Life is, undoubtedly, sometimes a bitch. Just as on Saturday, we created enough chances to win, even aside from the penalty, and another referee might have sent off their goalkeeper before the break. Were we unlucky? For sure. We call for the return of Racon and the dropping of Abbott and Notts County serve up a pudding of a pitch which would have been tailored to suit Abbott and McCormack. Haven’t seen worse since Stamford Bridge. I bemoan the fact that our main strikers previously didn’t want to take a penalty and tonight up steps Wright-Phillips (with Jackson having been replaced at the break) to put in an effort was the worst I’ve seen since a certain Gray at Wembley. But did we deserve to win? As on Saturday, no, even though video highlights of the game will make it look like another day when nothing goes for you. Well, after Sir Chris was appointed we had four in a row when they did.
People talk about good teams having a spine which runs through the main areas. Tonight it was in evidence at the back, for most of the game, but was missing in other areas. We all love players with attitude; John Robinson was a prime example. But attitude (or character) isn’t just about whining at the ref when a decision goes you (Wright-Phillips was booked for it on Saturday and only just escaped another card for the same reason tonight), or pushing the ball past a defender, pulling him back by the shoulder, and throwing your arms up in horror and whining when the decision goes against you (Wagstaff). We expect better.
It was a game which deserved to be settled by something off someone’s backside deflected off a defender, because the common theme was the dire quality of finishing from both sides. With the exception of one effort from them, the shooting was uniformly awful, as were crosses and free kicks (we had two in good positions in the first half and wasted both). But within all this, the game had distinct periods and when we were on top we didn’t take the chances and once behind, aside from the penalty, we didn’t test their keeper. County adjusted after being too open in the first half and once in front did a good job of closing out the game. Not scoring first perhaps did for us again, but what you looked for was a response; instead the longer the game went on the more you felt like players were ready to use the pitch as an excuse.
Powell’s post-match comments were appropriate in that in recent games it’s been little things that have cost us, like not putting the ball actually in the net and giving away silly goals. As he said, we have to get better. That recalls Doherty’s remarks at the start of the season that what you’re looking for is steady improvement and to kick on around the turn of the year. We’re now at the end of February and we’ve shown no consistent improvement. We’ve strengthened the squad and it’s time for them to deliver.
The pitch was enough to ensure the game was messy and not suited to playing through midfield. But after an uncertain and hesitant start to the game the 4-3-3 formation (which was retained, with Anyinsah replacing Abbott as the focal point up front, Francis returning at right back, and Jenkinson switching to the left instead of Fry, and Racon instead of McCormack in central midfield) looked for a while like it would pay off. Every now and then the front three would combine to good effect, at least until the bag came into view. Anyinsah, Eccleston and Wright-Phillips all created and spurned opportunities we’d expect them to take. They didn’t often come from great play through midfield, it wasn’t the night for that. But in the first half at least there was enough space behind their defenders to ensure that running at people, or a long ball over the top, caused problems.
The defence, Doherty in particular, seemed hell-bent on no repeat of Saturday’s errors – and that’s fine with me. The simple options were usually taken and after the initial flurry from County and some dangerous balls across the face of the box we generally got a grip of their attacking threat. We just failed to make our chances count. When Anyinsah was flattened outside the box by their keeper and the ref reached for a card I thought it had to be red, even though there didn’t seem any Schumaker-like intent. But there was at least an element of doubt, given that Anyinsah had knocked the ball forward and was unlikely to get on the end of it. Whatever the outcome (and the outcome was another waste of a shot from the free kick) we went into the break thinking that we should have been at least one goal to the good and that our forward power should settle matters in the second half.
That proved not to be the case. Instead County again started the half the brighter and more purposeful of the sides and this time made it count, albeit with a joke goal. Racon was a little unfortunate to be penalised for the tackle, having played the ball, but may have gone through the player first. Ball in, backside, deflection, goal. That cried out for greater effort and intensity, or changes to the team. Wagstaff had replaced Jackson at the break and Reid was to come on for Eccleston (to revert to 4-4-2) but once in front County did all they could to hold what they had. I don’t think there was much doubt about the penalty, with Anyinsah cutting inside only to be taken out by a tackle which if repeated in tomorrow’s rugby would still have been penalised. If their keeper had dived the wrong way all would have been well (I think the ball would still have crossed the line). But he didn’t.
After that County became more and more determined and we became increasingly frustrated. We didn’t create another chance of note (sorry, an overhead kick from Wright-Phillips didn’t amount to one). Dailly almost thighed the ball in from a corner but the game was up.
The hope was that the four wins in a row, while involving considerable good fortune, would encourage a winning habit. That hasn’t proven the case. Now, with two home games coming up, we just, as Powell said, have to get better.
Elliott: 7/10. Goal was a fluke and apart from strange hesitation after a poor back pass dealt with most things well enough.
Francis: 7/10. Can’t blame him for the deflection for their goal, efforts to get forward were often frustrated by the inability to move the ball on that surface. But loses a mark for the quality of balls into the box he delivered.
Jenkinson: 7/10. Didn’t seem a problem for him to switch to the left and for a young guy coming into the side put in another good display, even allowing for that back pass.
Doherty: 8/10. For me he played like a man who knew he’d cost us on Saturday. The priority was no silly mistakes and no chances taken. It wasn’t pretty but fair play to him.
Dailly: 8/10. The problem tonight wasn’t the defence. Did have problems with Hughes when he came on as the wily old git knows how to work a centre-back.
Jackson: 5/10. No great influence in the first half and disappointing effort with our first free kick in a good position. Would have got better mark if he’d stayed on and scored the penalty.
Semedo: 7/10. I thought he was excellent for a period in the first half when we rested the initiative away from them after their bright start. But became increasingly peripheral as the game wore on and they were holding onto their lead.
Racon: 5/10. Neither the night nor the pitch were for him. No real opportunity to play through midfield and when we tried there were too many misplaced passes. Evening summed up by playing a throw in back into touch and gave away the free kick for the goal.
Wright-Phillips: 5/10. I watched Mans City in midweek and all the talk after the game was about Ballotelli and how miserable he looks during games. Seemed the same for SWP tonight. Nottingham on a wet Friday night isn’t where anyone wants to end up. Showed flashes of real class but has to be judged on goalscoring and tonight fluffed the main chance.
Anyinsah: 6/10. Some storming runs and plenty of effort, but his shooting too, from good positions, was lamentable and became increasingly ineffective through the second half. It was a night for Abbott to come on.
Eccleston: 6/10. Also great in parts, but also wasted scoring opportunities with dire shooting.
Subs: Wagstaff (5/10 – Didn’t have the impact we were looking for); Reid (5/10 – didn’t have any impact).