Monday, 12 December 2016

Albion 2-0 Leeds United

Championship, December 9 2016

It's always Leeds on a Friday night recently. Aggro on the trains and a loud away end regaling us with Marching on Together. They used to sack managers after the ignominy of losing to little Brighton. The best underdogging occurred when Gary Hart scored the winner against them in a game at Withdean, there hanging a prevailing sense of shared bemusement at seeing a team of Leeds' faded glamour turn up at everyone's least favourite athletics track and field.

Nowadays they routinely yield to the good guys, and there’s so little justifying description about this game. The stats – Albion had nine for each of Leeds’s two shots on goal – succinctly articulate the level of dominance enacted.

The first goal happened when Kalvin Phillips channelled Rod Thomas’s bygone volleyball heroics, vainly lolloping the ball out just as it was about to cross the line, like a tipsy holiday-maker in a deep pool trying to scoop a beach ball pelted at him at point blank range. A line of Albion players gleefully appealed in unison across the six yard line, led by Dunk, who was thoroughly over-excited having protracted the leg which tonked Knockaert's deep corner goalwards from beyond the far post.

Murray, god of goals in front of the north, glanced over his shoulder at the ref with a doleful, would-you-care-for-me look, paused and banged it in the net. The rest of the game was essentially a concentrated victory lap. Leeds were there. They were robust. They had a midfielder born in 1998 called Ronaldo Vieira (his twin brother is called Romario), which probably softens the blow for their fans. Stockdale, a dream in a dark shade of salmon, had the odd bit of penalty area admin to do, but could have spent the game farting out fear is a liar tweets on his phone if he'd wanted to.

That's five goals Albion have conceded in the second half all season now. Two were at Newcastle and Reading, one was a 95th minute consolation for the home side at Hillsborough, and one of the others was for Preston in injury time at Falmer.

Right at the fizzled end of 2016, Hemed’s gone all 90s garage and got his squad number shaved into the side of his hair, the natural conclusion to which should be Nike capitalising on the chance to recreate the eternal fashion of the barbered swoosh on the bonce of Israel’s finest striker. Hemed had replaced Glenn, who got Man of the Match, and was thus the man for the job when Dunk probably dived to win a penalty.

There was a bit of cosmic rebalancing there, involving as it did the same kind of innocuous tangle from which Dunk conceded a laughable penalty when Albion drew at Burnley last season. No hassle for Hemed, who sent it straight down the shoot, as if he had more pressing matters on his mind, like hanging out with Miss Israel or getting more signs swooshed into his scalp.

And now here we are, eight points beyond third, stronger than last season but without two other sides having mindblowing years. It's a position from which, statistically, everyone ends up spraying champagne and wheezing dizzily, unless they've got Kevin Keegan in charge.

If nurses were observing the wellness of the other promotion hopefuls, they'd be thinking about the necessity of the life support machine. It's not arrogant to say that, unless you're actually being arrogant, which probably isn't in your nature if you're an Albion fan. If this gravy train derails it'll be no surprise, everyone will laugh and sigh and the resigned bitterness will flow once more.

The thing is, Kayal – the player who really brings the Other amid a lot of consistency and workmanship – is yet to come back. Hünemeier and Goldson haven’t even been in the side all season. The innate Albion anxieties still tangibly linger: disbelief, and a suspicion there'll be some sort of stipulation that the team automatically enters the play-offs no matter how stratospheric its points total. Even when the situation’s outlandishly promising, fear often isn’t a liar. It's just nowhere to be seen with 20 games gone.

Sunday, 24 July 2016

Luton Town 2-1 Brighton & Hove Albion, Friendly, July 23 2016

Expecting to be entertained by a friendly is like expecting to be cerebrally stimulated by reality television. It’s all artificial toiling and coiled shadow-boxing, and going one down after 30 seconds to a soft goal – rolled past Mäenpää in front of 200 distinctly quiet Albion fans, many of whom were still returning from the bar at that point – hardly elevated the thrill.

Dunk atoned for the misplaced pass which had led to the goal with a simple header from an inswinging free-kick at the end of the half, but it was our only attempt on target in 45 minutes. Luton should have been further ahead. They almost were straight after the break, seeing two shots cleared off the line. Apart from Elvis cracking the bar from close range they were well deserving of their win.

The game is about as memorable as a service station holiday, but it would be remiss not to laud the ground. The away end is right next to a residential front door, the stairs overlook rows of gardens and there’s an old-school tea bar near a door which leads to a clubhouse-style bar for away fans with relatively cheap beers.

The shallow stand falls low beneath the pitch and the noise in the enclosed ground is impressive. You can picture Fozzie enjoying his time here in the mid-80s, orange shirt, headband and all. This is the sort of place you end up missing over the course of a Championship season full of visits to sterile, out-of-town stadia. Let the watered-down lager flow.

Sunday, 1 May 2016

Alloa Athletic 0-1 Raith Rovers, Scottish Championship, October 17 2015

The mission had originally been to visit Arbroath’s Gayfield Park, consistently lauded as one of the most beautiful grounds in the world and the closest to the sea in Britain. But a farcical ticketing mix-up at a provincial arts centre (as Half Man Half Biscuit might call it) meant the destination needed to be within an hour of Glasgow.

