Sheffield Wednesday Play Off Semi – Pride

I haven’t got long to write this. In one of those quirks of fate I have to head off to get to somewhere very far away for work today. Last night we got in at eleven and I went to bed as soon as the adrenaline had stopped pumping round my body, which took a while but no way could I write. I’m not sure I can now.

Somehow telling the story of the day seems inadequate. We booked a bus instead of going by train as I was taking The Boy – no way was he missing this – and the information at the weekend was that the trains would be carnage. This meant little changes to the routine like entering the WSU from the other end, like going straight up to the seat, like having his normal a hundred and one questions played out in front of a small captive audience with suburban Brighton as the backdrop. Normally I’d throw something about superstition in there but it was an odd feeling. Having been convinced we wouldn’t do it all weekend a sort of calm optimism was descending on me and my bus mates. It was heightened when Sidwell and Knockaert were named in the team after all. We could do this.

So here I am, writing when I have no time, telling you about buses when I should instead be telling you about the enormous pride I feel for our club, for its owners and managers, for it players and for its fans. In our wonderful stadium. In our never say die attitude. In our pies and our proper ale. In our decency towards a set of fans who wouldn’t know humility if it Tangoed them (I’m very much Team Hull in the final, a set of fans who acted with dignity and respect in defeat at The Amex in a direct contrast with Wednesday). I’m telling you about the pride because I cannot, sadly, tell you about the achievement. It wasn’t for the lack of trying.

I have never heard noise like it in a home game. We’ve had some decent atmospheres over the Amex years no matter what people may say on NSC. Alan Mullery once famously opened the dressing room door so his players could hear a packed Goldstone and told them “that’s your team talk”. But at two nil down, with a depleted side, we had been asked to sing and to believe and we did both. How the players responded.

We went at Wednesday with pace and purpose. Twenty five thousand flags waved and twenty five thousand voices joined in the chant. Were there even any away fans in? We battered their goal. Knocky hit the post with an early free kick, just as Hemed had hit the post early on up there. Fine margins. We created chance after chance, song after song, sweat visibly dripping off the players, pain killers forgotten in surges of adrenaline, controlled this time unlike at Boro. Despite that early miss we scored early, Dunk forcing the ball in from close range. I thought The Amex was going to take off and fly to Woodingdean.

Unfortunately that was as good as it got. A lucky equaliser, a cross going straight in after Dunk was pushed away from clearing it, foul not given. Westwood in their goal having the night of his life. Five or six frightened Wednesday players on the line for every corner. Their constant time wasting. All served to frustrate us as we peppered their goal to no avail. And so, at the end, all that was left was pride.

I hope it’s enough. I hope the majority of this amazing group of players stays for another crack and I hope our incredibly impressive, professional, dignified, thoughtful manager does too. It CAN be done next season. I don’t rate Villa at all. Norwich are beatable. Newcastle will probably challenge for the title. But Boro and Burnley are gone and one other challenger will be too. We finished above everyone else this time round, by a considerable margin.

So we can go up next time. We need to remember that feeling though. Not the crushing pain of losing two “cup finals” in less than two weeks, nor the injustice of losing Stephens or bad luck with injury. It’s that feeling of Tomer Hemed standing on the advertising hordings at Fulham, arms splayed in celebration, of Skalak cracking in from 35 years, of the dignity and togetherness of Shoreham tributes, of coming from behind to beat Charlton 3-2, of giving Boro a damn good go in their own back yard with only ten men, of beating near neighbours Brentford, QPR and Fulham with such ease at home. That feeling of watching Knockaert dribble round countless players like a kid in the playground, watching Dunk and Goldson mopping up headers for fun, of Stockdale saving point blank, Kayal and Stephens like a pair of terriers in midfield, Bruno impossibly controlling a poor air-borne pass with one toe, Rosenior bleeding blue and white for his new club. Bobby coming back and scoring winners. Of all of us, for a change, singing the same song at the same time, non-stop. This isn’t where it ends. It’s where it begins. If all that happened this season just think what we can do in the next one.

 

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Middlesbrough Away 15/16 – Gutted

“Are you going to write this up?” asked Steve on the train home. “Erm, maybe” I replied. “Of course you will” he teased me. Here I am.

