Rollercoaster? Not even close!

In April 1997, Brighton & Hove Albion Football Club was staring into the abyss.  Rooted to the bottom of the football league, with asset-stripping bastards in charge off the pitch.  We arrived at games back then, with no clue as to where the club was going.  All we wanted was for Archer & Bellotti to leave, so we could re-build and consolidate.

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Albion v Doncaster Rovers 26th April 1997 – last game at The Goldstone

Our ground was about to be bulldozed, meaning our shrine to the Albion, which had stood for nearly 100 years, was being taken away.  “Homeless, broke – the Board’s a joke!” read one of the many banners on display at the various marches that had taken place in the the two years previously.

In one of those curious little coincidences, Just 20 short years later to the month, that same club, my club, stands on the brink of promotion to the top flight.  On Monday, we play Wigan Athletic and a victory means that, barring a statistical freak, we will celebrate the ultimate footballing redemption.  34 years since relegation from the old Division One, Albion will return to lock horns with the big boys and I cannot wait.

The irony is that these past 20 years have seen much success, with four promotions (and two relegations), a play-off final win (and three unsuccessful tilts at the end-of-season lottery) and numerous days of drama, euphoria, heartbreak and despair.  The biggest journey however, has been the transition from the rubble of The Goldstone, to the shiny new cathedral of football that is The American Express Community Stadium.  This is the real story, the one of relentless toil by so many people, all of whom believed that one day, Albion would rise again as a footballing force.

On the pitch (not counting the 4 we have left this season), we’ve played 916 league games since the breathless last-day survival at Hereford in 1997.  The first 92 of those were at Gillingham, 75 miles away from Brighton.  This was the horrendous consequence of the systematic rape of our club by Archer & Bellotti.  The first season was awful.  We won just SIX games all season and our points tally of 35 would have been enough to send us down, if it wasn’t for Doncaster Rovers, who were, amazingly, even worse than us.  A degree of recovery was seen in the 1998/99 season, when we found out that a return to Brighton was on the cards.  I didn’t go to Gillingham as much as I could have (or even should have), but the times I did go, it was a bleak, brutal experience, with Albion fans rattling around Priestfield Stadium, desperately trying to rally the demoralised troops.

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Albion v Mansfield Town.  First game at Withdean Stadium, 7th August 1999

 

The return to Brighton became a reality in August 1999, when we ran out for the first league football match at Withdean Stadium.   The residents of the leafy suburb, quickly nicknamed ‘The Theatre of Trees’ tried their best to prevent it, but the hard work by new Chairman Dick Knight and his team, made it happen.

A season of consolidation came and went, and then we signed Bobby Zamora.  I was now able togo to more and more games and as the 2000/01 season wore on, it was clear that we were heading for something special, spear-headed by the goal-machine that was Bobby.  He propelled us to the Division Three title and we left that division after 184 games.  67 wins, 48 draws and 69 defeats made up that time.  We scored 234 goals and conceded 213.

The next three seasons were brilliant, with two more promotions, either side of a relegation, following a very brief flirtation with the second tier.  The mid-to-late-noughties were strange times.  We flirted with success, finishing seventh in 2007/08 as well as with danger.  May 2009 saw us escape relegation back to the fourth tier on the final day, Nicky Forster scoring the vital goal at Withdean.  This was my son Fraser’s first ‘proper’ season and he loved it, despite the many soakings on the open seating in the Family Stand.

Autumn 2009 saw the arrival of Gus Poyet.  His first game was away at Southampton, who were themselves recovering from off-field turmoil.  St Marys played host to just over 2,700 Albion fans, including me and Fraser.  It was a short trip for us, about 5 miles, and although we were a bit apprehensive, we were hoping the team would do us proud.  A 3-1 win did that in spades.

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Fraser at Aston Villa – Jan 2010

Fraser was able to go to School the next day and hold his head high.  That was the real tipping point for him in terms of his Albion support.  You always hope your kids will listen to sense and support the same team as you.  In 2009/10 Fraser really got the bug.

The following season it all came together in glorious style.  We won League One, playing some of the best football many supporters had seen for a long, long time.  At the same time, our brilliant new stadium was rising from the Sussex downland and we had a new man at the helm in the Boardroom.  Tony Bloom was in charge, the latest in a long line of Blooms with an association to the club.  Many of the objections to Falmer surrounded the ‘spoiling’ of an area of outstanding natural beauty.  What a load of old rubbish.  The stadium IS an area of outstanding natural beauty.  Biased?  Not me.

01 - 6 Aug 11 v Doncaster Rovers

Albion v Doncaster Rovers.  First game at The Amex. 6th August 2011

So there we were, back in The Championship with a new ground.  The Manager and team seemed capable of holding their own, despite the loss of Glenn Murray to Crystal Palace.  The first season at Falmer ended with us in 10th place but the following season, it all stepped up.  Me and Fraser were season ticket holders in the North Stand and were absolutely loving it.  A 3-0 win at home against Palace was the high point, with some absolute scenes being witnessed when David Lopez smashed in a free kick just before half time.  Play-off heartbreak then followed and it’s still difficult to talk about it, even now, mainly because it made Fraser cry.  A 2-0 defeat was bad enough but when we saw the Palace players celebrating at the end of the game, that was hard to take.

The following season brought more play-off nightmares, but at least we could say we lost to the better team in Derby County.  2014/15 started with a new man in charge (Sami Hyppia) but any hopes that his playing pedigree would translate to success on the pitch were soon well and truly dashed.  We were shit, really shit.  The low point for me was the Millwall game just before Christmas when we were woeful.  Fighting is never a good thing to see at football but to witness our fans scrapping with each other was tough.  Thankfully, Tony Bloom put him out of his misery and brought in Chris Hughton.  The rest of course, is history.

