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04/05: Reports:

Football League Division Two, 11/09/04, 3.00pm
Brighton and Hove Albion
By Ian Grant

Wisdom tooth. It was there, bottom left, peeping cheekily through the gum, and causing ulcerated agony a few weeks ago.

Past tense, though. A great bucketload of anaesthetic - the dentist just keeps injecting until I can no longer feel not only my mouth, but my eyes and ears too - and three quarters of an hour of slicing, dicing, digging, graunching, pulling, yanking and so forth. Pass the crowbar, please. Not the most pleasant time that I've ever had - no competition for the Wembley '99, anyway - but it has to be said that the young nurse suffered rather more than numb-face here, having never been involved in a surgical extraction before. I couldn't see it, at least.

Then stitching, swabbing, and sent away with a leaflet of instructions: "Don't do anything!", in essence. And then ten days of mumbling, wincing, aching, wobbling, exhaustion, and general nastiness...with minor salvation found in painkillers and warm salt water. And Rice Krispies, and lots of soup. It's been a long while, really. But hey, it's an unbeatable metaphor for a match report...any match report, really, but particularly one involving a lead discarded in the last ten minutes.

Sort of, anyway. Because for all of the sympathy offered and received gratefully, the whole wisdom tooth experience has been more dull and frustrating than anything else. Perhaps naively, I expected short-lived, piercing agony, and I got an interminable dull ache and a lop-sided face instead. It wasn't what I wanted from the last week and a half of my life, obviously, but it was hardly a major drama. And the same applies here, in truth: despite much exaggeration and overblown hysteria, this didn't fit the bill as a horrendous catastrophe. A dull ache, quickly dismissed. Nothing more, unless we want it to be.

At various points, it was a game that we wanted to win, were winning, and should've won. Apart from the second, these states were more theoretical than anything else, however, as we were never good enough to overcome determined and organised opponents: we should be frustrated by our failure to preserve the lead for five more minutes, but that lead would've been the result of evading justice and heading out on the highway with our ill-gotten gains. Which would've been fun, clearly, and a reward for sitting through such a monotonous, mundane football match. A point is hardly a disastrous alternative, though.

Indeed, the mediocrity of it all probably hides a more general truth. Which is that the Second Division is mediocre, virtually by definition. Shades of grey, by and large. Both of these clubs would surely settle for mid-table anonymity from a potentially tricky campaign: indeed, putting down roots at this level would be a considerable achievement for the Albion after so much upheaval, still unresolved. In the main, this was an utterly dreadful game, and both camps will be disappointed that they didn't take advantage of that situation. The early signs are, however, that there'll be another chance next season. That'll do me.

A hesitant, fragmented, stop-start affair, then. At times - even at the start, and especially immediately after the interval - we hinted that we were about to brush the cobwebs away and look at things with some kind of clarity. And then, almost immediately, the fog descended once more. Fantastically frustrating, given that these short-lived moments of vision nearly always resulted in half-chances: we had the ammunition, it seemed, but we kept mis-firing.

Indeed, the visitors had the only clear openings, although even these were rare and carelessly wasted. For the most part, we defended effectively, if not always coherently...and "for the most part" was nearly enough too, although it would've needed a bit of luck to help it along the way, and a couple of fine saves from Richard Lee. Brighton have a solid, sorted appearance, but they're not exactly crafty - Leon Knight's main contribution was a feeble, lazy dive when he got fed up with waiting for Neil Cox to kick him in the penalty area - and their finishing lacked that little extra, that vital few inches further away from the keeper's reach. Well, it did for eighty-five minutes anyway....

To give an example, we were careless enough to leave Hammond unmarked when Hinshelwood's cross arrived in the box after ten minutes. But he leant back and clouted a volley into the Rookery, when a more considered finish was required...and if you take chances like that, then you win games at this level. If you don't...well, you end up wittering on about how a point isn't a disaster and suchlike, probably with a dentistry-related introduction.

Shortly afterwards, though, Richard Lee was required for the first time, dealing brilliantly (and slightly luckily) with a viciously bouncing drive from Nicolas: skidding across the turf, it reared up angrily in front of him, forcing him to deflect it wide with his knuckles. From the corner, Cullip glanced a near-post header across and wide, and we were having, and surviving, our one spell of defensive uncertainty. Otherwise, all quiet, and I certainly wouldn't want to give the impression that we were frail or vulnerable: this was an evenly-contested and thoroughly dreary half, with a small scattering of penalty area action at either end. Defenders in control, everything else lost in translation.

As promised, there were moments. Fleeting moments, rapturously applauded, disappearing so damn quickly. Early on, just seconds gone, Gavin Mahon heading to Kuipers from Lloyd Doyley's right wing cross. Later, sudden and unexpected coherence in our approach play: Paul Devlin tilting his run to skirt around the defence and cross after twenty minutes; Heidar Helguson battling hard, Brynjar Gunnarsson flicking a pass down the right wing, a corner conceded to prevent Danny Webber from escaping after ten minutes more; a splendid Lloyd Doyley cross intercepted at full stretch before it reached Webber after another ten, and Paul Mayo's drifting header meeting Heidar Helguson's centre after a sublime cross-field pass from Neal Ardley in between. The rest, a hopeless and incomprehensible muddle.

