Friday, 22 June 2018

The Art of the Deal

I honestly can’t remember a time since starting this blog when I’ve had so many times of starting to scribble only for something to get in the way, or just to realise that whatever the motivation for starting I’m going to end up with the same conclusion: back in March I was looking forward to a return to London at the start of April coinciding with confirmation of a takeover and a return to The Valley; we’re now in June, World Cup in full flow, close to pre-season gearing up, I’m back in Lyon, and it still hasn’t happened. For a Belgian and a bunch of Australians not to be able to organise the proverbial piss-up in a brewery has to be seen as a reflection of serious shortcomings.  

Along with everyone else I’ve been trying to keep up to date with the comments from those in the know (of which I am not one). We were warned not to expect anything dramatic from the statement and in that sense were not disappointed. True to form, even something so bland managed to sound confused. “The current ownership would like to assure the club’s supporters that the running of the club will remain its priority throughout this process.” Come again? ‘This process’ has been going on for at least six months, while the ‘current ownership’ was previously happy to remind us that our club is only a small percentage of his business interests and cannot be expected to take up much of his time. Add in that we are happiest when he isn’t actively involved in the running of our club, given his unerring ability to screw things up, and the only sensible response from Addicks is ‘please don’t get involved in running the club, sell as quickly as possible, and in the interim keep paying the bills with money you will never see again’.

It would have been out of keeping with the regime’s ownership of our club were it not to end in farce. I can’t say to what extent the actions and possible shortcomings of the Australian consortium might have contributed to this, if at all – the latest suggestions that they don’t have the money to buy the club lock, stock and barrel would, if true, put them in the dock alongside a seller asking a daft price. And the process hasn’t smelt right from the time that Richard Murray was pressed into commenting on it. No potential purchaser of a business would embark on due diligence if there was another buyer, one which apparently had also agreed a price, doing the same. And if you have agreement on a price in February and no deal has been done in June either there is gross incompetence involved – not brinkmanship - or one or both parties is not acting in good faith. Complexities? All deals are complex, with various interested parties; it’s only when there is bad faith involved that complexities actually scupper deals. If agreement can’t be reached, if say one side has promised something it cannot deliver, you walk away.

There’s a lot of nonsense said and written about making deals. Donald Trump apparently considers himself to be a gifted deal-maker (that is of course an understatement, he evidently considers himself to be a brilliant deal-maker). Only problem is if you look at his track record it’s obvious he is a lousy deal-maker. He can’t accept this because of his absurd arrogance: he believes that making good deals requires high levels of intelligence (which is true): ergo he must be a good deal maker because if he is not (which is true) he is not intelligent (also true).

As for deals being like poker, utter nonsense. In a game of poker you are playing the odds when knowledge can never be complete, you don’t know for sure what your opponent has in his/her hand, or exactly how he/she will play it; you are playing the odds and sometimes bluffing. One person will walk away with the other’s money, there is a winner and a loser, nothing else (when it comes to each hand). It is a game to be won or lost. Any corporate or bilateral deal on such terms would have no chance of being concluded unless one side had just lost a war – and even then it would prove a recipe for later disaster, as history has demonstrated all too often.

Poker requires certain skills, not ones which are required to cut good deals (plainly daft to suggest that deal-making involves ‘balls’; it doesn’t). If you are bluffing in poker, that may be the best course of action. But how do you bluff when your ‘opponent’ has been allowed to go through the books and knows all that there is to know about what is being bought or sold? In that context ‘bluffing’ is to negotiate in bad faith and to run close to fraud by concealing certain facts. When a deal is done, just as when we might buy a house, clauses in the agreement are included to cover certain unpredictable or unforeseen eventualities, other information coming to light etc. Now there wouldn’t be much point in playing poker if you win a hand by bluffing only to have your opponent ask for his/her money back because they were misled.

Some people can’t cut deals because they fear that if the other party is agreeing to their terms/price they must be ripping them off. So they try to squeeze (or perhaps sell a part of the business or one of its assets and hope to get away with it) or to bluff (perhaps suggest that there is another buyer willing to agree to his/her terms). Usually any such efforts prove counter-productive. After all, if an asset is worth say £1m, based on its full potential being realised over the next 10 years, why on earth would anyone want to pay £1m for it? There would be no upside, no profit motive. So the seller either accepts a lower price or has provisions in the deal which mean that he/she will also benefit if the value of the asset rises in the years following a deal.

