West Ham at Home 2018/19 – Solid

Friday night football. A fairly recent invention, unless you were a fan of Crewe or Tranmere in the 80s and 90s. Back then these two teams played home games on a Friday night so as not to clash with the bigger teams in the same geographical area.  Two of my friends “adopted” one of each of these teams and would sometimes go and watch a Friday night Crewe or Tranmere game if the Albion were away up North as part of a football weekender. And why not? After all, in those days, 87/88 excepted, we were a solid second division team and Crewe and Tranmere were confirmed minnows. Then, all of a sudden we were playing them. Then, even more suddenly we were looking up to them. And now? Now we’re playing on a Friday night because Sky says so and Crewe and Tranmere are minnows once more, but it’s worth remembering our heritage. Mainly to remind Mark Noble how shit we once were so he can have a good old entitled cockney rant up in the dressing room. “We should be beating the likes of Brighton”. But in cockney. Ha ha.

So yeah, Friday night, and the good thing is if you win it sets up your whole weekend to come. If you lose, however, it ruins your whole weekend. So there’s a lot at stake. Plus evening games, while good fun when you’re there, can be a pain to get to in the rush hour by public transport. We took no chances, setting out early, but not before I’d wolfed down three portions of delicious lasagne made for me by my lovely wife. I have a ten mile race to do on Sunday morning and I figured this was just starting the carb loading early, even though you don’t need to for a ten miler. Harvey’s added to the carb load. And then I saw it, calling my name with its porkiness, a huge Piglets sausage roll. “I’ll just have one of those” I thought. Which explains why I spent the whole pre game with a stomach ache and the meat sweats. At least it stopped me drinking beer, so that I could concentrate on the action.

The action, from the team selection, proved to be attacking. Montoya was out injured and captain Bruno returned, but, unless my eyes deceived me, we were also going to play three wingers. Ali J was in for Bissouma but Knocky and March were retained. With three wingers and only two wings on the pitch, one of them would have to play the Groß role. Debate raged on who it would be, though the team sheet tweeted out by the club suggested March, and so it proved.

We’d all agreed a fast start with plenty of closing down, like we had against United, would be the way to go and that’s just how we started the game off. West Ham had a lot of the ball but they were often rushed in to mistakes when they had it, and they often had it in benign areas of the pitch. They looked dangerous from set pieces, a couple of early corners causing panic in our defence, but otherwise Ryan was untroubled. Stephens was still out but Kayal was in, allowing Propper to play the defensive midfield role and Kayal to create. And, boy, was he creating. He was a menace from early on, breaking up play and setting up our two wide men who were already swapping wings regularly in an effort to find space.

On twenty five minutes it all came together as Kayal broke up play and went wide via a lovely one-two. His perfect low cross found an unmarked Murray, who made a difficult finish look very easy indeed. The stands erupted, and the usual jumping, hugging and high fiving ensued. Just as a Friday night game can set up your weekend, so a goal, especially to take the lead, can leave a whole heap of happy coursing round your body.

West Ham tried to come back, using the lively Arnautovic as their fulcrum. One great thing about Premier League football is the number of genuinely great players who now grace the Amex turf. Last season it was Coutinho and Hazard and, while Arnautovic isn’t quite in that league, his movement and deft little touches were outstanding at times here. Plus he’s strong. Really he’s wasted at a team like West Ham. *hides*

But for all their possession and pressure they weren’t forcing Ryan in to a serious save. Yes there were set pieces. Yes there was excellent build up play, the lively Andersen involved in everything, but the end product was often a blocked shot or a tackle by us or thoroughly wasteful finishing.

This was the pattern for the whole second half. Able to talk again, having finally recovered from stuffing half a farmyard in to my gullet, my outpourings were those of frustration and worry as West Ham dominated the ball and we found ever more weird ways to give it back to them. At one point we had a promising looking break but March found himself in a dead end. His outside of the foot pass was Hollywood but accurate. Unfortunately the player in space was Bruno fifteen yards behind him. From there we contrived to knock it around before giving it to Kockaert, still in his own half and facing his own goal. He dribbled round half the ground before scuffing another outside of the foot effort straight to an attacker. In their half it would have been frustrating. In ours it was unforgivable.

West Ham proceeded to throw away chance after chance. Balbuena headed incredibly wide from a corner four yards out. Arnautovic missed from six. Free kicks were scooped in to the away end. Pellegrini must have been doing his bits before finally realising they were never going to score.

