Bolton Wanderers At Home 15/16 – That’s Entertainment

 

So, obviously, what I need to talk about after another victory, another three goals and another midfield masterclass from Beram Kayal is my bloody running. OK, I probably don’t, but the pledge to give up booze for three months isn’t going so well. That Harvey’s, when it’s poured looks like golden nectar especially when you have been dry for the previous eight days. And something is needed to lubricate the throat so that one can cheer one’s team to victory (apologies there, Prince Phillip appears to have taken over momentarily). Man cannot subsist on Voice Tablets alone.

Corruption and promise breaking are rife at Brighton But Only At Home towers. “Not drinking” has become “event drinking”. Meanwhile, since the appearance of the Cheese Eating Poker School last time out, The Boy has insisted on betting on the correct score at the end of the game among our group. This means quids in. He certainly is. Every game he fails to bring his pocket money and cons me for a programme. Now I have to put a correct score bet on for him too. No ripped up pie wrappers this week though, we simply chose what we thought the correct score would be at the end of the game. I went for 2-0. The Boy 3-0. @BrightonStevieP (who was back off the sick bench) went for 3-1 and his son 2-1. We scoffed a little at this, the writer and his statto son. How would BOLTON score a goal? They had Emile Bloody Heskey up front FFS (I said this, not The Boy, and more politely). Whoops.

Never, ever underestimate an opponent. Or indeed a friend. Another rule at Brighton But Only At Home is that I don’t watch the highlights before I write. I have broken this rule too this week. An hour before kick off I had a call from the leader of the Cheese Eating Poker School who normally never comes on a Saturday. He’d managed to get both a “pass” and a ticket for the game. The only issue was that it was in a different stand to us. Here’s where the ticket staff at the Albion are brilliant as he managed to negotiate a transfer to sit with us (it helped that the seats were of identical value). Such transactions take time and so it was he arrived bang on ten minutes. We all said hello, as you do, and then looked back on to the pitch to see Jamie Murphy racing clear of the Bolton defence. A split second later he’d managed a perfect recreation of his third against Brentford and was wheeling off in celebration. So, if I hadn’t watched back the highlights I’d have been unable to tell you it was the result of a brilliant through ball from deep in our own half by Kayal, or that Murphy had burned up their defence like a greyhound on speed. But I just have. So there.

That should have been it, shouldn’t it. That early goal to calm the nerves, at home against a team who were bottom of the table. We should kick on from there. Especially with Heskey doing his best Oil Tanker impression. Surely it was just a matter of how many we’d score now. 2-0, on reflection, was looking a bit pessimistic. But if that’s what I was thinking then I think our players were too. The difference is they are paid not to. Concentration for ninety minutes needs to be the watchword (hang on, that’s more than one word. Watchwords?) and concentrate we did not. A nice spell of possession for them ended with the ball being slipped out to their left where Bruno, not for the first time, was slightly out of position. This was also enough to mesmerise our centre backs in to unforgivable lethargy as the nine hundred and sixty four year old Heskey stood alone at the back stick and converted the inevitable low cross for 1-1. Twenty two minutes and my betting slip was metaphorically ripped up, not for the first time in my life.

To our credit we realised something needed to be done about this situation and we laid siege to their goal. Amos, in Bolton’s sticks started to have a blinder (more of goalkeeping blinders later by the way), keeping out a brilliant long range shot from Kayal after good work down our left. Then more good work from Kayal saw him slip through his Israeli partner Hemed who was tripped from behind in the box. Referee Robert Lewis, having a bizarre day that also included a text book tackle in centre midfield, before going off injured, failed to give the spot kick. Boos rang round the ground.

The boos soon turned to delirious cheers. We scored what I tweeted at the time was the “best team goal seen at The Amex”. I’m still struggling to recall a better one (Ulloa versus Palace in the Paddy’s Day Massacre was suggested) though this most perfect of team goals had a brilliant individual contribution. From deep in our half the defence released Knockaert on the right (team move one). He ran over half the length of the pitch, beating Spearing first for skill, then for strength and finally for speed, so that the latter even failed in his attempt to push Knockaert over. A low cross found Zamora who was tightly marked. Hemed was clear behind him. Surely Bobby hadn’t seen him, as we all could in the WSU? Using the force Bobby sensed his presence and produced a back heeled flick of such perfect weight that all Tomer had to do was tap in to an empty net. 2-1. So stuff not watching the highlights. It’s a goal I could watch over and over again, and have. There was still time for Amos to pull off another stunning save from a close range effort after brilliant work down the right from Bruno and Knockaert and we went in 2-1 up at half time.

