Leeds At Home 2014/15 – Perfect

Another mid week game. Another night without The Boy. Beer then. Quite a bit of beer.

Pubs in a station shouldn’t be good. They should, in fact, be the sort of pub you run screaming from unless you’re the sort of chap that needs an 11am eye opener of Tramp Juice or you are a group of thirsty football fans. And of course, like any two sets in a Primary School maths lesson there’s a subset of both in the middle. But I digress. Every pub I’ve ever been to in a station has been horribly shit. The old one on Brighton Station most definitely was. Even we stayed out of it and I’ve drunk down Ditchling Road and in The Clyde. So it was a rather bizarre experience to bookend my trip to the Leeds match with a nice pint of West Pier for me, a Cruzcampo for my friend who is very fond of such things, some honey and bacon peanuts (say that out loud without drooling) and a group of familiar faces in the corner in a pub in a station. The Cyclist, it turns out, is rather nice. Yes, Brighton But Only At Home was on the sauce.

I mention this because when it happens (and it’s happened just few enough times this season for my regular readers to recommend the AA) any real sense of football reporting goes out of the window. What makes it even harder to report on the game is that, even through my morning paracetemol and coffee I can’t really think of a single negative to dress up in disasterous metaphors. It was a regulation win by a good looking team. I haven’t said that all season. I remember them in the past. Leeds last season was one. Wolves under Poyet another. Not a thrashing. Not a lucky win. Just a professional job where we score more goals than the opposition without looking worried.

A Cruzcampo, a pint or two or three in Dick’s and we took our seats at 7.35 to Fanzone and an empty stadium. The roads round the Amex had been chocka and many people were still getting to their seats ten minutes after kick off. They had missed the ostensibly puzzling news that the front line was to be led by CMS and Baldock. And here’s the first thing I love about Chris Hughton. Sami, bless him, used to tinker with the side for no apparent reason and to no apparent effect. Leeds, however, looked ponderous and one paced at the back. Even a man four Real Ales down could see that and our management team had clearly studied their weaknesses. CMS and his running bothered them immensely and we used it to good effect as Tex and Baldock found gaps and Kayal and Ince bossed midfield. In such circumstances your defence is rarely troubled and Leeds sat on the back foot with us dominating possession, or at least as much as I could see before I had the sudden urge to start telling silly jokes or starting a song.

After twenty six minutes it paid off with CMS breaking down the right and slotting a lovely ground cross for Baldock to provide the deftest of finishes. Normally this is the cue for us to retreat in to our shells and concede almost immediately. Not last night. Perhaps it was finally getting the 4-3 win over Birmingham or perhaps the new management team had finally got though to them, I’m not sure. But we continued to press, Kayal and Ince continued to dominate, Stockdale who had used the second period of the first half to save a one on one and a penalty on Saturday remained untroubled.

A half time pint. A smiley, happy, bloody hell we’re actually good half time pint.

More of the same in the second half. Leeds couldn’t cope with Baldock’s pace and CMS’s energy. They couldn’t cope with Kayal’s box-to-box-ness, Ince’s legs or the fact that Calde may actually be the second coming. They couldn’t cope with Dunk’s height or Greer’s new found desire to pass it forwards. We made several chances, firstly a pass coming when a shot should have when clean through before CMS shot straight at the keeper. Then we doubled the lead through Calde’s beard, Tex having put Kayal through for a chance which their keeper palmed on to the Lord’s facial hair where it nestled pleasantly in the corner of the net. That’s the ball not his beard. There was still time for a game of goal ping pong and for us to hit the post when scoring was easier but that, essentially was that. Game wrapped up by 65 minutes. Relaxed people in stands. Who’d have thunk it?

So I may have had my blue and white beer goggles on but in the cold light of day I can still say every single player deserved the win. It was a professional performance, devoid of panic, cock up or scapegoat. The hundredth game at the Amex took me back exactly two or three years to time when such a win was the norm. I’ll drink to that.