The only good corporate/bilateral/multilateral etc deals are those which involve all parties benefiting, depending on their interests (of course if there is a seller in desperate need of quick money there is scope to beat him/her down in price – but that’s not a bluff, just taking advantage of information to hand). It’s (one reason) why Brexit negotiations are especially difficult as the sides are discussing how to limit the damage from something with no upside (over the medium and long term as well as the short term), which is a much more difficult calculation than agreeing a division of future benefits. Add in that in our case it’s even possible that Duchatelet is so twisted that he would want us to fail under new owners; after all, a sale now and promotion next season would leave nobody in any doubt (except Duchatelet himself) who was to blame.

Where does this leave us? In a truly absurd position whereby a caretaker manager – and Lee Bowyer certainly deserves our thanks and appreciation for taking on the task – is looking to shape a squad in the most testing of circumstances. We wish him well and in the interim try to enjoy the World Cup and hope we are in a better position by the time it ends.

Saturday, 26 May 2018

Roland Finally Says Goodbye

Personally I’m absolutely delighted with the interview given by Roland Duchatelet to the News Shopper. Not for what he said – which it goes without saying is insulting, mean-spirited and reflects either a total disregard for the truth or a deeply delusional mind – but for the fact that it amounts to a valediction. If there was a slight disappointment that apparently Andrew Muir has returned to Australia for a couple of weeks, suggesting no long-awaited confirmation of a sale for a little longer, it has been balanced by the fact that Roland has publicly said goodbye.

You’ve got to love the final quote in the article, when Duchatelet admits to having made a mistake. Not for the debacle which followed shortly after he bought the club, which nearly resulted in us being relegated that season, nor for the failure which his daft ideas and the those he kept around him brought on our club. Rather his error was not to rebut the “lies” told by former members of staff, which were apparently sparked by their discontent at a stop to their free tickets. Consequently the fans were “misguided” and “missed a big chance” which was that he “would have been able to bring the club into the Premier League”.

It’s either completely laughable or very sad. I prefer the former. I suspect that it will become a standing joke between Addicks in the future. Whenever we lose a game (it will probably happen) we will turn to each other and say ‘if only we hadn’t believed those lies and given Roland and Katrien the support that they deserved we’d be in the Premier League now’ and then collapse in laughter.

Saturday, 12 May 2018

Jackson Goal Ensures Duchere Suvival

I do appreciate all this rather pales into insignificance in the context of tomorrow’s game and what looks like the impending confirmation of the takeover. But perhaps it will provide a diversion as we wait for the main events, especially as the outcome of the final round of games in National, France’s third division, attracted some attention given the end-result.

To recap, in this ridiculously tight division of 17 teams (usually 18 but with one, Bastia, missing this season) with one game left Red Star were confirmed as champions with one of Grenoble or Beziers taking the second promotion spot, the other going into a play-off against the team finishing third-bottom of the second division. At the other end Creteil had been relegated some time ago, they’d just been joined by Marseilles Consolat, but then any one of eight teams – including Lyon Duchere, my adopted French team - could have taken the final relegation place. No need for nail-biting if the team going into the final game in that last relegation place, Entente SSG (otherwise called Sannois Saint-Gratien), lost their game, away at Grenoble, who still needed a result if they were to hold onto second place and automatic promotion.

Duchere, who sat in 12th place on 39 points, went into the last game knowing that a win at home to Chambly and they were safe for sure. A draw would probably be enough, given all the other teams involved, but a defeat and they’d be relying on at least one of the three teams below them to lose to stay up. Chambly themselves, on 40 points, were not guaranteed safety.

So nobody was especially surprised by the cagey start to the game, with a bumper crowd of 572 (just over double this season’s average attendance, the lowest of the league) having taken advantage of free admission for the game. But Duchere were looking more threatening going forward and nerves were eased after 12 mins as they took the lead. A cross from the right to the far post was headed back into the middle. There didn’t seem to be a real threat, but the appropriately named Jackson Mendes – who had indeed been running down the wing for us – managed to get enough on his header and to divert the ball into exactly the right spot, into the corner of the net just under the bar.

