Norwich at Home 2016/17 – Pivotal?

Almost perfect.

Days like this really don’t come along very often. As a Brighton fan you get used to the other kind of days. The days where you play Preston and concede a last minute equaliser to blow away two points earned. The days when you don’t turn up and lose 2-0 at home or where you scrape a lucky 1-0 win away at the likes of Wigan. There have been plenty of them in the past. I have dozens in my locker. Then there’s genuine heartache. We’re excellent at that. Missing a last minute chance to win the FA Cup and getting outplayed in the replay? Check. Being ninety minutes away from losing it all forever? Yep. Getting dumped out of the playoff semis by your local rivals and losing your enigmatic manager shortly afterwards? Got the t-shirt. Being a Gaston Ramerez shin pad away from going up, missing out by two goals and getting half the team injured in the playoff semi? Oh yeah. Opening up a three point lead and making up ten goals in goal difference on not one promotion rival but two? Never quite done that before.

The build up had been engaging the household for several days. The Boy talked of little else. NSC was awash with threads about the size of the crowd and the size of the job ahead of us. My Cardiff supporting mate had assured me that Norwich and Newcastle would be cruising this league but we were in with a good shout of the playoffs. And Steve was away in Scotland looking after a poorly ship, not even able to listen in on the radio. So, yeah, almost perfect but there was a mate missing from it. Every silver lining has a cloud.

No problem in shifting the tickets though. The Boy’s oldest friend gamely filled in with his dad in the seats behind us. Next to us one poker player had been replaced by another. And pre-game I’d managed to deliberately and accidentally catch up with bunch of people from the good old days. The Boy’s eyes widened on the train to Brighton as an old mate and I shared stories of getting the train at five in the morning to glamourous, far-off places like Port Vale and Barnsley. More old friends were in The Swan and on the concourse. “Do you actually know all these people?” he eventually asked. Yes, son. Yes I do. Then, at ten to three, we walked up to our seats and the stadium filled around us. By three the only blue holes were in the corner of the Norwich end, and then only a few of them. By six minutes past three the place was going mental.

In fact The Amex was buzzing from the start. The North Stand had brought their A game and the West Upper was at least on a B+. It may not have been Wednesday-esque but it was loud, the crowd doing their best to influence a six pointer. The presence of a pantomime villain in Alex Pritchard certainly helped and his every touch was roundly booed. There were at least three round boos of this nature in the first half. Eight million for that? He might as well have changed his name to Mr Anonymous by deed poll. But I digress, and jump ahead of myself. The opening exchanges showed no hint of what was to come. Norwich kept the ball nicely but showed no ability to get past Sidwell and our uber-solid back four. We didn’t keep the ball very nicely. However, this tippy-tappy was soon to undo our visitors.

As they knocked it around the back Murray gamely chased shadows. Two things I always tell the attackers in my under 10s team though. One is always follow a shot in and the other is always close down a keeper if you can. The ball went back to Michael McGovern in the Norwich goal whose first touch was one CMS would have been disappointed with in his later years. His second touch wasn’t even a tackle as Murray shoulder charged him out of it, cleaned up the loose ball and put it in to the empty net. I didn’t quite go as mad as I normally do when we score in these sorts of games. From the back of the West Upper it looked like a foul on the keeper while there was simply no way the ball should have ended up in the far corner from where Murray was. I was waiting for the whistle but it never came, replays showing a perfectly fair challenge and a fortuitous finish via the near post.

The rest of the first half was entertaining without being high quality. We struggled to impose ourselves going forwards, too often giving the ball away. Norwich struggled even more to impose themselves, Dunk and Duffy winning everything thrown at them (the latter was particularly magnificent) and Sidwell clearing up every second ball. But Knocky was a little quiet, Stephens guilty of two poor passes and Baldock putting himself about but to little effect (one of our only other chances was a long range shot that even the hapless McGovern couldn’t spill).

