Monday, 1 May 2017

Brighton & Hove Albion 0-1 Bristol City (Brownhill 43)

Championship, April 29 2017


One way to ensure the race for the Championship goes down to the wire is to suffer a shock defeat when everyone expects a rollover win. An air of raucous celebration was justified before Albion’s final home game of a magnificent season. What almost no-one had considered was that the team’s brilliantly consistent run at the Amex Stadium would come to an end on the day they had the chance to win the title against visitors who had spent much of the season contemplating relegation.

It wasn’t one of the Seagulls’ finest displays, but they were far less lackluster than they had been in the 2-0 loss at Norwich eight days earlier. Albion enjoyed two-thirds of the possession, but more than a dozen shots off target led the way to an anti-climax.

The wayward shooting began during an uncharacteristically stuttering opening 15 minutes. Murray should have scored when he was allowed to chest the ball inside the box, only to hit a tame half-volley which tumbled comfortably wide. But City were more than the spectators Wigan had often been during the game which won Albion promotion, sending a number of dangerous crosses into the box and taking the lead with an excellent goal just before half-time. Matty Taylor sent Josh Brownhill clear down the right, and his cross at pace returned the favour for an easy header which left the away fans at the Amex celebrating a lead for the first time since Newcastle’s late winner more than two months earlier.

Perhaps Albion would have had it easier if their opponents had been rooted in mid-table rather than chasing their Championship status on the back of a four-game unbeaten run which included three victories. Their goal came at the perfect time, too, stifling the joyous mood around the ground. Things didn’t get much better for Albion in the second half. Jiří Skalák, who had been booked and ineffective, was replaced by Solly March, but the Young Player of the Season struggled to create many openings. Anthony Knockaert, on the other side, had repeatedly deceived his marker down the left during the first half, most notably when he allowed Gaëtan Bong to cross for a Murray header which bounced across the six yard box, just short of Tomer Hemed’s reach.

A City old boy, Sam Baldock, might have made the difference against the club he scored 24 goals in one season for if he hadn’t missed out through injury, and Murray and Uwe Hünemeier should have done much better with the sort of headers they usually bury in front of goal. Lee Johnson’s side were good value for the upset, though. Taylor was inches from scoring again after an hour, narrowly failing to connect with a half-volley from point-blank range, and only a superb save from David Stockdale, getting down quickly to stop Bobby Reid’s shot after the substitute had broken through, prevented them from winning more comfortably late on.

It was impossible not to feel disappointment, but Albion still have the chance to win the division at Aston Villa on Sunday. They will need to take their chances better than this.

Albion: Stockdale, Bruno, Hünemeier, Dunk (Tomori 89), Bong, Knockaert, Stephens, Kayal (Sidwell 62), Skalak (March 45), Murray, Hemed

Thursday, 9 February 2017

Brentford 3-3 Albion


Championship, February 5 2017

The thing about possessing genius is that you don't get to summon it automatically. Sometimes it isn't there at all. Sometimes the pieces of you that embody the genius go cold. If Albion were a writer, they'd have suffered a block in this match on a par with the dearth of imagination, say, that sees blogs like this stumble inconsistently on for years and years.

Forty-five terrible minutes - like, mountainous cat sick awful, no point, the motor never running, on that narrow Griffin Park pitch which so often has seemed claustrophobic to them over the years - and then at least another 20 in the second, with a sort of unfocused desperation powered only by the spiralling fumes of a half-time team talk.

As at Preston, sometimes the mood mutates from anticipation to dread at the drop of a line-up before kick-off. Where was Kayal, or Stephens, or even Bong? This team isn’t a jigsaw puzzle – the key players have a subtler influence than that, more like oils through a paint. If they’re off, and people like Skalak and Murphy and the guy from West Brom don’t step up, the bulb is blown into a hundred pieces, flickerless until another day.

