Sunday, 17 May 2020

Southall Digging Deeper

Clich├ęs may be overused but that’s usually because they are grounded in truth. And ‘truth will out’ is a reliable maxim, not least because where there is confusion and it’s unclear who to trust, what to believe, often one of the parties involved will say or do something that that says all you need to know. We got to learn a lot about Duchatelet because ultimately he couldn’t help himself, when he felt he was ‘misunderstood’, and posted daft statements, which made sense only to him, or gave himself away in interviews. Each time he opened his mouth or put pen to paper it was another turn of the screw as Addicks shook their heads in disbelief.

Seems Matt Southall is cut from the same cloth, at least in terms of unmerited arrogance, with his silly attempt to bully the Trust with the threat of litigation for alleged defamation, for the sin of publishing verbatim answers to questions put by fans to a Charlton Athletic director. Is it telling that there is to the best of my knowledge no threat being made against the club for publishing these answers on the official website? The Trust’s published response is entirely appropriate and to be applauded. The unanimous support from Addicks for the Trust ought to tell Southall something, but it probably won’t.

Anybody who writes (in the email to the Trust) “I’d also like to note that I made time in my incredibly busy schedule at short notice …” is so far up themselves as to merit being viewed as an object of ridicule. Further evidence of such comes from his Twitter feed (assuming it is a genuine one), which even includes a retweet of an inane comment from Trump of all people. And to round things off, the Conversation on YouTube involving Lyle Taylor leaves us in no doubt how Southall is perceived. Add in the invoices and the Range Rovers, as others have commented, whatever happens to our club, there is no role for him in it, which just leaves him scrabbling around to try to secure a settlement or any other funds he can before moving on.

Enough of him, he will be fully out of the picture soon, what of our club? We’re just days away from the anniversary of the Wembley play-off final triumph. That evening we were looking forward to a campaign back in the second tier (I assume we were, don’t remember that much about it), even though the assumption was it would be a struggle at least as long as Duchatelet held on, with a realistic expectation that promotion would hasten his departure. A worst case scenario then would have been Duchatelet not selling up and relegation. I doubt we would have guessed that a year later we would be facing the possibility of being relegated on the basis of points per game having lost the final one at home and the season frozen before the Hull match, under a transfer embargo, with the threat of EFL sanctions hanging over us (including presumably points deduction for either this season – if the decision is to relegate us on points per game the least they could do is dock them from this season’s total – or next), with an owner who may or may not have funds and may or may not be ready to at least pay in enough to keep the club afloat, and the possibility that the transfer of ownership will be made null and void by the former directors.

If we end up relegated without another ball being kicked we could lay claim to being the unluckiest club in the country. It would be grossly unfair, but if it happens, so be it, this is an environment where there are no easy options (personally I thought a guy on the radio backing playing out this season to a close, even if it takes until Christmas, allowing the time to consider options for next season, made sense). Such a kick in the teeth would presumably leave it in doubt whether Lee Bowyer would want to stay to take on the rebuilding task. That in turn will I guess be heavily influenced by the ownership situation. If we have to prioritise the prime goal for us is to have a club to support (including club staff being paid), after that to have the foundations for optimism over the future (ie some resolution of the ownership situation, whether or not it involves Tahnoon Nimer), only then comes retaining Championship status by one means or another.

Let’s end with a weightier matter. Much as we might love Abba (at least half of it), and I was recorded with my partner Suzanne at the Abba museum in Stockholm howling out the song, it has to be pointed out that at Waterloo Napoleon did not surrender. He did lose, and retired from the field, but only surrendered six weeks later, at Rochefort on the HMS Bellerophon.

Tuesday, 10 March 2020

What Would Lee Say?

Like every other Addick I’ve been trying to follow and make some sort of sense out of what has been issued, in various forms, by Matt Southall, Tahnoon Nimer, and the EFL. I’m by no means ‘in the know’ and don’t have sources for inside info, so please don’t expect any. Like everyone else I’m holding my head in my hands as we wait for the drama to unfold. But quite frankly it stinks and to date nobody is looking like coming out of the affair smelling of roses.

