No need for rocket science today. A win was all we cared about, with the hope that the other three would screw up. With Leeds and Millwall already securing the three points with away wins, and Swindon with a relatively easy home fixture, the best we could hope for was as you were – or rather as you were with one less game. The win was secured but it was a strange game. Carlisle played like a team in mid-table, but still had pride and needed to be finished off. After an indifferent first half-hour we did take the lead and the chances did come in the second half, when we should have moved into the comfort zone. But they weren’t taken and, while not really stretched, there was always that nagging doubt that two precious points would be blown by conceding a late equaliser. So today we’re happy enough and the plaudits go to the defence.
The team saw a rather surprising switch to 4-5-1, with Shelvey getting a rare start and Mooney taking a break, Sam returning for Wagstaff as one of the wide men (Reid the other), and Bailey taking a place on the bench. The questions that raised were how would Forster cope on his own up front (it’s sure a tough ask for someone to come in on loan, go straight into the first team in a 4-4-2 and be asked to play as the lone striker in the next match), and how would Shelvey fare having played so little football in the past few months (one downside of the absence of reserve team fixtures). The answer on both fronts proved to be well enough, although the two best second-half chances were to fall to Shelvey and he didn’t take them. As long as his head doesn’t go down – and he was about to be replaced just before the second one fell his way – that’s fine.
Playing with a five-man midfield but with one of them in the hole requires both the wide men to make significant contributions and the team to pass the ball well, especially with the opposition pretty much matching the formation. Neither really happened in the first half at least. We struggled to dominate and most tellingly this was another game when 30 minutes had passed with no attempt on target. One Reid shot well over the bar was all we had to show and in a game we had to win the impression was that the tempo was not quick enough to stretch them, with Reid and Sam not especially effective. The same applied to Carlisle, who were relying on their Fellini lookalike loan forward, which all made for a pretty mundane and congested game of football.
However, we then had the ref to thank for taking the lead. We worked the ball down the left and a foul saw the man in black allow play to continue. When the ball went astray he then called play back for the offence. Many others would have viewed it as a simple case of having played an advantage which didn’t work out. Decent free kick swung in and Sodje buries it with his head. On the balance of play we couldn’t say we were especially worthy, but even for the neutral the game needed the deadlock to be broken.
Nothing much changed during the remainder of the first half, at which point for me Semedo would have been challenging Sodje for man of the match. However, during the break Carlisle must have decided they had nothing much to lose by pressing forward and the game in the second half became much more open, which proved to be decidedly to our advantage.
Reid was still finding it hard to create space down the left flank, but with Richardson providing more support for Sam we had far more joy down the right. The result was three superb balls in from that side. The first two went begging and the third saw forwards and defenders jump for the cross only for the ball to drop to Shelvey around the penalty spot. No getting away from it, he made a hash of the shot, almost missing the ball. Forster had worked well up front but was replaced by Sodje(A), who was more direct and caused them problems. Not long after Shelvey found himself in space in the box and astutely turned inside to create the opening only to see the shot charged down. That proved to be the cue for him and Reid to depart, with Bailey and Mooney coming on, to provide fresh legs and presumably more solidity in midfield.
Both teams did put the ball in the net, but for Carlisle it was a clear case of the guy at the far post being yards offside and for us I lost interest when I saw the linesman’s flag go up, presumably for offside. There was also an opportunity for Racon running onto a squared ball from the right, but he shot wastefully, while Sodje(A) saw a shot blocked and put the rebound wide. A second goal would have killed it off for sure, but as sweaty last five minutes go this was reasonably relaxed, with Carlisle not carrying any potent threat. Again, the plaudits go to the defence collectively, with Sodje(S)’s star rising for a superb second-half intervention and Dailley calm and assured alongside him.
We’re not exactly ripping teams apart at the moment (well, it’s been a while since we did, having passed up the chance against Stockport), but at this stage of the season two clean sheets in a row is just as important. We take the win and move on, to Pardew’s Southampton. I’m really torn for this one. We’ve won every away game I’ve gone to this season; equally, we’ve won every time I’ve got trashed at a wine tasting. So I’ve got to decide which is the better path to follow. Perhaps our best chance is if I go to Southampton and drink a lot of wine. Seems like a plan.
Randolph: 7/10. Largely untroubled, but dealt with a couple of crosses well. Just one moment of indecision in the first half, one of those ‘after you’ moments, which saw the ref give us a completely daft and very welcome free kick.
Richardson: 8/10. Untroubled in defence and provided excellent support for Sam going forward in the second half; their work down the right should have produced at least one more goal.
Borrowdale: 7/10. My first view of him. Can’t remember him doing anything of note, but for a defender – especially one presumably getting into the swing of things - that’s not bad.
Sodje(S): 9/10. Gets the man of the match award. Scored the goal, great second-half interception, no mistakes or rushes of blood to the head.
Dailley: 8/10. Carlisle may not have offered much up front, but they put three past us earlier in the season and never looked like that today. Fine game.
Reid: 6/10. Not an effective game, but didn’t have a great deal of support and was crowded out most of the time. But he’s still in credit for the strike at Huddersfield.
Semedo: 7/10. Mostly impressive, especially in the first half. But was surprisingly caught out twice in the second, which could have been costly against a side with more threat up front. And picked up another yellow.
Racon: 6/10. Didn’t dominate the game as we might have hoped and missed a decent chance late in the game. But fair enough overall.
Sam: 8/10. Came into his own in the second half with two absolute peaches into the box from the right (the third one came from Richardson). Either could have sealed the game.
Shelvey: 6/10. Linked up play reasonably well, but two good chances came his way and he didn’t take either.
Forster: 6/10. Did a decent job on his own, but it didn’t look like the role he was born for and the more direct Sodje(A) caused more problems, albeit with more space to work in towards the end of the game.
Subs: Sodje(A) (7/10 – gave us fresh impetus when he came on and could have scored); Bailey (6/10 – did all that could reasonably be required); Mooney (6/10 – as with Bailey, not a lot of time to have an impact).