The biggest incident of note was a spat on the west touchline between Murray and the hilariously bad Martin Olsson. The latter appeared to kick and then headbutt Murray who reacted, though again TV replays showed it was mostly handbags and the booking apiece that we’d called as “bottling it” by the referee was, in fact, spot on. Olsson then endeared himself to the crowd by pretending to be injured, suddenly finding the strength to get free down the left, falling on his arse like a circus clown, skidding the ball out for our goal kick at the same time and pretending to be injured again. He should have gone off minutes later for a second bookable offence when he chopped down Skalak in midfield but luckily the ref kept the hopeless chump on the field.

Half time, then and plenty of comedy entertainment but not much good football.

Then Norwich fell apart. I had confidently asserted that they could not be that bad again, but whatever Alex Neill said to them should have been videoed and shown as a “how not to do it” speech at motivational conferences. So bad were Norwich in the second half that I was left wondering if they’d arrived in this league by accident from League One rather than a parachute-payment filled trip from the Premier League.

To be fair, though, our second goal was sublime. Murray won the ball deep in our half and played what looked like a hospital ball just in front of Bong. Despite having a player snapping at his heels Bong accelerated away from trouble and put an inch perfect line ball through to Skalak. One touch to control, a second to hit a tempting cross and Murray crashed through the defence to bury a perfect header. It was the sort of goal that made this old pub centre back dream of doing that, just once, on the Amex turf. This time I went bananas. I couldn’t have gone more so had I put on a yellow suit and changed my name to Nanna McBananman for a bet.

By now Steve was texting me. As I tried to describe our second goal using words that didn’t begin with “f” Murray won a corner with a clever bit of play, Skalak took it and Dunk put away a powerful back post header. I gave up trying to be eloquent. “3-0. Roof’s off” was exactly what I typed.

That was game done. Norwich heads dropped as the Amex bounced, literally in the case of the North Stand. The worst back four I’ve seen grace our lovely stadium gifted us two further goals. Firstly on seventy three minutes Murray’s hat trick was confirmed as an awful, wide back pass put McGovern under pressure and his poor, hurried clearance was woefully controlled by Bennett who was robbed by Murray. He sailed through in to the gap to tap in his third. A minute later the ineffective Pritchard was replaced to loud boos so that he could sit on the bench and sulk.

We weren’t done yet and neither were Norwich who were doing a great impression of Santa and all his elves on the twenty fifth of December. Klose was another to slip on his arse (perhaps there’s a stud shortage in Norfolk and I don’t mean the Jackie Collins variety) and Martin complemented his partner by playing Knockaert onside and jogging back. Clean through the Frenchman might have been but his finish was still Premier League quality. What. A. Game.

At that point Ray, who sits behind me, told me Huddersfield were also losing 5-0. I thought he was winding me up but Steve agreed via text. “It could be pivotal” he messaged me, and indeed it could. If we miss out by a couple of goals this season it won’t be down to this weekend.

Afterwards the West Lower bar was buzzing, though the train home was strangely muted. As I said at the start we don’t get many of these as a Brighton fan. I think we were finally, joyously, in shock. I treated mine with ale, and The Boy’s with sausages, chips and beans.

The Boy’s Ref Watch

Other than the Olsson debacle the referee was largely ignored and the word “idiot” was not used once, nor was he offered my new specs. A comfortable two out of ten, which could be a season high score come May.

Wolves at Home 2016/17 – Pickled

Yuk. Where’s the paracetamol?

Anyone expecting a sensible report should probably turn away now. This was one of those games. Sometimes, when you’re child free and your friends are egging you on, there’s only one way to go. You vaguely think to yourself ‘what will I write tomorrow?’ and ‘I hope work will be ok’ and then you do it anyway because, damn it, going to the pub with your friends after a reasonably comfortable 1-0 win is FUN. Without the win, though, the returns diminish. There was some football played last night, and most of it by us.

