Friday, 11 August 2017

A season of wondering what we're doing here and what it all means

The first three matches of Albion’s first season in the top flight, in 1979, provided a point-free welcome to life with the best. It was all over by half-time: two Alan Sunderland strikes adding to a long-range strike from Frank Stapleton.

Come May, Albion survived comfortably, even though the two away games which followed, echoing the fixture list pattern this season’s squad will begin with, also ended in defeats. In 2017, such comparisons are pointless in all but Albion’s likely opening experience: trepidatious, optimistic and probably well beaten.

We see Man City’s players purely on television, with the understanding that they are multimedia commodities, faraway stars rather than tangible entertainers. There is almost a technical impossibility to a club like the Albion appearing in the Premier League, so imperative is the need for clubs operating there to be abstract business entities rather than living, breathing organisations.

Clingers to City’s business – Swansea, Bournemouth, Burnley, West Brom – are temporary side-pieces to the bill most of the world actually wants to see, so our league position is always going to feel like a novelty from now on. The potential for confusion this season is considerable. It doesn’t, nor necessarily should it at the prices charged, come naturally to supporters to consider themselves insignificant. There’s a sense that life around the Albion has changed forever, like a till worker winning the lottery, thanks to the ineffable sums of money association with the Premier League brand confers.

Timing, as Bloom understood in his managerial decisions during the final season outside of a commercial stadium, is all-important: a few years ago, Bradford and Blackpool could join and then leave the Premier League without much lasting impact beyond a ruinous trajectory inflicted by ill-judged leadership.

The latest reality is that everything grows further apart as the club becomes a larger constellation in which the newest parts require the most immediate nurturing, the few thousand who contributed during days we’d all now rather forget considered less worthy of particular attention than they’d ever have wanted anyway. Even in a few years, with the market potentially becoming more combustible, this might not remain the financial case for newly-promoted clubs.

Sometimes it is nicer to feel a sense of control over the direction the club takes. Remembering the days when the club was dependent and often seemed figuratively powered by the fans, it’s strange to think of the space in which the Albion now finds itself. Any fan, no matter how much they care, becomes an indiscernible dot in the context of such enormous attention on the club. The chance to witness all this is odd, incredible, alluring and distancing all at the same time, and can only be healthily balanced, you suspect, with the occasional visit to games in more normal divisions at clubs which rely on a closer relationship with a smaller number of people.

Meanwhile, the hope at our end of the table is disarmingly similar to the other end of the scale: we want a genuine competition, without great points gaps leading to foregone conclusions before the fun has begun. City have a new keeper to integrate, and any moments in which they are made to look mortal at Falmer should be applauded. Whether or not they’re out of sight by half-time, it's unlikely to be the most intriguing game of an Albion season certain to be surreal.

Wednesday, 9 August 2017

What are Albion fans looking forward to this season?

Nearly here, isn't it? So exciting. We cut to the chase and asked Albion fans what they were looking forward to after a long summer of fun. Here's what they said.

"I do a bit of work in the club’s commercial department, so of course I’m looking forward to seeing our magnificent fans, who’ve been terrific over the past few seasons, enjoy watching some of the world’s finest footballers visit the Amex. They deserve it, and I can’t wait to see their beaming vein-strewn faces. Just joking, of course! Although I am genuinely excited to see whether the mugs who pledged £6,000 plus VAT towards sponsoring Richie Towell’s shorts actually pay up."
Eddie Ednut, Woodingdean

"All of it. The Premier League – it’s the best league in the world, isn’t it? You want to test yourself against the best. Manchester City will be a great first game. I think we’ll probably lose that one. Real rags to riches, though. We’ve got much less money than them. And how about Palace home and away? It’s a rivalry. And all the big stadiums – they’re really big. Tony Bloom. He’s our chairman. You couldn’t ask for a better chairman. The new signings look great. I don’t know if some of the older players will cut it in the higher division, though. If we finish 17th, that will be an amazing achievement, but if we get relegated, we have to take it on the chin. We could stay up or go down. I can’t wait to buy a programme."
Marge Mundane, Southwick