I considered going to watch Motherwell-Celtic, eventually being dissuaded by the suspiciously generic look of their ground, extortionate ticket prices and the fact that it was Mark McGhee’s first game in charge (those later Withdean memories, like welts, will never fade.)

In times of uncertainty, a Saturday coupon and the Football Ground Guide are invaluable. Eventually I struck upon the 19th century Recreation Park, and the chance literally paid off. Approaching a roundabout near the station, a man in the colours of The Wasps (their emblematic insect bears a camp smile and protruding biceps) met a request for directions by immediately offering me his absent mate’s season ticket before reeling off various tales of his life in a Bruce Springsteen tribute band.

Despite his generous offer of a drinking session after the game, I left his group (and, temporarily, abandoned my cynicism about the state of the modern game) to take in the beauty of this ancient ground with its brick walls, creaking turnstiles, shallow terrace and lovingly-curated club shop. The team, which escaped Championship relegation by overturning a 3-1 deficit on home turf in the final game of the previous season, were faring little better this time around, although they have an ex-Premier League striker in Michael Chopra upfront, who can apparently be seen driving a battered old motor around the town having fallen upon hard times in recent years.

Both teams played neat football. For Raith, Mark Stewart looked clever and pacy, drawing a brave save from the keeper with a thundering half volley straight at him from the edge of the area. He then met a clever diagonal ball to square to Jon Daly, whose dive edged the cross into the jeering home terrace. The female assistant referee received almost non-stop advice from the home fans, with the cry of "you have to give that" regularly audible along with such time-honoured gems as "you've got him in your back pocket, Kyle".

Chopra was invited to be the hero in front of the home fans 15 minutes into the second half, but sent a straightforward header straight at the keeper when unmarked from three yards. A brilliant, lightning run by Michael Doyle down the right then allowed Chopra to chest and volley from the edge of the six-yard box, but a defender got in the way.

Raith missed a simple header from a crossed free kick 15 minutes before the end, and the hardcore nearest the dugouts were fuming with the ref after what they saw as a "fackin’ assault" of a 50-50 collision near the away penalty area. Their mood worsened as Raith grabbed the winner following a foray down the left ending in a fierce shot which the ‘keeper could only palm to Grant Anderson, who finished to the noisy delight of the away enclosure, visible in front of a KFC drive-through.

The highlight of the afternoon, though, was the catering, which included macaroni pies and Bridie pastries. A starchy slither of a potato in a buttered bun more than hit the spot for £1.20. Exceptional stuff.

Thursday, 14 January 2016

Exeter 3-3 Stevenage, League Two, October 11 2015

When your entire knowledge of St James Park revolves around the away section – about which the term minimalism could suffice, apart from the time the tiny urinals flooded during one Albion visit – an afternoon in the home end is a glorious shock. Tall, steep and packed, it looked untouched since the 1970s and has the character of a monochrome postcard of George Best shanking past a cram of pipe-smoking elders in duffle coats.

There are looming old cider signs and excellent views over the city if you stand towards the top. A route at the back leads to a tea bar where drinks are £1, pies are £1.60 and an alleyway of barbed wire allows fans to smoke behind the car park. And parked up, ensuring an early kick-off, was a telly van broadcasting this excellent display of League Two football across the world.

A few points separated Exeter from the play-offs and Stevenage from the disaster zone at kick-off, a disparity emphasised when the hosts scored with a free header from Brighton-born former Albion youth team winger David Wheeler after four minutes. Despite missing the genius of Ryan Harley, they doubled their lead when ex-Palarse hotshot Clinton Morrison scored a balletic close-range overhead kick shortly afterwards, celebrating by leading a dance around Stevenage manager Teddy Sheringham, who resembled a foiled wedding crasher in his Sunday best suit.

Imploring his players to calm down might have been a strange call considering their seemingly passive concessions of the opening 20 minutes, but Sheringham was proved right by hindsight. Boro could have capitulated had they panicked – as it was, Dean Parrett curled in a classic 25-yard free-kick five minutes before half-time, starting a period of momentum which culminated in Ben Kennedy heading in the equaliser following a spot of penalty area pinball just before the break. Of the 45 visible Stevenage fans, nine broke into an impressive Poznań dance at this point, although it couldn’t eclipse the appeal at half-time for City fans to help paint the ground during the week, announced with just the right level of charm and pragmatism. Perhaps out of embarrassment, the scoreboard near the away end was never updated to reflect the equaliser.

Paul Tisdale, as it is binding to mention during any report on his team, looked thoroughly dapper in his trilby, and the Exeter manager’s side were reinvigorated when they returned, forcing a clearance off the line almost immediately. Stevenage continued to appear incapable of defending anything inside their own box, bearing the look of a team who could concede at any moment, vulnerable no matter how well they played. Armand Gnanduillet, their French striker loaned from Chesterfield, looked a promising targetman with the rawness of a newborn foal, swiping at cold air when presented with a clear shot on goal from ten yards 15 minutes before time.

Stevenage were duly punished when Wheeler collected a pass on the edge of the area and struck a superb half-volley past ex-Palarse net-picker Chris Day with the outside of his foot. It made them more urgent: Tom Conlon struck the outside of the post with an inspired free-kick, and then Whelpdale raced on to a header dropping from the sky – afforded by some sloppy City play from their own throw-in – to crash a volley into the far corner as a magnificent finale.