After that Duchere had a purple patch and four or five good opportunities to add to the lead and ensure a reasonable cushion. They didn’t take any of them, and did have a reminder of the danger they were still in as just before the break Chambly hit the post with a header from a cross of their own. No matter, La Duch were still winning and with half-time came the opportunity to see how the other results were shaping up.

Staring out from the mobile screen was Grenoble 1 Entente 2. Wow. Surely it wouldn’t end like that, but what did it mean for the placings? Grenoble’s rivals for the second promotion spot, Beziers, were at home to Les Herbiers. Remember them? The team that had won the previous week, to allow them we all thought to enjoy the French Cup Final on Tuesday evening against PSG without fear for their place in the third division. Plenty of deserved attention as a village of 15,000 took 15,700 to the game. There was no miracle, PSG winning 2-0, but plenty of plaudits for Les Herbiers’ plucky performance and wonderful cup run. But it wasn’t exactly ideal preparation for another game on Friday evening, especially given the opposition. So no surprise that Beziers were 1-0 to the good. Although Pau were also losing (at home to champions Red Star), with Cholet a goal to the good at home to Creteil and Concarneau winning away at Laval, remarkably Les Herbiers had dropped into the final relegation place.

Tough on them for sure but by no means done and dusted. Surely Grenoble – who had actually scored first in their game - wouldn’t actually lose at home to Entente. Still 45 minutes to go.

For Duchere, and Chambly, this meant that their game took on a rather different complexion. For Chambly, as long as Les Herbiers lost they were safe. For Duchere, as long as Les Herbiers lost a draw was good enough to survive, but a defeat and I really don’t know; they would end up on the same number of points as Les Herbiers – and simple goal difference doesn’t seem to cover placings in this division. So although they game didn’t descend into a players’ deal not to try to score, both teams were content to keep things as they were – as long as the picture elsewhere didn’t change.

There were more goals. Early in the second half Les Herbiers conceded another at Beziers, making them increasingly dependent on Grenoble turning it around. But incredibly it was Entente who scored again, to go 1-3 up at Grenoble. Then Les Herbiers’ chances of anything from their game all but disappeared as they went 3-0 down. With around 20 minutes left Les Herbiers did actually get one back but there was to be no comeback. Nevertheless, their hopes of survival were boosted as Grenoble scored a second with a little less than 10 minutes of normal time to go. At the time it looked as though one more goal for Grenoble and they would get automatic promotion and Entente would drop back into the bottom three/four, Les Herbiers surviving. To add to the drama, Creteil had equalised at Cholet and if they scored a winner it would be Cholet who went down; Pau had managed an equaliser at home to Red Star, taking them a point above the bottom teams; and Concarneau had been pegged back to 1-1 at Laval, leaving them on the same points as Pau.

Heaven only knows what the atmosphere was like at Grenoble for those final 10 minutes. We at Duchere were enjoying following the scores – but not with indifference. If Chambly had equalised – and they did have one or two chances, as did Duchere – it would only require one more for them and it could after all be La Duch facing the drop. But that was not to happen. Both teams settled for what they had and were able to celebrate survival when the final whistle blew.

As it happened there were no more important goals – although Beziers added a fourth to add to Les Herbiers’ misery. Entente somehow held on to their 2-3 lead and took the three points, lifting themselves to 11th place on 40 points, the same as Pau (10th), Chambly (12th) and Concarneau (13th). Cholet held on to their home point to finish on the same number of points (39) as Les Herbiers but placed above them in 14th. And Les Herbiers, having enjoyed the attention and glory of a cup final and with a celebration at their ground planned for Saturday, found themselves relegated.

Duchere? Would you believe that the win lifted them to sixth place in the league. Anyone in the future looking at the final league placings would have no idea that going into the final stages of the last game they could still have been relegated. The celebrations at the end in front of the home fans were genuine and well-deserved. Last season had been Duchere’s first in this league and they enjoyed it, coming close to securing promotion at the first time of asking. This time around it had been tough, very tough. It would have been easy to have fallen away and gone back down; instead in recent weeks they pulled out wins away at Grenoble and Laval and a draw at Red Star, plus that vital home victory over Boulogne. They displayed character and resolve and can look back on the campaign with pride as they plan for next season.

