Manchester City at Home – A Lesson

It’s been a strange summer, football wise. As a Brighton fan, the end of the previous campaign could have left you with any range of emotions. The immense celebrations after clinching promotion against Wigan were followed by the anti-climax of losing the title with a poor display at home to Bristol City, a hungover display at Carrow Road and a last minute mistake at Villa Park. All of which would have been massively deflating had it not been for an extraordinary promotion celebration on the seafront. Derided in some parts, other fans failed to understand that only the promotion mattered. It built the fans and players back up and left things on a high. Then there was the immediate capture of Pascal Groß and the watching of Huddersfield going up via the worst playoff game in living memory and suddenly there was real expectation again.

But the summer break is just long enough to dampen this sort of thing down. With no major international competitions we’ve largely had to guess regarding the quality of some of the touted and signed players. Then the fixture list comes out and it turns out the opening game is against a side who have spent more on full backs than we have on a stadium. Some transfer rumours are rubbished, some players signed from completely left field, one player fails a medical and we have our usual nightmare signing a striker with pace. The feeling, really, was of a side three quarters built, though I always judge at the end of the window. I just maintain that window should close when the league season kicks off, and always have.

But the excitement of a first Premier League game built all week. We’d given Atletico Madrid a decent game and suddenly the BT Sport team were building up the game, flags (actually, what looked like bin bags, not one to keep) were being left on seats and Guardiola, Walker, Jesus, Aguero et al were heading for The Amex. Ready or not, probably our biggest test all season at home was arriving first.

We awoke to palpable excitement. I’d watched Arsenal v Leicester the night before without quite realising this was a game in our division. Now, The Boy and I listened to a two hour Albion Roar breakfast show, watched Premier League previews, I lurked on Twitter whenever I could and we counted down the time to when we’d be allowed to leave the house. And then, everything was a little bit different.

When we treat games as just another game we generally do well. Whenever we build it up, not so much. So it was with trepidation I’d read about the flags. This didn’t really ease when we arrived at The Swan to find a quarter of the outside space taken up with a Juice FM outside broadcast truck and twice the normal number of punters trying to squeeze in to the reduced space. Everyone in new shirts, talking up our chances as the ale hit home. Huge queues for non-existent food at the stadium meaning we were in our seats two minutes before actual kick off. And then the lesson begun.

It’s not that we played badly. It’s not that City, initially at least, played that well. Their passing was sloppy to start and our shape strong and organised. The two banks of four, clearly visible from our lofty perch, were ridged in defence and flexible in the odd break. You could sense a frustration from the City fans, the tension of expectation weighing heavily on mostly silent faces, while the North and West Upper kept up a barrage of noise. A solidity from Dunk and Duffy, a level of comfort from Bruno and March suggesting they had been born for this level of football. Ryan (though he looks small for a keeper) fairly commanding.

Yet, if you looked at highlights of that first half they would be all City from start to end. They must have had over 70% of the ball. Every time one of Bruno, March, Duffy, Dunk, Ryan or Suttner won the ball Hemed or Stephens or Propper would give it back to them. The issues in our central attacking areas I mentioned last week magnified here. Even worse, Brown who once again acquitted himself impressively, had to go off injured. Murphy came on with less than half an hour gone, significantly reducing our ability to play impact subs later on.

First half chances? I lost count. I remember a clever dribble from Jesus down our right with the ball intelligently cut out by Dunk. A free kick rammed straight down Ryan’s throat. A brilliant ball in from the right hand side that Stephens very nearly headed in to his own net – by very nearly I mean centimetres. Then the first goal. Disallowed as luckily it wasn’t scored by the Hand of God but by the Hand of Jesus (thanks for that, mate, a writers dream). Our chances? Only one, a divine cross field ball from Bruno that Murphy would have scored from had he got more than half a touch, having for once eluded Walker. But we knew we’d get this with Hughton. Keep it solid. Frustrate. And hopefully hit on the break.

