I’ve had some marvellous away trips following the Swans this season. I’ve been to fourteen of the matches and, as Sod’s Law would have it, I’ve managed to take in the three defeats we’ve suffered on the road!
To be fair, though, I’ve also been privileged to see us put away one bogey team after another on their own patch – Yeovil, Huddersfield, Bristol Rovers and Gillingham come to mind. Played twenty three, won fourteen, drawn six, lost three – what a fantastic record, and what a truly outstanding achievement for Roberto Martinez and the squad.
In contrast, the matches at the Liberty have quite often been painful affairs, particularly in the last two months when we were missing the key players who have been so skilful at unlocking tight defences and keeping us solid at the back. It’s not far from the truth to say I’ve been going to the Liberty recently out of a sense of duty and with foreboding in my heart, but on the road it’s been a different story.
However, I wasn’t planning to go to Brighton for the final match of the season, but since I had to miss out on Orient at the Liberty last week due to family commitments (the only home fixture I’ve missed this season), my final memory of this wonderful campaign was going to be the highly disappointing defeat by Yeovil at the Liberty the weekend previous. Not a great thought to live with through the seemingly endless summer months, so I was delighted to get a last-minute e-mail from a Briton Ferry mate, Steve, offering me the chance to take the ticket and hotel room of someone who’d dropped out of the jaunt to the South Coast.
The wife surprisingly gave me her blessing – I’m convinced she’s got a fancy man in tow, but I didn’t argue – so I linked up with Steve in Chepstow on Friday afternoon and we were in Brighton by early evening. Steve’s a bit of a real ale officionado, and I’ve been known to have the odd half myself, so the evening became a bit of a blur as we hit the town and began crossing off one pub after another from the pages of his Good Beer Guide. Brighton was really rocking on Friday evening, thanks to a combination of warm spring weather, a Bank Holiday weekend, the Festival being in full swing and the town’s student population up to their usual Friday night antics of trying to drink the pubs dry.
We resisted the temptation to take in a show – the town was covered in posters for the touring production of ‘Lady Boys of Bangkok’ – and decided on the safer option of a nice Italian meal instead, followed by one or two more shandies in the lively streets behind the Pavilion. My word, there were some beautiful young ladies floating around the packed ‘Lanes’ – shame I’m old enough to be their grandfather! Of course, wearing my beer goggles, I wasn’t sure that some of them weren’t off-duty cast members of the touring Thais so, better safe than sorry, we wended our unsteady way back to the hotel.
The Saturday morning thick head was soon dispelled by a ‘full English’ in a café just off the seafront, followed by lungfuls of bracing sea air as we strolled along the pier in bright sunshine. Having bought the obligatory Brighton rock for the family back home (black and white striped sticks, of course), we strode purposefully through the holiday crowds watching the colourful children’s parade on the prom, towards pub number six on the list, ‘the Battle of Trafalgar’ near the station. What a superb hostelry it turned out to be, Harveys Bitter and Old Peculiar on tap, and packed with Seagulls fans, some of whom congratulated us on promotion and voiced their uncomplimentary opinions of Ken Bates and Leeds United – suffice it to say they are not big fans of the self-opinionated, bearded one and his bunch of Yorkshire whingers, like the fans of most clubs in League One, I suspect.
A short train ride, the price of which was enterprisingly included by the local council in the match-day ticket, took us to Preston Park station, a stone’s throw from the Withdean Stadium. Now, you all know that this is Albion’s temporary home and is, in fact, an athletics stadium with a football pitch in the middle. Imagine that you’ve gone to see your kid play in the junior league on a Sunday morning at the local park, then some jobsworth stops you when you’re fifty yards from the pitch and tells you that you can’t go any closer, you’ll have to watch from there. That gives you some idea of the view we had in the packed away end.
It couldn’t dampen the spirits of the ecstatic Jacks in attendance though, and the team put on a performance to match. Albion certainly gave us a run for our money and had one or two good chances, but class gradually told, and the goal when it came was fully deserved. The result was never in doubt, really, and the atmosphere was strictly ‘end of term high jinks’, with chanting Brighton fans at one point jumping about and throwing showers of celery sticks up in the air while bemused Jacks looked on and cheered.
Cue massive celebrations at the final whistle and, after a short wait while the temporary ‘League One Champions’ stage was erected, the formalities finally began. To loud boos and chants of “You Don’t Know What You’re Doing”, the presentation dignitaries of the Football League were introduced, then the Swans players trooped out one by one to receive their medals. Well done to all the Brighton players and staff for forming a guard of honour (the same thanks go to Orient for last Saturday at the Liberty). Every player was greeted by his personalised chant, with some improvised on the spot for the likes of Darren Way and reserve keeper Knight.
The only disappointment was the non-appearance of the Evil Genius, prompting further speculation about his future with the Swans. Roberto Martinez, resplendent in trademark back suit, white shirt and tan loafers, got the loudest cheer of all. Photographers clicked away, video cameras whirred and TV interviewers thrust microphones under players’ noses. No prizes for guessing which was the hack from S4C – Owen Tudor Jones and Joe Allen dutifully gave their version of events in Welsh, Joe smiling with embarrassment as the Jacks burst out with a “You’ve got school in the morning!” chant.
Many of the Brighton contingent stayed to watch the presentation from the stands and warmly applauded us as Gary Monk raised the cup, a very nice gesture. As we walked away through the car park, a sporting Brighton fan grasped the hand of every Jack who passed and offered his congratulations. It left me feeling slightly sorry that we wouldn’t be visiting this attractive and lively town again next season but, hey, let’s look forward to some new adventures on the road in the Championship.
So, Delia, let’s be ‘aving you, cheer up Davey Jones and look out ‘Lord’ Lee Trundle – the Jacks are coming!