As trade-offs go, it was fair enough. Sitting through a game in which we were second-best pretty much throughout and watching our first defeat of the season, in return for avoiding thinking about having to travel to Southampton for the next round of a competition we don’t care about and being elevated by other results to the top of the league. I’m a happy bunny, albeit not an ecstatic one. As encouraging as Reading had been for the second string, this time around the omens were not so positive. Preston proved bigger and stronger than us and won the key battles, with Benson and Euell well shackled up front and the service to them patchy at best as Pritchard and Hughes weren’t able to control the game, while Green and Bover on the flanks produced only moments.
The team was almost unchanged from the Reading game, except for Cort partnering Doherty in central defence in place of Mambo. But whereas that game, perhaps thanks to Reading, was open and entertaining, this time we failed to reproduce the fluidity as Preston didn’t stick to the relaxed rules. An indifferent first-half display seemed if anything to suggest that a number of players are suffering from lack of match practise. Francis I thought was excellent against Reading, but nobody’s going to pretend he didn’t have a mare tonight. He began uncertainly, was partly to blame for their first goal (their winger cut inside him and although he got a block on the shot it ran through for another to score), picked up a yellow card and was perhaps lucky not to get a second for a foul on the edge of the box, and appeared hesitant throughout. Getting replaced at half-time by Mambo was something of a relief all round. I’ve been one of his supporters, but comparing tonight with Solly’s display on Saturday leaves no doubt about who merits the place in the first team. Just hope he puts tonight behind him as nobody can tell when he will be needed to fill in.
Of the game itself, having taken the lead Preston continued to look more likely to add to it than us to get back in the game. The introduction of Wagstaff for Benson at the break did liven things up for a while, but before we could build up any real head of steam they extended their lead with a decent shot from around the edge of the area. Our best chance to score, once Euell have been ruled offside after putting the ball in the net, came at the death when two at the far post failed to convert one of the few decent crosses, most of which were provided by Evina. News of Colchester’s late equaliser raised the spirits.
Of the positives from the night, Sullivan looked capable. No worries if he has to start. Evina was lively, but he too is clearly going to have to bide his time as Wiggings has done nothing wrong to date. Cort and Doherty both looked capable of heading the ball away all night and either could slot into the first team as and when injuries and suspensions start to take their toll. Hughes doesn’t exactly excite, but knows his way around a football pitch. Otherwise, neither Benson nor Euell presented a compelling case for a league start, neither did Green, although he’s been under the weather. Perhaps the major disappointment – relative to the Reading game – was Pritchard. It wasn’t that he played badly, but he found it hard to have an impact on the game, in contrast to the previous outing. Bover showed flashes, but he looks as though he has a way to go before fully adjusting to this sort of English football. So basically most of the old hands looked reliable but not much more (no sign yet of Alonso, while Smith didn’t come off the bench).
So, some readjustment from the post-Reading optimism regarding the second string. They had a bit of a lesson tonight in how to control a game. Clearly a number of them are going to get called up before long, even if only for the odd game, as just how far into the season we can go with effectively no change to the first team remains to be seen. No matter, tonight let’s enjoy the league table.