We were content to hit on the break, something that the introduction of West Ham’s tormentor in chief Izqueirdo only made more dangerous. With Locadia on and looking typically incongruous we suddenly broke down the left, Izzy cutting on to that favoured right foot that West Ham hate so much, and bringing a reflex save out of Fabianski. The ball spilled to Locadia who tapped in. YEEEEESSSS! He’d done it. Except the flag was up. Wrongly as Locadia had been onside, Murray the culprit. A goal for our record signing, so badly needed, so cruelly denied, but it would have been massively harsh on West Ham.

Five minutes of nervous injury time followed but, in truth, West Ham were never going to score. Our defence, marshalled by the returning Bruno and dominated by the freshly rewarded Dunk and Duffy, were never going to let that clean sheet go. And they didn’t. Massive relief at the end. Three points, no goals conceded and the weekend kicked off. A solid as you like start, mainly in my stomach.

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Spurs at Home 20189/19 – Flat

Well, the potential was there.

What I consider to be our default crew from the Championship promotion season was back together and The Boy was just happy to be making a temporary move away from the mountain of homework that has accompanied his move to secondary school. The weather was rubbish of course. Dank. But domestic arrangements meant we had a nice, stress free meet up, though far too early. It’s just possible that one or both of the adults confused the TV build up time with the kick off time and so we arrived half an hour earlier than needed. Even this was fortuitous though, as we missed a later SNAFU at Brighton Station.

I had time to attend to some minor business with the ticket office. Those in front of me were not so fortunate, as they were tourists who had bought touted tickets via Stub Hub. These had been blocked. I don’t know if this is any use to point out to my small band of regular readers but, in no circumstances at all should you buy touted tickets via Stub Hub, or anywhere else. The club are hotter on this than almost anything else, and rightly so, and you may as well, talking of hot, burn your money.

Anyway, that was ten minutes of the extra half hour used up. The other twenty were spent in a beer queue while this year’s intake of students tried to work out how to work tills, change beer barrels and make change.

Potential, though, we all agreed through our pre-match ritual, was there because Spurs were not quite the fearsome side they’d been over the last two seasons. Tired from a last minute disappointment in Italy, missing their number one keeper, and with Kane suffering from post World Cup lethargy this was a “good time” to be playing them. And we were at home.

Unfortunately, that’s where the optimism ended. They may have been missing their starting keeper but we were missing our most creative player, last season’s player of the year and the only one in the team seemingly capable of playing number 10. They are all, of course, one and the same, Pascal Groß. I say “seemingly” because I’m sure Propper plays there for Holland. If he doesn’t then he sure gets forward more for them than us.  But clearly CH doesn’t fancy him there at all and it was back to the Southampton 4-3-3 which was really much more of a 4-5-1. This made the first half turgidly flat.

Pretty much it went like this. Tottenham had the ball at the back. None of our players helped Murray chase it down or, in fact, went within 20 yards of Murray who must have either forgotten to shower that morning or, perhaps, have walked around for a few days in that sweat hugging green shirt from Monday. Either way we looked like we were allergic to him. So, Spurs have the ball. Trippier and Rose push our wingers back. We hold our shape. They can’t break it down. We get it, they close us down, we dump it back down their defences throat and so on. Rinse and repeat. It was duller than Neil the Hippie from the Young Ones presenting a documentary about formica making in the 1970s. Eighty percent possession to Spurs and zero chances. Until…

A foul outside the area, which initially went to advantage was brought back and over it stood Trippier. And we all know, from the World Cup, what he’s capable of these days. Luckily we blocked it. Chris Kavanagh immediately pointed to the spot for handball however. At full speed from the West it was hard to see, though the crowd howled with disapproval. I thought The Boy would be back in to the world of offering marks of minus ten million for his performance. Replays showed, however, a silly use of the hand from Murray in the wall. Kane was never going to miss, was he? No, he wasn’t.

We looked livelier in the second, just as we had against Southampton. March and Knocky got some joy in behind the wing backs and we pushed on a bit more. Kayal, who had come on mid way through the first half for a stricken Stephens, pushed us up having acclimatised to the game, but still there was a Groß shaped hole in our creativity. Chances came from set pieces and on the break but Spurs still had most of the ball and on 76 minutes they killed it on the break. Lamela started the move which went out on to the Spurs left to Rose via Moura. The cross was pinpoint and it was Lamela who was on the end of it with a crisp finish, a move that showed the quality gap that exists between the top six and everyone else.

