Fulham at Home 2016/17 – Singing the Blues

I’ve never felt more like singing the blues / When Brighton win, and Palace lose / Oh Brighton…….you’ve got me singing the blues

There I go again, ruining the ending with spoilers. Yet for much of the day it seemed another type of blues would be far more appropriate. I would not sing them. I would have them. Such is the beauty of football. This is why we do it, right?

But back to the beginning. A different pre-game approach to last time out, just as well as I suspect you’re heartily sick of hangovers, pubs and a scribe who claims to report on home matches, yet struggles to recall chunks of them. No danger of that this time as I was the responsible adult in charge of not one but two ten year old boys. Steve was away at a friend’s birthday so I took his son and The Boy.

Now I know this is only going to resonate with a fraction of you but do you know what sounds ten year old boys make these days? The first is “but what if” and the second is “CACHUNK”. The “but what if” is the standard ten year old boy’s response to you answering a question in a reasonable manner. Example:

“Do you think we’ll score today?”

“Yes, I think with our attack and Fulham’s wobbly defence we probably will”

“But what if the referee gets captured by space aliens when we’re clean through?”

“He won’t.”

“He could….”

And so on.

CACHUNK, meanwhile is the sound of water bottles being endlessly flipped on to the floor in an effort to land them on their base or, the holy grail, on the cap. “Stop flipping those water bottles”. “But what if there’s a youtuber videoing the concourse?”.

Luckily we saw a toddler in an elf hat on the station, so I paid them back by insisting it was a real elf and doing dad-quality elf jokes all day. Small pleasures…..

Anyway, I was sober and apparently in charge of two boys who really wanted a bottle of water instead of Fanta or Coke so for once I was winning at parenting. Would we be winning on the pitch? We would see but it was not the brightest of starts.

In fact we had a horrible first half, as bad a performance as I’ve seen under Hughton. For what felt like the first five minutes we hardly had a touch of the ball, nor did we get out of our own half. Yet the first two shots on target were ours, Murphy sprinting down the left, cutting in but hitting a tame shot straight at Button in the Fulham goal. Then a neat interchange in midfield led to Knockaert spotting Murray free in the box and finding him with a clever reverse ball. The angle was always tight and, while the shot was struck powerfully it was never going to go in. After that though, we fell apart.

More pressure and dominance from Fulham. Stephens and Sidwell could not collectively cope with Cairney who was running the game. The former, in particular, seemed lacklustre, all careless passing and second in to the ball. On our left Bong was being given a torrid time. As we struggled to cope with a side keeping the ball and pressing for it back we conceded one of this season’s freak goals. A corner on their right was swung in close to Stockdale who, unfortunately, was on the floor, having been tripped over by Stephens. McDonald had a clear header for them from the tightest of angles but, with no keeper, it bounced over the line before we cleared it. 1-0.

That we did not go two down was down to three players; the aforementioned Stockdale and Duffy and Dunk. Without our centre back colossuses it would have been much worse, but with Fulham continuing to dominate the ball and the territory they certainly had a lot of practice. Stockdale too. Easy to blame him for the first but watch the replay back and you’ll see it wasn’t his fault. It certainly didn’t knock his confidence. First he produced a magnificent one handed save from a wickedly dipping shot from Aluko, then stood up firm to a drive from Malone. Either could easily have seen us go two down.

Meanwhile Duffy was winning every tackle and putting his whole body on the line, time and again, while Dunk seemed to want to be playing centre midfield, given what a poor return our actual centre midfielders were getting. Without these three it would have been very, very ugly. But we got to half time just one down and it was a chance to regroup.

We didn’t exactly regroup. In fact the statistics will tell you that we had only 41% possession in the whole game, while your eyes were inevitably drawn to Cairney whenever Fulham did anything of quality. But this team doesn’t know when it’s beaten and this team can get a goal from anywhere, even if the referee is captured by space aliens when we’re clean through. And so it was that Super Sammy Baldock struck one of the goals of the season out of the blue. A set piece produced a spot of head tennis and Fulham failed to clear cleanly, the ball dropping on the volley to Baldock on the edge of the area. He struck it superbly in to the corner. An awful lot of tension was lifted and I don’t mean like that you mucky sods.

