West Bromwich Albion At Home – Super Saturday

Well, it’s been quite a couple of weeks.

As ever, discussion about football is a matter of opinion, framed by events that are current at the time of talking, writing or tweeting. They are there to be discussed but also disproved. In the event of us failing to add to our strike force in the transfer window many have questioned our ability to hold our own and score goals. As you will see from one of the hyperlinks on the recent posts section I was one of them. Trust Hughton to disprove us in the most emphatic fashion.

There I go, giving the end away AGAIN. But come on, you’re reading this because, for the first time this season, you want to savour the afternoon again, right?

It certainly was one to savour, In fact, it was one of those days where everything went perfectly. Steve was away cycling so I took his son while The Boy’s Oldest Friend and his mum joined us for the game, This involved various junior sports’ teams training sessions endings being co-ordinated, finding of tickets and hopes that Southern would run not one but three trains on time, and that we could all find each other. That this was achieved painlessly proves how well the afternoon went. That it should be in doubt shows the current level of mistrust in our wonderful local rail travel providers.

On the station, waiting for the first of these trains, the discussion was based on if we’d see a home debut for record signing Izquierdo. The consensus was that we’d like to see him, but at whose expense we weren’t sure. March has been one player who has looked a hundred percent at home in this league. I’d send a fired up Knockaert out against any team in the world. In the week Propper had played a fine game in a more advanced role, while Groß has done nothing wrong at all and would potentially have the creativity and running needed against what would be a big, well organised West Brom team.

In the event, having got a beer quickly and painlessly, and had a good old catch up and gossip, I checked my phone to find an unchanged team. The home debut would have to wait.

The team talk was probably easier than normal. It was clear from early on in the game we were spot on tactically but the motivation would all have come from a desire to show us, the League, and more than a few pundits that we mean business. While you can disparage social media all you like that too acted like a team talk for the fans. Let’s put all this behind us and get behind the team was the overriding message, and it had been taken to heart. The noise that greeted the boys was cranked up to at least a 9.5 out of 10, and continued from a lusty rendition of Sussex By The Sea and on throughout a first half, which, it’s fair to say, we dominated.

We were always going to see more of the ball than we did against Man City but the early indications here were that “our league” might not be the hard work that we feared. If City looked like they came from another other-worldly existence, West Brom on this evidence would not be out of place in The Championship. That’s not to disparage our players in any way. West Brom poked hopeful punts up for their lone striker Rondon and Shane Duffy snaffled every one with his head. The hoped for second ball didn’t drop for The Baggies either. Propper, looking every inch the record signing that he briefly was, bossed midfield. Dunk quarterbacked off the scraps. Knockaert and Bruno weaved beautiful patterns on the right and March found space on the left. The much maligned (yes, guilty) Hemed looked far stronger (and this against a centre back who Man City had apparently targeted). And above all was Groß who seemed to be covering every blade of grass going.

Inevitably we scored. Groß was hacked in a poor challenge by Krychowiak. Knocky seemed to slip and under hit the resulting free kick but it span out to March and Foster made a total hash of the shot for Duffy to tap in to an empty net. Only he was offside, a fact not immediately apparent to me, ginning and bouncing with relief along with everyone else, but it did not count.

We survived two scares ourselves. How a back pass from Duffy wasn’t cut out by Rondan I’ll never know, while Ryan (yes, I know) made an unbelievable reflex save from Gareth Barry’s long range drive.

And then it came. A sublime cross field ball from Groß found March on the left and his cross found Groß back again at the back stick, having carried on his run. He seemed to overrun his cut back but stretched and slid it in from close range to send the Amex loopy with delight. Yes, I have watched it back a couple of times. You would, wouldn’t you?

The goal had come on the stroke of half time, and had been missed by Ray’s son who sits behind me, as he’d gone to the bar early. I’d said to both of them before we scored that it would be really nice to go in one up as it would change Pullis’s tactics and I’d got what I’d wanted. Now imagine still being downstairs drinking that beer when we scored a second. He was. I wasn’t. I wanted to savour every minute of this game and straight after half time we were in dreamland. The space was created by Dunk going on the charge, drawing WBA out of shape. Although he had to cut back a quick diagonal ball found Hemed who produced a wonderful touch to free Groß. Knockaert was in yards of space but the German instead turned straight and fired a wonderful low shot in to the corner and everyone who wasn’t still in the bar went nuts. Not as nuts as Ryan, though, who raced the length of the pitch to join a pile of celebrating players. Together, indeed.

