After I had left the bus on a cool Good Friday morning in a not so busy North Street I noticed my Dad standing on the other side of the road slowly pacing to and forth looking down the street with an anxious countenance. Troubled by this I hurriedly, and probably recklessly, made my way across the road. Calling to him in a slightly impatient way I waved him towards the Wetherspoons door. We were meeting for breakfast before my journey to the West Midlands. My impatience, which has been inwardly chastised on many occasion, was my worry and frustration at seeing him cut a frail and isolated figure. Dad’s aren’t supposed to appear to have such vulnerabilities for they are a reflection of our own future disposition- and Brighton & Hove Albion’s run to the top flight of English football is serving as a reminder of my own longevity.
Breakfast at Wetherspoons is something of a ritual for us both. As we sat waiting for the culinary delights of the back kitchen Dad asked me where the Albion were playing. I told him once and then again later in the exchange. The same for the kick off time. “Will you be listening on the radio ?”, I asked with a glow of warmth, knowing that he would be, which somehow made me feel he would be there in a spiritual way. He confirmed this, of course, as the radio is his main form of company. “If they win today do they go through ?” he then asked with interest. I knew what he meant and met the question where it was at explaining that we might have to wait a little longer.
My Dad has never been much of a sports person. He did take me to my first match at The Goldstone in 1977 but never again. That later duty fell to my older brother who was even more reticent. I had a cheeky gob which sometimes caused him embarrassment, although others, especially grown ups, thought it quite amusing. For this reason I never got to see the Albion in a league match until 1979. The first home victory of that season against Bolton Wanderers. Some folk reading this may remember that match well.
Football is everything, even though, where life death and taxes are concerned, it is nothing. For those of us who have been its slave for years it plants so many navigational posts in our past history. A memory of what we were doing at any one time is often the outside casing to an away win at Port Vale or a dull draw at home to Brentford. “I remember it was raining and I stood on the uncovered terracing”. Why do you remember so many details of that forgettable occasion ? You remember it because you were with friends, you were bonding in your tribal togetherness moulded in adversity. You also remember it because it was the week you split up with your girlfriend….
………Leaving Wolverhampton station I was reminded of my journey there in 2014. The circumstances, dear reader, you will identify as a threat to your current feelings. It was Hyppia’s last match in charge. The Albion played pretty well but couldn’t hold on to their lead. At the end of the game Albion fans were seen to turn on themselves. That depressing memory wasn’t fuelling the best of stage entrances to this great town so I headed to the pub. I say headed to the pub as if there was a regular watering hole that had a welcoming space reserved. This was not the case in Lichfield Street where the Britannia Hotel had a sign in size 36 Times New Roman exclaiming ‘Home Fans Only’. It’s unusual for me to want to drink before an away match so, most indignantly, I took this affront as an opportunity to find another ‘home’ pub and sit down and talk to home fans as a mocking swipe to the absurdity of the ban.
Across the road, the Moon Under Water provided such an opportunity. There was no ‘home only’ sign but the sparsity of Albion fans in such a large venue suggested that some may have, like the team’s season, slipped in under the radar. I stood at the bar in a spare part role with a pint of cider. Next to me a small group of Wanderers fans were in conversation. “I don’t know why they don’t allow away fans- we should just all get on” said one. “Quite right”, I said. “I don’t understand why a person, in full colours, shouldn’t be able to enjoy a pint with the opposition hoards without the need to go incognito. It’s not as if we’re fucking Millwall…………”
…………………. As you potter behind St Peter’s church and down beside the university complex Molineux appears in its newest form. It is a stadium that would grace any upstairs league. I remember the old ground, my first visit being 1991, with its cavernous ends and old school appeal. The goal ends are equally grand now-especially the two tier Stan Cullis stand that, despite awesome and imposing in appearance, has a slightly polarising effect- especially as the atmosphere comes from the other end. There are plans to expand the ground although I wonder how necessary they are at this time. The powers that be appear to be in agreement as the focus of investment has now shifted to more immediate things……….
……….Albion fans were situated in the lower half of the Steve Bull Stand with blue and white apparel stretching from one corner flag to another. Many were well oiled, the later kick off time forming the catalyst. They had cause to be. Only two weeks prior natural fears, although historically unfounded, had abounded concerning the inevitable choke. Albion have not entered a new year in the top three during the last forty years in which they have failed to gain promotion. Although Huddersfield Town had beaten Preston North End with a penalty deep in injury time there was no sense of pending collapse. Everyone was in celebratory mood and, certainly for me, there was a feeling that three points was well within our eager grasp. This feeling was probably grounded in the knowledge that even a point would be fine. Any air of anxiety had evaporated a few days prior. Newcastle United, whom many had alluded to as an irrelevance in our ultimate quest, have been the subject of a change in focus as to who the real rival was. The ‘P’ word, the Voldemort of recent weeks for those who’s every move is now cast in superstition and ritual, was now the ‘C’ word. ‘We’re going to win the league’ was now cautiously sung in different sections- although tentatively.
