So back to the home comforts of fortress Amex, after a challenging spell away. Burton Albion the visitors, on their first trip down – 300 or so Brewers hard-core in attendance – in a shrinking section of the South Stand that put me in mind of the compactor scene in Star Wars.
Close to 100 times more Brighton fans, bolstered by a cheap ticket offer. The Albion have sold THIRTY THOUSAND tickets. For a second tier, run-of-the-mill league game, against Burton Albion. Astonishing.
As the club marked the 20th anniversary of Fans United, interviewing Richard Vaughan pitch-side, and the North Stand raised their own banner tribute, you could only gaze about the place in utter wonder. Richard, for his seed of an idea, and the many other heroes of those times, dotted around the stadium, must have been bursting with pride. Warren Chrismas who germinated Richard’s idea. John Baine for spreading the word. Liz Costa. Ed Bassford. Many here to see it, others not – Roy Chuter. Sarah Watts. Legends all.
On the field, a relief to see the names of Dale Stephens and Sam Baldock back in the fold – we’ve been well below par in the former’s recent absence, and the latter has apparently never lost an Amex league game. One big call from Chris Hughton - preferring in form Tomer Hemed to partner Baldock, ahead of top scorer Glenn Murray.
An early scare for the Albion – talisman Anthony Knockaert down in pain, Flanagan raking the back of his ankle, with no attempt to play the ball. Knockaert furious. Referee Steven Martin not for the final time this afternoon, unmoved. The French winger was to have quick revenge on his full back – just 12 minutes in, running on to Solly March’s fine cross-field pass, before cutting inside his man and swinging over a hard low cross – missed by Baldock at the near post, but tucked home by the grateful Hemed, six yards out.
Immediate vindication for Hughton’s call – if he did smug, now would be the moment to give himself a big pat on the back.
If the lead were easy to come by, adding to it proved less so – Burton to their credit, here for a game (in marked contrast to Cardiff’s recent spoiling tactics) – big Australian midfielder Jackson Irvine putting in a shift, Akins lively on the right, and Marvin Sordell keeping Dunk and Duffy honest. I must profess, reading through the teams, I picked out Sordell’s name and thought “Oh him. He used to be quite good”. Turns out he still is – protecting the ball well and providing a genuine threat.
The (proper) Albion cruised through much of the half – a speculative effort from Knockaert – a moment of real quality from March – beating three then firing across Hemed’s bows – the closest to a second. Yet dominance without the goals counts for little, and the sides could so easily have been level at the break. Stephens lost possession in midfield, charged back into his own box seeking redemption, and fair clattered into the back of Lucas Akins, with no prospect of winning the ball. Mr Martin waved play on – one of a great many poor (non) decisions by the man in the middle.
Hughton may well have used that incident to remind his charges that the game was not yet won (despite Warren Aspinall on the wireless declaring that it was only about the goal difference from here) - but within a minute of the restart it was. A nicely weighted pass from Steve Sidwell sent March galloping down the left, to run to the line and pick out Baldock, to divert the ball home from close range. Terrific goal.
Solly March now central to the performance – beating his full back at will – clearly having a great time. March flying is massive for the Albion right now – easy to pick out Knockaert as the creative threat – simple to double mark him to counter that – but you can’t double up on both wings.
Hailsham’s finest once again at the fore – superb close control to beat two men and into the box, before being felled by the third. Hemed stepped up to seal the game – his ninth goal of an increasingly productive season. Could a fairytale repeat of the Fans United 5-0 be on the cards?
200 miles North, John Taylor was putting Rotherham ahead, and paying tribute to his good mate and ex-Shrewsbury colleague Connor Goldson. Nicely done.
Burton ought to have pulled one back – Sordell sending Dunk to the shops with a cut back in the box – David Stockdale rescuing the situation with a fine close-range save. A rare glimmer of hope for the Brewers.
With the game surely in the bag, Hughton took the opportunity to rest a couple of key men - Murray, Akpom and Kayal on in place of Hemed, Baldock and Stephens. Whilst each change made perfect sense, slightly surprised to see all three made with 20 minutes still on the clock. Chris you outrageous risk-taker, you.
Before the new men had touched the ball, Burton scored the goal of the game. Michael Kightly, newly arrived on loan from Burnley, had made little impact on the game – except for being really, really angry - a result of training every day with the likes of Dyche, Barton and Barnes, I guess. Anyway, I digress. From 20 yards, Kightly sent a perfect free kick over the wall and into the junction of post and bar – deserved reward for the knot of away fans. I’m calling this as the best free kick seen at the Amex, since the St. Patrick’s Day massacre over 4 years ago.
For a brief moment Burton looked like they may threaten a challenge, but Glenn Murray’s 16th of the season soon put paid to that. A dream of a cross from Knockaert. A perfect header from the number 17, to guide it into the corner. Hughton can do no wrong today.
The game played out, with Solly March continuing to torment his poor marker, Naylor. Solly made the Soccer AM ‘Goals of the Week’ with his cracker at Brentford. Tune in next week to see him feature in the ‘Showboat’ feature – one particular nutmeg towards the end, the best of many. The Argus suggested that at least one Premier League scout was in attendance to run the rule over Jackson Irvine. I'd imagine he left with a different name in his notebook.
Embarrassed once too often, Naylor flew into the back of the young winger, in front of the home bench. Incredibly Mr Martin still kept his cards tucked away. It’s definitely a ‘thing’ this – when a ref reaches 70 minutes or so without brandishing a single card, they can consciously try to keep it that way, smugly convincing themselves that a zero card match shows how ‘in control’ of proceedings they were.
With three strikers finding the net, a home debut goal for Chuba Akpom would have iced the cherry on the cake – great turn to buy himself a yard – his curled finish not curled enough. Shame. But churlish to dwell on it. Decent showing this. Great result, especially with news of some bonuses elsewhere in the division.
Ipswich next. Bring it on.
I’ll leave the goal-cam footage here as a postscript. It didn’t quite fit in the report anywhere, but I love the goalcam.