Preston North End at Home – Back to the Future

At the end of this one I was hanging with my entourage* when my friend Tim wandered over to chat. He asked, as he often does, what I’d be writing about. I have to be honest, I gave a bit of a blank look. “Not sure. I’ll be lucky to get a hundred words out of it” I eventually replied. I realised, as we headed for my friend’s house for a large bowl of stew and further restorative glass of wine, that I would need some sort of literary device.

*wavy lines and spooky music*

Come with me to pretty much halfway between the release of Back to the Future and its sequel, the imaginatively named Back to the Future II. It is 1987, it is a dark evening, I am sixteen and watching the news (because I was a fun kind of sixteen year old) on one of the four analogue television channels available to us back in the day. After the news Michael Fish came on to do the weather. This he started off, unusually, by stating that an old lady was mad. Or, at least, that the one who had contacted him to say a hurricane was approaching was wrong. I’m sure he would have added the phrase “the deluded old bat” if he could but I digress. ‘That’s ok then’ I thought and went to bed. I was fun, remember?

The next morning my alarm went off at six in the morning and I got up to do my paper round. I was careful not to wake anyone else in the house and tiptoed down in the dark as was my habit. It certainly sounded wet and windy out and, oddly, I could not turn on the kitchen light. ‘Bulb must have gone’ I thought. I got on my bike and cycled off to the paper shop at the speed of Sir Bradley Wiggens in the Olympics, for the shop was to the west of me. I got to the shop and it was closed. No one was about. At all. Anywhere. I looked down to Hove seafront and saw bits of beach hut blowing round in the air. ‘Bugger this’ I thought and headed home. It took me half an hour to do a mile.

Why had I gone out in the Great Storm to do a paper round? Because I needed the money for the weekend. Brighton were at home to Preston North End and I wanted to go, as I had been to every home game that season.  “Never mind” said my dad. “They’ll have to pay you and the game will be off anyway.” Forty eight hours later I was walking through the ruins of my school via its playing field with my friend Colin to the North Stand. Along with 6041 others I watched the game which did go ahead (and, yes, I did get paid). To this day it is one of the worst games of football I have ever seen. It had 0-0 written all over it from minute one. By seventy minutes I was willing it over. Older people in the North Stand were doing that raising an invisible pint glass gesture to one another that suggested that they would be much better off in the pub – indeed most probably wished they’d never left, but luckily this was the eighties and the pubs weren’t open all day. otherwise the crowd would have been about twelve.

So, Brighton v Preston has form. And not in a good way. What would be needed to avoid such a snore fest this time round? Well, we would certainly need our midfield to be at its creative and competitive best. We would need an opposition who weren’t negative from minute one, eyeing up a 0-0 like it was the World Cup. And we would need our strikers to take their chances. Getting out of the day without further decimation to the squad would be a bonus. Oh dear.

Back to the Future II imagines the world in October 2015 from the perspective of a couple of years after the Great Storm. It thought we would all be riding hover boards, but that the concept of time travel would still be unique to Doc and his Delorean. Twenty three odd thousand Brighton fans, however, time travelled yesterday back to last season. With Kayal out suspended and Stephens missing, presumed injured, Crofts and Ince would have to run the midfield. Instead, they went about proving that while our strongest eleven is very strong indeed, our squad is still fairly weak. Where there had been midfield dominance and creative tricks, now there was panic and sideways passes. Where clear cut chances had been made and taken, and I had been certain we would score at least once, now we looked at the goal like it was an alien object. And this was just in the first half. In the second we made an ordinary, physical, negative Preston side look like Manchester Bloody City.

It was painfully apparent by about forty six minutes that we would not score. On fifty The Boy started reading his programme and REALLY mucking about. By seventy he was willing the game finished. If he’d been older he would have done that raising an invisible pint glass gesture. What we really needed now was for the ref to blow before any real damage was done to the squad. Just then Bong went down on the left touch line as if he had been shot. He didn’t move and a stretcher was called for.

At the time of writing what I know about the injuries is what everyone knows from the press conference and subsequent tweets. Stephens’ injury is hopefully minor. Greer and Lua Lua are close. Bong had hurt his knee, which I’m taking could be anything from a simple twist to ligament damage. Expect Rosenior to fill in at left back at Reading and a juggle all the way around the midfield, and possibly defence, to cope (for example could Calde come in at right back with Bruno playing the Rosenor role? Could we instead go 4-5-1 from outset?).

What is certain is that we are in to the phase of the season where your squad players need to be stood up and counted. If yesterday is anything to go by we might just want to put that fizz back in the cellar. Still, with other results going our way we are still undefeated and still four points clear so the collateral damage – for now – is minimal. And I got more than a hundred words out of this puppy. Thank you Michael Fish. Thank you Michael J Fox. Thank you Preston, producing memorably crap games since 1987.

*having a pint with some friends and our kids, the kids weren’t drinking

Bristol City at Home 2015/16 – BOBBY!!!!