Let’s go back to the beginning though. There was a train strike on, but to say it was beginning to bite would be a lie. In fact yesterday was one of the most comfortable days of travel I’ve yet had. I had to go to meetings in London in the day. OK, so I had to get a cab to Brighton and then a Thameslink to somewhere in London that was miles from my office but the train I did get was less busy than normal at least. On the way back I managed to get a Gatwick Express that actually lived up to its name (normally they should be rebranded the Gatwick Snail) and therefore managed to arrive at the Park and Ride at Sainsbury’s in plenty of time for the first bus. This allowed me to have one of the Chicken Vindaloo pies for dinner (a triumph, 10/10) and start in on the Harvey’s. Then the leader of the cheese eating poker school appeared for the first time this season with family who were over from Australia (who would provide the neutral’s view later on that would confirm my own thoughts on the game) and things went rapidly downhill. Not for the Albion you understand. Just my liver.

The Albion were doing just fine. Wolves looked, well, distinctly average and we settled on the ball and began to force set pieces. An early free kick from Knockaert out wide missed everyone and had to be tipped over. A corner somehow evaded the tiny touch needed to put it in. Then, still with less than fifteen minutes played, we recovered the ball out in left midfield and Bong was set off on an overlap. His tempting cross was met by Baldock who stuck away an excellent header and we were one up. Stockdale had to make a similar tip over from a similar wide ball in, but from open play, and that was that. “Fancy a half time pint?” asked Steve. Did I ever.

After that stuff happened. Things. Bits. Incidents. I remember Wolves going through and shooting just over under pressure. I remember us coming close from a corner. And I definitely remember us sitting back in the last ten minutes, inviting Wolves on and making it squeaky bum time all over the WSU, and not just because of the vindaloo pie. But we held on for a just about deserved victory.

The neutral’s view was that we had dominated the game, that our wide players and centre backs were excellent and that Murray was pretty ordinary. I realise that’s hardly Gary Neville-like analysis but it chimed with my own thoughts. Another of our poker friends thought Skalak had been excellent and he certainly put himself about. Everyone agreed Wolves were average.

So, then, all hail train strikes. Well, all apart from Paul Barber and Tony Bloom. The usual post match beer queue in the WSL failed to appear. I checked my train app, expecting us to have to get a night bus with the students (or a cab) but, instead, there was a train every 15 minutes back to town. No one was on it. We STROLLED on. We got a seat. Thanks RMT.

Then to the pub and that’s where it started going really wrong. I won’t bore you with the details. I need another coffee.

 

Preston North End at Home 2016/17 – Two Points Dropped

They often say a match day is a good day out spoiled by ninety minutes of football. Here it was spoiled by more like seventy. For twenty minutes or so we were imperious and the twenty seven thousand or so who’d shown up to see what all the fuss was about began to understand. But for the first half we were too careless and for the last quarter we were too cautious. You can’t afford that in this division. Preston came for a point and got it. No one, however, would have predicted the manner in which they did so.

But hang on, I hear you cry, you’ve gone straight in to talking about the match! You never do this!

True. Guilty.

We zipped in to high level analysis a wee bit early there to give a little context around one of our pre-match conversation topics. We left a little earlier than normal. A friend of mine who I go way back with – and I mean Goldstone North Stand in the 1980s – was over from abroad where he now lives and four of us from those days met in the pub beforehand. We still had the boys with us however, but luckily the sun was shining, doing a pretty good impression of late summer, and we were in The Swan which has a lot of outside space. At that earlier time of day I’d suspected the train platform to be half deserted, but no, it was thronged including many other families with kids. There was another family from The Boy’s school and one of Steve’s friends and his daughter too and we made our way over to Falmer in one big, excited gaggle.

Steve and I would later discuss how we’d both leapt out of bed that morning with e genuine match day excitement. The Boy talked of little else all day. And my old mates were there, all present and correct and up for the game. In a week of puzzling club memos, newly signed contracts and injury intrigue this is all that really counts. That a group ranging from a small girl to fully grown forty-something men couldn’t wait to go to the football and see what this team could do this week. Twenty seven odd thousand others agreed.

