Bolton Wanderers At Home 15/16 – That’s Entertainment

 

So, obviously, what I need to talk about after another victory, another three goals and another midfield masterclass from Beram Kayal is my bloody running. OK, I probably don’t, but the pledge to give up booze for three months isn’t going so well. That Harvey’s, when it’s poured looks like golden nectar especially when you have been dry for the previous eight days. And something is needed to lubricate the throat so that one can cheer one’s team to victory (apologies there, Prince Phillip appears to have taken over momentarily). Man cannot subsist on Voice Tablets alone.

Corruption and promise breaking are rife at Brighton But Only At Home towers. “Not drinking” has become “event drinking”. Meanwhile, since the appearance of the Cheese Eating Poker School last time out, The Boy has insisted on betting on the correct score at the end of the game among our group. This means quids in. He certainly is. Every game he fails to bring his pocket money and cons me for a programme. Now I have to put a correct score bet on for him too. No ripped up pie wrappers this week though, we simply chose what we thought the correct score would be at the end of the game. I went for 2-0. The Boy 3-0. @BrightonStevieP (who was back off the sick bench) went for 3-1 and his son 2-1. We scoffed a little at this, the writer and his statto son. How would BOLTON score a goal? They had Emile Bloody Heskey up front FFS (I said this, not The Boy, and more politely). Whoops.

Never, ever underestimate an opponent. Or indeed a friend. Another rule at Brighton But Only At Home is that I don’t watch the highlights before I write. I have broken this rule too this week. An hour before kick off I had a call from the leader of the Cheese Eating Poker School who normally never comes on a Saturday. He’d managed to get both a “pass” and a ticket for the game. The only issue was that it was in a different stand to us. Here’s where the ticket staff at the Albion are brilliant as he managed to negotiate a transfer to sit with us (it helped that the seats were of identical value). Such transactions take time and so it was he arrived bang on ten minutes. We all said hello, as you do, and then looked back on to the pitch to see Jamie Murphy racing clear of the Bolton defence. A split second later he’d managed a perfect recreation of his third against Brentford and was wheeling off in celebration. So, if I hadn’t watched back the highlights I’d have been unable to tell you it was the result of a brilliant through ball from deep in our own half by Kayal, or that Murphy had burned up their defence like a greyhound on speed. But I just have. So there.

That should have been it, shouldn’t it. That early goal to calm the nerves, at home against a team who were bottom of the table. We should kick on from there. Especially with Heskey doing his best Oil Tanker impression. Surely it was just a matter of how many we’d score now. 2-0, on reflection, was looking a bit pessimistic. But if that’s what I was thinking then I think our players were too. The difference is they are paid not to. Concentration for ninety minutes needs to be the watchword (hang on, that’s more than one word. Watchwords?) and concentrate we did not. A nice spell of possession for them ended with the ball being slipped out to their left where Bruno, not for the first time, was slightly out of position. This was also enough to mesmerise our centre backs in to unforgivable lethargy as the nine hundred and sixty four year old Heskey stood alone at the back stick and converted the inevitable low cross for 1-1. Twenty two minutes and my betting slip was metaphorically ripped up, not for the first time in my life.

To our credit we realised something needed to be done about this situation and we laid siege to their goal. Amos, in Bolton’s sticks started to have a blinder (more of goalkeeping blinders later by the way), keeping out a brilliant long range shot from Kayal after good work down our left. Then more good work from Kayal saw him slip through his Israeli partner Hemed who was tripped from behind in the box. Referee Robert Lewis, having a bizarre day that also included a text book tackle in centre midfield, before going off injured, failed to give the spot kick. Boos rang round the ground.

The boos soon turned to delirious cheers. We scored what I tweeted at the time was the “best team goal seen at The Amex”. I’m still struggling to recall a better one (Ulloa versus Palace in the Paddy’s Day Massacre was suggested) though this most perfect of team goals had a brilliant individual contribution. From deep in our half the defence released Knockaert on the right (team move one). He ran over half the length of the pitch, beating Spearing first for skill, then for strength and finally for speed, so that the latter even failed in his attempt to push Knockaert over. A low cross found Zamora who was tightly marked. Hemed was clear behind him. Surely Bobby hadn’t seen him, as we all could in the WSU? Using the force Bobby sensed his presence and produced a back heeled flick of such perfect weight that all Tomer had to do was tap in to an empty net. 2-1. So stuff not watching the highlights. It’s a goal I could watch over and over again, and have. There was still time for Amos to pull off another stunning save from a close range effort after brilliant work down the right from Bruno and Knockaert and we went in 2-1 up at half time.