A third was impossible right? Not on your nelly. Groß again involved, this time the provider as we exposed space on the WBA right and he had plenty of time to cross for Hemed to score with a perfectly angled header.

We lost Bruno to injury and they brought on Morrison and the game belatedly changed, the latter scoring what would turn out to be a consolation goal after a cross from the right had dropped to him and a tangled up Duffy was lucky not to have handled off the line. Perhaps better to concede the goal than a penalty and a man at that stage. In any case, for the rest of the game we looked as if we had ten men, as a siege mentality took hold and West Brom belatedly upped their possession and territory stats, Morrison at the heart of everything good for them.

Five minutes of injury time started off nervously, March got booked for an obvious dive and then it was over. Applause, songs, hugging, high fives. Beer, then back to mine for pizza. Three excited boys on top of the world. One blogger apologising on Twitter. That one latter thing was different. Everything else was a continuation of last season. We might just be ok.

 

 

 

Advertisements

Big Premier League Kick Off – Man City Preview

What a week it’s been at the Albion!

I know we constantly hark back to our struggle over the last twenty five years or so, and it bores the pants off people, but I still never thought I’d be writing about a team who competed decently against Atletico Madrid and then broke their own transfer record twice, all in six days.

We now have a Propper midfield and more left wingers than Momentum (sorry) and the feeling is, with a bid reportedly rejected for striker Dwamena we’re not done yet. Lua Lua is on his way (to QPR again, reportedly) and the thoughts of those Albion fans who wanted to see more business in July that we were unprepared must be rapidly dissipating. We may not be prepared for Saturday though, because we’re playing Manchester ****ing City and I don’t think anyone’s prepared for them at the moment.

Never mind our own miracle come back. It’s not THAT long ago that City were playing in League One, if only for a season. For much of the nineties it wasn’t a name that struck automatic fear in to one’s heart. And, even later than that, we managed to turn them over at Withdean in the League Cup, a feat celebrated by a pitch invasion led by a bloke in a wheelchair.

But now? Honestly, I can’t even begin to predict who’ll line up against us, such is the embarrassment of riches at their disposal. I think I’m right in saying that their new defence has cost more than it cost to build the Amex. It might even just be their new full backs. And they, in turn, might actually be wing backs.

City, you see, come in to this following a win over Spurs in a friendly competition abroad that was described by Pep Guardiola as better than any of their league performances last season. They used three at the back and we may well see the same again at the Amex. Kyle Walker as a right wing back will certainly be handful for Suttner or Bong at left back (with 45 mins each last week it’s hard to call) but will it leave space for a midfield that looks very attack minded to hit City on the counter?

Up front it’s hard to call too. Who will lead the line? Aguero? Jesus? Will it be two up top? Will we get a kick?

Up until last week I would have said this was certain heavy defeat, but then I’m not Chris Hughton, thank Christ, and I’m not our players. He and they played Atleti without fear and, in the case of Knockaert and March, with massive grins on their faces as they twisted, turned and roasted supposedly world class players. If we have a chance at all tomorrow, it’s that the new City players are still bedding in, that the Amex will be a completely new environment to them (sadly, in a way, not in a, dare I say, Selhurst Park, falling down shitty stands and cramped dressing rooms kind of way, we are NOT the proverbial Barnsley on a Tuesday night in February) and that we seem to have retained that team spirit and togetherness from last season and added quality, strength and pace.

We’ll need Matt Ryan to have a bit more skill and luck this time out, for he’ll have even more touches than last week and we can’t afford another howler, but if he sticks to the reflex saves, if Duffy and Dunk are at the top of their game and if the attackers are on point, there is the faintest glimmer of hope. Expect us to be dangerous on the break and from set pieces, where I think we can cause real problems at this level.

Our team? The jury is out on how defensive our wide players will be. This could see shock call ups for either Murphy or even Skalak, but last week pointed instead to Brown getting through a lot of work on the left. If AK is fit you’ve got to unleash him, the man will be fired up beyond belief and he knows no fear at all. Assuming he is then I can see

Ryan

Bruno Duffy Dunk Suttner

Knockaert Propper Stephens Brown

Gross

Murray

While that may not be stellar it’s more than competitive in our “half” of the league.

Me? I’ll be there screaming my lungs out with The Boy and a small tear may be shed just before kick off. I’m hoping for another Withdean. Hold back your wheelchairs.

 

 

Wigan Preview

It’s Christmas Eve isn’t it?

