— Brighton Lines (@IanInSussex) May 2, 2015
When writing of Albion’s first match of the season, back in August, I suggested that ‘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’. In the 40th minute of that opening day this tongue-in-cheek quip took on a frightening edge of prophecy.
This season, the first in which I have managed to attend every home game, as well as an indiscriminate clutch of away ones, has spent much of its time on life support. In a match at The Riverside, in which a case for footballing euthanasia was made from the start, the switch was finally moved to ‘off’.
The players from both sides had already issued last rights and fond farewell’s before the kick-off, as the match itself had all the air of a quiet wake. One would vainly hoped that the pre-paid buffet laid on at the food kiosks for the Seagulls travelling slaves would have offered a small token of comfort for the stomach, if not the purist footballing senses. However, the offering was tailored to reflect the season- bland, hurriedly cooked, and presented in a way that showed contempt for its intended recipient. Yes, it was free, but a part of me still wanted a refund for this act of false culinary hope that had attached itself to this pointless trip.
The day began at my 3am alarm call. Twenty minutes later, my brain, having barely slept, let alone woken up, was thrown into confusion as I walked across The Steine and up towards Churchill Square. Was I coming home or going out ? Groups of intoxicated, but well natured clubbers were heading home after their respective nights out. Taxis patiently lined up in East Street like dutiful and bonded servants, catching the last stragglers so the town centre could close itself to quiet for the pre-dawn chorus. As I walked bleary eyed through the door of a convenience store, to pick up a pie for my grumbling stomach, the chap behind the counter caught sight of a sturdy bag I had containing a pillow for the short coach journey to the other end of the country. Serving me with a wry smile it dawned on me that he may have supposed I had been thrown out after a domestic argument. I could have explained myself to him, but thought better to leave him with his happily gossiping mind-I wouldn’t want his job at that time of day.
The Conway Street Costa Express was waiting for me as I meandered through the throbbing streets of urban Hove, the sleeping hoards behind the Victorian architecture unaware of my final act of duty for the local sporting flagship. The welcoming committee at the starting line consisting of the evergreen Liz and a small group of loyal folk resigned to their fawning devotion. I had hoped for a double seat, and got it. The most important comfort of the outing secured, the coach made its way to the frozen wastelands. The day had started.
I usually take three batteries for my smartphone for journeys north of Birmingham, normally travelling by train. Yesterday was no exception. Much time is spent reading Twitter, Facebook and NSC. The early kick-off meant I could enjoy the Test Match coming home as well. A friend had his local Internet yesteryear radio show on at 10 too. Although I forgot that we would already be on Teesside by then. I couldn’t adjust myself easily to the knowledge that I would be walking along the industrial banks of that famous old river before midday. But I was, and did.
The Riverside Stadium opened in 1995. One of the earlier post-Taylor developments. Whilst it has staged international matches, and has a lot of atmosphere, I still prefer Ayresome Park-which, as you can guess, is now a housing estate. The 90s developments are the football grounds of yesteryear for younger football fans, and I can see why. Having visited The New Den a couple of times in the last twelve months or so I am loathed to pine too much, or be critical. The ‘Boro fans are a very animated and proper footballing bunch. They make the place a good visit.
The short coming of being taken straight to the ground means that time is limited to have a look around the area and visit a few watering holes. Middlesbrough is a town with a rich working class fabric, built around the chemical industry. The one thing I enjoy about away days is the chance to explore this, so yesterday, with its early kick off, denied me this chance.
A crowd of 33,381, much of whom had been originally drawn in anticipation of Middlesbrough claiming automatic promotion, had last week not produced a calamitous result at Fulham, were somewhat subdued. So the match was effectively a dead rubber, Middlesbrough already guaranteed a play-off tie with the home match being second up, Albion now safe. All the indications were of a tie in which Albion just wanted to get things over and done with, and Middlesbrough would rather have not been playing at all. And this is exactly how things played out.
The travelling Albion fans seemed a little sleepy at first, with an early kick-off and long travel giving less opportunity to oil the spirits. On the pitch there was far less inspiration as players vainly tried to motivate themselves in to believing that the occasion had consequence. The first half brought a tedious to and froing of possession, Albion perhaps shading the encounter, if ever any accolades could be awarded. At this point such a lifeless description can normally be punctured by talk of a single account of individual brilliance, but for the life of me I can think of none. However, given the self-deprecating and infectious humour of the Albion fans that travel, a hysterical ray of light can be thrown on this afternoon of north-eastern meteorological subfusc, so reflected at every juncture.
As the match limped its way to a goalless conclusion, an Albion wag started a communal hymn that told the home hordes ‘’We’re Brighton & Hove Albion-we score once a month’’. Cue much laughter-even from the most expressionless supporters. Given that this was the only match in May, the inevitable follow up ditty held that we were ‘Going to score in a minute.’ Shortly afterwards Chris O’Grady spurned a six yard opportunity to oblige. Why change things now ? Choruses of ‘Ring a Fire’ with the addendum ‘’We had a shot’’ soon rang round the East Stand Upper, the early afternoon gloom lifted, even the sun came out.
Just as funny, nay fecking hilarious, was the chant “Let’s pretend we scored a goal”, followed by “1-0, to the Albion”. The home fans looked confused, failing to understand the eternal gallows humour of us hardy souls. As the score became 2-0, and we began to re-write the teams goal difference for them, it occurred to me that the song’s author had scored more goals than some of our strikers had done in months. If there’s one thing I’ve learnt from this season it’s that you create your own day out…
As the players, a little tentatively at first, made there way over to acknowledge us at the final whistle, and we made our way back to our respective modes of transport, I pondered on a season that had began with a whimper, progressed with much wailing and gnashing of teeth, and ended with a silent fart. Perhaps we have become too used to scenes of triumph over tribulation, for I often experienced campaigns like this in the distant days of yesteryear.
Boarding the coach and tuning in to Test Match Special introduced a compelling England fight back- with the prospect of a 2-0 series win in the West Indies ahead of this summer’s Ashes encounter. This was soon placed in the balance as an average Windies attack reduced our second innings total to 39-5. Just like the old days too.
So as the winter sows, the summer may also reap.
Keep the faith. We are those who have been through much tribulation.