"I’m looking forward to being #Together. The Albion is a curse and an affliction, but god bless me, I keep going. I could have travelled round the world twice by now, but I’ll look back and have 16 coffee table books about the stadium and every DVD the superstore has ever barfed out, and that’ll do me. I’m part of something. Part of something bigger. I soldier on because the club needs me. They made that clear with the free packet of ready-salted crisps they paid for at Middlesbrough. Who else will buy a ticket in the first round of sales for Exeter away in the cup? I was actually thinking about voluntarily missing a couple of games and going on a date or something a couple of seasons ago, but then I got an automated email from the club thanking me for travelling 6,000 miles that season, and I was so touched that I’ve carried on. It’s the hope that kills you."
Adam Dammit, Lewes Road

"My name’s Josh and I’m seven years old. Is this BBC Sussex? My favourite Albion player is Wayne Rooney. Will you give me a toy?"
Josh, 7

"On a personal note, I’m looking forward to going on a couple of podcasts, carrying on my column in the Portslade Puffin and being Sky Sports’ go-to rentagob when they need someone in a half-and-half scarf to say something completely inconsequential on behalf of Albion fans. It’s been two years since I bought three East Stand tickets for me and my kids on a whim after a bottle and a half of Prosecco one Sunday afternoon, and I’m so glad I stuck with it. I used to hate supporting Chelsea."
Heather Hairhorse, Portslade

"I know this is well controversial, but I don’t give a stuff, to be honest with you. I couldn’t care less and I won’t be smiling at Old Trafford, even if we get a late equaliser. Things just ain’t what they were. Peterborough at Gillingham in 1997, 68 people there, chips for 70p, giving Valur Gislason a lift home – those were the days, mate, not now. The club needed us, none of this spending the debt of a small country on potentially world-class midfielders. Hartlepool away, the only away win of the great escape season, I was there, having a fag up the top of the stand, hurling abuse at Hangus. Denny Mundee shook my hand at the end, asked me if I wanted a game. Just banter. The game’s gone now."
Terry Rednose, Angmering

"I’ve been coming to the Albion since 1948."
Valerie Pensionbook, Bexhill-on-Sea

"I’m looking forward to seeing my mates again. We go to every game, home and away, no matter what the cost, and we always get there for opening time after a few 3am warm-up beers on the train, just to make sure we forget how utterly joyless the whole rigmarole essentially is. We’re pretty close: I went to one of the boys’ weddings in the summer. There was a brief hitch where the bar hadn’t opened yet and we had almost nothing to say to each other, but by the end we were reminiscing about the time we accidentally double-ordered a Whopper Meal at Bradford and fell down some stairs three years ago. My wife left me over the summer. It feels like a fresh start."
Paul Pork, Burgess Hill

Saturday, 29 July 2017

The Blue and White 'Un - July 28th 2017


Saturday July 22nd
Albion, it is sometimes proclaimed, lift moods when skies darken. Rarely has there been a more literal realisation of that yearning chant than today. With apocalyptic skies shooting down waves of rain, Solly March barely gives Albion fans the chance to negotiate Crawley’s overwhelmed commercial operation (why offer tickets on the turnstiles when you can make everyone squeeze through a phone box-sized ticket office?) before side-footing Albion into the lead in their first domestic encounter of pre-season.

More than half the crowd are in the away end to watch a collective stroll comparable to Warren Aspinall’s ambling appearances ensue: there’s impressive Ingolstadt ingratiation as the least recognisable pair in the starting line-up, Markus Suttner and Pascal Gross – both, helpfully, with short dark hair, harking back to the Gus days, when all the players shared one clipper length – combine for the midfielder to score the second.

Reading unbound Tomer Hemed and flying Scotsman Jamie Murphy repeat their feats of Dusseldorf the previous week to make it 4-0 at half-time, before Connor Goldson (hooray!) heads in from a corner and Glenn Murray scores a penalty to underline his disdain for a foul on him by Kaby Djalo, a man so short he makes Mathew Ryan, who might as well have spent the entire game watching Neighbours repeats, seem a giant.

“Maty didn’t get so much work today,” says Daddy Hoo, who was presumably unimpressed at the reaction of the lesser-spotted Kaz LuaLua to one nasty foul, emitting steam from the winger’s ears and a shove for his marker. “We played really well, particularly in the first half. The three that we’ve signed have all settled in really well, particularly Pascal. If you are able to bring players in early, they can adjust to the patterns that we have. I’ve been involved in not particularly good pre-seasons when teams have not started the season particularly well. We know that we’re going into a league now where we’re gonna be tested more than we’ve ever been tested before.”

