When I was younger, so much younger than today, weekends were simple. Fridays were spent with your mates meeting up in a town centre pub somewhere before heading off to a nightclub to drink or dance or both. Unless you fell out with a friend or split up with a girlfriend, which happened, but rarely, Friday nights were purely about pleasure. Then on Saturday, sleep deprived and hung over, we’d gradually head to the back of The Edinburgh in town to congregate around the pool table and drink our hangovers off. Some time after two o’clock we’d head to Hove on a train, hand some cash over to a man at a turnstile and prepare to watch the Albion lose. Simples as actual meerkats are unable to say. The Albion never actually ruined your weekend, they merely became a catalyst to continue a drinking session. On Sunday you woke up with a double hangover and looked forward to a week surviving on tuna and baked beans and wearing your coat round the flat when it got cold and the next weekend you did it over.
Sky have come along and Sky dictate when you play your football match, whether you can have a minute’s applause for a fallen hero, when you can kick off, when your best players can leave the pitch and how your manager’s post match mood is played out. In return they pay a huge amount of money – to the teams in the league above you. Yes, we had another Friday match. And Sky don’t just show any old match, no siree, they only show the important ones that will affect the business end of the table. So it was that the potential existed for my weekend to be ruined before it had really started. Luckily I had reckoned without Derby’s general lack of being arsed.
On paper it was one of those games. As The Boy and I walked to the station he said “we could win 3-0 or they could win 3-0” which is Ten Year Old for “it could go either way”. The conversation was repeated on the train to Brighton with Steve. Another friend was joining us for the evening and we broke the normal routine to go for a pint in one of the fine pubs around Brighton Station. At 5.45pm it was heaving with football fans and relieved office workers. No doubt that a big event was about to take place.
When you’re challenging for top spot – or relegation, or a playoff birth – at this stage of the season then every game is important, every match a big one. When you are Ipswich (and I do not pick them at random, more later) not so much. A few weeks ago when the Sky fixtures had to be declared their executives must have been creaming themselves over this one. A Brighton side that would almost inevitably be challenging for automatic promotion, and possibly the title, against a Derby side newly rejuvenated under a former England manager pushing for the playoffs. As The Boy had said, a game that could go either way, and certainly wouldn’t be one sided. Hmmm.
We prepared for weekend ruination (or otherwise) as soundly as being in charge of ten year olds allowed. Ale on the concourse and stories of childhood, elderly parents, camping and conquests. So convivial was it that we just about got to our seats on time which, in hindsight, was good because the Albion didn’t hang around.
Sometimes this season we’ve started ponderously or slowly, inviting the question as to whether we were deliberately saving energy and just trying not to concede. In the bars and on the concourses we fans may be saying “all we need to dominate is an early goal” but it rarely comes to pass. Here, however, we were out of the gates like the proverbial bull in the china shop and a ponderous looking Derby never looked like coping.
We took the lead after just five minutes. A quick but seemingly innocuous square ball from Bruno to Knockaert saw the Frenchman quickly closed down but he danced round his man with magical feet, made space for his favoured left foot and cracked a long range drive as perfectly in to the corner as could possibly be imagined. Up in the gods, down by the pitch, and at all points in between, Brighton fans went potty. There was our early goal and there was little doubt that the little magician was going to torture Derby rather painfully.
My notes are never very complete but they do say “Derby should have equalised on 7 minutes”, a cross from Christie just turned over Bent who had eluded Lewis Dunk, just for a change. Derby are not mentioned again in the first half. My note taking skills in the full cauldron of The Amex are not the greatest but I do not think this unfair. After that let off it was all us.
Let’s be clear though, our movement, passing and tackling was first rate. When Beram Kayal first came back from injury I don’t think there was any way he was ready. Now the Israeli looks returned to full fitness. With Stephens in full cry the centre midfielders bossed the game. Knockaert terrified them down one wing while Skalak, who has come in for criticism recently, was as hard working down the other as any player I’ve seen in the stripes at any time. Both wide players were ably assisted by their fullbacks. It was a joy to watch. From one such move Skalak found a perfect cross to Murray which he headed over when he could have done better. From another Knockaert twisted, turned and strained but could only force a corner. The Duffy-less defence were nearly spectators but, when it was occasionally cleared, Dunk acted as quarterback and the BFG read the game like an expert librarian does a Noddy book.
Inevitably we scored again just before half time. Had you turned up late or gone for a pint early you’d have seen us dominate but missed the significant action. Kayal played us through under a heavy challenge but we carried on and the ball seemed to rebound off their defence to put Baldock clear. He finished – sorry Albion Roar – with aplomb, cool as a cucumber under pressure.
Rarely have I seen such a one sided half. Rarely have I felt more comfortable during a supposedly big game. Sweets were passed round and tickertape torn up ready to greet the third goal we all expected, though when it came there was a touch of fortune about it. It came after Derby’s only other threatening moment, Vydra hitting the angle of post and bar with a header. Nonetheless it had been coming. A lobbed ball over the top was missed by everyone and sat up nicely for Knockaert to cross. Murray and the keeper arrived at the same time and the ball came off the latter, bounced off the former and nestled in the corner. Three nil.
Derby were beaten like a red headed step child, a metaphor I choose because of its bullying tone rather than in spite of it. They offered nothing, though that doesn’t mean we weren’t magnificent, because we were. Hard to pick a man of the match. The front two were a menace and both scored. The midfield four ran the game. The full backs supported ably (an injury to Bruno the only sour note) and the centre backs were as comfortable as an old sofa. Only Stockdale doesn’t come in to the MoM reckoning, mainly because he had nothing to do. We bullied Derby back home.
Loud chants of “we’re on our way” at the stations. A late night for The Boy. And an evening capped off for me by roaming social media, soaking up the good feeling from Twitter, Facebook and North Stand Chat. On Twitter I encountered the funniest single accusation aimed at us from jealous rivals all season, an Ipswich (see) fan claiming we were tin pot because “our stadium has wifi”. I shouldn’t have responded but sometimes you can only beat what’s in front of you.
The Boy’s Ref Watch
Sadly for fans of ten-year-old vitriol and acidic anti-ref rants we all agreed he had a great game. Seven out of ten, which is like saying he was the best ref that ever existed.