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04/05: Reports:

Football League Division Two, 11/09/04, 3.00pm
Brighton and Hove Albion
A plateau of contentment
By Matt Rowson

We were in Germany over the Bank Holiday. A holiday destination that raises the occasional eyebrow, but that's just fine... all the more beer, Gateau, Ice Cream, grilled Zander and sunshine for me. Meersburg, on Lake Constance, was our destination and the Sunday, four days into the break and four days from a return to work, was the most chilled day. We ambled through the Oberstadt with the sun on our faces, blue sky mirrored flawlessly by the Lake below us, cobbled streets beneath our feet and ancient ivy-covered buildings either side. As if to top off the idyllic scene, an accordion player struck up on a street corner as we passed, not after change from restauranteurs, ostensibly just passing the time of day with his musical instrument.

A plateau of contentment had been reached. It took a few seconds to register that something wasn't quite right, that this perfect scenario was flawed. What was it, what was it? The tune that the accordion player was playing was familiar... perhaps some classic German folk tune of name unknown that I'd heard before, something Dad sticks on after one too many at Christmas...? No. That didn't feel quite right. La la la laaaaaaa la laaaaaa la laaaaa laaaa.....

The f***ing Birdie Song. Donner und Blitzen...

The steadiest, most carefree carts can be overturned by such innocent rocks in the road. Ask Leicester, they'll tell you after the relentless charge to glory seemingly anticipated by supporters of all East Midlands clubs in the Division season by season was made to look a little icky by defeats to both the Hornets and Saturday's opponents Brighton over the last few weeks. As for ourselves, Sunday's cheery mood, before being so tastelessly interrupted, was fuelled in no small part by the news of a third consecutive victory for the Golden Boys the previous day. And whilst you would hope that nobody at Vicarage Road has become complacent enough to treat the Seagulls lightly, it's probably fair to say that the irritatingly postponed trip to Elland Road would haved focused minds a little more. Nonetheless, two wins and two clean sheets on the hop suggest that Brighton don't arrive at the Vic as the relatively soft touch that they were early in the season two years ago.

With first choice keeper Ben Roberts out injured, former Dutch Marine Michel Kuipers will be in goal with youth team keeper Chris May on the bench; Kuipers isn't a bad stand in, the biggest criticism appearing to be communication with his back line.

In the middle of the defence, iconic captain Danny Cullip and last season's Player of the Year Guy Butters are the rock on which the side - and much of last season's success - is built. After a shaky start to the campaign, both have impressed in recent games. With the retirement this week of Dean Blackwell, dismissed in our first game back in the top flight in 1999, with a cruciate ligament injury, Adam Virgo is probably first choice deputy in the centre. However Virgo is currently performing reasonably successfully as a stand-in target man as Mark McGhee scours loan options for a forward with some physical presence and is leading scorer thus far... although he's also been booked in each of his last four outings.

A possible weakness is at right-back, where Paul Watson has yet to feature this term after picking up an injury pre-season. With Adam Hinshelwood, son of Director of Football and former boss Martin, being pushed into an uncomfortable midfield role, nineteen year old Adam El Abd turned out at Leicester, although increased availability of injured players in the middle of the park makes Hinshelwood favourite for Saturday. Left back is likely to be Dan Harding, with the England U21 team this week after recovering from a thigh problem, who will displace long serving Kerry Mayo.

In midfield, Darren Currie has finally made it up to the Second Division after flattering to deceive at various clubs lower down for the best part of a decade... he has impressed so far with a good supply of crosses from the right. Key man Richard Carpenter could make his first start of the season having recovered from a knee injury, and is likely to be partnered by aggressive Cypriot Alexis Nicolas, on loan from Chelsea with a view to a permanent move. The left sided berth is likely to be taken by either Dean Hammond, surprisingly back in the frame having apparently been on his way a few weeks ago, Nathan Jones or former Franchise winger Albert Jarrett, who is quick but weak defensively. Gary Hart is likely to be on the bench but Simon Rodger (cruciate ligament), Charlie Oatway (hamstring) and Paul Reid (groin) are all out.

Up front, Leon Knight has yet to find the net so far which has rendered his rather lackadaisical approach to football in general and staying onside in particular a little more trying. With last-season's temporary solution as big man Chris Iwelumo now on his way into the UEFA Cup with German cup runners-up Alemannia Aachen, centre-back Virgo is providing the muscle, something which summer import Maheta Molango has failed to do - reports suggest that he is more of a long-term rival to Knight. Back in the reckoning also is the hardworking Chris McPhee after a foot injury, whilst seventeen year old Jake Robinson has also played - and scored - this season.

With the Falmer stadium issue rumbling along unresolved in the background, a relatively limited squad and finances, Brighton are likely to be nearer the bottom of the table come the end of the season than the top. However, they are strong enough defensively to evoke memories of the Burnley game... a win against a robust, bloody-minded side would be a big plus going into another frantic few weeks of fixtures.