Bristol City at Home 2016/17 – Anti Climax

Consider your social life for a minute (so long as it’s not completely tragic which, if you are reading this, I’m sure it’s not). How often does a big night out, months in the planning and looked forward to excitedly on social media and elsewhere, go exactly to plan? Sometimes they do but more often than not the weight of expectation lends the night a stilted angle. Then, another day, you’ll just end up somewhere with your mates totally out of the blue and you’ll end up talking about it for months.  The best parties are the spontaneous ones. And they don’t feature sodding opera singers.

Brighton had decked itself out for a party. The issue was it had already had one. You can bunting the station, streamer the stadium, get a brass band in the pub carpark, dig out the circa 2001 replica shirt from the attic that now makes you look like you’ve been eaten by a deck chair and have all the hooky vendors on street corners that you want, but you’ll never beat the passionate release of three plus decades of hurt, Tony twirling his scarf and the players crowd surfing on trains. In fact, not untypically, just getting a train seemed to be a tall order yesterday. Talking of parties, Southern Trains are the creepy uncle who sits glowering in the corner and tells everyone to sod off at 9.30 in the evening.

So we got to The Swan and so did everyone else except the one person I’d told I would be there. The Sally Anne were playing trumpets in the corner, the beer queue stretched to Bevendean and Del Boy and his mate had sold all the kids vuvuzelas. We lasted a pint.

The ground was slightly better. Smaller queues and staff who’ve had a season’s experience serving now (and are no doubt about to graduate) meant beer plus food plus a chance to chat to a few friends while the boys read their commemorative programmes. Up in the seats flags waited, as did streamers. Pre-match was living up to the hype. There was Bobby. There was Wardy. There was Stuart Storer. There was a tear inducing montage accompanied by joyous flag waving (I have a video of the whole stand joining in apart from Steve’s son who is glued to his mobile phone, I will be saving it for blackmail purposes). There was a big “Alllbion” and another “we’re on out way”. There was Donna Marie. And were we all thinking the same thing? Tremendous voice, but we never win when she turns up. We were saying it openly in our section. And that was as good as it got.

The players may have barely turned up themselves but the same must be said of the fans. Once the flag waving was out of the way we settled in to a soporific state of just expecting the business to happen on the pitch. I’d expected a cauldron of noise, I hardly got a ladle.

The first indication that this was transmitting to the pitch came early on. We’d made a bright enough start without tearing up trees, but were suddenly presented with a gilt edged chance. A high clearance saw two Bristol City players slash at the same ball and lob it to Murray. It was spinning horribly and he was on a slightly wide angle but he had so much more time than he realised. He slashed across the bouncing ball, playing neither shot nor cross to Skalak, arriving late on the back post.

Maybe this was why it was subdued? It feels wrong picking out players in a season that’s been so great but there is no doubt that while the presence of the utterly hatstand Mr Skalak on social media is a delight, his presence at left midfield is less lauded by the Albion faithful. Here he absolutely had one. Slow and ponderous he also completely missed the ball on a couple of occasions and totally lost his head. He was very lucky to stay on the pitch having committed two horrid looking tackles, only the latter of which received a card. He went off at half time but you sensed the momentum was out of us by then.

He was by no means the only below par player. Early on Knocky dumped a Bristol City defender delightfully on his backside to loud cheers but that was about it. You could not fault his effort – you never can – but he had one of those games where the ball just seems to stick under his feet instead of in front of them. Bong was all over the place – something we’ll return to shortly – Kayal looked unfit, Bruno flitted from the sublime to the ridiculous and Hemed and Murray got in each other’s ways. Only Stephens seemed truly on his game.

Their goal was horrible, an object lesson in how not to defend when you play 4-4-2. With just two minutes to close out the first half at 0-0 and regroup, Brownhill cleverly sat between our midfield and defence as Bristol City moved it forward with purpose. He received it, drawing in Bong like a moth to a light. It was quickly played out wide to their right, also drawing in Bong like a moth to a light. Where the covering centre backs were I wasn’t sure. Brownhill sailed unchallenged in to the gap and planted a free header from the resulting cross pass Stockdale. There wasn’t a Brighton player within five yards of him.

March came on at half time for Skalak, a change the whole Amex would have made, but it made little difference. Too often we played it to him standing still. Too often we overhit crosses from deep. Too often we had a lot of ball and little penetration. For this you have to give Bristol City credit. They kept us out, throwing everything at crosses but preventing us exploiting gaps with careful and clever defending. They looked like a team fighting for their lives, as they were, and we looked like a team that had already done a job, had two massive parties and were now thinking about the beach, contract negotiations, and who would be staring against Arsenal and Chelsea.

