Manchester City at Home – A Lesson

It’s been a strange summer, football wise. As a Brighton fan, the end of the previous campaign could have left you with any range of emotions. The immense celebrations after clinching promotion against Wigan were followed by the anti-climax of losing the title with a poor display at home to Bristol City, a hungover display at Carrow Road and a last minute mistake at Villa Park. All of which would have been massively deflating had it not been for an extraordinary promotion celebration on the seafront. Derided in some parts, other fans failed to understand that only the promotion mattered. It built the fans and players back up and left things on a high. Then there was the immediate capture of Pascal Groß and the watching of Huddersfield going up via the worst playoff game in living memory and suddenly there was real expectation again.

But the summer break is just long enough to dampen this sort of thing down. With no major international competitions we’ve largely had to guess regarding the quality of some of the touted and signed players. Then the fixture list comes out and it turns out the opening game is against a side who have spent more on full backs than we have on a stadium. Some transfer rumours are rubbished, some players signed from completely left field, one player fails a medical and we have our usual nightmare signing a striker with pace. The feeling, really, was of a side three quarters built, though I always judge at the end of the window. I just maintain that window should close when the league season kicks off, and always have.

But the excitement of a first Premier League game built all week. We’d given Atletico Madrid a decent game and suddenly the BT Sport team were building up the game, flags (actually, what looked like bin bags, not one to keep) were being left on seats and Guardiola, Walker, Jesus, Aguero et al were heading for The Amex. Ready or not, probably our biggest test all season at home was arriving first.

We awoke to palpable excitement. I’d watched Arsenal v Leicester the night before without quite realising this was a game in our division. Now, The Boy and I listened to a two hour Albion Roar breakfast show, watched Premier League previews, I lurked on Twitter whenever I could and we counted down the time to when we’d be allowed to leave the house. And then, everything was a little bit different.

When we treat games as just another game we generally do well. Whenever we build it up, not so much. So it was with trepidation I’d read about the flags. This didn’t really ease when we arrived at The Swan to find a quarter of the outside space taken up with a Juice FM outside broadcast truck and twice the normal number of punters trying to squeeze in to the reduced space. Everyone in new shirts, talking up our chances as the ale hit home. Huge queues for non-existent food at the stadium meaning we were in our seats two minutes before actual kick off. And then the lesson begun.

It’s not that we played badly. It’s not that City, initially at least, played that well. Their passing was sloppy to start and our shape strong and organised. The two banks of four, clearly visible from our lofty perch, were ridged in defence and flexible in the odd break. You could sense a frustration from the City fans, the tension of expectation weighing heavily on mostly silent faces, while the North and West Upper kept up a barrage of noise. A solidity from Dunk and Duffy, a level of comfort from Bruno and March suggesting they had been born for this level of football. Ryan (though he looks small for a keeper) fairly commanding.

Yet, if you looked at highlights of that first half they would be all City from start to end. They must have had over 70% of the ball. Every time one of Bruno, March, Duffy, Dunk, Ryan or Suttner won the ball Hemed or Stephens or Propper would give it back to them. The issues in our central attacking areas I mentioned last week magnified here. Even worse, Brown who once again acquitted himself impressively, had to go off injured. Murphy came on with less than half an hour gone, significantly reducing our ability to play impact subs later on.

First half chances? I lost count. I remember a clever dribble from Jesus down our right with the ball intelligently cut out by Dunk. A free kick rammed straight down Ryan’s throat. A brilliant ball in from the right hand side that Stephens very nearly headed in to his own net – by very nearly I mean centimetres. Then the first goal. Disallowed as luckily it wasn’t scored by the Hand of God but by the Hand of Jesus (thanks for that, mate, a writers dream). Our chances? Only one, a divine cross field ball from Bruno that Murphy would have scored from had he got more than half a touch, having for once eluded Walker. But we knew we’d get this with Hughton. Keep it solid. Frustrate. And hopefully hit on the break.

And in the second half we so nearly did. A break from Murphy, whipped cross from Suttner and a header that looped agonisingly on to the roof of the net. A corner, nonetheless, and here’s where we’ll be dangerous. Mayhem in the box from Duffy and Dunk, proper pinball. From another set piece the ball came out to Propper, twenty five yards out, and his low drive squeaked agonisingly close to the far post, as close as Stephens had been to the own goal.

