Wigan Preview

It’s Christmas Eve isn’t it?

Just like Christmas there has been an awful lot more work in the run up to the date, just to get one day of celebration, feasting and drinking. The house has been decorated with streamers and flags, provisions sit in the fridge and an evening has been spent stuffing an animal, though in our case it was Wolves.

Unlike Christmas we don’t know exactly when the big day is or even what time. We just know it’s coming. We all believe now.

So let’s make this clear. In the opinion of this blog I am holding no truck at all with this mathematical possibility nonsense. Beat Wigan and we’re up. To not go up after such a result would take a set of results that even FIFA couldn’t engineer. I would be willing to put my house, car and savings on us going up should we beat them, not that any bookie would even take that bet. Goal difference rules. Mathematics shmathematics.

It is not, though, a foregone conclusion. On paper you couldn’t ask for a much easier game. Our home form has been imperious and we sit at the top of the league. Our league home form to date reads W16 D3 L2.  Wigan are second bottom, though they come off the back of an impressive 3-2 win over Barnsley. However, their away form reads W5 D4 L12. Our home form is the best in the league by four points, their away form is the 17th best.

To put this further in to context I have seen us lose, in person, precisely once this season. I missed Brentford at home because my knee was in so much pain I couldn’t sit in my seat. I was there for Newcastle but had to start work at stupid o’clock so didn’t get to write it up. I have further been to three away games with the record DWW. My disappointment throughout almost an entire season has been limited to shouting pointlessly at the television.

But Wigan will not come to the Amex simply to play a bit part, roll over and die to order. They are fighting for their life in the league. Normally they would probably take a draw away to us and, indeed, that might be the limits of their ambition, giving them four points from two Easter games in their relegation fight. A win, however, could take them level on points with Blackburn and two behind Burton with three to play, a fighting chance of staying up as we know from 1997 when we overcame a far greater deficit to survive THAT game.

A lot has been made of how far we’ve come since Hereford and, indeed, to go from nearly going out of the league and playing home games in Kent to the cusp of the Premier League in 20 years is quite some feat and down to two amazing chairmen in succession. Let’s face it, we needed a good one or two after the rabble that were in charge in the early and mid nineties.

I’d prefer, however, to focus on how far we’ve come in just two and a half years. Just before actual Christmas in 2014 we were in the relegation zone, in a not too dissimilar position to the one Wigan currently find themselves in. The team was full of uninterested, and bang average loanees. The fans were fighting each other. We’d just humiliated ourselves on telly against Millwall in front of what looked like less than 15,000 fans, no matter what the pretendence said. This blog had descended in to the Mad Dog 20/20 fuelled rantings of an angsty teenager screaming in to a void.

Then he arrived.

A couple of threads have been maliciously bounced on NSC to see who it was who moaned that Hughton was boring, negative or not the right man. I know what I felt because I wrote it here.

https://brightononlyathome.wordpress.com/2014/12/31/a-new-year-present-from-tony-welcome-chris-hughton/

I’m glad to say I was right about Hughton, not for egotistical reasons, but because he has transformed our club from top to bottom, going way beyond my expectations in that cautious first blog.

Almost his first bit of business was to bring in Beram Kayal on an absolute steal from Celtic. Head and shoulders above the rest of our midfield at the time he stood out and soon formed a bond with the reborn Dale Stephens. Hughton knew that his sole remit that season was to keep us up and went about making us hard to beat. Those who saw him as negative crowed. But there was a steel about the side in the second half of that season that had been missing in the first, that promised a bit more next season. Maybe we’d have a comfy mid-table season for a change? No.

No, since then Albion fans have been getting neck ache from looking up at the top of the table. So near – SO NEAR – last season, with a points total that would normally have taken us up. I was at Middleboro and I cannot remember being so down after a draw. We headed back to London drowning our sorrows in several miserable bottles of ale, and when we got there we bumped in to Mr Bloom who was more annoyed than all of us put together.

Then that ridiculous, injury ravaged, playoff semi. But with a bit more luck we’d have beaten anyone in that first half at the Amex. And while the fans went off to lick their wounds Chris Hughton was off signing an extended contract and quietly and intelligently planning how we’d go one better. Hence this season.

It will be no different on Monday. While we’re all wondering if Santa will come and if we can finally open that bubbly, Chris will be quietly and methodically planning exactly how to beat Wigan. After that – and only after that – the same with Norwich. And the players will be carrying it out. That’s why I’m confident – because there is a coherent plan, both long term and short term and the personnel to carry it out with deadly effect.

 

Middlesbrough Preview

Thus is an incorrectly named blog. Brighton But Mainly At Home would be more accurate but I’m almost a brand now, what with the running and the Albion Roar, so the name stays.

As The Boy has got older so I’ve slowly returned to away games, mainly with him but not exclusively. This is why Fulham away is lovingly recalled in these very pages and QPR isn’t. At Fulham there were child minding duties included. Not so QPR which, to be honest, is a bit of a blur.

