Oscar and the End of Season Awards

As Derby’s fourth goal went in on Sunday evening (ok, as their second did in reality) our season ended. My thoughts turned to what was good (and bad) about an eventful season and I started to construct the Brighton But Only At Home end of season awards. Then I thought I’d rest my keyboard until at least the World Cup or first marquee signing. Thanks Oscar.

The subsequent resignation of Oscar Garcia has meant that, instead of sloping off to the metaphorical beach and sticking its collective feet up, everyone associated with Brighton and Hove Albion has endured a torrid and argumentative few days.

Whenever there is a parting of ways between two people or groups of people it is, to a degree, acrimonious. I can remember our old next door neighbours divorcing. When the husband left he assured me it would be amicable and they had just grown apart but it didn’t take long for solicitors’ letters and battles over money, property and care of the children to properly tear them apart. While the Oscar / Brighton split will never come as close as the Poyet / Brighton split for intrigue and rancour there has been some airing of dirty laundry over the last couple of days. In a way this is healthy proving that we not only live in a country that supports free speech but that we have a club and press that understand that.

Firstly Andy Naylor wrote a piece in The Argus suggesting that Oscar had left over transfer policy and that he had presented the club with a list of transfer targets. Cracks, it said, appeared in the relationship as early as October when Leo Ulloa got injured and we were left with only Ashley Barnes to play up front.

Yesterday Tony Bloom in an audio interview with the BBC quashed some elements of that article. When asked specifically if the club had failed to deliver Oscar’s targets he said “yeah, that’s not true at all” before qualifying that statement by saying that while Oscar had some targets they were unrealistic due to price and availability. He also suggested some naivety on Oscar’s part as to how the transfer market works here as well as some communication difficulties. This was expanded on in an NSC discussion of the interview with a fairly solid suggestion that Oscar was unavailable on transfer deadline day in January (contrast with Poyet who stayed in his office till the deadline passed).

Going further than this risks conjecture but it is useful to set the scene. It is also useful not to forget the key fact of the season, that, league position wise, it was just as successful as the preceding one. Yes we finished sixth rather than fourth and with three less points but the net result was still a defeat in the playoff semi-finals. The other thing borne out by both pieces is a confirmation that Oscar was perhaps never quite settled here and that his introverted, phlegmatic personality, whilst a welcome contrast to Poyet’s bombast, actually caused communication issues and rifts around the club. I am a written word extrovert but a real world introvert and I can feel for Oscar here in some ways knowing you would have the spotlight on you in a language that was not your own. Perhaps he didn’t realise the intensity of Championship football? I mention this last thing because it frames who I would prefer as a replacement.

Given everything that’s happened since we arrived at The Amex I would prefer the next appointment to be a forward thinking coach but with English as a first language. The sort of person who is not going to have communication issues with Messrs Burke and Barber, who can deal with the press confidently and communicate with and get the best out of his players, ideally without those players forming cliques. My ideal candidate would be Steve Clarke who appears to fit all those requirements, though whether he would be available, willing and affordable is another matter. This is merely my starter for ten. There has been talk about the bookies’ favourite Tim Sherwood. On him I am far from convinced. He certainly ticks the boxes marked “English” “prepared to play youngsters” and “flexible attacking football” but he also, for me, ticks the boxes marked “media circus” “outspoken” “tactically naive” and “using us as a stepping stone back to the Prem”. With Sherwood I worry we would be out of the Oscar frying pan and in to the fire that was set by Poyet.

Whatever happens though I trust Tony Bloom to deliver. His interview last night combined the intelligence of a man who has made his fortune with the passion of a fan and included a frank admission that he was still learning. I expect the lessons learned from the last two appointments to be fully implemented in the recruitment of the next manager.

So – on to those end of season awards. After all, I really do want to put my feet up on that metaphorical beach, at least until a replacement manager is appointed. Who was hot and who was rot in 2013/14?

Player of the Season

That I would only consider defenders speaks volumes for our season. Upson as club player of the season is a pretty good shout. He has been excellent as expected and I’m so glad he returned to us. However, my own award is going to be for Stephen Ward. When he came to us – indeed still at the end of this season – I was seeing rather cruel comments on him from Wolves fans, central to which was that he was not a left back. Well for us he was. Defensively solid, excellent in the pass and very willing to push up he prevented and created goals in equal measure. Never gave anything less that 100% and was almost ever present. I was genuinely worried when we lost Bridge. That Ward was a more than adequate replacement speaks volumes for him.

