This was a game I never thought we’d play. You may remember, back at the start of the season, I predicted that we’d finish in the top ten. Perhaps – perhaps – with an outside shot at the playoffs. With a minute of regular time left on Saturday in Nottingham that was still the case. Then that board went up showing five minutes of stoppage time. KLL picked the ball up deep and surged forwards, finding CMS out wide. THAT cross came in. THAT header hit the net. So fine was the margin, so late was the goal that getting in to the playoffs could be considered nothing but a bonus by us fans.
Serendipitously my wife had a morning meeting away which meant that I had booked to work from home ages before we’d secured the game. There were no travel worries about how I might get to the ground from London or Surrey. Nor was there anyone looking over my shoulder which was good as, no matter how relaxed I professed to be, my productivity was on the low side. At four thirty I shut the laptop, walked out of the door and headed for the pub. This was to be a night drinking with my mates. This was to be mine and Mark’s last game together in our original Amex seats. Next season – God help us – we have moved further back (but more central) in the same stand in order to get a block of tickets with our kids. What this will do to this blog I am not sure. I might let The Boy have his own section.
What a night out drinking with your mates does for your blog is renders it more opinion piece than factual match description. I’m not going to apologise for that. Right up until the stroke of half time I was having the time of my life.
I dropped in to GDC HQ for the first time this season, just in time to catch one of the most comical run outs in IPL history on the TV. I caught up with an old school friend. I saw a new acquaintance on the train to Falmer and we tried to work out why the train queue was being directed away from a train to Lewes that had come from the Coastway West. On the concourse I bumped in to some mates from Eastbourne that I used to go away with, a very good old friend who was down from Scotland for the day (as you do) for the game. Mark arrived and wanted beer, unsurprising as next season we shall both be playing the role of sober and responsible father. Each new greeting (except the one on the train) was started with a round of drinks. By 7.45 my voice was well oiled and so, it seemed, was everyone elses.
The Amex can be terrible for atmosphere when the game’s bad or meaningless and no one’s up for it. On its day it can fizzle with the best in England (Arsenal in the cup, Palace on Paddy’s day spring to mind). Here it fizzled and the Derby fans responded in kind. The players, whether hyped by their coaches or the atmosphere, or both responded. The first 25 minutes has to be the best football I have ever seen at The Amex. We attacked in waves Derby counter attacked. The crowd noise nearly took the roof off. Buckley put Calderon through on the right delightfully and he found Lingard in the middle. With the initial shot blocked the ball came back to him and this time he made no mistake, sticking it delightfully in to the corner. 1-0 to the Albion.
It wasn’t to last. Derby, who had looked dangerous and speedy on the break started to take control of central midfield. Ten minutes later JFC and Andrews parted like the Red Sea and Upson had to end the resulting run with challenge that resulted in an undisputable penalty. Chris Martin calmly stroked it home and, for the first time that evening The Amex fell silent, but for the Derby fans.
Still we matched them, we picked ourselves up and matched them. Going in level at half time would have been about fair. And then cruelty. Martin hit another shot after another tidy move that made us wonder where our midfield was but it struck the bar, only to hit PIG on the back as he dived and bounce back in to the net.
On such fortune football matches are decided. In the second half a similarly good move resulted in an Ulloa attempt being brilliantly deflected on to the bar by Grant. I was put in mind of Ashley Barnes and Speroni last season. A coat of paint, a fraction of a second the only differences between 1-1, 2-1 to them or 2-1 to us.
Sadly that was perhaps the only highlight of the second half for me as we reverted to type. A first half that had been pulsating, pacy and loud gave way to a second half where Ulloa was increasingly isolated, Buckley was off due to a hamstring injury, JFC and Andrews were either anonymous or giving the ball away and Lua Lua came on to do his one step over trick and over hit crosses from the touchline with his wrong foot.
Two things sum up both the game and our season. Firstly, at one point we broke down the wing and had the perfect opportunity to cross, yet Ulloa was on his own in the box surrounded by five red Derby shirts. Seconds later they won it – no surprise – and broke. Suddenly they had a one on one in our half and Andrews had no choice but to commit a foul that earned a booking and might have been a red had the run been straighter and nearer to goal. Where WERE our defence? Pushed up to no great effect. The second thing is not an incident but a statistic. Derby’s Craig Bryson has contributed 16 goals this season from central midfield. Crofts may have looked like he was heading that way but, since his injury, there has been no one to adequately fill that role. In fact, though Orlandi was fantastically creative early on, the midfield wasn’t adequately filled at all last night. Could we have started Ince? It would have given McLaren a problem and he certainly couldn’t have done worse than JFC. What’s more, when people argue about Lua Lua starting versus being an impact player they fail to mention he’s only got one goal all season, and that was a fluke. An impact player with fifteen goals less than a central midfielder? Perhaps he shouldn’t be in the squad at all?
Post game we did agree that, mathematically at least we are still in it. We play better away. We outplayed Derby for the first twenty five minutes, hit the bar and were unlucky with a couple of penalty shouts. It can be done and in best Brighton But Only At Home style I shall be shouting at the telly with a bowl of curry, some beers and several friends for company. However, the overwhelming impression I have from last night is that, if you are going to be obsessed with attacking football, then you need a young, speedy side like Derby’s to do it, and you need to support your lone striker.