The quiet assurance of Hughton is a joy to watch.  He never seems to get over-excited and in front of the camera, he is always cool, calm and collected.  The disappointment of 2015/16, first at Middlesbrough then at The Amex with Sheffield Wednesday beating us in the play-offs, was very, very hard to take.

Many fans, me included, thought a good, consolidating, mid-table season would be classed as a success, with perhaps a flirt with the play-offs thrown in at some stage.  That prediction went well!  We are not flirting with the play-offs because for nearly all of the season, we have been in the top-two!

So here we are, twenty years on from the dark days of 1997.   The 917th league game since 1997 could bring final redemption to this brilliant football club.  The record at the moment stands at P916, W350, D266, L300, F1161, A995.  We’ve taken 1,316 points in that time.  Three more and it’s party-time.

It would seal the fifth promotion in 20 years, and certainly the hardest.  By nature I’m an emotional person so if we pull it off, I am going to be a blubbering, drunken wreck.  But who cares.  This is what being a football fan is all about.  We go through the lows in order to experience the absolute highs.  Fraser will be with me on Monday and part of my emotion will be seeing the joy on his face.  He’s 16 years old and wasn’t even born when we were in the depths of League Two, let alone the last time we were in the top flight.  He is beside himself with anticipation and despite having gone through this all before, so am I.  I can genuinely say that in nearly 48 years of supporting Brighton & Hove Albion, I’m just as excited as I was when I saw promotion in 1977, at a similar age to Fraser.

I’ll leave the final words to Danny Baker, with one of the greatest football-related quotes I have ever read:

“Football, fucking football.  Imagine not being into it.  Those poor, poor half-alive bastards”

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Pies Pints & Programmes

I’ve always wanted to write a book.  Not a novel, I don’t have that kind of imagination, but something factual.

It’s taken me a long time, but I have come to realise, in the last few years, that my (working) life should have taken a different turn.  Back in 1977, instead of taking the £ and starting work for Midland Bank, I should have gone to University and got a degree.  Then I might have ended up as a Sports Journalist.  Not one of those investigative chaps, who revel in digging deep into the darkest secrets of footballers.  I wanted to travel the country (and the World) reporting on things that actually happen, the matches, the tournaments, the agony and ecstasy, promotion, relegation and all things in between.

Don’t get me wrong, I’ve had a great time and there isn’t too much about my life I would change.  My children have long been asking me to write down my story, but I’ve always thought ‘who would read that?’.  I now realise that I should be writing the book for me – if anyone else reads it, well that’s a bonus!

So what’s the subject?  My life has been great but that’s viewed through my eyes.  If I’m going to write about my life, I need something else to bring people into my World.

I obviously love football, and have done for pretty much as long as I can remember.  This love affair has taken me to incredible highs and ridiculous lows and through it all, I’ve seen some pretty amazing things.  Come to think of it, that’s pretty much a summary of my non-footballing life as well, so maybe there IS a link between the two after all.

The main focus of my footballing devotion is Brighton and Hove Albion, The Seagulls.  They say being a football fan is like being on an emotional rollercoaster.  That’s fair enough, but the Brighton version of this isn’t a gentle little slow-motion roundabout.  It’s a full-on, maximum intensity, strap-me-in, pass the sick-bag experience.

I popped into the World at the end of the 1950s.  I crept in by three and bit months, but my children revel in telling me I am a child of the first rock’n’roll era.  More of that later, but since then, my life, and that of my beloved Albion, has been a glorious mixture of joyous celebration, utter desolation and pretty much everything else in between.

I’ve seen promotions, relegations, an FA Cup Final (and a replay), two play-off finals, last-minute winners, unspeakably boring 0-0 draws, last-day survivals, pitch invasions, four home grounds, peaceful (and not quite so) protests and loads of unbelievable goals.  Countless players have come and gone, along with a succession of managers, all trying to bring glory to our fantastic club.

Would I have changed any of this?  Any football fan knows the answer to this.  Of course not.

A big part of this footballing odyssey has been my need to collect football programmes.

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Cover from 1945/46

Like many children growing up in the 60s and 70s, I was obsessed with collecting things.  I dabbled with stamps, train tickets (and numbers), bubblegum cards, as well as many other, pointless, things, but always I came back to football programmes.  I grew to love these beautiful snapshots of our past.  In the 1950s, with their grainy photographs and precise, formal words, then through to the 60s, 70s and 80s when publishing techniques and the thirst for knowledge brought ever-larger programmes.  Right through to the present day, when the beautifully produced matchday magazines face a constant threat to their existence from the internet.  The Albion programme has grown from a 4-page information sheet to a near 100-page monster that takes up so much space in my house!

 

They may be more magazine than team sheet these days, but they provide a fascinating insight  into the life of the football club at any given time.  Managers and players come and go, but the programme is a constant, feeding our insatiable thirst for statistics, random facts about our favourite players and the Managers’ thoughts on that day’s

bhafcvleedsunited-page-001

2016/17

opponents.

 

So, my book is going to be a chronicle of my journey through life, using the Brighton and Hove Albion programme as my reference point, celebrating the joys in my life and commiserating with my when things go wrong.  The Albion programme has been there, helping to define and recount the milestones in my life that have helped shape who I am.

This blog will be the mouthpiece for my (and Albion’s) rollercoaster.

I hope you enjoy the ride.

 

Oh the tension!

This Saturday, it’s the winner-take-all showdown at Middlesbrough.  If we win, we go up into The Premier League.  Anything else and it’s the play-offs.

The game is huge, massive.