But mainly it was all City still and you sensed they had another gear. They hit it just at the wrong time. We’d replaced the ineffective Hemed with the busier Murray on the hour and, as Ed Bassford (the NSC “father of the house”, Falmer campaigner and all round good guy) appeared on the big screen for a minute’s applause we played our nicest minute of possession football of the whole match. I think Ed might have found it funny that we then cocked it up massively, unnecessarily passing back to Ryan, losing the ball and shape and being carved open. De Bruyne starting a lovely one touch move that saw Aguero in acres of space in our box with time to pick his spot. 0-1.

A second inevitably followed. Another mistake perhaps? I said so on Twitter, but having watched it back it may be just one of those things. A brilliant cross from the right saw Jesus and Dunk battling. The latter got there first but his angle and momentum meant he could only direct a point blank header through the helpless Ryan. Cruel on the hometown boy who’d been magnificent up to then, but no less than City deserved.

0-2 it ended then and a real set of lessons learned, hopefully. For me the lessons are as follows. Without wanting to sound like some of the more hysterical NSC posters, we need a speedy, strong number 9 and we need him now. Organised football can be our friend but we need to be more careful with the ball when we win it back. This football club has been built on comfort on the ball since 2010. Yesterday Propper in particular treated it like it was an unwanted North Korean nuclear warhead. Mistakes WILL cost us and chances HAVE to be taken at this level.

It’s far from doom and gloom though. Not every team is Manchester City, and I expect them to win the league and do well in the Champions League too. Palace lost 3-0 at home – to Huddersfield! – and Chelsea managed to slip up too so there is hope in any game and thirty seven of them left to play. Propper will no doubt get better once he’s had time to get to know his new teammates. Hopefully Brown’s injury isn’t too serious. Our fears re Bruno are totally unfounded, our best player yesterday along with March. And the noise! Pat yourselves on the back Brighton fans. The Amex was rocking. It’s going to need to all season for us to survive.

 

Atletico Madrid At Home

“Atletico Madrid at home”. There’s a match report I never thought I’d be writing. Yet it really did happen, in glorious sunshine too. Yesterday, the big time arrived at The Amex.

It’s arrived here at BBOAH Towers too. I’ll have you know this is a Premier League blog you’re reading now and the proof is that I’m magically charging you 25p a word via use of a invisible paywall powered by Jamie Redknapp’s arse-hair and the recycled dreams of the Essex branch of the Manchester United Supporter’s club*. I’ve got slightly better back lights though and you will be reading about players like Benjamin Mendy, Paul Pogba, Steve Cooke and Ashley Barnes.

I digress. Atletico Madrid eh?

Whoever got this friendly arranged needs a massive pat on the back, which I suspect they’ve had since Paul Barber’s ears will have been delighting in the sound of ringing cash tills all afternoon. I have rarely seen The Boy so excited and we fairly bounced to the bus at Sainsbury’s. Many others were making their way, decked out in our brand new kit, and the bus left for Dreamland at exactly ten past two, full of happy chatter. Steve and I caught up with the tiny events that had happened since I’d cooked him a massive steak the night before and the boys chattered eagerly. The Boy had already worked out that “Mathew Ryan” scans in to exactly the same songs as “David Stockdale”, which would prove to be useful.

A beer or two and a chat with an old mate I used to travel the country with watching us, back in the day, and then it was out in to the bright sunshine for Griezmann against Duffy. Quite literally for us as we’d booked tickets early, when the West Upper wasn’t open, and therefore found ourselves with a most excellent view in the centre of the East Stand, a few rows from the front.

An interesting team selection had been discussed already in the bar. With Murray suspended Hemed had to lead the line but most of us would have started with March rather than Murphy. Otherwise it was the expected side but the weaknesses in it, one enforced and one chosen, were obvious from the start.

Atleti were extremely comfortable early on, dominating the ball with Torres proving a handful and Griezmann, never stellar to be fair, still conducting attacks. Yesterday was far from his best game yet I spent a portion of time just watching him rather than the ball and the way he constantly sits in space, right in the hole, and is key to Atleti’s game. He seems to have more time on the ball than half our team put together.

Inevitably from comfortable possession came a range of attacks. Kayal’s foul gave Griezmann a chance from an early free kick but he stuck it straight at Ryan. From another a loose ball was stabbed at our new keeper who produced a reaction save of sheer class. Even better, a powerful low, skidding shot that was flying in to the bottom corner was somehow repelled at full stretch. “Da da da daaaa! Mathew Ryan!” sang The Boy. “Da da da daaaa! Mathew Ryan!” sang the North Stand. Meanwhile, Oblak in the Atleti goal was a spectator.

