23rd December, Portslade, 2am. Several adults who should know a lot better by now are attempting to leave an 80s disco together. I’m vaguely trying to issue instructions but I might as well be talking Swedish. It’s possible it is Swedish. No good, it’s like herding cats. The last time a big group of people talked such nonsense there was a referendum a week later.
23rd December, Portslade, 7 am. The children in my house wake me up. All the children. Noisily. Yep, I was going to have to do the Watford game hungover, sleep deprived and ever-so-slightly grumpy. It had better be good, I thought.
Probably the last thing you need in that sort of condition is to get on the train and bump in to the Honey Monster and Luigi from Mario and Luigi but that’s what happened. “Sit next to the Honey Monster” I told The Boy, probably for the first and last time. These were Watford fans in fancy dress, proper fans who’d been around the block a bit with a real injustice complex to go with it. “How many times is Knockaert going to dive?”. “How many players will Watford have sent off today?”. Then they told me they were shit and we’d win easily. I replied it was highly unlikely we’d take any of our chances. It was nearly all so prophetic.
In the stands there was a forced change. Out went Steve with a chest infection. In came Gareth, a man who once tried to play his own game of human dominoes from the top of the West Upper. Changes on the pitch too. Goldson in for the suspended Duffy, Hemed up top. Meanwhile Suttner had beaten Bong at Christmas Top Trumps and got to start at left back. The game started and we charged out of the blocks
So complete was our early dominance that anyone watching who hadn’t seen the rest of our season would have assumed a goal was coming any minute. Groß was finding a lot of space in between their lines. Knockaert, to a chorus of boos from the away end, was seeing a lot of the ball out wide. March was seeing even more of it, though mostly losing it. Goldson made an early mark on his Premier League debut with a crunching tackle and it was he who really should have opened the scoring with a free header from a corner straight at Gomes. Individual mistakes in front of goal were once again costing us. Knockaert twisted and turned and was free to cross in yards of space when he tried to beat his man once again to a howl of frustration from the West Stand. “He’s gonna cry in a minute” sang the Watford fans. We just wanted him to score, knowing the celebration that would follow, but instead, when he got free on his left peg he hit a weak shot straight at the keeper. Half time came. 0-0 despite our domination.
Unlike Burnley, though, we kept up our domination in the second half. In fact we made even better chances – and missed them again (what’s better than a penalty you ask? A free header from 2 yards, Mr Dunk, or a shot from three Mr Hemed). Again March saw a tremendous amount of ball and gave it away a tremendous amount. Just like Knockaert he had a perfect chance to cross but wouldn’t because he forgot his right foot was attached to his body. Yet, in the middle of all this we actually took one of the harder chances. Groß went wide left, cut inside by himself and shot low. Gomes should have saved it but parried it under his body and in. Everyone went bananas. Everyone.
Three minutes added on at the end and everyone was thinking “don’t mess it up” or words to that effect when we did. Ryan – who’d been excellent up till then – dropped a cross and Watford missed from a yard out, proving at least that we weren’t all that special when it came to in front of goal bloopers.
One nil at the end though and it felt like a cup final. All the players (except Izquierdo who’d been given a 30 second cameo) stayed out and soaked up the cheers. And for all the whinging about missed chances we WERE excellent. Groß put in a huge shift, Propper and “Sideways” Stephens broke up the play and Goldson – and just take this in for a moment – in his first Premier League game and his first game back from heart surgery, was fantastic. Duffy may not get the shirt back.
Other observations? Suttner was marvellous and should start going forward. Watford were niggly. Not filthy but bloody annoying, No wonder they get cards. We need a clinical finisher and God only knows how much that will cost at this level. But we’re more than surviving. Half the games (though Watford twice and Chelsea not at all) and we are 12th and on target for the magic 40 points. For a sleep deprived, hungover man this was the best Christmas present of all. Have a good one everyone.