A much below par Albion led the statistics but survived a few close scares before going ahead late on with a brilliant finish from Bobby Zamora. No, you’re not reading a late dispatch from Leeds, your correspondent having fallen asleep after too much proper beer and being bored to sleep by Geoff Boycott lite types, you’re reading last night’s. For the second game in a row we won 2-1. For a second game in a tow we really didn’t play that well. For a second game in a row HE scored the winner, All hail the King. *bows*

Perhaps now the brass are starting to get it. Perhaps they always did. In a league as competitive as The Championship it’s all about fine margins. No one THRASHED us last season they said (apart from Derby away). Just bad luck. A bad season. That’s all. Yet here we are the following season on the twenty first of the month we never win in (except this year) and we are top, and we are undefeated. We have not THRASHED anyone. But with a manager who has plan A, B and C and strikers who can finish those fine margins have been turned in our favour. Draws where there were defeats. One goal margin wins where there were one goal margin defeats. It’s not an accident.

But this is starting to read like a normal report or even like one of last season’s rants so, without further ado, let’s go to the pub.

Being Boy-less gave me a rare opportunity to take in some of my much beloved boozers around Brighton Station. Firstly the Yeoman, a pub that had once specialised in sausages and been run by the only Warwickshire fan in Brighton and that now does a homely, friendly atmosphere. Then the Evening Star, a pub that unashamedly does BEER. One of the wonderful things about this new era at The Albion is the number of people who want to go. What I mean by that is that, back in the day, I met my football going mates at the football. They would be the familiar faces on the North Stand terraces, at away grounds (and I’m going back to the late 80s when a good trip up North would see two hundred of us turn up) and in the pubs. Now my friends from every day life want to come to football too and have also become my Brighton friends. Sure, the pretendence last night was 23k with only maybe 20k bums on seats, sure the queues for train and pie were shorter than normal (I’m not complaining) but an Albion game is still an EVENT. Town buzzed. After three pints of lovely beer so did I. Voice oiled. Game on.

Greer was out injured leaving BFG to partner Dunk. With Murphy still suspended Rosenior continued in right midfield. Else it was a very familiar looking Albion side, another reason I believe we are doing well. In this league you don’t need rotation, You need partnerships and familiarity. Just look at Burnley two seasons ago. Or Dunk and BFG last night. Yes, our back four played like strangers. OK, so Bruno had all of his usual sublime touches and attacking flair but the other three looked like they’d been shipped in from the Dog. and Duck Or the Evening Star. Bristol City noticed.

Let’s give some credit here. Bristol City were much livelier than their league position gave them credit for, and, in particular, their number 22 Jonathan Kodjia was excellent. The proverbial pain in the backside all night his use of space and excellent pass set up left back Derrick Williams, hurtling in to the box, to give them a shock lead after just 17 minutes. Obviously they used this movement and menace, and our lack of presence in defence (and increasingly in midfield where the normally excellent Stephens was having a stinker) to dominate the game right? WRONG. They sat back, invited us on to them and wasted time in annoying and obvious fashion (obvious that is to everyone except referee Iain Williamson who had a 100% massive stinker all round). This meant we dominated possession and the BBC Website statistics and that possession should have seen us level, Baldock wasteful on a one on one and then having us out of our chairs in celebration as he was put through wonderfully, controlling and producing a neat chip that was not powerful enough and was cleared off the line.

The second half was just as lively. Finally we got to go mental as Baldock got what he wanted, tapping in a brilliant Bruno run and cross to finally settle down the natives who were getting restless, my drinking buddies and me included. The second half, in fact, saw more action that a Chuck Norris movie and much of it was just as hackneyed. Luke Freeman will have no idea how he was denied a penalty and booked for diving after being brought down in the box by the BFG, with our hearts in our mouths instead of Real Ale for a change. Kodjia remained lively and Stockdale made two wonderful saves, tipping over a fierce drive and then brilliantly getting a foot to a one on one with Dunk lying in an actual sleeping bag with his jamas on.  It needed tightening and Hughton made two subs in rapid sucession. Firstly Crofts came on to narrow the midfield, then Zamora for Hemed.

The latter made an immediate impact, holding the ball up and causing City problems of their own with his movement and positioning. And, so it had to be, that despite City having an excellent half, we took the lead. It was one of THOSE strikes. Ok, maybe not the volley against Halifax or the chip at Bury but classic Bobby nonetheless. We’d fashioned the chance out wide but looked to have lost it in a game of ping pong before Zamora, seemingly not even facing the right way to do it, twisted and produced the sweetest of controlled left foot volleys in to the bottom corner. Cue bedlam.

That’s the difference. Winning when we’re playing badly. Bringing ON a player who can score goals like that. Riding our luck but making it as well. Not a classic but who cares. We. Are. Top of the League. We went to the pub to celebrate.

Cardiff At Home 2015/16 – The Curse of October

Ah good, it’s October. My favourite month ever he typed in the non-existent sarcasm font. I love October the way I love Crystal Palace, brussel sprouts and being woken up at five in the morning by a vomiting child when I have a hangover.

