Manchester United at Home 2018/19 – Clinical

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.


Manchester United at Home – Safe


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 .

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

Arsenal at Home – Superb


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.



Coventry City at Home – Cup Fever

Monday night and things are about to move as far away from Graham Kelly’s velvety ball bag as possible. Two asinine presenters are going about their business, which appears to be patronising their normal viewers in to submission. Outside in a car park there are a lot of people in replica shirts who are about to joyfully shake hands. It’s like a dystopian novel where man-made fibre has taken over the world and started to melt people’s brains. Welcome to the cup fifth round draw.

Who did we want? “Someone shit at home” wrote my running mate Darren on NSC. And so it happened, a League Two side at The Amex. Female Vacuous Presenter announced gleefully that “Hove Albion would play Coventry City” and found a Coventry fan to interview about it. His kid spent the whole time trying to throw up over a cardboard replica.

But Coventry weren’t always shit. Under the less than glorious reign of SISU they have become a League Two team, had to groundshare with Northampton, and seen more and more of their current ground given over to use by a “London” rugby team. Their Number 27, Josh Barrett, looked like he’d been borrowed from said rugby club’s front row instead of Reading. We may complain about the train service but at least we can use it on match days.

Yet this was a club who won the cup in 1987 and for most of my youth were as permanent a fixture in the top flight as Everton. The Boy was born in 2006. In that season Coventry finished 17th in The Championship. We finished 18th in League One. Yet, because if his age, he thinks of them as a little club. It has to be said I have a great deal of sympathy for them. They’ve been through very similar to us.

Not so much sympathy that I didn’t want to beat them in to the dust mind you. Thanks to the way the club sold tickets we were in the North Stand, The Boy for the first time. The sun was shining and we’d been pretty much promised Locadia would start. I had a genuine spring in my step on the ten yard walk to the car, since the Coastway West was shut to trains and Steve’s wife had kindly offered us a lift to Brighton Station.

From there a train to The Amex full of noisy Cov fans on the sauce, determined to enjoy their day out. I paused to buy a pair of blue home shorts to use in next week’s Brighton Half and then we entered the hallowed area of the North Stand, which looked like it had been taken over by a Farmer’s Market. A true eye opener for the WSU regular. These people have a SPECIALIST pastry area. They have artisan looking pizzas. They have tiny beer queues and yet EVERYONE is drinking. I considered asking for a permanent move.

Once out – and kick off was delayed for 15 minutes – the reason for picking the WSU again became obvious. The atmosphere where we were was excellent and I do love watching from an end. It was the default growing up, Goldstone North Stand at home and away “end” away. Only recently have clubs started to shunt the away fans in to a distant corner. Plus, when I played, I was a centre back – I’m used to seeing the ball come towards me. But still the view was not great. Some people standing, some sitting (make your minds up) and the crossbar sort of in the way. And it’s much harder to spot tactical changes and how close players are to the far goal. Which is why I’m blethering away. The game passed by in a pleasant but undiscernible mush of beer, song and pastry.

We did, though, have a lot of changes, but also a very strong side with Locadia and Ulloa starting up front. It took the Dutchman hardly any time at all to make his mark. From a corner he swung the loose ball on to a post, missing out on a debut goal by inches. Then Coventry nearly took the lead from a set piece, hitting the bar. But just 15 minutes in our man had his goal. Knockaert, who’d been wasteful up to then hit a low cross (did he mean it? – couldn’t tell from the NS) and Locadia was first to react, driving home from close range. Ladies and gents, we have us a striker.

He could have had a first half hat trick, air slicing a March cut back and sliding agonisingly wide from another low cross. It was up to Goldson to make the whole place relaxed though, adding a second with a header from a corner and stuffing the ball up his shirt in a manner that suggested his good lady may be expecting.

The game was put to bed with one of those moments that made me glad we’d picked exactly the seats we did. Knocky back to Bruno, an excellent diagonal cross and That Man From Argentina got another goal at The Amex, right in front of us with a trade mark header. A thing of beauty, The Boy loving it. After that we sat back and had the odd break but it was job done, despite a consolation goal from the excellent Clarke-Harris who’s bothered us all game, drilling a loose ball low in to the South goal sparking celebrations that saw a smoke cannister and one of their Neds being led out by stewards the way the bouncers at The Gloucester used to chuck out moshers during a Nirvana record back in the day. Baldock, on for Locadia, hit the angle of bar and post in return and that was that.

My reward, later that evening was a most excellent gig by the man himself Paul Weller. Our reward, as I was sat in the pre-gig bar, was a trip to Man U. Oh well, at least there was no walking female answer to Hello magazine calling us “Hove Albion”.