In the sun with a beer and your mates it doesn’t matter whether you’re an old school veteran of the North Stand and Chicken Run or if it’s your first ever game. Old and new stories were swapped and everyone genuinely thought “I wonder what Knockaert will do this week?”. He’d have a five – sometimes eight – man defence to get through first but we didn’t know that yet.

There was no doubt Preston had done their homework. With five players strung across the back they went for a 5-3-2. This still made for a 3v2 in their favour in central midfield, while they were happy to concede the wide areas more deeply in order to close our wingers and pack their own box. The decision to leave out Stephens looked dubious when pitted against that, with neither Norwood nor Sidwell quite having the creativity to break it down. Up front their strikers hassled and harried our back four, closing down everything and pressing high up.

That wasn’t to say we didn’t have chances in the first half – we certainly had shots – but they were not good ones. Half chances at most with the exception of Murray being left on his own against the keeper, with the expected offside flag not shown, and failing to hit the target. At that point, though, he was trying to score an equalizer. We’d gone one down to one of the most careless pieces of defending yet seen at the Amex.

Bruno found himself about forty yards or so from our own goal and facing towards it with a bouncing ball. Preston’s high press was in full effect. Row Z looked an attractive option but Bruno doesn’t do Row Z so, instead, he played an impossibly lobbed back pass high in the air to Stockdale, forgetting that he (Bruno), himself was the only player on the pitch capable of controlling such a ball. Stockdale certainly wasn’t. Faced with a choice between meeting it on the volley and hoping for the best or catching it and hoping to defend a free kick if it came (and I’d argue that Bruno was more trying to kill a passing seagull than play a straight forward back pass) he did neither and, instead, chested the ball to Hugill who stuck it in the empty net. One down and not even ten minutes gone.

I can’t really remember another decent piece of action in the first half. “A bit like Withdean” is how it was described to me in the beer queue afterwards. I’d largely concur, though there was an element of carelessness to our play that disturbed me. No composure in the crosses when faced with that packed defence. No composure in the passing round the back when faced with that full court press. Like I said, Preston had done their homework though, thanks to Bruno’s brain fart, it had led to us being one down rather than the traditional (with PNE) 0-0.

And then we came out like a train at the start of the second half. “Come on lads” I imagine Hughton saying. “This is all a bit like Withdean. I know they’ve done their homework but how about we put in the usual pace and creativity and break it down a bit?”. “Oh yeah, gaffer” they must have replied, “good idea”.

Ten minutes in to the second half we were level with a sublime goal. A slide rule ball from the back released the overlapping Bruno who atoned for the mother of all backpasses with a pin point cross for Baldock who tapped in, a reward for some genuine hard work all game long.

Then a brilliant centre forward’s goal for Murray. A ball in to his feet in the box and he span his opponent with his first touch, controlled with his second, and finished from an acute angle with his third. It was outstanding to watch. The boys disappeared in the sort of celebratory bundle that me and my mates used to have in the Goldstone back in the day.

And that was it, we thought. We took our feet off the gas. Job done. Little passes round a frustrated, plucky Preston we thought. Stephens for Baldock, inevitably cementing the “sit on it” mentality, when Preston were arguably there for the taking. They even went down to ten men, having suffered an injury after all three changes had been made. It made for a dull last twenty minutes but, with two minutes of injury time left we could almost taste the victory beer. Then a hopeful ball in to our box, Stockdale couldn’t decide if he should stay or should he go, and the imposing figure of Makienok won a towering header. Most of the Amex gasped with dismay as the ball floated in to the net. The five hundred odd Preston fans went mental.

Preston. We always draw with them. It’s normally dull. But this time round twenty minutes of football instead gave us hope to be dashed.

*Brighton but Only at Home would like to assure readers that no one has been besmirched in the writing of this article.