Consider your social life for a minute (so long as it’s not completely tragic which, if you are reading this, I’m sure it’s not). How often does a big night out, months in the planning and looked forward to excitedly on social media and elsewhere, go exactly to plan? Sometimes they do but more often than not the weight of expectation lends the night a stilted angle. Then, another day, you’ll just end up somewhere with your mates totally out of the blue and you’ll end up talking about it for months. The best parties are the spontaneous ones. And they don’t feature sodding opera singers.
Brighton had decked itself out for a party. The issue was it had already had one. You can bunting the station, streamer the stadium, get a brass band in the pub carpark, dig out the circa 2001 replica shirt from the attic that now makes you look like you’ve been eaten by a deck chair and have all the hooky vendors on street corners that you want, but you’ll never beat the passionate release of three plus decades of hurt, Tony twirling his scarf and the players crowd surfing on trains. In fact, not untypically, just getting a train seemed to be a tall order yesterday. Talking of parties, Southern Trains are the creepy uncle who sits glowering in the corner and tells everyone to sod off at 9.30 in the evening.
So we got to The Swan and so did everyone else except the one person I’d told I would be there. The Sally Anne were playing trumpets in the corner, the beer queue stretched to Bevendean and Del Boy and his mate had sold all the kids vuvuzelas. We lasted a pint.
The ground was slightly better. Smaller queues and staff who’ve had a season’s experience serving now (and are no doubt about to graduate) meant beer plus food plus a chance to chat to a few friends while the boys read their commemorative programmes. Up in the seats flags waited, as did streamers. Pre-match was living up to the hype. There was Bobby. There was Wardy. There was Stuart Storer. There was a tear inducing montage accompanied by joyous flag waving (I have a video of the whole stand joining in apart from Steve’s son who is glued to his mobile phone, I will be saving it for blackmail purposes). There was a big “Alllbion” and another “we’re on out way”. There was Donna Marie. And were we all thinking the same thing? Tremendous voice, but we never win when she turns up. We were saying it openly in our section. And that was as good as it got.
The players may have barely turned up themselves but the same must be said of the fans. Once the flag waving was out of the way we settled in to a soporific state of just expecting the business to happen on the pitch. I’d expected a cauldron of noise, I hardly got a ladle.
The first indication that this was transmitting to the pitch came early on. We’d made a bright enough start without tearing up trees, but were suddenly presented with a gilt edged chance. A high clearance saw two Bristol City players slash at the same ball and lob it to Murray. It was spinning horribly and he was on a slightly wide angle but he had so much more time than he realised. He slashed across the bouncing ball, playing neither shot nor cross to Skalak, arriving late on the back post.
Maybe this was why it was subdued? It feels wrong picking out players in a season that’s been so great but there is no doubt that while the presence of the utterly hatstand Mr Skalak on social media is a delight, his presence at left midfield is less lauded by the Albion faithful. Here he absolutely had one. Slow and ponderous he also completely missed the ball on a couple of occasions and totally lost his head. He was very lucky to stay on the pitch having committed two horrid looking tackles, only the latter of which received a card. He went off at half time but you sensed the momentum was out of us by then.
He was by no means the only below par player. Early on Knocky dumped a Bristol City defender delightfully on his backside to loud cheers but that was about it. You could not fault his effort – you never can – but he had one of those games where the ball just seems to stick under his feet instead of in front of them. Bong was all over the place – something we’ll return to shortly – Kayal looked unfit, Bruno flitted from the sublime to the ridiculous and Hemed and Murray got in each other’s ways. Only Stephens seemed truly on his game.
Their goal was horrible, an object lesson in how not to defend when you play 4-4-2. With just two minutes to close out the first half at 0-0 and regroup, Brownhill cleverly sat between our midfield and defence as Bristol City moved it forward with purpose. He received it, drawing in Bong like a moth to a light. It was quickly played out wide to their right, also drawing in Bong like a moth to a light. Where the covering centre backs were I wasn’t sure. Brownhill sailed unchallenged in to the gap and planted a free header from the resulting cross pass Stockdale. There wasn’t a Brighton player within five yards of him.
March came on at half time for Skalak, a change the whole Amex would have made, but it made little difference. Too often we played it to him standing still. Too often we overhit crosses from deep. Too often we had a lot of ball and little penetration. For this you have to give Bristol City credit. They kept us out, throwing everything at crosses but preventing us exploiting gaps with careful and clever defending. They looked like a team fighting for their lives, as they were, and we looked like a team that had already done a job, had two massive parties and were now thinking about the beach, contract negotiations, and who would be staring against Arsenal and Chelsea.
Stephens apart, our other stand out performer was Stockdale. Towards the end City hit us on the break and the newly arrived Reid went clean through the middle unchallenged. Stockdale produced the save of the match, another one for the highlight reel. Yet these are two players out of contract. Stockdale’s lap of honour mannerisms suggests he won’t be here next season.
A well deserved victory for City then, who stay up. The trophy on hold for us, hopefully for a week and a day only. Surely Chris can get a better performance than this out of them at Villa, who have nothing to play for. A party pooped before the bouncers had let everyone in.
Southern screwed the trains up royally on the way home. We went back from Hove station in separate cabs, waving a glum and sober goodbye. It seemed apt.