Sky would have you believe that the £200million showdown, to enter ‘the greatest league in the World’, is without compare in global football terms.  If you are a bean-counter or someone who has no appreciation of the history of our glorious game (that’s YOU, Sky Sports), then you are probably right. But a sunny day in May 1997 ticks all the boxes for Albion’s biggest ever game.

After two years of relentless struggle against unscrupulous bastard owners, we journeyed to play Hereford United on 3rd May with a simple equation written down.  A draw would keep us in the league by virtue of a better goals-scored tally.  Anything else and The Conference beckoned.  More importantly for Albion, relegation would probably mean the club going out of business.  That might sound dramatic, but that was the stark reality.

There are lots of magnificent football books in circulation but for a ‘from the heart’ Build a Bonfireaccount of how fans campaigned, protested and (literally at times) fought for the survival of a Football Club, then you need to track down a copy of ‘Build a Bonfire’.

Compiled by Steve North and Paul Hodson, both big Albion fans, it documents, in the words of those at the heart of the struggle, how the ruthless, greedy, selfish owners attempted to sell and profit personally from the sale of the club.  They tried to do this without a single thought for the 95-year history of the club, or the thousands of fans who had poured through the turnstiles over the years.  This will probably be familiar territory for fans of Blackpool and I truly hope they rid their club of the Oyston parasites.

It’s a tale of a ceaseless fight for justice, of a single-minded determination to rid our club of a toxic regime.

The details of the story have been told many, many times, so I won’t go over it again but really, find that book, it’s brilliant.

In December 1996, 030Albion were rock-bottom of Division Three (League Two for the youngsters), nine points adrift of Hartlepool United, and ten behind Hereford United.  We had just sacked Manager Jimmy Case, an inevitable decision given the shackles (financial and otherwise) he had to work with.  Steve Gritt came in with the club at it’s lowest ebb.  We were terrible.

That first game for Gritt brought about a 3-0 win, our first for eight games and only our 4th all season.  We had been knocked out of the FA Cup by Sudbury Town and crowds were hovering around the 3,000 point.  A win in a Manager’s first game is usually put down to ‘players impressing the new Gaffer’ syndrome and sure enough, we didn’t win in the league again, until January 25th.  By that time, the deficit was somehow down to 7 points, due to a few scrappy draws.

We took to field against Rochdale with 10 home games to go.  Steve Gritt had identified our home form as crucial to our (miniscule) survival hopes, but that’s without taking into account the toxic atmosphere among the crowd, brought about by messrs Archer and Bellotti.

Then something extraordinary started to happen.  The Rochdale game was won 3-0 and that was followed by two more wins and a draw.  This included an incredible game against Hartlepool United, the ‘Fans United’ game.  This is another chapter in our history that has seen hundreds of thousands of words written so I won’t add to them, but the atmosphere and sense of togetherness shown that day, was another vital cog in our oh-so-complex survival machine.

I wrote earlier that Steve Gritt targetted our home form.  Our last 10 home games were: Rochdale (WIN), Hartlepool United (WIN), Exeter City (WIN), Swansea City (WIN), Northampton Town (WIN), Leyton Orient (DRAW – that doesn’t tell even half the story!), Cardiff City (WIN), Barnet (WIN), Wigan Athletic (WIN), and an unforgettable game against Doncaster Rovers, the last at The Goldstone Ground (WIN).

Extraordinary statistics that took us to Hereford seeking the final piece of the impossible jigsaw.  A draw for survival.

The added tension (not that any extra was really needed), was that our main rivals for the drop were………… yes, you’ve guessed it, Hereford United.

I didn’t/couldn’t go and to this day, it’s one of those games where, with hindsight, I wished I had done more to secu56 - 3 May 97 v Hereford Unitedre a ticket.  Or even gone without one.

The troubles were reaching a climax off the pitch, with a new consortium, headed by the charismatic Dick Knight, looking like they were going to take over.  Relegation to The Conference, though not a deal-breaker, would have made Dick’s job that much harder, so it was all to do for Steve Gritt’s men.

One-nil down at half time, one-nil down with half an hour to go, and I was by now pacing around my local Marks and Spencer, sick with tension and a transistor radio glued to my ear.  The rest, thanks to Robbie Reinelt, is history, and that day provided a springboard for the gradual re-birth of a club.

The fans weren’t done, as more relentless campaigning, this time for a new stadium, came to bear fruit in August 2011.  Five years into life at our new stadium (when do we stop calling it ‘new’ by the way?) and 19 years nearly to the day, since that game against Hereford United, we stand on the brink of a return to the top flight.

It’s a huge game and I will be paralysed with apprehension, come 12.30pm on Saturday, but the biggest game in our history?

Not even close.

I love football!

This summer, I will have been supporting Brighton & Hove Albion for 48 years.   Here’s the cover of the programme from my first game, on 28th August 1968.  It’s pretty irrelevant to this post, but I love football programmes, so here you go!

Page 01 torquaySince that warm summer evening at the end of the swinging sixties, we have been promoted eight times and relegated seven times.  We have reached an FA Cup Final (twice if you count the replay!), got to two play-off finals and have been 28 minutes away from going out of the league altogether.  We have sneaked into the play-offs with injury time goals, escaped relegation on the last day of the season, and enjoyed countless days of excitement, misery, expectation and despair.

You would think, wouldn’t you, that after all that, a possible promotion run-in would be easy to deal with.  After all, we’ve been there before, loads of times.  We know what to expect, right?

Wrong!

Danny Baker once said; “Football, fucking football.  Imagine not being into it, those poor, poor, half-alive bastards”

He is, as per usual, absolutely spot on.  Football consumes you, attacks your emotions, plays with your mind and then spits you out, anywhere between abject misery and all-consuming euphoria.  And I love it.

