“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?