Les Herbiers? No doubt it hurt last night and today. But I suspect that when they’ve had the chance to reflect if they’d had a choice between a cup final and relegation versus staying up they may well have gone for the former. They can tell their grandchildren about the day they took on the mighty PSG long after a relegation has been forgotten.

Us? Needless to say another Jackson goal (or three) tomorrow would be very welcome.

Monday, 7 May 2018

May The Satisfaction Continue

It proved to be a weekend of relative satisfaction on the football front. We duly saw our play-off place confirmed with no need for any fresh contribution from ourselves; Lyon Duchere secured a highly-commendable 0-0 draw away at Red Star, which was not enough to guarantee their survival in France’s third division but comes close. So not perfect on either front but in both cases outcomes we would have taken without hesitation a few weeks ago.

Let’s face it, once Plymouth were behind at Gillingham we pretty much ceased to be the focus on any attention, given the mathematics and the much more interesting fluctuating battle between Rochdale and Oldham to avoid the drop. Johnnie Jackson has already acknowledged that the news unavoidably affected the effort from us on the pitch. With hindsight, we earned our top-six spot with the victories over Shrewsbury and Portsmouth and one curtesy of Pearce’s backside while Plymouth lost their final two games. Consequently all he and Lee Bowyer will have learnt, according to all reports on the game, is that neither Zyro nor Kaikai took the opportunity afforded to make a case for being in the starting XI on Thursday. So be it, but let’s hope that does hurt them as they will very probably be called on to play a part before the season’s over.

By default the indication is that Magennis and Ajose move back to the fore. I can’t exactly speak from extensive experience of watching them play together, and its’ a little unfair to draw any conclusions from the home game against Blackburn. But there was no evidence that day of a natural understanding between the two, really little link-up in their play. More often than not, if Magennis won the ball in the air Ajose was too far away to take advantage. I hope that if they are working on anything in training this week it is how each of them might work to get the best out of the other. It’s never too late for a little fine-tuning.

Otherwise we just pray that Amos doesn’t trip over the carpet if he goes up to collect the Player of the Year award tonight, that certain others are also wrapped in cotton wool over the next few days, and that the football gods smile on us on Thursday (and then again on Sunday).

For Duchere, the permutations going into the final round of games on Friday evening are clearer – but still many. Notionally they could win the final game and end up fifth in an 18-team league (probably that’s not possible given who will be playing whom, but even I’m not sad enough to spend time working that one out), or lose and get relegated. It is that tight. While Duchere were getting their point away at Red Star (which was enough to confirm them as champions, so perhaps there was a little collusion), some others around them pulled out the stops. Pau won away, Avranches and Les Herbiers (who are about to take on PSG in the French cup final) won at home, while Chambly secured a point against Beziers (which leaves Grenoble rather than them likely to take the second automatic promotion place). The losers on Friday were Marseilles Consolat, who lost and are relegated (along with Creteil), and Cholet, who were beaten at Dunkerque.

So one relegation place yet to be filled – and eight teams go into the final game knowing that it could be them. Duchere are now 12th in the league, now below Pau and Concarneau but still above Les Herbiers – all of them on 39 points, with Avranches and Chambly on 40 and not yet safe. On 38 in 14th are Cholet and on 37, sitting in that last spot, are Entente SSG.

In the final round of games Entente (elsewhere known as Sannois Saint-Gratien) are away at Grenoble. Anything less than a win – against a team on their own patch which still seems to need a point to guarantee promotion – and they can only potentially catch Cholet, who are at home to relegated Creteil. If Cholet win that game, for Entente it’s win or bust and their focus turns to any one of the six teams on either 39 or 40 points, most obviously the four on 39 – Les Herbiers, Pau, Concarneau, and Duchere.

So Duchere go into the game knowing that if Entente lose or draw they are safe, that if they (Duchere) win at home to Chambly (now in ninth place but on 40 points and not certainly safe) it is also time to celebrate irrespective of other results. A draw would be enough for Chambly but for Duchere? Now here I don’t know – and nobody in a certain Lyon office knows either. I’d be inclined to say it’s not certain as Duchere have a goal difference of -4 and Entente one of -6, so a win for the latter by two or more and it would suggest they go above Duchere. Only problem is that the table as is shows Duchere above Concarneau on the same number of points but despite the latter having a goal difference of 0. Other sites have slightly different orders for teams on the same number of points. So perhaps it’s head-to-head results (in which case Duchere and Entente drew both times this season – but 2-2 at Duchere and 1-1 at Entente, so would away goals count in this situation?).