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Birmingham City At Home 2014/15 – That’s Entertainment

There are times when I yearn for the innocence of youth. Most seasons have their breaking points. This is Brighton after all, not Real Madrid or Celtic or Chelsea. Last season I hit maximum frustration at the Middleborough home game as, faced with a chance to really cement our playoff position we capitulated in our worst, and most frustrating, performance of the season. This season it seemed it was going to be yesterday. Up to then I had watched us win twice all season, both one nil. Wigan at home and Charlton away, which according to the blog title I shouldn’t even have been at. I had missed the Bolton home game (holiday) and Ipswich home game (work). And so it was that I was looking forward to the Birmingham game the way Gordon Ramsey looks forward to a KFC.

Not The Boy though. Thanks to school and being eight he hadn’t even seen the Wigan game. One win, all season, scrapped out away in South East London. Yet he is a natural born Brighton fan. Not once has he asked to go and watch Man United on the telly instead. Not once has he complained we won’t win silverware. Yesterday he eagerly donned his replica shirt over his sweatshirt and grabbed at his scarf, twirling for purposes of. I left mine at home in a desperate nod to superstition for I’d not had it to twirl at Charlton either. All the way to the station we talked of the game. Who would start and in what formation? Who would be on the cover of the programme (I still cannot say Matchday Magazine, at least with a straight face)? Would we score first then immediately concede again (yes)? The same wide eyed wonder. The same conversation.

One change though was that my companion for much of the season was meeting us but without his son, The Boy’s mate from school, due to an away weekend with Cubs. Installed in a concourse bar we discussed over a couple of pints, not the game, but some frankly unrepeatable stories from his days as a submariner in the Philippines. Every now and then The Boy would look up from his programme to tell us about our scouting network or Gully’s puzzle, but between the two of us there was barely a mention of the football. Twenty minutes before kick off we went to our seats, The Boy springing and me trudging. It turned out he was right all along.

I’m assuming that if you’re reading this you were either at the game or at least know the result so spoilers are not really an issue. As much as it pains me as a writer to put the ending in the middle the score frames every bit of commentary that follows. There were seven goals and more thrills and spills than Shaun William Ryder on a Waltzer. It’s not possible to draw in a seven goal game. But what is possible, in fact definite, in such a game, is that if those goals are shared as closely as possible, which they were, you are talking about two of the creakiest defences this side of the San Marino national side. Yet that is not what I’m going to talk about (and not just because I promised @TheMrGrumpy on twitter). Frankly, there are times when you have just got to accentuate the positive. And there were plenty of positives.

We came out of the gates like, well, like a submariner released in to Subic City. That we went one up after eight minutes, following two successive goalless draws on the road was surprising. What was not was that we had already spurned a better chance, Kayal playing one of the through balls of the season only for the chance to be screwed wide of the post. But it took next to no time to make amends as Teixiera cut in from the left and squeezed a shot under Randolph in the Birmingham goal who should have done better. Of course I don’t need to tell you what happened next because I think, Wigan game apart, it has happened every time we’ve taken the lead at home. Within five minutes the visitors were level. Somehow they whipped in a cross from their left despite three players round the winger (none of them tight including Bruno who’d been done like a kipper) and, while we cleared the cross we didn’t clear it far enough. A speculative shot came from long range from the untroubled Gleeson and went in via a Donaldson deflection. How. Many. Times. Sorry, this is meant to be positive. *clears head*

So positives (mainly). From there on in we bossed the midfield and the ball. Kayal was outstanding. Ince was, once again, colossal. Best, unfairly maligned by some, put himself about. Teixeira teased and prodded, almost never losing the ball. We fashioned chances that we didn’t take, noticeably Baldock taking an extra touch when through that lost the chance before Best shot first time when he could have taken a touch. Yet the two best chances of the half fell to City. Stockdale – yes him – pulled off an amazing reflex save on a one on one before normal, Brighton controlling it, service was resumed. One minute of injury time came up on the board. Birmingham attacked our right flank again. Bruno got done again. Shinnie was immediately picked up by other defenders but Bruno’s head had gone. In one of those slow-motion NOOOOOOOOOO moments from a movie I could see him diving in a second before he did. Stonewall penalty. Cue those of us who were not in the bar already holding our heads. Cue a smokebomb from the Birmingham fans. We had bossed the game and we were going in 2-1 down.

