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.

 

Blackburn Rovers At Home 2015/16 – Mixed Emotions

Life. Impossibly long, terribly short, happy, amazing, tragic and awful. That’s deliberately contradictory because yesterday was one of highs and lows.

This will be shorter than normal. Normally the tone of the blog is of what a Twitter friend calls “gentle comedy”. It’s meant to be light hearted but, at times, this isn’t possible. Last season that was down to the football. But to write in that voice you have to be in a certain mood and I’m not.

Yesterday really should have been one of those happy and amazing days that I dwelt on for an impossibly long time. It dawned sunny and warm, a beautiful late summer’s day.  The Boy’s football training went well, we met our friends on time and Southern Rail had managed to lay on an eight coach train across to Brighton, on which we got a seat. OK, when we got to Brighton the train monkeys managed to load us on totally the wrong train, meaning we sat in the station while people who’d only just arrived got put on the first train out, but we still got to The Amex in plenty of time. When we arrived it was eerily empty.

As I queued at one of the concourses a supervisor type came out and told all the servers that kick off was delayed by fifteen minutes. Surely the train stewards hadn’t sent everyone after us on to the fast train to Victoria? I checked my phone and only then caught up with the fact that something horrific was unfolding at the Shoreham Airshow. A plane had crashed on to a full A27, a road that at that time would have been full of families off for an afternoon somewhere and fans heading to The Amex from the west. At the time of writing I’m not sure exactly who has been affected but my heart goes out to them and their loved ones.

A football match still took place, and mostly we were able to focus on events on the pitch, albeit updates were coming in from Shoreham from all those around me. Blackburn had the better of the opening exchanges with Conway and Marshall giving our fullback pairing more trouble than they’d yet received this season, the centre backs being worked hard in the heat too, and long throws were coming in to the box from all angles.

Eventually we settled down and began to enjoy more possession. Lua Lua who had spent much of the first ten minutes giving the ball away suddenly began to trouble their defence while, on the other side, Jamie Murphy was easing in to his full debut. Hemed’s strength was allowing Baldock to buzz around him and the Blackburn defence and Kayal and Stephens were doing what centre midfielders should and putting themselves about. After a few probing moves we finally carved them apart with Baldock finding Kaz unmarked in the box. His powerful shot could only be parried in to the net and we were one up.

We held on with no small thanks to Stockdale who was excellent. Blackburn carved several good chances but they either wasted them or found our keeper more than equal to the challenge. We created chances ourselves on the break but couldn’t take those either and the game finished 1-0.  We are equal top with Ipswich, a goal down on goal difference, and unbeaten all season. We looked solid and a proper Championship team without ever hitting the heights of the first half at Fulham.

Afterwards we were walking past the North Stand entrance where we saw Calde surrounded by a large crowd singing his name. We tried to get a photo but he told us to get lost and made a run for his luxury vehicle. No, of course he didn’t, he stayed and had photos with each and every person who wanted one, generous as ever with his time. What a wonderful man and great club ambassador he is.

For the boys, then, it was a perfect day. A win. A team sitting pretty at the right end of the league and a chance meeting with a player. Afterwards we went to our friend’s 40th birthday party which was good enough to have delayed the usual posting time of this blog. But, when we remember this day in years to come it won’t be the day that we beat Blackburn 1-0, nor the day of the 40th party, but the day of the plane crash on the A27. For that reason alone this report is shorter and more subdued than normal.

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.

Blackburn At Home 2014/15 Season – More of the Same

Another draw. Another 1-1 draw.

Asked before the game for my prediction I said 1-1. It was supposed to be a running joke but it’s not funny any more. Asked after the game what I’d write I struggled. Just as I’m struggling now. Writers block. It happens to us all eventually. But how many ways are there to describe the same thing? Excuse this paragraph. It’s waffle. Maybe a coffee will help.

*pours enormous coffee*

Nope.

Wait. I do that personal touch thing, don’t I? That account of my day. Well that too had a distinct draw-like feeling to it. Again the Amex was not exactly rammed. Again this made for an agreeably short pie queue and toilet queue and probably would have made the trains easier if Network Sodding Rail hadn’t sodding decided to do sodding engineering works meaning there were no sodding trains at all. The usual loveable lunatics behind us weren’t there and they appeared to have passed their tickets on to a group of young lads who spent the game colourfully discussing the uses of Viagra and other less legal drugs. Luckily The Boy and his friends were busy making up their own Lua Lua songs and giving the referee marks out of ten. I just hope he remembers that what is said at football stays at football. The Harvey’s was nice. We sang.

