicken Balti. Again.

The All Change Award

Goes to me. Obviously. The act of writing / blogging is an arrogant one but I would like to think that most writers / bloggers understand this. What’s the point in having a blog award if you cannot give yourself one, that’s what I say. The All Change award, however is awarded for events in the future which, if anything, is even more preposterous. It relates mainly to the fact I shall be taking The Boy to every home weekend game next season. In order to secure this, since Best Friend is also taking his kids, we have had to move seat. Not stand, luckily, but I shall have a slightly different vantage point next season. I shall also be the poor bastard trying to contain the unrealistic dreams of an eight year old who needs the toilet while my mates enjoy their leisurely beers in the pub.

There will also, hopefully, be some changes on this here blog. Watch this space.

Finally, thanks for reading. I have had over 10,000 hits this season, not bad for a badly promoted, WordPress hosted, one man operation that is normally written on a busy commuter train or a hungover Sunday morning. It is about 9000 more that I thought I’d get when I started. Happy Summer. See you when the new boss is announced.

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Derby Away – Full Circle?

Well now.

When this blog started we had just lost in a playoff semi final in a most unsatisfactory manner and our Spanish speaking boss was making the sorts of noises that usually pre-empt a departure of some sort. And now……

When you write you generally need a beginning, a middle and an end. A plot. Football writes its own plot for you. There are lots of difficult things that come up when you write about football. Remembering exact passages of play. Seeing the fecking numbers on our home kit. Calling decisions, especially the controversial ones. Trying to note down and remember exact phrases or happenings when you’re on your third Harvey’s or your kid needs the toilet (ok these possibly only happen to me). But it is also a writer’s gift. It writes your plot for you. A season HAS a beginning, a middle and an end. It has a definite outcome. All you have to do is weave a narrative around it.

What you must not do under any circumstances when you are writing – unless it is an elaborate Shaggy Dog story – is to have your beginning and end exactly the same. It would seem this morning that is almost where we are. Almost.

Firstly the game. There’s no need for an elaborate match report. Derby were very good, especially going forward. They sliced us apart, took their goals well and looked every inch a Premier League side. Steve McLaren has done an excellent job and I wish them well in the final in which I will be supporting them. We were not very good but then the injuries that have plagued us all season got worse in spectacular style. When you’re facing the league’s highest scorers and most attacking side you really don’t want a back four of Calderon, Dunk, Ward and Chicksen. We wouldn’t send that out in a friendly. Calde we know is a club legend for many, many reasons. Ward has been one of my players of the season, but not at Centre Back. One player horribly out of position and a back four that hadn’t played together all season. They looked, collectively and individually horrible.

But key incidents other than Greer going off? Don’t ask me. It was bedlam in my house. Hard to follow but I wouldn’t have it any other way. We had friends round, a big pot of curry for the adults and pizza for the kids, lots of beer. The boys in their replica strips. Afterwards as NSC already started to melt down I played football with the boys in the back garden. After four bottles of Cornwall’s finest light ale I got ripped a new one by a seven and eight year old. Next year they will be regulars at The Amex. They are undeterred by a defeat that seems to have finished certain NSC scribes off.

Who will be in charge of that team? Who will be playing for it? At the time of writing no one knows. Reports in The Guardian and The Mail this morning that Oscar has offered his resignation. When THOSE two papers agree with each other there has to be something in it.

If – and only if – he has offered his resignation then I have to say I’ve hit a new level of disappointment. For me this was the transitional season. We have the opportunity to clear out the high wage earners and bring in players who can genuinely play the Oscar way. We have the new training ground. When Leicester went out at this stage last year – far more disappointingly in a way – they stuck with their boss, regrouped and won the division. If Oscar is quitting this opportunity it is not honourable.

On the other hand the signs have been there for a while. There was the Mail story that he was moving to Swansea, having been dissatisfied with our transfer policy. After Yeovil he publicly stated that we were the only team in the division who got weaker after the January window. I defended that window’s dealings in these pages and in a way I still do. I have nearly lost my club once and I don’t intend for it to happen again. The plan MUST be for a balance between on field success and off field solvency whatever this does to the child like egos of the fans who demand immediate success. I also do not think we were the ONLY team to be weaker after January. Reading, too, failed to strengthen and look what happened to them. The difference is that while our future looks secured and self sufficient they are up to their necks in manure and failing to swim, having swapped prudence and self sufficiency for capricious Russian Roubles.

That said the chickens finally came home to roost yesterday. The failures to replace Barnes and El-Abd all too apparent as Ulloa dived and stropped his way through a game that he didn’t have the pace to unlock. CMS was on the bench, true enough, but he’s still not ninety minutes fit. Not the way he plays. And Rodriguez? The arguments had raged over his nickname when he arrived. I suggest his latest should be “First Ferry Back to Santander”. Meanwhile the lack of centre back cover on the bench finally killed us.

