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05/06: Reports:

Football League Division Two, 18/02/06, 3.00pm
Brighton and Hove Albion
Send us a postcard
By Ian Grant

It takes a very special type of person to sit through a football phone-in from start to finish. Even during car trips back from distant away grounds, when you're the virtual definition of a captive audience, there comes a point when someone in the front has had enough and thumps the stereo into merciful silence. There's only so much that you can take, before even the traditional heckling ("You're an idiot! Shut up, you muppet!") loses its appeal. Life's too short. Even when you're four hours from home with nothing else to do.

Worthy of particular disdain, I think, are the occasional callers who insist on sharing their authoritative opinions in the aftermath of games that they haven't actually seen. "I listened to it on the radio." Oh, right. So how would you actually know how Peter Crouch played, then, except by swallowing every bilious drop of Alan Green's commentary? Would you care to offer your thoughts on some books that you haven't read and records that you haven't heard while you're at it? For heaven's sake.

There's nothing more irritating, granted, than someone who insists on invalidating the views of anyone who didn't travel to see a League Cup First Round tie at Grimsby in 1963, on the basis that it somehow offered definitive and exclusive evidence that renders everything else irrelevant. Really, though, there's a balance to be struck, and actually having seen the match upon which you're spouting forth ought to be a given. But it's more complicated than it once was, back in the days when you were either at the match or doing something else entirely: the all-knowing, all-seeing god of television, to which we must bow down and sacrifice convenient kick-off times for all eternity, creates a new way of not being there. A third option. I saw it. But I wasn't there.

But did you see it, though? Naturally, you got the general gist: who scored, who missed, plus twenty-seven camera angles and in-depth analysis of the ball hitting someone's upper arm on the edge of the penalty area when they were looking the other way. (Life's too short, again.) There must be more to football than that, surely? As the camera loyally follows the ball around the pitch to the exclusion of all else, how can you possibly get any idea of the game's essential complexities? The forwards' runs into space, say, or the defence's organisation? How could you hope to gather the importance of players like Steve Palmer or, perhaps, Dominic Blizzard, cogs in a machine that you can't really see?

Sure, television offers replays, angles, and a view uninhibited by the bloke standing up in front of you. But we'd do well to remember that it also offers a restricted, shallow interpretation of a complicated game that takes place on an entire pitch rather than a small stage. It's better than not being there at all, certainly...but it's not being there either. Unless you're watching live coverage of a game at the Withdean Stadium, of course.

Before we go further, we have to do the small-print. We have to acknowledge that it's a major victory for the people of this splendid little town that there's still a football club at all, and I hope that I wasn't the only one squirming with embarrassment at the momentary chorus of "Build a bonfire" by a section of our supporters. That's a chant with a history in these parts...and if you seriously imagine that Luca Vialli is the worst thing that can happen to your football club, you need to get out rather more. It's easy to forget just how tough this club's existence has been in recent years, since the pitched battles that were fought over the sale of the Goldstone; it's easy to ignore the fact that while the Withdean might be a quite absurd venue for football at this level, it's not nearly as absurd as travelling to Gillingham for every home game. Or moving to Milton Keynes.

It is absurd, mind. Expansion of capacity has achieved what appeared impossible: to make the Withdean experience even more bizarre for the visiting supporter, weaving through the tennis courts to find an entrance tucked between the main sports complex and posh people's back gardens. But that's little preparation for the new, um, stand itself. It's the same wobbly construction as elsewhere, the kind of ghastly temporary structure that feels like its existence might finish with an almighty crash at any moment, custom-built for a club that wants to be somewhere else, urgently. And then you look out towards the pitch...

It's somewhere over there, I think....

"Who's got binoculars?" chant the cluster of loud blokes behind us, before spending much of the remainder indulging in witless homophobia. The players emerge from the new pre-fab buildings to our left, then disappear into the distance to return in forty-five minutes' time. Good luck, fare well, send us a postcard. Helpfully, we're told that Hameur Bouazza is in the starting line-up, a fact that we may not have been able to gather for ourselves, even if we'd squinted really hard. We already know that Ben Foster has been replaced by Alec Chamberlain after his dismissal at Leeds, and we're offered confirmation by his arrival in a seat just in front of us, where he responds extremely gamely to whatever banter is thrown in his direction.

Somewhere over there, the match kicks off with a vague sense of activity, like watching a village fayre from an overlooking hillside. Or a Lowry painting, peering through the frame at people going about their daily lives, entirely unaware of your attention. Even five minutes in, as it's vaguely possible that Marlon King might've volleyed wide after a neat turn, it feels like a wholly pointless - if not unpleasant, for the rain has thankfully given way to a suggestion of a blue sky - way to spend a Saturday afternoon. We are, in theory, at the match. In practice, however, we've paid twenty-two quid to recreate the experience of the admirable loons who teeter on the roofs of overlooking buildings and haul themselves up convenient trees to catch a precarious glimpse of a sold-out cup tie.

I can offer you various incidents from my notebook, if you wish. I have no idea if they bear any resemblance to what actually happened...and, on this occasion, referring to other reports for guidance feels fundamentally wrong. We'll soldier on as we are, especially as a few Brighton attacks materialised at what could charitably be termed "our end" and it was therefore slightly easier to tell what the hell was going on.

Indeed, while much of the play was lost in the far reaches of the Albion half as we pressed forward, it would be fair to say that the majority of notable incidents appeared to require Alec Chamberlain's involvement. Never more so than when, shortly after he'd snatched the ball away from Gatting's feet inside the six yard box, our slack defending allowed Carole to find space to meet a low cross at the far post and blast goalwards. He probably shouldn't have been able to make the save, true...but Chamberlain's deflection, via some part of his flying body, was nonetheless vital, and typical of the shot-stopping ability that's not yet deserted him in his old age.