This sort of dominance at least gave a chance to assess our new players. Suttner looks decent in the air and competitive but he was being helped a lot in the first half by Izzy Brown, playing more left midfield than left wing. Brown showed the same sort of excellent temperament we got last season from another Chelsea loanee, Tomori, and applied himself selflessly. On the odd attack we did have he looked dangerous and will prove, I think, to be quite the decent signing. Gross hardly had a touch early on but one incredible little ball steal and turn, halfway in the Atletico Madrid half, set up one of our more dangerous moments.

Sadly for us, have expertly denied Atletico’s better chances we conceded just before half time to a howler, Gaitan hitting a tame shot from long range that somehow went straight through Ryan, who’d been outstanding up to then. So yes, we appear to have a keeper who is a brilliant shot stopper and distributes the ball well, but is prone to the odd ricket. Plus ca change, plus cest la meme chose.

Three changes were made at half time, Sidwell coming in to centre midfield for Kayal, March replacing the utterly ineffective Murphy and Bong getting a full half at left back. The Albion immediately looked more dangerous. The addition of March put Atletico on the back foot and Hughton must have put some belief in to us. March took them on with glee, right in front of us, with a trade mark cut inside and shot just over the bar and generally we gained some possession and territory. From another attack we equalized. Hemed for once won and kept the ball in a dangerous area and a sloppy foul was committed on him. Gross, who’d already established his dead ball skills in the first half grabbed the ball and his low free kick took a massive deflection and went in off the post. We’d scored. Against Atletico Madrid.

As March was good down our right so Juanfran was on theirs and he soon re-established the lead with a pinpoint cross to see the unmarked Torres head home. 1-2. Knockaert came on and took over on the right, March switching wings and Brown going up top with Hemed off. This paid immediate dividends. Knockaert tucked in to Atletico’s defence like me and Steve had our steaks, the night previously and March roasted the aforementioned Juanfran. From the resultant space a cross was produced that was every bit as good as theirs and Sidwell tucked away an unmarked header of his own.

Could we get a draw? A late winner even? Sadly, it was not to be. Instead a final attack from our visitors produced some desperate ping-pong in the box. A few minutes earlier a suicidal cross field pass from us had seen Griezmann fluff a gaping goal from less than twelve yards by trying to use the outside of his left and slicing in to the South Stand. He wanted to make up for it here and although Ryan saved the initial effort Hernandez fired home the rebound for a cruel last minute winner.

So, how are we really set for next week? Well firstly all of the new signings look like they will bring real quality, Hopefully that is Ryan’s howler for the season out of the way before it matters. If it is then he has the reflexes and distribution to be a success. Suttner looks physical, an upgrade on Pocagnoli. The stars were Brown and Gross though, each excellent in both workrate, passing and threat.

Of the old boys March and Knockaert are going to relish this league and, if Dunk and Duffy stay fit, we have Premier League Ready centre backs. Bruno will be done for pace but is still making those intelligent runs forward. The spine is the worry. Stephens looked way off the pace yesterday, Kayal worse if anything and Hemed was lost. The very strong rumours, though, are of Davy Propper signing for us. If that happens we might not just survive, we might cause a few teams a real headache.

*not really

 

 

 

 

 

Wigan at Home – The Promised Land

 

This is, in no way a coherent match report. You’ll find those, no doubt, this morning, in all the proper papers, since we now appear to be above the radar. I urge you to read them. Twice.

I took no notes. I have a couple of dodgy photos on my Twitter feed and my memories and that’s it. This is all going to be written from feel.

But what a feeling. Friday was massive enough. The Boy and I watched the Wolves game with growing joy, disbelief and pleasure and then I went out and celebrated it large. Saturday was just one big hangover. Sunday dragged. Monday? I’ve never known a day go slower.

I couldn’t sleep. I got up early to go for a run to sort myself out, logged on to Twitter and found everyone else couldn’t sleep either. An eight mile run along the seafront at seven in the morning in my running top and Albion shorts. A bloke in a blue and white striped shirt walking his dog. Another runner in an old away kit. Flags in the window. Such a massive buzz. A whole long run completed by pacing myself with an earworm of “we’re on our way”.

Finally, after what seemed like a millennium, it was time to go to the pub. Steve and his son met us there. They’ve been with us since I started taking The Boy but today his wife and daughter were coming too for their first games. What a first game.

A diversion here. It was nearly twenty years ago that we played Hereford and stayed in the league. I wasn’t there. I was pacing round the flat that my new girlfriend rented in town, apparently in a totally maniacal fashion. God know how she stuck with me, but she did. As we left, now my wife and The Boy’s mother, she was putting my massive St Georges flag in our bedroom window. It feels like club and person have been on a parrellel journey. Anyway, back to yesterday.

