By Mike Smart
This is the season that football became fun again. Much as I’m with Dave – something just isn’t quite right in my relationship with the club at the moment – it ain’t what’s happening on the pitch that’s the problem. And it ain’t the players or the manager. And it’ll take more than one refereeing performance that, if I’m being kind, I’ll describe as woefully inept to ruin something that is threatening to become very special indeed.
It’s not just Watford making this season such good fun, though; sources of amusement long since forgotten, and particularly pertinent to me in my West Midlands home, are back. And how. Phone-ins on Radio WM are worth listening to again, the over-inflated sense of their own importance that comes as standard with any West Midlands footy fan bar those from West Brom and Walsall increasingly evident.
The Wolves supporters in particular are an absolute joy. It’s Hoddle’s fault. No, it’s Moxey’s fault. No, it’s Hoddle and Moxey’s fault. “We need to spend money in January. We need a striker.” “One point four million pounds for a Polish striker?” “Frankowski’s played two games, and he hasn’t scored. Yet more money wasted.” Fantastic stuff. Never once does it occur to them that they hounded out Graham Taylor in similar circumstances, three and a half years before he took Watford into the Premiership. That they did the same to Dave Jones, who had already taken them up and is now making a pretty good attempt at steering Cardiff (featuring a number of thirty-something cast-offs) in that general direction. That Glenda, in a supportive environment, has already had some success at this level. Never does it cross their minds that the biggest thing that works against Wolves is their “supporters”.
There is a relevance to this, and I’ll get to it. But also, Matt won’t let me do a Wolves preview, because he enjoys them too much.
The Birmingham fans, too, are priceless. From today’s Birmingham Mail:
“Bruce has done well up to this season, but now he’s lost the dressing room in my opinion and he is tactically inept. Enough is enough.”
Actually, there’s something quite familiar about that quote.
Anyway, the point is, some sets of supporters are really rubbish. Norwich fans have caught the bug, and developed the Big Club mentality, turning on the very man that gave them the chance to be a Big Club in the first place. West Ham are another case in point; if ever a set of fans didn’t deserve their promotion, it was that lot.
Compare and contrast with, say, Sunderland. Crewe. Brighton. All in desperate trouble, but offering only limited murmurings of discontent with those at the helm. Looking at a Brighton messageboard, for every post questioning Mark McGhee’s position, there seem to be a good number acknowledging the enormity of his task, and the terrific job he’s doing in the circumstances. Ironic that McGhee should benefit from such loyalty, but that’s getting into another issue. Anyway, he seems to have seen the error of his ways.
You sort of hope it all works out for Brighton. Well, I do, anyway. In October they had the news they’d been waiting for, that their new stadium in Falmer was given the go-ahead. Yet, as I understand things this is far from a done deal. In any case, these things aren’t built overnight (Wembley, anyone?) so it’s still the Withdean for the foreseeable future. Which, I won’t need to remind the Seagulls’ fans, is pants. Still, they back their team though; it’s interesting to note that they brought more fans to Vicarage Road than such “giants” as Leicester, Norwich, Preston, Bolton, Stoke, Reading and, um, Crewe. Also, if they do pull free from the drop zone, there’s a good chance their place might be taken by Leicester or Derby, which would be tremendous fun. So, I personally forgive them for Mark Lawrenson and say Brighton are OK by me.
The bad news for Brighton is that Sam Swonnell no longer plays for us. The good news is that neither, for the next three games, does Darius Henderson; my feeling is that he will be greatly missed on Saturday, Brighton having demonstrated an admirable ability to frustrate opponents on a number of occasions this season, not least at Vicarage Road.
I suspect they won’t be hugely adventurous even at home. Their seventeen home fixtures to date have yielded them just nineteen goals, and their opponents twenty-three. They have yet to score more than two goals in a home game and only twice have their opponents done so, Norwich and Palace having bagged three apiece.
Looking at the Brighton squad, it’s not greatly surprising that the goals don’t flow; Leon Knight, score of thirty-six goals in a hundred and twenty appearances, has driven his pram to Swansea, leaving behind an extensive collection of toys and a well-chewed dummy. That he has started well at the Liberty Stadium is no surprise; I give it until Easter.
Which leaves, well, not a lot in terms of goalscoring potential. Enjoying the support of most fans McGhee might be, but his squad are not quite so supportive. Striker Mark McCammon, with four goals from his twenty-seven games for Brighton, is one to have fallen out with the boss, and has not featured in recent games. Federico Turienzo, a must-buy on Football Manager 2006, has played just four games, without troubling the scorers, and has not played this year, while youngsters Jake Robinson (with four Brighton goals from fifty appearances) and Joe Gatting (yet to score) have broken though to the first team recently, perhaps more by default than anything else. Gary Hart is the main man up front, which is a shame, as his goal tally is matched by his red card count: One. From twenty-six games. Malky, beware. Top-scorer, the Coca-Cola funded Colin Kazim-Richards, is a regular fixture on the bench. It tends to be Hart-plus-one, the other option being Chris McPhee, available again after injuring his hamstring and having hit a hat-trick against Millwall reserves recently.
There is a fair amount of flexibility within the Albion squad; whether the players concerned are really that flexible, or whether it’s a case of square pegs in round holes, remains to be seen. The central midfield partnership of Richard Carpenter and Dean Hammond generally prevails, in the absence of Charlie Oatway, who is injured. Hammond has just served a one-match ban for receiving two yellows against Leicester; stalwart full-back Kerry Mayo deputised. Splendidly named nineteen-year-old Doug Loft, recently picked up from non-league, is another option, as is Chelsea reject Alexis Nicolas, who hasn’t played since the 1-1 draw at Vicarage Road in December. On the flanks, Frenchman Alexandre Frutos is a fixture on the left, the right wing berth being rather more up for grabs. Paul Reid (or is that Phil Reid, Matt?), listed on the official site as a defender, has played there, as has Sebastien Carole, a France under-19 international who has also played up front with Hart in recent weeks but missed the defeat at Norwich and is doubtful for Saturday. Following this? No, I get the impression not all the Brighton fans are, either. Adam Hinshelwood, on the right in the Norwich game after eleven months out with cruciate ligament damage, managed to get himself sent off and misses out. So, to sum up, it looks like Carpenter and Hammond in the middle, Frutos on the left and anybody’s guess on the right.
Mercifully, the defence has a very settled look, with Adam El-Abd on the right, England under-19 man Joel Lynch on the left and Guy Butters, thirty-six, partnering Manchester United loanee Paul McShane in the middle. Reid has played as a full back on either flank, and Jason Dodd is missing-presumed-past it.
McGhee has a plethora of goalkeeping options available to him. Unfortunately, he’s fallen out with two of them. Michel Kuipers appears to have got the hump about losing his first team place, and on-loan Rennes man Florent Chaigneau appears to have got the hump about not having a first team place to lose. Imagine a club taking a ‘keeper on loan for the season and not using him. Lunacy; thank goodness we don’t involve ourselves in such nonsense. For the moment, it's former Villa trainee Wayne Henderson backed up by eighteen-year-old Richard Martin.
I would urge Brighton fans to stick with it, continue to be loyal to McGhee and remember that better times are ahead. Potentially, they are a Big Club, bigger than Watford, certainly. Doesn’t mean it’s wise to think like a Big Club, though.
For ourselves, this game is important; it’s not “must-win”, though. I reckon we need five more wins to ensure a play-off spot, and we’ve still got to play Luton, so that’s one of them. But we most certainly should win. Brighton are in quite a pickle; Darius or not, we need to be able to exploit that.
Bring it on.