Derby At Home – A Tale of Two Midfields

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.

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Doncaster At Home – Frustration Relieved Except for Sharp

It’s been a month since my last match report, mainly because, in that time I haven’t gone, or even followed the games much. We have only had one home game in that time but it occurred the day after I moved house and I was under orders to shift boxes and stuff. Same with the subsequent weekends. In fact the only game I listened to was Watford. It was perfectly clear how awful that was from the commentary. It was a battle between Warren and the fans for who was the most depressed.

My contact with the club was therefore restricted to the same channels as everyone else as we tried to follow the transfer window. All channels were monitored. The Argus, The BBC, Twitter and NSC. I really wish I hadn’t bothered.

When I first joined Twitter I followed some of our players. I thought I might get something out of it, and I do, but it’s not what I thought I would. Typically Inigo Calderon’s account is excellent. Spanish Dave was great with the fans when he thought he was leaving. And then there was the time Matt Sparrow insulted the whole of Croydon. But the rest? CMS inanely RT-ing the desperate? KLL reinventing the English language?

But worst of all for me was the way the players used the media during the window. Kemy engaged the fans, firstly to repel some fairly disgraceful spamming after Derby but then to say there was something wrong at the club. A succession of players issued pleas to The Argus for new faces. All, it seemed was not well. Then, just before the Doncaster game, we found out why. Far from hitting the roof we had lost over £14 million pounds backing Poyet to get us in to the Premier League and he’d failed, however narrowly. Those are facts, however uncomfortable we find them. Another fact is that those losses are unsustainable. Not FFP unsustainable – no more club unsustainable, unless Tony Bloom continues to bail us out.

This was the background to the Doncaster game and it made me both delighted and nervous to be back at the ground. Luckily I got there early and had a couple of beers watching Arsenal embarrass themselves at Liverpool. We couldn’t be any worse than that surely? And they were top of the league.

In fact, in the first half we were excellent. Lack of shots and chances had been cited as one of the issues at Watford but, with an attacking line up that included Ulloa, Spanish Rodney, Orlandi and Solly March we had the majority of possession and carved a series of decent chances. Ullloa missed the best with an unmarked header while another cross from a great move down the left was a stud’s width from being slid in. Doncaster created nothing. Sure it was frustrating but we were bound to put one of them away in the second half, right?

Unfortunately we came out for the second half far more toothlessly. Doncaster had reorganised and we’d got complacent. Or, as my esteemed best friend remarked “it’s like looking at someone trying to cut up a steak with a wooden spoon”.

In fact after 74 minutes I had mentally given up the ghost, having just seen us finally score but have it ruled out for offside. And then, finally, Ward found himself in an acre of space on the left and hit the perfect cross. This time we were onside. This time Ulloa did not miss his free header. 1-0. The relief of frustration was palpable, like a champagne cork finally popping over the doorstep of a newly acquired property, or perhaps another kind of popping after never quite being sure in the nightclub if she would. *turns in to Ian Holloway*

And then there’s Billy Sharp. The first ever scorer of a competitive goal at The Amex. Yet he cannot have any fond memories of the place at all. After all his career was ended and his life endangered by Lewis Dunk soon after that goal, or at least it was if you listened to their chairman. Returning to Doncaster, Lazerus like (and if you’d performed such a miraculous recovery would you choose to perform it to return to Doncaster? Really?) he managed to miss a sitter of a free header, easily their best chance, and before we scored. Then he was caught kicking out at Greer and given a straight red, on the East side of the ground. 12,000 pairs of hands in the West Stand waved him off. At least he’ll play again I suppose.

After he went, however, we went in to our shells. We sat back, looked disinterested and gave the ball away. You can’t put champagne back in the bottle but it can be off when you try it. This was the biggest cause for concern all day. We had the game at our mercy and we were trying to throw it away.

In the end we held on. We won. We’re eighth. I celebrated by renewing my acquaintance with both Harvey’s bitter and my friends from the GDC. After dry January that was a relief too. Many others were on the ale too, something that a gang of four teenagers with BMXs were about to regret. Having taken over a set of carriage doors with their bikes and started rolling fags on the train table they were suddenly swamped by well oiled, high spirited Brighton fans who loudly discussed the fate of their tyres and brakes. The colour drained from all but the lairy one, who offered to fight us, but a quick, banter filled, trip to Brighton was one of the most amusing I have ever taken. Everywhere, it seemed, we were determined to enjoy the win.