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.