Aston Villa Away – The Final Curtain

Not a game I was expecting to go to. With not quite enough points in the first round of ticket sales and Villa keeping allocations to a minimum (despite a whole closed tier opposite us) we had settled for the beam back. That was until my very good friend came through with tickets via a sponsor and the waiting list. Only a few days notice but enough to round up a crew, car and driver. The West Upper boys were off to Birmingham.

Early morning banter in the car suggested the mood was upbeat, if not over confident. We made excellent time to Oxford services which was full of a coach load of Brighton fans in similar mood. They also included our mate Danny, a man infamous for having worn a very thin suit to the freezing cold Sheffield Wednesday game. Earlier in the season three of our carload plus Danny had gone on protracted beer sampling mission – aka piss up – for my birthday game at home to Aston Villa. Now we were reunited. That game had finished 1-1. It really should have been a sign.

We weren’t doing omens in the car though. We were far too busy trying to follow a silent sat nav round spaghetti junction. Eventually, though, we found our pre-booked parking spot, rapidly decided the pubs of Aston were not for us, had a traditional dog burger from a van (undercooked onions, no Michelin star awaits) and got on the concourse almost as soon as it had opened. A minute later some early morning beers were hitting the spot, driver excepted.

Beer had certainly been the order of the day in Birmingham. Many of our mates had stayed over and slowly they arrived looking like it had been a very long night indeed. At first our only companions on the concourse had been those who had taken advantage of clear roads that morning but, as kick off approached, the familiar faces of those who had seen our twenty year rise to the promised land were everywhere.

Could we go one better and clinch the title? We’d needed to win one game in three, not a problem to date in this most excellent of seasons, but we’d certainly fluffed our last two lines. A party-weary side losing to two identically unfortunate goals is one thing but you couldn’t really want for a better chance to seal the deal than Bristol City at home, a struggling side you’d beaten away from home who were all but mathematically safe, at your fortress. Villa away, on the other hand, would be hard.

Villa Park is a magnificent ground. It’s everything I love about football, big, noisy and traditional but with fans very close to the pitch. Upton Park is gone, White Hart Lane going but I hope Villa Park stays for a very long time. We are going to have to get used to playing in big grounds in front of big crowds and, once again, the occasion seemed to overawe us. This may seem a strange thing to say given the atmosphere at the Amex this season has, at times, been febrile with 25-30,000 regularly packed in, but that is OUR big game atmosphere. We had already struggled at St James’s and Elland Road this season and that’s a worry. We shall have nineteen such games next season. Even Bournemouth and Burnley will sell out.

I’m getting slightly ahead of myself but it’s a fact that our first half here was poor. Villa pressed us tight, as they had back in November in Brighton. Our counter to that on this occasion was the long ball over the top. With Baldock back in the side this at least made some sense but with Murray not noted for his pace, Knockaert marked out of it and Murphy seemingly overcome by the event it wasn’t exactly paying dividends either. At the back there were issues too. Not at centre back where Dunk and Tomori were excellent but definitely at full back. Bruno was engaged in a one man battle with half the Villa team. Pocognoli, selected ahead of Bong, had the full on yips. A deep cross from Villa’s left could have been back-headed out or even let go (though he did not know what was behind him). Instead he chested it back across goal, a mistake that ten year olds would be chastised for, and Lansbury, lurking on the six yard box, couldn’t miss with a free header. Incredibly, he did.

Just as bad was to come as a back pass by the same player was criminally under hit, this time Hogan spurning the chance. As moves were made towards a half time beer queue Hogan was taken out by Sidwell, the resulting injury ending his game and the resulting free kick just about repelled. We went in at 0-0 after prolonged injury time but in truth should have been one or two down.

Half time talk centred on “we couldn’t be that bad again, could we?”. And “I hope Hughton’s reading the riot act”. A goal was needed asap, we all agreed.

It was not immediately forthcoming, though we started much brighter. Pocognoli seemed more solid, Knockaert more in the game. Sidwell had been excellent and this continued. Ditto Stockdale. And then, on 64 minutes, the moment that should have won us the title. Baldock released clean through. His tame effort was saved but the pressure exerted by Baker on his back had been unfair. Spot kick. Sending off too. The game changed in a flash. I couldn’t watch but, of course, Murray buried it, the away end went mental, blue smoke on the pitch and the whole team over and going crazy.

