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.





Birmingham at Home 15/16 – We’re Effing Brilliant

In his novel “So Long and Thanks For All the Fish” Douglas Adams introduces us to the character of a lorry driver called Rob McKenna who can never get away from the rain and has noted over two hundred and thirteen different types of it. It’s something I’ve always identified with and while, unlike McKenna, I don’t keep a log of it written down, there is certainly a section of my brain that is dedicated to identifying – and then fleeing from – types of rain. There is the light mizzle that somehow leaves you totally drenched before you’ve reached the end of your street. There’s the gentle drip-drop of a spring or summer shower. And then there’s absolutely shitting it down, horizontally in stair rods, so that you resemble a clothed Olympic swimmer in ten seconds flat. That’s the type we had to put up with before and after yesterday’s game. It was the only dampener on an otherwise wonderful and entertaining afternoon.

Our number is growing both locally and globally. For the last two home games a third child has been added to our regular group. Yesterday my mate’s brother-in-law – a Leeds fan who has seen us from both the WSU and the away end – was staying with him and came with too. Up to now it has been relatively easy to get tickets around where we sit for any extras, but yesterday the normally empty seats were all taken up. Yes a bumper crowd made its way to the ground through rain type 134 (absolutely shitting it down, horizontally in stair rods) and braved the additional security to pack the Amex. It must have been raining hard because The Boy – a programme addict – agreed to get his match day magazine in the concourse rather than outside.

At 2.15 the WSU concourse hummed with sopping wet people. We three adults decided we needed to be wet on the inside too. The boys dived straight under their shelf and began, variously, reading programmes or luzzing Maltesers. I had a nice chat with “16 things” Jem Stone and his dad (“we met on a radio show” “Turn It Up?” “no not that one…..”). There was a genuine air of anticipation though we were acutely aware that Derby had put us out of the top two the night before. We needed to win. I think Hughton managed to get that message across.

We came out of the traps like the favourite in the Wimbledon Derby. The greyhound analogy is a good one, since March and Murphy were flying past their full backs like prize racers easing past a Corgi. Again and again they were put away and crosses came in from all angles that we were just unable to convert. This was all in the first fifteen minutes. Of course such dominance doesn’t just happen. In midfield Kayal was giving a master class while each full back was providing quality ammunition for the hounds. It seemed we had to score and, indeed, on seventeen minutes we did in exactly the manner with which we’d been pressing. Murphy released Rosenior down the left and his low centre reached March who had come inside. His initial half volley came off the back of Hemed’s legs but it dropped invitingly back at Solly’s feet and he lashed in the rebound. 1-0.

Again the lead was not to last long. This was a constant theme last season and has now happened against MK, Burnley and Birmingham too. It’s the only part of our game that needs sorting out and yet Birmingham’s equalizer was of real quality. A slide rule through ball opened us up and it was followed by a precise, outside of the foot pass in to the space on our left where Rosenior, for once, wasn’t. Stockdale saved the initial shot but Toral followed up with a deft header in to an empty net.

This wasn’t to stop our roving wingers and fullbacks. The only thing to stop them was persistent fouling by a banjaxed Birmingham back four. This wasn’t helped by the weak-as-piss referee Gavin Ward, the sort of man who lets ten challenges in a row go unpunished and then books you for complaining (and disallowed a good looking goal for us). The other thing to stop us was injury and this was purely accidental. Rosenior, raiding again down the left, clashed legs and fell nastily in an unfortunate collision. He immediately thumped the turf and one leg wasn’t moving at all. He was stretchered off and it looked nasty and long term (one day after the closure of the loan window too). As he left our new female announcer told a befuddled Amex it was Hemed. Cue much narfing and gags of the ‘get back in the kitchen love’ variety. Oh dear.

The injury brought on the much-loved Calde and everything else continued in the same vein. Kayal controlled the game. March and Murphy looked dangerous every time they had it. We couldn’t quite score. 1-1 at half time.

Here’s why having a pint or an extended wazz at half time is a bad idea. Anyone late back in to their seats – and there were plenty – would have missed us taking the lead. Murphy (again) got free down the left and cut it back for March (again). A thumping shot was saved but Johnny On The Spot Zamora (who *whispers* hadn’t been that great up till then) tapped in the rebound. 2-1. I was tempted to sing THAT song from the Poyet era but I was surrounded by kids.

Birmingham, who had always looked quick and dangerous on the break, now had to press us once again, and too their credit they did. We dropped back a little on the lead, though we introduced the lively James Wilson in to the fray. What a player he looks. On another day he’d have had three. Firstly he did his best Murphy impression, skinning Birmingham down our left and dragging a shot across goal inches wide. Then March for the umpteenth time got clear on the right and pulled it back, but Birmingham’s PIG smothered it with Wilson sniffing. Then we nearly scored a cracker, Kayal playing Wilson clean through with a wonderful through ball and a deft finish pinged back off the post and in to a grateful keeper’s hands.