Clear as mud, unless anyone out there can help. All I hope is that when next weekend is over we feel as content with the outcome as we are now – or alternatively that we are dancing around celebrating an actual takeover, although the assumption now is that such timing would only be possible if we’re not going to Wembley. We’ve waited this long, a few weeks more won’t hurt if it means we achieve both our goals.

Friday, 4 May 2018

Duchere's Fate Not Yet Decided

Most Addicks will no doubt be content to switch off from football this evening, ahead of tomorrow’s confirmation of a play-off place (or a play-off for a play-off place, or not as the case may be). But those of us who split our time between south-east London and Lyon and who follow Lyon Duchere (admittedly the sample size is not large) will be holding our breath as the scores come through from the penultimate round of matches in National, France’s third division. Let me try to set the scene, for those who may not have been following developments in this ridiculously tight league.

My last update on Duchere’s fortunes followed a vital 1-0 home win against Boulogne in the 27th round (of 34), a game which I witnessed and which took them up to eighth in the 18-team league (in reality only 17, apparently resulting from the extreme demotion of Corsica’s Bastia for financial irregularities) but still left them only two points above a relegation place (four of 18 go down, which this season means three of 17). Next up for Duchere was a tough away game at promotion-chasing Grenoble. They only went and won it, 2-1, albeit with luck on their side. Grenoble had a player sent off after just 25 minutes but still took the lead early in the second half. Duchere managed an equaliser and then had a one-on-one with the keeper, who saved the attempt on goal only for it to rebound off a defender trying to get back and into the net. Duchere walked away with the points against their far better-resourced near neighbours, putting a big dent in Grenoble’s promotion push.

That result left Duchere with a reasonable cushion, albeit with no realistic chance of a late promotion bid. But since then it’s got tricky again. In round 29 Duchere’s poor home form came back to haunt them as they lost 0-1 to Dunkerque. Renewed anxiety seemed to be eased with round 30 as once more Duchere went to a promotion-chasing team, this time Laval, and came away with a victory, 1-0. All was lined up for a win in round 31 at home against all-but-relegated Creteil, which would surely cement their place in the division for next season. However, all Duchere could manage was a 1-1 draw, taking the lead with about 20 minutes left and then conceding just a couple of minutes later. And in round 32 Duchere had yet another tough away game, at Beziers, and this time couldn’t upset the form book, going down 0-1.

So now Duchere have slipped back to 11th in the league, still some comfort from the number of teams below them, but are back to being only two points above a relegation place, on 38 points with two games left. And for good measure tonight Duchere will travel to top-of-the-table Red Star, who are all but promoted but require one point to be mathematically sure – and to be confirmed as champions, with Grenoble and Beziers fighting it out for the second automatic promotion place, the loser probably going into a play-off (Rodez have an outside chance of finishing second or third).

Tonight Duchere could of course return from Paris with the three points, which would guarantee survival; a point would be a great result and could be enough, depending on other results. Creteil have gone and will finish notionally second-bottom, but the two other places are undecided. Marseille Consolat are currently 16th on 34 points. Tonight they travel to Boulogne and a defeat there would possibly send them down (although they are at home to Dunkerque in the final round). At the moment the splendidly named Les Herbiers occupy the final relegation place. Tonight they are at home to Laval, who have fallen away in the promotion race and may already be on their holidays (but in the final round are away at Beziers, who may well need to win to get promoted).

In between Duchere and the relegation places sit (reading up) Pau, Entente SSG, and Avranches. Pau are this evening away at Creteil, who have only pride to play for; they finish the season at home to Red Star, who may by then be in party mode. Entente have only one game left, in the final round (notionally tonight they have a home game against the non-existent 18th-placed team), when they are away to Grenoble (who like Beziers will probably need to win). Avranches are away to Rodez this evening and round things off with a home game against Boulogne.