And in the second half we so nearly did. A break from Murphy, whipped cross from Suttner and a header that looped agonisingly on to the roof of the net. A corner, nonetheless, and here’s where we’ll be dangerous. Mayhem in the box from Duffy and Dunk, proper pinball. From another set piece the ball came out to Propper, twenty five yards out, and his low drive squeaked agonisingly close to the far post, as close as Stephens had been to the own goal.

But mainly it was all City still and you sensed they had another gear. They hit it just at the wrong time. We’d replaced the ineffective Hemed with the busier Murray on the hour and, as Ed Bassford (the NSC “father of the house”, Falmer campaigner and all round good guy) appeared on the big screen for a minute’s applause we played our nicest minute of possession football of the whole match. I think Ed might have found it funny that we then cocked it up massively, unnecessarily passing back to Ryan, losing the ball and shape and being carved open. De Bruyne starting a lovely one touch move that saw Aguero in acres of space in our box with time to pick his spot. 0-1.

A second inevitably followed. Another mistake perhaps? I said so on Twitter, but having watched it back it may be just one of those things. A brilliant cross from the right saw Jesus and Dunk battling. The latter got there first but his angle and momentum meant he could only direct a point blank header through the helpless Ryan. Cruel on the hometown boy who’d been magnificent up to then, but no less than City deserved.

0-2 it ended then and a real set of lessons learned, hopefully. For me the lessons are as follows. Without wanting to sound like some of the more hysterical NSC posters, we need a speedy, strong number 9 and we need him now. Organised football can be our friend but we need to be more careful with the ball when we win it back. This football club has been built on comfort on the ball since 2010. Yesterday Propper in particular treated it like it was an unwanted North Korean nuclear warhead. Mistakes WILL cost us and chances HAVE to be taken at this level.

It’s far from doom and gloom though. Not every team is Manchester City, and I expect them to win the league and do well in the Champions League too. Palace lost 3-0 at home – to Huddersfield! – and Chelsea managed to slip up too so there is hope in any game and thirty seven of them left to play. Propper will no doubt get better once he’s had time to get to know his new teammates. Hopefully Brown’s injury isn’t too serious. Our fears re Bruno are totally unfounded, our best player yesterday along with March. And the noise! Pat yourselves on the back Brighton fans. The Amex was rocking. It’s going to need to all season for us to survive.

 

Wigan Preview

It’s Christmas Eve isn’t it?

Just like Christmas there has been an awful lot more work in the run up to the date, just to get one day of celebration, feasting and drinking. The house has been decorated with streamers and flags, provisions sit in the fridge and an evening has been spent stuffing an animal, though in our case it was Wolves.

Unlike Christmas we don’t know exactly when the big day is or even what time. We just know it’s coming. We all believe now.

So let’s make this clear. In the opinion of this blog I am holding no truck at all with this mathematical possibility nonsense. Beat Wigan and we’re up. To not go up after such a result would take a set of results that even FIFA couldn’t engineer. I would be willing to put my house, car and savings on us going up should we beat them, not that any bookie would even take that bet. Goal difference rules. Mathematics shmathematics.

It is not, though, a foregone conclusion. On paper you couldn’t ask for a much easier game. Our home form has been imperious and we sit at the top of the league. Our league home form to date reads W16 D3 L2.  Wigan are second bottom, though they come off the back of an impressive 3-2 win over Barnsley. However, their away form reads W5 D4 L12. Our home form is the best in the league by four points, their away form is the 17th best.

To put this further in to context I have seen us lose, in person, precisely once this season. I missed Brentford at home because my knee was in so much pain I couldn’t sit in my seat. I was there for Newcastle but had to start work at stupid o’clock so didn’t get to write it up. I have further been to three away games with the record DWW. My disappointment throughout almost an entire season has been limited to shouting pointlessly at the television.