Have Brentford ever not had a direct winger with long hair causing trouble for Albion here? An emblem of the oncoming misery, forever surging towards goal and, as is usually the case, the already-fearful travelling support, into the box to meet a ball squared with little interruption by the haplessly scurrying Sidwell and Skalak, and almost apologetically falling into the corner of the net via a little sidefoot, possibly Cruyff-turned effort, soft enough almost not to be a goal but definitely a goal because Albion aren’t up for it and it’s the least their sluggishness from the start deserves.

And then, within ten minutes, another slow goal, nodded on from a corner for a free header at the far post, with Shane Duffy doing an impression of someone who isn’t him at all. At moments like this, you wonder how many people would have stuck or twisted if they’d been forewarned what the score would be at 3.25 and offered a refund and a vortex back to midday Brighton. Despair saps the terrace into a grim mould of raised eyes and when-can-we-leaves. A disproportionate abjectness takes hold, somewhere between muscle memory and PTSD, for everyone who’s witnessed dozens of these type of horrors, heightening the hopeless farce. Murphy clearly isn’t frail, but he seems it because he’s now another iteration of Paul Brooker or Paul Armstrong or some other pale winger, probably on loan during the Gillingham years, who won’t stick a foot in just for the sake of it in times of adversity.

Outside, in the makeshift smoking bit between the gardens, someone reports seeing 15 fans leave at half-time, trudging off past the mega-friendly street drunk-type steward, back into publand: an insane move, obviously, but an act of madness more likely to happen, if ever you were going to do it, on a Sunday when your toes freeze and the Albion have totally cessated.

It’ll be back on if they score, and a warmer, more level-headed view might be that the talent is there to claw something back. Except that Brentford could drive a gilded jeep through the tufts of space in the final third, which is why they’ve won a penalty after a clanking challenge by Uwe, and even if they don’t score it they can score when they want. This is it, we’re going home (we're not), Stockdale’s gone the wrong way, of course. Except that he’s stuck out a leg, cat-like, in a way that suggests he knew the circle of the goal the ball would be blasted at, and now it’s all gone Euro ’96, Seaman keeping the dream alive, the hairpin of a momentum change, and there needs to be a tannoy announcement about how glum and hopeless things seemed against Sheff Weds when this happened.

Recalling what happened next, rationally, is bloody tricky. It would also have been useful to recall how Brentford won quite easily at Falmer, which makes being all ratty about the rottenness of the performance up until Molly Starch’s goal seem even more reactionary. Knockaert, who’d broken into an amusing stroppy gallop after being denied a penalty for handball amid the group sigh of the first half, was trying to make things happen down the right, and at one point, when he gave it the c’mon to his adoring followers before a corner, Chrissy Hoo visibly told him to chill Winstaan. He set up March for the excellent half-volleyed first goal, bringing with it only a can-we-start-playing-please roar.

It felt like massive-headed-equaliser territory. It was one movement, when it came: Duffy, with the same leap to conquer with which he met Knocky’s inswinging cross, ended on his knees in front of the Albion fans, who could – unless they were young and optimistic, which is always possible, I suppose – barely believe Albion wouldn’t concede another one, so obliging was the defence. Dearly beloved, we are gathered here on the edge of the Albion penalty area to yet again let the opposition do exactly as they please, and lo, they have done as they pleased, and it’s a great goal for what must be the winner, socked in sweetly from 25 yards.

Hindsight is a powerful and persuasive mistress: there had been absolutely no way, on the balance of defensive ineptness at both ends, that there wouldn’t be another goal after the scores hit 2-2, but no-one foresaw double the dementedness. Wonderfully, Brentford played themselves: imagine being enough of a cheat to endanger players in the future, by spending ages on the floor claiming dismemberment, fooling the ref out of minutes in a way which, the more it happens, will make officials the length of the land doubt whether players really have been zonked out. Anyway, stuff morals for a minute longer: a slightly desperate attack down the left from March was semi-repelled, then Norwood’s attempt to create pinball with a weak header back in was cleared, and then the ball got pushed out to Knocky, whose marvellous cross towards Hemed was fully enabled by the complete lack of any marking from Brentford.