Fulham pressed back, a good passing interchange down their left forcing Stockdale in to another great save, but now we were their equals and Baldock hit the post from close range soon after. As the game inevitably stretched it became apparent that Fulham did not quite have the fitness for the high pressing, possession game they’d been playing. The longer it went on, the better we looked.

The it happened. Baldock had the ball on the left and got a step free to swing in a cross. Half the Fulham defence marked up and half played offside. Murray had the freedom of Falmer to tap the volley in to the corner for 2-1. Absolute SCENES.

As we went in to a tense five minutes of injury time Guy and Ray behind me gave me the sad news that Palace had gone 4-3 up against Swansea. “At least that’ll keep Pardew in a job” I replied, then I got on with five minutes worth of nail biting. From behind me the noise CACHUNK started up again. At last the ref blew the whistle. More scenes. How had we won that?

As I left the ground a bloke I’d not talked to before gave me the happy news that Palace had lost 5-4 to Swansea. We high fived.

Back at the ranch, Steve was home and I delivered his son in one piece and with a new firm belief in elves. We cracked open the wine and talked over the dinner table of everything good about the Albion, Chris Hughton and football in general. I definitely felt like singing the blues.

The Boy’s Ref Watch

“He was actually pretty good dad. Gave most of the correct decisions, just not enough cards. CACHUNK”.

A mark of minus 150 which, as they say in Bargain Hunt, could be a winning score.

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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.

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

Birmingham City At Home 2014/15 – That’s Entertainment

There are times when I yearn for the innocence of youth. Most seasons have their breaking points. This is Brighton after all, not Real Madrid or Celtic or Chelsea. Last season I hit maximum frustration at the Middleborough home game as, faced with a chance to really cement our playoff position we capitulated in our worst, and most frustrating, performance of the season. This season it seemed it was going to be yesterday. Up to then I had watched us win twice all season, both one nil. Wigan at home and Charlton away, which according to the blog title I shouldn’t even have been at. I had missed the Bolton home game (holiday) and Ipswich home game (work). And so it was that I was looking forward to the Birmingham game the way Gordon Ramsey looks forward to a KFC.

Not The Boy though. Thanks to school and being eight he hadn’t even seen the Wigan game. One win, all season, scrapped out away in South East London. Yet he is a natural born Brighton fan. Not once has he asked to go and watch Man United on the telly instead. Not once has he complained we won’t win silverware. Yesterday he eagerly donned his replica shirt over his sweatshirt and grabbed at his scarf, twirling for purposes of. I left mine at home in a desperate nod to superstition for I’d not had it to twirl at Charlton either. All the way to the station we talked of the game. Who would start and in what formation? Who would be on the cover of the programme (I still cannot say Matchday Magazine, at least with a straight face)? Would we score first then immediately concede again (yes)? The same wide eyed wonder. The same conversation.

One change though was that my companion for much of the season was meeting us but without his son, The Boy’s mate from school, due to an away weekend with Cubs. Installed in a concourse bar we discussed over a couple of pints, not the game, but some frankly unrepeatable stories from his days as a submariner in the Philippines. Every now and then The Boy would look up from his programme to tell us about our scouting network or Gully’s puzzle, but between the two of us there was barely a mention of the football. Twenty minutes before kick off we went to our seats, The Boy springing and me trudging. It turned out he was right all along.

I’m assuming that if you’re reading this you were either at the game or at least know the result so spoilers are not really an issue. As much as it pains me as a writer to put the ending in the middle the score frames every bit of commentary that follows. There were seven goals and more thrills and spills than Shaun William Ryder on a Waltzer. It’s not possible to draw in a seven goal game. But what is possible, in fact definite, in such a game, is that if those goals are shared as closely as possible, which they were, you are talking about two of the creakiest defences this side of the San Marino national side. Yet that is not what I’m going to talk about (and not just because I promised @TheMrGrumpy on twitter). Frankly, there are times when you have just got to accentuate the positive. And there were plenty of positives.