About three quarters of the way in to this amazing season Steve and I decided we were going to take the boys to Middlesbrough if we could. We figured, even at that stage, that it would serve one of three purposes; purpose one, massive party to celebrate our already secured promotion, purpose two, to thank Chris and the lads for a magnificent effort even though we’d just missed out or purpose three, game that decided our whole season.

It was a plan that only half came to fruition. When the tickets were released we had enough points but they didn’t. Since the tickets were released block by block, stand by stand we couldn’t be confident of sitting with them if we managed to pick some up later, which we didn’t. So, tomorrow, Steve’s wife is graciously having a herd of boys from the school round to hers to watch the game on telly while Steve and I bugger off to the biggest game we’ve played since Hereford. Result.

A result is what we will need though for, as anyone who has been in Brighton over the last few days will know, we are going up for purpose three, the result of which will then turn the remainder of the trip in to either purpose one or two. It’s tears in the stands, a trudge to the station and a mournful, reflective beer on the way home. Or it’s delirium, a light jog and champagne. There doesn’t really seem to be any scope for anything else.

So far Steve has put it in much better perspective than me. We bumped in to each other on the school run yesterday and the trip was the only conversation. His perspective was that it was ninety minutes of football in which anything could happen. They could get an opener in thirty seconds, deflected off Greer’s arse and park all eleven players in front of goal for the remainder. Knockaert and co could completely overrun them and have us three nil up at half time. Ayala and Rhodes could do the same to us. Or we could have a corner in the ninety seventh minute, still at 0-0 with Stockdale once more charging forward in to their box to cause mayhem. In this season any of these things are possible. Our only influence from the stands is to make as much noise as possible.

But I over analyse things. There is a lot of history. We are a club who have needed a specific result away from home on the last day of the season on a few memorable occasions. Hereford is one, where we were down and out at half time, but look what happened there. At Forest a couple of seasons ago we left it rather late, but that shot of Kaz leering in to the camera at the end is as iconic as any in our pre-game montage. Then there was that rather more comfortable away win in the North East in 1979 to go in to the top flight for the first time.

I am – for information purposes rather than lecturing or debating ones – an atheist and sceptic. I do not have lucky rabbits feet, I will happily walk under a ladder or across a cat and I have never found the power of prayer. Don’t get me started on homeopathy. But I have always understood religious and superstitious people because the one place that all that goes out of the window is football. I make regular pilgrimages to my temple, The Amex, in my lucky socks and trainers. I believe that I can will the ball in to the net just with the power of thought. I constantly look for signs and pivotal moments, on and off the pitch. I am a hypocrite.

Why do I mention that? Because, of course I am looking at all those previous important final away games of the season and not seeing a lot of failure. Half my brain is telling me that’s a great omen. The other half is telling me we’re due one. I wish I was as rational as Steve.

Oh, sod it. The actual worst that can happen is that we get another crack in the playoffs and that, if that goes well, the boys might get their first trip to Wembley. That I shall get drunk with a good mate, that I shall be in the only place I want to be on Saturday. Most of those at the beam back would swap with me in an instant. It’s not THAT bad, so long as you ignore the BBC headline that says that £170 million is riding on the game. That would be a small payback for Mr Bloom eh?

So can we do it? Can I produce rational analysis on the game? I’ve written a few previews for other sites this season and all of them ask things like “who should we be worried about?” and “what’s the score going to be?”. I can’t do that here. The most I can say is that we will miss Dunk but that we are likely to replace him with the club captain, a current international. So not that bad really. That we will not remotely be the same proposition as the team that was wiped out at The Amex, 3-0. We will have a real left back, a tricky winger and two midfielders who have been imperious. Boro will be every bit as worried about us as we are of them. After that, Steve’s right. It’s down to the roll of the ball, the luck of the deflection, the accuracy of the refereeing decision. All that stuff you just have to watch from the stands. Argh.

I may write a match report and I may not. The day after I have to take nine excited boys to a five-a-side tournament in the sun. Should we win I will need all the extra sleep I can get before I set off to do that. Should we lose I might not be capable of words at all. This may be over and out for the season. I may see you again. I hope, in the nicest possible way, that I do not, because I am spending Sunday morning wandering in a daze looking for a bag of bibs and some sun-lotion and wondering where that kebab came from.

 

Blackburn Preview

It’s not every day you get a preview on Brighton But Only At Home but then again we don’t have a match every day. If we did we’d need a squad of eighty players, Tony would be destitute by October and the only person who could afford a season ticket would be The Queen. Sky would continue as normal.

So what I mean is they’re rare. Rare enough to warrant me creating a new Category, a Category that might only ever have one post in it. So why? Well firstly I’m on holiday from work without actually being away anywhere warm with exotic lager and egg and chips priced in Euros. I have a list of jobs to do that reads (approximately); paint shed, take rubbish to dump, family trip to Science Museum, clean paddling pool, write Blackburn preview.

