Manchester United at Home – Safe

WE ARE STAYING UP, SAY WE ARE STAYING UP!

Once again I expect derision from teachers of creative writing as I give the end away at the start, but let’s face it, you’re not reading this to find out what happened. You’re reading this to relive last night vicariously. Or because I’ve bribed you. One or the other.

And, as with other entries on this blog in the past, those expecting a one hundred percent accurate replay of the action may also look elsewhere. Last night I was far too busy being a fan to take anything but the most very basic of mental notes.

Rarely has a game been set up so well. It’s been an odd season in some respects. One thing about the Premier League is that it means fewer games, and far fewer evening games. Holidays and work commitments have seen our regular gang split up for much of the year as one or other of us has failed to make the game, but last night the gang were reunited. A Friday night game may not have been ideal for United – a late return to Guildford and Essex for some he chortled – but we managed a 7.45 Saturday night up there. I managed to leave work on time, feed The Boy and head to The Swan nice and early for the first outdoor drinking session of 2018 as the sun shone down on us. Was this an omen?

Just over a year ago I remember leaving work similarly early, only it was my London office instead of a work from home, and meeting Steve by the Thames to drink beer in the sunshine. Then off to a game under lights on the television. On that occasion we beat QPR with THAT Pocagnoli free kick and walking down South Africa Road afterwards we knew that we’d got promotion to the big time. Not that we’d actually mathematically done it of course, but the feeling among all our fans was that it was our season. Now we had another televised game under lights and a win would keep us there, while a draw would give us a similar feeling of probable, if not actual mathematical success. Lose and squeaky bum time continued, so it was fitting that we were playing Manchester United whose erstwhile boss coined the phrase in the first place.

The atmosphere in beer garden and concourse can best be described as “convivial” as Brighton fans made the most of their last home game of the season. In so many ways, though we have two games to come, the season was incredibly neatly book-ended, having started off in the sunshine against the blue half of Manchester, and now finishing it in the sunny warmth of a spring evening against the red half. Had I written the script of the season it wouldn’t have been half as hackneyed, though if I’d have written it we’d also have beaten Palace 17-0 at Selhurst.

The atmosphere, when we finally reached the seats, was anticipatory, bordering on febrile. And as the game started, with Albion sporting what I would consider our strongest starting line up, and Hughton’s preferred one, and United looking patched up with Lukaku and Sanchez notably missing, the atmosphere was taken in to overdrive by a fizzling start from our players.

Yes, when we were up for the league game, Old Trafford was very much a library, not bothering to come alive for little old Brighton, but make no mistake, United can be loud away from home. They were not given a chance last night by a North and West Stand combination choir determined to sing their heroes to safety. And heroes they were. Early on Propper and Knockaert, back from recent suspensions, showed just what we’d missed.

There was, though, an early scare. A clumsy tackle just outside our box on United’s left gave them a free kick and a low drive from the corner of the box deflected in to the bottom corner of the net with Ryan totally stranded. Deflected, luckily, via an offside United player who could, in any case, have been construed as interfering with Ryan’s ability to get to the ball. Up went the flag and up went our voices, another level reached in the stands.

That was all the players needed. A let off combined with the ratcheted up noise drove them forwards and though United had fractionally more of the ball, all the dangerous moments were ours. Knockaert twisted turned and sprinted his way past static red shirts. On the other side Izquierdo’s pace bothered them greatly. In the middle Gross was involved in everything while Murray ran his socks off despite getting very little change out of referee Pawson.

At first it was just hints of danger, good runs, long shots, corners. But soon we’d forced not one but two world class saves from De Gea. Murray, the ball dropping perfectly, much as it had with Skalak against QPR a couple of seasons ago, hit a wonderful drive from twenty five yards but it was brilliantly tipped away. Then Izqueirdo did a trade mark cut inside and curling shot which was, again, smartly touched over.  We went in to half time level but with the feeling we’d been better against a distinctly under par United. Surely they couldn’t be that bad again in the second half?

For the first five minutes of it, while we were still returning from whatever it is we do at half time, they were not. The delayed resumption of the delirious atmosphere delayed our players restart. But not for long. The Lukaku-less United simply lacked a fulcrum or any real shape at all, while the much lauded (before he got here) Pogba looked as bang average as an ageing Sunday League player who’s going through the motions after a few pints the night before.

Knockaert again terrified them, dribbling through the whole team but then shooting over with Bruno better placed out wide, but we would not be denied for long. When it came it was singularly the most weird celebration I have ever indulged in. Izquierdo jinked free on our left and put in a cracker of a cross for Gross to head past De Gea, only to see it cleared off the line. As players appealed many around me could not believe it hadn’t gone in and then, all of a sudden, everyone around me and in the North Stand was going mental and the players were running to the corner flag and Mat Ryan was on a typical pitch length sprint. Referee Pawson was pointing to his watch apologetically and United were dejectedly putting the ball on the centre spot. It had gone in by an inch and goal line technology had given it. One nil to the good guys.

After that United pushed us back more, but still we defended stoutly and reduced them to shots from long range that went wide or over or straight at Ryan. Our former loan star Lingard, on to muted applause, wasted their best chance with an awful shot under pressure from Duffy, and suddenly we were in injury time and the whole Amex was joyfully, if prematurely, chanting “WE ARE STAYING UP” (see, I told you). Then the whistle and total bedlam. Barely an early leaver in sight in our stands but the away end was already all but empty. Safety. Ladies and gents, we are doing this again next season whether we like it or not.

The brilliance continued as it so often does. A lap of honour that made the humble Hughton almost uncomfortable was notable for the totally hatstand Schelotto (how I love this guy) carrying Izquierdo round the pitch like a baby before the pair of them tried to make off with the Sky analysis machine and mischievously kicking its tyres. Dunk was magnanimous, Knockaert led the singing (again) and then, a personal highlight, saw Skalak roaming the bar where we drink after games. The Boy got a selfie. I thought he was going to explode with joy. The train home was full of Brighton, some of who had taken liquid refreshment. My personal banter favourite was the guy who announced that royalty had entered our carriage as a dead ringer for Prince Harry turned up, before calling him “William” to the derision of the whole carriage.

Same time and place next season yeah?

(Finally a personal note to say thanks for reading. At the moment I am not able to attend every game or write up some of the ones I have been to so this has been more occasional than I’d like. I have also signed back up for next year’s marathon and started a new running blog to document that journey, since I can write about that when I get time rather than on demand. It’s at https://brightonrunnerwriter.com .

Hopefully next season will see the gang together at as many game as possible and the goings on documented here as always.)

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