Preston North End at Home 2016/17 – Two Points Dropped

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!

True. Guilty.

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.

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Fulham at Home 15/16 – Destruction

The phrase “big weekend of sport” was used in many of the papers last week but it left me cold. Or, rather, it didn’t mean anything to me personally. Sure, there was the Grand National on which I duly lost a tiny amount on Tony Bloom’s no-hoper and a slightly larger amount on my own badly advised choice, but the rest was a bit m’eh. The Joshua fight? No way was I paying per view for that given my propensity to fall asleep before ten o’clock in the evening, the eventual two-rounder justifying my parsimonious decision. And the GOLF? A good walk spoiled. IMHO like. But most of all there was no Albion game. How can it be a big weekend of sport without US?

So instead, this has been a big week of sport. On Monday I went to the pub but stayed sober (yes, really, I have witnesses including a well respected children’s tv actor and a flummoxed barmaid) and we watched the Forest game, initially with pride and latterly with our fingers over our eyes, until that glorious and thoroughly undeserved late winner from some Knockaert genius. On Tuesday I did my last pre-marathon training run, a very ploddy three miles with my coach for final instructions, and that night The Boy and I watched Citeh knock PSG out of Europe in what no one at all calls El-Middle-Eastern-Moneyco. On Wednesday we watched Atleti do a number on Barca. The only things to cloud a glorious week of sport were that Boro got three points out of their game in hand and our home game against Fulham was coming ever closer in a concertinaed schedule.

What was also coming closer was the Brighton Marathon, at least for me, and this will explain my rather odd pre-match preparation. So preoccupied have I been with the race that I found myself literally forgetting about our game, which is not a good thing for an Albion blogger to admit. Friday dawned and I headed to the Expo to pick up my race number and timing chip, a journey which could have gone a little better. My bus over was delayed by a recalcitrant chav getting caught with a saver ticket from last week by an inspector and refusing to pay or get off. “I’ve gotta get ta school innnit” she whined which was unconvincing given it was 10.30 in the morning and she was in full make up, t-shirt and jeans.

Then I failed miserably to buy a single banana from Waitrose before eventually arriving at the queue in a horrendous rainstorm. I let the women who arrived at the same time in front of me and two minutes later a seagull took a massive shit which landed all over her. So it could have been worse.

Once in the Expo I finally met two of the guys from the NSC running thread I will be running with and ‘St Leonards Seagull’ admitted he had not thought of the marathon at all. “I’m much more worried about tonight”. “What’s tonight?” I absent mindedly replied. You may shoot me now.

But just as the marathon had banished thoughts of the football then, by half past five the football was banishing all thoughts of the marathon. Despite needing to remain sober I managed to engineer us all on to a slightly earlier train. Thank Christ I did. We got to the stadium in plenty of time but, after we left, the system went in to meltdown because the people charged with running our trains haven’t got enough people to run them properly.

Thus we were at our seats with huge gaps everywhere as the game kicked off. The regulars in front were missing. My promised seat buddies were missing. Eventually they arrived in drips and drabs. To be fair they weren’t missing anything.

We were – let’s face it – woeful for the first twenty five minutes or so. It was like the second half at Forest all over again as they pressed and dominated the ball and we obligingly pinged it back to them. Though no damage was done score wise the psychological battle was being lost. An edgy crowd at first fell silent and then lapsed in to that “come on Brighton” chant. The Fulham fans delighted in our silence and their players in our hesitancy.

But – and it’s a bloody big but, not dissimilar in size to the one I’ve spent a year running off (parp) – we were clearly waiting for there to be a full house before we started properly. On twenty eight minutes, with the train SNAFU finally over, we came to life.

A through ball down the left channel put Wilson in the clear against a ponderous defence for the first time and he dribbled neatly round them in to the box whereupon he was shoved over. Referee Woolmer pointed to the spot, to Fulham protests led by Scott Parker. A tip, lads. If you’re going to protest it then the initial reaction by the pusher shouldn’t be the ‘hands on head, what have I done?’ gesture. Hemed stuck away the spot kick majestically. 1-0.

Five minutes later it was two. How good is Skalak’s dead ball delivery? (EDIT – David Guile has pointed out this was Knockaert and he’s right. How good are BOTH wingers dead balls is what this should read). We won a free kick in a position that would have been innocuous for most of this season but a delightful floated, curving ball banjaxed a static Fulham defence and Hemed rose above them to head his second. Two nil to the Albion. NOW the crowd bayed. Fulham fell silent. Their whole game plan had been to press us high and hope to find a goal out of either prolonged possession or a forced error. Now that plan was redundant. They had nothing else.

Most assuredly they had no back four. I do not want to blow my own trumpet (sod it, of course I do) but, my pre-match prediction of 3-2 was based equally on my worries about McCormack and Dembele and my knowledge that Fulham’s defence is utterly woeful. Now only the latter was having an effect. After fifty four minutes the game was effectively over. We forced chance after chance with some sparkling interplay and footwork and, eventually had a corner from the West Stand side. Skalak took again, a Fulham player DUCKED and Bruno had the freedom of the back post. He needed two touches to finish it but was given all night to do so. 3-0 and that lovely man, stand in captain and magnificent beard had got a goal in front of the North Stand. The Amex went crackers.

To keep this a readable length means I cannot describe every single incident because there were too many, but it would be lax not to mention the save of the night from former Fulham keeper Stockdale. Freed of the need to actually win the game, Fulham briefly came to life down our left and the ball was cut back for a close range shot that really should have been 3-1. Stockers not only made a magnificent one handed save, he then pawed the ball away while on the ground, like a beach volleyball player stuck in the sand. Then it was all us again.

Hemed was on a hat trick. He nearly got it as a rampaging Wilson put him in from ten yards but Bettenlli came up with a point blank save. But soon it came. Another attack down the right from Knockaert saw the ball squirt all the way across to Skalak who laid it back for Stephens. His shot played pinball in the box and Hemed tapped it in. At full speed he looked a good yard offside but it wasn’t given and Fulham’s defence went mental at the officials again.

Fulham were destroyed. There’s no other word for it. Mentally from the 4-0 score line and their fans evacuating early to London (at least they’d probably have a train running). Physically from the first 28 minutes of pressing and from the bad back induced by picking the ball out of the net so many times.

We took the mickey though actually the North Stand used a different word. Another magnificent save was drawn and they cleared one off the line. Then it was five, Knockaert curling one in to the corner through three defenders. The last of the Fulham fans either left or celebrated with us.

There was still time for Lua Lua to fire in to the side netting before we were sent on our way. All three boys were madly excited, Steve and I shook hands like long-lost old friends and the Amex saluted an exuberant Bruno on a lap of honour.

As we waited in the train queue a sudden thought struck me. “How the heck am I going to run a Marathon on Sunday?” I wondered. If you want to find out I will be in a bright white REMF t-shirt slogging round with the North Stand Chat running group. Give us a cheer. And your ****ing money. Link below.

https://www.justgiving.com/Jason-Thackeray3