With no sign of a striker yet, the gaffer confirms he’s treating North Stand Chat like a volcanic spud. “You are never close until something’s done – that’s the way the market is. This has been the biggest jump in the market for many years. Looking at some of the speculation, it’s difficult for a promoted side that are not used to those type of levels.”

Sunday July 23th
Scratchy times for Hope Powell, the new head coach of the Women’s team. “I started to itch,” she admits, reflecting on her time off, when the former England boss became an oracular figure for many coaches. “It’s quite nice to be given this opportunity by Brighton.” The question which rolls off the tongue is: are the Albion WSL 1 ready? “I’d rather build something than take the shortcut,” says Powell, promising to promote homegrown talent.

Monday July 24th
Remember the days when Reading would rampage in and relieve Albion of players and managers like a careless baboon removing spindly leaves from a low-hanging canopy? Rumour has it that the Royals have dug deeper into their burning pockets to try and take Hemed, upping their original £4 million bid in a move doomed to neither secure one of the only fit strikers at the Albion nor persuade the man himself (Israeli good, y’know) to drop back into the division where he proved himself last time out.

“Tomer, if anything, has come back in really good shape,” says Hoo, as if someone had accused the striker of looking a bit porky and burping out lager fumes. “The only reason for interest in our players is because they’ve done well,” he adds, exorcising Hemed’s hapless bygone spot-kick at Wolves and endearing ability to crack shots straight at visiting goalkeepers. “We’ve got two out-and-out strikers. We need everyone we’ve got.”

Tuesday July 25th
The history of kit launches is decorated with memorable moments. Just this summer, Wycombe Wanderers seemed to base an entire social media campaign around how knowingly awful their goalkeeper shirt is. Ayr United’s playboy owner arranged for semi-nude models to be painted in the colours of the club’s new strip. Only with the Albion would you have to peer at pictures from an indie gig on the other side of the world to first glimpse the colours of the latest questionable article of clothing which could be yours for 50 notes.

Ben Thatcher – the Brighton rock duo’s drummer, not the psychopathic full-back who hospitalised Pedro Mendes with a swing of his studs – is pictured wearing what looks suspiciously like a green-and-white cricket top for a gig in Oz, but turns out to be Albion’s third (sorry, “alternative”) colours for the tilt at earning a non-embarrassing points total in the Richest League in the World. It’s not meant to officially launch until Thursday – perhaps it’s all a pleasingly elaborate hoax, and the actual design of the home shirt will also include sleeves which appear to relate to the rest of the shirt.

Who cares? Albion sign a player! And a (sort of, though not very prolific) striker! Isaiah Brown, or Izzy, as we’ll call him, cos he’s our mate, joins from Chelsea, turning down another loan at ‘uddersfield, where he managed four goals in 15 last season, as well as the miss of the season in the Play-Off Final.

Olly Norwood’s finest moment for Albion might remain being paraded shoulders-high down Queen’s Road by hammered fans in the unbelievable promotion aftermath in the city centre. Turns out he craved Craven Cottage. “Once I knew of the interest, I was desperate to get it done,” he says, remaking upon the conclusion of his long-mooted loan to Fulham. “The football Fulham have played suits my style.”

Chrissy Hoo wasn’t expecting the blue and white marvels to enjoy as much “balance of the ball” as they had at Crawley, but they again fly out of the traps like a whippet poked in the nads in the latest warm-up game, at Sarfend. Izzy plays an hour but Molly Starch is the man again, scoring two lovely goals before Glenn gets in on the act (another Suttner assist) for a 3-0 half-time lead which never gets added to. “I thought the grass was very long tonight, which changes the type of game,” observes Hughton, echoing some fans’ concern with the continuing length of his facial hair. “Little bit disappointing, that.” The grass theme continues. “It was really sticky and really slow,” adds Big German Uwe Hunemeier. “We tried to move the ball quickly and scored three really nice goals.”

