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.

 

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.

 

 

 

 

Blackburn at Home 2016/17 – The Good, The Bad and The Ugly

“Winning ugly is still winning” –                  Kevin Hearne, Hounded.

Ah, club football, how I’ve missed you. Yet you scare the bejesus out of me. It’s a funny old game as Saint and Greavsie used to say. If you follow, say (two teams picked entirely at random!), QPR or Birmingham, then most of this season has been a massive disappointment. Come April, however and you’re one smug relaxed so-and-so, able to go to the football just for the sake of a day out with your mates or your family. Whereas, having been lording it over the division for much of the season, if you are in a box seat, challenging for automatic promotion, it’s suddenly squeaky bum time.

Furthermore, when HASN’T April been squeaky bum time for the Albion? Probably the first season at the Amex when we finished 10th in the Championship. Even then, though, the playoffs were dangled like some mental impossible dream for a while. The season before that we’d won every game in a packed March but still had to get through April intact. After that it has been playoff worry or relegation worry until we reached last season, the season that surpassed our expectations until it ended at the game of which we do not speak. April is exciting if you’re an Albion fan but it ain’t great for the nerves.

What’s more our opponents on this first day of April were Blackburn and it is most definitely squeaky bum time for them too. The Chicken Farmers may be about to find out that it’s possible to be relegated from The Championship, never mind the Premier League. They belatedly brought in an organised manager in Tony Mowbray and went on an undefeated run, though most of those games were draws. A draw would not do us. Wins are needed now. More so for us, since we had a Blackburn fan in tow. His son though, born here, was in full Seagulls regalia and came and sat with us up in the roost while dad and daughter went off to the South Stand. Pre match talk posited that Blackburn would be organised but that they had a tendency to ship late goals.

The other thing about the 1st of April is, of course, that people play hilarious pranks on each other. So it was that I looked at Twitter at 2 o’clock, while sitting on a train at Brighton Station, to see the team and thought that the official account may be pranking us. Akpom starting? No Bruno? Baldock not even on the bench? SKALAK?

But it was true. According to Andy Naylor Bruno’s groin was still not to be risked while Baldock had also picked up a minor injury. None of this explained why March, in the form of his life and coming off scoring a worldy for England, wasn’t starting against a team that would need prising open, but more of that later. Our usual Saturday afternoon chat on the concourse later and we were off.

And so to our title theme – the good, the bad and the ugly. The good would come at the end as we all know (you were all there weren’t you, I’m never quite sure) but there was plenty of bad and ugly to get through first. I tweeted at half time that it had been a dull first half (actually I said “full” but I meant “dull”, bloody phone keyboards), but in truth, thinking back now we certainly tested their keeper a few times. In fact one of the goods was an excellent diagonal ball in to Murray from which he unleashed a long shot that was just tipped round the post. More comfortable was an ugly training ground move in which Dunk took a long range free kick and slammed it down the keeper’s throat. That’s right. Dunk. Long range free kick. Incredibly we repeated it in the second half to identical effect.

The keeper was stretched again when Knockaert managed to wriggle free down the right and his cross eventually reached Dunk at the back stick, who turned nicely but saw his shot saved at the near post. Meanwhile Stockdale had to be alert to tip over a corner that was going directly in.

The bad, meanwhile, was being served up in spades by Akpom. I literally have no idea how Arsenal can have signed him up on professional terms. On this performance not only can he be less than bothered but he doesn’t care if his body language shows it. Given a chance to show the Amex what he can do for a full game he showed us that he can’t head, can’t hold the ball up and has all the pace of an irritated snail.

While the players dutifully tweeted afterwards about the great atmosphere, in truth the fans seemed as nervous as the players. Would we have roused Akpom to great heights but loudly chanting a song of praise? Who knows. But early in the second half the whole ground was clamouring to see March and Hemed come on for Akpom and Skalak and Chris duly obliged. At once the atmosphere went up a notch. Did the players now believe? Did the fans?

Did I mention the offsides? The perpetual offsides? God, this was bad and ugly. It wasn’t that the linesman particularly got it wrong – just that our front players did. But playing offsides is a risky business and a quick move that pulled Blackburn out of position proved to be their undoing. Rosenior was free in acres of space on the right and was found by the excellent Stephens. Since it was him and not Knocky the ball came straight in from the right foot and, as Knockaert won a header, Murray sprang the trap. He tapped in from two yards with the whole stadium looking at the linesman, who immediately signalled for a goal. At full speed I called it as off. Replays showed it was a perfect goal.

After that Murray combined with Hemed to nearly score again, Steele producing another incredible save, while we held on at the other end. Here was the good. We’d scored, Huddersfield were drawing and now the players that had shone for us were going the extra mile. Kayal and Stephens so hard working in midfield, Murray running his socks off up front. But perhaps best of all was Uwe Hunemeier. The BFG was unbeatable at centre back, having his best game since he joined. What a time to raise it.

So we stayed to the end, as we always do, and boy was it worth it. As we clapped the players off there was a sudden cheer, both in the WSU and the North. “Blimey” I though, “people are really celebrating Huddersfield’s draw. The bouncing massed on the concourse singing ‘we’re on our way’ would prove the final clue that Burton, improbable as it was, had scored a last minute winner.

Nine points clear. Even if they win their game in hand that’s still six points clear with a vastly superior goal difference. All over the ground’s bars songs rang out. I joined Steve, our pet Blackburn fan and the media luvvies from the Albion Roar and North Stand chat and many, many others in celebration. The train home was buzzing. The pubs were buzzing. We might just be on our way.

EDIT – I nearly forgot The Boy’s Ref Watch. “Rubbish” was all I got out of him. For a ten year old he’s becoming remarkably teenager like.