Brighton have been playing with my emotions for nearly half a century and despite this preparation, I am here in 2016, riddled with expectation and hope.  Albion stand on the brink of another promotion, this time to the bloated cash cow that is The Premier League.  But forget all the talk of multi-million pound players and obscene wages, this is about football, pure and simple.  We go to watch our team win and if we win enough games, promotion is the result.

In just over 24 hours time, we will run out at Nottingham Forest, knowing that a win will keep us in third place, a point behind Middlesbrough and two behind Burnley.  With those two still to play each other, and our final game away at Middlesbrough, the simple equation is, win all six remaining games and we are promoted.  Easy! 

It certainly won’t be easy and there will surely be a good few twists and turns to come, but Chris Hughton and the boys are in a fantastic position.  Yesterday’s results mean a play-off place is all but guaranteed and that’s great, but do we really want all that extra mental torture?  Our four previous flirtations with this amazing end-of-season lottery has brought mixed results.  In 1991, we eased past Millwall before being undone by Tommy Johnson and his Notts County team at Wembley.  In 2004, the semi-final against Swindon Town took us through the complete emotional spectrum, before a trip to the Millenium Stadium brought joy, thanks to Leon Knight.  2013 and 2014 delivered semi-final misery, against Crystal Palace and Derby County.  The play-offs are great, but only if you win!

The next four weeks will take me and all Albion fans on yet another glorious roller-coaster of emotions.  I have a feeling that this particular ride won’t be one of the gentle little trips you see at seaside funfairs.  This one promises to be a full-on inverted-loop, upside-down, legs-dangling, blood-curdling ride of terror.

I literally can’t wait!

Eight to go and it’s twitchy-bum time

I don’t write this blog nearly as often as I would like.  Unfortunately, work gets in the way and on the basis that I get paid for that, but not for this, it’s a no-brainer.

As I sit down now however, it’s Easter Saturday and, weirdly, there isn’t a programme of football.  Well, there is, but not in the top two divisions.  Instead, I will sneak a peek later, at England’s latest attempt to convince us we’ve got a chance at Euro 2016.  I’m not holding my breath but I am a confirmed super optimist so we are clearly going to hammer Germany  by three or four.

The real business starts again next week, with Albion’s game against Burnley.  This is a proper ‘top of the table clash’, as we are second, just 4 points behind The Clarets.  I said above that I am a super optimist and I am, but I just haven’t been able to get too crazily optimistic over Albion this season.  This is despite the fact that compared to the carnage of last season, we have been nothing short of unbelievable, even allowing for the blip in December and January.

So, with eight games to go, there is a real chance we could be promoted to The Premier League.  If we beat Burnley next Saturday, in front of the cameras (again), can we really start to believe?  You know what, I think we can.  Disappointment goes hand in hand with a life as a supporter of Brighton & Hove Albion, and I think it’s this that keeps me from going too overboard when my friends ask me ‘are you going up then?’.  But I really think it’s on this season.

So, make no mistake, next week’s game is massive, but it’s just another massive game in the list, since we moved to Falmer.  It’s pretty hard to believe that we are coming to the end of our fifth season at The Amex, so how many ‘massive’ games have we had in that time?  The answer, of course, is ‘lots’, but I’ve picked out four that have defined our time at Falmer.

1.   6th August 2011 v Doncaster Rovers – W 2-1

Well, yes, obviously.  I’m assuming that everyone who reads this blog will be aware of what it meant to us, to see the team run out after 14 years without a ‘proper’ ground, so I won’t dwell.  It’s enough to say that as emotional moments go, the 97th minute Will Buckley winner, was right up there with anything I’ve experienced in my football-supporting life.  It was great for me personally, because I was there with my son Fraser, who was aged 10 at01 - 6 Aug 11 v Doncaster Rovers the time.

He went to his first game as a 6-week-old baby, on 10th March 2001. Albion 3 Hull City 0 at Withdean, if you’re interested.  As he grew up, the parental responsibility of drip-feeding my allegiance into his mind gathered pace.  The turning point was 15th November 2009 when, aged 8, we watched Gus Poyet’s men run riot in our home town to beat Southampton 3-1.  He had major bragging rights at school on that Monday.  Anyway, here we were, me and Fraser, watching The Albion, under cover, in a fantastic shiny new stadium.  And I cried.  A lot.

 

2.   28th January 2012 v Newcastle United (FA Cup) – W 1-0

Earlier in that first season we had played Liverpool in the Carling Cup.  We lost 2-1 but it didn’t feel like a massive game.  We were almost expected to lose and the atmosphere didn’t quite have the edge is should have done.

After str20 - 28 Jan 12 v Newcastle Uniteduggling past Wrexham in the 3rd Round, the draw paired us with Newcastle United at The Amex.  They were struggling and although a Premier League Club, we felt we could turn them over.  And we did.  It was that man Buckley again, with a deflected shot in front of us in the North Stand.  We had beaten a top-flight side in the FA Cup and THAT definitely DID mean something.

Fraser loved it as well – it was his birthday and they read his name out at half-time, before playing The Who over the PA.  The whiole day was a massive WIN.

 

3.    17th March 2013 v Crystal Palace – W 3-0

Oh.  My.  Word.  Crazy scenes.  We went into the game on the back of two defeats and a draw, with the dream of a place in the play-offs starting to recede.  Nearly 28,500 in the ground, including loads from them up the road.  It was tense, for 43 minutes an21 - 17 Mar 13 v Crystal Palaceyway.  Then Leonardo Ulloa scored in front of the Palace fans to give us the lead.  1-0 at half-time – thanks very much, that will do nicely.  A good few people left their seats to join the queue for a pie and/or a pint.  We then got a free-kick on the edge of their box, which David Lopez stepped up to take.  Just get it on target and we can go in and re-group.  Well, he got it on target, and some.  A gasp of disbelief was quickly followed by absolute delirium.  A one-goal half-time advantage had been doubled and it went absolutely mental in the North Stand.