Though it had been a magical attacking half our lack of concentration at the back had nearly done for us so no doubt this was being enforced down in the dressing room. Much like the nine year olds I coach this was going in one ear and out the other as we tried desperately to talk ourselves out of the game. Fair play to Bolton, a side who were bottom did not park the bus but had a go at us whenever they could, and they made it a VERY entertaining spectacle (for the neutral anyway, my blood pressure was through the roof at times). But we made it so hard for ourselves. Firstly we failed to defend a set piece, a long free kick in to the box this time which we never got on top of. The inevitable second ball came out and Spearing struck it invitingly through a crowd of players and in to the centre of the net. 2-2. Do we practice set pieces? Ever?

Worse was nearly to come. From our set piece a long, hopeful clearance was launched by Bolton, but luckily Bruno had it covered. The full back with the best technical touch in the division could not make up his mind whether to trap it or volley it back in. He did neither and miss kicked hopelessly, letting in the menacing Liam Feeney clear on goal. Had he scored I have no doubt we’d have lost, but luckily out came Stockdale to block. We celebrated like it was a goal.

And then, finally, they cocked up at the back just as badly. Amos rolled it out for a change but some ponderous play saw Kayal rob the ball back. He put in his unmarked mate Hemed (how well those two link up at times) but carried on his run. Hemed produced his own Bobby-like flick and Kayal curled it low in to the corner. 3-2. More bedlam.

That knocked the stuffing out of Bolton. The much vaunted Zach Clough came on and did nothing as we pushed for a fourth. First Zamora missed the far post by inches with a shot on the turn, then his replacement Lua Lua forced an excellent save from Amos from a free kick, and finally we were done after six minutes of injury time caused mainly by an injury to the ref himself.

Some great performances from some. Kayal, Stockdale and Murphy can be particularly proud while Knockaert and Zamora’s contributions to THAT goal will live long in the memory. A slightly less great performance from some others. But three points is three points.

This morning a two hour twenty “easy” run (ha!) stretches out in front of me. Still I had a celebration pint. Then I went for dinner with friend and had carb loading in the form of curry and rice and five a day in the form of fermented grape juice. This morning will be hard work but, if I struggle, I will just visualise our second goal.

 

Huddersfield At Home 15/16 – The Magic Returns

Mojos. They’re funny things and they can come and go like a vaguely familiar jobbing actor in East Enders. One minute your Albion mojo is at such a low ebb that you miss the Wolves game in favour of an impromptu New Year’s Day get together and watch bits of it through your fingers as your young, promising centre back scores the only goal at the wrong end, the next you’re texting friends wildly with the message “can’t wait for the game”. All it takes is a few weeks off and a Bobby-inspired away win in the snow at a Northern grief hole.

However, in that few weeks off it is just possible to lose, temporarily misplace or forget your season ticket card. I didn’t but a friend did (honest guv). Don’t do this, for you will be charged a whopping five pounds EACH ticket to have a paper one printed. In the case of an under ten that’s only three quid less than a match day ticket. Outrageous. At least this season it’s paying for something decent. Last year it would simply have paid Kemy Agustien to conduct a one-man plus size modelling career on Twitter.

Tickets finally purchased we went to the concourse. The eagle eyed among you will have noted my running post and will now be assuming I had a Bovril. WRONG. Rules – particularly self imposed ones – are there to be broken. There is no doubt I am going to have to observe some temperance, particularly in March and April, but having gone nineteen days dry in January I got ill and had a hot toddy or two in the bath, then helped clear a beer mountain (mostly self purchased) at a cards night. A quick Harvey’s before a much anticipated home game didn’t seem too bad an idea. I thought people would castigate me for my weakness. Instead there was tacit approval. “It won’t do any harm” said Steve who joined me in a couple of pints. “Drink, schmink” said a well known podcast presenter. “I seem to be the only one who has to do this” opined Mark, an official marathon running expert.