It is starting to get cold in the mornings. Annoyingly we seem to be having summer now in the daytimes rather than during summer but that just makes the morning colder. Soon the storms will be back in from the Atlantic and my back fence will take a pounding for the next six months. Not a euphemism. It is starting to get dark. I am waking up in the dark and not even when my children are vomiting but just to get to work or go for a run. Leaves are dropping, mainly on to pavements already covered in dogshit, so that they create some kind of hideous, smelly, red and brown oil slick, primed to send you flying to your stinky doom. It is too cold to barbeque but not cold enough to stew. And the Albion never win. Never, ever, ever do we win in October. It’s become a greater quest than the sub two hour marathon and with just as much success. Yesterday was no different.

Of course this season has been different so far. It’s hard to abandon all hope when you’re top of the league and undefeated. Our crew at the back of the West Upper was much changed. Out went my regular travel partner to a holiday in Turkey. Out too were my friend’s three boys who were all on a Scout hike. In came Boy’s Oldest Friend and his dad. Whether it was this, the fact that we were top of the league, or the unseasonal warmth I don’t know but The Boy was VERY EXCITED INDEED. He showed this by talking non stop.

I should have seen the warning signs that morning when I came down to see him already up. He’d tuned himself in to Sky Sports (and there was me thinking all eight year olds watch Scooby Doo) and was merrily yelling at Alan Pardew. I’m not sure if this was a proud parenting moment or the instant I realised I’d created a monster.

By the time we got to Brighton I had fielded approximately six hundred and twenty three questions, mostly surrounding the thorny issue of if we would win. These I fielded in a rational way. On the one hand, I mused, we would be missing Lua Lua and Murphy and Cardiff would be very organised. On the other hand Hemed and Baldock would be back and Stephens and Kayal would start in midfield so we could be hopeful  that our key partnerships would fire. I should have just said “no chance son, it’s October”.

On arrival we checked the teams. Dunk had come in to the back four to deal with the aerial threat posed by Kenwyne Jones. March replaced Murphy with Manu on the bench. Hemed and Baldock were indeed up front. We went to our seats and The Boy launched a non-stop monologue covering everything from Stockdale’s gloves to Kenwyne Jones’ loan spell with Bournemouth.

As well as watching (and talking) he also plays football on Sundays for a team. I help out with the coaching. Recently he has been playing at right back and I thought I would both shut him up and help him by getting him to focus on how Bruno was playing. After all, he’s been fantastic this season. So, typically, after just five minutes, we got a display of how not to do it. Caught hopelessly out of position Cardiff launched an attack down our wide open right flank where there should have been a Bruno but there wasn’t. Scott Malone, in acres of space, sped down the wing and produced a perfect low cross for Joe Mason to tap in from close range. 1-0 them. It was to be the last time they went in to our half of the pitch in the first half.

We dominated the ball. We dominated the territory. We had a lot of shots, not many of them that dangerous admittedly. Cardiff sat on their lead, wasting time and punting it clear. No one panicked. Not the team. Not Chris Hughton. Not the fans (“it’s coming” the bloke behind me was saying and we all nodded sagely). Not The Boy who was now on a soliloquy about the ref that included repeated uses of the word “idiot”. Baldock went close twice, forcing a double save and putting a header just wide. Then, finally we scored, a cross from the right smartly hooked in by that man Dale Stephens. If you’d heard me on the Albion Roar you’d have heard a debate about who was the boss of midfield, Stephens or Kayal. I’d gone for Kayal but was about to admit defeat. Just at that moment Bong was caught as badly out of position as Bruno had been and Kayal made a twenty yard dash to cover and executed the perfect tackle. It summed up our dominance neatly. If only we hadn’t been so careless in the opening fifteen minutes or so.

The second half was more of the same. Albion created chance after chance, particularly through Solly March who was justifying his selection with some electric wing play, though, as ever, the final touch wasn’t quite there.  Baldock really should have given us the lead from one of the openings down the left, a free header from yards out, wastefully glanced wide. March himself went close with a shot before Cardiff really should have scored, the defence getting in a terrible muddle with Stockdale caught out of position, only for Dunk to clear off the line. We would miss an even worse one.

With time ticking down, Cardiff wasting more time and their fans celebrating a draw (and how far we have come in a year that away fans now celebrate draws at The Amex rather than expecting them) we had a set piece on the left. Up came the centre backs. I have lost in my mind’s eye exactly how the chance was set up (The Boy was on to a shouty rant about hats at this point) but I can still see the finish in mega slow motion with the word “NOOOOOOOOOO” being comically shouted over the top. The ball skidded across an open goal. There was no Cardiff player in sight. All we had to do was tap it in from one yard and yet Elvis, and then Greer, somehow managed to send it wide. I can only blame the curse of October.

1-1 it finished. On the way out I saw a boy in a brand new away shirt with 4 – Hünemeier printed on it. ‘I wonder if they charged extra for printing the umlaut?’ I thought.