Moment of the Season

Obviously THAT header from Ulloa at Forest. Not for my son though. His special moment was sitting a few rows from the front of the West Lower against Reading in the cup when KLL dribbled round half of Reading’s defence on the left wing just to retain possession, before earning a corner by deliberately flicking the ball of a Reading player’s shin and then gesturing to the crowd like a DJ trying to get hundreds of tired ravers to the their feet.

Away Fans of the Season (Ground)

Leeds again. Honourable mention to Middlesboro who brought 500 down when they were on a terrible run. They sang all afternoon as their team took us steadily to pieces. Overall one of the reasons it felt like such a damp and boring season, despite our final position, was the procession of teams from Oop North who came down with a few hundred fans and parked the proverbial bus before wasting time from the twentieth minute on. Next season will be different with Wolves, Fulham, Brentford  and possibly Leyton Orient arriving and Barnsley going. Thank Christ.

Away Fans of the Season (Social Media)

Occasionally something really good just falls in to your hands. So it was when Reading’s Tilehurst End blog were put on to me by TSLR and asked me to do a preview of our league match. We have stayed in correspondence and I have regularly read their excellent site. Believe me they are in a deal of financial trouble and will have a difficult season coming up. Yes their fans false pitch invasion was highly amusing but the Tilehurst lads have been intelligent and sporting in their comments and this deserves mention.

Pie of the Season

Chicken Balti. Again.

The All Change Award

Goes to me. Obviously. The act of writing / blogging is an arrogant one but I would like to think that most writers / bloggers understand this. What’s the point in having a blog award if you cannot give yourself one, that’s what I say. The All Change award, however is awarded for events in the future which, if anything, is even more preposterous. It relates mainly to the fact I shall be taking The Boy to every home weekend game next season. In order to secure this, since Best Friend is also taking his kids, we have had to move seat. Not stand, luckily, but I shall have a slightly different vantage point next season. I shall also be the poor bastard trying to contain the unrealistic dreams of an eight year old who needs the toilet while my mates enjoy their leisurely beers in the pub.

There will also, hopefully, be some changes on this here blog. Watch this space.

Finally, thanks for reading. I have had over 10,000 hits this season, not bad for a badly promoted, WordPress hosted, one man operation that is normally written on a busy commuter train or a hungover Sunday morning. It is about 9000 more that I thought I’d get when I started. Happy Summer. See you when the new boss is announced.

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Derby Away – Full Circle?

Well now.

When this blog started we had just lost in a playoff semi final in a most unsatisfactory manner and our Spanish speaking boss was making the sorts of noises that usually pre-empt a departure of some sort. And now……

When you write you generally need a beginning, a middle and an end. A plot. Football writes its own plot for you. There are lots of difficult things that come up when you write about football. Remembering exact passages of play. Seeing the fecking numbers on our home kit. Calling decisions, especially the controversial ones. Trying to note down and remember exact phrases or happenings when you’re on your third Harvey’s or your kid needs the toilet (ok these possibly only happen to me). But it is also a writer’s gift. It writes your plot for you. A season HAS a beginning, a middle and an end. It has a definite outcome. All you have to do is weave a narrative around it.

What you must not do under any circumstances when you are writing – unless it is an elaborate Shaggy Dog story – is to have your beginning and end exactly the same. It would seem this morning that is almost where we are. Almost.

Firstly the game. There’s no need for an elaborate match report. Derby were very good, especially going forward. They sliced us apart, took their goals well and looked every inch a Premier League side. Steve McLaren has done an excellent job and I wish them well in the final in which I will be supporting them. We were not very good but then the injuries that have plagued us all season got worse in spectacular style. When you’re facing the league’s highest scorers and most attacking side you really don’t want a back four of Calderon, Dunk, Ward and Chicksen. We wouldn’t send that out in a friendly. Calde we know is a club legend for many, many reasons. Ward has been one of my players of the season, but not at Centre Back. One player horribly out of position and a back four that hadn’t played together all season. They looked, collectively and individually horrible.