Well, lucky for us Stockdale didn’t think that way. Paul Caddis stepped up to take. I watched through my fingers. Stockdale saved it. What was left of the Amex went mental. The ref immediately blew so we didn’t have to acknowledge the smoke bomb. I do believe me and The Boy high fived. Down on the pitch Bruno jumped on Stockdale who had got him out of jail. The actual score was still 1-1 but it was our players who went in on a high.

I’ve just looked at my word count. This is already the most I have written about a game in a long while and we’re only at half time. I have five more goals to go through. If I described each in detail this may end up as war and peace. Suffice to say we needed to score next and we did. Two goals from Saint Calde, both lashing in from close range. A sublime finish from Teixeira after Baldock had a shot finely saved by Rudolph. Plenty of going mental. Plenty of confetti. Singing. Smiles. Good God it had been a long time. Of course we didn’t make it that easy. Kayal’s magnificent efforts (seriously, what a player he looks for £300K) saw him drained by the seventy second minute and Stephens came on to rapturous applause. To me, though, he didn’t look match sharp, bottling his first challenge and generally leaving a Gardner or JFC shaped hole in our midfield that Birmingham exploited. Having got more of the ball they used it to good effect to spray down our open left side, cross back in, hold it up in the penalty area and score two fairly identical goals themselves. One of those was in injury time, meaning no one quite knew when the final whistle was coming. Shrill whistles rang from every stand. And then he blew. 4-3 us. A WIN! ON A SATURDAY! AT HOME!

There are many players who will not want to see the highlights reel. All of Birmingham’s defence for one. Most of ours for another (Stockdale excepted). Yet here’s the final positive note. On most Saturdays my personal man of the match choice has been impossible due to no one earning it. This time it was impossible due to the number of candidates. Was it Ince who was all over the place? Kayal who only every made intelligent runs, played intelligent balls, bossed the game three hundred times more than our actual captain? Teixiera who scored twice, ran himself in to the ground and was a total menace. Two goal Saint Calde? Or Stockdale, without whom I suspect we would have spiralled in to another rancorous home defeat. Take your pick.

We left smiling.

Forest At Home 2014/15 – Mistakes

I barely know where to start with that game. Thirteen hours from the final whistle, hours that have included sleep, more beer that I should reasonably have had given that I need to go out for a four mile run this morning and attempting to deconstruct our failings with friends, other writers and disappointed small boys and I still don’t really know how we managed to lose it. But lose it we did and we are very much still in a relegation scrap.

Could I weave a narrative around my whole day as I sometimes do (what my friend Ian calls the Brian Johnston approach)? I could, but in that respect it was unspectacular. A good day with friends ruined by ninety minutes of football, as I later posted on my Facebook account. No, we’d better dive in and analyse one of the more frustrating afternoons at what is fast becoming The Theatre of Frustration.

Other games in Chris Hughton’s reign have been games of two halves. This was not. We lost our last home game 3-2 as well but this was no Arsenal either. A muted atmosphere greeted the players and the seats around me that have been empty most of the season were back to being empty again. However we didn’t start by giving our red-clad opposition too much respect. We started in the driving seat. In fact, for the first forty two minutes you could have been forgiven for thinking that we were Arsenal and Forest were, well, us. They may have had a new manager but I can’t remember seeing a less interested team at the Amex ever. We were first to the ball. Every challenge. We were creating chances. They weren’t. We had well over sixty percent possession. We had more shots, more corners, more chutzpah and more desire.

Yet, even then the mistakes had started. March, who was very much part of the audacious yet patient start was fouled in a manner that The Boy always describes as a “dirty hack”, injuring him. No yellow from the ref. Mistake. The injury was bad enough for him to have to come off. We brought on the only-just-fit Lua Lua to play seventy minutes. Mistake. We realised that Forest were not exactly crash hot at defending set pieces, not a mistake at all. We hit a perfect cross to an unmarked player. Not a mistake at all. Except that player was Greer (who had a howler all day long). Mistake. His header from probably no more than four yards out squirted wide when it was easier to score, and scoreboard wise at least the pressure stayed off Forest. Mistake.

