After a creditable point at Derby, and a straightforward cup win, back at the Amex for what felt like the real start. New season, same Sky - Friday is the new Saturday. More travel bullshit to overcome, meant the sofa alternative was attractive to some - noticeable gaps at kick off leading to the least effective flag-show to date, as the club took the occasion to celebrate the magnificent stadium's fifth birthday.
An unchanged side from the first league game. Dale Stephens, free from injury, then suspension, on the bench somewhat allaying fears of any impending departure. Star man Britt Assombalonga missing for visitors Forest, amongst transfer rumours of their own. Pleased to see the name of Henderson on their sheet - not flaky former Albion keeper Wayne, but his equally average nephew, Stephen. Lots of crosses please.
A strong looking midfield though. Teenage Premier League target Oliver Burke out wide - excellent new signing Kasami partnering perennial irritant Henri Lansbury in the centre. One set piece apart - Dunk stabbing wide from Skalak's whipped corner - it was the visitors who made the early running. Kasami pulling strings, and Burke looking a great prospect - tall, strong, pacy and direct. Less effective on the other flank, former Albion target Jamie Ward, somewhat below his usual busy, angry self.
Forest set about the Albion with huge intent - last ditch blocks from captain Bruno, and Lewis Dunk saving the day. Liam Rosenior recovering to clip a dangerous cross behind. Burke then had the moment, the chance, to make the bright start count. A well timed run saw him in behind Gaeten Bong, his pace took him past Dunk, and one on one with David Stockdale. The Albion keeper got his angles right, and Burke slid the ball past him and a foot wide of the far post. The travelling Tricky Trees (best / worst nickname in world football) fans, utterly silent until now, piped up without a hint of irony, that they’re Nottnum Forest, they’ll sing on their own.
They certainly weren’t singing alone five minutes later. Jiri Skalak ran to the corner, drew in two defenders, then turned and laid the ball back for Bong, to whip in a low cross. Henderson could have dealt with it but stood on his line. Ben Osborn stood and watched, as Anthony Knockaert drifted past him, to half volley calmly as you like, under the keeper. The brilliant Frenchman broke down in tears, as his team-mates mobbed him. He explained after the game, that it was the birthday of his older brother, tragically lost to his family some years ago. An emotional moment for a very special player.
These five Amex years have seen some very fine players turn out in the stripes, from Jedi master Vicente, to the brilliant Leo Ulloa, the agelessly magnificent Bruno and the all-round hero that is Inigo Calderon. I love all of them, making this a huge call, but I wouldn’t swap Anthony Knockaert for any of them. What an absolutely mesmerising footballer he is. The old cliché about being ‘worth the entrance money alone’? That’s Knockaert.
It has always seemed a bit of a pointlessly obvious statement, but as the old adage goes, ‘goals change games’. The Albion now more than holding their own and building the pressure on the Forest defence. Forest incensed at Skalak – raking his studs down the back of Kasami’s leg. Really poor form from Jiri, and also from referee Andrew Maddly, to not even talk to the Czech, let alone produce a card. Jiri very fortunate – was worth a nailed on yellow, conceivably a red.
As the Amex stood as one on 42 minutes, to mark the tragic recent passing of Albion in the Community’s hugely popular Gary Townsend, Kasami stood over a dangerous free kick. He whipped it over the wall, beyond Stockdale’s reach, and mercifully glancing wide off the near post. Straight up the other end and two close shaves from Albion corners – Sidwell heading straight at Henderson, then a close range chance for Bruno – volleying wide from a tight angle with his right, when he really needed to be using his left.
A decent half of football. Albion content – ‘we’re top o’the league…’ Forest feeling a touch hard done by, plenty for the Sky team to dissect.
No changes for either side at the break, and both straight at each other after the restart – Kasami trying his luck from range, then Glenn Murray so close to scoring on his (second) home debut – sliding to win a loose ball in the box, then fizzing a shot a foot wide of the far top corner. Mr Maddly found some cards at half time and began to dish them out – Tomer Hemed and Forest’s Lacovitti recipients.
Then, on 68 minutes, the decisive moment. Just as the bore behind me held court about how Hemed with Murray ‘just doesn’t work’, the former assisted the latter to seal the game, perfectly cushioning Skalak’s whipped free kick, into Murray’s path, to stab under the exposed Henderson. Great moment, and surely the first of very many – with Murray, Hemed, Dunk and Goldson feeding on Skalak and Knockaert’s expert delivery, the Albion are going to carry a huge threat at set pieces this season.
Skalak was enjoying himself now – constantly taking up good positions, and finding himself in acres of space to run at his full back. A word for said defender, the excellently named Hildeberto Pereira. He was great value all night – skilful and sloppy in equal measure, and fantastically angry – his battle with Skalak was hugely entertaining. It was close to an Albion third, when Skalak got in behind him, and clipped an invitation to Hemed with the outside of his right boot – the Israeli lunging, but only able to toe it wide of the post.
Forest served a reminder that the job was not finished – sub Traore running through the midfield to the edge of the box – allowed to go by Steve Sidwell, criminally failing to take the tactical yellow on halfway. In response Chris Hughton swapped Hemed for Baldock, and freshened up the midfield, introducing Dale Stephens, rather surprisingly in place of the imperious Beram Kayal, rather than his more obviously tiring midfield partner. A change most probably made with Tuesday in mind – the games coming thick and fast.
Stephens was seamlessly into his groove – repeatedly winning possession, and making the simple things look simple – win the ball, protect the ball, pass the ball. Another Forest foray into the Albion box was snuffed out by a perfectly timed Stephens tackle – and some 12 seconds later the ball was nestling in their net. Stephens – win it, protect it, pass it – in this case to Knockaert, who turned and carried it some 60 yards, at the heart of the retreating forest defence. A pass slipped through to Sam Baldock, clear into the box – carrying it wide of the goal, drawing out Henderson, and pulling it back into the path of Murray’s clever run. No mistake from the Albion hero-turned Palace villain-turned-Albion hero, side footing surely, into the unprotected goal, to wrap up the three points.
There are those amongst the Albion fanbase who will take some persuading to fully accept Murray back into the fold – not that he has a single thing to pay penance for – brilliant at Withdean, cast aside by Poyet against his wishes, and always respectful in opposition. A few more displays like this, of quality finishing and of textbook hold up play, and the remaining dissenters will surely be silenced for good. And those displays will come, because the guy is absolute class. He might indeed have put the cherry on the icing on the cake, and completed the fairy tale hat-trick, but for a decent save from Henderson, when running on to a ball over the static Forest defence.
With the five added minutes ticking down, the Albion’s near perfect night became worrying less so – hearts in mouths as Stockdale was floored by his team-mate Bong when collecting a cross, and laid out in very clear pain. Dunk and Bruno waved frantically for the medical staff to come on – a serious injury seemed likely – even a leg break possibly. Then, after lengthy attention, huge relief as the keeper was helped to his feet, and with support, able to limp from the field. With all substitutions used up, Lewis Dunk donned the bright yellow keeper’s shirt – but was never called into action before Mr Maddly brought things to a close.
Decent display, and an excellent result against a pretty good Forest side who will do pretty well this season. Very promising.