In fact, talking of the referee, he was excellent. Take a bow and have a gold star Mark Haywood. So often bloggers and writers (me especially) only mention the ref when he was terrible but yesterday the game was very well controlled and I couldn’t fault a single decision. It was reflected in a mark of five out of ten from The Boy. Normally he only gives them negative numbers. Andy D’Urso got minus twenty.

Also excellent were the Remembrance touches. From the poppies on the shirts and on the fences between the ground and station to the silence and the bugles, the observance was spot on and a credit to the club and both sets of fans.

But what can I say about the game? We looked good in patches. Tactically we were far better. I think Sami got the team selection bang on. We opened the scoring, once more from a set piece, against a big physical side. Credit to Gary Gardner who has had a hard time on these pages. That’s two in two games for him. Other individuals? Dunk was again excellent. Having gone in to the book early (which unfortunately means he’ll miss Norwich) he timed each subsequent challenge to perfection. Lua Lua worked supremely hard, drawing foul after foul and tracking back admirably. He’ll be shattered this morning. Also all over the place, and my man of the match, was Joe Bennett who caused Blackburn problems all day long. The sponsors, one of who is a good friend, chose Elliot Bennett as man of the match, and though I’d disagree with that I’d also say we have looked  a better, and more balanced side since he’s joined on loan, and some of his runs and set pieces took me back to the Withdean days.

Then we conceded an equaliser early in the second half. Again. And we were unable to go back in front. Again. Thanks to some very sloppy first touches, very sloppy final balls and generally hitting the panic button. Again.

So, Sami in or Sami out? We go in to the international break in 20th but only one point above 23rd, having averaged exactly a point a game. As if I hadn’t laboured the point above. Aha! A point pun. That’ll keep them reading he grinned.

That’s not what I was expecting when the phrase Premier League Ready was coined and the giant Nike poster went up. That’s not what I was expecting when we were told what excellent managerial candidates we had in the summer, or when we were told to judge our summer deals at the end of the window. It has been what I was expecting ever since that abomination at home to Sheffield Wednesday. It has become normal, expected, inevitable. This is why, despite the adjustment to the tactics and the new personnel, I am still on the “out” side of the fence, but only just. We have put ourselves behind the eight ball and we are not overloaded with players who look good in a scrap. There needs to be a big change, and, yes, I am fully aware in writing that we have taken four points from the last two home games and that Blackburn are a decent side.

However, our league position is not just down to Sami. If ever you want an illustration of how far the squad has regressed look at the last minute substitutions yesterday. One time Albion target Gestede replaced by £8 million Rhodes for them (and Gestede was excellent, just the sort of player we are missing). Chris O’Grady on for us. Yes, Blackburn may be a financial basket case owned by crazy Indian chicken farmers but that is the sort of level of finance we are up against week in, week out. Failure to compete against it will result in relegation, and until the Academy is producing regular stars I’m not sure there is an answer that doesn’t involve those of us with very little asking Tony Bloom to write another cheque.

Meanwhile the much maligned (by idiots) Ashley Barnes scored Burnley’s winner in the Premier League. What we would give for a Barnes now?

Will the international break see a change in manager? The rumour mill has been at its peak this weekend. Andy Naylor says Sami is safe and that his information is from an “impeccable” source. Hopefully not the same impeccable source who told him Adam Clayton and Stephen Ward were signing. Another rumour – and it is only that – reached me via an ex pro that Sami’s departure was imminent. I have nothing to back it up other than to say the person who told me isn’t prone to nonsense and barely ever passes these things on. Then again these sorts of rumours almost always turn out to be false.

Then there is the question of whether he, himself, is happy. Asked about bringing in new players ahead of January he replied, after the game, “it’s not up to me.” Is that another manager deeply unhappy with our recruitment policy? Or a resigned excuse for a season that already feels like Groundhog Day?

Christ. I got to 1000 words.

*drinks more coffee*