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 Next to us one poker player had been replaced by another.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.

Norwich At Home – Mostly Harmless

As the business end of the season unfolds I thought it might be a wise time to reflect upon some statistics.  So here they are:

Brighton Top Scorers / Position / Goals

Lewis Dunk / Central Defender /  7

Joao Teixeira  / Midfield / 6

Sam Baldock  / Striker (played as inside left) / 4

Inigo Calderon / Defender (sometimes played as right midfield) / 4

Team position 16th (43 goals in 40 games)

This is not an accidental correlation. This is the story of our season. And yesterday it was the story of the game. We were as toothless as an eighty year old Creme Egg addict. We were mostly harmless.

“Mostly harmless” is the description Douglas Adams gave as the entry for the Planet Earth in The Hitch Hiker’s Guide To The Galaxy. It is supposed to convey an air of humorous relative unimportance in the same way as Luxembourg would be described in an extensive global guide, or Southwick in a UK one. It also sums up this game and parts of our season. Of course, under Sami we were heading towards the metaphorical Yemen or Moss Side so it’s an improvement but it demonstrates the changes that the nearly 20,000 faithful who have renewed their season tickets for next season should expect. That’s if the Vogons don’t want to knock The Amex down to make an inter-galactic bypass.

So, firstly, why the high renewal rate? Well, to kick off, contrary to reports on NSC and the BBS, our support is not at all made up of Premier League fans watching their second team. Since I have been going unaccompanied we have managed to pull in the big crowds for the big occasion, just as you would expect from a side that is neither “massive” (c.f. Man U, Arsenal, Liverpool and, er, Pompey (LOL)) or tiny. 19,000 for a promotion clash against Bristol Rovers in the old third division, 26,000 against Arsenal in the cup in the same season. We took nearly 35,000 to Wembley in 1991 and just below that to Cardiff on Leon Knight day. For the more important games, even in this mostly harmless season, we have sold well over 27,000 tickets, most of who, as with yesterday, have turned up. The point being that many of the people in yesterday’s bumper crowd were recognisable from those other games I mentioned. It’s not all JCLs.

But, if you’re me, it’s also the social side. Yes, I harp on about it, but my memories of yesterday will not be the frankly stultifying game of football, but of having a laugh and a beer with my friends. The regular scene was set pre-game with the boys sat under a shelf reading their programmes while I had a beer and a chat with Steve when two other friends arrived, member and host (among many other things) of a monthly civilised poker school which features dinner, a spread betting quiz called Wits and Wagers and a cheese break. Five minutes rarely pass in that group without a wager of some kind and so it was we had a sweep on the half time score. I went for 1-1. After five minutes I was kicking myself.

Was Chris Hughton’s final instruction as they left the dressing room “make sure you run around a lot and make some tackles”? It might as well have been. We made admirable block after well timed lunge. We had to because we were treating the ball like the bar of soap it may well have resembled in the drizzle. We could not keep it for longer than ten seconds, Greer being annoyingly profligate, but luckily for us, for all their possession, Norwich displayed the killer instincts of an Amish man who’s been slipped some fairly potent skunk. When it wore off Stockdale kept first Johnson and then Hoolihan at bay with ease.

And then, circa ten minutes from half time we emerged from our tackling frenzy to produce a couple of chances, a few corners and some general danger and entertainment. If only our own instincts hadn’t been so similarly blunted.  Kayal created a super chance for himself, winning the ball deep in Norwich territory and keeping it until far enough in the box that any tackle would have been a massive risk. Did he shoot? No. He laid it off to a surprised Teixeira who could only scuff wide. A further expansive move down the right saw the ball fall to O’Grady, unmarked in the penalty area but he chose to shoot tamely first time at John Ruddy, who looked like he’d borrowed a pair of shorts from our club shop for the occasion. Ince and Tex again missed further chances, to take us in at 0-0. A further sweep was organised and this time I got to choose a 1-0 defeat. So shoot me. It paid for a pint.

How do I describe the second half? Perhaps by referring to the stats at the start of the piece. I should have mentioned early doors that we had left our top scorer, Centre Back Lewis Dunk, on the bench, while Baldock is out for the season. There was no threat at all, not even a Stoned Amish one. I could say O’Grady worked hard but, in fact, the only times he touched the ball was when he was offside. I could say Kaz came on and created space on the left and it would be partially true, but he started off too centrally and then, when belatedly shifting wide, his crosses were wasted. Leon Best looked as interested as Joey Essex at an Oxford Union debate. Never mind, I expect he went back to the massive luxury house he sported on the recent BBC programme on trading. In short, we wouldn’t have scored if we were still running around now.

Inevitably, in the middle of all this, Norwich did score. Joe Bennett again demonstrating why he isn’t even the best tackling left back in Sussex as he was skinned. We failed to deal adequately with the ensuing cross and the ball fell to Bradley Johnson, in form, who lashed gratefully in to a semi-empty net. Oh well, they needed the points anyway.

As it turns out we didn’t. Wigan lost. Rotherham lost. Fulham were battered in the West London derby. Status quo was maintained. Mostly harmless then.