Ince came on to allow us to sit back further and Mr Ward went in to meltdown, booking people for breathing and adding a befuddling six minutes of stoppage time. Ok, so we were time wasting, and that drives me insane when the opposition do it, but the reaction was completely disproportionate given the number of fouls on us in the first half. In one of the six minutes David Davies (and WHO calls their kid a name like that FFS?) should have equalized but his low shot was saved brilliantly by Stockdale. Finally the whistle went. 2-1 us. Top of the league.

There were so many outstanding performances. It was a breathtaking game. If you’ve been reading carefully you’ll know March deserved his man of the match but was nearly matched by Bruno, Murphy, Kayal and Stockdale. Everyone played their part though on both sides to send the majority of the 27,200 odd souls home happy in to Hurricane Splashy.

Birmingham City At Home 2014/15 – That’s Entertainment

There are times when I yearn for the innocence of youth. Most seasons have their breaking points. This is Brighton after all, not Real Madrid or Celtic or Chelsea. Last season I hit maximum frustration at the Middleborough home game as, faced with a chance to really cement our playoff position we capitulated in our worst, and most frustrating, performance of the season. This season it seemed it was going to be yesterday. Up to then I had watched us win twice all season, both one nil. Wigan at home and Charlton away, which according to the blog title I shouldn’t even have been at. I had missed the Bolton home game (holiday) and Ipswich home game (work). And so it was that I was looking forward to the Birmingham game the way Gordon Ramsey looks forward to a KFC.

Not The Boy though. Thanks to school and being eight he hadn’t even seen the Wigan game. One win, all season, scrapped out away in South East London. Yet he is a natural born Brighton fan. Not once has he asked to go and watch Man United on the telly instead. Not once has he complained we won’t win silverware. Yesterday he eagerly donned his replica shirt over his sweatshirt and grabbed at his scarf, twirling for purposes of. I left mine at home in a desperate nod to superstition for I’d not had it to twirl at Charlton either. All the way to the station we talked of the game. Who would start and in what formation? Who would be on the cover of the programme (I still cannot say Matchday Magazine, at least with a straight face)? Would we score first then immediately concede again (yes)? The same wide eyed wonder. The same conversation.

One change though was that my companion for much of the season was meeting us but without his son, The Boy’s mate from school, due to an away weekend with Cubs. Installed in a concourse bar we discussed over a couple of pints, not the game, but some frankly unrepeatable stories from his days as a submariner in the Philippines. Every now and then The Boy would look up from his programme to tell us about our scouting network or Gully’s puzzle, but between the two of us there was barely a mention of the football. Twenty minutes before kick off we went to our seats, The Boy springing and me trudging. It turned out he was right all along.

I’m assuming that if you’re reading this you were either at the game or at least know the result so spoilers are not really an issue. As much as it pains me as a writer to put the ending in the middle the score frames every bit of commentary that follows. There were seven goals and more thrills and spills than Shaun William Ryder on a Waltzer. It’s not possible to draw in a seven goal game. But what is possible, in fact definite, in such a game, is that if those goals are shared as closely as possible, which they were, you are talking about two of the creakiest defences this side of the San Marino national side. Yet that is not what I’m going to talk about (and not just because I promised @TheMrGrumpy on twitter). Frankly, there are times when you have just got to accentuate the positive. And there were plenty of positives.

We came out of the gates like, well, like a submariner released in to Subic City. That we went one up after eight minutes, following two successive goalless draws on the road was surprising. What was not was that we had already spurned a better chance, Kayal playing one of the through balls of the season only for the chance to be screwed wide of the post. But it took next to no time to make amends as Teixiera cut in from the left and squeezed a shot under Randolph in the Birmingham goal who should have done better. Of course I don’t need to tell you what happened next because I think, Wigan game apart, it has happened every time we’ve taken the lead at home. Within five minutes the visitors were level. Somehow they whipped in a cross from their left despite three players round the winger (none of them tight including Bruno who’d been done like a kipper) and, while we cleared the cross we didn’t clear it far enough. A speculative shot came from long range from the untroubled Gleeson and went in via a Donaldson deflection. How. Many. Times. Sorry, this is meant to be positive. *clears head*

So positives (mainly). From there on in we bossed the midfield and the ball. Kayal was outstanding. Ince was, once again, colossal. Best, unfairly maligned by some, put himself about. Teixeira teased and prodded, almost never losing the ball. We fashioned chances that we didn’t take, noticeably Baldock taking an extra touch when through that lost the chance before Best shot first time when he could have taken a touch. Yet the two best chances of the half fell to City. Stockdale – yes him – pulled off an amazing reflex save on a one on one before normal, Brighton controlling it, service was resumed. One minute of injury time came up on the board. Birmingham attacked our right flank again. Bruno got done again. Shinnie was immediately picked up by other defenders but Bruno’s head had gone. In one of those slow-motion NOOOOOOOOOO moments from a movie I could see him diving in a second before he did. Stonewall penalty. Cue those of us who were not in the bar already holding our heads. Cue a smokebomb from the Birmingham fans. We had bossed the game and we were going in 2-1 down.