A further goal from Ulloa followed, early in the second half and we saw out the game in style.  Afterwards, the club let us take our beers out onto the seats and we enjoyed some quality banter with the Palace players as they warmed down.  Winning this game told us we could do it, and this made play-off defeat to Palace just two months later, even harder to stomach.

4.    8th May 2014 v Derby County (Play-Off Semi-Final 1st Leg) – L 2-1

In March 2014, I was in Hospital, having an operation on my ankle.  After years of football injuries and post-football hobbling, I had an ankle fusion.  I was in a cast for 11 weeks and this coincided with us sneaking into the play-offs under Oscar Garcia.  I nearly ruptured myself as Ulloa headed that goal in at Forest  This brought us to another play-off semi-final, this time against Derby County.  They were flying, but we all thought that the momentum gained by our heroics at Forest, would carry us through against what was probably the best side in the division.

Not a chance.  We lost 2-1 at The Amex, 4-1 at The I-Pro, Garcia resigned and we entered the dark days of Sami Hyypia.

Onwards and Upwards

The 2014/15 season brought no massive games.  At least not of the type we enjoy.  The Millwall game just before Christmas was massive, but only because it featured fighting amongst our own fans (as well as the obligatory Millwall neanderthals causing mayhem).  I left that game, thinking ‘where do we go from here?’.  It was the most disappointed I have been after a game for a long, long time.

Into January 2015 and Chis Hughton came to the club.  We survived, just, and pretty much everyone viewed 15/16 as a season of consolidation, with Hughton building a squad capable of challenging (hopefully) in 16/17.

That’s all a load of bollocks – this is Tony Bloom’s club and we don’t do consolidation.  Twenty-one games unbeaten at the start of the season, the usual blip in December/January and here we are, 2nd in the league and on the verge of something pretty crazy.

A win next week against Burnley and we will be in dreamland.  Me and Fraser will be there, daring to dream.

I can’t wait.

The Curse of October, or Oktoberfarce as it should be known

On 3oth October 2010, Albion destroyed Peterborough United 3-0, on our way to promotion and the glorious transition from The Theatre of Trees at Withdean, to the magnificent cathedral of football at Falmer.

Here we are, nearly 5 years on from that day, with Albion not having won a single game in the Halloween month.  This extraordinary run stretches for 20 games, during which we have seen 13 draws and 7 defeats.  Goals have been a rare commodity, with our strikers netting just 12 times in those games, whilst our back line has leaked twenty-two times.  All but one of the games have been league encounters, with just one match (against Tottenham Hotspur in 2014) in the League Cup.  Why has this happened?  Even by the weird standards of the usual Albion inconsistency, this is a strange one.

In 2011, the euphoria surrounding the move to Falmer was just beginning to evaporate.  After a confident start, that saw us top by the end of a frantic August, September brought us back down to Earth.  A reason for the Oktoberfarce in 2011 may possibly be seen in the freak nature of the fixture calendar at the end of September, allied to the malevolent influence of Sky Sports, able to move games at the slightest whim.  On Wednesday 21st September, our League Cup game against Liverpool was chosen by Sky as a live game.  We gave it our all and despite a stirring second half performance, Liverpool went through 2-1.  Just TWO days later, we (and the Sky cameras) were back at Falmer for a league game against former ‘Champions of Europe’ Leeds United, no doubt in response to the millions of global fans they have, demanding more coverage for their perennial underachievers.  It was another thrilling game.  2-0 down at half time, Craig Mackail-Smith played like he was supposed to and we went into second-half injury time 3-2 up, only to be denied when Casper Ankergren (ex-Leeds United goalkeeper, although that is clearly an irrelevance……….), decided to throw one in his own net, right in front of the Leeds fans.  Oh well.  Two games in three days, but the real test was to come on the following Tuesday, 08 - 27 Sep 11 v Crystal Palacewhen we welcomed the real enemy from just up the M23.  It was the first time we had played Crystal Palace since 2005 and we were DESPERATE for a result, for so many reasons.  It was not to be.  Palace won 3-1 and to add insult to injury, their 3rd goal was scored by Glenn Murray, who had crossed the divide after contract negotiations broke down in the summer of 2011.  So this run of 3 games in 6 days was surely a good reason for what followed in October.  A 3-1 defeat at Ipswich Town, followed by draws away at Hull City and at home to Millwall, set the tone.  For me, the most disappointing game was against the hoofball hooligans of the East End.  Newly relegated from the Premier League, Sam Allardyce brought his neanderthal group of over-bulked monsters to Falmer, with clear instructions to get the ball forward as quickly and as aerially as possible.  Our brand of Poyet-inspired tippy tappy was good enough to give us over 70% of the possession, but we were undone by one slip at the back, letting in Kevin Nolan, who slammed the ball into the North Stand goal, and then set off on his trademark duck/twat (delete as appropriate) celebration in front of us.  1-0 to 19th Century football (copyright J Mourinho) and we ended the month with another insipid goalless draw, away at Birmingham City.

