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.