Blackburn at Home 2016/17 – The Good, The Bad and The Ugly

“Winning ugly is still winning” –                  Kevin Hearne, Hounded.

Ah, club football, how I’ve missed you. Yet you scare the bejesus out of me. It’s a funny old game as Saint and Greavsie used to say. If you follow, say (two teams picked entirely at random!), QPR or Birmingham, then most of this season has been a massive disappointment. Come April, however and you’re one smug relaxed so-and-so, able to go to the football just for the sake of a day out with your mates or your family. Whereas, having been lording it over the division for much of the season, if you are in a box seat, challenging for automatic promotion, it’s suddenly squeaky bum time.

Furthermore, when HASN’T April been squeaky bum time for the Albion? Probably the first season at the Amex when we finished 10th in the Championship. Even then, though, the playoffs were dangled like some mental impossible dream for a while. The season before that we’d won every game in a packed March but still had to get through April intact. After that it has been playoff worry or relegation worry until we reached last season, the season that surpassed our expectations until it ended at the game of which we do not speak. April is exciting if you’re an Albion fan but it ain’t great for the nerves.

What’s more our opponents on this first day of April were Blackburn and it is most definitely squeaky bum time for them too. The Chicken Farmers may be about to find out that it’s possible to be relegated from The Championship, never mind the Premier League. They belatedly brought in an organised manager in Tony Mowbray and went on an undefeated run, though most of those games were draws. A draw would not do us. Wins are needed now. More so for us, since we had a Blackburn fan in tow. His son though, born here, was in full Seagulls regalia and came and sat with us up in the roost while dad and daughter went off to the South Stand. Pre match talk posited that Blackburn would be organised but that they had a tendency to ship late goals.

The other thing about the 1st of April is, of course, that people play hilarious pranks on each other. So it was that I looked at Twitter at 2 o’clock, while sitting on a train at Brighton Station, to see the team and thought that the official account may be pranking us. Akpom starting? No Bruno? Baldock not even on the bench? SKALAK?

But it was true. According to Andy Naylor Bruno’s groin was still not to be risked while Baldock had also picked up a minor injury. None of this explained why March, in the form of his life and coming off scoring a worldy for England, wasn’t starting against a team that would need prising open, but more of that later. Our usual Saturday afternoon chat on the concourse later and we were off.

And so to our title theme – the good, the bad and the ugly. The good would come at the end as we all know (you were all there weren’t you, I’m never quite sure) but there was plenty of bad and ugly to get through first. I tweeted at half time that it had been a dull first half (actually I said “full” but I meant “dull”, bloody phone keyboards), but in truth, thinking back now we certainly tested their keeper a few times. In fact one of the goods was an excellent diagonal ball in to Murray from which he unleashed a long shot that was just tipped round the post. More comfortable was an ugly training ground move in which Dunk took a long range free kick and slammed it down the keeper’s throat. That’s right. Dunk. Long range free kick. Incredibly we repeated it in the second half to identical effect.

The keeper was stretched again when Knockaert managed to wriggle free down the right and his cross eventually reached Dunk at the back stick, who turned nicely but saw his shot saved at the near post. Meanwhile Stockdale had to be alert to tip over a corner that was going directly in.

The bad, meanwhile, was being served up in spades by Akpom. I literally have no idea how Arsenal can have signed him up on professional terms. On this performance not only can he be less than bothered but he doesn’t care if his body language shows it. Given a chance to show the Amex what he can do for a full game he showed us that he can’t head, can’t hold the ball up and has all the pace of an irritated snail.

While the players dutifully tweeted afterwards about the great atmosphere, in truth the fans seemed as nervous as the players. Would we have roused Akpom to great heights but loudly chanting a song of praise? Who knows. But early in the second half the whole ground was clamouring to see March and Hemed come on for Akpom and Skalak and Chris duly obliged. At once the atmosphere went up a notch. Did the players now believe? Did the fans?

Did I mention the offsides? The perpetual offsides? God, this was bad and ugly. It wasn’t that the linesman particularly got it wrong – just that our front players did. But playing offsides is a risky business and a quick move that pulled Blackburn out of position proved to be their undoing. Rosenior was free in acres of space on the right and was found by the excellent Stephens. Since it was him and not Knocky the ball came straight in from the right foot and, as Knockaert won a header, Murray sprang the trap. He tapped in from two yards with the whole stadium looking at the linesman, who immediately signalled for a goal. At full speed I called it as off. Replays showed it was a perfect goal.

After that Murray combined with Hemed to nearly score again, Steele producing another incredible save, while we held on at the other end. Here was the good. We’d scored, Huddersfield were drawing and now the players that had shone for us were going the extra mile. Kayal and Stephens so hard working in midfield, Murray running his socks off up front. But perhaps best of all was Uwe Hunemeier. The BFG was unbeatable at centre back, having his best game since he joined. What a time to raise it.

So we stayed to the end, as we always do, and boy was it worth it. As we clapped the players off there was a sudden cheer, both in the WSU and the North. “Blimey” I though, “people are really celebrating Huddersfield’s draw. The bouncing massed on the concourse singing ‘we’re on our way’ would prove the final clue that Burton, improbable as it was, had scored a last minute winner.

Nine points clear. Even if they win their game in hand that’s still six points clear with a vastly superior goal difference. All over the ground’s bars songs rang out. I joined Steve, our pet Blackburn fan and the media luvvies from the Albion Roar and North Stand chat and many, many others in celebration. The train home was buzzing. The pubs were buzzing. We might just be on our way.