Twelve months on, into 2012/13, and another fine start had only been (slightly) halted by a 1-0 defeat at home to Birmingham City.  Perhaps the curse was carried over from the draw against the same opponents at the end of October the previous year?  We certainly couldn’t blame a fixture pile-up courtesy of the League Cup.  Swindon Town had taken advantage of early season lethargy to dump us 3-0 before a ball had even been kicked in anger in the league.   Perhaps our monthly ration of goals had been used up?  We scored 15 goals in September 2012 and the return of 2 (yes, TWO) in the 5 games in October would suggest there is some merit in this.  Whatever happened, we were pretty shit, with scores of 1-1 (home v Ipswich), 0-0 (away v Derby), 0-1 (home to Middlesbrough), 0-1 (away to Leicester City), and 1-1 (home to Blackpool).  What a transformation, from the free-scoring cavalier football we saw in the previous month.  The cracks were beginning to show in Gus Poyet’s brand of football and the grumbling had started.  We (obviously) went unbeaten in November and the season ended brilliantly, although the final tactical shitstorm against Palace 06 - 20 Oct 12 v Middlesbroughin the play-offs, was undoubtedly a factor in Poyet leaving the club.  I can’t think what else it might have been……..

2013/14 came and new manager Oscar Garcia arrived with a Barcelona-based CV and a calm, measured approach to his job.  Two close defeats at the start was halted by a recovery at the end of August and into September but once again, a defeat at the back end of that month, set us up for another run from hell.  Our three home games in October yielded two draws and a defeat, with the solitary away trip, to Yeovil, providing more ammunition for the doubters, as our inability to do anything of note in the final third, brought yet another 0-0 draw.

The appalling run of form carried on into November 2013 but we at least recovered to scrape into the play-offs, thanks to Leonardo Ulloa’s stoppage-time heroics at Nottingham Forest.  It was a false dawn, because we were absolutely torn apart by Derby County in the play-offs.  Oscar Garcia decided enough was enough and left his post, to be replaced for the 2014/15 season, by ex-Liverpool hero Sami Hyypia.7 - 18 Oct 14 v Middlesbrough

Even the mention of his name makes me twitch in ways that are not in any way good.   The season started with two defeats, then two wins.  That was it really, and we ended September with a 1-1 home draw to Cardiff City.  So, no defeat going into October.  Surely this was time for the hoodoo to be broken.  Forget it.  October started with an away draw at Watford and ended with an away defeat against Bournemouth.  Both these teams ended up being promoted, but we seemed to be getting further away from the promised land, rather than closer.  In between those games, we had our usual sequence, defeat, draw, draw, with a League Cup reverse at Spurs thrown in.

Hyypia was a dead man walking and after some pretty abject performances, particularly a game just before Christmas against Millwall, he left the club.  That Millwall game was one of my lowest points watching Albion.  This says a lot, bearing in mind I’ve been watching us since 1968.  At least when we were really shit, we were all in it together.  At that Millwall game I saw fans of the same club fighting each other.  Depressing.  Also depressing, but strangely inevitable, was the sight of the knuckle-draggers from Millwall behaving in their customary manner in the South Stand.  Hey ho.

So, this season.

Albion unbeaten, top of the league, and a manager in Chris Hughton who seems to have the right balance between gritty determination, organisation throughout the team, and no short measures of flair.  Surely, this will be the time to lay the hoodoo and break a sequence of results that becomes more remarkable as each season goes by.

Someone should have mentioned this to skipper Gordon Greer.  Picture the scene.  1-1 against a decent Cardiff City side that we had out-played but not put away (sound familiar?).  In the 94th minute, the ball comes across the six-yard box and Gordon manages to miss the target from a yard.  And so it goes on.  P20, W0, D13, L7, F12, A22

On Saturday we play Leeds United at Elland Road.  They are again threatening a season of mediocrity but this is October so who knows?  We then play Bristol City (at home) who are also struggling, then Preston, also at home, who are having problems with life in the parachute-payment rich Championship.  We finish the month away at Reading.

Surely, surely we are set to win in October at some stage over the next 19 days?

My World Cup journey – the misery of being an Englishman

I was nearly seven when England won the World Cup. Ever since that day in 1966, I have approached each tournament with gradually reducing levels of expectation. Will we ever lift the ultimate football trophy again? Will I ever experience the utter euphoria of being a World Cup winner? The anticipation of this summer’s tournament is high, in terms of the fact that it’ great to have a months-worth of football every day. It’s not so high when we look at the prospects for the three lions, but what of the eleven other tournaments that have passed since the summer of ’66?

My memories of the win are very sketchy. I know we were at my Uncle John’s house, but I can’t remember any dancing around the garden, drunken revelry and general lunacy, ALL of which would be by evident if we pulled it off in Brazil! It was all very low-key, 48 years ago, but in 1970, I thought we would win it again. Nearly 11 years old and a nearly-full Panini sticker book took me into the tournament. I also had an official programme, which was to be filled with my unique spidery hand-writing as the competition progressed. England were in a group with Romania, Chezchoslovakia and the mighty Brazil.

Job application – Albion Manager

Dear Mr Bloom,

I am writing to apply for the job as Manager of Brighton and Hove Albion Football Club. Despite being a fan of the club, I believe my experience will enable me to run the playing side of the operation with objectivity.

In respect of my credentials to manage the club, I can point to a number of years experience at managing teams at all levels.

From 1993 to 1996, I was first player-manager, then manager, of Bracklesham Football Club in the West Sussex League. I led the club to victory in the 1996 Chichester Charity Cup but more importantly, developed a strong team ethic and togetherness, due to a number of highly successful curry nights, preceded by pub crawls around Chichester. I had a previous time as a player at the club in the late 70s and early 80s and knew how important it was to have a squad of players who bonded off, as well as on, the pitch.