But whose fault is this? The failure to land Lewis Grabban in January could be traced to that player’s greed, Bloom and Barber being overly parsimonious or Oscar not being able to guarantee a start, what with us only playing one up front. If it was the first there is not much that can be done. If it was the second I would be intrigued. Yes we have to hit FFP. Yes we cannot go under. However we had just received a club record fee for Bridcutt and it’s clear from the out of contract list that the budget is going to need to be rebalanced in the summer come what may. Do we have our priorities exactly right? If it is the third, though, Oscar only has himself to blame. If you want to play one up top – and if that is going to be a long term philosophy that ends up with us as the English answer to Barca’s all encompassing strategy  in five years great, but it’ll be a long five years – you are not going to sign one star striker when you are already starting another. Bluntly you are going to sign Lita, Obika and Rodriguez.

It was actually not replacing El Abd that killed us off but Centre Back is not the sort of position where there is an awful lot of rotation. It’s where I played in my pub league career and you can go on far longer than if you are a winger. In general you can have a bit of a rest. In general you are handing out the kickings instead of taking them. El Abd left because he saw a whole season on the bench. How do you sell the very same thing to anyone but an ambitious Development Squad player who sees it as the next step up?

So what happens next? Who knows? Maybe Oscar will be persuaded to stay? Maybe it’s just paper talk and, in reality, he’s happy. I have to say the most damning thing is, if he is to go, I’m not actually that gutted. I was devastated when Poyet left. Oscar has seemed like a Caretaker Manager for a good deal of the season. If he stays then I want him to commit to our budget and our long term plan and attacking football for real. If he goes I want the next guy to. That’s what’s important. Not another Latin hissy fit.

Derby At Home – A Tale of Two Midfields

This was a game I never thought we’d play. You may remember, back at the start of the season, I predicted that we’d finish in the top ten. Perhaps – perhaps – with an outside shot at the playoffs. With a minute of regular time left on Saturday in Nottingham that was still the case. Then that board went up showing five minutes of stoppage time. KLL picked the ball up deep and surged forwards, finding CMS out wide. THAT cross came in. THAT header hit the net. So fine was the margin, so late was the goal that getting in to the playoffs could be considered nothing but a bonus by us fans.

Serendipitously my wife had a morning meeting away which meant that I had booked to work from home ages before we’d secured the game. There were no travel worries about how I might get to the ground from London or Surrey. Nor was there anyone looking over my shoulder which was good as, no matter how relaxed I professed to be, my productivity was on the low side. At four thirty I shut the laptop, walked out of the door and headed for the pub. This was to be a night drinking with my mates. This was to be mine and Mark’s last game together in our original Amex seats. Next season – God help us – we have moved further back (but more central) in the same stand in order to get a block of tickets with our kids. What this will do to this blog I am not sure. I might let The Boy have his own section.

What a night out drinking with your mates does for your blog is renders it more opinion piece than factual match description. I’m not going to apologise for that. Right up until the stroke of half time I was having the time of my life.

I dropped in to GDC HQ for the first time this season, just in time to catch one of the most comical run outs in IPL history on the TV. I caught up with an old school friend. I saw a new acquaintance on the train to Falmer and we tried to work out why the train queue was being directed away from a train to Lewes that had come from the Coastway West. On the concourse I bumped in to some mates from Eastbourne that I used to go away with, a very good old friend who was down from Scotland for the day (as you do) for the game. Mark arrived and wanted beer, unsurprising as next season we shall both be playing the role of sober and responsible father. Each new greeting (except the one on the train) was started with a round of drinks. By 7.45 my voice was well oiled and so, it seemed, was everyone elses.

The Amex can be terrible for atmosphere when the game’s bad or meaningless and no one’s up for it. On its day it can fizzle with the best in England (Arsenal in the cup, Palace on Paddy’s day spring to mind). Here it fizzled and the Derby fans responded in kind. The players, whether hyped by their coaches or the atmosphere, or both responded. The first 25 minutes has to be the best football I have ever seen at The Amex. We attacked in waves  Derby counter attacked. The crowd noise nearly took the roof off. Buckley put Calderon through on the right delightfully and he found Lingard in the middle. With the initial shot blocked the ball came back to him and this time he made no mistake, sticking it delightfully in to the corner. 1-0 to the Albion.

It wasn’t to last. Derby, who had looked dangerous and speedy on the break started to take control of central midfield. Ten minutes later JFC and Andrews parted like the Red Sea and Upson had to end the resulting run with challenge that resulted in an undisputable penalty. Chris Martin calmly stroked it home and, for the first time that evening The Amex fell silent, but for the Derby fans.