In a way, this was the end the game deserved: 97 minutes, and it did feel like it had gone on forever, mainly because Albion had been so unrecognisably bad for most of it, which might explain why Hemed, who’d only replaced Murray 25 minutes earlier, simply narrowed his brow and ran back to the centre circle with the ball. If this is the last time Albion go to Brentford for a while, and there’s no certainty of anything if this show was a preview of the rest of the season, it was quite a way to swansong. But anywhere who was there will need the highlights to piece together what happened.

Tuesday, 31 January 2017

Skills and the tutelage of Alexis Sanchez - Chuba Akpom joins Albion from Arsenal as a creator for the Championship finale


Albion have gone for speed, bags of tricks and enthusiasm with the only new addition to their squad. The Chubatron is highly rated to the tune of a £25,000-a-week contract from Arsène Wenger, and he says he’ll play anywhere to rack up the minutes – not least likely, it seems, the left wing, where he’s been occasionally deployed by his parent club during EFL Cup games and in pre-season, when he was at his most prolific.

At 21, Akpom has grown up as an admirer of Jimmy-Floyd Hasselbaink, Alan Shearer, Patrick Kluivert and the Brazilian Ronaldo, and is experienced at all levels of England and Arsenal’s pretender ranks.

“He’s capable of creating things on his own – he doesn’t rely on chances being created for him,” Gareth Southgate, the England manager, said of Akpom, following a 3-0 win against Kazakhstan 15 months ago, in which he scored on his under-21s debut.

“His work out of possession was very good. He’s a confident player. He’s got ability. He just has to keep progressing.”

Southgate was impressed by Akpom’s on-loan performances at Hull last season, including a debut goal against Huddersfield - who his first appearance for Albion might come against - in what would become a promotion season.

It took him more than two months to score again, and a further eight games to score the only goal of a win against Bolton. All of his league goals were home ones, but his cup goals were all away: one at Accrington and a hat-trick at Bury.

Although he never dropped out of the picture at Hull, Akpom is essentially unproven. The signs are promising, though: Jürgen Klopp wanted to sign Akpom during his reign at Dortmund, and the man he succeeded at Liverpool, Brendan Rodgers, was openly interested in signing him two years ago.

Commitment will be key here. Akpom’s heart seems to have remained very much in north London during his brief, goalless loan spells in 2014 and 2015, when he flitted between training at the Emirates and playing for Brentford, Coventry and Forest.

He has experience of a top-of-the-table promotion push with the Bees. “It was different to what I’ve been used to,” he said, admitting some surprise at the physicality of the lower divisions three years ago.

“Getting the three points is huge at senior level. To be top of the league is such a big thing, and it was really exciting to be part of it all.”

His pedigree, if his goals and assists for Arsenal’s youth and reserve sides are anything to go by, also promises much. In training, he is inspired by Alexis Sanchez. “He makes me want to work a lot harder to reach his level,” he says. “It’s really motivational.

“The Championship is a tough league. You’ve got to have good fitness and be mentally prepared.”

A now-permanently signed Glenn Murray should guide him through the battles of an opening stretch of fixtures where he will need to combine robustness with his undoubted creativity, and he also offers a quicker option upfront if Baldock continues to miss out through injury.

There isn’t tremendous pressure on Akpom to score goals. For club and player, it’s a low-risk signing and, potentially, just the extra striker needed for the run-in.

Sunday, 22 January 2017

Albion 2-1 Sheffield Wednesday


Championship, January 20 2017

It takes supernatural commitment, a kind of tenacious faux-dependency, to purely connect to football these days. Watching millionaires, spiritually divided from the mob by galaxies, and wondering if they might have the motivation to somehow care, feels more like going to the circus than fanning. Look, everyone wants the players to be as human as they are in the PR videos (“smile, Glenn! Make eye contact!”), but the reality is they’re a bunch of rich athletes, performing for fame and fortune, and most of us are out of shape potatoes trying to imbue meaning into our lives through a costly vicarious yearning.