Wednesday July 26th
Yellow. It’s a brave colour to wear even if you’re built like a professional athlete. The club instructs the players to feign moodiness in the photoshoot for the new away shirt, but they end up looking like they’ve just sniffed a particularly rancid guff or been subjected to a facial smattering with a freshly-caught kipper, adding to the underwhelming sense of wearing a Wallabies shirt when you’re a football team.

Still, we’ll all probably be trying to dig our way to Australia by the end of the Man City game, and it’s (arguably) not as bad as the orange and black one – nor, for all its novelty value, the pink one. Is it even yellow? Is it mustard? That, friends, is university gold – quite a choice of words, it has to be said, considering the quality of some of the online posts from its earliest buyers. Or, indeed, Dale Stephens. “Oooh your hard”, he tweets to Murph, upping the bantz after spotting the Scotsman’s hammy attempt at a thousand-yard stare. “Izzy can play on either flank, but we know he can off the front as well,” Hoo says, enamoured with the versatility of his new signing. “I see him as one that is going to play off a front man or in a wide area.” That’s just as well, because the French firebomb remains doubtful for the start of the season, and Baldock’s still crocked.

Thursday July 27th
Closer inspection of the new kits, which are momentarily available in most sizes at boutique shopping destination the Seagulls Superstore, reveals the unswerving generosity of the club and Nike: the home number combines three shirts for the price of one, stitching sleeves and a bottom swathe of the shirt onto a central design which appears to be only distantly related to its accompanying fabrics.

Izzy’s former Chelsea coach, Dermot Drummy, offers a restrained reference which puts the young winger/striker/saviour under no pressure. “I saw him as a mini-Drogba,” offers Drummy, who adds that Richie Towell is “nothing less than a cross between Pele at his peak and a significantly more visionary Cruyff.” “He’s like Romelu Lukaku,” Drummy concludes of Albion’s expectation-bearer. “He is humble, he is hard-working and he wants to learn.”

Man City stuff Champions League holders Real Madrid 4-1 in Los Angeles, and the hierarchies on either side reach an agreement not to spend 180 million Euros on 18-year-old Monaco striker Kylian Mbappe – a fee they mutually decide, much in the manner of rich schoolkids dithering over a Chomp bar, is “exorbitant”. The second game of the season cannot come fast enough, even if Tony Bloom is shuffling his cards, chuckling bemusedly.

Friday July 28th
Time was when you could have paid on the gate, laid across several seats and had the refreshments kiosk pretty much to yourself on a visit to Vicarage Road with the mighty blue and white angels. This time, Watford away sells out the minute the second batch of tickets go on sale. Izzy’ll be there, eating a cucumber. “When the League games come along I'll still be eating them, definitely, three little circles of cucumber,” he says, explaining a pre-match ritual initiated when he vegged-in a hat-trick following salad advice from a Chelsea under-23 teammate, along with “don’t let John Terry meet your missus”. “It's crazy but ever since then it's always been on the back of my mind, so I just do it.” 

Everyone’s had that Sunday League manager who was the last person you wanted to see after a big one the previous night, and Izzy – a Hughton fan – can relate. “David [Wagner] is very energetic, always running up and down the touchline, things like that,” he says. “"I didn't think Huddersfield on a permanent was the best idea for me. I'm still young and I still believe I can play for Chelsea. The Brighton option was the best for me and hopefully it works out well."

Albion have no new injuries ahead of the trip to Naarich tomorrow, where the gaffer definitely won’t be thumbing his nose or dummy high-fiving Alex Pritchard or Delia Smith and friends.

Quote of the week: “I quite like my scar because it will always remind me of what I’ve been through. The first few days of pre-season I was still thinking about it. We did a passing drill and Dale Stephens hit one to me. It was meant to be on the floor but it came at chest height and I thought, ‘no’ and caught the ball and put it down. Now I chest the ball fine. I never feel it. It’s brilliant to be involved on the training pitch again.” – Connor Goldson becomes the first Albion player since Shane Duffy to appear topless in the national press.

