33 years into my Albion supporting experience, and I’m encountering a whole new sensation. This is a little bit different, isn’t it? Where’s the tension and the gut-wrenching stress? What happened to the unshakeable feeling that even when things are good, some form of calamity is lurking round the corner?
Last night we enjoyed one of the most comfortable league wins we have seen in an age - a thoroughly professional Albion performance, brushing aside a Rotherham side intent on disproving the ‘no easy games’ cliché. All credit to the 247 travelling Millers – a mighty long way on a Tuesday night, in support of your club, when your only creative force is Danny Ward.
In contrast, Chris Hughton’s attacking cup runneth over. Options aplenty in the midfield and forward areas – and the chance was taken here to make a couple of changes. The centre of midfield saw a complete rotation – Dale Stephens and Oliver Norwood replacing Steve Sidwell and Beram Kayal. A rest too, for Jiri Skalak – a chance for Jamie Murphy instead. The final change in goal – after a wait of a year, a first league appearance for Niki Maenpaa, with David Stockdale nursing a bruised shin.
Some murmurs of disquiet about King Beram being rested. We all know what happened last year, whenever he sat one out. Hughton gets paid to make the calls though, and we needn’t have worried. Kayal will no doubt be back, fresh and hungry, for sterner tests ahead. The two that started, combined for the first chance of the night – Norwood’s low corner, teeing up Stephens to fire wastefully over.
One half chance for the visitors too, in an uneventful first quarter of the game – Stephen Kelly blazing narrowly over, when the ball broke to him in the box. A scare of another kind for the Albion faithful – Anthony Knockaert down writhing about, seemingly caught from behind. Much as I love this guy though, I’ve learned to shelve any dismay until it is clear whether he’s in serious pain or just being a bit, well, French.
Then suddenly, from the gentlest of starts, in the blink of an eye, the Albion shifted up a gear, and within five minutes the contest was over. As is so often the case, the mercurial Knockaert the spark – a nice touch from Gaeten Bong helped a loose ball on to the number 11, who cushioned with his chest, before firing low, on the half turn, from the edge of the box. The ball arrowed into the far corner – via Lee Camp’s fingertips.
Here’s a tweet of him celebrating his goal, from a Japanese seagulls account, included in this report purely because it tickles me that such a thing exists…
Before the crowd had settled, or the Millers’ had caught their breath, the lead was doubled. Excellent goal too – Lewis Dunk and Tomer Hemed’s intricate one-two (-three) breaking down in the box, but Rotherham failing to properly clear the ball. It was fed back out to the over-lapping Liam Rosenior, who clipped in a first time waist-high cross, for Murray to athletically turn home, past the helpless Camp. Three in three for the returning hero / sulky Northern turncoat (delete as appropriate). Who would we be playing this weekend if his preening Ken-doll manager had let him come in January?
The Millers looked close to collapse at this point, and Hemed ought to have made it three moments later – denied by Camp when slipped clean through by Murray’s clever pass. These two are making a pretty good fist of belying the oft-stated fact that they ‘can’t play together’. A decent stop by the Millers’ keeper this – all credit to him too, for styling it out in a pink shirt with ‘CAMP’ on the back, in front of a (judging by last night’s twitter) support not yet quite in touch with their feminine side.
So, as straightforward a half-time team talk as the Albion management team could wish for. Nothing to fix – thoughts firmly on professionally seeing this one out, and who else could be afforded a handy rest. Their counterparts made one change, introducing Scott Allen to the midfield. Tidy player – impressed at the Amex a few years back, playing on loan in a woeful Portsmouth side – and he was very comfortably Rotherham’s best performer tonight. A mystery why they’d not start him, particularly when already short of Albion loanee, Jake Forster Caskey.
The second half – the early part at least – more of the same, and the match was soon put to bed. An immaculately weighted through ball from Norwood released Knockaert down the right, to cross perfectly into the path of the onrushing Murray. As it reached him, the striker went down under a shove in the back from Kelly. Stonewall penalty and all eyes on (atypically not that showy or annoying) Simon Hooper, as he selected a card. There could barely be a clearer ‘goal-scoring opportunity’ and ten thousand voices berated the chubby ref for choosing a yellow. I was one of them, and hereby offer my apology to Mr Hooper, having been swiftly reminded by my teenage referee offspring of this year’s rule change (to avoid the unduly harsh ‘triple punishment’ of penalty, red card and suspension, all for one offence – a foul in the box, unless dangerous, is no longer to be punished with a straight red).
After a brief discussion between Murray and Hemed, the Israeli got the nod, and duly dispatched the spot kick, in his usual calm fashion. Pleased for Tomer – been working hard and deserved a goal.
Its early days of course, but the Albion looking dangerous going forward – Glenn Murray’s link play crucial, but lots of contributory factors – sheer intent high amongst them. A great stat here from Brian Owen:
With the game won and 30 minutes still to play, Hughton understandably reacted by protecting a couple of his star men – Murray and Knockaert off to standing ovations – Sam Baldock and Kazenga Lualua on in their stead.
In all honesty, the rest of the game was a bit anticlimactic, as the Albion professionally cruised home. Not without a couple of scares though – and Niki Maenpaa will have actively welcomed those chances – giving him the opportunity to make a real contribution. He made an excellent impression too – his distribution is short of Stockdale’s impossibly high standards, but in all other areas he was near faultless – a couple of commanding high takes, and one spectacular diving stop to deny Vaulks’ long-ranger.
One more timely intervention required – sliding out quickly and bravely at the feet of Ward, when sold short by Norwood’s under-hit back pass. The new arrival from Reading was another who seized his chance tonight – below the level of Stephens and Kayal, but a very capable option. Clearly has a brilliant range of passing – if a bit too fond of the Hollywood option – but needs to work on his care in possession.
As time ticked down, with both sides cruising, some in the Amex crowd entertained themselves with an iPhone powered light show, to some muttering from the old-skool killjoys. It did afford the opportunity for a few amusing chants though – from “What the ****ing hell is this?” to “You’ve only got one phone...” to the sole Millers’ contributor.
The PA declared Lewis Dunk as the sponsors’ man of the match, over the obvious choice of the ever-brilliant Anthony Knockaert. Personally, I’d have chosen Bruno here. Playing out of position at the age of 35, he put in an utterly flawless display – too clever, too skillful and simply too good, for the players he was tasked with containing. He is so technically gifted that genuinely, he could perform at this level in any outfield position. What a magnificent signing he has been.
Whistle. Handshakes. Three points. Three games in, six scored and none conceded. The Albion top of the nascent Championship table. A very encouraging blend right now of flair AND organisation.