First things first, congratulations to Middlesbrough. Despite everything that went on yesterday they deserved to go up over the course of a season in which they were better than us over forty six games. Even if it was only by two goals (and it was, in the end) they knew what they had to do yesterday and they did it. And that squad has massively under achieved. Whereas Burnley have spent a whole season with a squad built on team work and team ethic and somehow bullying results, Boro look to have a squad of real quality and I predict they’ll do better in the Premier League than Burnley.

But let’s make no bones about it, that was a “professional” performance, massively helped by a hone town referee. People who complained about our theatrics, cheap tricks and arrogance under Poyet should watch that back. At times it was like seeing a new group of trainee wrestlers on the first day of a course entitled “how to fall without hurting yourself”. Even when there was a genuine injury (and I’m not for a moment disputing the gash on Ramirez’s leg) it was unintentional, a result of a fifty fifty, and Mike Dean changed his mind under influence, changed his mind, quite clearly in front of thirty four thousand witnesses and plenty more on television.

I’ve said in the past I don’t often watch incidents back before I write. I’d watched the Stephens one back before we got to Kings Cross. That decision, the fact that every fifty-fifty decision went the home team’s way and that the game ended before the appointed eight minutes of added on time (let alone the additional that should have been added for the Boro bench shamefully preventing a throw in) due to a pitch invasion were discussed in length on the way home. Stephens clearly wins the ball, is clearly looking at the ball, is clearly going in one footed, and catches Ramirez accidentally in his follow through. It’s a little clumsy, worth a warning and a yellow and that’s exactly what Dean was going to give until the yellow card was knocked out of his hand.

These were the things that were discussed on the way home and not just by us. Tony Bloom was on our train back to Kings Cross. I hope it’s not giving away too much to say that exactly the same things were playing on the mind of our amazing owner.

But this sounds like sour grapes. In the spirit of fairness (and this blog isn’t meant to be fair, it’s written wholeheartedly from the perspective of Brighton fans) we were not the better side in the first half. Boro were. To explain you need to go right back to the start of the story which, as usual, is not quite where I started.

We were picked up at the crack of birdshit in a cab driven by Glenn Murray’s father-in-law. Would that be an omen of any kind? We’d see. The trains have been dreadful recently with, it seems, barely a guard to be had across the whole Southern network. We had no such problems and our journey was smooth all the way to Darlington, save the notable absence of a ham and cheese croissant. Steve at least had that injustice to focus on. With big game nerves hitting me I had no such thing to distract me. Yes there was beer in the buffet car. Yes our (Brighton fan) seat neighbours were nice. Yes the train was on time. I tried to read the paper and couldn’t, tried to have a conversation and didn’t make sense. All the way to Darlington nothing would get in the way of my nerves.

Then, as if by magic, Northern Rail screwed the rest of our journey up, decanting eight inter city carriages in to two small ones, redolent of a tiny bus. When that was not enough to hold those on the platform they made us change trains, so that we went through the whole squeezing on process again. This was effing annoying. The only thing to focus on now was the armpit of the bloke next to me. I certainly forgot about the match.

So perhaps the players should have been denied their favourite breakfast foodstuff and ferried to the ground in a small mini. That would have changed the focus of their energy, necessary because they started with entirely too much adrenaline. Knockaert was an accident or a booking waiting to happen. We were nervous at the back while, upfront, every touch was just too heavy or just too tricky. We were playing with the occasion in our legs, all except Stephens who was rising to it. One player elevated is not enough when you’re up against defenders as good as Ayala (easily the best in the league) and Friend. Nor when you are defending free kicks as good as the one unleashed by Ramirez.

Train talk would later centre on if there had been an offside. All I know is that I was pretty much in line with the goal and it looked ok to me, Ramirez finding the back post, Nugent touching back and Stuani tapping in to an empty net in a perfect training ground move. The Riverside that had been buzzing from half an hour before kick off exploded.

It had been a great atmosphere too and we were certainly playing our part. Our 2,500 fans had greeted our players with a hail of yellow, blue and white. We’d sung non stop but we were competing with thirty thousand and an effing drum. Like the players our match day adrenaline was being wasted. And now we needed two goals. Two. At Boro. Past Friend and Ayala. Not going to be easy.