EDIT – I nearly forgot The Boy’s Ref Watch. “Rubbish” was all I got out of him. For a ten year old he’s becoming remarkably teenager like.

 

Advertisements

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.

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.

Reading at Home 2014/15 – Murray and Jones Lead a Game of Two Halves

Once upon a time there was an athletics stadium. Despite the lack of roof, poor view and terrible atmosphere it regularly hosted professional football (and if it had been doing so yesterday then the RSC would have been dealing with cases of hyperthermia and trench foot). Three of its bigger stars were Glenn Murray, who would bang in the goals before sticking his hand on his head, Nathan Jones who would perform back heels and step overs, and Inigo Calderon who would give 100% every week and be a generally all-round top bloke. Yesterday the three of them combined to serve up some top draw entertainment (if poor quality football) in altogether noisier and more comfortable surroundings.

Let’s start at the beginning though, because all good stories do. Had we gone two down in 25 minutes, drawn and dropped a place under Sami this blog may have self combusted with anger. Yet here I am writing it in relative calm with a coffee and a jaunty air. Why on earth is that? I can’t honestly answer, except for that old cliché of a last minute equalizer being as good as a winner and to say that somehow, yesterday, something was different. Little things. We drove rather than getting the train, The Bridge car park providing ample evidence that BMW drivers are still James Blunts at Christmas. The home dug out had moved back to the North end and there was a man outside it in a suit, giving instructions. In the stands banners and accusation had been replaced with Merry Christmas, handshakes, songs and ticker tape. It was a damn fine day out at the football, much better than cold meats, television “specials” and Granddad’s farts anyway, even with the cold and wet.

I had written a preview for  The Tilehurst End that had very deliberately not mentioned HIM. Partly it was the innest of in jokes (referring to the last line of Ulloa’s song “we won’t mention Murray any more”). Partly it was because HE hasn’t been tearing up any trees this season, having notched only six goals this season before yesterday. Typically HE dominated the first half. In fact within 38 seconds I had to mention HIM because HE scored. We came out looking pumped up but forgot to flick the “start” button. Hal Robson-Kanu waltzed unchallenged down the West Wing before crossing low for Simon Cox and while he couldn’t convert the chance the loose ball fell to Murray who literally walked it in. One nil Reading. FFS.

That was it. When we score early we almost always concede. But as the confidence drained from our players there was only one side who were going to score as Reading poured forward and we made individual mistake after individual mistake at the back, Halford playing an awful pass and mis-controlling a pass within minutes and Dunk barging Cox over in the box. Luckily, referee Graham Salisbury who had a baffling afternoon all round, failed to give it. It didn’t really matter though, Reading were bound to add a second and they did on twenty six minutes. This time we switched off at a set piece and Murray finished off a swift spot of head tennis. Five minutes later we lost Darren Bent to injury. And they said Sami was unlucky.

At this point a better side would have put us away three, four or even five nil. Luckily for us Reading are not a better side. They have had their own problems this season, losing 6-1 at Birmingham and losing Nigel Adkins soon after. Nathan Jones rallied the troops, soaking his best suit in to the bargain and glory be, we started to come back in to it. Murray was still having a cracker up front for them but the mobility of Craig Mackail-Smith worried a porous looking Reading back line much more than Bent had and we got about them down the wings. One such raid on forty minutes resulted in a throw. We never do anything from throws so I took the chance to answer one of The Boy’s many questions. When I looked up the ball was in the net. A replay showed we had utilised the long throw, as if Pulis himself was already here, Dunk had flicked on and JFC had converted at the back post while Reading stood and watched. No doubt the move had thrown them. I’ll get my coat. A couple of minutes later we should have equalized. The half time pie queue was therefore a lot more cheery, though thanks to Sodexo it didn’t actually yield a pie. Never mind.

We dominated the second half. Presumably Nathan had stood there in his wet suit and applied the hair dryer to the players rather than his clothing. CMS hustled and bustled. Halford looked reborn. Colounga was all over the place in a good way. JFC chased and harried. Even Gardner got involved. We made two excellent changes. March coming on for Benno before Sir Paddy arrived for Holla (but not before the latter had nearly equalized with a thirty yard piledriver) and twinkled his toes around the Reading midfield. Meanwhile Reading made the stupidest substitution of the day, taking off Murray who I can only think was injured or not 100% match fit to start with. Still we couldn’t score. In the season Reading got promoted they had beaten us 1-0 with an early goal after which Federici had a miracle game and he looked like repeating it again yesterday. One point blank save from a March diving header was so good I was nearly two rows forward before I realised we hadn’t scored. The Boy and his mate went red.

Jones changed it up some more, pushing Halford up front and leaving only three at the back. Luckily Dunk had recovered from his spell of pushitis and was doing the work of two men with ease. We were so close……

And then. It had to be Inigo. Captain for the day and, as usual giving every last drop of sweat he poured in to the box with a minute of regular time left to meet a low Colunga cross and drive in to the centre of the goal. Federici collapsed. The Amex went mental. We went mental. More tickertape. More hand shakes. It finished 2-2.

After the Millwall game I had wanted to give the whole thing up. Yesterday it felt good to be a football fan again. As we got soaked on the way back to The Bridge the boys agreed.