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05/06: Reports:

Football League Division Two, 03/12/05, 3.00pm
Brighton and Hove Albion
Rules are rules
By Ian Grant

For all the controversy, there's something really terribly civilised about being in a pub at midnight and beyond. It might well be that the liquid-headed inhabitants of West Street and its charming variations in every town can only react to such liberation by drinking until they can't remember their names and then throwing up in my front garden on the way home, but that's not my fault. In the gloomy, close comfort of a decent pub, it feels lovely. It doesn't feel quite so lovely in the morning, of course, for there are penalties for being tempted into one last scotch more than one last time...but that only seems fair, all things considered.

Civilised, then. Relaxed and friendly and comfortable and altogether less stressful than the usual bundle for last orders. All of those things. And yet strange too. Very strange indeed.

Because you get used to rules, especially when they've been around for as long as the licensing laws. You get used to the patterns that are established: that bundle for the last drink, the reluctant, hurried swigging after time's been called, the opportunity to slink off home for an early night while everyone makes their mind up about what godforsaken club to go to. It's always been like that, ever since pubs were invented. It's not like that any more, though.

And so, we all sit around and try to work out what we're supposed to do. The Lion and Lobster, tucked cosily into a Hove side-street, is open until half past two, for heaven's sake. The temptation to succumb entirely to inebriated inertia is almost overwhelming, and potentially fatal. Even before it's midnight, it feels like it's four o'clock in the morning, such is the sense of being removed from normal context; it's like going to bed in the middle of the afternoon, only with lots of alcohol. Some people arrive and sit down at a table, and a significant part of your brain, still struggling to adjust, wonders why they're being served rather than shouted at. Some toast would be nice, with Marmite. It's all very odd.

Thankfully, not all walks of life are being upheaved so thoroughly. Not all rules are there to be broken. For all that this particular result, to bring things round to the matter in hand, caused a very great deal of grumbling, not least from the manager himself, it had a pleasant sense of order about it. We broke the rules. Two of them, to be precise:

1) Thou shalt not defend like arses at set pieces, especially against the lumpy teams.
2) Thou shalt not miss a penalty, especially if it's your only shot on target of the entire half.

Thus, in an X + Y = Z kinda way, we dropped a couple of points against a team that we'd expect to beat. Expect is an important word, given that we in no way deserved to beat Brighton at the end of a fairly ill-tempered, almost entirely meritless contest that passed an afternoon in much the same way as I'm A Celebrity passes an evening. It was an awful lot of hard work, playing and watching, for very little benefit. Crucially, it could still have yielded three points, but for the transgressions mentioned above.

It will be interesting to see whether Adrian Boothroyd's evident displeasure at the performance has an effect when we take on Plymouth next week; it's rare that consecutive fixtures are so similar in nature and therefore so easy to compare. He's right to be annoyed - to summarise, this was largely woeful, and horrible to watch too - but it's impossible to ignore the impact of injuries on a paper-thin squad, especially those to Ashley Young and Matthew Spring. It's all very well to say that these situations merely provide opportunities for others...but that doesn't ring quite true when you're bringing on Jay Demerit to play as a forward for the last twenty minutes because you don't have anyone else.

While the absence of Lloyd Doyley's defensive tenacity and general gravitas did us no favours, you'd be hard pushed to lay the blame for everything at Jordan Stewart's door; that won't stop some people from trying, I imagine, but the left back slot strikes me as being rather less of an issue than, say, everything else. The same applies to a dreadful referee, who contributed much to the general sense of irritation without having a tangible influence on the outcome. No, the thing to consider is that without the bright linking play provided by both Young and Spring, in their own different ways, we became terribly predictable in attack, and it was relatively easy for Brighton to keep a clean sheet before a moment of entirely individual brilliance from Marlon King broke the deadlock after forty-five minutes of tedium. Without the intelligence of those players, we could've done with a bit of brute force from Darius Henderson...but we didn't have him either.