But Wigan will not come to the Amex simply to play a bit part, roll over and die to order. They are fighting for their life in the league. Normally they would probably take a draw away to us and, indeed, that might be the limits of their ambition, giving them four points from two Easter games in their relegation fight. A win, however, could take them level on points with Blackburn and two behind Burton with three to play, a fighting chance of staying up as we know from 1997 when we overcame a far greater deficit to survive THAT game.

A lot has been made of how far we’ve come since Hereford and, indeed, to go from nearly going out of the league and playing home games in Kent to the cusp of the Premier League in 20 years is quite some feat and down to two amazing chairmen in succession. Let’s face it, we needed a good one or two after the rabble that were in charge in the early and mid nineties.

I’d prefer, however, to focus on how far we’ve come in just two and a half years. Just before actual Christmas in 2014 we were in the relegation zone, in a not too dissimilar position to the one Wigan currently find themselves in. The team was full of uninterested, and bang average loanees. The fans were fighting each other. We’d just humiliated ourselves on telly against Millwall in front of what looked like less than 15,000 fans, no matter what the pretendence said. This blog had descended in to the Mad Dog 20/20 fuelled rantings of an angsty teenager screaming in to a void.

Then he arrived.

A couple of threads have been maliciously bounced on NSC to see who it was who moaned that Hughton was boring, negative or not the right man. I know what I felt because I wrote it here.

https://brightononlyathome.wordpress.com/2014/12/31/a-new-year-present-from-tony-welcome-chris-hughton/

I’m glad to say I was right about Hughton, not for egotistical reasons, but because he has transformed our club from top to bottom, going way beyond my expectations in that cautious first blog.

Almost his first bit of business was to bring in Beram Kayal on an absolute steal from Celtic. Head and shoulders above the rest of our midfield at the time he stood out and soon formed a bond with the reborn Dale Stephens. Hughton knew that his sole remit that season was to keep us up and went about making us hard to beat. Those who saw him as negative crowed. But there was a steel about the side in the second half of that season that had been missing in the first, that promised a bit more next season. Maybe we’d have a comfy mid-table season for a change? No.

No, since then Albion fans have been getting neck ache from looking up at the top of the table. So near – SO NEAR – last season, with a points total that would normally have taken us up. I was at Middleboro and I cannot remember being so down after a draw. We headed back to London drowning our sorrows in several miserable bottles of ale, and when we got there we bumped in to Mr Bloom who was more annoyed than all of us put together.

Then that ridiculous, injury ravaged, playoff semi. But with a bit more luck we’d have beaten anyone in that first half at the Amex. And while the fans went off to lick their wounds Chris Hughton was off signing an extended contract and quietly and intelligently planning how we’d go one better. Hence this season.

It will be no different on Monday. While we’re all wondering if Santa will come and if we can finally open that bubbly, Chris will be quietly and methodically planning exactly how to beat Wigan. After that – and only after that – the same with Norwich. And the players will be carrying it out. That’s why I’m confident – because there is a coherent plan, both long term and short term and the personnel to carry it out with deadly effect.

 

Reading at Home 2016/17 – Winning Ways

That’s as good as it gets.

Ohh, look at me, giving the end away at the start again. But come on. If you’re a Brighton fan reading this blog this morning you almost certainly have the warm glow of satisfaction and the overwhelming desire to relive last night one more time. After a shaky period recently it was very much back on message.

But stories do have to start at the beginning and it was one of those days that went well from the start. A decent training session with The Boy’s Under 10 team in the morning, a leisurely lunch and time for the kids to do something together in the afternoon for a change all made the evening kick off far less stressful than a 3pm one in some ways. None of us were quite sure when the right time to leave was but we met at the station for a train that seemed reasonable. An old face turned up out of the blue as we waited. “I wasn’t quite sure when to leave” he said. See?

