Scene – Lee Mason’s enormous mansion. Lee is watching Homes Under The Hammer in his pants, with his iPhone conveniently by his side. Suddenly it rings.
Lee Mason: Hello?
Mystery Voice: Lee? Lee Mason?
LM: Er, y-y-y-yes, oh God, Jamie, is that you?
MV: I’ve told you never to call me that over an unsecured phone line. Now, anyway, listen and listen good.
LM: Ok, w-w-what’s up?
MV: My bosses have seriously screwed up again. Somehow the idiots have chosen to cover Brighton v Stoke, live, and to make matters worse it’s on a Monday. The audience is likely to literally be two men and a dog. It’s the equivalent of trying to sell Steve Parish face masks in down town Saltdean.
LM: That does sound a bit shit.
MV: It will be. Fortunately, I’ve used my mysteriously persuasive powers on the FA and they’ve appointed you as the ref. Now all I need is something to talk about. A nice controversy, if you get my drift. Something we can recycle over SSN in the morning too would be even better.
LM: O-o-o-or what…….?
MV: Or they get to see that tape of you in the Hartlepool game when you weren’t the centre of attention for 90 minutes, voice overed by “Big Pammy”………
LM: Consider it done…..
Usually conspiracy theories are the preserve of over-herbalised students at a post club “chill out” and orange, chin-smuggling oxygen thieves with a nuclear button at their beck and call, yet so awful was referee Mason’s performance last night that saner men then me were reaching for varieties of the above before even getting on board the hideously inadequate excuse for a “service” that Southern Rail once again served up for the paying (ok, paid in advance via their match ticket) public. Regular readers will have noted the disappearance of The Boy’s Ref Watch. Indeed, regular readers may have notice the disappearance of the blog all together (if you want to stop me writing, play on a Sunday afternoon), but the former is down to the fact that, up to now, the referees at this level have been pretty decent. Yet now, one has taken over the whole report.
It’s a shame because it’s helping to gloss over an inconvenient truth, though Andy Naylor picked up on this on Twitter too. At this level we are good, but perhaps not good enough. Home form, so crucial last season, is ostensibly ok. We’re scoring and we’re not losing. But, we’re also conceding and not winning, and as each draw goes in to the score book, the famous Amex noise levels are decreasing, just a little. It’s a sign of respect that established Premier League sides like Stoke are coming for a draw, yet it’s a sign of frustration that little errors, here and there, are giving them it.
For now we’re winning away, though against basket case teams. I wouldn’t expect this streak to continue on Saturday. But the big league comes up and hits you in many different ways. Playing Man City first and only losing 2-0 almost looks fortunate, Arsenal beat us in second gear, and on Saturday we face Pogba, Lukaku et al. But Stoke City gamed us. They knew Lee Mason was shit and exactly how to play on the edge of the laws, sneaking fouls on the blind side because the baldy porker couldn’t keep up with play. They knew just how much time to waste, just how many fouls to commit, just how many yards to steal, not even respecting the shaving foam lines at a free kick. And when we got frustrated they punished us. Stoke are an established Premier League side. They showed us that we are not.
This is now reading more like a rant than a report, yet it informs everything that went on. But here’s what happened, end to end, like you’re used to.
A filthy Monday night is not the ideal time for going to football, or indeed, doing anything much except sneaking home from work, microwaving an average ready meal and watching something slightly disappointing on Netflix. Commuters will certainly tell you that Monday night is not a time for working railways and a broken rail at Preston Park didn’t disappoint. I left four hours to get to the game from Middlesex and, at one stage at Lewes station, that didn’t seem enough.
Having finally got to the ground and finally found Steve we got a beer and decided that the game would be difficult but winnable. In the seats the rendition of Sussex By The Sea was stirring enough, but the traditional Ring of Fire Mexican scarf twirl thing was cut short by Sky. Therein Mason took centre stage, ably assisted by panto villain Ryan Shawcross.
Not just Mason and Shawcross. One player in red and white was giving a display of creative mastery and that was Shaqiri. For the Albion, unchanged, Propper had a slow start, similar to his Man City match. He was to redeem himself but he nearly played us straight in to trouble early on. At the other end Izquierido was left unfathomably free on the left and did a trademark cut in, his low shot missing the goal by inches, though he should have scored.
We were soon punished for such profligacy, Shaqiri playing an almost impossible through ball to Chupo-Motting who looked marginally offside to the naked eye. Either way Dunk lost sight of both player and ball and the finish was one I could have put away. 0-1.
And then it happened. Murray was released and wriggled ahead of Shawcross in the box, in a race that looked more dad’s race at Sports Day than Usain Bolt. Nevertheless, Shawcross had no chance of catching Murray and blatantly tripped him as he drew back to pull the trigger. A stone-wall, all-day-long penalty. Everyone in the ground could see it except Mason, who’d been too slow to keep up with play, and his assistant who had a perfect view and had, presumably, received a similar pre-match mystery phone call. Shawcross later admitted it was a penalty.
The Amex erupted, and not in a good way. Everything else that happened from then on was informed by that decision. Not only did we not get a penalty, had it been given it was a borderline red card. Now Mason missed an obvious hand ball by them and let Murray off an assault with just a yellow. As the swear words descended from the West Upper only one man was calm, and that was the afore-mentioned Propper. Picking up the ball in midfield he did one of those dribbles you see kids at school doing where they always lose it, only he didn’t. Instead he hoofed it in to space out wide and Stoke stood still. His whipped in low ball was put through the keeper’s legs by Pascal Groß. 1-1. The Amex erupted in a good way.
We should have gone in with that at half time and just needed to survive a corner. To be fair, usually watching corners I’m not too worried, but here I was thinking “don’t mess it up”, something Steve said out loud. Maybe this got in to the heads of our defence because, instead of doing a normal professional job we panicked, screwed up and handed Zouma a gift of a goal. The choreographed celebration went on for a full ten minutes, Lee Mason playing the part of “bemused interloper” at various points, and we went in 1-2 down.
The second half was better entertainment than the first, though just as hopelessly refereed. Stoke fell back on their lead and we began to dominate the ball, though with an approach play that was too slow. It was going to take a mistake by them to equalise and, fortunately we got it. Izquierdo was released by Murray and crossed from an impossibly tight angle. Luckily the ball rebounded off the defence and, with the route to goal cleared, he stuck his second effort in first time.
There was still time for March to come on and act the nuisance, though he did give a free kick away for waving, but at the end 2-2 was a fair result. The Albion need to start turning these home draws in to home wins. We may think we’re “professional” at this level but teams like Stoke have got years on us.