Burnley at Home 2017/18 – Toothless?

The run of tough games supposedly never ends in the Premier League. A sequence that has recently seen a local derby at home, and us take on Liverpool and Tottenham was punctuated by a trip to Huddersfield, a winnable game on paper but never on grass, and Burnley coming here. Burnley who many see as our model going forwards. Burnley who went down but went straight back up (at our expense, Joey Barton stamp and all) and stayed up. Burnley who recently spent a day in the Champions League places and have been sitting comfortably in the top half all season. Burnley who beat Chelsea at the Bridge. That Burnley.

Many on Twitter and elsewhere still felt this was winnable. The Boy did too. Steve and I weren’t so sure. The general consensus was that it would be tight, maybe a goal in it either way. Goals are not something we do right now, not even from four yards out or from a penalty. Or even in the warm up.

March was returned to the side with Murray up top. Having been nagged constantly by the boys we went to our seats earlier than normal, just in time to see the warming up team enter shooting practice, with March and Murray prominent. I think they hit one on target between them. It would prove to be prophetic.

Before the report I’m going to drift off, prompted by social media discussions last night, in to what constitutes a good game and just how toothless we are. Yes, the title of this blog entry references an NSC thread from last night but with the addition of a question mark. I tweeted at the end about how poor the game had been. I’m still on 140 characters, which are not enough after a beer or two, to explain poor in terms of actual skill and quality. Not action, there was plenty of action yesterday, but both teams conspired to serve up sub-Championship quality and zero goals. That’s the net effect no matter how many times the ball crosses the goal mouth. The referee had a mare too and, I’m sorry to say, the crowd were much quieter than recently. It was like going back three years. IMHO like. I predicted we’d be last on MOTD and, guess what, we were.

And in terms of threat? In terms of threat we created plenty in the first half. So that’s not toothless at all. In fact, after an awkward first fifteen minutes we bossed the rest of the first half to the extent that it was only us really playing. Three decent penalty shouts (one given) and other point blank chances created. I should be ripping the positives out of that. After Huddersfield and Tottenham, here we were back at our fortress, dominating a team and setting up chance after chance after chance. But, just like the warm up, we never looked like taking them. And then there was a second half in which each substitution weakened us, both centre backs committed acts of gross stupidity and only Ryan kept us in the game. Is my glass half full or half empty? I genuinely don’t know. It’s just half.

So, anyway, the action. Burnley swapped ends on us after winning the toss, meaning we were attacking the North Stand first. The first fifteen or so were evenly matched with Burnley winning an early corner, sure to test us, but dealt with more than adequately. Credit to the team for work on this area in the last week. But, as we eased in to the game Burnley were troubled. The front players were closing them down high, Gross in particular with a fantastic work rate. Knockaert and Bruno were in best partnership form, weaving the shapes that trouble defences. Propper and Stephens were breaking play up and, with more time on the ball, using it, even if in Stephens’ case that still means sideways or backwards more often than not. But it paid off.

Both wide players were seeing a lot of the ball and Gross was joining them, interchanging in attacking positions and forcing crosses in. From one such cross by Bruno Murray headed in to Pope’s gloves when it was easier to score.

Then we broke quickly and Stephens, Knockaert and Propper combined. The ball came across the six yard box at, to be fair, a real speed. Knockaert still managed to turn it goalwards but somehow it hit the post rather than the back of the net.

Corners were also being forced and we looked like we’d worked just as hard on attacking set pieces. A near post corner from the left was perfectly met with a Dunk header but Burnley had a man back to head off the line. From another the ball spat out to the right and Duffy chased it down, going down under a challenge with the crowd howling for a penalty. Nothing doing from referee Chris Kavanagh.

But then the moment it looked like we’d get what we deserved. An excellent long ball over the top down the right channel saw Murray on side and controlling the ball perfectly before driving in to the box. He too went down under challenge – arguably a more benign one than Duffy had suffered – and Kavanagh pointed to the spot. Here we go we thought. Murray rarely misses from twelve yards but this was one of those rare moment. The net remained conspicuously absent of bulge, the only people troubled by the penalty being those stood in Row Z of the North Stand.

Still we should have had another and Burnley should have had a red card, Tarkowski’s elbow in to Murray’s ribs unnoticed by Kavanagh. Somehow we went in 0-0 but the only disheartening thing at this stage was the missed penalty. We were massively on top. Surely a goal was coming?