Even though we were one down I was concerned about the performance. No way was Hughton going to be able to communicate messages in that din. “They need to get in for half time” I said to Steve and he nodded.

This is where we are so lucky with our manager. He imparted clear and calming instructions, brought on Wilson for the bullied Baldock and sent out the players early so that they could chill out on the pitch rather than build up another head of steam in the changing room. And it worked.

Where Boro were the better side in the first half, we now came back in to it. I can’t claim we dominated it but we won the half 1-0 and that’s a fact. Finally winning a free kick of our own in a similar position to the one Boro scored from, Knockaert produced a ball of similar stunning quality to the far side and Stephens headed in, whether deliberately or not. Little eyes, back stick as Big Ron used to say.

Now we went mental and, for the first time, they went silent. Fear gripped players and fans alike. Now our songs could be heard. Now there was a glimmer of a chance. And then…….

I go back to the start. I’m not saying it wasn’t a tough tackle but the ball was there to be won, and win it Stephens did. Contrast that with the stamp that Barton produced on Kayal. Yet the former was a straight red, only after Boro protests, while the latter went unpunished despite ours.

The Burnley game was decided on that non-decision as far as I’m concerned. Yesterday, though, the discipline needed to play with ten men, combined with Boro’s playmaker going off, gave us more of the ball. We certainly looked to play better with ten. The only issue was we had less of a cutting edge. Murphy was sacrificed for Sidwell and Wilson found himself constantly pulled wide in to left wing, leaving Hemed isolated against the best centre back in the league.  Lots of the ball. No threat. The only time we looked like a Poyet team instead of them.

We’ll miss him in the playoffs but we ARE in the playoffs. We go again. This season is far from over and fans and players alike need to pick themselves up. It’s easy to say, another thing to do, but we have a simple 4/1 chance of going up. Any other odds are meaningless. The playoffs ARE a lottery. But they are a lottery that we have ample experience of. Can we go one better or even two better this time?

The journey home was alternately morbid, funny and philosophical as the Black Sheep Ale went down like water. Stopping for one final pint in Portslade’s Only Decent Pub we reflected on an amazing season, friendships cemented, joy and tears shared, the fun we’ve had. When you’ve had a season like that it’s only right that you make it last as long as possible, right?

 

Middlesbrough Preview

Thus is an incorrectly named blog. Brighton But Mainly At Home would be more accurate but I’m almost a brand now, what with the running and the Albion Roar, so the name stays.

As The Boy has got older so I’ve slowly returned to away games, mainly with him but not exclusively. This is why Fulham away is lovingly recalled in these very pages and QPR isn’t. At Fulham there were child minding duties included. Not so QPR which, to be honest, is a bit of a blur.

About three quarters of the way in to this amazing season Steve and I decided we were going to take the boys to Middlesbrough if we could. We figured, even at that stage, that it would serve one of three purposes; purpose one, massive party to celebrate our already secured promotion, purpose two, to thank Chris and the lads for a magnificent effort even though we’d just missed out or purpose three, game that decided our whole season.

It was a plan that only half came to fruition. When the tickets were released we had enough points but they didn’t. Since the tickets were released block by block, stand by stand we couldn’t be confident of sitting with them if we managed to pick some up later, which we didn’t. So, tomorrow, Steve’s wife is graciously having a herd of boys from the school round to hers to watch the game on telly while Steve and I bugger off to the biggest game we’ve played since Hereford. Result.

A result is what we will need though for, as anyone who has been in Brighton over the last few days will know, we are going up for purpose three, the result of which will then turn the remainder of the trip in to either purpose one or two. It’s tears in the stands, a trudge to the station and a mournful, reflective beer on the way home. Or it’s delirium, a light jog and champagne. There doesn’t really seem to be any scope for anything else.

