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BLIND, STUPID AND DESPERATE
 
05/06: Reports:

Football League Division Two, 03/12/05, 3.00pm
Watford
versus
Brighton and Hove Albion
 
Who turned out the lights?
By Matt Rowson

Wednesday evening was quite eventful.

I was supposed to be at a work thing. This, in itself, is not particularly exciting, and nor was the prospect of the work thing in all honesty. So I bunked it. Sue me.

I went to Sainsburys instead, and managed to spend a ridiculous amount of money on what will probably only last the two of us ten days or so. And I saw Clarke Carlisle, somewhat incongruously, doing a bit of shopping. I guess that footballers need groceries too. Strange that he didn't tower over the detergent bottles... a tall bloke, of course, but given that he makes grown men look tiny and irrelevant on the football pitch you'd kinda expect him to stand out more. Anyway...

Then I got home, and at about 7pm settled down to write this preview. Given that you'll have noticed that I'm referring to Wednesday evening in the past tense you'll deduce that that's about as far as it got. No writer's cramp this time... you may also have noticed that I stopped abandoning previews for the evening on the basis of a lack of inspiration in about 2001. No. This time, the lights went out.

There's no real planning for an event like this, certainly not in early winter. Yes we have candles and matches and so forth, but it's not as if I am blessed with the anticipation of when such things are likely to occur and can locate myself accordingly (albeit that, in retrospect, the workmen's holes dotted around the adjoining streets in Woodside kinda upped the risk a little). So when the event happened I was suddenly sat in front of a black computer screen in my study in the pitch dark. I stumbled around for a bit, walked into a doorpost, clambered downstairs to retrieve candles and lighter, lit and distributed said candles, established on conversation with the neighbours that a) half of the estate was out and b) it wasn't coming back on any time soon and then, for wont of anything better to do, sat down and sulked.

Now as it turns out this particular story has a happy ending. Tsega came home and, being far more pragmatic and less prone to tantrums in a crisis, resolved the problem by suggesting comfort food at a nearby restaurant. Most of the affected half of the estate seemed to have reached the same conclusion, resulting in a far busier Wednesday evening than our befuddled waitress was probably banking on. The cinema was to follow on, but detouring back through the estate we saw the street lights come back on. And all was well.

But the point is, you can't legislate for crap like power cuts interrupting your evening schedule, and even if someone had dangled the potential for triumph out of adversity in front of me at the start of the evening, I'd have frankly foregone that for getting the bloody preview sorted and perhaps having Thursday night to do what we wanted with.

Last week, the random and arbitrary "emergency loan" window closed with no new bodies entering an injury-ravaged (and otherwise limited) Withdean dressing room. And much as Mark McGhee, once a notorious figure on BSaD but now lapsed into lurking irrelevance in the grand scheme of things, suggested that since a couple of players will be back by Christmas he "wasn't too disturbed", you've got to be a little sceptical. Falmer green light or no (and the prospect of a legal challenge by a local council - a fine use of Council Tax - threatens to delay progress still further) the Seagulls are second from bottom in the table... and it's not that they're playing particularly badly. It's just that the limitations of the (available) squad are proving rather difficult to overcome.

An area of seemingly constant headache for McGhee is in goal; first choice Michel Kuipers suffered a shoulder injury in January and is on loan at Boston United in an attempt to regain fitness and sharpness. Villa's Wayne Henderson was brought in on loan but he too succumbed to injury; Alan Blayney has hence been brought in from Southampton where, given that at twenty-four he's been loaned to a club in the same division, it seems he's not part of the first team plans. After shipping eight goals in his first three games of this loan spell, his form has rallied and he impressed against Derby last weekend. Backup is another loanee, Florent Chaigneau from Rennes; however McGhee has been less than glowing in his assessment of the Frenchman, suggesting that Kuipers may have to go straight into the side when Blayney goes back to Southampton on Boxing Day.

Things are no more straightforward at the back, where injuries first to starlet Adam Hinshelwood and then to impressive Manchester United loanee Paul McShane, sent back to Old Trafford with ruptured ankle ligaments, have left Albion exposed at centre half. McGhee attempted to plug a gap here with a loan signing over recent weeks, but Fulham knocked back an approach for Ian Pearce and Elliott brother-of-Darren Ward chose Plymouth (Tony Pulis does like his centre halves). This leaves Brighton with the pairing of veteran Guy Butters, who was a bulky chap when making his debut for Spurs over fifteen years ago let alone now, and right back Adam El Abd in the centre. Youngster Gary Elphick is probably first in line as cover.

With El Abd otherwise occupied and Jason Dodd, helpfully, also still out with a back problem Gary Hart has been filling in at right back. The messageboard verdict seems to be that whilst there's no doubting Hart's commitment, his talents are better employed further up the pitch - he's more regularly a wide midfielder or striker. The right-sided Paul Reid is filling in at left back, whilst long-serving Kerry Mayo has occupied a place on the bench.

Things look a little better in midfield - Charlie Oatway is a warhorse ballwinner in the centre alongside the energetic Dean Hammond. Cover looks thin here though, with Richard Carpenter out with a foot injury, Alexis Nicolas missing this week's reserve game with a knee problem and other midfielders plugging holes in the defence. There's certainly quality on the flanks, however; Sebastian Carole, a summer signing from Monaco, spent a largely uninvolved year at West Ham two seasons ago (he managed three minutes at home to Crewe) but has impressed with pace and tricks on the right. Compatriot Alexandre Frutos, who sounds like a brand of confectionery, has been playing on the left, whilst Albert Jarrett provides cover.

However, the effectiveness of the wing play has been limited by the lightweight nature of Brighton's forward line. Leon Knight is probably still the star turn, but is all about nimble twists and turns and has struggled for service. Chris McPhee played alongside Knight against Derby but he hasn't scored for Brighton in almost two years, and spent the first two months of this campaign on loan at Aldershot. Colin Kazim-Richards is tall but not a dominant physical presence - he's developing a reputation as a Supersub having been signed from Bury ostensibly with the money Brighton earned from one of their fans winning last year's Coca-Cola sponsored competition, whilst teenager Jake Robinson, bright and lively but frequently offside, might also be on the bench. The muscle in the squad is provided by Mark McCammon, but he's on his way back from ankle surgery and in any case the jury is still, at best, out. So too for Argentine target man Federico Turienzo, recommended by Zbigniew Boniek, apparently, but a singularly unimpressive use of 150k thus far.

You can't plan for all contingencies, as my Wednesday demonstrated, but as Betty has (sensibly) preached, flexibility of approach is key. Whatever Saturday throws at us, if we really are a promotion side then three points at home to a team with Brighton's selection issues are a not unreasonable expectation.