Most of us trudged home in the rain but we stayed. We always do because The Boy insists and because I want to write about any last minute dramas (and have a beer afterwards). And there very nearly was drama to write about. Three minutes in to stoppage time Knockaert took possession of a lovely pass down the right, cut inside and finished beautifully with his left in to the far corner. Then, with almost the last kick of the game, another break and another chance for Knocky, though this ended up tamely saved. The best moments of the game and we’d saved them for about ten thousand people in injury time.

Flat game, flat result, flat atmosphere. I’m borrowing this from a thread on NSC started by my good friend Darren but he was spot on. And much of it, for me, was down to our flat formation. Groß can’t come back soon enough.

A trudge home, a curry and the AJ fight. A chaps’ day out. But not one I’m keen to repeat any time soon.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Fulham at Home 2018/19 – Beer (again)

Some days you’re the pigeon and some days you’re the statue. That’s just the way it is. The bad thing is we can’t all be pigeons at the same time and, inevitably, one person’s amazingly brilliant day is another’s shower of doo-doo. This seems to be most true of all with football fans with promotions, relegations and local derbies all taking their toll. But when you get a mid-table clash in bright sunshine at the wonderful time of three o’clock on a Saturday then your day is going to come down to circumstances and individual performance.

Circumstances, for me, were such that I was unattended, unsupervised, unfettered by rules. No “The Boy” who was and is with his mum and sister in an activity hotel in Devon. Unfortunately, I had important work meetings planned on the Friday and Monday. Glum face. Statue. But, you know, every cloud and all that. I strolled in the sunshine around our wonderful town, taking in just what a great place it is when the weather’s nice and you have all day, and then I strolled in to the Welly at the sort of time many of you are still having breakfast, caught up with some old friends, had a pint and watched the cricket. Happy face. Pigeon.

All of which goes some way to explaining why it is I’m bleathering on about statues and activity hotels instead of the game. One in the Welly, one and a half in the Caxton (wonderful pub, you must go, great landlord) and then met Steve who was not camping but was walking up the hill to catch the train to the Swan and even more beer and sunshine. And then I saw him. Old, old friend with whom I have been to many away games in many northern grief holes back when football actually was a bit scary. “Good” you think. Well, said friend doesn’t go much these days but, when he does, we normally lose and he’s therefore regarded as something of a Jonah. Luckily he’d only stopped in for a pint while walking his dog across the downs and was not actually going but we’d still seen him. I should have known then it would be draw.

As we strolled some more to the ground we checked the team news to find out that Dunk had made a Lazurus like recovery and was playing. Harsh on Balogun who’d done nothing much wrong but I suppose if your captain and defensive talisman is available you have to play him. Other than that Groß was back in for Bissouma as we fielded the same side that started against United. More of these two later.

Like United I felt we started strongly, chasing and closing and having far more territory. Fulham may have had the first decent chance, Mitrovic heading over a cross that was partially behind him, but in general we looked a lot more threatening and Fulham took on the real air of an away team. Knockaert and March were having a lot of joy against their full backs. Our full backs once again looked solid. There really wasn’t too much to worry about and then, suddenly we should have been leading the comfortable life of collective pigeons.

We broke from defence quickly and Propper fed Knockaert on the right. He looked for the obviously offside Murray but the latter checked his run, went nowhere near the ball and ran back onside cleverly while Knockaert continued with the ball before slipping it back to him. With Fulham all over the shop Murray went in to the box and turned from goal, drawing a foul. PENALTY!

Unfortunately Groß was the designated taker. His last two penalties had gone in so he was entitled, but how his last one wasn’t saved I have no idea. Sometimes you – maybe the whole ground – just know what’s going to happen. “He’s going to miss” I said to Mark next to me, and his low penalty was  saved. Now. This wasn’t a terrible penalty but he telegraphed where it was going in both look and run up. This would later send my friend Ollie vaguely apoplectic over post match beer. “Why do they even have to look at the goal? They’ve been doing this since they were eight and its never moved!”. Fair point, well made. But even then we could and should have scored from the resulting corner, Murray heading just wide from close in.

Still, this would only be a disaster if we conceded.

And concede we did. A beauty of a goal to be fair, Fulham spreading it quickly inside from the right wing and Seri playing a lovely cushioned lob to beat the offside trap and see Schurrle finish with aplomb in to the corner. All that hard work and one nil down.