The train to Brighton was quieter than normal, indicating everyone had got an early start. An easy transition to a Falmer service, a slight problem with Steve’s ticket, and we were up. Harvey’s, lager and sweets. No pies though. Pies were out.

Finally up to the seat for the build up and there was another man who’d done the whole journey with me. Mark and his three kids, already in their seats. Mark is the man who rescued my Albion mojo at its lowest and dragged me, kicking and screaming, to Priestfield on more than one occasion, got me involved with the mailing list. The next thing you know we had Withdean season tickets, I was on litter patrol with Paul Whelch (RIP) and wrote an article for Scars and Stripes. Sucked back in. Blue and white blood flowing. Mate, I cannot thank you enough.

Calde had returned for the day and, at 2.45 was being interviewed. Or rather sang at. I think Richard Reynolds got two questions in between the chants. Then the players came on. Deafening noise, me in tears, a bit like someone who takes the X Factor seriously when someone with a decent back story turns out to be able to sing.

The match? It passed almost in a flash. Wigan pressed us high and had a lot of the ball to start with but, for all that, created nothing. They had one corner in the whole first half and no shots on target. We gradually eased them back, finding space and getting plenty of corners. We looked the better side but we needed a goal, and finally it came via that man Murray. Hemed who’d put himself about the whole half forced an error and Murray lashed the ball low in to the net. I can’t adequately describe how mental we went.

Half time took longer than the preceding weekend. Finally we restarted, a cagier game, knowing a second would seal it. It came on 65 minutes from our two wing wizards, Knockaert making the space and March applying the finish. I hugged The Boy. Handshakes all round. We were going to do this.

We don’t make it easy though. We’ve conceded so many goals this season from absence-of-full-back-itis and we caught it again, Wigan finding a whole mile of space down our left and Nick Powell heading in the cross brilliantly. Ten minutes or so to hang on. Nails bitten. I couldn’t watch and spent ten minutes staring at the floor with tears in my eyes. Finally the whistle. On they came.

Hugs and high fives all round the WSU. General whooping. Then I felt an urgent tugging on my sleeve. “Dad, I REALLY want to go on the pitch”. If you knew where we sat you’d know how funny that was.

But it’s a dad’s duty to try and help his son, so we went downstairs and then in to our favourite bar and back out to the stadium and there was just enough room on the blue outer turf and no one stopping us. The players, freshly debagged, were in full voice. As we turned to face them Dunk got the mic. “Let’s go fucking mental” he sang. “What was that?” asked The Boy earnestly.

Steve, who was on reduced alcohol rations (Imagine that) took his wife and their youngest home. I stayed with the two boys. While they flipped bottles in the corner I sought out, yelled at and hugged everyone I knew and some I didn’t. A brief trip to the North Stand to watch the Huddersfield game but they were 1 up at half time and it was time to get small boys home.

A massive sing song on the train and a naughty KFC later we got in to see my Mrs had turned the telly on to SSN and Derby had forced a draw. We were up properly.

I expect I’ll post more over the coming days. I have an important meeting in London this morning so am writing this, annoyingly, on the train. Let’s just say I’ve taken paracetamol.

 

 

 

The Nineties, Bellotti and The Premier League

Twenty five years ago the nineties started. Well, take six months anyway. A wave of Nineties nostalgia has been upon the media, social and otherwise, at least on Channel Four but then they have a relaunched TV series and an accompanying CD to flog. But that’s not the point. For people of my generation I suspect that stating this silver anniversary out loud strikes a mixture of fear, pride and nostalgia in to them. Twenty five years since Spike Island. Twenty five years since Platt’s goal, Let’s All Have A Disco, Gazza’s tears and the bloody Germans. Twenty five years since Millwall fans took over my local.

Last night I wallowed in the Channel Four retrospective. Partly, of course, this is simply down to my age. I suspect the majority of people over thirty five probably fondly remember the time when they were in their twenties the most. The Nineties almost exactly coincided with my twenties. It was a messy, messy decade and true to the cliché there’s a lot of it I don’t remember, including entire Albion matches, home and away.

But that excess and hedonism needed a soundtrack and visuals and the Nineties produced it in spades. Here’s a gang of E-d up Manchester lads fusing the dance music that we were just starting to get, with the indie that was blowing away the Eighties ingrained pomposity. Their opening acts were DJs who wrote fanzines about football, clothes and gear. Here’s a gang of UK and German producers pushing that dance music to its limits, speeding it up or setting it to funky riffs and drunken breakbeats. When you got home you could put on the sublime, stripped back treatment of soul and hip hop being dealt out by crews in Bristol. Here come the bastard swaggering offspring of The Stone Roses to do battle with the laddy Mockney Art School boys. And the whole thing was set to halved, pickled cows, Tango Man and journalists who had the sorts of weekends we did and then wrote about it in Mixmag or Loaded.