Then Elphick – remember him? – hit a tame back pass and Murray latched on to it. Surely this would be 2-0 and game done? No. We somehow contrived to miss, how I do not know. It wasn’t quite action free at the other end, Stockdale producing a magnificent save from a long range Hourihane effort, but Villa were down to ten men and a party was starting in the away end. So what did we do….?

That’s right. We sat back.

Why? Why against ten men with nothing to play for and a home crowd silenced do we offer them a way back in. Nerves? Instruction? It had been the same at QPR but there we held on. Here we did not. A minute to go and heartbreak. A nothing shot from Jack Grealish but Dunk tried to block, unsighting Stockdale. It went straight through him. Quite some noise from Villa Park. Despair from our keeper.

At the end the players were distraught, Stockdale in particular. He should not be but the bloke cares so much and clearly blamed himself. Never mind that he’d kept us in it, that in previous games he’s won us enough points to get promoted in the middle of April, there was no consoling him.  There is no blame at all from this writer. However, from his Twitter today it seems he’s gone.

In a way, though, title aside, this was preparation for next season. A big game in a proper old stadium. I think Chris will have confirmed what he already suspected, that one or two are not up to the step up. In many ways the Premier League started here.

A much more subdued car ride back down the motorway, with special thanks to the back to front in a silver Merc who tried to kill half the M40. “The Portslade Two” returned to The Railway – our Winchester – for a final consolation beer. It will take a zombie apocalypse – or possibly nuclear war – to stop us playing the big boys come August. That is what we should be focussing on. See you at the parade.

 

 

 

 

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BBOAH’s Alternative End of Season Awards

Ah, season’s end. The point where hope or despair finally crystallise and you realise there’s nothing more you can do about it until August. Where you can strut about the beach at Ayia Napa in your replica shirt like a peacock or stuff it in to the bottom of your suitcase, never to be seen again. And – of course – where one of your players picks up a lovely new Redifusion Television to recognise their efforts. You young people should Google that and then give thanks you were born in the era of 4K and Kodi sticks.

Anyway, we (ok, me) at BBOAH are no different in wanting to hand out some rewards and brickbats though we (ok, me) have no Redifusion Televisions to give out, let alone a Kodi stick. The winners and losers below will just have to make do with the kudos or shame that comes from knowing that a couple of hundred people have read something vaguely humorous about them. So, without any further ado, let’s go.

Player of the Season

See, here’s where I’m different. Everyone else builds up to this award. I start with it. Get me.

The thing is this may be the only sensible award in the whole piece and the jury (me and The Boy) are very much split. You would think it would be a shoe-in for Knockaert having won the award at both club and Championship level and, indeed, he is The Boy’s PotS of choice. I, on the other hand, am an old pub centre back. Players who tried that sort of fast-feet, drag-back, twisting and turning were shown two pairs of studs and kicked all the way back to the Dog and Duck. Our defence has been outstanding all season – well most of it – and its beating heart is Lewis Dunk.

He’s so much more than that though. He’s a major threat from set pieces, his passing is absolutely outstanding (let me tell you, all that flashy beating players to standing ovations doesn’t happen unless some big lump has won the ball back and given it to you) and he formed, with Duffy, the best centre back pairing in the division. I’m not having this Pontus Jansson nonsense. Leeds didn’t even get in the playoffs.

But, ultimately, the award has to be shared with Knockaert. Yes, I know I’m copping out, or at least compromising, but to not recognise the Albion’s player of the season, the Championship’s player of the season and The Boy’s favourite Albion player ever seems wrong. Fifteen goals, eight assists (http://www.bbc.co.uk/sport/football/teams/brighton-and-hove-albion/top-scorers) several full backs dumped on their arses and more heart and soul than a rugby team on steroids singing the national anthem. Plus he led the celebrations down West Street.

Anthony and Lewis, we salute you.

The Sami Hyppia Award for Alternative Tactical Genius

Goes to Colin Wanker of Cardiff for having his centre forward man-mark Lewis Dunk. Outstanding innovation. Shame it didn’t work. Talking of Cardiff………..

The Mike Bailey Award for Dullest Match of the Season

Goes to Cardiff away.

I don’t get to go to many away games so I pick the ones I do go to carefully, or should that be Caerphilly. Honk. I chose Cardiff because a good mate of mine is a proper Cardiff fan and promised to show us the sights. Indeed, leading up to the game it was a proper day out and no mistake. He had a shit on the English side of the bridge and me on the Welsh. We walked it to a pub at 10.50 in the morning and it was rammed, not a table to be had. I got a breakfast and a pint for less than I tip the dustmen at Christmas. We saw some superheros and we survived a bar where everyone had a shaved head and had been in the Soul Crew. Except me – I just had the shaved head.