Anyway, there are games when it becomes comfortingly difficult to remember what a pointless form of belonging football provides, and this – magnificent, bewildering, heroic and convoluted – was one of them. In that way that the seasons inexorably blur into one another, it seemed like years since Wednesday’s visit in May, their fans all ruddy and Yorkshire and ready to drive through the night to get back to work in the morning, powered by the fumes of a date with Wembley. Look who’s laughing now, we might have thought, if they didn’t seem capable of throwing some witch doctor curse on Albion, like when half the squad expired in the semi at Hillsborough.

There might, you feared, be few better teams to extend the tame loss at Preston into consecutive nil points, but then there is Knockaert, the epitome of a player, with all his flailing and moaning at the officials, who you’d detest if he was against you. It’s all fine, because he can get the ball just outside the area, as he did here from a diagonal Hemed pass as part of one of Albion’s grease lightning breaks from their own box, and pull off an impossible balanced sprint which perfectly keeps the ball just beyond whoever tries to stop him, ending with a goal.

There were several elements leading up to Knocky blasting it into the roof of the net which escalated the improbability of the goal: Norwood only just made the clearance which provided Hemed with the ball, and then Hemed underhit the pass, as good as it was, making Knockaert overhit his first touch. Kieren Westwood, the Wednesday ‘keeper, thought he could rush out and gather the ball. Like the entire stadium, he’d underestimated Knocky’s squirrel-like foot speed, and now Knockaert was away, making three defenders dive in their own idiocy, an unstoppable French fireball wheeling, It’s a Knockaert.

The law of the universe dictates that, sometimes, something so brilliant in a game has to be counterbalanced by a daft calamity. A Foristieri cross was met by the flying foot of Norwood, running towards his own goal, to divert it onto a Dunk header – #tbt, it’s a Dunk disaster – which sailed past the already-grounded Stockdale. The timing, right on half-time, was horrible, but the panic didn’t really churn in until another cross, in the 64th minute, led to a shot which caused Glenn Murray to use his hands as a means to avoid decapitation. Technically it was a sending off, but a penalty would have been sufficient punishment, perhaps as a nod to the human right to avoid being knocked out cold. Still, off he went.

It was such a dismal few seconds that you could only have surpassed the feeling of imminent catastrophe if the goalmouth had promptly burst into flames, scorching Knockaert’s gloves while a terrified ballboy desperately tried to extinguish it with a bottle of Lucozade. And then Stockdale (can we call him Save-it Stopdale from now on? Is it possible we could pun this anywhere at all?) rescued fate from the furnace of yet another disappointment against Wednesday, first diving, athletically, to his right to save the penalty, and then producing a follow-up save, the other way, which could only have been more remarkable had he caught the ball and raced down the other end to smash home in front of the North.

Nothing – sunshine, rainbows, fivers falling from the sky – would have been a surprise at this point. Albion were a man down but with their tails up – Murray had been relatively quiet, and all the momentum was theirs. Pocognoli has hardly played this season, but his cross, a glistening arc of solid gold assist, swung beautifully for Knockaert, diving in at the far post, unleashing delirium.

Wednesday, understandably, completely lost their heads at this point, like in Sunday League when you’re knackered and losing agonisingly and bristling with frustrated testosterone. Fletcher, who’d only been on the pitch for half an hour, did that head-shoving thing that footballers count as a headbutt on Stephens. McManaman ran in like the gnarliest back-up guy you’ve ever seen, Stockdale started shoving him in some kind of muted northern royal rumble, Stephens protested. Fletcher was sent off. Just in case that wasn’t funny enough, Hutchinson then flew in two years late on March – if ever his recovery from injury needed testing – in an act that might not have kept him on the hallowed turf even if he hadn’t already been booked.