So I got the two pint glow while watching something worrying. Huddersfield’s form had improved immensely since appointing David Wagner as manager. Wagner has known Jurgen Klopp longer than his wife. And Klopp’s Liverpool were on telly coming back from 3-1 down to win 5-4 at Norwich with the last kick of the game, Norwich having pulled back to 4-4 in injury time. There was fighting spirit, attacking instinct and comedy defending. Would that be what we were up against too? It seemed a mile away from mild-mannered Chris Powell.

In discussing the game on the train we had mentioned Anthony Knockaert’s highlight reel, particularly the two worldies he scored for Leicester against, yes, Huddersfield. The Boy, who is becoming a nine year old sage, thought it would be Wagner against Knockaert and he wasn’t really far wrong. In fact, though, Huddersfield were scarily recognisable. With better ball retention, excellent closing down and very little cutting edge they didn’t half remind me of us, particularly the Oscar era, but with nods to every little nuance we’ve displayed since moving in to The Amex.

Though Huddersfield had much of the ball there was an early chance for each team. First Lynch (remember him?) had a header cleared off the line for Town. Then Murphy skipped free down the left and cut inside, but with three waiting in the middle he instead chose to shoot for the far post, the ball rolling inches wide. Hemed, once again in need of a goal looked particularly annoyed. Still, on thirty minutes it was all forgotten as we scored from our opponent’s corner with a lightning fast break. Now WHO has that happened to all season? Huddersfield’s corner was headed out of danger by Zamora and controlled neatly around the midfield by Kayal who found Knockaert who had sprinted into yards of space. He legged it off down the right. Meanwhile the veteran Zamora had hauled his legs the length of the pitch on the blind side. Knockaert’s superbly chipped ball found him and he cushioned a volley home, first time, in to the far corner. A cracker.

Inevitably Huddersfield came back in to it (which is just what a Poyet / Oscar / Hughton hybrid would have) and after a spot of head tennis on the edge of our area Wells blasted a glorious chance over from about eight yards. Still, though, our defence can’t keep clean sheets at home. With less than a minute to go till half time a cross was threaded round the jockeying Ridgewell and Harry Bunn (and why isn’t a player named that playing Rugby Union?) rose to nod in. Good work all undone.

The second half was the Knockaert show. Firstly he hit a free kick on to the outside of the post. As we ran at their defence they took turns in fouling us. A look at the card count shows almost all of the cards to them, yet the ref got so many 50-50s wrong in their favour that The Boy had him marked at minus five hundred by the hour mark. They were as niggly as us under Poyet in other words.

And then, just when you could ignore their blue and white home kit, Vault away kit and distinct lack of striking options no longer they went the Full Brighton and gave away a defensive howler. A harmless ball was somehow cleared at snail’s pace out to our right. Knockaert spotted he could keep it in and did so, beating their defence and teeing up Wilson for a wonderful header that he had to twist his whole body to reach. 2-1. Much dancing, air punching, jumping and high fives.

Having had to take the injured Stephens (dead leg, shouldn’t be dramatic) off at half time, Hughton had recognised they could not cope with pace. Wilson had come on for Zamora before scoring and now Lua Lua arrived to torture a tired defence. Inevitably they fouled and, inevitably, Smith lost count of his total and hauled Lua Lua down for a second yellow. Reduced to ten men Huddersfield were more or less finished, a single free kick from twenty five yards aside, which they wasted, Brighton like.

So all hail the new hero Knockaert (can we call him Knockers? We’ll see). All hail Zamora the Scorer. All hail pace and endeavour. All hail teams with great technique but not much finishing. All hail beer.

 

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.

Bristol City at Home 2015/16 – BOBBY!!!!

A much below par Albion led the statistics but survived a few close scares before going ahead late on with a brilliant finish from Bobby Zamora. No, you’re not reading a late dispatch from Leeds, your correspondent having fallen asleep after too much proper beer and being bored to sleep by Geoff Boycott lite types, you’re reading last night’s. For the second game in a row we won 2-1. For a second game in a tow we really didn’t play that well. For a second game in a row HE scored the winner, All hail the King. *bows*

Perhaps now the brass are starting to get it. Perhaps they always did. In a league as competitive as The Championship it’s all about fine margins. No one THRASHED us last season they said (apart from Derby away). Just bad luck. A bad season. That’s all. Yet here we are the following season on the twenty first of the month we never win in (except this year) and we are top, and we are undefeated. We have not THRASHED anyone. But with a manager who has plan A, B and C and strikers who can finish those fine margins have been turned in our favour. Draws where there were defeats. One goal margin wins where there were one goal margin defeats. It’s not an accident.