A huge amount of beer was taken which was just as well as literally nothing happened in the game. It had 0-0 written all over it after 5 minutes. Three pigeons that had taken roost on top of the grandstand died of actual boredom. Substitutes warmed up because it was colder than Theresa May’s heart and because they’d have dozed off otherwise. Stockdale nearly got frostbite. The share price of the company that makes their goalnets dived by fifteen percent.

In those circumstances the only thing you can do is sing and jump around like a looney, and the Brighton fans did for 90 minutes, so much so that Chris Hughton came over to acknowledge us afterwards. Or he might have been apologising.

The thing is, though, that it was another fantastic day in a whole season of them, and much more typically Brighton. A good session ruined by 90 minutes of football is my default setting. Great friendships were also made that day. And that’s what it’s ultimately all about, isn’t it?

The “You’re Not Quite Your Mentor Are You” Award for Getting English Football Wrong

Goes, of course, to David Wagner.

People like Klopp. Hell, I love Klopp. There may even be Man United fans who like him. He’s funny and smart in a slightly scruffy way and has the air that he’s just jumped off the terraces. His teams play attractive football. Journalists dine off his soundbites for weeks. And he GETS English football.

His protegee, David Wagner, on the other hand has held a one man pitch invasion, had a fight with Gary Monk and got the whole “intimidating a team in to bottling promotion” so wrong that his quotes will still be fed back to him with a sliver of German mustard and lashings of schadenfreude in July.

Game of the Season

Here’s where I really struggle. How can I pick ONE? And – it might not even have happened yet!

So here’s my shortlist. Norwich at home, Sheffield Wednesday at home, Fulham away, Wigan at home, Brentford away. What to choose, what to choose. A thrashing, an astonishing, against the odds, victory, an unlikely comeback win, the day we won promotion or a last minute equalizer with Tony Bloom going spare at the front of the terraces?

I honestly can’t pick. If ever there was a collection of games that summed up the perfect season then this is them. Goals galore, totally unreal penalty saves, last minute drama, mental celebration scenes and hilarity levels off the scale. How do you choose? These, quite simply, were the games that framed the season for me. You can stick your easy wins over Derby or Reading or your hard fought three points at Barnsley. Football is all about those fleeting moments where you’re lost in utter rapture or where you’re toying with a supposedly good opponent who are making Mark Farrington and Richard Tiltman look like football geniuses, to the extent that you can’t stop laughing. Those games delivered it in spades.

But, if we win the title with a last minute winner at Villa off Stockdale’s arse as he’s come up for a corner kick? Well, frankly, I might not cope.

The Frank Spencer Award for Comedy Gold

Honourable mentions again to the Norwich games, both for their defence at the Amex and Stockdales total lack of luck, and phlegmatic acceptance of same, at their place but there is only one winner here; Leeds.

Thank you Leeds. Let’s just remind ourselves of that moment at Elland Road where Liam Bridcutt stated, without any irony, that they were on for the automatics. Twitter was full of predictions that they’d do the same, at our expense, because “Brighton bottle it”. At this point the current chairman of the irony club has just sold his gaffe and moved lock, stock and barrel to West Yorkshire.

Not even in the playoffs. Fans across the division joining each other in matey renditions of “Leeds are falling apart”. And, of course, it’s all so damn UNFAIR.

That this MASSIVE club are once again bereft of Premier League football is a crime against everything the game’s about. After all, having huge attendences (four times a season), selling out away ends all over the land (never mind how close your opponents are or that you have a large London supporters club because lots of people love Leeds so much that they left it the second they could), and having every game moved by Sky (oh, wait, no, that’s us) should be enough. Forty Six games of football and keeping your nerve under pressure shouldn’t even enter into it.

I am slightly disappointed though. Only the other day I paid about twelve quid to see Stephen C Grant, Steve North and Atilla make me laugh. I could have spent the night on the #lufc hashtag and got the same amount of hilarity for free.

The Boy’s Award for Referee of the Season

And finally, it’s the one you’ve all been waiting for. This season has seen several rants, a few marks of minus several million and genuine OUTRAGE at the end of Brentford at home, but there has been nothing – so far – to compete with The Shyster (who we may well get next season, who said this promotion lark was good?).

There have – incredibly – been a couple of positive marks. Such things are almost unheard of. So it is, without further ado, that Chris Kavanagh, who reffed the Derby home game, strolls home with an astonishing 7 out of 10. We shall never see the like again.