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04/05: Reports:

Football League Division Two, 03/01/05, 3.00pm
Brighton and Hove Albion
Opportunity knocks; opportunity gets no answer; opportunity wanders off again...
By Ian Grant

For the first time, the BBC is currently offering full and uninterrupted coverage of the World Professional Darts Championship, via its BBCi service. Now, many people will already be aware that I regard darts as being a sport of very considerable worth: even leaving aside its marvellous obsession with the most basic, cheap-and-very-cheerful theatre, its potential for compelling drama and tension is almost limitless. It's all about nerve, after all; every one of those players can put a dart on a speck of dust in the privacy of their own homes, before pressure and occasion intervene and endless variations ensue. Superb, epic entertainment.

But even I start to struggle from Darts Fatigue after eight hours' worth. And after sitting through four games in nine days, plus four hours of "Match of the Day" and a couple of episodes of ITV's spectacularly inane "The Championship" (not Champion, not a Ship), it's a little difficult not to feel the same about football. It is possible to have too much of, erm, a fairly indifferent thing.

Fortunately, a trip to the Withdean offers sufficient variation on the theme...mainly because, while what's happening on the pitch is presumably football, it's impossible to be completely sure from the away corner. This is often the best way to watch the game at this level, where a clear and objective view is not always pleasant. The perspective here is as startling and confusing as if one were suspended upside down from the floodlights, and as detached as watching from a perch in one of the overlooking trees. All kinds of optical illusions result.

For example, take the most brilliant piece of football that I've seen over the holiday period. In injury time at the end of Liverpool's game against Southampton, Hyypia's long wallop skids into the Saints' half and Steven Gerrard simply careers past a flat-footed opponent into the penalty area. He stabs a shot towards goal that's blocked by the keeper, but he's not finished; although his sheer momentum causes him only to make sliced contact with the rebound, he's somehow still on his feet to battle with two defenders for the looping ball, and win possession again on the eighteen yard line. A colleague - the first to appear on screen during all of this time - manages to lose it again, and Gerrard's still going, scrapping in midfield and playing it back to safety before getting some air back into his lungs and receiving a vast ovation.

Seen on "Match of the Day", this is jaw-dropping stuff. If it had been viewed from the away corner at the Withdean, though, we'd merely have seen a lot of scrambling about, the ball whizzing up in the air, and some more scrapping about. Nothing more. Everything missed.

Clearly, then, it's entirely possible that we missed an immense, mighty second half performance from the Hornets here, given that we were only able to make out an incompetent, desperate muddle from our curious vantage point. It's possible. If any Albion fans, whose position along the touchline must give a clearer view of proceedings, wish to help in prolonging this illusion, they'd be very welcome to contact us with their thoughts. If, on the other hand, any of them want to point out that we were actually an unstoppable cascade of utter shite for about sixty minutes, they can kindly keep it to themselves.

Because this was bloody ghastly. Not just the performance and the result, because stuff happens, no matter how much we wish and demand otherwise. More than anything, the missed opportunity. A win here to follow on from the Millwall match, and we could've put a completely different slant on the festive fixtures; seven points from twelve would've neatly consolidated our mid-table position ahead of the cup fun, allowing us to concentrate on other matters without any sense of guilt or regret. This was a chance. And we blew it.

We blew it in some style too, given that we managed to discard an early lead against opponents who were scarcely more than spirited. Once the ship had begun to drift toward the rocks, we simply had no leadership to steer it back onto a safe course, disintegrating almost entirely instead. The horrible thing, and the true measure of our abject failure, is that Brighton still only just scraped home with the points; for all that we were wretched and abysmal, Paul Jones' contribution came in the form of one hundred and seventy-five sliced and mis-kicked clearances rather than actual saves. We lost it, simple as that. The Watford of last season, and then some, lost it...and we need to work damn hard to ensure that the Watford of this season isn't eclipsed entirely by its scruffy forebear.

For a while, all seemed fine. The absence of Gavin Mahon from the midfield was compensated for by Dominic Blizzard's energetic game, while Jay Demerit has proved to be an able replacement at centre back in the past. Paul Mayo returned from his extended holiday too, and had a much more assertive, less nervous afternoon than before he was displaced by Jermaine Darlington. It was immediately scrappy - that's what Brighton do, and the mind boggles over what their recent encounter with Stoke must've been like - and yet we were solid and progressive, with James Chambers lifting a half-volley over the bar before Kuipers was at full stretch to tip over a long-range pile-driver from Blizzard and Demerit headed instinctively wide from the resulting corner.

A reasonable start, then...although we were to thank Paul Jones for a fine save, diving away to his right when a corner was cleared to Hart, who chested and volleyed neatly and accurately. That, as it turned out, was the keeper's only save of any consequence, which is testament more to the home side's lack of attacking edge than anything else. Given that, an early goal seemed perfect, and it arrived when a scuffed clearance fell at Brynjar Gunnarsson's feet in midfield, and Heidar Helguson was quickly away to pick up the threaded pass. Not a typical Helguson goal, really, but a fine one, advancing into the left side of the penalty area before picking out a finish into the far, top corner with the aid of a slight deflection. One-nil, and you could feel the confidence flooding back, much quicker than it had originally ebbed away.