Stephens apart, our other stand out performer was Stockdale. Towards the end City hit us on the break and the newly arrived Reid went clean through the middle unchallenged. Stockdale produced the save of the match, another one for the highlight reel. Yet these are two players out of contract. Stockdale’s lap of honour mannerisms suggests he won’t be here next season.

A well deserved victory for City then, who stay up. The trophy on hold for us, hopefully for a week and a day only. Surely Chris can get a better performance than this out of them at Villa, who have nothing to play for. A party pooped before the bouncers had let everyone in.

Southern screwed the trains up royally on the way home. We went back from Hove station in separate cabs, waving a glum and sober goodbye. It seemed apt.

 

 

Wigan at Home – The Promised Land

 

This is, in no way a coherent match report. You’ll find those, no doubt, this morning, in all the proper papers, since we now appear to be above the radar. I urge you to read them. Twice.

I took no notes. I have a couple of dodgy photos on my Twitter feed and my memories and that’s it. This is all going to be written from feel.

But what a feeling. Friday was massive enough. The Boy and I watched the Wolves game with growing joy, disbelief and pleasure and then I went out and celebrated it large. Saturday was just one big hangover. Sunday dragged. Monday? I’ve never known a day go slower.

I couldn’t sleep. I got up early to go for a run to sort myself out, logged on to Twitter and found everyone else couldn’t sleep either. An eight mile run along the seafront at seven in the morning in my running top and Albion shorts. A bloke in a blue and white striped shirt walking his dog. Another runner in an old away kit. Flags in the window. Such a massive buzz. A whole long run completed by pacing myself with an earworm of “we’re on our way”.

Finally, after what seemed like a millennium, it was time to go to the pub. Steve and his son met us there. They’ve been with us since I started taking The Boy but today his wife and daughter were coming too for their first games. What a first game.

A diversion here. It was nearly twenty years ago that we played Hereford and stayed in the league. I wasn’t there. I was pacing round the flat that my new girlfriend rented in town, apparently in a totally maniacal fashion. God know how she stuck with me, but she did. As we left, now my wife and The Boy’s mother, she was putting my massive St Georges flag in our bedroom window. It feels like club and person have been on a parrellel journey. Anyway, back to yesterday.

The train to Brighton was quieter than normal, indicating everyone had got an early start. An easy transition to a Falmer service, a slight problem with Steve’s ticket, and we were up. Harvey’s, lager and sweets. No pies though. Pies were out.

Finally up to the seat for the build up and there was another man who’d done the whole journey with me. Mark and his three kids, already in their seats. Mark is the man who rescued my Albion mojo at its lowest and dragged me, kicking and screaming, to Priestfield on more than one occasion, got me involved with the mailing list. The next thing you know we had Withdean season tickets, I was on litter patrol with Paul Whelch (RIP) and wrote an article for Scars and Stripes. Sucked back in. Blue and white blood flowing. Mate, I cannot thank you enough.

Calde had returned for the day and, at 2.45 was being interviewed. Or rather sang at. I think Richard Reynolds got two questions in between the chants. Then the players came on. Deafening noise, me in tears, a bit like someone who takes the X Factor seriously when someone with a decent back story turns out to be able to sing.

The match? It passed almost in a flash. Wigan pressed us high and had a lot of the ball to start with but, for all that, created nothing. They had one corner in the whole first half and no shots on target. We gradually eased them back, finding space and getting plenty of corners. We looked the better side but we needed a goal, and finally it came via that man Murray. Hemed who’d put himself about the whole half forced an error and Murray lashed the ball low in to the net. I can’t adequately describe how mental we went.

Half time took longer than the preceding weekend. Finally we restarted, a cagier game, knowing a second would seal it. It came on 65 minutes from our two wing wizards, Knockaert making the space and March applying the finish. I hugged The Boy. Handshakes all round. We were going to do this.

We don’t make it easy though. We’ve conceded so many goals this season from absence-of-full-back-itis and we caught it again, Wigan finding a whole mile of space down our left and Nick Powell heading in the cross brilliantly. Ten minutes or so to hang on. Nails bitten. I couldn’t watch and spent ten minutes staring at the floor with tears in my eyes. Finally the whistle. On they came.

Hugs and high fives all round the WSU. General whooping. Then I felt an urgent tugging on my sleeve. “Dad, I REALLY want to go on the pitch”. If you knew where we sat you’d know how funny that was.

But it’s a dad’s duty to try and help his son, so we went downstairs and then in to our favourite bar and back out to the stadium and there was just enough room on the blue outer turf and no one stopping us. The players, freshly debagged, were in full voice. As we turned to face them Dunk got the mic. “Let’s go fucking mental” he sang. “What was that?” asked The Boy earnestly.