Just like Christmas there has been an awful lot more work in the run up to the date, just to get one day of celebration, feasting and drinking. The house has been decorated with streamers and flags, provisions sit in the fridge and an evening has been spent stuffing an animal, though in our case it was Wolves.

Unlike Christmas we don’t know exactly when the big day is or even what time. We just know it’s coming. We all believe now.

So let’s make this clear. In the opinion of this blog I am holding no truck at all with this mathematical possibility nonsense. Beat Wigan and we’re up. To not go up after such a result would take a set of results that even FIFA couldn’t engineer. I would be willing to put my house, car and savings on us going up should we beat them, not that any bookie would even take that bet. Goal difference rules. Mathematics shmathematics.

It is not, though, a foregone conclusion. On paper you couldn’t ask for a much easier game. Our home form has been imperious and we sit at the top of the league. Our league home form to date reads W16 D3 L2.  Wigan are second bottom, though they come off the back of an impressive 3-2 win over Barnsley. However, their away form reads W5 D4 L12. Our home form is the best in the league by four points, their away form is the 17th best.

To put this further in to context I have seen us lose, in person, precisely once this season. I missed Brentford at home because my knee was in so much pain I couldn’t sit in my seat. I was there for Newcastle but had to start work at stupid o’clock so didn’t get to write it up. I have further been to three away games with the record DWW. My disappointment throughout almost an entire season has been limited to shouting pointlessly at the television.

But Wigan will not come to the Amex simply to play a bit part, roll over and die to order. They are fighting for their life in the league. Normally they would probably take a draw away to us and, indeed, that might be the limits of their ambition, giving them four points from two Easter games in their relegation fight. A win, however, could take them level on points with Blackburn and two behind Burton with three to play, a fighting chance of staying up as we know from 1997 when we overcame a far greater deficit to survive THAT game.

A lot has been made of how far we’ve come since Hereford and, indeed, to go from nearly going out of the league and playing home games in Kent to the cusp of the Premier League in 20 years is quite some feat and down to two amazing chairmen in succession. Let’s face it, we needed a good one or two after the rabble that were in charge in the early and mid nineties.

I’d prefer, however, to focus on how far we’ve come in just two and a half years. Just before actual Christmas in 2014 we were in the relegation zone, in a not too dissimilar position to the one Wigan currently find themselves in. The team was full of uninterested, and bang average loanees. The fans were fighting each other. We’d just humiliated ourselves on telly against Millwall in front of what looked like less than 15,000 fans, no matter what the pretendence said. This blog had descended in to the Mad Dog 20/20 fuelled rantings of an angsty teenager screaming in to a void.

Then he arrived.

A couple of threads have been maliciously bounced on NSC to see who it was who moaned that Hughton was boring, negative or not the right man. I know what I felt because I wrote it here.

https://brightononlyathome.wordpress.com/2014/12/31/a-new-year-present-from-tony-welcome-chris-hughton/

I’m glad to say I was right about Hughton, not for egotistical reasons, but because he has transformed our club from top to bottom, going way beyond my expectations in that cautious first blog.

Almost his first bit of business was to bring in Beram Kayal on an absolute steal from Celtic. Head and shoulders above the rest of our midfield at the time he stood out and soon formed a bond with the reborn Dale Stephens. Hughton knew that his sole remit that season was to keep us up and went about making us hard to beat. Those who saw him as negative crowed. But there was a steel about the side in the second half of that season that had been missing in the first, that promised a bit more next season. Maybe we’d have a comfy mid-table season for a change? No.

No, since then Albion fans have been getting neck ache from looking up at the top of the table. So near – SO NEAR – last season, with a points total that would normally have taken us up. I was at Middleboro and I cannot remember being so down after a draw. We headed back to London drowning our sorrows in several miserable bottles of ale, and when we got there we bumped in to Mr Bloom who was more annoyed than all of us put together.

Then that ridiculous, injury ravaged, playoff semi. But with a bit more luck we’d have beaten anyone in that first half at the Amex. And while the fans went off to lick their wounds Chris Hughton was off signing an extended contract and quietly and intelligently planning how we’d go one better. Hence this season.

It will be no different on Monday. While we’re all wondering if Santa will come and if we can finally open that bubbly, Chris will be quietly and methodically planning exactly how to beat Wigan. After that – and only after that – the same with Norwich. And the players will be carrying it out. That’s why I’m confident – because there is a coherent plan, both long term and short term and the personnel to carry it out with deadly effect.