Deeply frustrating, therefore, that we gave ourselves no chance to build further. After all, we know exactly how difficult it can be to pull back a deficit when you're not a prolific side, how frustrating and irritating the visiting team can be if it simply concentrates on doing everything properly and leaves you to conjure up something magical in response. Instead, we leaked a dreadful goal, failing to do anything to clear Watson's low cross from the right, until Lloyd Doyley took a daft, dallying extra touch in his own six yard box and Kerry Mayo appeared unannounced to prod home. Hard to believe that a side containing Sean Dyche wouldn't have communicated some greater urgency to the young right-back, but horrible nonetheless.

At that point, it appeared that the day's goal-scoring quotas had been filled. Nothing happened, slowly and tediously...although it has to be said that the ball's much easier to locate at the Withdean when it's twenty feet in the air than if it's on the ground, so the teams should be commended for being helpful in that regard. Some considerable time later, Paul Devlin's swinging volley from a cleared corner whistled past the frame of the goal; one would use words like "just" and "narrowly" if it weren't utterly impossible to gauge such things. Later still, as the half collapsed entirely under the weight of the referee's fastidiousness and seemed to go on for about five minutes longer than strictly necessary, Watson required a routine stop from Jones at his near post.

For half-time, we were treated to the latest scores and to the newly-released "Tom Hark" single, before our compere ran out of things to say and records to play, leaving us to mutter impatiently amid eerie silence. Obviously, football grounds are sometimes quiet during particularly dull passages of play, but they're rarely as quiet as an open-air stadium with the PA turned off. Odd. Weird. Almost made you pine for Richard Short's relentless bellowing. Almost.

Immediately, we signalled our intentions by withdrawing Lloyd Doyley in favour of Danny Webber: same formation, but a little more pace and attacking flair. Well, that was the idea, presumably. The reality was entirely different, for somewhere amid the half-time silence and the early substitution and some really rather hot-headed nonsense, we appeared to lose any control whatsoever over what we were doing. We were all there, on the pitch and in vaguely the right places, but the resemblance to the well-drilled unit of yesterday ended right there. And right then, as the defence fell asleep at a free kick in only the second minute and was fortunate that the unmarked Knight turned back into the bleary-eyed crowd.

It was a hopeless game, in all honesty. That we managed to lose it is bloody hard to excuse, given that we began the second half on level terms and that Brighton did virtually nothing to change that situation. Perhaps if we'd concentrated more on our own game, rather than getting embroiled in some ugly little skirmishes that did nothing to help our cause: Paul Devlin was lucky to escape harsher punishment after a petulant kick at an opponent, while Virgo's two-footed lunge at Brynjar Gunnarsson caused a minor ruckus and a couple of yellow cards in front of the dug-outs. Complaint at the referee from all sides became a regular feature, but the officials' random incompetence does nothing to ease our own responsibility for what happened. Our fault, nobody else's.

Actually, the goal was well-worked, a rare moment of coherent and incisive football amid the general sludge. It came after the home side had made a triple substitution, less an act of inspiration from the manager than a hopeful roll of the dice with that stalemate becoming over-powering. Swift and direct, Brighton broke after Brynjar Gunnarsson had preferred a wild swipe at thin air to more controlled use of possession as a Paul Mayo throw was cleared. At the end of it, Harding slid in a cross from the left, and Knight was ahead of sluggish markers to nudge home at the near post. It was clean and neat and clinical, and it belonged to a different game, to different teams. But it was entirely decisive in this contest, sealing the result long before the final whistle.

For we spent the remainder as a shameful, shambolic waste of energy. Second to absolutely everything, we struggled to get the ball over the halfway line, even on the countless occasions when it was returned for Paul Jones to clear. The introductions of Anthony McNamee and Hameur Bouazza were rendered meaningless by the total absence of controlled possession in the final third, and the errors that littered our play elsewhere went mercifully unpunished by a Brighton side whose lack of ambition can only have stemmed from disbelief.

This deserved a much more savage scoreline, yet there was only a Knight chip onto the roof of the net after an absurd moment of confusion from the increasingly muddled Neil Cox. Of course, Albion fans have a pretty specific agenda right now, and they'll be happy enough with the points, no matter how they were achieved. We, however, ought to remember that our agenda isn't so very different, and that better teams will simply slaughter us if we play so atrociously again. Survival is still what matters, ahead of everything else; survival requires much more than this appalling nonsense.

Deserving less than nothing, we still nearly pinched a point, with Kuipers remaining alert to push away Danny Webber's angled drive in injury time. Other than that, it's hard to recall occasions when we made it as far as the penalty area, let alone presented a threat on goal. Instead, we repeatedly lamped it long towards, of all people, Anthony McNamee, or merely lost it in a tangle of passing in midfield before starting all over again. Clueless, hopeless. How the hell did we get here?

More to the point, how can we get out of it? There's a future for this side, but it requires much more direction and leadership from its senior players, as well as the return of some key figures. It's an over-used phrase, but this, quite simply, was not good enough. Focus, for heaven's sake. Perhaps, if we're being optimistic for the sake of it, the cup ties will provide a fresh spark that'll re-ignite our league form.

Perhaps, though, we just need to get our bloody heads together. Quickly.