Just goes to show how unpredictable football is. We score a goal, of course, but we don’t win. What’s going on? What went on tonight was a reasonable reminder of some home truths: first, nothing’s perfect – and nothing’s entirely predictable; second, unless and until we rediscover our goalscoring touch we are vulnerable to at least the occasional setback; and third, sometimes you’ve got to tip your hat to the opposition. Bury worked hard, made few mistakes, and while not threatening much almost saw the game out for a notable victory. On the balance of play and chances created, we should have won. But after three 1-0 wins in a row, each a testament to the team’s defensive capabilities, perhaps a little of the bravery has gone out of our game in terms of players taking the risk of getting forward. That’s a bit harsh on a night when we could have won well if we’d scored first; a quick look at the stats shows we had 21 attempts on goal (against seven for Bury, with four notionally on target but only one real strike). But don’t you just love stoppage time goals to get something out of a game?
The team showed two changes. Stephens did indeed come back to replace Pritchard in central midfield. Harsh on him but I think understandable. Less predictable was the decision to give Wright-Phillips a rest (he wasn’t even on the bench) and the pairing of Kermorgant with Clarke rather than Haynes. I’d imagined that after a few very tough games in which we’ve not created that much BWP would have been licking his lips at the opportunity tonight. Also, I’ve been assuming that Clarke is the natural back-up for Kermorgant and Haynes for BWP. Perhaps tonight Sir Chris was expecting Bury to defend in depth and was looking for maximum muscle in the box. It didn’t work to the extent that Kermorgant and Clarke are not a natural pairing, looking used to playing a similar game. The lack of pace up front meant that Bury were seldom pulled out of position. That said, the chances did come; we just needed to convert one to go ahead. When Haynes did come on, with about 20 minutes left, he caused them more problems with his pace and greater mobility.
Powell talked about the different atmosphere at Exeter after the intensity of the two Sheffield games and tonight, with the crowd less than 14,000, the place didn’t exactly rock in the first half. Neither did the team, although after an indifferent start as we began to go up the gears it did seem that we would have too much for Bury to hold out. Wiggins was doing sterling work down the left; one cross went invitingly across the face (where were you Bradley?). And from set pieces their keeper looked dodgy on high balls (although perhaps too many through the night were put under his nose). The best opportunity created was when Jackson robbed their guy of possession and moved towards the box. Instead of shooting he slid it left to Clarke, but the space was a bit tight and the shot was blocked by the keeper. There were other moments and no sense of danger at the back, even though Bury played it around well enough. Then they scored.
It was a strange goal in that there were probably four, maybe more, almost 50:50 challenges in the build-up and each time we just failed to nick the ball or get in a block. It ended up getting played through and their guy put in a decent enough shot. Hamer got at least one hand to it but failed to keep it out. I remember thinking that if you have to win that many challenges to score against us there’s nothing wrong with our defending. Just that this time they did. By the law of averages it had to happen sometime.
The rest of the half was much as before, with us not exactly playing great football but showing enough to have confidence about the outcome. At the half-time whistle I swear I heard a few isolated boos. Just what are some people on? (for once whatever it is I don’t want any of it).
Attacking the Covered End in the second half raised the spirits but as the minutes ticked down and the chances came and went the crowd’s anxiety increased. The policy of putting corners under the nose of their keeper continued, but one delivered to the far post was hooked back by Kermorgant and Taylor coming onto it seemed sure to score but put it over the bar. Even a free kick outside the area was put over, by Kermorgant (it was the wrong side for Jackson). Bury’s not surprising time-wasting tactics intensified, to the extent of Hamer giving one of their guys a helping push towards the touchline. But the clock kept ticking.
The introduction of Haynes for Clarke did change the pattern of the game as there was someone on the pitch capable of getting in behind them. This made their clearances more hurried and helped us to increase the pressure. But still no goal. One dropped invitingly around the penalty spot but the shot went just wide, with claims that their guy had handled it; the ref gave a goal kick, so I guess he wasn’t convinced. Green had a decent enough shot, but still nothing was dropping.
Pritchard came on, for Hollands rather than Stevens, whose reintroduction to the team was steady to that point but unspectacular. And sometimes as a manger you either get lucky or have a moment of inspiration. Most people would have expected Stevens to make way, given he is feeling his way back. Heavens be praised that he didn’t. As after the board showed five minutes of stoppage time another race through the middle led by Haynes saw a desperate clearance which dropped to Stevens outside the box. I don’t know what went through his mind, but he executed it perfectly. Stayed over the ball to keep it down but absolutely leathered it, which gave their keeper and retreating defenders no chance whatsoever. There were still a couple of minutes left but no perfect ending. Just a decent enough one.
My overall impression of the game was that we didn’t play at a high enough tempo throughout to really stretch Bury. On most nights it probably wouldn’t have mattered as the game would have opened up if we had scored first, as we had opportunities to do so. We didn’t look like going behind but once we did there was a lack of guile and neither the passing nor movement was incisive enough, at least until Haynes came on. Let’s learn from it and move on. Ten points clear at the top and all is well enough, just some thinking about how we set up for Rochdale on Saturday.
Hamer – 6/10. Might have done better with the shot for the goal as he seemed to get hands to it, even though it was well struck. Otherwise seldom troubled.
Solly – 8/10. Even when he’s beaten he’s not beaten as his capacity to recover and win the ball back is outstanding. Was instrumental in keeping the pressure on them especially in the second half.
Wiggins – 9/10. It’s getting boring, but I’d give him the MoM award (again). Some of his interceptions, covering, tackling etc were exceptional and a couple of his crosses were begging to be put away.
Morrison – 8/10. Sterling work at the back as usual.
Taylor – 7/10. It’s not fair to dock a centre-back a point for missing a chance up front, but it was a very good one. No problems otherwise.
Jackson – 7/10. Didn’t feature prominently but linked up with Wiggins to good effect and generally sound.
Hollands – 7/10. Back paired with Stevens, our passing game still really didn’t get going; but I’m inclined to think that that was as much down to the forward combination and lack of movement than anything else.
Stevens – 8/10. Decent return if undramatic until stoppage time. When the chance came he did everything right.
Green – 7/10. Did threaten and some of the balls played in would have tested a keeper happy with the high ball. A shot or two as well, but tonight didn’t make the vital contribution.
Kermorgant – 6/10. I don’t think the pairing with Clarke did either of them any favours as it made us more inclined to lump it too often and as there just wasn’t the pace and movement to stretch them often enough.
Clarke – 6/10. Same thinking really; had the chance in the first half to make his mark but didn’t bury it.
Subs – Haynes (8/10 – his introduction changed the game); Pritchard (7/10 – only on for the last 10 minutes).