With ten minutes remaining and the match gently drifting towards the goalless draw that’d felt likely for some time, thoughts meandered towards compiling this report and what note it should take. A far from critical one, of course – but ladling praise upon a 0-0 scoreline at home takes some doing.
“Familiar strengths, familiar failings” came to mind, and sounded fairly apt. City hadn’t often looked troubled against a Brighton side expected to do well this season, but hadn’t done enough to win the game. It was Continuity 2011/12, and while that season was generally a good one, there was always room for improvement.
Ten minutes later, the Circle was awash with the satisfaction that comes from a home win on the opening day, and we must ask ourselves: should a late goal, however welcome and skilfully executed, change the way we view the game as a whole? Not really. But partly. City did keep going, did get that goal, and if that causes us to view the preceding minutes more favourably, perhaps that’s just human nature.
Also human nature is not to pay close heed to warnings to arrive early at the turnstiles. Three minutes before the game a queue snaking fully fifty yards was spotted outside the East Stand, meaning that an already thin crowd of fewer than 16,000 was yet to fully assemble by kick-off. It was an odd afternoon, hot and sunny in the main, with occasional showers falling onto a gorgeous looking pitch. If it only it could look that way in January…
Lining up on that immaculate surface were: Amos; Rosenior, Chester, Faye, Dudgeon; Stewart, McKenna, Koren (c), Aluko; Proschwitz, Mclean. It meant that City implemented an orthodox 4-4-2 formation, though with Koren given a bit of freedom and debutant Aluko and Stewart intermittently swapping wings, usually to good effect.
Brighton countered with a 4-3-3 formation that had City’s summer target Tomasz Kuszczak in goal and Craig Mackail-Smith, a class act at this level, leading the forward line.
And so the season began for the second time in a week, properly this time. Brighton had brought a decent following of about a thousand, not bad for a lengthy hike north. They made the afternoon’s first major noise when Ben Amos hared off his line to divert the ball away from Mackail-Smith – this happened at the South Stand end that Brighton were attacking, so given the distance involved we’ll forgive them for their optimistic penalty appeal, one not shared by any of their players.
It was a bright opening to the game, and City had the next chance when James Chester headed over a Koren free-kick from about ten yards – he’d pinched half a yard on his marker and he maybe ought to have done better. Aluko then forced a fine save by Kuszczak with a fizzing drive from just outside the area, tipping the ball wide for a corner that came to nothing.
Back came Brighton and a superb effort by Craig Noone from 25 yards had Amos flinging himself across goal. The City keeper was beaten and from the East Stand it looked in – happily it flew half a yard wide.
By now, the hot afternoon was producing a few meaty challenges. Mclean ought to have been booked for a completely unnecessary lunge on Noone by the corner flag right in front of a linesman, before Noone himself eventually did find his way into Stuart Attwell’s for an untidy aerial foul on Rosenior – it looked worse than it was, but was nonetheless a clear yellow card.
The lively Noone created the next chance when he wriggled into a yard of space on the City right and sent over a cross that Mackail-Smith met but could only divert harmlessly wide. Puzzlingly, after this brief spell of pressure Brighton seemed to retreat a little, with the two centre-backs particularly eager to slow the game down by exchanging a series of unadventurous sideways passes in their own half. Had Gus Poyet suggested taking the heat out of the game? Maybe – two more Seagulls could have been booked on a different day for fouls a long way from goal.
Their sudden caution aided City’s attacking cause, and a blistering effort by Aluko from the corner of the penalty area nearly gave us the lead. Think John Hawley against Sunderland at Boothferry Park in 1974/5, except with the ball walloping the crossbar instead of finding the top corner. Inspired, Robert Koren then chanced his arm, though his long-range effort was comfortably batted away by the Brighton keeper.
That took us through to half-time, and there was certain something of a pattern noticeable among the afternoon’s best chances – most had come from distance. With two well-marshalled defences and two sides staffed with players evidently confident about shoot from a long way out, perhaps that was no great surprise.