Still we nearly got it back, early doors in the second half. Propper robbed Mitrovic and played a lovely through ball for March who was one on one with the keeper and hit Row Z with his shot. Go and stand in the statue section with Pascal, Solomon.

The woeful Groß was replaced by Bissouma and then our day got worse. A hopeful long punt up field should have been dealt with by Dunk. A fit Dunk would have dealt with this all day long but the Dunk who was rushed back was out fought by Mitrovic who went through on goal. Ryan stopped the first shot but it rebounded straight to the same player, who stuck it away. Dear, oh dear, oh dear.

Enter our very own pigeon in the form of Murray. He’d been fantastic, again, all afternoon and now he (with lots of help from Knocky) saved the day. Fulham gave it away wastefully at the back, Knockaert’s run took out the whole defence before he slipped it to Murray who showed how to finish a one on one.

On came Ali J and Locadia, the former looking lively, the latter still not quite all there for me, but there was no doubt the momentum had swung our way. Murray drew another clever foul out wide and, from the resulting free kick and aerial ping pong Mitrovic inexplicably handled in the area. Pigeon to statue in one half of football. Murray showed the whole ground how to take a penalty and that was that. 2-2, some mild scenes of joy and we were done. A point gained that could feel like two dropped.

Our post match conversation, Ollie’s penalty rant aside, must have been the same as yours. Was Dunk brought back too early? Yes, undoubtedly. And why has Groß lost his confidence? Last season’s best player and bargain of the year has been made to look extremely ordinary each time out this season. Just as having competition seems to have given Murray a new lease of life so it’s knocked Pascal’s confidence out of the park.

And then? A bus. Craft beer. The Albert. Some bloke off NSC. Feeling wobbly. Another bus. A kebab. And bed. A day in the sun drinking with the best people in the world, my pigeon like demeanour ruined only by some statue like finishing and defending.

 

 

 

Manchester United at Home 2018/19 – Clinical

So here we are again. And, in many ways, it felt like we’d never been away. Partly, this was because we were playing exactly the same team in our first home game of the season as we’d played in the last home game of the previous season. I can’t think that this – playing the same side twice in a row in competitive home games – has ever happened before at The Amex.

Furthermore, last time out was simply one of my favourite games in our history. Not up there with Hereford or Doncaster or Wigan of course but beating a side like United to stay up, on a Friday evening where the atmosphere could be felt in the goosebumps on your skin, was pretty special. The only minor downers on it were the delayed reaction to the goal as goal line technology confirmed our superiority, rather than a satisfying ripple of the net, and the fact that United, Pogba included, were very much on the beach, an attitude that was confirmed when De Gea came out for the second half clad only in a Kiss Me Quick hat and Speedos and proceeded to litter the goal mouth with beer cans and plastic bottles. Or something,

So when the fixtures came out my excitement at starting with a weekend game against a big club was tempered by the fact it was THEM again. Although we’d put in three cracking performances against them last season we had been rewarded with just the one home win. Surely the massed Essex, Hertfordshire and Surrey hordes would roar them to victory this time and Jose Mourinho would stand triumphant in front of the West Stand, smart white shirt slightly opened to reveal greying chest hair, muttering the Portuguese for “revenge” and contemplating a knee slide.

Only half of the regular crew would witness it, however, because someone booked a camping weekend to coincide with our Amex return. Hang your head Steve. Of course, there are always times when this looks like a sensible option, like when you’re trying desperately to end a family lunch in time to catch one of only two trains per hour on Coastway West, or when you’re navigating small children on to said packed train. And then you’re changing at Brighton and the town’s buzzing and the half and half scarf sellers are out and The Boy mentions again that they are rubbish and he cannot understand them, and you pat yourself on the back for your parenting skills, and then the joy as you get seats on the Falmer train, place a £1 correct score bet for The Boy (he went 2-1 us, more optimistic than me I have to say) and then you’re off and The Amex looms like a giant exciting spaceship that’s docked in a hole in the hills and you think “I’m home”.

It was a flag day. If I say I’m not a fan it’s probably based on the later experience of flags and/or clackers in play off games rather than the original flag day against Doncaster when they looked awesome and worked very well, thank you. But if you’re going to wave your flag then go the whole hog and wave it with some GUSTO. The West Upper did, along with a lusty rendition of Sussex by the Sea. All the rest of the regulars were present, correct and excited and you suddenly got a whiff of why The Amex is such a fortress for us. Now, all it would need would be a good start.