That was that. What a time to be alive. To recap: no, let’s try to piece it all together in our own time, on Saturday morning, with the telly highlights. Some joke about Wednesday getting revenge in this year’s play-offs seems appropriate but disingenuous. Lady Luck, not least in terms of other teams’ results, has spoiled Albion for a rare six months, to the point where only a brilliant collapse will stop them.

Sunday, 8 January 2017

Albion 2-0 MK Dons


FA Cup, January 7 2017

There was a time, recently enough to remain memorable, when a plus-11,000 crowd for an Albion home game would have been remarkable. Now the FA Cup’s been indelibly devalued, with its silly kick-off times and indifferent Premier League clubs on the road to a Wembley which hosts semi-finals and charges a tenner for a sandwich. There was no getting around the fact that this was a low turn-out in reflection of that, with the North Stand looking all strange and empty and the upper echelons of both sides reduced to ghost towns, like an echoey reminder of how crucial promotion was in the final season at Withdean.

It wasn’t just weird because of the unpopulated stands: there was also a yawny passiveness among the crowd, apathetic like zoo visitors or swimming pool spectators, a slumbering hum without a chorus. But then there is the counter thought that goes: why is there this chasm between league and cup crowds at Falmer these days? Who are the people who want to watch the team based on the opposition? And do they really want to spend a Saturday doing something else while the rest of us suckers sparsely people a muted stadium? Really, what else are you going to do on the first Saturday of the year? Go to pubs with the same people you go to pubs with every weekend, sitting in silence, tapping at your phones in the pub where you've all notified the world you are, occasionally laughing awkwardly at bants? Go shopping and traipse joylessly around spending even more than you do at football? Probably would have been better than getting the birthday shout-out someone got at this game, of all games, when there’s nothing special about the day at all.

This was the day when swarthy magician Beram Kayal returned, though. He didn’t waste any time. Breaking the silence with less than ten minutes gone, he strode to meet a ball just outside the box and crisply skimmed it into the bit of the net nearest the MK Dons fans. They must have felt like the Colchester fans at the EFL Cup game in August: following a side average to its core, never really looking like winning, offers nothing of the dare-to-dream stuff the cup is still just about marketed on, as Albion fans know. They possessed quite an entertaining figure in Chukwuemeka Aneke, a highly physical and energetic striker who, having turned Sam Adekugbe on the edge of the box, hit a shot at Maenpaa that would have been considered weak in the warm-up. Then he treated Hünemeier’s head much like a basketball hovering over a net when they leapt together in front of the mass wake that was the West Stand. Sidwell burrowed around under the belly of an MK player who fell over the ball before clasping it like a pot of long-lost treasure. Once it had been retrieved, Hemed smashed it against the keeper - he sometimes chooses the least effective option at the simplest of angles - from an Adekugbe cross.

Jamie Murphy and Richie Towell were part of the attack, both taking a day off the sunbed, and Murphy volleyed just wide after March performed one of the most meggy nutmegs ever on his marker. Then Hemed replaced nutmeg man as the most embarrassed player on the park by absolutely shanking from point blank range when three Albion players roved behind enemy lines. At this point, in the second half, Albion were firmly into making-hard-work-of-it territory, with the thought of a midweek in Milton Keynes if anyone made a howler providing just enough motivation to perform. There was a five-minute period during which the team needed to, in a manner of speaking, check themselves before they wrecked themselves, culminating in two attacks down the left from the Albion: Adekugbe stuck in a cross which March volleyed well over first time, Jamie Murphy dribbled to the near post byline before tapping back for a last-gasp MK clearance, and then a looping Goldson header from the resulting Murphy corner hung narrowly over the bar.

Towell broke away down the right to zero effect, but the Israelis were here to save the day. Kayal floated in a beauty of a cross, it all went slow-mo as everyone pondered the disappointingly thinkable of Hemed not nestling a simple header into the far corner, and then he promptly did the business. Actually, he should have had another a minute later thanks to the accommodating and increasingly porous Dons defence, but he shot straight at the keeper after being played in by Murph.