Just one thought. If I was the majority shareholder and (presumably) major funder of a company and was informed that the chairman was behaving in a fashion detrimental to the company, I would – if direct communications with the chairman were not possible – convene a board meeting at which either the air is cleared to the satisfaction of all, the chairman is deemed to be in breach of his contract and immediately dismissed, or you ask for the chairman’s resignation and discuss terms. I wouldn’t turn to social media to spread the allegations, which can only damage the standing of a company in which I am a majority shareholder, as I already have the power to act (unless of course for some reason I do not).

That is not to suggest in any way that I’d be lining up alongside Southall in the power-struggle. I have simply no way of telling who might be telling the truth and who, if anyone, has the best interests of our club at heart. As and when a couple of facts are established – first, has Southall been making and taking payments which are inappropriate; second, has Nimer promised investment and not come through (whether via a change of mind or lack of funds) – we should be able to tell whether either or neither stack up.

Bottom line is we are back to being a club in crisis. There is of course one person in whom we have confidence to do what is in the interests of the football club and who, to the best of my knowledge and for good reason, has been silent today. That is of course Lee Bowyer. So if he is unable to speak out, perhaps we might suggest what he might say right now in a letter to supporters:

“If this had been any other club I would have walked away a long time ago. I put up with a great deal under the previous owner (although to be fair by the time I was installed he had lost any interest he might have had in what we were up to and did leave me and my team pretty much to our own devices) and, like all Addicks, hoped that a resolution of the ownership situation would pave the way for clarity, support in the January transfer window, and the club moving forward in a sustainable but ambitious fashion. These hopes have if not gone out of the window now been put in serious doubt.

But you know what? Screw it. I can walk any time I like but I’m not going to, there’s a job to be done. Nine games left to get the points to stay up beginning with the next six-pointer at Hull. Win that and we are back out of the bottom three at least. So any doom and gloom from supporters regarding the situation off the pitch is entirely inappropriate.

At the same time, any player carping about this or that, wondering about whether he should be playing, thinking about whether or not those who came to us in January are good enough to do what’s necessary, is going to get short-shrift. I want to see players who are hungry to show me they will put their bodies on the line, hungry to prove doubters wrong over their ability, hungry to work to forge (quickly) the partnerships in key areas that we need – and I’m only going to pick those that are up for this. Any player right now starts moaning to me or the rest of the squad, or not pulling is weight, screw him too.

Players and fans alike have common interest in avoiding relegation. Although I wasn’t here at the time the players and management achieved this in the first year of Duchatelet’s ownership, in spite of his antics. Beating the odds is usually what Charlton is all about and right now I’d guess the odds on us going down have shortened further. Well screw the bookies too.”

Saturday, 7 March 2020

No Excuses, Have To Improve

There are stages of a season when you look at trends, details, what positives might be taken from a game whatever the outcome. When you’re in a 10-game season and begin it just above the bottom three it isn’t one of them. You want results and if not evidence that everyone is up for the fight. And today we had neither. We lost, against a pretty ordinary team, and have no real complaints. Conceded an awful goal after 20 minutes and after that failed to make their keeper produce a decent save, relied on our own to pull off one blinding save to keep us in it. Yes, we were better in the second half, but the bar was low, we might have converted one of a few half-chances. But I don’t think anyone went away thinking other than that we have to play better than that if we are to stay up.

Let’s get the details out of the way. I was quite encouraged by news of the starting line-up. Looked like a 4-4-2 with Matthews, Pearce, Oshilaja and Purrington in front of Phillips, but it proved really to be 4-5-1 with Cullen and the returning Pratley in central midfield, plus Williams and Green operating wide, Lapslie in a central advanced role, and Taylor really on his own up front. Whatever the formation, you look for evidence that all out there are on their toes and ready from the start.

Instead through lack of concentration we gave away two bad positions in the first couple of minutes. Middlesbrough get a free kick in our half on their right side and we stand around and watch, only for them to play it short and almost get in as we were on the back foot. Just not acceptable. And shortly after a cross from a similar position flashed across the face of the goal.

To be fair in the first phase of the game we had our moments. Green and Taylor combined twice to create chances for each other. First Green was played in but from a reasonable position hit the shot straight at their keeper, then a ball in from Green found Taylor in space only for him to put it over the bar.

Then we gifted Middlesbrough a crucial lead. Our throw, in our half, nobody was paying attention because there was no danger. Until we passed the ball into space and their guy gratefully received the ball, took it forward, played it inside to another who simply slotted it home. A goal out of nothing and from our perspective utterly absurd in any game. In a game like this just not acceptable.