One suspects that such things are typical of the Seagulls' season. They had chances here, but it wasn't just the sense of detachment that made you feel pretty secure in the knowledge that they wouldn't take them. There's not that ruthlessness, that hunger to pounce. You're just not convinced. There's no luck either: after twenty-one minutes, Carole did enough with a swerving drive from something-yards to beat everything but the woodwork. While we had most of the play, we were still struggling to produce any conclusive football and someone - who knows? - sped past Lloyd Doyley and Malky Mackay to scoop a shot over and make not-quite-enough of another opportunity. They regretted it in the end, and probably not for the first time.

Of course, it's entirely conceivable that we were treating the good folk of Sussex to a display of quite dazzling attacking football while all of this was happening. If so, please feel free to write in and let us know. If not, we at least produced a great mass of possession by virtue of hard work in midfield and constructive support play from the strikers...probably. We went forward plenty, anyway. At some point, Henderson seemed to block an angled drive by Hameur Bouazza with his legs and Matthew Spring headed over from a corner. And, erm, stuff.

The whole thing seemed to last for several hours, like watching the scores update on Ceefax. Thirty-six minutes, and Jordan Stewart's slip lets in Kazim-Richards - notable as being the only number that I've scribbled to correspond to an actual player - who shoots wastefully at the near post, where Alec Chamberlain saves well, when he ought to have squared to better-placed colleagues. Forty-four minutes: "general scramble", apparently.

It's hard to focus your attention on something that evades it so efficiently, and I start to wonder how we'll get back into Brighton, which pub we'll go to, whether this will be the evening that a meal at Planet India finally disappoints. (Emphatically not.) And then someone - can't remember - belts the ball forward and Henderson comes dashing from his area to head clear; he does enough, just about, although we still appeal as Ashley Young appears to be nudged over in attempting to latch onto the loose ball in midfield. Instead, it rolls back to Chris Eagles...who, with a perfect simplicity that makes sense even from our obscure vantage point, lofts it back into the net from somewhere around the halfway line. At the time, astonishing and brilliant; in replay, even better, revealing the deft touch and gorgeous precision of the finish, so much more than a hopeful punt. A really wonderful piece of opportunism, from a player too gifted not to make a career at the highest level.

There was still time for Kazim-Richards' whipped cross-shot to whizz past the post after a trick to beat two opponents on the left of the area. And then everyone re-emerged from the fog of over there to saunter past us into the dressing rooms, and Sarah's birthday cake was shared around, and there were a few appreciative glances towards the rain-free sky, and everything seemed pretty much all right. We've experienced a couple of truly ghastly afternoons at the Withdean lately, and even if this particular performance won't rank with this season's best, it's worthy of thanks and praise simply for not being one of those games.

Indeed, the prospect of one of those games retreated as the second half meandered towards the final whistle. Having dominated much of the opening period, we saw less of the ball after the interval...but that suits us, in many ways. It allows us to concentrate on our defence, then set traps for our opponents, breaking swiftly and brutally when given the opportunity. Better teams that Brighton have been savagely punished for conceding the first goal - I know, I saw it on the telly - and while the home side occasionally mustered some momentum in their attempts to find the equaliser, they were already looking back at those missed chances, unable to create anything now that they really needed it.

Thus, the game drifted. Chris Eagles fired into the side netting when on the end of a left wing cross, and then incomprehensible - there being no way to judge distance, other than noticing that some of the coloured shapes were slightly bigger than others - offsides dominated proceedings for a while longer. Twenty minutes, or something like that, and Marlon King, always a fearsome threat, steamed onto a through-ball, smashing a half-volley towards goal that appeared to hit Henderson full in the face. Jordan Stewart intervened to prevent Brighton from escaping their half, and Matthew Spring's spinning volley bounced very narrowly wide.

The game drifted - look, I'm bloody trying, but I'd be making it up if I tried to tell you how well or badly anyone played - and we helped it on its way, replacing our wingers with more defensive-minded players in the full knowledge that we'd retain the pace of King and Young as an outlet. You could feel the hopes fading, not revived by any daft mistakes on our part. Our only error, really, was to fail to bury our hosts in the closing stages: we had the chances and we've not often been so reticent about taking them. Alec Chamberlain's quick free kick found Marlon King lurking on the wing, and Henderson had to be quick to block at Ashley Young's feet; Matthew Spring cut inside from an attack down the right and found James Chambers on the charge, the move spoilt by a bungled finish. Injury time, and Marlon King's typically aggressive break ended with a low shot at the keeper, when greater awareness would've left Spring with a simple task. We've been sharper.

All of which offered Brighton an opportunity that they should never have been permitted. The very last kick of the game, and a free kick on the right found a forehead - dunno, Butters? - and was flicked over the bar. Not a great chance, all things considered. But a better chance than if we'd stuffed the ball into the back of the net once or twice in the preceding minutes, as we ought to have done. Lessons to learn, and I doubt very much if they've passed the manager by. All in all, a game of near-misses and close calls, settled by one moment of true inspiration, clearly visible from a hundred yards away. We'll take that, gladly.

"We'll never play you again!" chirped the chorus, briefly and tediously. There was a time when that was very nearly true. Not now, you suspect: you wouldn't want to book your hotel for next season's Brighton versus Watford fixture, but we'll be back before too long, unless Adrian Boothroyd's implausible journey becomes more extraordinary still. Perhaps the truth is that we'll never play here again. Perhaps we'll return to a club with its future certain and secure, at long last.

Here's hoping. You might get a better class of match report, for a start.