But if ever there was a game that proved you need to take your chances at this level, this was it. Dyche rallied his troops and Burnley got more of the ball and began to hit us on the break. Enter Mat Ryan and a series of outstanding point blank saves that earned him a deserved man of the match. A ping-pong series after a quick break actually ended with Burnley scoring, but from an offside position. One of Burnley’s three ex-Brighton strikers, Chris Wood, was put through on the right but his chip was brilliantly clawed out of the air by Ryan. Our attacks were becoming fewer and fewer but there was still another nearly moment, Knockaert weaving his magic and shooting from an acute angle, which got a deflection and sent the ball agonisingly ahead of Murray’s sliding boot and then agonisingly wide of the post. The subsequent corner came to nowt.

The worrying thing for Brighton fans was our substitutions, each of which weakened the side rather than providing fresh impact. Burnley dealt with Hemed, on for Murray, far better than they had with Murray. Izquierdo came on too late to have an impact. And then there’s Brown. Now, you can imagine it’s not been easy for him. Injured early on, asked to play lone striker at Arsenal of all places, and then used mostly off the bench he still hasn’t settled. Yesterday he looked like a 10 year old who’d never had to make a decision in the top third of the pitch.  Horribly ponderous and about as bothered as Leon Best, every touch said “I wish I’d stayed at Huddersfield”. The nadir was his with Izquierdo haring in to space, and Brown with all the time in the world to find him, the ball was still played behind, slowing the whole move down and forcing a pass wide to Bong who produced a ball of sheer horror quality.

Did I mention that Duffy won’t be playing  next week due to the most blatant and unnecessary hand ball in history? Or that Dunk is now one off suspension because he couldn’t keep his mouth closed?

Should I be more positive? I was reminded today that this is the Premier League after all and, of course, we were never going to find it easy. We’re still 13th. There are a lot of teams in the same points bracket as us. We’re getting 30,000 at home, 3000 away and seeing football from the best league in the world. We’re famous in India. But we’re also missing penalties, missing from four yards out, having our keeper be man of the match every week, getting silly bookings and failing to score or convert winning positions at home against relatively poor sides. As a fan it’s an interesting ride. As a blogger I’m compelled to point out both sides of the story.

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Derby County at Home 15/16 – Anti Climax?

By crowd numbers at least this was the biggest game ever seen at The Amex. By noise levels just before and just after kick off it was too. Yet somehow events in Birmingham on Friday served to downgrade it. I’m getting a little ahead of myself but perhaps you already know what I mean?

It certainly felt big on the way over, mind you. Mindful of the train troubles that had beset the last two mid-week games we left home a full two hours before kick off and, while we had a painless journey as it turned out, it was also a busy one. The 12.52 from Brighton (for a 2.30 kick off) was rammed. No actual songs in our carriage but rather a low hum of expectancy. Familiar old faces abounded. This was a big day out.

Recently, when I tried to explain this blog to Al on The Albion Roar I said that it was a story of the whole day and that often something would come up in pre-match conversation that would prove relevant to the later events on the field. So it was that Steve and I were discussing the latter half of the season and I mentioned our defence and particularly the partnership of Goldson and Dunk. Steve referred to how daft Dunk’s sending off at QPR was. Then we moved on to discussing what we would need at Boro.

That’s the only issue really and the reason I mentioned how Friday’s result had rendered the Derby game largely irrelevant. Allow me (another) rant at Sky. What is the EFFING point of taking us all the way to sodding Cleveland for a 12.30 bollocking kick off so that everyone plays at the same time for ‘fairness’ when, only the week before, a TV company dictates that Boro will get two more days rest than us, that we knew before the Derby game exactly what we needed up there and that Burnley were able to kick off later than anyone, knowing a win would get them up? It is cockwomblingly, mind-numbingly ruddy pointless. Thanks Sky.

OK, I feel better for that but you get the point. Anyone who thinks the promotion race has been run fairly in terms of timing is living in cloud cuckoo land.

But you have to play the hand you’re dealt. The fixture computer dealt us Derby at home as our last game, the ticketing computer dealt out every seat in The Amex and, after oiling our voices with a couple of Ouse Waters, we joined a packed Amex. The roof was just about held intact but Sussex By The Sea nearly took it off.