We certainly started brightly and United never settled on the ball. I’d managed to post a negative reaction to the team news on Twitter and, in fact, many other had. The conversational feel in the ground was also that the selection was a mistake, given our awful start at Watford. But we should know by now to trust in CH and we buzzed around United like angry hornets (maybe that’s why we got stuffed last week, you can’t hornet a hornet it would be like a wasp stinging another wasp instead of dying menacingly in your lager, but I digress) when they had the ball, all snappy in the tackle, and we kept it nicely when we had it. Though United had slightly more of the ball they looked less comfortable in possession, Albion the more dangerous. Surely not again?

It nearly wasn’t as a potentially disastrous passage of play could have seen us a goal and a centre back down. Dunk dwelled on possession at the back and got caught with a poor touch. In trying to recover it he injured himself and was out of position when Lukaku was put through on to our goal. Duffy did his best to block and it was enough, the Belgian international slicing wide. Phew. Dunk, though, could not continue, replaced by Balogun.

And then, twenty minutes that would define the game and, hopefully, will define our season. Propper picked the ball up in midfield and played it out wide through Mata’s legs, the Man U man looking like he very much missed it deliberately. The ball found Bong who fed March down the line. His low cross found an intelligent run and brilliant dinked finish from Murray and we were one up. The usual Amex pottiness ensued.

Two minutes later it was dreamland. The absolutely woeful Bailly conceded a corner when it would have been easier to put it out for a throw and United switched off from the ball in. It pinged back dangerously across goal and back out to the left where it was cut back before finding the unmarked Duffy close in. He drilled it in to the corner and we were two up, just like that. Pandemonium. Scenes.

A word here for regular readers who have been with the blog a few seasons. It used to be that I reported The Boy asking me non-stop silly questions. But, now that he is older and my eyesight is distinctly middle aged, the tables are turned. Unsure of who applied the finish I asked him. “Duffy” he replied with eyes raised. I kept to myself the fact that I thought he’d been literally all over the pitch until I remembered that Montoya had taken the number 22 from him. At half time I had to check if United’s number 14 was really Lingard, our former loan player. “He’s just got different hair dad”.

But I jump way too far ahead. United pulled one back from a corner of their own, Luke Shaw’s deflected bouncing cross finding Lukaku unmarked and onside in the six yard box. He couldn’t, and didn’t miss the header. Disappointing because we had been by far the better side. But then, just before half time, a proper example of our dominance. A goal kick was chipped down the middle to Pogba who was robbed by our pressing. Groß was put through, though a heavy first touch took him away from goal, whereupon he was needlessly brought down. PENALTY! Another defensive error from United. I’d like to say Groß “made no mistake” from the spot but, in truth, it was an awful penalty that De Gea should have saved but could only deflect in to the roof of the net. No matter. 3-1. Dreamland.

The second half contained far less incident but was pleasing from the point of view that we look to have discovered how to hold a lead without dropping too deep. We continued to press, continued to tackle and looked far more up for it than our illustrious opponents. United’s start studded midfield was neutralised by Propper and Stephens, both having fantastic games. Murray beasted a weak defence. Knockaert was the old Knocky from The Championship. Montoya and Bong gave a full back master class. Balogun, who came on for the injured Dunk, looked a real player, full of pace. And, when Pogba finally found his range Ryan was equal to it.

Right at the end United pulled one back, Pogba converting a soft penalty. Referee Kevin Friend did not endear himself to The Boy with this decision or an equally soft yellow for Murray, but by the time Pogba was racing back to the centre circle most of his fans had started the long drive back to Guildford. Those left didn’t even celebrate. A tense minute followed, then bedlam. We’d done it again.

A word on United. However much we laugh at their plastic pub fans they are one of the biggest clubs in the world and three thousand of them paid good money to watch a performance that would have sent me demented if that were us. So it’s right and proper that the TV companies talk about that. Yes, we deserve credit, but their continued implosion is a full-on back page story. For me, last season’s loss was understandable but yesterday’s simply seemed to come down to the fact that the players don’t want to, or can’t play for Mourinho and his system. On that form I will be astounded if Jose makes the end of the season. They have square pegs in every round hole. The back four yesterday barely looked Championship quality, Fred ambled about cluelessly, Lukaku spunked a good chance to put nerves at rest before we’d scored and Sanchez doesn’t seem to fit in anywhere at all. Watch this space.