We came out of the gates like, well, like a submariner released in to Subic City. That we went one up after eight minutes, following two successive goalless draws on the road was surprising. What was not was that we had already spurned a better chance, Kayal playing one of the through balls of the season only for the chance to be screwed wide of the post. But it took next to no time to make amends as Teixiera cut in from the left and squeezed a shot under Randolph in the Birmingham goal who should have done better. Of course I don’t need to tell you what happened next because I think, Wigan game apart, it has happened every time we’ve taken the lead at home. Within five minutes the visitors were level. Somehow they whipped in a cross from their left despite three players round the winger (none of them tight including Bruno who’d been done like a kipper) and, while we cleared the cross we didn’t clear it far enough. A speculative shot came from long range from the untroubled Gleeson and went in via a Donaldson deflection. How. Many. Times. Sorry, this is meant to be positive. *clears head*

So positives (mainly). From there on in we bossed the midfield and the ball. Kayal was outstanding. Ince was, once again, colossal. Best, unfairly maligned by some, put himself about. Teixeira teased and prodded, almost never losing the ball. We fashioned chances that we didn’t take, noticeably Baldock taking an extra touch when through that lost the chance before Best shot first time when he could have taken a touch. Yet the two best chances of the half fell to City. Stockdale – yes him – pulled off an amazing reflex save on a one on one before normal, Brighton controlling it, service was resumed. One minute of injury time came up on the board. Birmingham attacked our right flank again. Bruno got done again. Shinnie was immediately picked up by other defenders but Bruno’s head had gone. In one of those slow-motion NOOOOOOOOOO moments from a movie I could see him diving in a second before he did. Stonewall penalty. Cue those of us who were not in the bar already holding our heads. Cue a smokebomb from the Birmingham fans. We had bossed the game and we were going in 2-1 down.

Well, lucky for us Stockdale didn’t think that way. Paul Caddis stepped up to take. I watched through my fingers. Stockdale saved it. What was left of the Amex went mental. The ref immediately blew so we didn’t have to acknowledge the smoke bomb. I do believe me and The Boy high fived. Down on the pitch Bruno jumped on Stockdale who had got him out of jail. The actual score was still 1-1 but it was our players who went in on a high.

I’ve just looked at my word count. This is already the most I have written about a game in a long while and we’re only at half time. I have five more goals to go through. If I described each in detail this may end up as war and peace. Suffice to say we needed to score next and we did. Two goals from Saint Calde, both lashing in from close range. A sublime finish from Teixeira after Baldock had a shot finely saved by Rudolph. Plenty of going mental. Plenty of confetti. Singing. Smiles. Good God it had been a long time. Of course we didn’t make it that easy. Kayal’s magnificent efforts (seriously, what a player he looks for £300K) saw him drained by the seventy second minute and Stephens came on to rapturous applause. To me, though, he didn’t look match sharp, bottling his first challenge and generally leaving a Gardner or JFC shaped hole in our midfield that Birmingham exploited. Having got more of the ball they used it to good effect to spray down our open left side, cross back in, hold it up in the penalty area and score two fairly identical goals themselves. One of those was in injury time, meaning no one quite knew when the final whistle was coming. Shrill whistles rang from every stand. And then he blew. 4-3 us. A WIN! ON A SATURDAY! AT HOME!

There are many players who will not want to see the highlights reel. All of Birmingham’s defence for one. Most of ours for another (Stockdale excepted). Yet here’s the final positive note. On most Saturdays my personal man of the match choice has been impossible due to no one earning it. This time it was impossible due to the number of candidates. Was it Ince who was all over the place? Kayal who only every made intelligent runs, played intelligent balls, bossed the game three hundred times more than our actual captain? Teixiera who scored twice, ran himself in to the ground and was a total menace. Two goal Saint Calde? Or Stockdale, without whom I suspect we would have spiralled in to another rancorous home defeat. Take your pick.

We left smiling.