Latterly, I have enjoyed considerable success on Football Manager, guiding Bognor Regis Town to Champions League success and two successive Premier League titles. This led to me being given an opportunity to manage Hiney FC on the highly prestigious ‘Top Eleven Football Manager’. I have taken the team from the lower echelons of the pyramid to level eight in just 9 (virtual) seasons. I have done this with a prudent use of funds, coupled with a transfer policy built around a commitment to youth, allied to the use of a number of experienced heads in key positions throughout the team.

I have had full responsibity for team affairs, as well as overseeing all construction projects relating to the club. We have moved from a park pitch to a State of the art 43,000 capacity stadium, with facilities approved for Champions League fixtures. Our Academy provides the first team with a steady flow of talented youngsters and our medical facilities are the envy of the league. We have also recently opened a museum facility that brings in significant additional income to the club.

My responsibility for team affairs includes the management of a transfer budget in excess of £200million. I designed, delivered and executed a transfer policy that revolves around the recruitment of talented youngsters in the 18 to 25 year old age range. Many of my incoming transfers have gone on enjoy a successful career with not only Hiney FC, but with other clubs after being transferred out. I am not afraid to make decisions that are for the benefit of the club.

This season alone, I am currently showing a net profit of £19million. Although some £66milion has been spent in transfer fees, I have recouped over half this sum from sales. We currently lie 2nd in the level 8 table, are also 2nd in our Champions League group and are well-placed to progress to success in both competitions.

I feel the role as Head Coach at The Albion is a fantastic opportunity for me to progress my career, whilst at the same time delivering success on the pitch, as well as a blueprint for excellence on the non-playing side. The opening of the club’s new Academy in the summer, will provide a brilliant opportunity for me to put my skills into practice, in a more competitive and testing environment.

My affinity with the fans of every club I have worked for, gives me a great insight into what is needed at Brighton & Hove Albion. I believe the fans are the lifeblood of the club and I am totally committed to delivering success on the pitch, as well as pies, pints and unrivalled banter on the concourses. I have an experienced team to bring with me, providing an unparalleled depth of experience of all aspects of player management, training and conditioning. This includes the World-renowned Life Coach Dr Jamie Van der Westhuizen, responsible for the rise in fortunes of a number of prominent players at all levels of the game. I will also be able to draw on the expertise of conditioning coach Brett Mendoza, as well as nutritional guru Scott McCarthy, responsible for the hugely successful launch of the worldwide phenomena, the ‘Strongbow and Chips muscle-building programme’.

If you employ me, I will guarantee 100% commitment, 100% enthusiasm and above all, 100% passion, from all my players and staff. We would lay down our lives for Brighton & Hove Albion Football Club and the fans.

We will not let you down.

I look forward to hearing from you.

Kind regards

Ian Hine

The cycle begins again

This time last week, we were basking in the euphoria of a 92nd minute winner at Nottingham Forest. This morning, we are wallowing in the misery of a consecutive play-off nightmare. But that’s what we do.  We’re Brighton & Hove Albion, we grieve when we want.

Derby were excellent, but we were poor, very poor. You can excuse a defeat if the team give their all and fight for the cause, but it’s difficult to take when all that seems to be missing. On top of that, we hear that Oscar Garcia ‘resigned’ after the game.

It’s not nearly so bad as losing to Palace though! That hurt, really hurt, but I don’t want to go over all of that (again)!

Losing Matt Upson before kick-off was a blow, but the bigger problem came when Gordon Greer limped off, to be replaced by Adam Chicksen.  This destroyed our shape and you could almost feel the collective drooping of shoulders from the team.  Will Buckley clearly wasn’t fit and when he started hobbling around like someone who needed a poo, really badly, he STILL wasn’t taken off.  We had nothing to offer, whereas Derby attacked us with pace, power and precision.  It was just so difficult to stomach.

After the game, rumours started to circulate that Oscar Garcia had ‘offered his resignation’.  If this ultimately turns out to be true, then we are even deeper in the brown stuff.  Managerial continuity is vital – just look at Leicester City.  They were cruelly denied in the play-offs last season but showed faith in Nigel Pearson.  This was handsomely vindicated as they swept to the Championship title.  If Garcia goes, then Tony Bloom needs to move, and move fast.  A new manager will need to hit the ground running and have as long as possible to shape the squad to his way of thinking.    A World Cup year always distorts things, but if we are to have a look at the latest Nigerian or Honduran sensation, then the new man needs to be in place and fully aware of the depth of Mr Bloom’s pockets.

We will be forever playing catch-up with the clubs that are still attached to The Premier League by the parachute strings, but a decent summer could see us challenging.  We are not so far away and have the basis of a squad that can challenge.

Whatever the outcome of the summer dealings and however we might feel about any new players and/or a new manager, we will all be back at the beginning of August with crazy levels of optimism for the season ahead.  Like I say, this is what we do.  Every season starts with a clean slate, with disappointments, heavy defeats and tactical frailties, replaced with expectation and excitement.

For now though, let’s just enjoy the World Cup.

x

Bonkers, absolutely bonkers!

Ninety minutes yesterday lunchtime, summed up almost perfectly what being a football fan is all about. From glorious anticipation to resigned acceptance, followed by a euphoric explosion of joy. My previous blog speculated about the possibility of some last-minute drama but no-one could have expected what unfolded at The City Ground.

Nothing beats watching live football and even without the result, I was gutted I couldn’t go. The aftermath of my ankle operation meant that a day on the Westons Organic cider was completely out of the question. A trip to Cheltenham a few years ago, for a meaningless (in terms of forestthe football) end of season game, ended with my cutting my head open, so a winner-takes-all trip to Nottingham would surely have been a recipe for disaster!  The pictures of my friends supping champagne at 7.30am made me very jealous but at the same time, slightly relieved that I was avoiding the carnage!