That gave Middlesbrough everything they needed, to be content behind the ball with a couple of decent centre-backs, to absorb most of what might get thrown at them. And for the remainder of the first half that wasn’t much. We looked sluggish and short of confidence, unable to fashion anything more of note going forward. Neither did Boro, but they didn’t need to.

To be frank in the first half we looked like a disjointed rabble, as if we didn’t believe in ourselves. Three of the back four were not automatic first choices and played as if that was in their heads (with the exception of Oshilaja), Cullen was strangely subdued, Williams looked short of match fitness, Pratley was chasing everything, Lapslie was drifting around to no real effect, and after a bright start Green was becoming isolated. We’d given Boro a goal and not put them under the sort of pressure to suggest we might get one back.

Had to be a change at the break and Lapslie was taken off for Bonne. And we did improve, not necessarily because of the change but because the attitude and intensity were better. Taylor was causing problems and it looked like we might get something out of the game. At least things were happening and Boro were looking less comfortable than before, even if their centre-backs dealt with most of what was thrown at them.

We did manage to create moments, just no real chances. Taylor’s cross found Bonne at the near post but the best he could do was prod it towards their keeper, Taylor himself went down for a penalty shout only to get a yellow card for simulation, and later in the game, after Doughty had replace Williams and Hemed came on for Purrington in a final desperate gamble for the final 10 minutes, we had more shouts for penalties (a possible handball and one where Taylor was being manhandled), a header from Hemed, and what proved to be the final opportunity as a ball in was met by Bonne only for his header to flash wide. But not one of these opportunities could be called a real chance; and not one of them resulted in their keeper having to make a save. By contrast Boro, while content to keep what they had, were only denied a second goal by a superb save to his left from Phillips and their own inability to shoot on target from decent positions.

On another day we might have scrambled an equaliser. On the balance of play in the second half we might then have said we deserved it. That would be to draw a veil over a dire first half and the fact that we didn’t force a decent save over the full game. If we are to stay up we have to be better than we were today and that is down to Bowyer and his people coming up with the right combinations from what’s available, plus those selected believing in themselves. After the Huddersfield defeat Bowyer said “that will be hurting them today; I’m looking forward to the reaction I get”. He will be disappointed by that reaction, as we all are.

Player Ratings:

Phillips – 9/10. Little to do after their goal but pulled off an outstanding save to deny them a second.

Matthews – 7/10. Decent game really, can’t remember any material errors and doesn’t deserve a worse mark.

Purrington – 6/10. I’m not sure who was really to blame for their goal, like our players wasn’t paying that much attention as there was no danger. Otherwise it was a shaky start but then did OK.

Pearce – 6/10. He did struggle, looks short of confidence. No lack of commitment.

Oshilaja – 7/10. One awful pass out of defence in the second half but otherwise had a decent game, just has to look and play as though he belongs, which can’t be easy when he isn’t viewed as first-choice.

Cullen – 5/10. Strangely subdued performance, I’ve no idea why, perhaps just tired.

Pratley – 6/10. Can’t fault the effort but sometimes, especially in the second half, was getting on the end of things through that commitment when others were better placed.

Williams – 5/10. Also for me off the pace, perhaps just not match-fit. Failed to have much impact in the first half and replaced not long into the second.

Lapslie – 5/10. Flitted around to no real effect in the first half and replaced at the break.

Green – 6/10. He was often our major threat, just didn’t deliver either the killer pass or clinical finish we were hoping for, also seemed to switch off at times.

Taylor – 7/10. Did cause them problems, no idea if he should have had a penalty or two (or if he deserved the yellow card). Struggled with what looked like an ankle injury – and if he has to take another break that would be serious for us.

Subs – Bonne (6/10 – certainly we improved in the second half but he failed to convert the two chances that came his way, the cross from Taylor and the late header); Doughty (5/10 – had much of the second half but really didn’t get in the game); Hemed (5/10 – only 10 mins on the pitch and his introduction, as at Huddersfield, was really a last throw of the dice).

