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.