Regular “atmosphere” threads appear on NSC. People bemoan “soulless bowls”. Yet the ground was on point as we kicked off, the backing the lads needed, initially at least, coming from every seat, except those in the East Upper where library attendants still patrol, armed with hot stares. The lads reacted and we had the first good chance of the game, Russell overrunning the ball to Kayal in his own half and the Israeli’s long range shot getting deflected just wide.

Derby, though, looked decent enough on the break and Ince wasted a good chance when put through by a long diagonal ball. Not as good as the subsequent chance we had as a free kick was awarded on the edge of the D, slap bang in French Tony territory. The kick was placed even better than the one against QPR but Derby had watched that back and had a man back peddling on to the line to cover. It was just headed over.

I’m not sure whether you’ve got this from previous reports – the Leeds one would cover it – but all too often this season the quality has been lacking in this division. It wasn’t here but the two of us were even and cancelling each other out. Not so in the second half.

A pessimist would say we allowed Will Hughes to dictate terms after the break. A Derby fan that he took the game by the scruff of the neck. It was probably a mixture of both but as the play went through him, Derby began to dictate and had a series of long range efforts that were fairly comfortable for Stockdale. However,  not so the one on seventy minutes when Hughes produced a sublime piece of control and stuck through Weimann. His initial shot was saved but he put away the rebound. The celebrations in the away end were echoed in Burnley.

The game had been frustratingly and inconsistently refereed from the get go. The penalty shout that looked nailed on from the WSU looked less so on replay but other free kick awards seemed totally random. Challenges that looked certain yellows (including one from Stephens, this was inconsistency rather than bias) were let go as was a plainly obvious elbow on Bruno. One of the few cards that had been correctly awarded, however, was an early yellow for Dunk. On eighty two minutes he doubled it and can have no complaints, a challenge that was as brainless as the one up at QPR ending in the same result. He will not play at Boro and left with his shirt over his head.

But this team NEVER gives up. A draw would be largely pointless – we’d still need to win at Boro in all likelihood – but it would maintain the unbeaten record and put just a touch of pressure on the watching Burnley.

Is there a finer sight than a keeper coming up for a last minute corner? Yes, of course there is. Like, say, your Czech international hitting a 30 yard rocket as part of a four nil win. Keeper up means you’re desperate. But with a last minute corner in the offing we were. Up came Stockdale and caused chaos. The ball fell kindly to Wilson and he lashed in a shot via a deflection to general mayhem in the stands. It finished 1-1. So how did we all feel?

The question mark in the title is deliberate. Certainly some of us felt flat at the end. We shouldn’t though. We knew before the game that we’d probably need to win at Boro. We knew Burnley were the favourites to go up. That next week was the big one. The only thing this could do was set a marker in the ground for a possible playoff clash in which someone needs to paint a large target on Will Hughes’ arse.

Had we not scored that goal I’d have felt flat too. But we did. And, as the players came round for the end of season lap of honour the North Stand started with “we are going up”. The players visibly picked up. Yes, we will have no Dunk. We will have two fewer days in which to rest. But we will be prepared. Think back to August. Would you have taken a last day shoot out for promotion? I would have in a heartbeat. It’s time to pick ourselves up and throw the kitchen sink at Boro, hoping that fortune favours the brave.

 

 

QPR At Home 2015/16 – Together

We could beat anyone right now. We’re going to have to.

Sorry, there I go again, bad writer, putting the end before the beginning but you know the above to be true, right? So how did we get there? For me we got there with beer and sore legs and potential travel disruption and Knockaert and Goldson and the whole team as one. Let me fill in some detail.

It was fair to say that my legs were a little achy, having got over the line at the Brighton Marathon in five seconds over four hours, The mixture of pleasure and pain I got out of this is pretty much indescribable which is a pain in the rear for someone who thrives on describing stuff but the pertinent points are these; I had a little sniff of how to exceed natural thresholds when cheered on by a crowd, something the players must be feeling every home game right now, and I left earlier than usual to get to the pub, since I was walking like an eighty year old with rickets.

Eventually get there I did to meet my friend Mark who is now in Big Training himself for the Reykjavik Marathon in August and Gary who founded North Stand Chat many moons ago. Palmers and cheesy chips was the order of the day and a long discussion about the permutations at the top of the table. Though all we have to do is win our remaining game the consensus was that neither Burnley or Boro would want to lose, and their most likely result was a draw, leaving us third at the end of the night whatever. Prophetic eh?