For Duchere, again a win tonight and they are safe, a draw and it’s looking good – but a defeat and it’s probable that they will need something out of the last match, at home to mid-table (but still not yet mathematically-safe) Chambly. Since Entente get no points this evening, the worst that can happen to Duchere – if every result goes against them - is that they would drop to 14th, one place above the relegation places (Marseilles Consolat can’t overtake them yet).

That of course means that everything is still in Duchere’s own hands. Whatever happens tonight, a win at home in the last game and they are safe irrespective of what others may do. Shouldn’t be so hard, against a team with probably nothing to play for. Just that Duchere’s recent home form is lamentable. They’ve won only four out of 15 at home this season (drawn seven and lost four) and if memory serves (oh come on, I can’t check everything) that victory over Boulogne is their only home win this year. Add in what would probably be some very nervous players out there and who knows what might happen.

Never fear. This Englishman witnessed their only home victory this year and, as chance would have it, I will be in Lyon for next Friday’s game (I realise there are probably some important Charlton games coming up but I’m back to a Lyon trip each month and couldn’t manage a mid-month trip or risk Wembley after that). I hope my services as a lucky omen are not required, but if it’s all to play for could be quite a night.

Wednesday, 2 May 2018

Still Work To Be Done

For sure last night’s result materially shortened the odds on us being in the play-offs (more likely now in sixth rather than fifth place, but them’s the breaks). But Bowyer and the team can’t go into the final game at Rochdale thinking that it is a done deal. Plymouth win, we lose and a six-goal swing is unlikely but far from being only a theoretical possibility, especially as Plymouth will know from the start what they have to do away at Gillingham: not just win but win by at least a couple of goals, which means attack from the start (and if they win by four and we lose by two we would miss out – unless our result is something like 4-6, in which case Plymouth would need another to top us on goal difference rather than being level and it going to goals scored). It surely helps our cause that they are not exactly rip-roaring, high-scoring, having netted two fewer than us so far.

How the match at Rochdale plays out could be influenced by the news from Gillingham and Northampton (who are at home to Oldham, the team Rochdale have to overtake if they are to stay up). If Oldham are losing badly and our game is level, we could have a players’ pact to keep it that way as a draw would suit us both (of course we need to win to have a chance of taking fifth place but that requires Scunthorpe losing at home to Bradford). There’s a slight regret that the Scunthorpe-Plymouth result does rule out the reverse scenario: that with 20 minutes to go in our game a draw is no good to either us or Rochdale, so both teams go desperately in search of a winner; for the neutrals watching it on live TV that would have been fun. And of course if we hear that Oldham are winning at Northampton, it’s reasonable to suppose that Rochdale’s motivation would wane.

Quite rightly the line from Bowyer and the players will no doubt be that they step out on Saturday evening intent on winning the game. A draw would suffice but – unless you’re an Italian team of the 1960s or most Premier League teams playing away at Man City – you can never go into a game with the mentality of playing for a draw. That said, there can’t be any question of selecting players carrying knocks if that would threaten their availability for the play-offs; neither can there be a case for giving key players a rest as it isn’t over yet. At least they have the rest of the week to make these decisions – and perhaps most important we are not in the position (unlike Plymouth) where we have to consider altering the team’s set-up in order to chase a game.

So in all probability it will be a two-legged affair against Shrewsbury followed by a Wembley final against Rotherham or Scunthorpe. Do results against these teams during the season matter? I’d say not a lot – especially given the up and down nature of our season – but at the margins yes. We’ve lost twice to Scunthorpe and not scored against them, conceding three goals. That could be coincidence or it might be because their formation and players have certain advantages when it comes to being matched up against us, factors that would be in the back of the minds of management and players. It might be only a psychological edge, it might be more than that. Perhaps in that context it favours us that we can only play Scunthorpe in a one-off final. In reverse, we’ve done the double over Rotherham, scoring five and conceding one. That puts the question marks in their heads if we were to meet at Wembley.

Of course those thoughts don’t count for much as we’re assuming it will be Shrewsbury over two legs. We lost at home to them 0-2 and won at their place 2-0. So read into that what you will. We might argue that our home defeat against them, in February, came at a bad time for us and proved to be the first of three successive defeats. When we won at their place we were under a new management team, one which has revitalised our season. If I was them I might suggest that by the team we played at their place it was win or bust for us, while they were already seeing an automatic promotion spot slipping away.