Still we matched them, we picked ourselves up and matched them. Going in level at half time would have been about fair. And then cruelty. Martin hit another shot after another tidy move that made us wonder where our midfield was but it struck the bar, only to hit PIG on the back as he dived and bounce back in to the net.

On such fortune football matches are decided. In the second half a similarly good move resulted in an Ulloa attempt being brilliantly deflected on to the bar by Grant. I was put in mind of Ashley Barnes and Speroni last season. A coat of paint, a fraction of a second the only differences between 1-1, 2-1 to them or 2-1 to us.

Sadly that was perhaps the only highlight of the second half for me as we reverted to type. A first half that had been pulsating, pacy and loud gave way to a second half where Ulloa was increasingly isolated, Buckley was off due to a hamstring injury, JFC and Andrews were either anonymous or giving the ball away and Lua Lua came on to do his one step over trick and over hit crosses from the touchline with his wrong foot.

Two things sum up both the game and our season. Firstly, at one point we broke down the wing and had the perfect opportunity to cross, yet Ulloa was on his own in the box surrounded by five red Derby shirts. Seconds later they won it – no surprise – and broke. Suddenly they had a one on one in our half and Andrews had no choice but to commit a foul that earned a booking and might have been a red had the run been straighter and nearer to goal. Where WERE our defence? Pushed up to no great effect. The second thing is not an incident but a statistic. Derby’s Craig Bryson has contributed 16 goals this season from central midfield. Crofts may have looked like he was heading that way but, since his injury, there has been no one to adequately fill that role. In fact, though Orlandi was fantastically creative early on, the midfield wasn’t adequately filled at all last night. Could we have started Ince? It would have given McLaren a problem and he certainly couldn’t have done worse than JFC. What’s more, when people argue about Lua Lua starting versus being an impact player they fail to mention he’s only got one goal all season, and that was a fluke. An impact player with fifteen goals less than a central midfielder? Perhaps he shouldn’t be in the squad at all?

Post game we did agree that, mathematically at least we are still in it. We play better away. We outplayed Derby for the first twenty five minutes, hit the bar and were unlucky with a couple of penalty shouts. It can be done and in best Brighton But Only At Home style I shall be shouting at the telly with a bowl of curry, some beers and several friends for company. However, the overwhelming impression I have from last night is that, if you are going to be obsessed with attacking football, then you need a young, speedy side like Derby’s to do it, and you need to support your lone striker.

Nottingham Forest Away – Unbelievable

dean

Leo Ulloa Yesterday

The year was 1991 and I was a fairly stupid nineteen year old. The last game of the season was at home to Ipswich Town. We needed to win it to pip Barnsley in to the final spot in the playoffs, a feat we could manage despite a poor run in and negative goal difference. There was no ticket binfest or bun fight. In fact there was no ticket needed. As per every other home game that season my mates and I met in The Edinburgh in Brighton and had a few jars and a game of pool or ten. Then we got the train to Hove, staggered  walked to the ground, paid cash on the turnstiles and entered the North Stand. The only thing that differed slightly was that the bit at the back behind the goal was already full and we found ourselves stood near the bottom by an open piece of fence where a gate had once been, a hole in the pitch’s protection that was routinely policed by P.C. Beard.

With a minute left of the game it was 1-1. Barnsley’s game had already finished, they had won and their fans were on the pitch at Oakwell celebrating a playoff place. Johnny Byrne who had been magnificent all season put all his remaining strength, something he got from his magnificent mullet, in to one final run and was chopped down. It was bad enough that he had to come off and Johnny only came off when it was bad. One last kick to save our season. Up stepped Dean ”Wendy” Wilkins and he curled it straight in to the top corner. The North Stand went mental. The Goldstone went mental. I looked up and somehow found myself on the centre circle. Gee, I wonder how that happened? Still, before you could say ‘arrested and banned’ I looked round and saw my mates and half the North Stand with me. Figuring the game had to kick off again and that we couldn’t all be nicked everyone retreated back to the stand. Thirty seconds later the whistle went and we were back on again. That night I drank a LOT of beer. I have always imagined that, at the same time at Barnsley, there were a lot of replica shirted fatties walking disconsolately off the pitch or banging the advertising hoardings in despair. This was the sort of thing that could never ever happen again. A once in a lifetime feeling. Or was it?

Fast forward to 2014 and the last game of the season was away at Nottingham Forest. We needed to win it to really have any chance of getting in the playoffs (though a draw would have done if Reading had lost). We also needed Reading not to win. Since it was away I didn’t take place in the ticket bun fight and binfest but it was mighty. We were only given 2000 tickets. The rest of us would have to make do with the telly once Sky finally selected the Reading and Forest games for coverage. I have written about my dislike of Sky rescheduling games and yet I subscribe precisely for these sorts of events. I have written about my dislike of the playoffs, yet I desperately wanted us to win. So I’m a massive hypocrite. A happy hypocrite though. Listening to that on the radio would have been unbearable.