Finally even we couldn’t keep missing and from a similar set piece Dunk was credited with finally applying the finish. Three minutes remained to just keep playing the way we were and we’d go in deservedly one up. I looked at Mark and mouthed “we just need not to concede now”. Mistake. The North Stand roared “Dougie, Dougie what’s the score?”. Mistake. Teixeira, who had been excellent up to then overcommitted to winning the ball back near the touchline and gave away a silly free kick. Mistake. The ball in seemed easy to deal with but no one had factored in Stockdale having one of his moments. He rushed out halfway but failed to clear the ball out or retreat, standing alone in no man’s land like an unlucky Tommy who’s misheard his CO. Collins couldn’t believe his luck, the ball DOBBLING in to the net off a post. Mistake.

We had dominated the first half 1-1. It was, in fact, not unlike the Cardiff home game, but, if anything was certain, it was that the second half would be different.  So it proved. Forest let us have far less time on the ball, putting in to clear focus that this was not a game of two halves, but of two sets of players, those having a fine afternoon, and those having a nightmare. In the former category were Teixiera (making a nuisance of himself), COG (likewise), Dunk (holding the defence together by himself) and, particularly Ince (rampaging, as per). In the latter were the aforementioned Greer and Stockdale, both full backs and, sadly, Calde (out of position). Not only did Forest find new belief, and more of the ball, they suddenly realised our full backs were about as good at defending as a Frenchman in a nice café. Far down our right Ince found himself covering for an exposed Bruno and having to commit an identical foul to the one that did for March (though this one drew a yellow from a referee who was inconsistent and, yes, prone to mistakes). The free kick was in a dangerous position on the edge of the box, and I think all of us at this point still had Forest’s opener in our minds. However it was still defendable. I still haven’t been able to watch the goal back so I may be unfair here, but basically Lansbury was able to shoot low on the ground and in to the far corner from an angle that was tighter than Paul Barber with a new spreadsheet. Yes it had been tapped to him. Yes it was well driven. But, still, how the hell did he score from there? Did it go through the wall? Was the wall badly positioned? Was Stockdale in the right place? There was at least one mistake there anyway. Now we weren’t drawing undeservedly, we were losing undeservedly and Forest were about to get the bit between their teeth.

Yet, as mistake ridden as we were, luck was also not on our side, Back we came for another charge and a great move produced a clear opening for Teixeira who hit the post, the ball rebounding harmlessly back to Darlow. Back came Forest Chris Burke easing down our left (and how many goals have we conceded from attacks down that side this season? It’s about 735 isn’t it?) and finding an unmarked Osborn to tap in with Greer in the same no man’s land that Stockdale had found earlier. 3-1.

With five minutes left on came Beram Kayal. And here is my last hope of us avoiding relegation. Chris Hughton had been my first hope but he can only work with the tools in his box. In Kayal we may just have a magic spanner. Here’s his game summary:

Came on. Immediately demanded the ball in an intelligent position. First pass went astray and apologies all round. Chased back when he lost it. Controlled spinning ball in the air dead with the top of his foot. Sprayed wonder pass with outside of foot. Scored (3-2). Nearly equalized with final kick of the game. It was quite some five minute cameo but why only five minutes. Delayed too long? Mistake. Or still carrying an injury, making him another Vicente which would be, you guessed it, a mistake.

I would have dearly loved that equalizer to have gone in as three quarters of the crowd seemed to be already in the train queue. Not us though. Afterwards I moaned along with the writers of three other blogs. We stayed for an extra beer to try to get over the frustration of the afternoon (most definitely not a mistake at the time but I bet I’ll consider it so when I’m on my run). On the train home we had a good laugh with some Forest fans who’d been making the most of our hospitality. “Don’t get relegated” said one. “We like coming down here”.

I bet you do lads. I bet you do.