Secondly, though, I’m EXCITED.

Is this the most eagerly anticipated game at The Amex ever? Obviously not. I don’t have the same level of excitement I did before the first competitive game at our new ground against Doncaster for example (and nothing could ever live up to the climax of that particular game). Nor is the tension in the house as palpable as it was when we were about to take on Palace in the playoffs (an ending I’d like never to repeat). Arsenal and Liverpool have visited in competitive games and we have twice vanquished poor Newcastle sides (Newcastle, remember, are an even bigger deal than Sheffield Wednesday).

But compared to last season I’m like the kid who is about to have a birthday party in a Nerf Gun shooting range hosted by Stampy the Minecraft Vlogger and surrounded by bowls of never ending chocolates.

Last season –certainly between October and Christmas and definitely towards the end – I did not want to go to football. Despite the presence of good friends, assurances from The Brass that we were Premier League Ready and a huge poster of JFC (yes I know) proclaiming we had “one ambition” I TRUDGED from the station to the ground like a kid who’s been forced to see that Great Aunt who smells of poo and has the frisky Chihuahuas. We knew – all of us – that we had as much chance of scoring as Plug from The Bash St Kids at a Miss Universe convention.

Not now. OK, I’m possibly jinxing it and I promise all of you, right now, that if we’re terrible tomorrow I won’t write another match preview until the next time I’m bored at home with only an algae filled paddling pool competing for my attention. But I really do think the days of Brighton Nil are in the past.

Firstly we have had a tremendous start. Top of the table after match two and joint top (sort of) after three we have gleaned seven points out of a possible nine. Each of our starting strikers has a goal to their name, something that took until I can’t remember last season (when we only had one starting striker anyway and that was often COG) and we have scored a last minute winner and a first minute goal.

The squad is genuinely evolving as squads should. The defence already has much more strength in depth than last season (though, like my Fulham report, Dunk needs his own paragraph later on). It also has more pace, particularly down the left, meaning we are not defending so deeply. Jamie Murphy has been added as an option to the attack, Kayal and Stephens are forming a natural midfield partnership and we have not one but two number nines who are better than COG (albeit we will probably see one of them about as much as we saw Vicente). We are also playing a style of football that actually suits the league we’re in and players we have, rather than some pipe dream about being the next Barcelona or Germany.

Our opponents tomorrow, meanwhile have none of this. Owned by mental chicken farmers who apparently didn’t understand the concept of relegation Blackburn seem to be the only club in the country suffering under the FFP rules. The hugely impressive Gestade has already left as has Tom Cairney (one of Fulham’s best players last week). In have come Nathan Delfouneso from that current footballing powerhouse Blackpool and Hope Akpan, generously described by Reading fans as a “six out of ten player”.

Of course there is plenty of danger remaining. We all know what a good cross Craig Conway can put in if he’s in the mood while our summer pursuit of Ben Marshall may (hopefully) create its own Dunk type benching situation (though I doubt it). Jordan Rhodes is still just about there. So there is plenty of danger in their attack. They have scored in every game they have played this season though only once in each. They got exactly the same result as us at Huddersfield but they are yet to win a game (including a 1-2 defeat at home to Shrewsbury in the League Cup ). They are both a danger and there for the taking and therefore predicting a 1-1 draw seems the sensible thing to do.

But I don’t want to be sensible. I want to make up puerile songs about Gaetan Bong. I want to get one of those lary hi viz away shirts with “25  ZAMORA” on the back (ok I don’t but I’m as close to buying a replica shirt with a number on it for myself as I ever have been).  I want to write to 4-4-2 magazine and tell them that their season preview was wrong, ironically because we are playing 4-4-2. I want to sniff a £4.10 sausage roll, sit in a padded seat and swing a scarf over my head to “Ring of Fire”. In other words my Albion mojo is BACK.

Oh yeah, I promised a paragraph on Dunk. Firstly the club have, apparently, turned down a fresh bid of £5 million from Fulham this week. All of the public noises say we do not want to sell. Yet we have, this week, added a promising young centre back in the form of Connor Goldson from Shrewsbury and I doubt we persuaded him to sign by telling him he’d be fourth choice. So long as GG’s body is holding up I would not expect Dunk to be starting tomorrow. Nor, necessarily, would I expect him to be here at the end of the window. There will be more transfer dealings to come before September, of that I have no doubt. Whether we’ll meet the exorbitant demands of the mental chicken farmers for Marshall remains to be seen. However, neither should we expect the likes of Gary Gardner on loan.

PREDICTIONS

Score: 1-1

Attendance: 25,000 ish again including 400 odd Blackburn fans who will be applauded despite spending the afternoon singing inaudible homophobic “funnies”.

Team: Unchanged with the exception  of Murphy coming in for March.