In this most joyous of seasons (I mean the Albion’s in the Championship, not Christmas) there has been only one thing that has been inconsistent, and that’s our method of arrival at the ground. Look back at the blog from last season and you will see conversations on the train and on station platforms between our group, the boys and, at times, away fans or fellow Brighton fans unfortunate enough to be sitting near the boys. But this season we have used train, bus, park and ride and now car and we’re only halfway through. But then if we didn’t have the rail mess and some woefully inconsistent catering we’d have nothing to moan about at all. Frankly that would finish some Brighton fans off.
Just because Southern Railways advertise a full match day service It doesn’t mean that’s what you’ll get. It’s about as trustworthy as Donald Trump in a room full of supermodels. So we booked The Bridge car park and Steve drove. Typically the trains looked fine but we’d booked it by then. It meant that our pre-game predictions were carried out within the confines of a car but they were no less telling, The boys thought we might go behind early before equalising and winning with a late goal. Frankly, that was less “prediction” and more “replaying the last game”. As fun as The Miracle of St Andrews was I had no desire to repeat it. Instead, the adults agreed it would be far better if we scored early on and had the sort of easy win that would have our resting heartrate at vaguely normal levels. No point exciting yourself with several days’ worth of rich food and exotic booze in the system.
In the end it was both easy win and not and, had I had the time to check my heart rate, it would have resembled a man in the gym in the first half before slowly heading towards a good night’s sleep. But I didn’t have the time to check it. The phrase “incident packed” was more or less invented for game like this.
I’ve said before I try not to watch the highlights and base this, instead, on memory, gut feel and minimal notes and tweets. That’s not the case here. I’ve watched them twice and, like anything reduced from over an hour and half to just about two minutes they convey everything and nothing. They certainly show the brilliance of our opening goal, on just eleven minutes, but I’d been replaying that in my head all day anyway. For the record Bruno won a tough challenge on the right from a QPR throw and Murray flicked it quickly to Stephens in midfield despite a very solid tackle coming in. Stephens shifted it to Baldock. His first touch was sublime, switching the ball between his feet and clear of the stationary Onouha, while still fully in control of it, before hitting an unstoppable shot in to the top corner with his supposedly weaker foot. I made that “Wooooaaaaah” noise you only make when someone scores a really, really good goal, then the high fives started. “Top bins” I said to The Boy to prove I’d mastered ten year old vernacular. He looked at me the way one would a granddad that’s just gate crashed a teenage birthday.
But what the highlights don’t show so well is that we then fell apart, collectively, players and fans. It was almost like everyone had come to the same conclusion Steve and I had in the car, that an early goal for us would seal it, and it was already job done. Off the field our noise level went down while QPR carried on singing. On it we just couldn’t get out of our own half. We had no time on the ball, dropped too deep, were careless with both passing and tackling and had no one around for the second ball. If QPR had had anyone decent up front they’d have equalised. Stockdale twice made brilliant saves at his near post, firstly with a strong hand to a rising shot and then, brilliantly, with a foot to a low one. Then a cross from the Rangers left and Sylla controlled the ball deftly with his chest before volleying wastefully wide.
Rangers weren’t the only wasteful ones though. Murray should have made it two-nil with a free header from a corner after Duffy had knocked it back across for him and Baldock contrived to square a pass to no one when shooting would have been easier. But overall, had you arrived at the game on twelve minutes not knowing the teams or score, you’d have said it was Rangers who were the league leaders and one up.
We scratched for positives at half time and they were as follows; we were still one up (and top of the league), QPR had done a lot of chasing and might not have the fitness for a pressing game and Hughton would be quietly pointing out where we’d gone wrong. Indeed he must have.
A different team emerged for the second half and we began to impose ourselves. March was released more often on the left. Knockaert began tormenting on the right. Baldock ran the channels with growing success and Norwood began to ping passes like a master quarterback. The two wingers nearly combined for a second goal, Knockaert quickly switching play to March who twisted and turned before unleashing a shot that Smithies somehow saved one-handed.
The second seemed to be coming though and it finally arrived through another penalty. We’ve had a few this season and I’ve seen tweets from opposition fans complaining that we get all the decisions. However, the simple fact is that if you spend a lot of time in your opponent’s penalty area you’re going to create chances and, sooner or later, fouls. That’s what happened here, Bruno and Knockaert combining to get the ball in to the box where it was laid back to Stephens who was scythed through. A stone wall penalty and Murray buried it.
That nearly served to kill the game off but the next major incident was to finish it as a contest. Another high quality through ball down the channel saw Baldock get the wrong side of Onuoha again and go down. And here’s where I hate myself for ploughing through the highlights. At full speed we were off our feet, part disgusted that another goal scoring chance had been ruined, partly hoping for a red card as Onuoha had looked the last man. No doubt in any of our minds. “YOU DIRTY ……….OFF, OFF, OFF!”. All around the WSU the same chant.
Watching it back it’s a little harsh. The initial coming together is shoulder to shoulder and then there’s a tug, nothing more. But referees don’t get endless replays and angles and neither should fans. I should have just revelled in the glorious moment of the red card going up.
QPR were shattered and Knockaert punished them before producing one of the most emotional and iconic moments yet seen at The Amex. Stephens and Murray (again) combined to set him up in acres of space on the right and he cut back in before drilling home a left footed shot that Smithies should have done better with. The players went to celebrate with him but he waved them off and, instead, celebrated with a photo of his late father on the touchline. A touching moment for sure but also a reaffirmation of why we love him as a player, because he’s emotional, instinctive, righteous and dedicated. If he wasn’t all those things then the skills his father gave him wouldn’t mean nearly as much.
So that was it for the highlights but we had highlights of our own that never made it near a Sky show reel. Knockaert chasing back in the first half to win a crucial tackle in defence and using his skill to evade their attackers and win us a free kick to clear it. Bruno in yards of space in their penalty area controlling a cross but seeming to have no idea what to do with the ball in that situation. Bong winning a masterly tackle the one time Dunk and Duffy ended up the wrong side, one that would have seen him have an early bath too had he miss timed it. Stockdale making another great save from a header towards the end. Brighton stringing God knows how many passes together to shouts of “Ole”, like watching a youngster playing FIFA17 at Beginner level with they’re competent at World Class. A ridiculous training ground free kick routine that Dunk nearly walked in. QPR fans celebrating an imaginary goal and the North Stand responding with “3-1 to the Albion”. These were the things we went home talking about as much as the goals and sending off. As I said, incident packed.
And then it went weird. Holloway had a bizarre rant about Brighton fans not showing him respect (hello, Ian, you’re losing EVERY GAME) before a couple of QPR fans showed no respect at all for the dead on Twitter. God knows why they’re trying to stir up a rivalry. Many more of these results and there’ll be two divisions between us next season. And we didn’t even play that well.
The Boy’s Ref Watch
Keith Stroud got 0/10. This is, admittedly, much better than the usual huge negative score, but a little inexplicable given we got a penalty and sending off our way and no cards at all for Brighton players. I can only assume he was so consumed with events on the pitch he forgot about the ref.