‘Welcome to a new decade at The Valley’. God help us, if this is what it’s going to be like it will be a little like remembering the 60s for Rolf Harris’ Two Little Boys. As an advert for five-year season tickets this one didn’t exactly pass muster. That said, if you weren’t looking for great football it was a classic of a kind. It had humour, irony, bucketloads of frustration, moments of madness, and two goals from us quite out of keeping with the overall quality. Plus a streaker and a Hartlepool players with split personalities - a goalkeeper who at 1-1 moved slower than most people’s granddads to take goal kicks but at 1-2 was a whippet, while one player being substituted at 1-1 found time to shake hands (and presumably discuss holiday plans) with the rest of the team during a curved preamble towards the touchline, whereas the next change (at 1-2) brought a sprint off the park.
Coming off the back of a thumping in the previous game, you can’t really blame Hartlepool for that – and the handful of fans they brought deserve everyone’s plaudits. In reality it was a game which we should have won at a canter but contrived, through a mix of lacklustre effort and commitment, to nearly blow. It was one that showed up a number of our shortcomings: the defence conspired to gift them a goal which never looked likely, the midfield looked again a less than perfect mix (with Semedo and Bailey together in the centre lacking sufficient creativity, Shelvey still a curate’s egg out left, and Sam sometimes brilliant and sometimes just out of the game), and the front two (Burton and Mooney) together looking short of pace. At the same time the team has something about it, with enough nous it seems to know what needs to be done. It wasn’t a performance to send shock waves through to Leeds and Norwich (and we did fall a little short of the 12-goal win to reclaim second), but it was another win. So no serious carping from me, despite what at best could be described as an indifferent display - except for the mad challenge that gave away the penalty, letting Hartlepool back into a game they shouldn’t have had a sniff at having gone behind.
The game started at the pedestrian pace which was to prevail. The crowd was subdued and so were the players. In the first 20 minutes it seemed that every cross we put in saw us win the header, without anything on target, but otherwise it was scrappy. You realise something's amiss when not long into the game you're discussing with mates travel plans for the next few months. The game was crying out for some decent passing and movement and when we decided to try that we scored a truly splendid goal. Good work in midfield on the left side, good run by Basey who was well found, excellent whipped cross, and Mooney making a well-timed run buried the header. So good and effective, and such a contrast with all else that had gone on.
Hartlepool had to be a little more adventurous after that and they did create one decent chance, a ball squared from the right but blazed over the bar from the edge of the box, while Elliot also pulled off one good save from a shot. But the assumption – seemingly among the crowd and the players – was that sooner or later we would try doing the things that led to the first goal and the match would be put to rest. After all, a second and we could start thinking about goal difference.
That mood seemed to continue in the second half, with flashes of what might (perhaps should) have been. Shelvey hit the outside of the post with a decent strike and with Sam much more involved and getting in good positions to deliver telling crosses we were all if not contented at least confident (sorry, complacent). But then another innocuous Hartlepool venture forward saw their guy moving across the box, not especially threateningly, only to draw a dire, ill-timed challenge. It was one of the silliest, but also least controversial, penalties given against us. My only problem is I can’t be sure who made the tackle: I thought it was Llera, a colleague said Dailly, and another said he thought it was Richardson. Whoever the culprit was deserves a word in his ear. I honestly thought that it was the sort of night where Elliot would save it, but despite his best efforts he only managed to divert the strike into the roof of the net.
Hartlepool immediately reverted to Plan A (not that Plan B had been much different). And not surprisingly frustration crept in as it dawned on all concerned that we might not win. The first change saw Shelvey replaced by McKenzie on the left and after an indifferent spell Parkinson took the gamble of a double change, with Wagstaff and Dickson coming on for Sam and Mooney. Sam’s departure seemed strange to me at the time as he seemed by a distance our biggest threat, but what do I know? Wagstaff picks up the ball and from some way out hits a low drive into the corner of the net. The second moment of quality in the game.
After that, given that a rout was some way from our thoughts, it only remained to see out the game. Dickson seemed to have added a third but was pulled up for a foul but otherwise it was pretty uneventful. Just that really if a ref is going to add on five minutes of stoppage time, at least half of which was down to time-wasting by the opposition, surely you should have the right to waive the option. Hardly a nail-biting finish, but that just wouldn’t have been in keeping with the game (and after the late dramas against Millwall and Swindon would not have been welcome).
Onwards and upwards. I hope the players are aware that the display fell well short of what will be required, but I said before I wasn’t going to whinge if we won games in this league. So keep doing it against Orient and Tranmere and we’ll still be on course.
Player Ratings (the proviso here is I’m not sure who gave away the penalty; take two points from the culprit):
Elliot: 8/10. Again had very little to do but did what was required splendidly; and nearly saved the penalty.
Richardson: 6/10. Low-key return. Poor distribution going forward, perhaps a little rusty, but defensively looked sound.
Basey: 8/10. Couple of excellent defensive challenges and a superb cross for the first goal. Otherwise benefited from the paucity of their attacking intent.
Llera: 7/10. Couple of iffy moments with the ball, but competent enough.
Dailly: 7/10. Like the others, deserves some credit for ensuring that they seldom looked capable of scoring.
Shelvey: 6/10. Showed flashes, nearly scored, but also caught in possession a few times and distribution sometimes wayward. Wide left remains a problem for us as Shelvey has looked his best in the hole in a 4-5-1.
Semedo: 5/10. I thought he had another indifferent game. He is at his best with a central partner with more flair who he can give the ball to and let them get forward (ie Racon), but that would mean the currently crazy decision to shift Bailey out of the centre.
Bailey: 6/10. Not a great game as we struggled to be coherent going forward, but did his work as ever.
Sam: 6/10. Would have been a 5 (or 4) at half-time as I thought he wasn’t involved and should be destroying them, but much better in the second half and a surprise (at the time) that he was subbed.
Mooney: 6/10. Took up some intelligent positions and made the run at the right time to score the goal, but often peripheral and didn’t make the most of a few openings.
Burton: 5/10. Not one of his better games. Excellent at the crafty block and challenge, but nothing ran for him in front of goal and didn’t create anything for himself in terms of chances.
Subs: McKenzie (5/10 – no real impact out left); Dickson (5/10 – no obvious impact on the game); Wagstaff (8/10 – has to be man of the match, came on, scored a beauty).