There fall some days when you know, you can just feel, that this isn’t going to be your day. Saturday lunchtime in Brighton town centre has started with a little light Christmas shopping accompanied with the slowly dawning realisation that no, I hadn’t bought the tickets that said I would for that afternoon’s Championship match between Brighton & Hove Albion and Huddersfield Town that I promised I would. The days of just being able to pitch up at matches and pay to get in are long gone, of course. It’s the Saturday before Christmas and tickets are available. It’s just a matter of how to get hold of them which starts to become something of an issue.
I stand around in the club’s town centre shop while the staff busy themselves by contriving to do everything but engage with me, and five minutes after this I find myself in a bizarre conversation with an assistant at the Portakabin which now sits outside Brighton railway station on match-days, at which I have apparently misinterpreted a sign on the counter that says “Tickets On Sale” on the – perhaps naive, perhaps stupid – assumption that such a sign would mean that I could buy tickets from there. I can’t, said the girl behind the counter with a look of complete bemusement at the very concept that I could float such an idea. I return home and order them online instead.
Of course, ordering tickets is only a part of the trial that comes with attempting to go to a football match these days. Once at the ground with only an email as confirmation that I’d spent upwards of fifty pounds on two tickets to watch a football match, I’m directed to stand in the rain in three different queues before I can actually get my hands on them. Eventually, we make our way into the ground, to a row of seats that apparently doesn’t exist. There doesn’t seem to be any reference to row “AA” in the stadium signage, and the steward at the entrance to that section of the ground doesn’t know where it is, either. He directs us back into the concourse behind the entrance to speak to his supervisor. He doesn’t know either.
Eventually, we arrive at the conclusion that row “AA” must have been a misprint, so we sit miserably under a roof that offers precious little cover from the elements for twenty minutes before somebody turned up and told us that we were sitting in his seats. We squelched back up the steps – that front row offered a safe haven for all the rainwater that had flowed down from the back of the stand – towards the exit, but as we reach it I note that there is a row of seats at the very back of this stand which isn’t identifiable in any way. There’s no-one sitting in those seats, so we sit down there instead. No-one tells us not to, which is a start.
After a couple of hours of this war of attrition to get into our seats in the first place, a football match breaks out. It isn’t an especially distinguished football match, but this has been something of a stop-start season for both Brighton & Hove Albion and Huddersfield Town. Brighton’s inconsistency can, perhaps, best be summed up by a week earlier this month when they were beaten at home by bottom of the table Barnsley on the Tuesday night and then beat promotion-chasing Leicester City the following Saturday. They started the match in ninth place in the table, with a chance of getting into the play-off places if they could win and other results went their way as well. Huddersfield Town, meanwhile, are a mid-table team, doughty and workmanlike, too well-organised, on this evidence, to get sucked into difficulties near the bottom of the table, but lacking the creative spark that one might think would propel them much higher up the league table.
Half-time arrives with the scores level and little of any great note having occurred other than a penalty shout after a rash tackle on Huddersfield’s James Vaughan which might have given the visitors an unlikely lead. The interval itself, though, brings about a fresh moment of palm to face interaction. Having queued for ten minutes, we are finally approaching the front of the queue when the chap in front of us is told that they’ve sold out of what he wanted. We don’t laugh. We don’t wish to tempt fate. It doesn’t make any difference, though. They’ve sold out of what we wanted as well. It has been a pretty desperate afternoon so far, but we remain optimistic. After all, one of the saving graces of modern football is the hope that the tactical straitjackets that football teams dress themselves in will become looser as the match goes on, that fatigue and changes to personnel will shake things up a little.
This does happen, but it soon becomes apparent that we could stay here until Boxing night without seeing a goal. The best chance of the match falls to the home side just five minutes after the restart, when Kemy Agustien’s header is well-blocked by the Huddersfield goalkeeper Alex Smithies, only for Ashley Barnes to put the rebound over from… not many yards out. Barnes also heads wide from a half-decent position and Kazenga LuaLua momentarily wakes us all up by skipping past a couple of defenders before seeing his shot blocked by Smithies. Overall, though, this all seems rather comfortable for Huddersfield Town.
It’s difficult to avoid the belief that, if Brighton are serious about promotion into the Premier League at the end of this season (and the apparent egalitarianism between teams on the pitch means that this is still plenty possible), then this is the sort of match that they need to win. We all saw how thin the margins between victory and defeat in the Championship can be at the end of last season. How much might manager Oscar Garcia come to regret the two dropped points from this match or the three tossed away against Barnsley earlier this month come the end of the season?
This, however, has been an afternoon that has tested the patience. It’s not that anybody has been impolite to us in any way. It’s more that, well, going to a football match and getting something to eat at half-time should be, if not necessarily easy, then not an exercise during which you’re left with the nagging feeling that there is some sort of secret that you should know about but don’t which will make this all run like clockwork. It can be forgiven if the end product, the match itself, turns out to be a stormer, but this is football and no guarantees of entertainment come with the purchase of a ticket. And as our train pulls back into Brighton railway station at the end of a cold and mildly uncomfortable day, it takes the warming glow of the pub can shake off these mid-winter blues. Perhaps we should have spent all afternoon there.
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