It turned out we’d picked exactly the right time. We linked up perfectly with a Falmer bound train before the train queue had really got going. There were plenty of people around when we got there but enough time for the boys to lazily get a programme and Steve, who had not dressed for the occasion, to really appreciate how cold the wind was. What’s more, our arrival on the concourse was greeted by a huge cheer.

It turned out that the whole West Upper wasn’t pleased to see us but that Barnsley had just equalised at home to Huddersfield. There followed some very urgent watching of the telly and staring at the phone. One thing’s for sure when you kick off at 5.30 on a Saturday, you will know exactly the result you need. On the train Bristol City had been two up at Newcastle. The wise Vicky aka @ThickBlueLine had tweeted to remind us all of how they’d blown a three goal lead at Derby and it turned out to be prescient. Nevertheless, with just injury time to play, both our rivals were dropping points and four out of five of my accumulator picks were correct with the cash out option now removed. If only Brentford could score. Score they did – twice – and score no one else did. We hadn’t kicked a ball yet and already both our nearest rivals had dropped points and I’d had a five result acca come in. If that doesn’t get you up for it nothing will.

I’ve no idea if our players had been glued to Soccer Saturday and Paddy Power – though I doubt it – but they emerged similarly up for it. The additional couple of hours of voice lubrication that a late kick off allows was present in a gutsy rendition of Sussex by the Sea and Steve, as he often does, spotted something I didn’t. “Knockaert looks well up for it” he said. This can sometimes not be a great thing as the adrenaline can affect his touch but it turned out the players were just the right side of pumped.

You can usually tell how we’re going to play within the first few minutes and this one settled in to a pleasing pattern very early on. In possession we looked zippy. Without the ball, determined. Reading knocked it around nicely at the back but never kept it in dangerous areas looking a little like an undercooked Garcia special. We pressed at exactly the right times. Hughton had done his homework.

One thing that was true when we were playing tippy-tappy was that we would often struggle to come back from a goal down, plan B being sadly lacking. Here it looked like we’d stroll it if we could take the lead and early on we very, very nearly did. Reading were attacking down our left but a pulled back cross fell neatly to Murphy on the edge of our area and we broke in a wave. Baldock found himself in acres of space on the left and cut inside behind a defender, before rasping a brilliant curler towards the far post. It hit said post to an Amex groan. However, it was clear to see how Reading could be undone. It didn’t take long for Baldock to snap open the bra strap.

Having the ball any higher than ankle height seemed to perplex this purest of footballing teams and they headed the ball straight to Bruno on the halfway line. He immediately lobbed it in behind them, a perfectly weighted ball that Super Sam killed stone dead with a mix of skill and good fortune. Now he was the wrong side of the defence with McShane desperately fighting for the ball. With The Boy screaming for a penalty Baldock instead kept his feet and lashed the ball in to the roof of the net before scaring a cameraman. 1-0, thirty five minutes gone.

It wasn’t quite scare-free though. A good break down the left and excellent cross saw Danny Williams with a free header at our goal from eight yards out. Duffy, somehow, acrobatically cleared off the line in our best piece of defending of the game, early in the second half. Reading were also afforded two free kicks barely on the edge of the area but put both straight in to our wall. Other than that, though, it was a watching brief for our defence and the whole ground knew a second would kill them off.

It came, again, on the break. Another toothless Reading attack was broken up and the second ball fell to Knockaert who drove at their defence before finding Stephens on the centre circle. A beautiful pass – Lennon and McCartney song beautiful, Monet painting beautiful, Scarlett Johansson in Lost in Translation beautiful – split the Reading defence and Murphy maintained the theme with a gorgeous chip over Al-Habsi to make it 2-0.

That was it as a contest. Knockaert should have put it beyond doubt but lashed it in to the side netting. Just as Baldock had made up for his post-strike so Knocky made up for this. Another quick break found him in space on the left and a brilliant drive nestled in the far corner. The Amex was going potty.