But in these games - and we'll get plenty of them this season - you just have to come up with something to break the deadlock, to justify the means. Win one-nil, everyone's happy. Get the goal somehow, somewhere, before the final whistle. Here, we were unfortunate that Brynjar Gunnarsson's firm drive from a Helguson knock-down hit the hoardings rather than the back of the net, and it was pretty bloody close with the keeper beaten. That would've flattered us. But everyone likes being flattered now and then.

Instead, the half drifted to a close with the Brighton fans singing that "We should've gone to the library"...which was witty, but they'll have to wait for it to be built first. (Sparkling Brighton-based banter, y'see? Oh.) As the rowdy folk in the Vic Road end disrupted our peace and quiet, Heidar Helguson sent a half-volley sailing towards the corner flag: clean through, but without the pace to make it count, and not at all untypical of the general fare on offer. This was rubbish, to put it bluntly. Heaven help the Football League should time travel ever become a reality....

Still, there was good news at half-time. Firstly, no sodding football...hurrah! Secondly, the official announcement of the freehold re-purchase, applauded with nearly as much enthusiasm by the Brighton fans as our own...hurrah! Thirdly...bugger, it's sodding football again....

Except that football was briefly enjoyable again, as we set about the second half with gritted teeth, raised voices, and lots of inaccurate crosses. An improvement nonetheless, as the lack of genuine width in attack has surely been a major factor in our failure to break down our less generous opponents so far. We saw Paul Devlin darting outside, we saw one encouraging run into space from Lloyd Doyley, we saw Paul Mayo stretching his legs, and we gasped at the pointless beauty of it all. Kind of thing.

And then, just as it seemed that all this would come to nought, we scored. Even more remarkably, we scored from open play with a charming, sculpted move: amid the debris from a corner, Neal Ardley ambled inside and played a pass to Neil Cox, who looked up, rubbed his eyes, and lifted a delightful ball into the penalty area. "Who's that to?" we wondered, briefly. It was to Danny Webber...onside on his own, one touch, slam, sixth goal. Interesting-ish fact: the entire team took six games to score that many last season. It's a marvellous run, to be sure...but it must be said that we could do with a Plan B soon, for Plan A has yet to prove infallible. It delivered here, however, and it might well have delivered three points too.

For, although we were unable to reinforce the advantage, we rarely looked particularly troubled as the game meandered towards a fairly lame, but very satisfactory, conclusion. Defensively, we had few problems: Brighton had played their best cards at the start, and the twisty-turny nonsense of Ndlovu-lite Jarrett was about as threatening as it got. For a fair while, this was a game with no highlights whatsoever (unless you count the return of Neil Cox's world famous slam-it-into-the-wall-as-hard-as-you-can free kick routine, and I certainly do), which suited us just fine. Our time-wasting only seemed to go with the overall flow: this whole match was a bit of a waste of time, really. Paul Mayo somehow escaped a booking for a rugby tackle on an escaping opponent; Ashley Young carried the can instead, for a fairly innocuous, if ill-timed, challenge. Boring. Very boring. No problem.

And even when the tedium was interrupted, it appeared that the afternoon was destined to end happily. A free kick on the right - the result of the afore-mentioned Ashley Young foul - whipped into the danger area with pace and deflected goalwards by Hammond's right boot from barely three yards. The equaliser, except for Richard Lee's left knee, which somehow intervened to send the ball sailing wide of the target: an implausible, and possibly unintentional, save that seemed to confirm our lucky day.

There's much been written and said about last season's tendency to drop back, to defend too deeply, to concede late goals. Much of it will probably be lazily recycled after this performance, more truisms to distort future history. Because, while we did indeed get sucked back towards our penalty area at times, this particular late goal had absolutely nothing to do with any of that stuff; on the contrary, it had rather more to do with being slightly over-adventurous in the closing stages of a match that was already won.

Truly, Brighton didn't look capable of scoring when we were being over-cautious; when we committed men forward and Danny Webber crossed into the keeper's arms, we were suddenly left exposed for the first time. Then, all it took was hesitation from Sean Dyche as the ball dropped, a strong shoulder from Virgo, and there were acres behind our defence to be exploited. Even then - and I've been dismissive of the finishing elsewhere - it was an opportunity taken with tremendous confidence, especially for a makeshift striker: a dipping half-volley into the top corner before we could even think of recovering the situation. Somewhere, there's a balance, but we've yet to find it.

More immediately, we were unable to find salvation here. To sum up the situation perfectly, we threw on Hameur Bouazza in frustrated desperation, at the same time as the satisfied visitors protractedly returned Jarrett to the bench after his brief cameo appearance. We chucked the ball around, tried a variety of ways of punting it, passing it, crossing it, and just plain whacking it, none of which yielded the desired result...although we came agonisingly close with the very last kick, Ashley Young's volley from Paul Mayo's long throw deflected narrowly wide by a defender's body. In another world, that hits the defender, balloons into the top corner, and Dennis Bailey is re-born in front of the Rookery. In this world, the referee blew his whistle and lots of people went home in a grumbling kind of mood.

Which is fair enough, all in all. For centuries, people have complained loud and long about one-nil victories that have turned into one-all draws at the last minute, and they'll do so until complaining loud and long is made illegal. For just as long, however, every single point - even the ones that are slightly forlorn, lost and abandoned, like a stray puppy in a rainstorm - has contributed to the overall total in its own small way.

It's not what we wanted. But we'll give it a good home, a dry towel, and a square meal all the same.