Though it had been a magical attacking half our lack of concentration at the back had nearly done for us so no doubt this was being enforced down in the dressing room. Much like the nine year olds I coach this was going in one ear and out the other as we tried desperately to talk ourselves out of the game. Fair play to Bolton, a side who were bottom did not park the bus but had a go at us whenever they could, and they made it a VERY entertaining spectacle (for the neutral anyway, my blood pressure was through the roof at times). But we made it so hard for ourselves. Firstly we failed to defend a set piece, a long free kick in to the box this time which we never got on top of. The inevitable second ball came out and Spearing struck it invitingly through a crowd of players and in to the centre of the net. 2-2. Do we practice set pieces? Ever?

Worse was nearly to come. From our set piece a long, hopeful clearance was launched by Bolton, but luckily Bruno had it covered. The full back with the best technical touch in the division could not make up his mind whether to trap it or volley it back in. He did neither and miss kicked hopelessly, letting in the menacing Liam Feeney clear on goal. Had he scored I have no doubt we’d have lost, but luckily out came Stockdale to block. We celebrated like it was a goal.

And then, finally, they cocked up at the back just as badly. Amos rolled it out for a change but some ponderous play saw Kayal rob the ball back. He put in his unmarked mate Hemed (how well those two link up at times) but carried on his run. Hemed produced his own Bobby-like flick and Kayal curled it low in to the corner. 3-2. More bedlam.

That knocked the stuffing out of Bolton. The much vaunted Zach Clough came on and did nothing as we pushed for a fourth. First Zamora missed the far post by inches with a shot on the turn, then his replacement Lua Lua forced an excellent save from Amos from a free kick, and finally we were done after six minutes of injury time caused mainly by an injury to the ref himself.

Some great performances from some. Kayal, Stockdale and Murphy can be particularly proud while Knockaert and Zamora’s contributions to THAT goal will live long in the memory. A slightly less great performance from some others. But three points is three points.

This morning a two hour twenty “easy” run (ha!) stretches out in front of me. Still I had a celebration pint. Then I went for dinner with friend and had carb loading in the form of curry and rice and five a day in the form of fermented grape juice. This morning will be hard work but, if I struggle, I will just visualise our second goal.

 

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Brentford at Home 15/16 – Magic

Three. That’s the magic number. Last night it represented our goals, our points and our margin of victory but some of you will remember it’s also a rap. Now why on earth am I putting in a tenuous link to a rap about the number three? As ever I’m jumping to the end of the story at the beginning of the post so you’ll have to wait while we explore the rest of an extraordinary day.

It started unpromisingly. If winter brings disease then February surely brings epidemics and my kids’ school has been hit with a couple of them. By far the worst is a flu one. Not the jokey “it’s a cold really” man-flu but actual influenza that leaves you with a temperature, aches and zero energy, unable to rise from bed for days. I haven’t had this (yet) but both kids and my wife has and my regular train and game buddy @BrightonStevieP was right in the middle of it and bailed for the comforts of sofa and Now TV.

When it goes it leaves you with a barking cough, deep in your chest. Both kids have had this too. And the great thing about winter is that, even if you are immune to the death flu you can still get the cough bit on its own. This I have. Right now. I figured I could get through a game ok just so long as I didn’t have to sing or shout anything at the ref. In this respect fate was to mock me and save me too. It’s a funny old game.

As we travelled over The Boy kept up a monologue (because I was struggling to speak) about the success (or otherwise) of Chris Hughton as Brighton manager. The gist of it was that he had done amazingly to keep a poor side up last season (check) and that this season was exceeding every expectation in terms of games won (check again). Then he caught me with one of those really earnest nine-year-old looks. “Where he really needs to improve though Daddy is winning games by more than one goal. We haven’t done it all season and I never quite relax.” A pundit’s career awaits son.