Saturday, 15 February 2020

Not One To Remember

It looked like a horrible afternoon to play football; it was certainly a grim one to watch it. You try and take positives from any game but I can’t think of any right now, we ended up well beaten having put in a disjointed, confused performance. Try and learn a few lessons (and there were some) then forget the match as quickly as possible, hope it was a bad day at the office, keep in mind we just won away at Forest, blame the conditions or the curse of ‘football for a fiver’, and move on.

We lined up in a 5-3-2 with Doughty and Matthews the wing-backs and Lockyer, Pearce and Sarr lining up in front of Phillips, as against Forest. The midfield trio saw Cullen and Davis retained from midweek but with McGeady starting instead of Oztumer. Taylor and Hemed were again paired up front. The bench was pretty similar to the Forest game too, with Green taking a place rather than Aneke and no sign again of either Pratley or Williams.

We started the game brightly and undoubtedly bossed the first 10 minutes or so as both teams got accustomed to the swirling wind. Didn’t fashion a serious chance (we did have a couple of shots) but moved the ball around well. We weren’t to know that was about as good as it got. Blackburn slowly worked themselves more into the game and started to look dangerous, keeping the ball on the deck.

Indeed, the first major incident of the game could have seen them take the lead. A clipped ball seemed to put their guy in behind Pearce, who appeared to wrestle him to the ground from behind. My first reaction was a penalty and to wonder whether Pearce would be given a red. But the ref may have seen something before his contact as he gave us a free kick. He may have been right, would have to see it again; undoubtedly we were very relieved.

Before long we did commit the cardinal sin in such conditions by going behind, giving away a soft goal. Their guy was allowed to run across the edge of our box without a serious challenge going in and was given the time to line up a shot. Still didn’t look that worrying but seems the strike took a deflection to leave Phillips and everyone else wrong-footed. From the East Stand we were all surprised that what looked like a rather tame effort had ended up in the net.

It got worse. A few decisions in quick succession went against us and fans and players were getting riled. A Blackburn player went over rather easily and another free-kick was awarded on the left side. Not an especially dangerous position but when the ball came in nobody rose to head it clear. Perhaps it was taken by the wind but it dropped easily to their guy in the middle of a cluster of players and he turned it into the net. As with the first goal, there had been no sense of imminent real danger, but there it was. And we’re 0-2 down.

Perhaps the real turning point of the game came just after and before the break. We floated a ball to the far post and Taylor read it best and peeled away. He was able to nod it goalwards but their keeper stretched to turn it over the bar. Get one back then and the second half might be a different story, would have been a different mood going into the break. But not to be. It was tough on us to be two behind, but after that bright start our midfield had failed to function, the front two were starved, and our defence had coughed up two soft goals.

Bowyer changed the formation at half-time to a 4-4-2 with Pearce sacrificed and Smith coming on to play on the right. The feeling was just get one back and we can still get something out of the match, but we struggled to get out of first gear. Blackburn were not surprisingly content to knock it around and probe, retaining possession much better than us and not having to chase the game. It all went rather flat as far as we were concerned.

On the hour mark Bowyer tried to freshen it up by bringing Green on for the ineffective Hemed, to play alongside Taylor. Perhaps this would give us some cohesion. But nothing really changed. And after 10 minutes or so of this set-up Bonne was introduced for McGeady, with Green dropping deeper having had a very short spell as a second striker. Again nothing really changed and by now Blackburn were looking very comfortable. We had a shot or two but so did they, one from a decent position which was perhaps surprisingly put wide.

With about five minutes left of the 90 we finally made their keeper work, with a free-kick just outside the box curled in by Taylor, who had previously put one from a similar position over the bar. That goes in and despite all that has gone before we have a barnstorming finish. Not to be and the game, for us, ended tamely.

This report seems pretty downbeat because that was the game, from our perspective at least. A formation and an almost identical line-up to that which had secured three points at Forest today just didn’t work, nor did the changes made make much difference. For that you have to give Blackburn some credit and take account of the conditions. It was an easy day to look bad (manager as well as players as his substitutions really didn’t work). Equally, you’re at home, 0-2 down at the break, make three substitutions, and it’s five minutes from the end before their keeper has to make a save. That wasn’t good enough.

So far in February we’ve had the joy of beating Barnsley at The Valley followed by what by all accounts was a poor display at Stoke. We beat Forest on their patch only to come back and get turned over by Blackburn. Perhaps we just have to live with the inconsistent performances, but we clearly can’t afford another poor one next time out against Luton. You’d hope that both Pratley and Williams are available for that one as we missed them today.