To be truthful days don’t come much better. Back to top and it is now Newcastle and Huddersfield looking nervously round each other. Get a result on Tuesday and the run in looks relatively innocuous. The players must know this, Hughton knows this, and with “we’re on our way” echoing round the Amex and Falmer station long in to the night, the fans most certainly do.

The Boys Ref Watch

So little did referee Banks get involved that The Boy was unable to come up with a rating. This was a game that was all about us rather than the ref (Roger East take note) and he left mark-less. For me that is the very measure of decent refereeing and I’m going to give him a nine.

 

 

 

Norwich at Home 2016/17 – Pivotal?

Almost perfect.

Days like this really don’t come along very often. As a Brighton fan you get used to the other kind of days. The days where you play Preston and concede a last minute equaliser to blow away two points earned. The days when you don’t turn up and lose 2-0 at home or where you scrape a lucky 1-0 win away at the likes of Wigan. There have been plenty of them in the past. I have dozens in my locker. Then there’s genuine heartache. We’re excellent at that. Missing a last minute chance to win the FA Cup and getting outplayed in the replay? Check. Being ninety minutes away from losing it all forever? Yep. Getting dumped out of the playoff semis by your local rivals and losing your enigmatic manager shortly afterwards? Got the t-shirt. Being a Gaston Ramerez shin pad away from going up, missing out by two goals and getting half the team injured in the playoff semi? Oh yeah. Opening up a three point lead and making up ten goals in goal difference on not one promotion rival but two? Never quite done that before.

The build up had been engaging the household for several days. The Boy talked of little else. NSC was awash with threads about the size of the crowd and the size of the job ahead of us. My Cardiff supporting mate had assured me that Norwich and Newcastle would be cruising this league but we were in with a good shout of the playoffs. And Steve was away in Scotland looking after a poorly ship, not even able to listen in on the radio. So, yeah, almost perfect but there was a mate missing from it. Every silver lining has a cloud.

No problem in shifting the tickets though. The Boy’s oldest friend gamely filled in with his dad in the seats behind us. Next to us one poker player had been replaced by another. And pre-game I’d managed to deliberately and accidentally catch up with bunch of people from the good old days. The Boy’s eyes widened on the train to Brighton as an old mate and I shared stories of getting the train at five in the morning to glamourous, far-off places like Port Vale and Barnsley. More old friends were in The Swan and on the concourse. “Do you actually know all these people?” he eventually asked. Yes, son. Yes I do. Then, at ten to three, we walked up to our seats and the stadium filled around us. By three the only blue holes were in the corner of the Norwich end, and then only a few of them. By six minutes past three the place was going mental.

In fact The Amex was buzzing from the start. The North Stand had brought their A game and the West Upper was at least on a B+. It may not have been Wednesday-esque but it was loud, the crowd doing their best to influence a six pointer. The presence of a pantomime villain in Alex Pritchard certainly helped and his every touch was roundly booed. There were at least three round boos of this nature in the first half. Eight million for that? He might as well have changed his name to Mr Anonymous by deed poll. But I digress, and jump ahead of myself. The opening exchanges showed no hint of what was to come. Norwich kept the ball nicely but showed no ability to get past Sidwell and our uber-solid back four. We didn’t keep the ball very nicely. However, this tippy-tappy was soon to undo our visitors.

As they knocked it around the back Murray gamely chased shadows. Two things I always tell the attackers in my under 10s team though. One is always follow a shot in and the other is always close down a keeper if you can. The ball went back to Michael McGovern in the Norwich goal whose first touch was one CMS would have been disappointed with in his later years. His second touch wasn’t even a tackle as Murray shoulder charged him out of it, cleaned up the loose ball and put it in to the empty net. I didn’t quite go as mad as I normally do when we score in these sorts of games. From the back of the West Upper it looked like a foul on the keeper while there was simply no way the ball should have ended up in the far corner from where Murray was. I was waiting for the whistle but it never came, replays showing a perfectly fair challenge and a fortuitous finish via the near post.

