Having been starved of the early exchanges of this season, tonight offered myself as well as Benson the opportunity to make a debut appearance for the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy. At least it made the programme something of a collector’s item; I haven’t seen one before where one of our players is listed in the opposition’s squad. And we both seemed to have a reasonably enjoyable evening, with Benson getting a decent reception from the Dagenham & Redbridge fans (before the more predictable chants during the game).
With Elliot being maybe still suffering from the back injury that kept him out on Saturday, Worner was in goal (with a hastily afforded squad number given for his back-up on the bench). Goal-a-game Fry was given a start at left-back, Llera and Dailly occupied the centre of defence, with Francis making up the back line. Given the silly restrictions this worthless competition imposes on player selection, I thought Parkinson made some astute selections elsewhere. He paired Semedo and Racon together in central midfield, giving the latter the chance to put the poor game against Oldham behind him alongside the player who he seems most comfortable with, and Sodje and Benson up front, with Martin moving out wide and Wagstaff starting. Abbott, Doherty, Reid, McCormack and the reserve keeper (I’m sorry, I missed the name) made up the bench.
This meant that the game threw up some interesting questions: how would Benson look on his first outing, would there be a better partner for him in Sodje rather than Abbott, would Racon provide more of an attacking option than seemed apparent on Saturday (I can’t comment on the game, just noting through the afternoon of the disappointing statistic of no efforts on target until the goal we scored in stoppage time), and would Worner look reliable if we need to continue to use him rather earlier than might have been expected? Not surprisingly there can’t be definitive answers. Abbott did come on for Sodje in the second half after Akpo took a knock, to provide a comparison against the same defenders, but the game had changed after we went one up, with more space. Racon was to have an indifferent first half, but was much more influential in the second, especially for a period linking up well with Martin; they seemed to be on a similar wavelength. He took the goal well enough – and seemed very pleased with it. After early Dagenham pressure Worner didn’t have a lot to do, but pulled off a good save in stoppage time at the end to save us the pain of being reminded of penalty shoot-outs at The Valley.
But really all eyes were on Benson. He had clearly been our main target and, while I can’t pretend to know much about him, success in getting him in is a boost. Everyone knew we needed a goalscorer and, although our recent record in signing forwards from lower down the league (yes I know Dagenham are now in the same league as us, but he’s still stepping up from last season) isn’t exactly inspiring (Dickson, Fleetwood, McLeod, even Varney), he did look like a goalscorer. He was on the end of most things in the first half and usually made the keeper work. Perhaps he should have scored when he ran onto a through ball, with the finish more Varney than Mendonca (OK, we know Varney’s now knocking them in for fun in the Premiership), but the keeper did well to turn the effort over the bar. And perhaps he could have got a shot away faster when the opportunity arose in the second half. But he was there in the right place and first impressions are that he will score a decent number for us. The question for Parkinson is whether Sodje or Abbott will work best alongside him – and whether there’s a starting place for Martin as a wide man (while providing cover for Benson). It does add up to improved options and competition for places in most areas of the pitch.
The game itself? The first half was tight and even. Dagenham had the better of the early exchanges, threatening down the left in particular. With little space to be had the tendency was long through balls, most of which came to nothing, the exception being the one Benson got on the end of. The period ended with a nasty clash of heads for Dailly, but after treatment he just got on with things and came out for the second half as if nothing had happened.
The game opened out more in the second half as we passed the ball better and as Wagstaff and Martin caused them more problems, and most obviously as we scored. A ball in was half-cleared and Racon followed up to shoot in off the post. We had the ball in the net again shortly afterwards, but after their keeper parried a shot Sodje was given offside when knocking in the rebound. After that we had the better of the chances to make it safe, but a second goal didn’t come. Abbott came on for Sodje, then Reid for Martin, and finally McCormack for Semedo (another who took a knock, although none of them looked serious). The late Dagenham pressure was hardly intense and the occasion meant that nerves were not exactly jangling, but Worner needed to make that last-ditch save to ensure the win.
I’d have to give man of the match to Dailly, who was calmness personified and delivered another display of pure class. Llera had a decent enough game alongside him, being required to head away numerous crosses; but he still has moments of insecurity (and for good measure took another free kick and delivered a shot as poor as the one against Oldham at the end of last season). When he is really on song he looks commanding, but he also looks like he needs a regular starting spot and plenty of games to really cement his confidence. And it’s hard to see that happening as Doherty and Dailly would seem to be the first choice pairing, while Fry is available and Mambo and now Fortune on the scene, even if they are sent out on loan. We know the reasons for not having a reserve team, but the downside is obvious too.
With Martin and Anyinsah to push Wagstaff and Reid, we have enough options out wide; we seem to have good cover in the defensive positions and, with Benson and Martin, plus Abbott and Sodje (and Tuna), the options we want up front. What concerns me most now is central midfield. Whether Stavrinou is ready I don’t know; but at the moment it’s perm two from three of McCormack, Semedo and Racon. It’s an area where we were blessed with options even last season (Bailey, Racon, Semedo, Shelvey, Spring, even Sinclair). Now we have to hope that Parkinson gets the right combination, while injuries and suspensions are bound to be a factor.
As for the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy, I don’t expect to be getting up early on Saturday to find out who comes next. I suppose that the absence of reserve team games means it could be useful for necessary match practise for a number of the players. But I really don’t want a Wembley appearance in this fashion. Did it before with the Full Members Cup and it wasn’t a pleasant experience.