I could go on. Shall I? Okay...without Young and Spring, Gavin Mahon and Al Bangura never even slightly settled into an organised partnership, and Brighton were completely dominant in midfield for more than half of the match as a consequence. Without that midfield dominance, we were continually exposed at the back: each time the ball appeared at their feet, Brighton players would loft early balls behind our defence, and better strikers will take better advantage of the lack of pace and the somewhat erratic offside trap. And so on, and so on. We have established that we've built a very exciting team indeed, one that's more than capable of competing at the top of this division. We've also, I think, established that it looks very, very ordinary when you take away one or two key components. We're building, still, and so that's all right. It's good reason to avoid getting too carried away, though....

Prior to the game, Adrian Boothroyd had warned supporters of the need to be patient, aware of the difficulty of breaking down teams like Brighton and, still to come, Plymouth. Well, yes, fine...but the need to be patient wasn't born of our cautious play, passing it around in Vialli-esque fashion in search of an opening. It wasn't because we were trying something new and unusual, elaborating on a plan drawn up on the training ground. It wasn't even because the visitors had come for a point. No, we needed to be patient because the first half was absolute drivel.

To be honest, I remain slightly puzzled that I've got a page of notes from it, such was the general lack of anything meaningful, interesting or, god forbid, entertaining. I do have a rather poor - I'm no artist, believe me - drawing of some seagulls, confidently composed in the knowledge that nothing would happen when I wasn't looking. But my scribbles generally support my memory: that Brighton were much the better side in all parts of the pitch, without having the quality to make it count for anything much. Everywhere, we were out-fought by very determined and aggressive opponents, forced into under-passing rather than over-passing. Second best, without question.

We were plain sloppy too. Not disastrously so, but enough to be a persistent annoyance. Nineteen minutes - look, you really haven't missed anything - and James Chambers picked up Robinson at a corner as he returned to the pitch after receiving treatment. He picked him up...and then his mind lost its grip on that thought and he just let him go again, fortunate that he lifted a half-volley over the bar when the ball inevitably came that way. Another aimless ten minutes, and Malky Mackay's stooping header back to Ben Foster lacks the necessary pace, enabling Robinson to get a foot in before the keeper. And our luck's in: Robinson stumbles at the vital moment, and Mackay is able to wallop clear before he can get to his feet. Butters slices a shot at Foster from the corner, and we're really not at all composed. Not concentrating properly, as listless as the crowd.

It went on for a dreadfully long time. Very occasionally, we'd produce something vaguely reminiscent of our early season pomp: Paul Devlin, moving wide after starting in a central role, combined well with Joel Grant before wasting the flowing football with a hopeless cross into the Vic Road end. More often, we'd lose the ball as soon as we'd found it, and another healthy hump forward from an Albion shirt would send Malky Mackay and Clarke Carlisle huffing and puffing back in pursuit. They're not especially refined, Albion...but we weren't either, and they could at least claim to be effective. A late corner, and El-Abd had a blasted shot deflected over on the six yard line by Carlisle after the referee had ignored a blatant shove by Kasim-Richards. We contemplated the possibility of the season's first disgruntled half-time booing, a noteworthy landmark for the new era.

Instead, everyone's gruntle was restored by Marlon King in injury time. He wins the "Man of the Match" award for this alone, for nothing else that we did had anything like the same efficient, decisive quality. No fuss, just control of a long ball from Mackay with back to goal, then a smart turn towards the target, managing to smuggle it between two defenders, and a hammered finish, fired low past Blayney. We had no right whatsoever to lead at the interval, and nothing in the previous forty-four minutes had suggested that we were capable of scoring, but that's the point: with strikers of such potency, it's possible.

Lucky Half-Time Chocolate: Yorkie.
Reason: Because Martin's, damn their eyes, still don't have any Turkish Dairy Milk. And also because Yorkie's marketing department has realised that merely writing "FOOTIE" on the bar in large letters will attract the attention of gullible mugs like me.
Level of Success: It wasn't very nice - Yorkies aren't very nice, as a rule - and it wasn't successful either. I repeat: bring back Turkish Delight and bring it back now. Otherwise, I may have to think the unthinkable and start buying my Lucky Half-Time Chocolate elsewhere. You've been told, so think on.