The rest of the first half was entertaining without being high quality. We struggled to impose ourselves going forwards, too often giving the ball away. Norwich struggled even more to impose themselves, Dunk and Duffy winning everything thrown at them (the latter was particularly magnificent) and Sidwell clearing up every second ball. But Knocky was a little quiet, Stephens guilty of two poor passes and Baldock putting himself about but to little effect (one of our only other chances was a long range shot that even the hapless McGovern couldn’t spill).

The biggest incident of note was a spat on the west touchline between Murray and the hilariously bad Martin Olsson. The latter appeared to kick and then headbutt Murray who reacted, though again TV replays showed it was mostly handbags and the booking apiece that we’d called as “bottling it” by the referee was, in fact, spot on. Olsson then endeared himself to the crowd by pretending to be injured, suddenly finding the strength to get free down the left, falling on his arse like a circus clown, skidding the ball out for our goal kick at the same time and pretending to be injured again. He should have gone off minutes later for a second bookable offence when he chopped down Skalak in midfield but luckily the ref kept the hopeless chump on the field.

Half time, then and plenty of comedy entertainment but not much good football.

Then Norwich fell apart. I had confidently asserted that they could not be that bad again, but whatever Alex Neill said to them should have been videoed and shown as a “how not to do it” speech at motivational conferences. So bad were Norwich in the second half that I was left wondering if they’d arrived in this league by accident from League One rather than a parachute-payment filled trip from the Premier League.

To be fair, though, our second goal was sublime. Murray won the ball deep in our half and played what looked like a hospital ball just in front of Bong. Despite having a player snapping at his heels Bong accelerated away from trouble and put an inch perfect line ball through to Skalak. One touch to control, a second to hit a tempting cross and Murray crashed through the defence to bury a perfect header. It was the sort of goal that made this old pub centre back dream of doing that, just once, on the Amex turf. This time I went bananas. I couldn’t have gone more so had I put on a yellow suit and changed my name to Nanna McBananman for a bet.

By now Steve was texting me. As I tried to describe our second goal using words that didn’t begin with “f” Murray won a corner with a clever bit of play, Skalak took it and Dunk put away a powerful back post header. I gave up trying to be eloquent. “3-0. Roof’s off” was exactly what I typed.

That was game done. Norwich heads dropped as the Amex bounced, literally in the case of the North Stand. The worst back four I’ve seen grace our lovely stadium gifted us two further goals. Firstly on seventy three minutes Murray’s hat trick was confirmed as an awful, wide back pass put McGovern under pressure and his poor, hurried clearance was woefully controlled by Bennett who was robbed by Murray. He sailed through in to the gap to tap in his third. A minute later the ineffective Pritchard was replaced to loud boos so that he could sit on the bench and sulk.

We weren’t done yet and neither were Norwich who were doing a great impression of Santa and all his elves on the twenty fifth of December. Klose was another to slip on his arse (perhaps there’s a stud shortage in Norfolk and I don’t mean the Jackie Collins variety) and Martin complemented his partner by playing Knockaert onside and jogging back. Clean through the Frenchman might have been but his finish was still Premier League quality. What. A. Game.

At that point Ray, who sits behind me, told me Huddersfield were also losing 5-0. I thought he was winding me up but Steve agreed via text. “It could be pivotal” he messaged me, and indeed it could. If we miss out by a couple of goals this season it won’t be down to this weekend.

Afterwards the West Lower bar was buzzing, though the train home was strangely muted. As I said at the start we don’t get many of these as a Brighton fan. I think we were finally, joyously, in shock. I treated mine with ale, and The Boy’s with sausages, chips and beans.

The Boy’s Ref Watch

Other than the Olsson debacle the referee was largely ignored and the word “idiot” was not used once, nor was he offered my new specs. A comfortable two out of ten, which could be a season high score come May.