Barnsley at home 2016/17 – Perfect

The blog is back. You might have been forgiven for thinking I was about to rename it “Brighton but only when we play well” but the truth is I missed all but 45 minutes of the last three home games injured. An inflamed tendon in my knee made the climb to the top of the WSU and sitting in my seat almost impossible. The time I tried, against Huddersfield, I lasted only the first half.

But here I was, finally, like a kid at Christmas. We had a home game on a Saturday at 3pm, the only time that feels normal to me even though we have had three of them since February. Also it was Steve’s birthday (we’re back to real names again apart from The Boy who will probably remain that when he’s twenty one) and it was a lovely warm day. The other notable thing for me about Huddersfield is that I’d worn shorts. Here again we assembled at the station, earlier than normal in order to maximise birthday beer time, in t-shirts and shades. Southern trains had other ideas about the early start, doing instead their best impression of a bus service. No train for half an hour then two in two minutes. The first, inevitably, was as packed as the Delhi rush hour.

Still, we made it over in time to take in the outside entertainment. Regular readers will know that the corporatisation of football can still turn me in to ranting, dribbling mess and no more so than the phrase “match day experience” (which, if you want to know, had thus far consisted of getting to the ground later than expected having been squished in to a slow running train) but having that first beer in the sun, seeing people crowded round the bandstand and getting fish and chips certainly beat the start of Amex days in the early years when you were all but hoovered up in to the concourse. Not that we’ll be doing it January I would think. It was a very good start to the day though and I knew Steve and I were both thinking that three points would be the icing on the birthday cake.

Another beer on the concourse and then up in to our seats in sultry, still air. The players had just finished their warm up and looked up for it as they came off. We worried a little more over Steve’s pre match research that showed Barnsley were set piece specialists. Not our strong point last season, defending set pieces. “Ah, but Dunk and Duffy didn’t miss a header last week” I said, confidently repeating what I’d heard Warren and Johnny say on the radio. “That was Burton” deadpanned Steve.

Fortunately, it took perhaps a minute or two for our worries to ease a little. It was Barnsley who started nervously while we bolted out of the gates. Murray and Hemed were selected up top together, a system that has and hasn’t worked to varying degrees this season. It’s worked best against slow or suspect defences which is where the traditionalist might think you’d need nippier players. Neither striker is lightning quick but it was soon apparent that Barnsley’s centre backs had the turning circle of Gemma Collins on roller skates. We cut them open almost immediately, a great ball down the outside channel freeing Murray whose fierce shot from a tight angle was turned over.

It was also apparent that their back four would panic under pressure as their ball retention became non existent. Twice we closed down and blocked clearances from the keeper while excellent work rates from our strikers and wingers were forcing poor clearance after poor clearance. And then, on eleven minutes I hit the panic button, as Barnsley were awarded a free kick by a ref, who I’ll come back to later, in danger territory. “Set piece specialists” rang through my head. Instead we dealt with the ball in professionally and suddenly we were in to one of my favourite Albion goals at the Amex.

The ball dropped to Bong in our penalty area, a man whose passing in recent times has been about as good as my tap dancing. Here, however, he swung a brilliant clearance to Knockaert who was in twenty yards of space for the third or fourth time in the game (naughty, naughty Barnsley). The French magician went off on a speedy run, initially outside then cutting in on to his favoured left foot, leaving red shirts trailing in his wake. He slid a wonderful angled ball to Kayal who’d popped up on the left wing and Kayal shifted it straight inside to Murray who finished clinically. Quite a goal.

We should have gone two up soon afterwards as a move down our left took out their keeper and Murray somehow put it wide with only defenders on the line. Barnsley had a long range shot and a header, both wide, but otherwise didn’t trouble us. Knockaert was running the game with his skills and fantastic work rate but this was a team performance. Stephens and Kayal dominated midfield. Skalak nipped at their heels. Murray, though often offside, was a constant danger and the back four looked solid as a rock, despite three quarters of them being on a yellow card early on.

Writers are not supposed to be lost for words or descriptions. On thirty five minutes I was, and still am. Knockaert produced a dribble – well series of dribbles – that I could not possibly do justice to in writing. It was the footballing equivalent of Nadia Comaneci’s perfect ten, a Pavarotti aria, that moment when the DJ plays your favourite tune in a club and you and your mates go mental. Nothing came of it except a standing ovation from the whole ground. The last time a whole Brighton crowd stood up for something other than a goal was probably at the Goldstone when there was a sudden announcement of 10p off a cup of tea in the West Stand.

Then Kayal and Knockaert both went down injured. That was worrying.

Kayal didn’t come out for the second half, replaced by Norwood (as a precaution I hope) but Knockaert did and any nerves we had went in the space of a minute. For once the ref gave us a foul in a dangerous position, Skalak whipped in the free kick and Murray skimmed a header in right in front of the North Stand. 2-0 and it was game done. After that, we concentrated on trying to get Murray his hat trick while Stockdale produced a belter of a close range save. The children – and a grandad who should know better – began to randomly throw confetti. Steve radiated birthday pleasure. I forgot my knee.

An easy two nil win then, the perfect present. Afterwards we went to a family friendly pub for a meal before the kids were whipped home by the adults who had drawn the short straw and the rest of us drank ale and gin while talking bollocks and wearing false facial hair. As you do.

A quick note on Hughton’s comments on Murray. They inferred that he’s had a couple of average performances “while we were trying to bring in another player”. We looked at our least settled towards the end of the transfer window and there’s no doubt it affected the squad. Now we look a bit more unified. Surely the window has to start closing at the start of the season? Whatever, to their credit, Murray and Stephens were magnificent yesterday. Knockaert, though, was out of this world.

The Boy’s Ref Watch

I might get him to actually write this at some point but, for now, it is sufficient to say that The Boy was not impressed with the ref. “Rubbish” “inconsistent” and “useless” were three of the choicer adjectives. A mark of minus ten million was given at the end (out of ten).