Player Ratings:

Phillips -  7/10. First goal was a deflection, second he seemed to have no chance for. Otherwise really didn’t have much to do.

Matthews – 6/10. Was caught out one by their winger but generally fine. Still that problem that with a back five you hope to see the wing-backs bombing forward and we didn’t get that.

Doughty – 6/10. Stuck to his task well enough. Still prefer to see him in the opposition half as an outright winger.

Lockyer – 6/10. Two soft goals for which the defence has to take collective responsibility.

Pearce – 5/10. Caught out a couple of times and might easily have conceded a penalty (possibly with a red card to go with it). Sacrificed at the break to change the formation.

Sarr – 6/10. Perhaps deserves a slightly higher mark as he did well enough, just that like others may have to take some responsibility for their goals.

Cullen – 6/10. Struggled to have an impact in a midfield three which at least today didn’t look effective.

Davis – 5/10. Tidy but generally ineffective, not really sure what he brought to the party.

McGeady – 6/10. Some good touches, a shot or two, nothing decisive.

Taylor – 6/10. Not his best game but kept at it to the end. A header in the first half and the free-kick might have ended in the net.

Hemed – 5/10. Thought this was a big game for him, given Bonne and Aneke coming back. He didn’t make a case today for keeping his place.

Subs – Smith (5/10 – not really in the game); Green (6/10 – on as a second striker then moved after 10 minutes for another substitute); Bonne (5/10 – had around 20 minutes on the pitch but failed to make an impact).

Saturday, 1 February 2020

From Comfort To Panic - But Three Points

Now that was a strange one, perhaps football in a nutshell. Plenty of positives. We walk away with the points in what was the first six-pointer of the season, we were in complete control of the game for a period of time, and I get my first win post-boycott (now I’m 1-1-3). Against that, we were a whisker away from not winning a game we thought we had in the bag, for a period of the game we – including the crowd – came close to panic, which indicates the fragility which comes when you have been on the run we have, and without looking at the stats I’d expect them to show that Barnsley had the lion’s share of actual chances (including hitting the woodwork three times and a superb save from Phillips). And there’s no mystery when it comes to reconciling the two sides: when Taylor and Williams were on the pitch we were largely in control, and vice versa.

We set up in a sort of 5-3-2 or 3-5-2 (or if you like 3-5-1-1). Bottom line was that in front of Phillips were a central defensive trio of Lockyer, Pearce and Sarr, with wing-backs of Doughty and Matthews – except that while Doughty operated as a wing-back Matthews, while doing the defensive stuff well, didn’t venture over the half-way line. Pratley and Cullen formed the main midfield partnership with Williams having the role of linking defence and attack, while Green played as a kind of second forward alongside Taylor. That’s not to suggest it didn’t work, just that it was a quite fluid formation with both potential and also an uneasy balance.

In blustery conditions, which made it difficult to play the beautiful game, the early exchanges were pretty even. We had warnings that if Barnsley had the ball in space going forward they could cause problems, while most of our moves forward ended with fouls on Williams – I counted seven fouls on him in the first half, of varying severity - or Taylor. That did reduce pressure on the defence but also broke up play and put an onus on us to make the best of set pieces.

And within 10 minutes we had the lead from one of them, which looked like something practised on the training ground. A chipped free-kick and Lockyer (I think) managed to nod it into that area between the back line and the keeper. Whether it had been practised or whether Taylor simply read it better than anyone else he was first to the ball and only had to divert it one side of the keeper, which he did very well. Good goal well taken.

The surprise was that we almost conceded an equaliser from a set piece of theirs. The referee seemed to let play go on after one more challenge but eventually gave a free-kick. Floated into our area and their guy gets in a powerful header, only for Phillips to spring to his right to scoop the ball out before it crossed the line. Unfortunately it went straight to one of their guys but he hit his effort against the post. Give Phillips the credit for an excellent stop but we had the luck.

Through the rest of the half it seemed to be a case of which challenges the referee deemed to be fouls and which fouls were deemed worthy of a card. Having given a yellow to one of their guys it seemed that the same one then took out Taylor as he laid the ball off, but instead of a second yellow and a red there was only a long lecture. Lockyer also picked up a yellow.

