So here we are again. And, in many ways, it felt like we’d never been away. Partly, this was because we were playing exactly the same team in our first home game of the season as we’d played in the last home game of the previous season. I can’t think that this – playing the same side twice in a row in competitive home games – has ever happened before at The Amex.
Furthermore, last time out was simply one of my favourite games in our history. Not up there with Hereford or Doncaster or Wigan of course but beating a side like United to stay up, on a Friday evening where the atmosphere could be felt in the goosebumps on your skin, was pretty special. The only minor downers on it were the delayed reaction to the goal as goal line technology confirmed our superiority, rather than a satisfying ripple of the net, and the fact that United, Pogba included, were very much on the beach, an attitude that was confirmed when De Gea came out for the second half clad only in a Kiss Me Quick hat and Speedos and proceeded to litter the goal mouth with beer cans and plastic bottles. Or something,
So when the fixtures came out my excitement at starting with a weekend game against a big club was tempered by the fact it was THEM again. Although we’d put in three cracking performances against them last season we had been rewarded with just the one home win. Surely the massed Essex, Hertfordshire and Surrey hordes would roar them to victory this time and Jose Mourinho would stand triumphant in front of the West Stand, smart white shirt slightly opened to reveal greying chest hair, muttering the Portuguese for “revenge” and contemplating a knee slide.
Only half of the regular crew would witness it, however, because someone booked a camping weekend to coincide with our Amex return. Hang your head Steve. Of course, there are always times when this looks like a sensible option, like when you’re trying desperately to end a family lunch in time to catch one of only two trains per hour on Coastway West, or when you’re navigating small children on to said packed train. And then you’re changing at Brighton and the town’s buzzing and the half and half scarf sellers are out and The Boy mentions again that they are rubbish and he cannot understand them, and you pat yourself on the back for your parenting skills, and then the joy as you get seats on the Falmer train, place a £1 correct score bet for The Boy (he went 2-1 us, more optimistic than me I have to say) and then you’re off and The Amex looms like a giant exciting spaceship that’s docked in a hole in the hills and you think “I’m home”.
It was a flag day. If I say I’m not a fan it’s probably based on the later experience of flags and/or clackers in play off games rather than the original flag day against Doncaster when they looked awesome and worked very well, thank you. But if you’re going to wave your flag then go the whole hog and wave it with some GUSTO. The West Upper did, along with a lusty rendition of Sussex by the Sea. All the rest of the regulars were present, correct and excited and you suddenly got a whiff of why The Amex is such a fortress for us. Now, all it would need would be a good start.
We certainly started brightly and United never settled on the ball. I’d managed to post a negative reaction to the team news on Twitter and, in fact, many other had. The conversational feel in the ground was also that the selection was a mistake, given our awful start at Watford. But we should know by now to trust in CH and we buzzed around United like angry hornets (maybe that’s why we got stuffed last week, you can’t hornet a hornet it would be like a wasp stinging another wasp instead of dying menacingly in your lager, but I digress) when they had the ball, all snappy in the tackle, and we kept it nicely when we had it. Though United had slightly more of the ball they looked less comfortable in possession, Albion the more dangerous. Surely not again?
It nearly wasn’t as a potentially disastrous passage of play could have seen us a goal and a centre back down. Dunk dwelled on possession at the back and got caught with a poor touch. In trying to recover it he injured himself and was out of position when Lukaku was put through on to our goal. Duffy did his best to block and it was enough, the Belgian international slicing wide. Phew. Dunk, though, could not continue, replaced by Balogun.
And then, twenty minutes that would define the game and, hopefully, will define our season. Propper picked the ball up in midfield and played it out wide through Mata’s legs, the Man U man looking like he very much missed it deliberately. The ball found Bong who fed March down the line. His low cross found an intelligent run and brilliant dinked finish from Murray and we were one up. The usual Amex pottiness ensued.
Two minutes later it was dreamland. The absolutely woeful Bailly conceded a corner when it would have been easier to put it out for a throw and United switched off from the ball in. It pinged back dangerously across goal and back out to the left where it was cut back before finding the unmarked Duffy close in. He drilled it in to the corner and we were two up, just like that. Pandemonium. Scenes.
A word here for regular readers who have been with the blog a few seasons. It used to be that I reported The Boy asking me non-stop silly questions. But, now that he is older and my eyesight is distinctly middle aged, the tables are turned. Unsure of who applied the finish I asked him. “Duffy” he replied with eyes raised. I kept to myself the fact that I thought he’d been literally all over the pitch until I remembered that Montoya had taken the number 22 from him. At half time I had to check if United’s number 14 was really Lingard, our former loan player. “He’s just got different hair dad”.
But I jump way too far ahead. United pulled one back from a corner of their own, Luke Shaw’s deflected bouncing cross finding Lukaku unmarked and onside in the six yard box. He couldn’t, and didn’t miss the header. Disappointing because we had been by far the better side. But then, just before half time, a proper example of our dominance. A goal kick was chipped down the middle to Pogba who was robbed by our pressing. Groß was put through, though a heavy first touch took him away from goal, whereupon he was needlessly brought down. PENALTY! Another defensive error from United. I’d like to say Groß “made no mistake” from the spot but, in truth, it was an awful penalty that De Gea should have saved but could only deflect in to the roof of the net. No matter. 3-1. Dreamland.
The second half contained far less incident but was pleasing from the point of view that we look to have discovered how to hold a lead without dropping too deep. We continued to press, continued to tackle and looked far more up for it than our illustrious opponents. United’s start studded midfield was neutralised by Propper and Stephens, both having fantastic games. Murray beasted a weak defence. Knockaert was the old Knocky from The Championship. Montoya and Bong gave a full back master class. Balogun, who came on for the injured Dunk, looked a real player, full of pace. And, when Pogba finally found his range Ryan was equal to it.
Right at the end United pulled one back, Pogba converting a soft penalty. Referee Kevin Friend did not endear himself to The Boy with this decision or an equally soft yellow for Murray, but by the time Pogba was racing back to the centre circle most of his fans had started the long drive back to Guildford. Those left didn’t even celebrate. A tense minute followed, then bedlam. We’d done it again.
A word on United. However much we laugh at their plastic pub fans they are one of the biggest clubs in the world and three thousand of them paid good money to watch a performance that would have sent me demented if that were us. So it’s right and proper that the TV companies talk about that. Yes, we deserve credit, but their continued implosion is a full-on back page story. For me, last season’s loss was understandable but yesterday’s simply seemed to come down to the fact that the players don’t want to, or can’t play for Mourinho and his system. On that form I will be astounded if Jose makes the end of the season. They have square pegs in every round hole. The back four yesterday barely looked Championship quality, Fred ambled about cluelessly, Lukaku spunked a good chance to put nerves at rest before we’d scored and Sanchez doesn’t seem to fit in anywhere at all. Watch this space.