But key incidents other than Greer going off? Don’t ask me. It was bedlam in my house. Hard to follow but I wouldn’t have it any other way. We had friends round, a big pot of curry for the adults and pizza for the kids, lots of beer. The boys in their replica strips. Afterwards as NSC already started to melt down I played football with the boys in the back garden. After four bottles of Cornwall’s finest light ale I got ripped a new one by a seven and eight year old. Next year they will be regulars at The Amex. They are undeterred by a defeat that seems to have finished certain NSC scribes off.

Who will be in charge of that team? Who will be playing for it? At the time of writing no one knows. Reports in The Guardian and The Mail this morning that Oscar has offered his resignation. When THOSE two papers agree with each other there has to be something in it.

If – and only if – he has offered his resignation then I have to say I’ve hit a new level of disappointment. For me this was the transitional season. We have the opportunity to clear out the high wage earners and bring in players who can genuinely play the Oscar way. We have the new training ground. When Leicester went out at this stage last year – far more disappointingly in a way – they stuck with their boss, regrouped and won the division. If Oscar is quitting this opportunity it is not honourable.

On the other hand the signs have been there for a while. There was the Mail story that he was moving to Swansea, having been dissatisfied with our transfer policy. After Yeovil he publicly stated that we were the only team in the division who got weaker after the January window. I defended that window’s dealings in these pages and in a way I still do. I have nearly lost my club once and I don’t intend for it to happen again. The plan MUST be for a balance between on field success and off field solvency whatever this does to the child like egos of the fans who demand immediate success. I also do not think we were the ONLY team to be weaker after January. Reading, too, failed to strengthen and look what happened to them. The difference is that while our future looks secured and self sufficient they are up to their necks in manure and failing to swim, having swapped prudence and self sufficiency for capricious Russian Roubles.

That said the chickens finally came home to roost yesterday. The failures to replace Barnes and El-Abd all too apparent as Ulloa dived and stropped his way through a game that he didn’t have the pace to unlock. CMS was on the bench, true enough, but he’s still not ninety minutes fit. Not the way he plays. And Rodriguez? The arguments had raged over his nickname when he arrived. I suggest his latest should be “First Ferry Back to Santander”. Meanwhile the lack of centre back cover on the bench finally killed us.

But whose fault is this? The failure to land Lewis Grabban in January could be traced to that player’s greed, Bloom and Barber being overly parsimonious or Oscar not being able to guarantee a start, what with us only playing one up front. If it was the first there is not much that can be done. If it was the second I would be intrigued. Yes we have to hit FFP. Yes we cannot go under. However we had just received a club record fee for Bridcutt and it’s clear from the out of contract list that the budget is going to need to be rebalanced in the summer come what may. Do we have our priorities exactly right? If it is the third, though, Oscar only has himself to blame. If you want to play one up top – and if that is going to be a long term philosophy that ends up with us as the English answer to Barca’s all encompassing strategy  in five years great, but it’ll be a long five years – you are not going to sign one star striker when you are already starting another. Bluntly you are going to sign Lita, Obika and Rodriguez.

It was actually not replacing El Abd that killed us off but Centre Back is not the sort of position where there is an awful lot of rotation. It’s where I played in my pub league career and you can go on far longer than if you are a winger. In general you can have a bit of a rest. In general you are handing out the kickings instead of taking them. El Abd left because he saw a whole season on the bench. How do you sell the very same thing to anyone but an ambitious Development Squad player who sees it as the next step up?

So what happens next? Who knows? Maybe Oscar will be persuaded to stay? Maybe it’s just paper talk and, in reality, he’s happy. I have to say the most damning thing is, if he is to go, I’m not actually that gutted. I was devastated when Poyet left. Oscar has seemed like a Caretaker Manager for a good deal of the season. If he stays then I want him to commit to our budget and our long term plan and attacking football for real. If he goes I want the next guy to. That’s what’s important. Not another Latin hissy fit.

Ipswich At Home – Another Bad Day at the Office

I was thinking what to call this report and I thought ‘bad day at the office’ had it covered. I also had the nasty suspicion I would have used it before this season so I did a quick search and guess what? I had used it for Ipswich away. That report had been garnered from a mixture of listening to the radio, reading reports , talking to friends and watching the highlights so, to be fair, it was a bit of a punt (yes that was deliberately spelled with a P, we’re not on to talking about Johnny Williams yet). Yet I watched all the game yesterday and it seemed an apt enough description. But given it applies to both Ipswich games perhaps there’s a bit more to it. I shall return to this at the end.