Ex-Men: Contrasting fortunes for two former Albion hitmen. Chris O’Grady – now star striker at Chesterfield – nets for the second pre-season home game in a row, causing his manager, former Albion defensive target Gary Caldwell, to gush: “His all-round display was outstanding. The team are lucky they have a centre forward they can look at who is a man that leads the line, runs about, does his fair share of work defensively, but then is also a real focal point for the team.” Peterborough legend and Albion Duracell bunny Craig Mackail-Smith plays the second half for Posh in a slightly bad-tempered 1-0 defeat to Wolves. “It was a good opportunity to get himself back in the shop window,” says United boss Grant McCann. “I’m sure he will soon find himself another club.”

Friday, 21 July 2017

The Blue and White 'Un - July 21st 2017


Saturday July 15th
Albion are close to netting Neto. Little more than a year after struggling to entice players destined for Norwich’s bench, the club is on the brink of its first Brazilian, who presumably senses more than a whiff of the Copacabana about Lancing, where he arrives to sign for a record-rupturing fee from Gent.

A new midfielder would be timely: “There’s no point in thinking the worst,” soothes the Hughmeister, trying to ignore the idea of being relegated by November if the injury Anthony Knockaert sustained the previous night, in a 2-0 win against Fortuna Dusseldorf in Austria, turns out to be as much of a Knockaert blow as the case AK’s foot is now enshrined in suggests.

Hughton sounds an admirably restrained analysis of the game which, you suspect, likely diametrically opposes his annoyance during the match itself. "There were some tackles flying in that could have been deemed as reckless challenges,” he concludes with typical diplomacy.

“But these are the things that you have to be able to cope with.” Probably not in the first friendly back against a team in the German second tier, mind.

Sunday July 16th
The net result is we’ve net got Neto. Turns out one of the Brazil-via-Belgium budget-buster’s knees is as reliable as a toothpick in a swordfight. The club, in characteristic “we don’t comment on speculation” style, say nothing, but the player’s agent is believed to have left Lancing in a sweary flurry, furiously waving a photo of Paul Kitson in Albion colours.

Neto could find solace in the Instagram advice offered by one midfielder who almost definitely is incoming: Mathias Normann, Fotballspiller and proponent of the phrase “you have to fight through the bad days in order to earn the best days”. Normann's a Norwegian from Bodø/Glimt, a second tier side whose supporters occasionally demonstrate their loyalty by carrying giant yellow toothbrushes into games.

Will he clean up or merely become another flossed soul among the myriad promising spillers to have never emerged from the development squad? There’s Norway of knowing, really.

Monday July 17th
Not content with being massively better at defending than the average chump, Connor Goldson also had a slightly bigger aorta than most people, he reveals.

In easily the best news we could have wished for on a Monday, the most indie-dressing member of the Albion squad reflects on the operation which, essentially, saw his chest carved open in an operation ending any risk of the 24-year-old facing serious heart problems.

“I thought the world had ended,” he admits, speaking of the day in the middle of last season when he was told about the defect. “If something did happen you wouldn’t be able to tell what was going on and it would have been death straight away on a football pitch.” A long and promising career lies in wait.

Jamie Murphy, scorer of Albion’s opener against Fortuna following his recall to the Scotland squad, is linked with Fulham. Ticket sales for the only pre-season friendly at the Theatre of Broken Dreams, against Atletico Madrid, have topped 23,000, the club announces.

Tuesday July 18th
Tickets for Albion’s first away game, at Leicester in mid-August, go on sale to the privileged mob deemed to have accrued sufficient points under the terms of the club’s faintly mystifying new loyalty points system.

In scenes not witnessed since tickets for Bury away went up for grabs in 2001, the online queueing technology informs some fans there are more than 1,000 fans in front of them in the queue, evoking memories of Mark McGhee shimmying around the snaking lines shirking work in pursuit of a golden ticket to the Millennium Stadium all those moons ago.

A club spokesman laughs at rumours that the system could be altered to restrict tickets to fans who can pass a basic grammar test and resist tweeting to announce the news within seconds of blowing their moolah on a ticket.

“To get the balls out on the first day is a big thing,” Jamie Murphy announces to the official website, playing a magnificent round of innuendo bingo while discussing the joys of pre-season training.

Wednesday July 19th
“It will be good to test ourselves against the best players in the country and the world,” says Dale Stephens, yet again clearly referencing Burnley, his dreams of finally sidling up to Sean Dyche materialising a year later than he would have liked. “You look at Burnley and Bournemouth – they’ve kept the core of the squad that got them there. It will be nice to see everybody get a chance to play at this level.”

