When everyone comes to review the season there will be pivotal games we point to in what is now effectively confirmed as a season of failure (please let it be over). For me Hull and Preston at home stand out as awful performances, with Scunthorpe away another key game. But this one was as important as it comes. And perhaps most appropriate are the words that Churchill gave about the Anzio landings in WW2. He said “I had hope that we were hurling a wildcat onto the shore, but all we got was a stranded whale”. I didn’t quite hear the blowholes, but stranded whales was what we got.
Four games left and four wins needed. And a week ago we win away from home when all is just about up and after our goalkeeper is sent off after three minutes. You think, bloody hell they’re going to be up for this one. Instead for the first 45 minutes we created nothing. Half the game gone and their keeper yet to make a save. We also managed to gift Southampton a goal, but that was the lesser sin. The real one was not grabbing the game by the throat. The result was allowing a poor, limited Southampton side to have something to hold onto through the second half. We were better then and could have won the game, even with the last kick. But it’s silly to think we were unlucky not to win. Too many things were wrong and for the most part the desired wildcat was indeed a stranded whale.
In the event Randolph got the nod over Elliot in goal. Bougherra and McCarthy were the central defensive partnership, Semedo and Holland were retained in central midfield, Cook and Zheng played out wide, while Iwelumo and Lita were partnered up front. If there was a sense of imbalance you only needed to look at the bench: a sub keeper (Elliot) plus Ambrose, Thomas, Gray and Varney. Attacking intent is all well and good, but were is the ambition in Semedo and Holland in central midfield, with Zheng out wide? The changes that were made through the game exposed the paucity of the thinking from the start.
It would be a mistake to say that the game was shaped by their silly goal. We started at a snail’s pace and continued in the same vein thereafter. The goal itself I need to see again. Their forward missed an absolute sitter, with the ball looping up off his boot. I confess I looked away laughing with relief, only to be informed that between them McCarthy and Randolph had contrived to score. These things happen. Poor, but what was worse was the fact that their keeper didn’t have a shot to save in the first half. We had two moves worthy of the name. That was it.
At the break Semedo was withdrawn for Ambrose, while Gray replaced Iwelumo. Semedo had a poor 45 minutes, but far too often he found himself in positions where a creative midfielder is required. Please correct me if I’m wrong but we signed him as a centre-half. With Holland injured early in the season he played superbly in the holding role, winning the ball and laying it off. Why on earth do we expect him to play an expansive role alongside Holland? He looked totally uncomfortable, about as uncomfortable as Zheng out wide. Two players out of position and suffering accordingly. What were we frightened of? Southampton streaming through our central midfield with their pace? Please.
Only two players came out of the first half with some credit. Cook was lively and threatening through the period, while Halford did all that could be asked of him. For me Halford went on to be our man of the match. Lita went from hero last week to total waste of space (more below).
Overall the second half was better. We equalised as Gray opened his account with the sort of set-piece header that we assumed Iwelumo would score. And just by sheer weight of will from players such as Halford and Holland we gained the upper hand. Thomas replaced Zheng, Ambrose failed to finish the best chance we were to have, although Wright may claim it as an exceptional save. And with the last kick of the game Thomas failed to convert a through ball with only the keeper to beat.
On the second-half display you could say we were unfortunate not to win. But even forgetting the goal we gave away the first half was unacceptable. Against a poor team we created nothing, in a game where everything was up for grabs. Just not good enough. In many respects.
Randolph: 5/10. It’s harsh, but what can you say? Their goal was a true calamity which I would need to see again to properly apportion blame.
Halford: 8/10. Couldn’t fault him for effort and commitment, and he managed to make things happen going forward, including winning free kicks in dangerous positions.
Thatcher: 4/10. Did enough defensively but that was it. Seldom got forward and when tested resorted to poor fouls. Looked average even at this level.
McCarthy: 7/10. I’m not sure how to rank him before looking again at their goal. It was that bad, but otherwise was seldom tested by a very limited Southampton attack.
Bougherra: 7/10. Much the same without being involved in their goal.
Cook: 7/10. Excellent first half, but disappeared in the second. Not really sure what happened but he just didn’t feature after the break.
Semedo: 5/10. Played poorly, but it’s just not right to expect more of him than to be a holding midfielder. Not his fault he was picked and asked to do a job that's beyond him.
Holland: 6/10. Plenty of effort but didn’t do anything to stick in the mind. Basically just less effective than in most games.
Zheng: 5/10. Looked uncomfortable out wide. I was among those thinking he needed a break having played so many games alongside Holland; but it’s one thing to have a rest, another to be brought back in a position which doesn’t suit. As with Semedo, not really his fault.
Iwelumo: 6/10. We played poorly in the first half and he was replaced at the break. Harsh on him because he was a good deal better than his partner.
Lita: 0/10. There’s obviously a danger in ranking a goalscorer: he scores and it’s a 10, he doesn’t and it’s a 0. There’s also a danger in thinking ‘I scored two goals, I’m a superstar’ and playing like a total waster. He could have made the difference today and he failed totally, especially given his propensity to go to ground at every available opportunity. Stay on your feet and score. His performance today was a timely reminder why Reading are prepared to let him go out on loan. As it's over for us I hope it's the last we see of him.
Ambrose: 5/10. Came on at the break and played in central midfield. Could have been the hero but the best chance of the game fell to him and Wright made the save.
Gray: 7/10. Came on and scored. Fair enough. I hope it bodes well for next season.
Thomas: 4/10. Came on, delivered some appallingly poor crosses, then missed the chance to win the game at the death. Perhaps Reading will take you back with Lita because overall this season you haven’t deserved your wages.