So it was the armchair for me. I’m not a good watcher of Brighton at home. I’m far too jumpy and usually spend games pacing around, hurling abuse at the screen. I was very nervous. After a season of ups and downs, we had a chance to round it off in style, but our shortcomings meant that it was, to a certain extent, out of our hands. Reading were in the box seat, knowing that a win would see them into the play-offs. Sky Sports were showing both games and would surely show the relevant action in screen, as it happens. They get a lot of stick from football traditionalists, a great deal of it justified, but you cannot argue with the actual coverage, with literally every angle covered.

The game started with Albion obviously very tense. Passes were going astray and there was none of the fluency that we have come to associate with Oscar Garcia’s team. And then Forest scored. Disaster, although the optimist in me recognised the fact that we had loads of time to recover. Then news came through from the Madejski that Reading had gone 1-0 up. I was thinking that it then didn’t matter, because irrespective of what we did, we wouldn’t make it, and that made things a bit more bearable.  Then, it flashed onto the screen that not only had Burnley equalised, they had gone 2-1 up.  As it stood then, that was the complete nightmare scenario. Reading were losing but we couldn’t even do our bit by taking something from Forest. Leonardo Ulloa missed a one-on-one with the Forest goalkeeper and the doubts were starting to creep in.  At half-time, we were out of the play-offs, not because of Reading’s brilliance, but because we were not fulfilling our side of the bargain.

The teams came out for the second half and there were signs that a ‘robust’ teamtalk from Oscar Garcia had put something of a rocket up the arses of Albion’s players.  We were a bit more positive but there wasn’t really any sign of a goal.  Until the 53rd minute that is.  Will Buckley won a corner on the right and after some bobbling around in the penalty area, Stephen Ward drove the ball into the Forest net to send the Albion fans, and me, mental.  I am on crutches, but that didn’t stop me setting off round the lounge, windmilling my arms furiously.  That changed the situation once again.  We were now ahead on goal difference and the nail-biting started in earnest.  Not for long.  The screen once again split into two, and we were treated to the site of a Reading goal, a 20 yard screamer into the top corner.  It was a superb strike but the worst possible thing that could happen.  There was still half an hour to go but what could we do to pull something out of the fire?

As the clock ticked down, the standard Garcia substitutions started.  Lua Lua for Lingard and a few minutes later, Solly March for Orlandi.  We were now playing a kind of hybrid 4-2-4 formation but it was still not fluid, although we were getting a lot of the ball.  Still the clock ticked down.  No more news from Reading but that just piled on the pressure.  Into the last 5 minutes and my nail-biting was getting more and more intensive.  Oscar’s final substitution was to bring on Craig Mackail-Smith for Will Buckley in the 87th minute.  Still no joy and the TV guys were starting to prepare their montages of crying adults and inconsolable children, coupled with shots of the victorious fans cavorting joyously in their seats.  The board went up and I roared when it said there was to be five extra minutes.  Still no news from The Madejski.

A couple of minutes into added time and Kazenga Lua Lua got the ball on the halfway line.  He accelerated away from a Forest midfielder and sped towards the box.  His previous two runs had resulted in wild shots at goal that troubled the occupants of row Z rather than the Forest keeper.  He checked, looked up and passed the ball to Craig Mackail-Smith on the left wing.  He checked then cut inside before arcing a cross towards the 6 yard box but it was too close to the goalkeeper.  Or was it?

Time seemed to stand still as the ball spun its way into the box.  Two Forest defenders were patrolling the edge of the 6-yard box but in between was the lurking danger of Leo Ulloa.  The ball seemed to perfectly dissect the defenders and there was Ulloa, pouncing to head the ball down and beyond the grasp of the goalie.  OH MY GOD HE SCORED!!!!!!

YYYYEEEEESSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSS!!!

I went absolutely apeshit mental crazy, once again bringing my family running into the room.  “WE’VE FUCKING SCORED!!!!!” I screamed (yes, I literally screamed) and again, the crutches were forgotten and I continued my wild convulsions across the room.  It was mental, a one-man display of raw emotion involving making as much noise and as many random movements as possible.  After a while, the sensible side of me tapped me on the shoulder to say “there’s still 3 minutes to go, just calm down”.  Of course, it’s not over yet, so I was brought down to earth for 2 and a bit minutes of absolute mental anguish.  My first thought was that Reading would pile forward and somehow find a winning goal from somewhere.  This lasted for about a minute until those magical words “Full Time at The Madejski”.  Then it was another minute of wondering whether Forest would equalise.

When the final whistle went, I went berserk agphotoain, only this time I knew that there was nothing that could change the outcome.  We were in the play-offs, against all logic.  The situation had changed no less than SEVEN times in the preceding couple of hours and I was basically a wreck.  The most telling comment of the whole afternoon was from my wife – “I’ve never seen you so passionate – just saying……….”

That’s what football does.  We can worry about Derby County in the next couple of days.  For now, it’a all about glorying in the fantastic, beautifully euphoric feeling that comes when you’ve achieved something against all odds.  The last minute winner in an important football match is a feeling that simply cannot be matched.

I’ll leave the final word to my best friend from Primary School.  Me and Craig were absolutely inseparable.  He was with me when I went to my very first Albion game and we were subbuteo buddies, programme-collecting buddies and all-round best mates.  I was devastated when he moved to Nottingham with his family.  Years went by until the wonders of social media brought us back together.  He’s a season-ticket holder at Forest and was there yesterday.  His final tweet to me read:

“nothing in it for us so pleased to see my boyhood team succeed.  Loved the primal scream from your fans when the winner went in”

That’s it, ‘primal’.  An outpouring of emotion so raw, so intense.  You cannot beat it.

I love football and I love Brighton and Hove Albion.