The half came to a close with two more incidents that went our way. First, yet another flattening of Williams gave us a free-kick in a dangerous position. The previous one had been curled well over by Doughty and this time we had two over the ball and went for another training ground routine. One spins away and instead of crossing the ball its played to him. Except that Barnsley saw it coming and nicked it away, launching a counter-attack that saw the ball moved smoothly up to our area. This time it was blocked, but again the warning signs were there.

Then shortly before the break another set piece produced some head tennis only for the ball to finally break for Green in the box. He’d barely had a kick through the first half but hit it with venom into the bottom corner.

So at half-time we were 2-0 to the good and seemingly set fair. We were far from firing on all cylinders: Green was struggling to get into the game and a lot was being asked of Doughty, but Taylor and Williams were linking up well and causing them problems. Bottom line was that we had taken chances and they had been denied by Phillips and some desperate defending when we were caught on the break.

The first period of the second half was when we were really in control. We looked comfortable and more likely to add to the lead than be pulled back and by now Barnsley were starting to look out of the game. But whether due to injury, lack of match fitness, or some other reason, Bowyer decided it was time for a change and on the hour Williams was replaced by Forster-Caskey. That seemed a little strange as the formation was working well enough and Oztumer was on the bench, a change which would have meant continuity. Perhaps Bowyer was looking to tie up midfield and close down the game. As it was, we started to look less effective as the link between midfield and attack was lost.

No matter, we are still winning well. But after 70 mins we made a second change, with Taylor replaced by Hemed. Again, might have been a knock, desire to protect him, or lack of match fitness. Again, it was a change that weakened us. Might not have mattered – and I did think at the time that with Forster-Caskey, Cullen and Pratley on the pitch we should be able to control midfield – except that Barnsley rather out of the blue pulled one back.

We lost the ball in midfield and were caught truly on the hop, a repeat of Barnsley’s ability to move forward in space. Their centre-forward managed it well, slipping one desperate tackle and drawing in another defender, then laying the ball off to his right to the guy in space, who curled it past Phillips into the far corner.

From a position of control we descended into panic for a period of time. Barnsley hit the woodwork again, a free-kick flashed across the box and didn’t get the touch in, and we were reduced to desperate last-ditch tackles and clearances anywhere. Not surprisingly they had their tails up and we came very, very close to being pulled level. That didn’t happen and we were able to run out the game, despite six minutes of stoppage time, with Purrington coming on for Doughty at the death to shore up the defence.

So a strange game, one that perhaps highlighted the fragilities of both teams. We created few chances in the second half – one move which saw Pratley well placed to score only for him to decide to lay the ball off, an excellent cross from Green which Hemer didn’t get the right contact on – and not that many in the first, despite scoring twice. And for a period of time we nearly fell apart. But we ran out winners in a vital game – and for a club that is currently about getting returning players up to speed and looking at the newcomers, grateful that for the first time in a while we should have enough available players, we shouldn’t be asking for more.

Player Ratings:

Phillips – 9/10. A great save, no chance with their goal, dealt with everything else.

Matthews – 7/10. Defensively played his part well, against tricky opponents. Just that if you play five at the back you assume that the wing-backs will be getting forward and he never did, presumably under instructions.

Lockyer – 7/10. Solid and effective.

Pearce – 7/10. Same.

Sarr – 7/10. You’ll never say solid with Nabby, but no real mistakes and he played his part.

Doughty – 6/10. I’m not sure that playing him as a wing-back works, but that’s not his fault.

Pratley – 8/10. Another very important contribution, always competitive, usually successful. Just a pity he decided not to shoot when very well placed.

Cullen – 7/10. Very good for the most part but think he was the guy who lost the ball which led to their goal.

Williams – 8/10. Caused them all sorts of problems. When he left the pitch the game changed.

Green – 7/10. Barely had a kick in the first half until he scored. Worked his socks off.

Taylor – 8/10. Effective, combative, and took his goal well. We are all glad he’s still with us.

Subs:  Forster-Caskey (6/10 – not really his fault that the game changed when he came on, but looked not surprisingly a little short of match fitness); Hemed (6/10 – not easy for him either to get into the game, did some good stuff but failed to convert the chance that came his way); Purrington (no mark, too late in the game).