Steve, who was on reduced alcohol rations (Imagine that) took his wife and their youngest home. I stayed with the two boys. While they flipped bottles in the corner I sought out, yelled at and hugged everyone I knew and some I didn’t. A brief trip to the North Stand to watch the Huddersfield game but they were 1 up at half time and it was time to get small boys home.

A massive sing song on the train and a naughty KFC later we got in to see my Mrs had turned the telly on to SSN and Derby had forced a draw. We were up properly.

I expect I’ll post more over the coming days. I have an important meeting in London this morning so am writing this, annoyingly, on the train. Let’s just say I’ve taken paracetamol.

 

 

 

QPR Away 2016/17 – On the Verge

I wasn’t going to write this up. You can blame the encouragement of Tim Jones, the cancellation of morning football practice and a general urge to be living in the Brighton and Hove Albion bubble 24/7 for that.

Despite the blog title this was my third away this season. I wrote up Fulham, an amazing day when I was still marathon training and devoted to Dry January. I didn’t bother with Cardiff which was very much an alcohol fuelled “what goes on tour, stays on tour” sort of day when almost nothing of note happened on the pitch. Last night was a sort of mix of the two.

It’s a good job that regular readers know not to expect some slight deviations from 100% accuracy in the attempt to write this up as an account of the day out, from memory, rather than just another football report. I do often make little notes in my phone, though I rarely take photos. Last night was all photos and no notes.

But the main reason for not expecting much on the pitch narrative is that we couldn’t see it. £32 for a restricted view seat at the back of the upper tier, where the bit that was restricted was the far corner flag and the goal line. That’s modern football pricing for you. Another reason is the price is the only thing modern about QPR. Everything else screams 1980s, from the horseshit and tacky club façade along South Africa Road, to the death trap of a concourse, a ground that is smaller in reality than it looks on the telly, hemmed in by terraced housing on all sides, the fact you seem to be almost standing on top of the action, and a set of home fans who are quick with the wanker signs and slow with the songs. QPR is old school.

view

For all that it’s what I call a “good day out”. That death trap away end with the terrible view is also conducive to a brilliant atmosphere, roof and corrugated back of stand amplifying chants straight back to you. Having recently got a new job in an office in West London is was also dead easy to get to after work. So it was I left an hour earlier than normal and met Steve in a pub by Hammersmith tube. The sun was shining so we didn’t stay indoors long, heading to a riverside boozer for the first proper outdoor drinking session of the year.

river

From there a tube a couple of stops to Shepherd’s Bush Market, in search of a good looking dirty burger and kebab joint. We found the ideal place, packed with families of every creed and colour chowing down on fast food. The Peri Peri Burger was superb, though I am currently feeling the after effects.

So a decent pre match, just enough beer to oil the voice and arrival at our “seat” just before the game kicked off. No train queues. Perfect.

And then, well, then we started singing and straining every muscle to view, and before you knew it it was half time. We had a fair bit of the play, had two goals ruled out for offside (TV viewers tweeted me to say correctly), while Rangers tested Stockdale with a long range shot and pumped some dangerous looking set pieces in towards Joel Lynch. Remember him?

At half time Dunk went off, clearly not 100% recovered from his bug yet, to be replaced by Tomori who was again excellent. But the away end really got going on 58 minutes and, for once, the action was close to us. Hemed broke the offside trap for once with a great return through ball to Murray who strode clear. He was never, ever going to miss. The away end went fully radio rental.

Six minutes later and we won a free kick for Murray tripping over the ball. While Knocky and Pocognoli had a Gallic-off over who was taking it I focussed on Murray in the centre of the box, convinced we’d need to cross it. The next thing I knew Steve was on top of me and the ball had disappeared. One of the best free kicks ever – by Pocognoli – and I’d missed it. 2-0. Very loud singing.

And then we went in to our shells. QPR scored a good goal from a headed set piece and threatened us non-stop. We wasted time, driving Holloway insane. Hughton took Knockaert off, driving him insane, and my heart rate went up to an astonishing 171. I hit 165 on an intense 5K Park Run. Wow.

watch

Finally the final whistle and Bruno hit the ground theatrically before all the players and the manager came over. It took a good 20 minutes to get out, joyfully singing all the way.

We’re going to do this.

 

 

 

Birmingham at Home 2016/17 – On Our Way?

I’m not sure I need the question mark. We are, aren’t we? Everyone is starting to believe.

If I’ve started at the end again it’s because, over the last two games, the feeling among the fans has been so easy to spot and be a part of at the end of the game. At the start everyone is in their own space, preparing in their own way. Some anxious, eager to stress that this could be another potential banana skin. Others brim full of confidence. Yet more keeping their cards close to their chest, lest they be called out later on. By the end of the last two  games, however, there has been a united feeling of celebration and optimism.

Last time out I talked about how each game in April seems to be huge for the Albion, and that’s still true. There should be no letting off the accelerator. But that is two of them done and out of the way, with maximum points attained. Here’s how.