The match got under way under the full glare of the cameras from Sky. It is most satisfying that they may not be there to record live that moment of promotion which may occur during intoxicated celebrations in the bowels of the AMEX on Monday. It could, of course, happen next Friday- in which case Murdoch will retrieve his pound of flesh. No-one seemed conscious that we were live like in the old days. Such intrusions are part of the weekly experience now. We cared even less.
For the first twenty minutes Wolverhampton looked far more comfortable than the fella standing next to me who realised just how much he’d had to drink. Folk were crammed into my section at more than one to a seat. I didn’t mind as it gave a feeling of the old terraces- something that promotion upstairs will not afford us. Albion defended in numbers and created better chances, Hemed striking the bar from a familiar Albion counter as well as heading narrowly over from a precision free kick. Solly March shot narrowly wide from a pre-planned corner arrangement and , despite Wanderers having regular forays into the final third, it all felt very comfortable.
A breakthrough was needed, and it came. David Stockdale’s long clearance downfield was met by a missed header from Hemed and a stand off from Kortney Hause that allowed the Little Magician in. Easily moving inside the chasing Hause and aided by the positional uncertainty of Danny Batth, Knockeart unleashed a precision drive from the edge of the box that squeezed inside Lonergan’s post. The travelling hoards erupted and Knockeart came running over as eager stewards rose from their perches. Sometimes I feel that the excitement of the crowd is sanitised too much by over anxious patrolling these days. However, given the squeeze where I was, as well as the encroachment in the aisles, the Black Country stewards seemed quite relaxed. As the half time whistle blew many made the journey downstairs to have a good old sing on the concourse. We were allowed to smoke in a more open area at the back of the stand. This is an ‘arrangement’ that happens at Villa Park also. I’m not sure of its legalities and, given our current position, it may be less necessary than usual, but it certainly it has a feel of more freedom in football’s orchestrated experience of today.
Wolves did their best to bring the game to Albion in the second half, Cody forcing a reflex save from Stockers close in when he would have hoped to do better. Another decent save from Marshall came a while later. The away quarter, again, seemed untroubled. There has always been a feeling in the Hughton days that going behind or being pegged back is not a chore. The main problem that Albion fans had at Molineux was the fusion of singing. With a large contingent spread along the pitch side the lead vocals can be a bit spread-eagled to many parts although ‘We’re on our way’ needs no conductor. Everyone joins in.
Much of the second half had a tepid feel to it, but in the 82nd minute the points were sealed. Another counter attack saw Murray and Knockeart leading a retreating Wolves defence. Murray headed the ball onto Knockeart who cut inside and unleashed a shot under the hapless Longeran. Murray looked a little miffed not to get the return pass but the reality was that gap on Knockeart had been closed too sharply. Two goals to the Frenchman, three points to the Albion, and a fourth visit to the Championship play offs almost certainly avoided.
The final whistle was greeted with triumphant choruses from the Albion faithful. As the gentle April rain set in on a grey Midlands evening, and the light began to fade, a sea of blue and white spilled out on to Molineux Street as happy folk made their way back to their chosen mode of transport. I slowly walked back towards the town intent on oiling myself for a packed and naturally acquired Seagull Special on the way home. Largely well behaved folk sang songs of now and yesteryear on 1745 to London Euston. The underground was a cacophony of ecstatic sound. As much as there were no singing careers in their infancy here the infectious joy could be felt. Even the assigned Transport Police officers seemed little bothered.
In a quiet moment later my thoughts turned again to my father. I wondered whether he had taken as much from the radio commentary as I had from the match itself. Probably not. He’d mentioned the Albion quite a bit recently as he takes The Argus and has Radio Sussex as a background accompaniment to his endless ground hog days. I felt a little sadness that, despite my efforts to see and speak to him regularly, he may be on the fringes of this most special of seasons. At 86, going to the AMEX is beyond him. I resolved to try and bring the experience to him more although I’m not quite sure how I could enact this.
It also occurred to me that when Albion were last promoted in 1979 my Dad was the same age as I am now. Whatever intoxicants Friday has left in me were repelled by this sudden sobering realism.
Life is too short, seasons like this are rare, enjoy the ride while it lasts.