BHA: A four-part play
It’s crunch time for Brighton and Hove Albion as a play-off place appears increasingly possible. But as Sam Swaffield from their magnificent fanzine The Seagull Love Review contends, there has already been plenty to celebrate this season. Whatever happens now, they can be proud of their return to the second tier.
Perhaps I’m odd as a football fan when I say “Oh, actually, I don’t like doing the whole prediction thing.” As co-editor of a fanzine this can be something of a problem too, and I am well aware that shrugging one’s shoulders, mumbling apathetically and generally taking on the mannerisms of a teenager does not make good TV, radio, or indeed copy. Yet I will forever struggle to exert any legitimate hypothesis when cornered on the subject of ‘future’, and that includes up to the end of April 2012.
For Brighton and Hove Albion, the period of time between now and the end of the season is such that the art of guessing is becoming a specialist subject for those who list the aforementioned club with any affection. At least, in the context of ‘excitement’ or for those who ‘dare to dream’, there is a range of guessing being spouted at pubs all around Sussex; Albion could quite plausibly be in a) the Play-offs at the end of the campaign or b) happily bobbing away in an upper mid-table hacienda.
This range of casual theorising is based on a reasonably sound framework in this instance however. The idle opinions of fans deemed ‘fickle’ are not relevant in our case, and it would be lazy of me to take the easy half-full/half-empty route. I am talking games here, I’m talking points, runs, the formbook (no, I shan’t throw it out of the window; how dare you!), the teams to play and the grounds to visit. I’m talking recent history and I’m talking luck because woof, it’s been a hell of a season so far and I’m quite dizzy.
For the sake of efficiency, I’m going to break this down into four sections. We’ll start at the beginning — Summer 2011 inside what looks like a downed space-craft on the outskirts of Brighton and Hove. The Amex has got everybody associated with the Albion wandering around like a seagull with a chip and the pomp and pleasure that a new stadium brings — especially for us vagabonds — means Albion carry the form that won them the League One title a few months earlier into the Championship. Apart from the ethereal opening day win, there were victories that made us look like a team who might ‘do something’: and do something we did, going top for the first month or so.
So that was part 1 of the season, a flurry of excitement and 20,000 fans getting used to the new place. Yes the stadium made a massive difference but we were pretty good when we played at Withdean too and the opening run of results also saw 3 away wins.
Then we played Leicester away and a drab 1-0 defeat, devoid of attacking purpose and featuring a goal conceded within the first few minutes of the second half, had a few us thinking that the league wouldn’t be so easy after all. Brighton fans arrogant? Not at all.
This is part 2 of the season. Post-Leicester, a lethargic and boring Albion side went 8 games without a win, including a first home league defeat in our most anticipated game; a 3-1 reverse in El Crapico — our odd but nasty rivalry with Crystal Palace.
Albion lacked passion, the fans were shell-shocked after a derby defeat and we lacked a bit of flair in attack — a failing unheard of in Poyet teams. A largely dull home win against Barnsley eased our annoying rather than worrying plummet, but the next 8 games featured 5 losses. It was Christmas by this point, the squad was dilapidated by injuries and suspensions (did I mention that the team were keeping the red card manufacturing trade in business?), the fans were getting more riled by the queues for the gourmet pies than the fayre on the pitch and the New Year’s Day fixture promised both a hangover and a likely defeat at home to our league topping, plonker-managed faux-rivals Southampton. 2012 descended on us like a grey cloud and we prepared for a not-bad-at-all mid-table sojourn until May.
That was part 2; a reality check for those who might have got carried away in the Autumn furore and forgot that the players and coaches in this division will quickly work out the tactics that were near-revolutionary the year before. But we beat Southampton. Welcome to part 3.
2012 is supposed to be the end of the world we hear, but we can only presume that this prediction does not include Sussex (well, it probably includes Crawley, fingers crossed). Albion are unbeaten this year and as I write this we sit 5th in the Championship. The mention of our trip to Liverpool in the cup is waved away, the 6 goals conceded — one for each of the 6,000 away fans that made the trip — are mitigated instantly: we’re concentrating on the league don’t you know?!
This unbeaten run in the league, now stretching to 12 matches, has admittedly included some odd results. We’ve drawn a few, scoring last minute equalisers in games where we’ve shown limited prowess to say the least, but we’ve also won 7. Away victories include 90+ minute winners at Leeds and Posh, but like a shining beacon, it’s the box fresh foundations of The Amex that has produced the points sufficient to elevate us to nose-bleed territory.
At this stage of the season the fans have been enjoying the fruits of a rich squad, something that will be key over the next few weeks. The supporters are not used to having this ‘choice’ of players and it seems that each time you think one has lost a bit of form, he rediscovers it, or Poyet shifts the formation and another guy does the business. It’s astonishing stuff, with our culture of flair returned and streaming through the veins of all of the men in blue and white stripes. The Amex pitch, vast in width, cradling our expansive play, consistently flashing another patch of brilliant green as passes switch around the turf. It’s wonderful stuff, if perhaps not perfect.
Part 4 is yet to happen of course, and part 4 I am loathe to discuss. This is not the fear of counting chickens at work either; it’s more than chickens now. Perhaps it’s all been too fast as we approach nearly 2 years of upheaval and unprecedented success. Albion fans are drunk on change, and though there was the dry winter which represented the early stages of a football hangover, we were soon passed another drink to warm our hearts. As the summer approaches it’s just too difficult to see if that last drink we’ll enjoy is Champagne, my eyes are blurry, I’m seeing double.
Whatever happens, this has already been a great season. Regardless of our finishing position we’ll have a great summer no doubt fuelled by our healthy bank account and the tongue wagging of the press and bookmakers scrapping around for the next Swansea. Part 4 could be beautifully fluid, it could be a last minute dash, it could be a quiet slump, nobody knows. I shrug my shoulders, mumble to myself and look at my shoes… I am unable to make any rational decision on potential success either way.