Just looking at the records of us and Shrewsbury this season and it’s apparent why they are third and we are sixth: not much difference in goals scored, with both teams struggling on that front (58 and 60 respectively in 45 games), but they’ve conceded only 38 – the best in the league except for Wigan – and we’ve let in 50. But perhaps even that is balanced by recent performance, with us putting together three straight wins – and three clean sheets – and six wins and a draw in nine, while Shrewsbury haven’t kept a clean sheet in their last four and have won only two of their last eight. We can claim to have the momentum, they would say they’ve been resting ahead of the play-offs to be physically and mentally prepared.

All you can really say is that it will probably be close, very close. The stand-out statistic in the nine games so far under Bowyer is that we’ve won every game in which we’ve scored first – and haven’t won any when we conceded first. Put together two low-scoring teams and that surely underlines how important it will be to get ahead. So let’s get Saturday out of the way first and then reassess.

Saturday, 28 April 2018

Reward For Sheer Effort And Determination

Sometimes in football you get what you deserve. Today we had all the luck that was going, scoring with our only shot on goal, courtesy of a wicked deflection, while Blackburn crashed a header off the underside of the bar, drew at least two stunning saves from Amos, and had spells when it seemed they must score only for bodies to somehow get in the way. There was also a curious incident just before half-time which I’d have to see again, because at the time I was waiting for the referee to award Blackburn a free kick just outside the box and pull out a red card for Konsa. But the luck was earned and if games are won on determination and effort we deserved the victory. The commitment of each and every player couldn’t be questioned – and although other results meant that the win did not guarantee us a play-off place, if that level of focused effort is continued we should not only get the berth but go into the extra games in a very positive frame of mind.

The game itself fell some way short of a classic, with both defences on top for the most part and very, very few actual chances. Blackburn may have already guaranteed their automatic promotion and apparently rested some players, but they wanted to put on a show for their travelling fans, still had an interest in becoming champions, and had enough quality in defence to pretty much shut out our front two and a real threat going forward. To match that required hard work. A lot of hard work.

We lined up with a back four in front of Amos of Page, Bauer, Pearce and Konsa, a midfield quartet of Marshall, Kashi, Forster-Caskey and Reeves, with Magennis and Ajose up front in a basic 4-4-2. Contrary to previous indications, Johnnie Jackson took a spot on the subs bench, but the assumption was that he would only come on for the last minute or so if we were comfortably ahead. That didn’t happen.

I made a mental note after 10 mins that basically nothing had happened. Blackburn moved the ball better than us going forward and seemed to have a forward and a wide guy to cause us problems, but we were holding our own. What was missing for us was any real drive going forward, there was nothing apparent to pull them out of position and to create opportunities. If you play 4-4-2 you are looking for the two wide guys to get into decent positions to provide the ammunition and while Reeves sometimes found himself in space on the right he was usually isolated. Instead our threat emerged on the other flank as Marshall started to influence the game.

Basically Marshall did the unexpected and, while it didn’t always come off, that gave Blackburn something to worry about while balls towards our front two were not giving them problems. And after around 20 minutes Marshall worked a little space and was brought down, giving us a free kick in a decent position. The ball into the box was headed out but not far and it dropped to Pearce. He took the shot and no doubt it would have been saved, but it took a strong deflection off a defender to completely wrongfoot their keeper and leave him with no chance. Some days it goes for you.

Nobody in the ground doubted how important scoring first could prove; we’ve won every game under Bowyer when we have and being ahead allowed the team and the crowd not to get edgy about needing to create chances and chase the game. And for the remainder of the first half the game continued in a similar pattern, with Blackburn looking more of a threat than us but most of the time running up against the brick wall of Bauer and Pearce, assisted by those around them. Marshall not only won another free kick in a dangerous position (which came to nothing) but also put in a vital defensive header and then an interception to chest the ball back to Amos. We did have a moment when it looked like Page might nick the ball before their keeper in the box, but he ended up getting a yellow card for his efforts.  