Well, lucky for us Stockdale didn’t think that way. Paul Caddis stepped up to take. I watched through my fingers. Stockdale saved it. What was left of the Amex went mental. The ref immediately blew so we didn’t have to acknowledge the smoke bomb. I do believe me and The Boy high fived. Down on the pitch Bruno jumped on Stockdale who had got him out of jail. The actual score was still 1-1 but it was our players who went in on a high.

I’ve just looked at my word count. This is already the most I have written about a game in a long while and we’re only at half time. I have five more goals to go through. If I described each in detail this may end up as war and peace. Suffice to say we needed to score next and we did. Two goals from Saint Calde, both lashing in from close range. A sublime finish from Teixeira after Baldock had a shot finely saved by Rudolph. Plenty of going mental. Plenty of confetti. Singing. Smiles. Good God it had been a long time. Of course we didn’t make it that easy. Kayal’s magnificent efforts (seriously, what a player he looks for £300K) saw him drained by the seventy second minute and Stephens came on to rapturous applause. To me, though, he didn’t look match sharp, bottling his first challenge and generally leaving a Gardner or JFC shaped hole in our midfield that Birmingham exploited. Having got more of the ball they used it to good effect to spray down our open left side, cross back in, hold it up in the penalty area and score two fairly identical goals themselves. One of those was in injury time, meaning no one quite knew when the final whistle was coming. Shrill whistles rang from every stand. And then he blew. 4-3 us. A WIN! ON A SATURDAY! AT HOME!

There are many players who will not want to see the highlights reel. All of Birmingham’s defence for one. Most of ours for another (Stockdale excepted). Yet here’s the final positive note. On most Saturdays my personal man of the match choice has been impossible due to no one earning it. This time it was impossible due to the number of candidates. Was it Ince who was all over the place? Kayal who only every made intelligent runs, played intelligent balls, bossed the game three hundred times more than our actual captain? Teixiera who scored twice, ran himself in to the ground and was a total menace. Two goal Saint Calde? Or Stockdale, without whom I suspect we would have spiralled in to another rancorous home defeat. Take your pick.

We left smiling.

Birmingham Away 17 August

Following football this way is impossible.

Once again we are away. Once again so am I but not quite in the right place. We are visiting my father in law in Oxfordshire. So same nauseating trip round the car park that is the M25, same turn off to the M40 but then not all the way to Birmingham. Perhaps it’s for the best. I don’t have fond memories of the place.

Back in the late 80s we won there. You did not want to win there back then. We walked back to the station by what we thought was a quick but quiet route, just me and a mate. We thought we’d done it when the two ‘faces’ in front of us got a cab. Worrying if they were escaping. We turned the corner to see a mob of about 30 blokes, some with unironic moustaches, waiting. They didn’t clock us but saw the guy behind who was wearing a Brighton shirt. We heard the noise of them attacking and crucially we stopped and turned. Now they knew who we were. We were chased through town and The Pallasades back to the station. Lovely place St Andrew’s.

This Saturday gone though my problems are different. My father in law is 93. He created my wife when he was 53 and every time I meet him I’m possessed with the urge to congratulate him on his sperm. His latest trick has been phoning up local undertakers and asking them to measure him up “just in case”. It’s like an episode of Mrs Brown’s Boys without the drag.

While my toddler torments my sister-in-law’s Guinea Pigs I try to make the most of one bar of 3G reception and follow the game on twitter. From my timeline it seems that this is more effective than listening on Seagulls Player. Half time reports suggest we have had lots of chances and missed them all again. Further tweets tell me Birmingham then hit the bar twice. My father in law is on his 30th cigarette since we arrived. He’s trying to finish the job before the undertaker gets here. Toddler screams mix with Guinea Pug squeals. Someone’s looking after them, right?

Then we score. It’s Crofts. Always liked Crofts. Can we hang on? Twitter says we have and Final Score confirms it. I have second hand smoked a whole packet of fags and the RSPCA are racing Jones & Co Family Funeral Directors to the flat.

We go out for a family meal and I celebrate Oscar’s first three points with a manly Prosecco. On the way to the hotel Eels sing “Goddam Right, It’s a Beautiful Day”. Outside we are in the roughest part of semi rural Oxforshire and it’s pissing down, but they’re right.