Football eh? It can be a strange mistress. If you’ve followed Twitter, NSC, the various Facebook groups et al and you know who I am posting you could accuse me of being bi-polar with some validity, and I’m by no means alone. Down in the depths one minute, up in the sky the next. Right now you’re going to have to scrape me off the ceiling.
Actually, that’s a bit of a lie. Right now I’m THAT GUY. The one on the train with his laptop out going tippity-tap when everyone else is trying to sleep. Writing at a time when everyone else is in bed, on board something that is a mode of transport rather than, say, a desk. Sorry bloke next to me. So, let’s get the moans out of the way immediately. I hate Sunday games. They leave me about two minutes free to write the blog, in places where one definitely shouldn’t be writing. “Ah, but you could write it on Sunday night” I hear you say. And, if I wasn’t going to eat my dinner, iron my work shirts, pack my bag and put small people to bed I could. Yesterday though, I did none of those things, bar the eating, as I was too busy being in the pub and watching this magnificent game back in almost totality.
The other moan I have, and let’s get it out of the way quickly, is at those perennial arsehats Southern Rail. One four carriage train every half hour in to Brighton from the Coastway West is nowhere near enough for these big games. I appreciate that extra services may be out of the question due to running the Falmer services but an extra carriage or two wouldn’t go amiss. We just about squeezed on to the delayed 11.40, ex-Portslade, though the crush was actually uncomfortable, not helped by a couple of ladies who point blank refused to move down the carriage when asked, even staring at the crushed masses like we’d shat ourselves in front of The Pope. So yah boo sucks, Southern, yah boo sucks miserable lady. Right, that’s my moan done. Everything else was magnificent.
Off the pitch there was a change, Steve choosing to sit this one out, having been stuck away from his family in Edinburgh all week. In came Josh and his ultra enthusiastic five year old son, in came train cans and a burger from the van. This change of routine would normally have the superstitious part of me chucking a whitey, but, hell, we’d changed everything before the Swansea game and it had worked a treat. And we had a genuine chance here. The talk on the train was that there would never be a better time to play Arsenal, and that seemed to make sense. Demoralised by two defeats to Man City in five days, with fans calling for Wenger’s head, a poor recent away record that included losing to Bournemouth and another game to play on Thursday we had certainly picked our moment. Train opinion was split between us having a real chance and facing a backlash. When faced with actual Arsenal fans in the burger queue we compromised and demurred, stating that a cheeky point would be nice.
That wasn’t Hughton’s team talk. Ok, we took five minutes to settle while the Amex cleared the pie crumbs from its throat and Arsenal tried to enact that backlash. Aubameyang closing the ball down quickly and winning it, Duffy with a magnificent tackle and Murray clearing the resulting corner. Then Dunk tried to extend his personal attempt at a world own goal record, only luckily he missed. But from then on in we were on it. A quick win of the ball by our unchanged team saw Knockaert release Schelotto, the attack ultimately ending in a corner on the East Stand side. The WSU greeted it like a goal. Possibly the rest of the ground did too, I couldn’t see, but what we were all forgetting was that we never score from corners. Gross swung it over anyway to the back stick, Cech flailed, Duffy headed back across and Dunk volleyed home. The Amex exploded in a sea of limbs and blue and white, if such a thing is possible. High fives, hugs, twirling and Dunk leading the celebratory pile back out close to where the corner had been taken from.
One nil up after only six minutes and the life visibly drained from our opponents. Any hint of noise from these most strangely silent supporters gone as the factions began to remonstrate with one another. Wenger back on his seat, barely to emerge, even as he was serenaded with “sacked in the morning”. Players looking at one another suspiciously before fixing their glares on Cech.
And for the next twenty minutes the positions in the table could have been reversed, as far as any neutral was concerned. Brighton playing like a top six side, Arsenal like a team in a relegation battle. We dominated possession and threatened at will (at least the poor chap wasn’t being fired at for a change). We should have scored again, Knockaert and Gross combining with a brilliant back heel and low shot and Gross again almost running in to the ball and dribbling it at Cech when shooting would have been easier. But then suddenly none of that mattered. More lazy play at the back from the Arse saw Koscielny give the ball straight to us, bypassing the disinterested Jack Wheelchair who flitted from the sublime to the ridiculous all game. Our midfield pounced and it was played out to Gross out wide. He’s not really the man to beat full backs for pace but he’s exactly who you’d want to be taking a deep cross with plenty of time. He landed it perfectly on Murray’s head and the ball went through and under the woeful Cech for number two.
Scenes. Absolute scenes.
At that point we were in unchartered territory. I don’t think we’ve ever been two up against a top six side before, certainly not since the 80s, and I’m not sure we knew what to do with it. “Arsene Wenger, we want you to stay” crowed the Albion faithful, joyfully and rightfully bantering Arsenal back to North London. The players knocked it around and strutted like cockerels. And I took some time to admire how magnificently poor Cech was, not only at fault for both goals but distributing the ball like a blind man on LSD. I haven’t seen such a poor keeper since the Withdean days and perhaps even before. Graeme Smith maybe?
Anyhoo, that would all have been great except for the fact that we conceded just before half time. We shouldn’t have, Iwobi put in by poor defending before playing back to Xhaka. A low ball and Aubameyang finished with a cute slice from close in, that Ryan just failed to claw out.
So came our only period of meltdown as we looked, briefly, like a school team under pressure from a professional academy. Schelotto blasted over his own bar and any calmness evaporated as a deflected header hit the post with Ryan stranded. 2-2 would have been massively harsh though and we held out to relief and plaudits.
The second half? Not without incident but it certainly wasn’t the first half. Arsenal came at us a lot more, winning the possession and territory battles but without ever looking like having the precision to undo us again. Ryan made a magnificent stop from a long range shot, but otherwise everything else was straight at him. Of other note was Xhaka getting booked (noteworthy for us because The Boy and I have a private joke that if he’s not been booked by 80 minutes he gets booked for being called Xhaka) and Referee Attwell curiously refusing to send off the already booked Kolasinac for an assault on Schelotto, who had the temerity to get to a 50-50 first and received a shoulder in the chin for his trouble. We all thought he’d gone spark out immediately but he’s made of sterner stuff and, I suspect, he might have carried on, given the choice. He wasn’t and after a lengthy delay Bruno came on in his stead. It’s a good place to discuss the officials though, who got an offside call criminally wrong against us in the first half (though our third “goal” was well off), missed handballs and gave every 50-50 to Arsenal like they felt sorry for them, with the one exception of the throw in where no one on the pitch could decide who it came off and we got to take it as a result of some flag based hokey cokey.
But mostly we held out comfortably. The magnificent Murray held the ball up but was too knackered to capitalise on a couple of breaks. Bellarin came on belatedly but stopped Izquierdo in full flight, the only player on the pitch who could have caught him. Pantomime boos were aimed at the foulers and ref – “same old Arsenal, always cheating” – and seven minutes of added time came up. In the last of those we found the corner and contrived to send it back to Cech who capped a forgettable day by rolling it out short to the shrill of Attwell’s whistle. The Amex went bananas, a noise not unlike when we got promoted, and the Arsenal fans, players and manager licked their respective wounds.
Make no mistake, we’ve arrived now. I suspect Wenger will be gone at the end of the season. I’ve never been more confident that we’ll face his replacement next season. Arsenal look like eleven individuals with an agenda. We look like a team. Knockaert – subbed with a massive strop, but rightly because after the assault on Schelootto he was a red card walking – came back on to embrace all his teammates. Everyone stayed to clap. We drank beer. It was superb.