They often say a match day is a good day out spoiled by ninety minutes of football. Here it was spoiled by more like seventy. For twenty minutes or so we were imperious and the twenty seven thousand or so who’d shown up to see what all the fuss was about began to understand. But for the first half we were too careless and for the last quarter we were too cautious. You can’t afford that in this division. Preston came for a point and got it. No one, however, would have predicted the manner in which they did so.
But hang on, I hear you cry, you’ve gone straight in to talking about the match! You never do this!
We zipped in to high level analysis a wee bit early there to give a little context around one of our pre-match conversation topics. We left a little earlier than normal. A friend of mine who I go way back with – and I mean Goldstone North Stand in the 1980s – was over from abroad where he now lives and four of us from those days met in the pub beforehand. We still had the boys with us however, but luckily the sun was shining, doing a pretty good impression of late summer, and we were in The Swan which has a lot of outside space. At that earlier time of day I’d suspected the train platform to be half deserted, but no, it was thronged including many other families with kids. There was another family from The Boy’s school and one of Steve’s friends and his daughter too and we made our way over to Falmer in one big, excited gaggle.
Steve and I would later discuss how we’d both leapt out of bed that morning with e genuine match day excitement. The Boy talked of little else all day. And my old mates were there, all present and correct and up for the game. In a week of puzzling club memos, newly signed contracts and injury intrigue this is all that really counts. That a group ranging from a small girl to fully grown forty-something men couldn’t wait to go to the football and see what this team could do this week. Twenty seven odd thousand others agreed.
In the sun with a beer and your mates it doesn’t matter whether you’re an old school veteran of the North Stand and Chicken Run or if it’s your first ever game. Old and new stories were swapped and everyone genuinely thought “I wonder what Knockaert will do this week?”. He’d have a five – sometimes eight – man defence to get through first but we didn’t know that yet.
There was no doubt Preston had done their homework. With five players strung across the back they went for a 5-3-2. This still made for a 3v2 in their favour in central midfield, while they were happy to concede the wide areas more deeply in order to close our wingers and pack their own box. The decision to leave out Stephens looked dubious when pitted against that, with neither Norwood nor Sidwell quite having the creativity to break it down. Up front their strikers hassled and harried our back four, closing down everything and pressing high up.
That wasn’t to say we didn’t have chances in the first half – we certainly had shots – but they were not good ones. Half chances at most with the exception of Murray being left on his own against the keeper, with the expected offside flag not shown, and failing to hit the target. At that point, though, he was trying to score an equalizer. We’d gone one down to one of the most careless pieces of defending yet seen at the Amex.
Bruno found himself about forty yards or so from our own goal and facing towards it with a bouncing ball. Preston’s high press was in full effect. Row Z looked an attractive option but Bruno doesn’t do Row Z so, instead, he played an impossibly lobbed back pass high in the air to Stockdale, forgetting that he (Bruno), himself was the only player on the pitch capable of controlling such a ball. Stockdale certainly wasn’t. Faced with a choice between meeting it on the volley and hoping for the best or catching it and hoping to defend a free kick if it came (and I’d argue that Bruno was more trying to kill a passing seagull than play a straight forward back pass) he did neither and, instead, chested the ball to Hugill who stuck it in the empty net. One down and not even ten minutes gone.
I can’t really remember another decent piece of action in the first half. “A bit like Withdean” is how it was described to me in the beer queue afterwards. I’d largely concur, though there was an element of carelessness to our play that disturbed me. No composure in the crosses when faced with that packed defence. No composure in the passing round the back when faced with that full court press. Like I said, Preston had done their homework though, thanks to Bruno’s brain fart, it had led to us being one down rather than the traditional (with PNE) 0-0.
And then we came out like a train at the start of the second half. “Come on lads” I imagine Hughton saying. “This is all a bit like Withdean. I know they’ve done their homework but how about we put in the usual pace and creativity and break it down a bit?”. “Oh yeah, gaffer” they must have replied, “good idea”.
Ten minutes in to the second half we were level with a sublime goal. A slide rule ball from the back released the overlapping Bruno who atoned for the mother of all backpasses with a pin point cross for Baldock who tapped in, a reward for some genuine hard work all game long.
Then a brilliant centre forward’s goal for Murray. A ball in to his feet in the box and he span his opponent with his first touch, controlled with his second, and finished from an acute angle with his third. It was outstanding to watch. The boys disappeared in the sort of celebratory bundle that me and my mates used to have in the Goldstone back in the day.
And that was it, we thought. We took our feet off the gas. Job done. Little passes round a frustrated, plucky Preston we thought. Stephens for Baldock, inevitably cementing the “sit on it” mentality, when Preston were arguably there for the taking. They even went down to ten men, having suffered an injury after all three changes had been made. It made for a dull last twenty minutes but, with two minutes of injury time left we could almost taste the victory beer. Then a hopeful ball in to our box, Stockdale couldn’t decide if he should stay or should he go, and the imposing figure of Makienok won a towering header. Most of the Amex gasped with dismay as the ball floated in to the net. The five hundred odd Preston fans went mental.
Preston. We always draw with them. It’s normally dull. But this time round twenty minutes of football instead gave us hope to be dashed.
*Brighton but Only at Home would like to assure readers that no one has been besmirched in the writing of this article.