The break also saw a sporting hero introduced to the crowd: Luke Campbell, Olympic gold medal winner and local lad, whose thunderous acclaim reminded us just how great those Games were. Aaah.
Back to the football, which was less great, though still quite absorbing. Even McKenna now felt up to shooting from outside the area, and to be fair it was rather well-hit, necessitating a wary diversion over the bar by Kuszczak.
Brighton had one of the day’s best chances early in the second half when a cross from the left was slackly permitted (City had three men to Brighton’s two) and that excellent delivery was met powerfully by Mackail-Smith. Joe Dudgeon wasn’t really pressurising him enough and his header perhaps should have done better than clip the top of the crossbar on its way over.
Faye was booked for an ugly foul on Mackail-Smith that visibly shook the Brighton striker, before Noone evaded Rosenior to curl a shot at game that wide a foot wide with Amos diving more in hope than expectation of reaching the ball. Minutes later, a Proschwitz header from a corner prompted a cry of handball from the South Stand – it was rightly waved away by the referee.
Brighton had their best spell of the afternoon at this point, though didn’t quite seem to possess a cutting edge. Their day was nearly spoiled when Noone dived in at Rosenior by the Brighton dugout – it was a clear caution and ought to have seen a red card produced. Mr Attwell had been lenient (overly so?) throughout and gave him one final chance. Gus Poyet wisely withdrew him a minute later for Kazenga LuaLua.
That began a run of substitutions, with Corry Evans replacing the disappointing Proschwitz and Bruce coming on for the tiring Faye with 15 minutes left. The chances rather dried up by now and a third successive 0-0 draw between the sides looked inevitable.
Jay Simpson came on for Aaron Mclean with ten minutes remaining, and that was to prove decisive. With five minutes left Koren took possession of the ball about 45 yards from goal and side-on to the goal. Then suddenly he twisted and fired a low pass sideways into the area. As usual he’d seen something long before any of us: an overlapping Joe Dudgeon tearing down the wing, inside his full-back and perfectly positioned to run onto the ball. Kuszczak had no option but to close him down but Dudgeon got their first and was taken down – just as “PENALTY” was about to fly from 15,000 tongues the ball fell to Simpson who calmed passed it into the unguarded goal.
It was a lovely move worthy of winning the ball. Dudgeon’s lung-busting run from left-back was brave and incisive, Koren’s ball was a dreamy delight and Simpson thankfully kept his head despite having only just come on. And credit too to Mr Attwell for not instantly awarding the penalty but waiting to see how the ball broke.
City and Simpson ought to have scored again when a slovenly ball out of defence was intercepted by Koren and transferred onto Simpson – his first-time effort was pawed back to him by Kuszczak but his second attempt was wild and flew over.
That was it. Despite four minutes of injury time you sensed the wind had been knocked out of the Brighton side, and the Tigers safely negotiated that additional period to collect three very useful points.
A winning start, not something we’re particularly famed for. The previous seven opening days had only seen us win twice, but this victory means we can go to Blackburn and Charlton next week with points already on the board and the pressure perhaps reduced a notch.
Not that we ought to be hiring the open top bus on the back of this performance. Steve Bruce is too experienced a manager not to realise that we need more than this to regularly best the division’s leading lights. The defence continues to look solid, but that only gets you so far. The attendance too is a concern – not since February 2008 have so few attended a League game at home.
However, we can be optimistic too. Whatever the overall nature of the game, we’ve beaten a good side who are likely to finish very close to us. Aluko was great for the first hour and may very well provide those sparks of inspiration to win the sort of games City dominated last season without forcing a winner. And there’s always Robert Koren, a man who seems to have more time and more options than everyone else on the field. Proschwitz will hopefully adjust to England and bring goals and it seems clear that we’re going to win more than we lose. Tweaking that ratio just a little bit upwards is the job Steve Bruce has to do – he’ll be quietly satisfied that his side are off to a decent start.