Bam Baldock is sidelined with what is expected to be a short-term calf injury, and two former Albion right-backs – one more legendary than the other – are united in the most unexpected of places.

“I am sure the Indian players will get to learn a lot from him,” says boss John Gregory, who has gone a long way from Crawley to the managerial hotseat at Super League club Chennaiyin, where his opening video message to the fans managed to be marginally more awkward than Bobby Zamora’s “I’m back” broadcast. The new signing he is referring to, naturally, is king among mortals Inigo Calderon.

The Albion club shop staff are no strangers to such exoticism, having apparently processed demand from New Zealand and Qatar among a record-breaking round of orders for the staggeringly beautiful, modestly-priced new home shirt.

In a major coup for the Albion, Hope Powell, who spent 15 years as England manager, will lead the women's challenge for promotion to Super League 1. “Shows our intent going forward,” tweets captain Sophie Perry, who’ll hope Powell is less perturbed by managing at Withdean than the last former England boss to lead Albion there, Peter Taylor. “We mean business.”

Thursday July 20th
Mathias Normann’s chiselled cheekbones and solid six-pack make the brickwork at Falmer appear relatively unsculpted as the midfielder poses outside everyone’s favourite spaceship stadium, having signed a three-year deal.

A youth-teamer for Norway, he’s immediately given the proverbial kiss of death by Chrissy Hugh, who pronounces him the 500th development squad player with a long-term goal of reaching the first team. Or heading straight back from whence he came.

Knockaert, who has been pictured hobbling around on crutches, has a chance of making the heroic opening day defeat to Man City, although he’s reported to be “utterly crestfallen” at missing Saturday's big one at the Checkatrade.com stadium in Crawley, where Aussie custodian Matty Ryan is expected to make his debut.

Knockaert will have to sit and watch the mercurial magic of former Withdean heartthrob and pool-playing firecracker Dean Cox, who lavishes praise upon Crawley’s pre-season thus far by telling The Argus that new boss Harry Kewell has been “trying to get his ideas across” alongside a lot of “hard running”.

Another mysterious next-best thing, Luis García, departs the developmental merry-go-round for Seville, taking with him a set of tracksuits branded with his own logo and the usual sense of enigmatic, Ali Dia-style regret/relief.

Friday July 21st
Call the cops, dust off your Sussex Senior Cup blu-ray showreel, set the satnav to negotiate innumerable grey roundabouts – it’s almost time for the big one at the Checkatrade.com Coliseum.

Championship scouts are evidently eyeing up Albion’s pre-season friendlies, because Murph’s fellow scorer in the tussle with Dusseldorf, Tomer Hemed, is also the subject of a transfer bid: Reading offer £4 million.

“We need to keep working hard and improve in every game so that we are ready for that first game of the season against Manchester City,” he responds, calling the Crawley clash a chance to “get used to the type of football the gaffer wants us to play.”

Given that HemHem and Glenn are the only fit current options upfront, that plan could conceivably involve a back six. “We have new players coming into the squad, but they have all integrated very well and have been made really welcome by us all,” says Hemed, reflecting on the imminent loan move of our new Norwegian.

“I’d rather exfoliate my beautiful face with an industrial grater than play at the MadStad again.”

Quote of the week: “We were sitting in his conservatory late one night and wanted a drink. Micky thought there was a keg of beer in the utility room, so we started drinking it but it was a bit warm so he told me to get some ice out of the freezer.

"I put the ice into the glasses and it started frothing up as we drank the beer. It tasted a bit odd, but we finished it and went to bed. We were sharing a bed, so Claire, who had just given birth to their son, Mitchel, could get some uninterrupted sleep – it’s a manager/assistant manager thing.

"In the morning we both felt awful and Claire burst into the room and asked, ‘Where is all the ice?’ ‘We used it in the beer,’ replied Micky. ‘That was my frozen breast milk.’

"We looked at each other and he said, ‘that’s the closest you will ever get to her breasts.’ We laughed our heads off. Claire eventually saw the funny side.” – Bob Booker on life as assistant to mini-marvel Micky Adams. The autobiography, Ooh-Ah Bob Booker, is expected to be published in August.

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.