So far Steve has put it in much better perspective than me. We bumped in to each other on the school run yesterday and the trip was the only conversation. His perspective was that it was ninety minutes of football in which anything could happen. They could get an opener in thirty seconds, deflected off Greer’s arse and park all eleven players in front of goal for the remainder. Knockaert and co could completely overrun them and have us three nil up at half time. Ayala and Rhodes could do the same to us. Or we could have a corner in the ninety seventh minute, still at 0-0 with Stockdale once more charging forward in to their box to cause mayhem. In this season any of these things are possible. Our only influence from the stands is to make as much noise as possible.

But I over analyse things. There is a lot of history. We are a club who have needed a specific result away from home on the last day of the season on a few memorable occasions. Hereford is one, where we were down and out at half time, but look what happened there. At Forest a couple of seasons ago we left it rather late, but that shot of Kaz leering in to the camera at the end is as iconic as any in our pre-game montage. Then there was that rather more comfortable away win in the North East in 1979 to go in to the top flight for the first time.

I am – for information purposes rather than lecturing or debating ones – an atheist and sceptic. I do not have lucky rabbits feet, I will happily walk under a ladder or across a cat and I have never found the power of prayer. Don’t get me started on homeopathy. But I have always understood religious and superstitious people because the one place that all that goes out of the window is football. I make regular pilgrimages to my temple, The Amex, in my lucky socks and trainers. I believe that I can will the ball in to the net just with the power of thought. I constantly look for signs and pivotal moments, on and off the pitch. I am a hypocrite.

Why do I mention that? Because, of course I am looking at all those previous important final away games of the season and not seeing a lot of failure. Half my brain is telling me that’s a great omen. The other half is telling me we’re due one. I wish I was as rational as Steve.

Oh, sod it. The actual worst that can happen is that we get another crack in the playoffs and that, if that goes well, the boys might get their first trip to Wembley. That I shall get drunk with a good mate, that I shall be in the only place I want to be on Saturday. Most of those at the beam back would swap with me in an instant. It’s not THAT bad, so long as you ignore the BBC headline that says that £170 million is riding on the game. That would be a small payback for Mr Bloom eh?

So can we do it? Can I produce rational analysis on the game? I’ve written a few previews for other sites this season and all of them ask things like “who should we be worried about?” and “what’s the score going to be?”. I can’t do that here. The most I can say is that we will miss Dunk but that we are likely to replace him with the club captain, a current international. So not that bad really. That we will not remotely be the same proposition as the team that was wiped out at The Amex, 3-0. We will have a real left back, a tricky winger and two midfielders who have been imperious. Boro will be every bit as worried about us as we are of them. After that, Steve’s right. It’s down to the roll of the ball, the luck of the deflection, the accuracy of the refereeing decision. All that stuff you just have to watch from the stands. Argh.

I may write a match report and I may not. The day after I have to take nine excited boys to a five-a-side tournament in the sun. Should we win I will need all the extra sleep I can get before I set off to do that. Should we lose I might not be capable of words at all. This may be over and out for the season. I may see you again. I hope, in the nicest possible way, that I do not, because I am spending Sunday morning wandering in a daze looking for a bag of bibs and some sun-lotion and wondering where that kebab came from.

 

Derby County at Home 15/16 – Anti Climax?

By crowd numbers at least this was the biggest game ever seen at The Amex. By noise levels just before and just after kick off it was too. Yet somehow events in Birmingham on Friday served to downgrade it. I’m getting a little ahead of myself but perhaps you already know what I mean?

It certainly felt big on the way over, mind you. Mindful of the train troubles that had beset the last two mid-week games we left home a full two hours before kick off and, while we had a painless journey as it turned out, it was also a busy one. The 12.52 from Brighton (for a 2.30 kick off) was rammed. No actual songs in our carriage but rather a low hum of expectancy. Familiar old faces abounded. This was a big day out.

Recently, when I tried to explain this blog to Al on The Albion Roar I said that it was a story of the whole day and that often something would come up in pre-match conversation that would prove relevant to the later events on the field. So it was that Steve and I were discussing the latter half of the season and I mentioned our defence and particularly the partnership of Goldson and Dunk. Steve referred to how daft Dunk’s sending off at QPR was. Then we moved on to discussing what we would need at Boro.