In many ways the Nineties are also the ideal decade for this treatment, thanks to technology and where the planet is currently. If you reprised the Sixties in 1985 then you would have needed to convince the Oxbridge educated old boys that ran the only four television channels that showing grainy black and white footage of a couple of bands, accompanied by a soundtrack that may well be a Mono recorded 78, would make a good hour of television. Who the hell would watch that instead of Poirot? There’d be angry letters to Points of View and no mistake. Yes, Channel Four was in existence but it was three years old and no one watched it.

Yet, last night, there was high quality footage of Oasis and Tricky, CD quality sound of Underworld, Tracy Emin’s bed and that bird from L7 getting her muff out as if it was yesterday. Forty somethings the country over took to their Twitter, Facebook and (ahem) blogs to reminisce. And if you didn’t like it there were at least a hundred other channels you could choose from. And that, sadly, is one of the more unfortunate consequences of the decade, a consequence that still hangs over our football club.

Yes, the Nineties spawned a couple of monsters. Satellite or cable television arrived and with it came The Premier League. At first I rather liked this, I’m not ashamed to admit. We couldn’t afford Sky. Not at the start of the decade when I was flitting between my parents’ house as they concluded a messy divorce and my mates’ sofas, nor the middle when I was in a shared flat, nor at the end when I had just moved in with my girlfriend. And this meant the only way to see the big games that were now routinely on television was to go to the pub on a Sunday afternoon and extend that sybaritic weekend for one more day. Beer was still relatively cheap in Brighton’s back street pubs and none had yet been turned in to a Gastropub, let alone all of them. A new football watching routine was born.

This was just as well because it seemed, in the middle of the decade, that this would be the only football that fans of Brighton and Hove Albion would soon get to see. The club was dying, or rather, it was being killed by the unholy triumvirate of Stanley, Archer and Bellotti. The gory years were upon us. Suddenly the trips to football that had been such a laugh at the start of the decade were now taken up with football that was so terrible that you couldn’t help but notice no matter how off your face you were, Protests, pitch invasions, bonfire-building anger and bannings. As a series of my friends were excluded and, as your average Albion match became as much fun as being one of those people on The Word who would do anything to get on TV, I retreated further in to those night clubs, barely to emerge. Others did not. They led the fight from the front. Tragically, two of them passed on before any of the wreckers. Then, last week, David Bellotti passed away. He was seventy two.

His death was marked in only a few places. A glowing tribute from Lib Dem Voice and a fairly blunt, and far less complimentary, retrospective from many Albion fans on NSC and Twitter and in this admirably honest obit on We Are Brighton. Other than that, the passing of the man who had helped to try to ruin my favourite decade on this planet went largely unmarked. I hope it was worth the hassle David.

I left a fairly blunt message on that NSC thread. I don’t believe in reinventing someone just because they’ve carked it. Yet, as with Thatcher, I felt a lot less like celebrating than I thought I would. Perhaps the passage of time has healed, who knows. However, I think it is more to do with where we are now as a club. Had Bellotti died while we were still mired in Withdean, planning battles and League Two I probably would have organised the celebration drinkies and bonfire myself. But the truth is that the threat the club faces these days is not from the Three Amigos. We are back, playing second tier football in a wonderful stadium, a stadium that, if nowhere near as full as our official attendance claims, still attracts around twenty thousand fans for each game. At The Goldstone – at least pre Fans United – it was less than ten. We have, in short, moved on.

No the threat is from that other Nineties Monster the Premier League. Never has it looked more like a closed shop. The television money sloshing around, and the parachute payments that result from it, mean that clubs like ours become more disadvantaged with every week. When QPR are merrily signing players despite a £65 million “exceptional payment” you can tell no one’s taking FFP seriously, and why would you when you can earn upwards of £75 million for a season in the Prem? The awfulness of last season is still fresh in the mind and yet it will be even harder for us to compete next season. This may seem like I am regurgitating lines straight from Paul Barber but you only need to look at the financial analysis surrounding your average Premier League team to realise just how ingrained in the second tier we are becoming. Meanwhile, Palace, Southampton and even bloody Bournemouth are gorging themselves at the top table.

Thanks Nineties.