Everything was better now, not least because Skalak and Murray were warming up in front of the West, like lions in bibs. Kayal went off after 77 minutes, departing down the tunnel with his halo, a magnificent visionary, taking with him any real remaining interest in the game. Let’s start again next week, and avoid any more tedious home draws in the rest of whatever cup run we might have.

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.

Monday, 17 August 2015

Fulham 1-2 Albion, Championship, August 15 2015

Strange sensation the day after this game – parts relief, exhaustion and exhilaration. The river was beautiful, the sky serene, the pitch immaculate and, for most, the beers plentiful at one of the best away games of the season regardless of result, although not least due to fond memories of last season’s unexpected, Jonah-led post-Christmas triumph. Big Uwe started at centre-back in place of Dunk, but had almost nowt to do beyond familiarising himself with his teammates during the first half, when Albion kept the ball so cleverly and calmly that it was reminiscent of the times when they embarrassed Peterborough and Charlton at away games during the championship-winning season under Gus.

Tomer set the tone by sending a shot against the bar from just outside the box following a deft Bruno pass, and then everyone’s second-favourite Spanish right-back repeated the trick after half an hour with a precision cross which narrowly deceived the backpeddling centre-back and allowed Baldock to bury it in front of Fulham’s finest.


A lot of Albion fans were relaxed enough to have joined a beer queue which never got served by the time Fulham scored an entirely surprising equaliser, although it wasn’t undeserved: given a second to shoot, Tom Cairney’s curler gave Dave ‘Banter’ Stockdale about as much chance as a wounded fox running for Tory leadership, showing the kind of class Hughton had warned Fulham’s squad possessed.

Therein lay the trouble that was ahead: Hughton gave Fulham too much respect, and Albion, gratingly, went on the back foot against a team who had been there for the taking. What should have been at least a two-goal win saw a correctable swing in momentum obvious to everyone except, apparently, the Albion coaching staff. Fulham hit the post with a header before Matt Smith – who Hughton had spoken about with quiet nervousness before the game – was denied only by Stockdale’s wonderful tip-over at eyeballing range.

Frustration with the ailing ship was growing in the stands by now. Baldock, Stephens, Kayal and Hemed, who had helped run the show during the first half, couldn’t keep up the energetic harrying which allowed Albion to exert sustained pressure and win the ball back so many times, and March was completely knackered. Hughton, a manager renowned for late substitutions, waited until ten minutes before the end - at least 15 minutes overdue - to refresh the comically tired middle platoon. Albion’s ascendancy could have been restored with greater energy against an uninspired Fulham, but Hughton showed his cards by swapping Baldock and March for a defensive midfielder and a defender (Incenator and Rosenior).

Settling for a draw, on the strength of the first half, seemed wasteful. Then, against the run of play, a JFC pass sent LuaLua towards the edge of the area, tapping it past a clumsy defender for a foul which the referee took his sweet time to confirm as a penalty. The end was unwatchable to most in the away end, in contrast to Hemed, who knocked it in with the ease of a lifelong pitch-and-putt champion sinking a gimme or a sunbather on a Tel Aviv beach ordering a falafel. Betting on a striker who seems immune to the Championship’s pressures to score a few penalties this season could be wise.

It’s hard to distance yourself from a game which had more emotions in 50 minutes than the entirety of last season. The style in which it was done seemed excessively cautious and is certain to shred nerves for the next nine months. Hughton might end up being a victim of setting us up so well if he continues to settle for a point in the way he most pointedly did on Saturday. For the stoic, though, we seem to have sneaked under the radar in terms of having a manager who is an old hand at winning promotion, losing four times all season when he did it with Newcastle. It took Albion until November to get their third win last season. This time it’ll probably happen before the end of August.