Where to start with this game? Unbridled optimism, that’s where. We came in to it on the back of two 2-0 wins. The Boy has recently started playing football. He broke his leg when he was three in a trampoline accident. It zapped his confidence, making him think everything would hurt and has left him with an unusual running style. I have never been able to teach him football and yet the coaches at his club have shown a remarkable improvement in him in only three weeks. They are miracle workers. They are also Brighton fans. So are a few of the dads. The feeling at Saturday morning’s training was that we were in for another win. So while they might be miracle workers don’t ask them for the lottery numbers.

On Twitter everyone seemed confident. There hadn’t been a doom and gloom thread on NSC for seemingly ages. On the train over it emerged that lovely Billy Davies was being smashed by his old club in the Brian Clough derby. There was a chance a win in the afternoon would put us in the playoff places. Plus I had my lucky hat with me. The hat that mesmerised QPRs millionaires in to a team that couldn’t shoot for toffee. Game on.

Also, there’s nothing like beer to raise your confidence levels. Different things need different beer levels I find. I am an excellent pool player after two pints. After three my darts skillz are at their peak (I’ll never quite forget that reverse 120 checkout with pike at the Three Jolly Botchers the second the last of the third pint of Old Grunter hit the spot). Five pints is necessary for me to talk sense and about eight is sufficient for talking to a girl or strangers which is why I spent most of my twenties single and friendless.

Two pints is ideal to give you confidence that Brighton will win a football match and so I took my seat knowing, just knowing, we were about to smash the Tractor Boys. Sure, after the first pint I had predicted a 1-0 loss but now I was at optimum. Oh dear.

Ipswich are big and organised, the sort of side we often struggle against. Each deficiency in our game was mercilessly exposed. I will now conduct my match report in the form of going through how our players were exposed (or not in just a couple of cases). PIG’s distribution was again terrible, two of his kicks could easily have set up another Ipswich goal. He was also at fault for their goal, showing a Brezovan-esque lack of wanting to come and claim a corner. Lingard was a powder puff, constantly knocked off the ball and panicking when clean through on goal because he could hear a defender somewhere. The real Rohan Ince was off helping Chuck Norris save the world so he sent along his twin brother Simon who spent the afternoon giving the ball away. Ulloa was constantly offside, either mistiming runs or making ones which were too good for the rest of the team. JFC was average. Again. Bruno played some sublime passes but also picked up another silly booking. Ipswich’s second goal came from an area that any decent right back would have dealt with.

Positives? Upson and Greer were mostly solid (but shame about the first goal). Andrews showed why he had replaced Stephens. But if you could pick out a MOM (and it was hard) it would have been Stephen Ward who looked untroubled at left back and regularly set Lingard away to get knocked over. Ipswich? You have to say they took their goals well and they rarely looked in trouble.

*spits feathers*

Afterwards I went down to the West Lower bar for the traditional putting the world to rights over beer. “It was Garcia’s fault” said friend one (though you could substitute the names Poyet and McGhee in his analysis after almost any defeat under those managers). Maybe today he had a point? Certainly for someone who is ‘obsessed by attacking football’ we don’t do a lot of it. I theorised that perhaps we don’t have players who are quite good enough to carry out the instructions of a manager who has spent more or less all his career around Barcelona and Johan Cruyff. This is Brighton not Brazil. Someone else said the same thing had been suggested of Roy Keane’s managerial career. What is certain is that, just when we seem to be on a run that will finally make a difference we blow it. We are inconsistent, frustrating and, at home, too defensive. Eighth place looks a certainty.

As I walked back to Falmer station after an entertaining conversation that had at least cheered me up another thought occurred. Ipswich had done the double on us and done it comfortably. Perhaps Mick McCarthy had our number. After all, if I was an Ipswich blogger I would have described the game as a good day at the office.

Half Term Report

Back at the start of the season I did a preview both here and on Amex North Stand and reading it back it just goes to show why bookies will always make a profit and The Championship will always be an impossibly league to predict.

We are now exactly half way through the season and it’s time to take stock of where we are and look at how the second half of the season will pan out. Many of you will now have seen every team in this division though, of course, given the blog name I have only seen the ones that came to the Amex and then I missed Millwall and Blackburn thanks to a holiday and the Aztec Two Step respectively.