Oddly, given the end result, the second half was rather better. No less rubbish - heavens, no - but much more spirited, and half an hour of standing up and sitting down in the Rookery was enough to send most people home with some sense of achievement. A bit of exercise, at the very least. It began with another hint of a moment that'll be worth savouring: one day, Anthony McNamee will score with a far post header, and it'll be marvellous fun. This time, he just got a little bit closer, winning the battle with his marker to get to Paul Devlin's fine centre, but sending the ball comfortably over the bar. One day.

Instead, Brighton equalised, somewhat inevitably. You can join the dots yourself, even if you weren't there: set piece...Butters looping header...Foster off his line...bugger. A stupid goal to concede...and yet, exactly the goal that do concede in these games, unless you're right on your mettle for the whole ninety minutes. Immediately, Al Bangura lightened the mood with possibly the most inaccurate shot by a Watford player since that Wayne Brown effort at Selhurst; even so, blowing such a fortunate lead didn't seem like a terribly smart thing to do. Rule #1, and all that.

And we broke Rule #2 almost straight away. A simple enough free kick from the right, but Clarke Carlisle's goal-ward header was clearly blocked by a tangle of flailing arms from Butters, and the appeals were swiftly rewarded by the referee. After token protests, Marlon King stepped up...and just fluffed it entirely, knocking a low shot to Blayney's left and watching the keeper guess correctly to make a simple save. There's no need to go for power, necessarily...but if you don't, you have to replace it with a little guile. Or you have to let Ben Foster take 'em.

The rest was so predictable that it barely warrants the effort. For half an hour, we put Brighton under moderate pressure, but it was always pressure that they could deal with, enough bodies to smother attacks when they did reach the danger areas. Five minutes after the penalty, Blayney's rather elaborate diving catch kept out a Carlisle header after Marlon King had hooked the ball across. Another five minutes, and Anthony McNamee's excellent cross was headed back by a defender, and Joel Grant scooped hastily over the bar when he probably had time to take a touch and bury it. Don't be too hard on the kid, though: he's got something about him, and it's not the first time that he's found that yard of space within the penalty area. The problem, of course, is that he's currently an automatic choice rather than a promising youngster....

To illustrate the point, his replacement from the subs' bench was Jay Demerit, who spent twenty minutes wandering about in the final third to precious little purpose. He won a few headers, which was nice. Nobody around to pick up the ball, though, which wasn't. Now, we were entirely dominant, Brighton content with a draw...but for all the possession, and for all that Anthony McNamee's tormenting of makeshift full-backs was highly entertaining, we created nothing whatsoever in the closing stages. Nothing. The crowd's berating of the referee for showing yellow rather than red when Hart intercepted a pass through to McNamee with an outstretched hand spoke volumes, unknowingly: it wasn't a goalscoring opportunity in anything but the most vague sense, but it was about as close as we were going to get.

Thus, we concluded the afternoon in bizarre fashion: Jay Demerit and Clarke Carlisle staying in the centre circle in preparation for our next attack, while Brighton lobbed a throw-in into our penalty area. The attacking intent is commendable, naturally. But strikers are so much better at it than lumbering defenders. In injury time, the visitors appeared more likely to snatch it: Nicolas wasting one particularly threatening break with a long-range drive, perhaps still a little dizzy from trying to follow McNamee's whirling feet. The final whistle blew to collective grouching, mainly directed at the referee; in truth, while he'd done the game few favours, we'd probably done it even fewer....

It's January soon. There are decisions to be made, you suspect: about Marlon King, particularly, but about the rest of the squad too. And you hope that they'll be sensible decisions, long-term decisions. We've achieved an awful lot in the few months since the summer, but only the most short-sighted can have imagined that we'd get through the whole campaign with such a shallow squad and not feel the cold at some point. That's the way we chose to do it: to increase the squad's quality by spending proper money on players, and it's a lengthy process that'll inevitably leave us exposed from time to time.

It may well be that we'll be too exposed, unable to maintain our position. So be it. There's a great temptation to forget about budgets, to forget about prudence, to follow the dream of top flight football, because it feels close enough to take that chance. There are one or two hints, a couple of curious comments from the manager, that make me shift uncomfortably, nervously. That make me wonder whether we're about to do something daft again.

I very much hope not. This was rubbish, sure. It was affordable rubbish, though, and that still matters.