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.