Wednesday, 22 January 2020

A Point Well Earned

OK, we didn’t get the outrageous last-gasp winner from the free kick, which would have been sweet, but a clean sheet and a point was an outcome most of us would have taken before the game. And in the end we deserved that point. If anything it was Fulham deteriorating and running out of ideas towards the end, they were far less threatening in the second half than the first, which was a tribute to the effort put in by all in red on the pitch. At times it wasn’t beautiful, but it was admirable.

We set up with a sort of 4-4-1-1 with a flat back four ahead of Phillips of Matthews, Purrington, Lockyer and Pearce (who took the captain’s armband), with Sarr and Oshilaja dropping to the bench. The most welcome returning Cullen partnered the now indispensable Pratley, with Morgan and Doughty making up the midfield, while Oztumer was in the hole and Hemed operated pretty much as a lone forward. And a strong bench (when was the last time that could be said?) contained Taylor, Williams and Green.

And there was a lively start from us as first one low cross managed to evade a man in red then one from the other side was deflected almost into the net. Fulham did settle and began to dominate possession, as was always expected. And their movement up front did start to trouble us. On half-chances it was soon 2-1 as a desperate block came in and later 2-2 as a shot across goal just went wide of our far post. Throw in some blocks from Phillips and for us a storming run box-to-box from Doughty, which ended disappointingly as he seemed undecided over how to end the move, and you had a decent game. Just that as the half wore on you had the impression that Fulham were highly likely to score at some point, while we could – but were starting to find it hard to threaten them as the emphasis was on keeping our shape in front of Phillips.

The second half wasn’t much different, except that Fulham actually deteriorated, which must be a concern for their promotion hopes. They started getting sloppier in possession, less fluid going forward, and looking back on it now I can’t think of a real chance they created in the second half. We weren’t exactly peppering their goal either – there was another promising move which ended with Doughty shooting from a tight angle rather than squaring it - but going into the last 20 mins or so it felt like there was some swing in momentum as the changes were made.

First it was Williams coming on for Morgan, with Doughty switching to the right. Next up Taylor replaced Hemed, who as they say had put in a shift (I kept thinking of the Monty Python sketch, especially given today’s sad news, something for him along the lines of ‘Scraps? We used to dream of feeding off scraps’). Their central defenders were suddenly obliged to become rather more physical than before and with more effective pressing of the ball we were pushing them more towards rather hopeful long balls out of defence. The final change was Green coming on for Oztumer, who had found a decent position for a shot but rather fluffed it – and, while having played very well, did take what I have to say was the worst corner I’ve seen in my life.

There was one more opportunity as Doughty again worked the position but the cross was wayward, then the free kick at the death that came to nothing. So be it, we had our point and they had not scored, something I wouldn’t have bet on at evens at half-time.

So plenty of positive to take from the game I think. Perhaps uppermost is the evidence that neither the January transfer windows stuff nor the recent results has had any adverse impact on the determination and effort being put in. Couple that with the news that Lee Bowyer has signed a new contract and the point we’ve secured tonight can be seen as an important step along the way of stabilising and rebuilding the season.

One aside, we have now played West Brom twice and drawn twice, Fulham the same, and have played Leeds once and beaten them. If only we could play the top three every week.

Player Ratings:

Phillips – 8/10. Dealt with everything thrown at him, claimed crosses when he needed to, don’t care about the occasional poor kick out.

Matthews – 8/10. Unobtrusive but can’t remember him being caught out or slipping up.

Purrington – 7/10. I thought he started the game rather unsteadily, but as it progressed he got stronger and played his part.

Lockyer – 8/10. Solid performance with some very good tackles and blocks.

Pearce – 7/10. Overall fine but did think there were a couple of errors losing the ball which put us in a difficult position.

Doughty – 7/10. Caused them real problems and this could have been a match-winning display. But in three good positions, which he had worked for himself, he didn’t manage to make them count.

Cullen - 8/10. Deserves that mark for being able to put in the full 90 mins so soon. A very welcome return.

Pratley – 8/10. Excellent, some timely interceptions and very good reading of the game.

Morgan – 7/10. Didn’t stand out but helped us to keep our shape and played his part.

Hemed – 8/10. Never stopped looking and working for an opportunity and to try to disrupt their play.