Then a hobble to the ground and the nightmare of the WSU stairs. Stairs are my enemy right now, particularly going down, and so a Harvey’s anaesthetic went down too, along with a pie. A chat with the Roar chaps, a meeting with the Cheese Eating Poker School and upstairs to see the full crew in full voice.

In fact the whole ground was in full voice. There were fewer fans present than Fulham, far fewer in the away end, but somehow the noise was better and more together. It’s a word that’s been used a lot this season, it is our hashtag and adopted motto, but finally it was happening in the stands. Songs bounced from one side of the North to the other and across to the West but, rather than be ignored, they were picked up and carried on the breeze. It made my hair stand of end (what’s left of it) and the pain in my legs disappear. We were Brighton and Hove Albion and we were going to give this a damn good go.

The first half, though, was fairly even. The ball seemed to be shared between the two teams and our chances were few and far between. Philips and Washington carved their best ones, Stockdale making another brilliant save from a low drive. We prized Rangers open with a Knockaert cross from the left which Hemed put just over with a trademark overhead kick  and we nearly scored from a corner that was headed straight at Smithies in the QPR goal. Potentially, though Rangers were having the better of it.

At the back we stuttered a little, particularly down the right where player of the season candidate Bruno was, for once, getting a little flustered. Luckily he was being eased through the game by twenty three year old Connor Goldson. One misplaced pass aside the Championship rookie was showing everyone, including the ex-Valencia veteran, how to play football. What a second half of the season he’s had. And talking of second halves of the season we all know that Knockaert can produce something spectacular at any point. On the stroke of half time he did.

An innocuous looking challenge that really didn’t need to be made got us a free kick on the edge of the box. Knockaert and Skalak were over it. Who would take? The debate raged around the WSU while my friend Dom would later admit he was adamant it should be Skalak but it wasn’t. Our Flairtastic Frenchman stepped up and hammered it through the gap in the wall we’d created and in to the top corner. The Amex exploded and it was all I could do to stay upright, my friends temporarily forgetting my paper legs. The players celebrated as one. This is a team with incredible spirit.

It’s fair to say the second half was quite unlike the first. Just as we’d dominated Fulham more and more as the game went on, now we dominated Rangers. God knows what Hughton said at half time but it was incredibly effective. Rangers again had to change their game plan, the high press and break being far more risky at one down and we pounced on the space.

Just six minutes in to the second half though and whatever JFH had said to QPR became redundant in a moment of brilliance. Bruno launched a hopeful ball forwards and QPR headed it out in to no man’s land. It bounced a couple of times and Skalak pounced on it, smashing it as it sat up invitingly in to the top corner from over thirty yards. We went full-on batshit mental. The pain in my legs was gone now and on the field the players once again piled on each other in joy.

Now it was all Brighton. It was no longer were we going to win. Like Friday it was how many were we going to score? Half an eye was turned to the Burnley v Boro game but only to know where we’d be at the end of the night. The worst result all round would probably be a Burnley win. They were still at 0-0 as our metaphorical horse was striding away in to the distance flicking V’s at his beaten opponent. Yes I know horses have hooves and would actually fall over doing this but it’s a metaphorical horse, remember? Think cartoons.

Soon it was three. Our two players of the night combined from a corner, Knockaert crossing for Goldson to loop in a header. More team bonding. The Amex got louder. As the second set of London away fans in four days streamed out of the Amex we added a fourth, Knockaert shooting in a daisy cutter past Smithies and a suspiciously offside looking Baldock who had come on at half time for Wilson who was presumably sick again.

We bounced. Legs that I wanted to cut off that morning jumped up and down. The North Stand sang a very good song with quite a sweary word in to accompany the bouncing. On the pitch the players swaggered. QPR looked like they wanted the Amex to swallow them up and spit them back out straight in to the team bus where they could listen to some RnB and pretend it all never happened. Boro were one nil up, putting us second.

Inevitably, as we streamed out for the bars Burnley equalised with a thuggish scrum of a goal from a corner. The Anti Football had squeaked back ahead of the Total Football in the table. No matter. As I said on the way to the Star for more beer, if Burley and Boro hadn’t been playing each other, and had both drawn their games, we’d have taken it all day long.

We need three wins. Those are the bare facts. With the team spirit and skill that we have in every area currently I believe we could win all three, run a marathon and give a decent account of ourselves in University Challenge. Nothing is guaranteed, nothing is taken for granted but this is a special bunch of players. We are together.