Watching a team once in this division is, however, absolutely no guide to how they will appear in the table or what their real quality is. From what we’ve seen you would say that Barnsley are world beaters and Burnley are bottom mid table fodder. In fact, at the half way point Barnsley sit bottom and Burnley third. Bolton and Wigan are underperforming compared to my prediction and we’ve beaten both. Derby, having beaten us in our opening home game thanks to some interesting refereeing from a certain Mr D’Urso , then got rid of long term manager Nigel Clough, to the anger of one of the Derby fans on my twitter timeline. They brought in the Wally with the Brolly and guess what? He’s turned these perennial also rans in to world beaters, going on a winning run that sees them second behind Leicester. Talking of Leicester they head the table by a clear four points, yet again they looked distinctly average down here falling victim to our best performance of the season so far. Perhaps we should thank them for starting Dean Hammond who looked as useful as Andy Kennedy in an Ugly Centre Back competition.

Still (and I quote, and yes I’m showing off) my prediction for our own team looks bang on track. I said “top ten – possibly the playoffs if everything goes to plan”. At the half way point we sit eighth, level on points with sixth place Ipswich, whose goal difference is just +2 better than us.

So who have been the star performers who have helped us achieve what is an excellent first half of the season given the Poyet induced uncertainty of the summer?

Star Pupils

Rohan Ince – Number one teachers pet is Rohan Ince, who has been giving teacher his metaphorical apple by smashing away opposition midfielders in the style of Patrick Viera meets Chuck Norris. If Ince plays we get a result, simple as. Surely this is a case to play him every game then? I would say not. In fact I would say Oscar has handled him perfectly, making sure this lad who is still young and developing is given exactly the right amount of game time to make his big impact whenever he does play. Talking of which…

Oscar Garcia – What a great half season from our coach. How lucky we are. Let’s look at what he’s had to do. Adapt to English football and the basket case / lottery that is the Championship. Take on someone else’s squad and later than many of his rivals. Battle the worst injury crisis I can remember at the club. Subtly change the football philosophy at the club. Win over the fans. Bring in decent new faces. By and large he’s done all of it. Yes there’s room for improvement. We could have attacked Barnsley more and not tried to walk it in on a pudding at Charlton, but we are pretty much exactly where I expected and it has been done with a mix of flair and quiet understatedness.

Ashley Barnes – Still Barnes isn’t everyone’s cup of tea yet I’m giving him an A- and putting him in with the swots. For large portions of the season he’s had to play up front on his own with no Ulloa. He’s been kicked, punched and had his shirt ripped constantly by centre backs who know referees go against him and that he has a temper. At no point has he retaliated, He’s held the ball up, got on with his job and scored 6 goals, equal top with Ulloa, including the goal of the season so far at Bournemouth.

Matt Upson – Mr Consistency and the best centre back in the league. Thanks Matt.

Bruno – OLD BRUNO IS BACK! That cocky swagger man, marauding down the wing one minute and winning a tackle he had no right to the next. Halfway through this first half I would have replaced him with Calde and yet his two performaces against Leicester and Huddersfield have been the best I’ve ever seen from a Brighton full back. OK maybe Bridge had a couple better last season overall but there is no doubt that when Bruno’s on form every person in the ground notices him.

Paul Barber – Fair play to the CEO. I certainly didn’t agree with the way the Poyet situation was handled either PR wise or in the length of time it took to get sorted but the Poyet monkey is now off our backs and, it would seen, inexpensively. Meanwhile Mr Barber has overseen a PR revolution, the fans are kept properly informed by him and Tony Bloom and people who take the time to write are replied to in full. The pricing of the Reading cup game is also spot on. If there’s one frustration remaining it’s tendency to talk about FFP when many around us still don’t seem to be taking it seriously, but it’s just the talk that’s frustrating. We will have a viable and sustainable club who may just be *gags* PL Ready *barfs*

Could do better

Keith Andrews – Wasn’t convinced when we signed him, haven’t been since. We win when Ince plays and we don’t when Andrews does.

Kemy Agustein – Injured for much of the season so will be better to judge him when he’s fully fit. But Kemy – what’s with this wearing a snood and gloves when it’s 10 degrees?

The training pitch / The German Doctor – Too many injuries this season. Unexplained.

Referees – Haven’t had a good one yet, as per.

Reading Football Club – There is no way I thought we’d be above them at this stage. Keep Up Nige.