Subs – Williams 8/10 (made things happen, no question we were more of a threat going forward after his entrance); Taylor 7/10 (took some strong challenges to welcome him back, still very much hope he stays); Green 7/10 (not much of an opportunity to shine, only on for perhaps 10 mins).

Sunday, 5 January 2020

No Cup Upset But Some Positives

We all knew the score (and the probable score) before setting off and confirmation that we will have to wait another season for FA Cup glory isn’t going to matter in the greater scheme of things. Of course we wanted to win the game but the real interest lay in whether the new owners would take a bow or provide some insight into their plans in the programme (in the event there was nothing along these lines, really just not the day for it), a first look at new loanee Andre Green, whether some of the returning injured on the bench might get some minutes (Jonny Williams and Tomer Hemed duly did), and whether some of the kids might make a name for themselves. With West Brom putting out a side containing Barry, Austin and Brunt it was going to be a tough ask; and thanks to the BBC for providing the stat of the day: apparently seven of our starting XI were not born when Barry made his debut in 1998.

So in front of Phillips in a back four were Solly, Oshilaja, Sarr and Stevenson (with Lockyer and Pearce given the day off), and whether you call it 4-3-3 or 4-5-1 the two wide players were Green and Odoh with Vennings, Henry and Wiredu in the middle and Davison pretty much the lone striker (with Taylor also given the break). The bench included Gallagher, Pratley, Williams and Hemed, along with Morgan, Harness and Powell, the notable absentee being Ledley, giving rise to the impression that we may have already seen the last of him.

In truth the first half was a rather dull affair, with West Brom seeming to be playing within themselves and us not looking to commit going forward; and the first ball towards Odoh was a lofted one, a tactic which seemed unlikely to produce results. Our one effort of note was a shot on the volley from a half-cleared corner which went narrowly wide. Green had one decent run but we struggled to get the ball to him in good positions, Wiredu did get into space a couple of times but overran the ball (the first time he had a bad bobble off the pitch), while the star of the show was Oshilaja.

In amongst all of this West Brom did score, around the half-hour mark. Having probed but seldom actually threatened they were able to score far too easily. Their big No 9 was allowed to amble around the box unchallenged and he moved forward, played a one-two with another of theirs, and found himself one-on-one against Phillips. He didn’t miss. Otherwise they threatened from a number of corners and towards the break we were just hoping that they wouldn’t notch a second as that would probably have been that. They didn’t, so there was still hope, especially as presumably a few if not fresh then older legs would be coming off the bench.

The second half did indeed prove to be a livelier affair, although for most of it the surprise was that West Brom did not extend their lead. We did manage to get the ball to Green outside the box and after he pulled it down with aplomb he moved inside and hit a good shot turned around the post by their keeper. This and greater adventure on our part seemed to sting West Brom into trying to ensure no unwanted extra time or replay. They had a shout for a penalty as a shot at the far post hit someone’s hand, then their big No 9 shrugged Solly off the ball and laid it off for Brunt, to curl one over Phillips only for it to come back off the underside of the bar. It seemed that Austin must convert the rebound but somehow it was kept out and scrambled clear. Then a few minutes later a more routine effort from Austin hit the outside of the post.

Our changes saw Hemed and Morgan replace Green and Henry, plus a little later Williams making a welcome return for Wiredu, who had just picked up a yellow. And as the clock ticked down and West Brom were content to sit on what they had we did threaten to level things up. Hemed had no immediate impact but did provide an extra presence up front, making a lofted ball forward not the waste of time it had been in the first half. And Sarr was bringing the ball out of defence to good effect, usually picking out decent passes forward.

Our first real chance came as Odoh was tripped right on the edge of the box (on another day it might have been seen as just inside). The curled ball in somehow wasn’t converted at the far post, being put out for a corner. And shortly after that a cross in was nodded back and down by Hemed and Davison went for the overhead kick. Thought it was in but that one too came back off the bar. Into four minutes of stoppage time (and two West Brom substitutions) and right at the death Hemed had a shot from the edge of the area which just didn’t dip in time. And that was it.

So no surprise victory but no broken hearts either. We all know there are far more important games to come. Just how we shape up by the end of January remains to be seen. What is most important is that a line is drawn under the past few months and we regroup, don’t get hangdog because games have been lost. The spirit still looks good and has to remain so. Of course the rest of the season begins with another visit from West Brom. Bring it on.