But this is starting to read like a normal report or even like one of last season’s rants so, without further ado, let’s go to the pub.

Being Boy-less gave me a rare opportunity to take in some of my much beloved boozers around Brighton Station. Firstly the Yeoman, a pub that had once specialised in sausages and been run by the only Warwickshire fan in Brighton and that now does a homely, friendly atmosphere. Then the Evening Star, a pub that unashamedly does BEER. One of the wonderful things about this new era at The Albion is the number of people who want to go. What I mean by that is that, back in the day, I met my football going mates at the football. They would be the familiar faces on the North Stand terraces, at away grounds (and I’m going back to the late 80s when a good trip up North would see two hundred of us turn up) and in the pubs. Now my friends from every day life want to come to football too and have also become my Brighton friends. Sure, the pretendence last night was 23k with only maybe 20k bums on seats, sure the queues for train and pie were shorter than normal (I’m not complaining) but an Albion game is still an EVENT. Town buzzed. After three pints of lovely beer so did I. Voice oiled. Game on.

Greer was out injured leaving BFG to partner Dunk. With Murphy still suspended Rosenior continued in right midfield. Else it was a very familiar looking Albion side, another reason I believe we are doing well. In this league you don’t need rotation, You need partnerships and familiarity. Just look at Burnley two seasons ago. Or Dunk and BFG last night. Yes, our back four played like strangers. OK, so Bruno had all of his usual sublime touches and attacking flair but the other three looked like they’d been shipped in from the Dog. and Duck Or the Evening Star. Bristol City noticed.

Let’s give some credit here. Bristol City were much livelier than their league position gave them credit for, and, in particular, their number 22 Jonathan Kodjia was excellent. The proverbial pain in the backside all night his use of space and excellent pass set up left back Derrick Williams, hurtling in to the box, to give them a shock lead after just 17 minutes. Obviously they used this movement and menace, and our lack of presence in defence (and increasingly in midfield where the normally excellent Stephens was having a stinker) to dominate the game right? WRONG. They sat back, invited us on to them and wasted time in annoying and obvious fashion (obvious that is to everyone except referee Iain Williamson who had a 100% massive stinker all round). This meant we dominated possession and the BBC Website statistics and that possession should have seen us level, Baldock wasteful on a one on one and then having us out of our chairs in celebration as he was put through wonderfully, controlling and producing a neat chip that was not powerful enough and was cleared off the line.

The second half was just as lively. Finally we got to go mental as Baldock got what he wanted, tapping in a brilliant Bruno run and cross to finally settle down the natives who were getting restless, my drinking buddies and me included. The second half, in fact, saw more action that a Chuck Norris movie and much of it was just as hackneyed. Luke Freeman will have no idea how he was denied a penalty and booked for diving after being brought down in the box by the BFG, with our hearts in our mouths instead of Real Ale for a change. Kodjia remained lively and Stockdale made two wonderful saves, tipping over a fierce drive and then brilliantly getting a foot to a one on one with Dunk lying in an actual sleeping bag with his jamas on.  It needed tightening and Hughton made two subs in rapid sucession. Firstly Crofts came on to narrow the midfield, then Zamora for Hemed.

The latter made an immediate impact, holding the ball up and causing City problems of their own with his movement and positioning. And, so it had to be, that despite City having an excellent half, we took the lead. It was one of THOSE strikes. Ok, maybe not the volley against Halifax or the chip at Bury but classic Bobby nonetheless. We’d fashioned the chance out wide but looked to have lost it in a game of ping pong before Zamora, seemingly not even facing the right way to do it, twisted and produced the sweetest of controlled left foot volleys in to the bottom corner. Cue bedlam.

That’s the difference. Winning when we’re playing badly. Bringing ON a player who can score goals like that. Riding our luck but making it as well. Not a classic but who cares. We. Are. Top of the League. We went to the pub to celebrate.