“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.