It was once said that football fans should enjoy the optimism of a new season until the first whistle blows, because it’s downhill from there. Certainly this is true of many a supporter who’s team regularly tread the boards of the lower divisions, in search an illusive season of magic, that breaks them in to the upper echelons.
There were many years that war torn stoics who follow our beloved club were familiar with such territory and feelings. Not so lately. The Seagulls have established themselves as a credible Championship club with realistic ambitions for the bigger stage. The journey from The Goldstone, via an exile to Gillingham that would have made St John wince, and then the days in The Withdean, have tested the mettle of the most loyal of our bunch. But they remain, and have been joined by many a thousand more since.
For me, like many, football is a religious experience accompanied by rituals and observances. Many of which I’m probably not even conscious of. I always work on the morning of a home game, vary my journey to Falmer twixt bus and train, and then observe the painful queue procedure to obtain my beloved pie-heavy beads of sweat gaining greater intensity as the waiting delicacies reduce in number faster than the bodies in the waiting line.
Today we saw a home game on the opening day, the date not clashing with Pride. The weather was most suited, and the line of people waiting at Brighton Station were in good voice, even if most of them, at the time of my arrival, appeared to be Tykes auditioning for a choral walk-on to accompany the Brighouse and Rastrick band. Or was it the Shillingbury Blowers? As England overturned the Indian batsman at Old Trafford, a little bit of the Land of the Raj exported itself to the Southern Railways route, as sardines awaiting the tin would have been consoled in the knowledge that the twenty past two from Brighton afforded even less place.
The old place (did I call it that?) bathed in warm sunshine is as ever a sight to behold. My pride in our home often leads to a slight puffing of the chest as I realise that some visitors will be arriving for the first time. The windswept terraces of The Goldstone never gave credence to thoughts of our new utopia, as I couldn’t see the planners allowing us any small space in borough. I still have to pinch myself every time I walk up the slow incline towards the hallowed turf.
This year I’ve moved to the centre of the East Stand Upper, that sleepy dorm twinned with the Pavilion at Sussex County Cricket Club. Where some season ticket holders who say goodbye to each other in May use meaningful expression, as for many it could be the last farewell. The travel supplement should really be an optional addition in this section of the stadium; many folk already have their passes. As I took to my padded rest, and observed my ageing companions, I realised how many of them had been following the club so much longer than me. And as I sat, an affable grandfatherly figure, with a steadying stick, gave me a welcoming smile from the seat next door. As much as I jest, these hardened followers have many a story to tell, truly loyal fans. And when it’s 3-0 to the opposition on a dark day in December, I’m sure reminiscent monologues of the season Bobby Smith tore up the Fourth Division will help me through the pain. I’m pleased I made the move.
And so to the match itself, that brief distraction from the fixation of social anthropology.
I normally leave others to dissect and analyse the text, sub-text, and eventual outcome of the Albion’s matches. North Stand Chat has many a shrewd commentator. But for what its worth, my usual counsel of reserving judgement at this stage of proceedings was found wanting. The team started playing a game of chess, a strict zonal system against a team as thin in new talent as they were. Admittedly the keep-ball possessional game of defensive football appeared to have given way to a desire to make proper use of the opponents half, but all too often the players seemed uncertain and indecisive in their roles. Certainly, Inigo Calderon, rightly beloved of us all, lacked the pace to perform his wingback mandate, and this was a symbolism of what those of us who are familiar with the players from recent seasons thought may have been a group of poor selections.
As the half went on I began to think that the new signings Aaron Hughes, David Stockdale and Chris O’Grady would be reasonable additions. Hughes looked accomplished in his defending, Stockdale, with little to do, looked confident, Chris O’Grady initially lacked the first touch, but would be more involved if he was playing alongside a second striker. That is unlikely.
Wednesday’s opening, and winning goal, came from a fine strike at range from Giles Coke. Some thought it was a cross, but I beg to differ. He knew where the opportunity lay-and took it. It separated the teams at the break.
An immediate recovery was rendered harder shortly after the re-start when Andrew Crofts scored a straight red card for a high tackle on Sam Hutchinson inside the home half. There didn’t seem to be a large amount of dispute, but in fairness to the Albion, the ten men did seem more in tune than the eleven. The sight of Craig Mickail-Smith joining O’Grady, in an orthodox front two, smacked of a positive substitution. As a long term prospect it seems worth a gamble- as long as it doesn’t mean a return to hoof-ball. The Albion attacked more freely, with Will Buckley’s earlier arrival being the catalyst, but despite the greater forays, and O’Grady forcing and excellent save from Kieran Westwood, The Owls were wise to most of our schemes.
And thus our first endeavours of the 2014/15 season ended in a 1-0 defeat.
As I left my seat in 95th minute, with very little push and shove required in the empty avenues around me, I realised how my expectations for this season have been lowered, and that the expected new signings may not give encouragement to counter this. Not being prone to saturated sheets, my bed had already been wet, and I worried that I may need to add a canoe to the wardrobe if things don’t begin to move forward. Still it’s early days, and having missed out on a chicken pie, as I wanted to take my seat in time for the second half, I put my emotional imbalance down to this painful disappointment.
As the subdued attendees left, and having failed in those two previous queuing attempts to land my first pie of the season, I was distracted by an empty kiosk, and a host of waiting delicacies, lining up in the heated slides like a group of Miss World wannabees. Every cloud has a covering pastry.
Being once of life’s greatest spectators, and having read too much Alan Bennett, for me attending Albion games is a glorious social indulgence. Results often feel peripheral, so I pretend. As I made my way to the Sussex University bus stop my thoughts turned to next weeks annual pilgrimage to Birmingham, the reading time that the train journey affords, and the annual alternative sport where I try to find my way out of the Bullring in less than an hour. Theseus had the right idea.
Football is back, and nothing has changed. Oh, the joy of humble routine.