I spent pre-match not playing pool in the Edinburgh but taking The Boy to his Under 7s football training and buying snacks, sandwich fillings and beer. The Boy’s friend G who I took to the Reading cup game and who watched the first half of the Hull game here was coming round with his mum. I am providing the football information for G that his dad who is not a football fan cannot, in much the same way as my dad’s friends had to tell me about (and take me to) the football. Circle of life and all that.

Team news. Bruno out and Calde in. Upson back for Dunk. JFC for Stephens. CMS on the bench again. I sighed inwardly. I knew this would be the side given the availability but we’ve looked pedestrian in the middle so often when Andrews and JFC have started. I didn’t let The Boy pick up on it. My 3 year old daughter, known to everyone as Whirlwind came in to join us, unexpectedly.

A slow start in which Forest dominated possession was punctuated by two bits of very bad news. Firstly Ulloa missed a one on one with the keeper having been put through brilliantly down the right with a long, low through ball from Greer. “Never mind Daddy” said Whirlwind, “it was nearly in”. Three year olds eh? Then Reading scored. Ouch.

With the children alternately asking me questions and yelling “COME ON BRIGHTON!” at the telly it was becoming hard to concentrate. So it was that I took my eyes off a routine clearance that actually went horribly wrong and gifted Forest the ball. A perfect cross found Derbyshire but his weak header was straight at PIG who only had to collect it and……..oh. Oh Tomasz! NO! ARGH. 1-0 not to the Albion. A mountain to climb and eleven nervous, mistake ridden mountaineers. Oh shit. Except the mountain was about to be cut in half by Burnley who not only equalized but then took the lead at the Mad Stad. Only one goal needed but, in the first half, we didn’t look like we had even that in us.

I’d like to think Oscar threw a teacup at halftime. That this calmest and most phlegmatic of Spaniards went completely Radio Rental and gave them the John Sitton “you can have your fucking breakfast” treatment before getting Nathan to threaten anyone who cocked up in the second half with a night out in Colwyn Bay. Whatever they did it worked. We came out with far more purpose and, heaven be praised we equalized. Having forced a corner on the right a couple of miskicks and general penalty area ping pong saw the ball drop to Stephen Ward who calmly half volleyed in to the bottom corner with his wrong foot. I may have scared the children with my leap off the sofa but if I did they weren’t saying. G was punching the air. The Boy was repeating “YES, YES!” over and over again like a bad Dutch movie.

Then Reading equalized with one of the best goals of the season.

We had it all to do again. Typically Oscar threw Lua Lua in to the fray for the knackered looking and largely disappointing Lingard. This gave Forest something to think about because they no longer have the rat faced twonk in charge who had answered Lua Lua’s threat in the reverse fixture by getting his team to take turns to kick Kaz very hard. At this point Whirwind fell asleep on the sofa. “If Brighton score please don’t wake her up or land on her” said my wife. What a jinx.

Still there was no goal. March came on for Orlandi and nearly set up Buckley before the Buckley again tried to round the keeper who took it off his toes. Last throw of the dice was CMS. With three minutes of regular time left this was just a little late but we gave it one last go. Five minutes of injury time went up on the board and a last shout of encouragement went up from the fans.

And then. And then. CMS collects the ball on the left. He hits the perfect inswinging cross with his right foot. Ulloa has come from an onside position to lose his marker. It’s on. He can just head it in. Time seems to stand still for a second and then IT’S IN! OMFG! FOOTBALL! Don’t you love it?

Ulloa removes his shirt and runs to the fans who are going bananas. I am trying to repeat my actions of 1991 by invading the television. The Boy and G are going stark staring nuts, loudly. G’s mum is up. Even my wife is cheering. Astonishingly Whirwind sleeps through the whole thing. I cannot sit down again. Blow the whistle ref! BLOW IT! After six – yes SIX – minutes (I guess for the goal and celebrations) he does. We’ve done it. Sixth. Reading have finished 2-2.

Later we find out the whole amusement / disappointment from the Mad Stad. That Burnley’s keeper had kept them out single handed. That even then they held on for our result after their 2-2 had been confirmed. That somehow they got this wrong and invaded their own pitch, thinking they’d done it. Just like Barnsley in 1991.

Our reaction on Twitter et al was not kind. Mind you, if I was a Reading fan I would have been steering clear of anything except a large bottle of gin. I feel genuinely for a couple of their fans with whom I have been corresponding but I have to admit I feel nothing but NER NER for Adkins. We’re never going to like him are we?

Afterwards we went to our old neighbour’s BBQ and, having confirmed the wife could manage the kids, I drank my body weight in Jamaican lager and rosé wine. I’m a bit delicate this morning. On Thursday night it starts all over again. *hovers mouse over ticket site*