That’s the only issue really and the reason I mentioned how Friday’s result had rendered the Derby game largely irrelevant. Allow me (another) rant at Sky. What is the EFFING point of taking us all the way to sodding Cleveland for a 12.30 bollocking kick off so that everyone plays at the same time for ‘fairness’ when, only the week before, a TV company dictates that Boro will get two more days rest than us, that we knew before the Derby game exactly what we needed up there and that Burnley were able to kick off later than anyone, knowing a win would get them up? It is cockwomblingly, mind-numbingly ruddy pointless. Thanks Sky.

OK, I feel better for that but you get the point. Anyone who thinks the promotion race has been run fairly in terms of timing is living in cloud cuckoo land.

But you have to play the hand you’re dealt. The fixture computer dealt us Derby at home as our last game, the ticketing computer dealt out every seat in The Amex and, after oiling our voices with a couple of Ouse Waters, we joined a packed Amex. The roof was just about held intact but Sussex By The Sea nearly took it off.

Regular “atmosphere” threads appear on NSC. People bemoan “soulless bowls”. Yet the ground was on point as we kicked off, the backing the lads needed, initially at least, coming from every seat, except those in the East Upper where library attendants still patrol, armed with hot stares. The lads reacted and we had the first good chance of the game, Russell overrunning the ball to Kayal in his own half and the Israeli’s long range shot getting deflected just wide.

Derby, though, looked decent enough on the break and Ince wasted a good chance when put through by a long diagonal ball. Not as good as the subsequent chance we had as a free kick was awarded on the edge of the D, slap bang in French Tony territory. The kick was placed even better than the one against QPR but Derby had watched that back and had a man back peddling on to the line to cover. It was just headed over.

I’m not sure whether you’ve got this from previous reports – the Leeds one would cover it – but all too often this season the quality has been lacking in this division. It wasn’t here but the two of us were even and cancelling each other out. Not so in the second half.

A pessimist would say we allowed Will Hughes to dictate terms after the break. A Derby fan that he took the game by the scruff of the neck. It was probably a mixture of both but as the play went through him, Derby began to dictate and had a series of long range efforts that were fairly comfortable for Stockdale. However,  not so the one on seventy minutes when Hughes produced a sublime piece of control and stuck through Weimann. His initial shot was saved but he put away the rebound. The celebrations in the away end were echoed in Burnley.

The game had been frustratingly and inconsistently refereed from the get go. The penalty shout that looked nailed on from the WSU looked less so on replay but other free kick awards seemed totally random. Challenges that looked certain yellows (including one from Stephens, this was inconsistency rather than bias) were let go as was a plainly obvious elbow on Bruno. One of the few cards that had been correctly awarded, however, was an early yellow for Dunk. On eighty two minutes he doubled it and can have no complaints, a challenge that was as brainless as the one up at QPR ending in the same result. He will not play at Boro and left with his shirt over his head.

But this team NEVER gives up. A draw would be largely pointless – we’d still need to win at Boro in all likelihood – but it would maintain the unbeaten record and put just a touch of pressure on the watching Burnley.

Is there a finer sight than a keeper coming up for a last minute corner? Yes, of course there is. Like, say, your Czech international hitting a 30 yard rocket as part of a four nil win. Keeper up means you’re desperate. But with a last minute corner in the offing we were. Up came Stockdale and caused chaos. The ball fell kindly to Wilson and he lashed in a shot via a deflection to general mayhem in the stands. It finished 1-1. So how did we all feel?

The question mark in the title is deliberate. Certainly some of us felt flat at the end. We shouldn’t though. We knew before the game that we’d probably need to win at Boro. We knew Burnley were the favourites to go up. That next week was the big one. The only thing this could do was set a marker in the ground for a possible playoff clash in which someone needs to paint a large target on Will Hughes’ arse.

Had we not scored that goal I’d have felt flat too. But we did. And, as the players came round for the end of season lap of honour the North Stand started with “we are going up”. The players visibly picked up. Yes, we will have no Dunk. We will have two fewer days in which to rest. But we will be prepared. Think back to August. Would you have taken a last day shoot out for promotion? I would have in a heartbeat. It’s time to pick ourselves up and throw the kitchen sink at Boro, hoping that fortune favours the brave.