We were reasonably content to get to the break ahead, but before that we had the strange incident. Reeves did well to win the ball but after cutting across one or two tackles declined the option to shoot with his left foot and kept going sideways, only to be dispossessed. The ball was played long and for once we were caught short of numbers and backpeddling. It was passed towards their guy on the left side of the box and, after the linesman declined to raise his flag for offside, it looked as though Konsa put in a tackle, got nowhere near the ball and left their guy on the deck. I may have misread the situation but I was expecting the free kick to be given, possibly a penalty if the ref decided the tackle had been just inside the area, and a red card to be pulled out. But nothing – and to be fair Blackburn didn’t seem to put in much of a protest.

At half-time Amos hadn’t had a shot to save (he did have to get his hand to a rather nasty cross) but aside from Pearce’s deflected effort neither had we. No matter, we were winning and the result meant far more than attractive football.

The second half proved to be a much more testing affair as Blackburn upped the pressure and we were pushed back. One spell early on set the trend as Amos was called on to produce his first save and when the dust settled Page was still on the ground. A stretcher was required, with Dasilva the obvious replacement. We wait to find out whether the injury puts an end to Page’s season. Blackburn made a couple of changes, one of their guys got a yellow for stopping Marshall from breaking down the line with a waist-high challenge, and the game settled into a pattern of us managing to fend off most of their attacks but looking unable to get anything going in their half. The effort involved in stopping them was beginning to show through and every now and then we looked as though we were only just managing to hang on.

I’m not sure which came first but there was another spell of Blackburn pressure, which included Amos sticking up an arm to block a goalbound shot and some desperate last-ditch tackles, and that Blackburn corner. Their guy found some space and met the cross with a solid header, only for it to come back off the bar. An inch lower and the game was level. As it was, we had a stronger feeling that just possibly this was going to be our day.

Through the final 20 minutes or so there were tough choices for Bowyer to make regarding substitutions. Some were tiring and the lack of a threat to their goal meant that you could make a case for changing either of the front two. Mavididi came on for Ajose with around 10 minutes left of normal time, and after that Aribo came on for Reeves. But although we had one totally move totally out of character with the rest of the game – which saw a series of passes and flicks get us into a dangerous position – all we really wanted was the final whistle. Seven minutes of added time were signalled and by now we were looking to take the ball to the corner flags. Where was Tony Watt when we needed him? Mercifully eventually the time ran out and we had the points.

There was the fitting ovation for Jackson after the game, and some very tired limbs made it around the pitch to take the applause. Without question today they earned it. All we can do it wait to see how Scunthorpe and Plymouth sort it out on Tuesday evening. Today’s win didn’t prove decisive (except in the context of if we hadn’t won the play-offs would have been unlikely) but we know that a victory at Rochdale on Saturday means we would finish fifth or sixth, a draw could be enough depending on the other results, but we could still miss out. Whatever happens, nobody can doubt that Bowyer (and Jackson) have got the players giving their all – and we’ve never asked for more.

Player Ratings (again, if the ratings were for effort everyone would get a 10):

Amos: 10/10. Why less? Has to be man of the match. I think he pulled off two superb saves, took every cross, made no mistakes.

Page: 8/10. Looked composed, not too much going forward but this wasn’t a day for taking chances. Hope the injury isn’t serious.

Bauer: 9/10. He and Pearce truly stood up today to everything thrown at them. Immense.

Pearce: 9/10. Blackburn provided a huge test from start to finish and the central defensive pairing was crucial to us winning the game.

Konsa: 7/10. Early on it looked as though he might have problems with their guy, but he stuck to the task and if anything grew into the game. Still not sure about that tackle.

Reeves: 6/10. Plenty of effort but looked rather out of position wide right and struggled to really affect the game.

Kashi: 7/10. Not much opportunity to show what he could do going forward but involved throughout.

Forster-Caskey: 6/10. Here too plenty of effort and given the game not much opportunity to shine with the ball.

Marshall: 8/10. At half-time I had him as man of the match, just for making things happen. Did fade in the second half but was brought down when he had the chance to break.

Magennis: 6/10. Got little change out of their central defenders but never gave up on the task.

Ajose: 6/10. Much the same, but ran his socks off.

Subs:  Dasilva (7/10 – took over from Page and made no mistakes); Mavididi (6/10 – little chance to influence the game in the final minutes); Aribo (6/10 – also only came on late on).