I might have been missing my regular travel buddy but we were not alone up in the West Upper gods. The Cheese-Eating Poker School were heavily represented and this meant one thing and one thing only. Ok two things. First and foremost it meant putting a quid in and drawing a correct score bet at half and full time. These were written out on a ripped up pie wrapper. And there you were lamenting the demise of the branded box. I put in for The Boy, thus corrupting him for all time (look away now social services), and drew 1-0 us for myself at half time which seemed like the second most reasonable bet after 0-0. The other thing it meant though was singing. Lots of it. You can undoubtedly hear the leader of the Cheese-Eating Poker School on match nights even before you see him and I was going to need to sing, voice or no voice. Here again fate came to my rescue as our mate in the row behind produced a huge packet of something called Voice Tablets which I believe are banned in several major countries. They did the trick.

This was just as well as there was actually plenty to shout about. The game started off as openly as possible with either side looking to hit on the break at pace. Brighton looked to use the wings, getting Knockaert and Murphy involved from the first minute, while Brentford had some early success with long balls over the top or in to the gap between Ridgwell and Dunk. Knockaert had come close before many had taken their seats after a final pre-game pint while Dunk got his error in early, presenting Judge with a chance that he wasted. The latter then profited from one of those balls over the top but Stockdale was alert to a goal-bound shot that was nonetheless straight at him. With 10 minutes on the clock we looked at each other and agreed that 0-0 was the worst ticket to be holding. So it proved.

As the game moved in to maturity several things began to unwind. The first of these threads was that Zamora was clearly not 100% fit and was using the offside rule to get a regular rest. The second was that Brentford abandoned the one tactic that was working for them in favour of “nice” football that was totally ineffective. And the third was that Knockaert was having the time of his life. He was a total pest from minute one and, inevitably, he eventually opened the scoring.

Murphy had been set free down the left and did very well to keep in a ball that looked to be going for a throw. Knockaert sat on the edge of the area looking for a cut back that in my mind’s eye took about ten minutes to reach him. When it did the pace was too great and the ball bobbled in front of him, seemingly losing the chance. But somehow he managed to turn the lack of balance in to a skilful defender-beating move and slide a shot along the ground in to the far corner. I needed more Voice Tablets.

After that it was all us. As fast and skilful as Brentford, and particularly Judge, had been going forward, they were equally slow and ponderous at the back. The Albion’s wingers smelled blood like particularly hungry lions and while Zamora continued to struggle, Hemed wanted in on the action too. Not long after we’d taken the lead he wasted an arguably better chance as he was put clear in down the left channel, but his shot hit the side netting. Soon though he would have his restorative goal, an all Israeli affair. Kayal received a free kick centrally and used it to break neatly down our right. His cross was perfect and Hemed bulleted the perfect centre forward’s header home in to the corner. Two –nil and the West Upper was rocking.

That pretty much did it as a contest. As the pre-match whip round was handed to the recipient with supposedly the least likely correct score, I spent half time praying that we didn’t do a QPR. Luckily Brentford don’t have Charlie Austin and we have a far stronger squad than December’s injury ravaged affair (I really need to write an opinion piece about how good our window was but hopefully even the moaners saw what a player we have in Knockaert last night).

Wilson for Zamora at half time. Injury or not the right move as the former’s pace troubled Brentford far more. Later Crofts and Sidwell would come on to strengthen the midfield with Knockaert and Murphy (also having an excellent game) rotating around a buzzing Wilson. Brentford had a lot of the ball in non-dangerous areas but kept giving it away at crucial moments. We sat too deep, as is our wont, without causing ourselves too many issues. The Boy clutched his correct full time pie wrapper score bet of 2-0. He was probably a minute or so off it when we broke and Murphy brilliantly beat the offside trap and raced clear before finishing coolly in to the corner. 3-0. A THREE GOAL WIN! Told you it was the magic number.

A sensible father would have got his son home then to beat the traffic. We stayed for one celebratory beer. It turned out to be the decision of the night as old-school and new-school Brighton merged (and here’s the number rap link). My friend’s wife who has been working in Africa was in front of us in the beer queue (she needs to stay here for good luck). An old mate from my local when I was young and stupid was in front of us on the train platform. And the Cheese Eating Poker School turned out to know Sid from CBeebies. I thought the boy was handling it particularly well until we got in the cab at Brighton Station that our post match beer had necessitated. “OH MY GOD THAT WAS SID! Why did everyone call him Gary?”