Ah, now that was nice. Sunny day, sufficient to revive the practise of wine and bread on the Heath (somebody always has to spoil it by bringing cheese), entertaining game, and a victory. Then back on the Heath for more of the same (well, wine anyway). A lovely afternoon for once not spoiled by the football match in the middle. Only a pity that Suzanne, who was here for the weekend, made a mess of her timings and had to fly back to Lyon instead of being able to watch us trounce the mighty Rochdale. But she went home happy (of course she did I here you say, she was with me) as I – like any sensible male – remembered it was the Festa di San Marco and followed the tradition of giving a red rose (debit £2.50, credit enough brownie points to carry me through the months ahead).
Without the services of Elliot, Dailly, Jackson, Semedo, Reid and Wagstaff, the team today didn’t quite pick itself – but basically if you had a pair of boots you’d make the bench at least. Sullivan, Bessone, Francis (a welcome return to The Valley for him), Fortune and Doherty, Stewart and Parrett in central midfield, Racon and the mystifyingly underused Eccleston out wide, with Benson and Wright-Phillips – made captain for the day - up front. Llera, Nouble and McCormack were the other senior players available and sat on the bench, alongside Solly and Worner, plus Harriott and Jenkinson (who go the reception he deserves). You did wonder if we had to name another sub just who it might be.
Given the two additional suspensions from Saturday, you had to wonder about the motivation of the players. But that proved to be in no doubt, to their credit. We started brightly and through the first half outplayed a strangely subdued Rochdale. Tellingly, we were winning the important contests in midfield, Racon was finding space to good effect, and on the other flank Eccleston was a constant menace. At the back, Bessone’s interceptions, from intelligent reading of the game, broke up countless attacks. It wasn’t perfect, with Stewart and Parrett sometimes getting it right and sometimes not, but through the first period Sullivan didn’t have a serious attempt on goal to deal with. They did work a couple of positions, helped by a linesman so consistently behind the play he couldn’t spot offside, but wasted them – especially a free kick in a decent position after a clumsy challenge by Benson, which like many of their passes was simply overhit.
At the other end, the chances didn’t exactly flow, but there were enough of them. After the positive start things went a little quiet, but then Racon moved onto a ball and drilled a shot from the edge of the box into the net. Then their keeper somehow turned one over the bar, only for the header from the corner to be cleared off the line. At the break there was no question we deserved the lead, the only issue being whether one or two up was a fair reflection.
There was the fear that Rochdale’s players would get a rollicking at half-time for a lame performance and they did seem to have more purpose from the start of the second half. Even so, for them to get level with their first serious attempt was harsh. A corner was met at the far post only for Sullivan to pull off an outstanding block. Unfortunately the ball ballooned up for their guy to bury the rebound. But the crowd responded well and before we had a chance to get depressed we were back in front. A ball across their box – and throughout the afternoon they struggled to deal with any decent delivery – was met by the incoming Parrett who shot low into the corner. I can’t say I’ve ever enjoyed a goal scored against us, but when you respond within a minute it gives you a nice warm glow.
After that, it was game on – and Rochdale threatened in a way that they had singularly failed to do through the first half. We didn’t exactly sit back, but they were getting more joy through midfield, perhaps aided by a couple of substitutions. They had what I thought was a nailed-on penalty not given as their forward went across Fortune or Doherty and seemed to be brought down; the ref obviously saw it differently and I have to defer for once to his better judgement. Set pieces were their main threat and a couple of shots went wide before we put the game to bed. The hard-working Benson got the ball wide right and chipped in an absolute peach of a cross which Eccleston made his own and buried the header.
3-1 up and that was fine. Solly came on for Benson to tighten things up, with Eccleston moving inside, then Nouble replaced Bessone, with Solly dropping back and Eccleston going back out on the flank. But by then it was just a case of seeing out the game, which was achieved without too much fuss. Rochdale seemed to accept it wasn’t their day and although the second half was much more evenly contested than the first we ended up winning both – has that happened before this season?
The fans were supportive and happy, Sir Chris had to do the victory leap from the tunnel given the absence of a viable alternative, and the train left on time to allow us to refill the bottles and lie down again in contented mood (although can someone please tell the morons who frequent the Heath and seem to think it’s OK to leave their rubbish it just isn’t). The game said little about next season; we started with five loan players after all, none of which are guaranteed to reappear. Was the midfield better without Semedo? Who knows, and given that the two that played in the centre are both on loan the answer may be irrelevant. But the spirit was good and we played well – and we got what we deserved. That will do for me for today.
Sullivan: 8/10. A couple of iffy moments, but was desperately unlucky to pull off one of the saves of the season only for the rebound to be put it. Otherwise dealt with a number of crosses well.
Bessone: 8/10. I like the guy. He broke up so many attacks with intelligent reading of positions to make timely interceptions. Not much going forward, but that will do for me.
Francis: 7/10. Has been unlucky to find himself behind Jenkinson and Solly after one bad mistake and was under pressure on his return in front of home fans. Good, solid game, sufficient to wonder why he was out of the team for so long.
Fortune: 7/10. Decent enough. He and Doherty kept things reasonably tight at the back. Under more pressure in the second half, when they started to create chances.
Doherty: 7/10. As with Fortune. I’d have to see replays to assess whether one was better than the other as plenty of balls were headed out.
Racon: 8/10. Lively and effective game, scored a goal and could have notched another. He seemed to benefit from the movement of others (Stewart, Parrett and Eccleson) and the work of the front two.
Stewart: 7/10. Caught out a few times, some passes didn’t come off, but overall not bad as he was constantly involved.
Parrett: 7/10. Much as Stewart, with the added bonus of a good strike for the second goal. I just don’t want to build up our hopes as I’ve no idea if he’ll be back.
Eccleston: 8/10. For me it’s been a mystery why he sat on the bench for 11 games on the trot. Caused them problems all afternoon and scored an excellent goal by attacking a great cross.
Benson: 7/10. Lot of hard work with intelligent lay-offs. Just thought as the game progressed that he was doing all his best stuff outside the box, then he chipped in the cross for the third, for which he deserves as much credit as Eccleston.
Wright-Phillips: 7/10. Nothing fell for him in the box today, but no shortage of effort and played his part.