Brighton used to be called Bristlemestune. That’s what it is in the Domesday Book. It’s an ugly name but it suits the place better than Brighton. I got there early, so I went for a walk on the seafront where everything was closed and smelled of chip fat. The old pier, which someone had torched, stuck out of the ocean like the skeleton of a burnt chicken. The sea was as grey as washing-up water, and the way it pounded the horrible stony beach they’ve got down there was brutal. Once you’ve been Bristlemestune, you’ll always be Bristlemestune.
My point is that Brighton is a pretence. It may have the country’s only Green MP and a reputation for free love and tolerance, but at heart it’s somewhere cold, harsh and stony. That goes for its football team as well. You imagine them to be flamboyant and expansive, but they’re actually hard as nails and brutally precise. The Seagulls pecked our eyes out at the Amex. They saw the Biscuitmen coming, and beaked us. Horrible birds, seagulls.
The mind games started at the warm up. The Amex is a totally phony stadium built in the middle of nowhere, but once you’re in it, sitting comfortably in those plumply padded seats, admiring the elegant swoops of the architecture, the odds begin stacking up against visiting teams. The pitch is embarrassingly perfect. You could have played crown green bowls on it. Not a speck of mud or sand. As the Biscuits strolled out onto this perfect carpet for their stretches and kick ups you could feel them making mental comparisons with the Mad Stad. And a sense of inadequacy, tinged with envy, began wafting up from them.
The teams that do well at the Amex are oik teams that roll up their sleeves and don’t give a f***. That’s why Ipswich, Preston, Cardiff have come away from here with their heads held high. Teams like Reading, which fancy themselves as purveyors of quality football, are at an immediate disadvantage. The Seaslugs know this. Even before a ball was kicked they piled on the extra-curricular pressure.
Where most teams have a video screen that shows the score (and the half time results if you’re lucky), the Slugs have a complete TV programme happening, a live broadcast from the stadium with a slick presenter who made DJ Megaparty look like a can of Tizer at a champagne tasting. And all the while the music blaring out through the top-price speakers embedded in the roof was quickening the pulse. At the Mad Stad, we stumble to the kick off with half a verse of that feeble denim-on-denim housewife’s favourite, Sweet Caroline. At the Amex, they get in the Mexican army, fill them with tequila, and have them blare out the trumpet part of Ring of Fire, twice as fast as it should be. Da da datera, da da da. Welcome to the Alamo, Reading FC, you lilly-livered near-London crumblers.
'A typical Jaap surprise'
The news that Kelly, Obita and Grabban had been replaced by Evans, McShane and Kermorgant was a typical Jaap surprise. It sounded extra defensive. But with Jaap teams there is always fun to be had trying to work out who is playing where. Unfortunately, my seat was down the slope, behind the goal, with the Reading defence far away in the distance for the first half. It looked as if Evans was in the middle of a back three, flanked by McShane and Moore, with four in the middle and three up front. But whatever formation it was began to feel insecure soon after the kick-off when Knockaert produced a couple of those high-speed wriggles of his that consist of beating three defenders on the right, going back to beat them all again, this time for fun, then whipping the ball into the six yard box.
Even without Rosenior and Norwood, the Slugs had a decent Reading contingent on view with Sidwell in midfield, strolling around being wily, and Glenn Murray, every inch the perfect Championship forward, leading the line with muscle and energy. It was looking rocky for the Biscuits. But, as is their wont, they started doing that sideways passing thing that seems to hypnotise the opposition like the swaying of snake charmer: from McShane to Gunter to McShane to Moore to McShane to Gunter. It worked. Suddenly, Roynaldo was through, step-overing crazily towards us with only Stockdale to beat. He had to score…
That’s when everything began to go wrong. Beerens didn’t beat Stockdale. Instead, the ball flew out to Bruno, one of the ugliest full-backs in the league with that ghastly bald head and beard combo of his. The ugly outside hides a cunning inside and the lofted cross that Bruno sent into the Reading area for Baldock to run onto was inch perfect and unexpected. Baldock bounced it on his knee, threw in a couple of chest juggles to confuse the attendant McShane, then smashed it past Al Habsi with the football equivalent of a slam dunk. From their end to our goal in five seconds.
'Scoring the same goal two more times'
Having set a pattern, Brighton proceeded to score the same goal two more times. The second began with Williams heading in a sure-fire equaliser, only for a Brighton defender to pop up from nowhere to clear it off the line. Five seconds later it was in our net. Murphy, on the opposite flank from Knockaert and nearly as effective, found himself one on one with Al Habsi and cheekily Tiddlywinked it over him.
The third was finished off by Murray with an unstoppable volley, but that one was deemed offside. So it was left to Knockaert, who else, to come knifing in on the left and to unleash a rocket into the top far corner. Brutal and precise, it was everything Brighton were about on the day.
As for us, we were just too gentlemanly. Seduced by the pitch into playing football chess, we were much too nice. The occasion demanded a few Colin tactics - a bash, a yank, a stamp. Instead, the midfield was lightweight and the defence parted like the Red Sea to allow Baldock, Murphy and Knockaert to run through the middle of it.
From the start, they were hard, fast and muscular in ways that we were not. Baldock, Knockaert, Murphy are middle-weights with mean streaks. We don’t have a single mean streak in the entire team. George Evans is tall, willowy and a nice chap. You’d be happy if he married your sister. But the day needed an enforcer not a brother in law.
Sort out the hamstring, Joey. We miss you.