When you play badly you should be happy just not to lose. And we did play badly, with only mitigating circumstances from seemingly enforced changes from the Boxing Day team and a difficult pitch. Against better opposition we would have suffered, although as we’ve seen before we probably wouldn’t have been as sluggish against a better side. It seemed that having bagged three points against Brighton we wanted to nick this one, or at least not lose. That we didn’t was down to poor play in the final third by Wednesday. That we didn’t win – and get some much-needed breathing space from the bottom three - was first and foremost down to us but also due to us not taking the chance at the death to secure what would have been an undeserved but entirely welcome three points.
Ahead of the game there was the thought about whether we would stick with a winning team or whether another match quickly after might necessitate changes. That Solly didn’t manage another in quick succession after his comeback wasn’t entirely surprising, but losing Wiggins as well (apparently for the birth of his child) meant disruption. Wilson, having scored two from the more advanced position, reverted to full-back and Evina came in for Wiggins. That meant a space in midfield and Sir Chris opted to recall Jackson, in a central(ish) position alongside Cousins, with Stephens pushed out to a wide right role, Stewart on the left, and Kermorgant and Church up front.
The changes worked against any early fluency, especially as Stephens seemed completely wasted in a position that doesn’t suit him, Jackson looked off the pace, and Stewart struggled to get in the game. Stripped of any threat down the flanks and unable to retain possession in central midfield, from early on we were resorting to generally aimless balls towards the front two. Church and Kermorgant may be used to having to feed off scraps, but today, with no support for either, it was a truly thankless task.
At the other end Wednesday were generally unambitious as long as the game was scoreless and seldom threatened, although in Wickham they had a player who threatened to rise above the dirge and what passing and movement there was came from them. Our worst moments came when efforts to play the ball out from the back ran aground, catching us on the back foot, but I kept checking my watch. 10 minutes nothing of note, 20 the same, then the entire first half. We had I think one poor shot from outside the box which took a deflection. On another day it could have been diverted into the net, but today, in keeping with all else that was going on, it bobbled tamely back to their keeper.
Things could only get better and they did shortly after the break from a piece of quick thinking and quality at odds with all that had gone before. A throw-in on the right side threatened nothing, but with all the obvious options covered Stephens made a break into space, wasn’t picked up, and was found. He took it into the box, stepped inside and planted the ball into the corner of the net. It was a goal out of nothing but full marks for Stephens’ intent to make something happen and his ability to take the opportunity.
That broke the deadlock to the extent that Wednesday made changes to adopt a more attacking formation, creating more space for us to (possibly) exploit. We seemed to have weathered the initial reaction and even had a chance to extend the lead as a ball in to the near post saw Church ghost in and get a deft flick only for Kirkland to turn it around the post. The officials gave a goal kick.
Wednesday were enjoying the lion’s share of possession by now and we struggled both to retain the ball or to find any outlet. When you’re winning you don’t really care that much, but we were on the edge as balls began to fly into our box. Generally they were dealt with well, but eventually the pressure told as their guy twisted free on the right. His low cross was blocked but looped up across the goal for a tap-in from their guy. There were appeals for offside, but sitting in the East Stand I really couldn’t tell.
Wednesday now smelt blood and continued to press, but failed to create the clear-cut chance to win the game, through a combination of poor shooting and poor choices in decent positions. One driven low cross went all the way across our goal without anyone getting a touch. Stewart, who had been no more effective in the second half than the first, departed, along with Jackson, to be replaced by Green and Dervite, with Stephens seemingly moving more wide left than central. Green did make a nuisance of himself and brought much-needed drive and energy, but more often than not ran into cul-de-sacs. Basically we got no better.
Just as we were settling for the point, we had the chance as the clock ticked towards 90. Another ball forward was contested by Kermorgant and ran loose to Church on the edge of the area. He took a touch but then blazed the shot over the bar. That he should have at least hit the target goes without saying. This was a game in which such opportunities were very few and far between. I care not a jot whether it would have been an undeserved winner (unquestionably it would have been).
So, we know the only positive was not being beaten, extending the unbeaten ‘run’ to three and keeping up Sir Chris’ target of taking something from each of the holiday games (extending that away at Ipswich will require much more than we offered today). The actual team performance was very, very poor, the way the team was set up didn’t work (shifting Stephens to a wide position to accommodate Jackson, who was off the pace throughout, has to be viewed as a decision that didn’t pay off), and our point was on the balance of play over the full game more than we deserved. We can (and will have to) do better.
Alnwick – 7/10. Dealt with what he had to capably, didn’t seem to be culpable for their goal. Poor distribution, but we didn’t do anything with the ball in any event.
Wilson – 6/10. Not sure how he will have felt reverting to filling in for Solly, but stuck to the task. Not as prominent getting forward as in other games but wasn’t helped by having no real wide player ahead of him.
Evina – 7/10. Filled in capably enough and made a few runs forward. Can be content with his performance.
Morrison – 8/10. That Wednesday were generally restricted to efforts from outside the box is a fair testament to the defence today and he played his part.
Wood – 7/10. Generally accomplished defensively, just made a couple of errors with distribution which could have been costly.
Stephens – 7/10. To say that out wide isn’t his natural position is something of an understatement. But it was his quick thinking and finishing that gave us the lead.
Cousins – 6/10. Covered well and tried to keep possession better than most.
Jackson – 5/10. Seemed off the pace throughout on his return, no surprise he was taken off.
Stewart – 4/10. You have to give the mark for the performance and today he barely touched the ball. That was as much down to others failing to provide him anything to work with, but a potential match-winner who provides nothing on the day has to get a low mark.
Kermorgant – 6/10. Less effective than against Brighton, due not least to the quality of balls in his direction.
Church – 5/10. Worked hard as usual and I thought he pulled out a good save from their keeper with his near post header. But fact is he was presented with a good chance to win the game and failed to take it.