April doesn’t only mean big games, it can mean beer gardens and that, in turn, means The Swan. Sitting outside drinking ale it’s easy to forget there’s a game on at all, save for the large number of other people, many of them in colours, and the football chatter. The football chatter centred around team selection (and there was to be a surprise) and the aforementioned confidence levels. Even here I got a sense that more of those I knew were edging away from anxious towards confident, very  much so in the case of one particular Facebook status that had made me laugh as I’d sat on the train to Falmer.

From The Swan to the ground to meet Steve and The Leader of the Cheese Eating Poker School, a man who’s entrance is rarely reticent. Last night was no exception as, at the very moment I asked if he’d been seen, he arrived waving a large flag. This was to form the part of a game within the game, but more of that later. A quick chat and we were up in our seats. We seem to be getting to them earlier and earlier lately and we’re not the only ones.

What is always nice when you’re in a big match is to score early on. At some point I might dig out the stats to prove it but it feels like we’ve scored quite a few in the first twenty minutes at home, though this is rarely, if ever, achieved away. Birmingham kicked off and kept the ball nicely for about a minute finally launching an attack down their right. And here’s the surprise. Facing it down was not Rosenior, nor Pocognoli but Bong. I swear we change left back every week.

Credit here to my old friend Mark who has been through the whole post-Goldstone journey with me. He dragged my sorry behind to Gillingham when my mojo was at its lowest, sat with me in the rain at Withdean and we have been together every season at the Amex. So Mark knows a lot about our former players. Since it was the very start of the match he was in the middle of explaining how long shots would be easily saved by Tomasz Kuszczak, but that he would be vulnerable to a ball played across him.

At that precise second Bong created what we Level One football coaches like to call “transition” (get me). In layman’s language he got a toe on the ball in the tackle and changed the direction of play, setting us off on the break. Konckaert was in acres of space on the right and a long ball from midfield found him. Bruno gambled on a classic overlap, Knocky found him, the ball was played across our former keeper and Murray did the rest. There was still a “1” on the time section of the scoreboard and it didn’t have another number on either side of it.

Nerves were settled and so we were free to concentrate on our new gambling game, “corner flags”. This was less that a stellar success apart from the fact that I won it. The idea is that everyone puts a small token in to a kitty and the flag that was being waved on the concourse is passed to the next person each time there is a corner. The person holding the flag at half time is the winner and takes the pot. Therefore I can report with absolute confidence that there was one corner in the whole first half. How’s that for a stat?

But back to the game. When you go one up that early it’s sometimes hard to know whether to stick or twist and Birmingham came back in to the game with some direct running and balls over the top. Some inconsistent refereeing was also leading to them gaining free kicks for their efforts, the most dangerous of which was twenty yards out and dead centre. Craig Gardner rapped it against our bar to remind us we had to stay honest. Meanwhile there was defensive reorganisation needed when Dunk had to come off. He’d already blocked a chance when Birmingham has seemed through and had a stint on the wing in his bid to become the Championship’s answer to Total Football (copyright Steve) but now he looked not injured but as if he was about to blow chunks across the Amex pitch, something confirmed on Twitter at half time.

So half time. We were one nil up, but Birmingham had had the best chances, there had been one corner and Dunk was out sick. Exciting and frustrating at the same time.

A second goal would settle us. It sounds really obvious – hell, it is really obvious – but getting back on the front foot would settle some nerves and send Birmingham back in to their shells. The players obviously agreed because, within three minutes of the restart they delivered, Knockaert just about keeping the ball in with his left foot, when the right would have been easier before squaring back to that man Bruno again. A high far post cross this time, Murray headed back across goal and Hemed converted from what seemed like about a yard.

Duffy’s injury has given Hunemeier a chance to shine and the German has taken the chance with both hands. He was once again magnificent at the back and he capped off his performance with a goal, possibly his first for us, certainly the first time I’d seen him score. A free kick out on our right was headed straight up in to the air but a spot of woeful keeping and defending later it dropped perfectly to him about in line with the penalty spot but to the left of the goal. A fierce drive was deflected in.

Birmingham had replaced Gardner who had looked dangerous from free kicks with Frei Koyunlu and the number 21 provided their first bit of real flair, showing Knockaert like feet in the 85th minute to set Adams away, whose shot was similarly deflected in to the absolute disgust of Stockdale. With the game already dead it was quite clear that there is a clean sheet target, officially or unofficially, and the annoyance shown at conceding is another measure of this great side. We’d been perfectly relaxed for most of the second half however, and now the whistle came and so did “we’re on our way”.

I can only describe the post match as “convivial”. Much ale, more talking and a real sense of anticipation. Those collective wet sheets from after the Forest game seem a long way off now.