I thought football was supposed to be a funny game. I suppose some neutrals watching on TV might have seen the funny side. But I can’t. Lucky generals? It’s a good job we weren’t at Waterloo or Napoleon’s descendents might still be in power in London. These things are supposed to even themselves out over a season, but the fact is they don’t for teams at the bottom. Coming away from the match tonight felt like after Pardew’s first home game in charge against Fulham, when we were robbed in the last minute by a linesman’s error. Robbed may be a little strong, but Derby were poor and deserved nothing. We were better than of late and were a hair’s breath away from the three points. I was tempted just to write b******s. That word just about sums it up, although I hope the players and the fans can take heart from what nearly was and carry it on.
Trying to be rational, it was far from perfect. We were better than against Coventry, Derby provided poorer opposition. But for the first time since early October we were actually in front in a home game. At last we got ourselves in a position to win a game. That we didn’t hold on was cruel, but there you go. With apologies to Lee Hazelwood, I’ve been down so long it looks like up to me. I hope it feels like that in the morning.
The team saw Weaver replaced in goal by Elliot, which was a little harsh (I would have actually made Weaver my player of the month as he didn’t let a couple of poor games affect him) but you can’t argue with the decision; and Elliott did nothing wrong (except a rather poor imitation of Sasha when it came to their penalty) and a lot right. With McEveley out (and seemingly removed from the team sheet in the programme) Basey got the nod. Holland was rested, with Semedo returning to central midfield to partner Bailey, while the reshuffling of the loan signings saw Waghorn come in for Burton and Sam returned in place of Gillespie wide right. One of the notable features was the Dad’s Army bench: Weaver, Todorov, Gillespie, Burton (plus Youga).
In the first half an hour we were livelier than against Coventry, with Waghorn causing more problems than Burton since he came here and Bouazza more involved than in most games (although frustratingly he often failed to make himself available for Basey, which contributed to one or two poor clearances). A run and dangerous cross from Bouazza and then a ball that ran loose to in the box and a shot came crashing back off the post.
Then came the two moments that set the tone for the game. Just as against Coventry the opposition seemed to be making more headway and sure enough their chance came. A dangerous cross from the left and their bald guy had a near free header. He failed to connect properly and it went wide. If that had gone in it would have seemed like Coventry all over again – and would really have tested the crowd’s support. This time it didn’t.
Then we scored a quite excellent goal, the sort of centre-forward’s strike that have been few and far between since Gray came to the club (which seemed to inspire him and he had I thought one of his best games for us, probably helped by the greater mobility of Waghorn as his partner). It was well worked to him and he ran onto the ball and buried it. Saints alive, we’re ahead in a home game – and managed to hold the lead to the break, with the players applauded off the pitch.
Derby made changes early in the second half which made them much more open, but also a little more dangerous. We did manage to exploit the space to create chances. A foul on Bouazza and a free kick just outside the box, then Bouazza played into space with only the keeper to beat only for him to shoot over. We seemed more likely to score a second than they were to equalise, but after they had one ruled out for offside a cross from the right saw a hand stuck out and a rather soft penalty conceded.
At least heads didn’t drop and with the game still pretty open we continued to look the more likely. Finally Gray and Semedo managed to release Sam down the right and he did superbly, cutting back inside rather than playing an early ball in and picking out Waghorn inside the box. His shot took a deflection but had enough on it to loop up and into the net.
As the game wore on we seemed to be holding them quite comfortably, not having to chase the game. Burton replaced Waghorn, who had taken a knock, and Gillespie came on to good effect for Sam. But there were tired legs out there and four minutes of stoppage time was not what we wanted to hear. Derby had no choice but to try to get the ball into the box and their last-gasp efforts saw a couple of throws, the last of which produced a cross, a deflection off a Charlton defender, and the ball swept home by Ellington. Those around me were convinced we were well over the four minutes, but for the sake of appearances the ref played on after the kick-off for a full twenty seconds.
There are for once positives. We put ourselves in a position to win and didn’t end up throwing it away. There was no questioning the commitment and application, just the need for a post-match inquiry as to just who did what to deserve this sort of luck. Elliot looked assured, dealt with high balls well, and had no chance with their goals. Cranie was solid after an indifferent night against Coventry, Basey played well with the exception of one or two mistakes, while Fortune and Hudson generally had the measure of their forwards – but two balls into the box were not dealt with and we paid the price. Semedo and Bailey worked tirelessly, Bouazza, perhaps boosted by his player of the month vote (yes, I was mystified), was more active – but missed the chances to have buried the game. Gray was much improved, Waghorn offered us more mobility (and compared well with an ineffective Varney) and Sam deserves special praise for the way he set up the second goal. Finally, the crowd were, for once, excellent, even at the finish. Please can we provide this support when we are losing.
Elliot: 8/10. No impression of nerves, assured performance. Having chosen him he looks set for a run in the side.
Cranie: 7/10. Not much going forward, but defensively sound.
Basey: 7/10. A couple of errors in the first half but got away with them, useful deliveries from set pieces.
Fortune: 6/10. Seemed to be having a good game, plenty of balls well won in the air. But we conceded two goals as a result of crosses, with another ruled out for offside.
Hudson: 6/10. As with Fortune. A lot of good work, but another two conceded.
Semedo: 7/10. Has had a tough time of late, but with a limited and primarily defensive role did a job.
Bailey: 6/10. Plenty of tackles and covering, but still struggling a little to pick out passes and to make the team tick.
Bouazza: 5/10. Oh, Bouazza. I said I would judge him only on whether he scores and tonight he missed the chances. On that basis it should be a 0, but I thought he actually contributed more for the team than before and at least got in good positions. Could have been a match-winner but wasn’t.
Sam: 8/10. As before not everything goes right for him, but in previous games he has delivered some telling crosses and tonight our second goal was as much his as Waghorn’s.
Gray: 8/10. Much improved, led the line well and took his goal well.
Waghorn: 8/10. He offered a good deal more than Burton has so far and scored. Two central forwards scoring in the same game. When did that last happen?
Burton: 5/10. Didn’t say any significant contribution.
Gillespie: 7/10. Superb at running down the clock when we needed to and almost stole in at the far post to score.
Now I’m going away to cry into a bottle.