Saturday, 26 January 2013

Ugly And We Lost

There is nothing worse (in a football context) than with 10 minutes left to be expecting a rather ugly but perfectly satisfactory win – and to lose. The afternoon, the day, the weekend didn’t turn out as planned – and now the aching muscles from the snow and ice-clearing on Wednesday hurt twice as much. It wasn’t a game to talk about who deserved to win, who played best. Neither side would win plaudits for the football. We were winning for most of the second half and that set the pattern. They had to take chances and brought on subs to bolster their attack, so when they equalised all the momentum was with them. We could have finished it off before then with a second and didn’t; they went on to score a winner and it’s done. Suzanne isn’t happy and neither am I. Three points down the drain and we’re not going to win every game in 2013.

The team was unchanged, with Sir Chris keeping to 4-5-1 at home after three wins on the trot. No complaints from me, except that if you play five in midfield at home you would expect to dominate possession. On a difficult surface (yes, if you’d seen it – and fallen over on it – on Wednesday you’d have been impressed with the end-result) we didn’t manage that, with Wednesday, as was the case a year ago, bigger and stronger than us, putting the onus on outpassing them. That didn’t really happen, especially in a first-half that is best described as ordinary.

Us and them spent 45 minutes testing each other out to little effect, with most of the ‘football’ best overlooked. We contrived to miss a chance apiece. One ball to the far post was nodded back, apparently by Taylor, to I believe Morrison who had all the goal to aim at. Instead the header hit the underside of the bar and was cleared. At the other end, Hamer went for a cross and under a challenge dropped it. The ref didn’t give a free kick and their guy for some reason put the ball wide. We laughed, we sang, but it did sum up the game, which at that stage had all the hallmarks of a 0-0.

That really was it for the first period. Wagstaff was making a nuisance of himself, Stephens was pulling the strings. But Jackson and Pritchard were virtually absent as an attacking threat, nothing was coming down the right from Wilson and Solly, and Kermorgant had no support. The only real comfort was that Morrison and Taylor were dealing well enough with everything coming their way.

At the break things really could only get better – and with one flowing move they did. Wilson got the ball going forward and waited for Solly to get into the right position. He picked out Pritchard at the far post and he knocked it back for the inrushing Jackson to finish. Simple, effective, and players who hadn’t featured for much of the first half had just contrived to put us ahead.

The period which followed seemed to have decided the game. We had opportunities to add to the lead, with Wagstaff cutting in and hitting the post and Stephens not managing to control and keep down a couple of efforts from outside the box. At the other end their guy down the left caused problems and curled a couple just wide, while bringing out a save from Hamer. But as the game went on it became increasingly apparent that, having failed to get a second we were content to sit on the lead, while they, with nothing to lose, brought on Lita and Madine to bolster their attack.

The clock ran down, but not fast enough. And with about 10 minutes left they drew level. It was a nothing sort of ball into a crowded box, but Hamer didn’t come for it and one of their guys headed it up and over him into the net. That was bad enough, but the changes they made meant they couldn’t easily sit on the lead and continued to go forward. We made no changes, even though all the momentum was with them and paid the price. Their guy on the right went on a mazy run and the resulting shot from Lita took a horrible deflection to leave Hamer wrong-footed. Going into five minutes of stoppage time the changes were made, with Fuller, Wright-Phillips and Green coming on for Wilson, Evina and Stephens. But the hail-Mary didn’t work and we lost.

It was a game we should have won, having taken the lead. And it was one in which we failed to turn around once they’d equalised, even though the opportunity to make changes then was apparent. As we lost, it couldn’t have turned out any worse. It is a game of small margins and if we had notched the second, instead of the ball coming back off the post, we would have gone home happy. The reality is that on the day two at best average looking teams we left with no points. Right or wrong doesn’t come into it. We competed, worked hard, but didn’t show the wit to beat a more physical team who made changes when they had nothing to lose.

Player Ratings:

Hamer – 5/10. One decent save, but dropped one high ball in the first half which could/should have resulted in a goal and didn’t come for the ball in for their equaliser.

Solly – 7/10. No real complaints, was instrumental in our goal and did the defensive work.

Evina – 7/10. Overall thought he had a good game. The problem wasn’t really the defence.

Morrison – 7/10. For the most part was outstanding, heading away numerous balls in. But he did (I think) miss a sitter in the first half and they went on to score with an average ball into the box.

Taylor – 7/10. As with Morrison. We were under a good deal of pressure through the game and until the last 10 minutes the defence was holding up well.

Wilson – 5/10. Also involved in our goal, but overall seemed rather subdued as the midfield didn’t take the game to them.

Jackson – 6/10. Gets an extra point for the goal, but otherwise ineffective as along with Pritchard, both playing a bit ahead of Stephens, the support going forward wasn’t there.

Pritchard – 5/10. Not a good game if you take away the excellent knock-back for the goal. You want him to exploit the space, but that didn’t happen.

Stephens – 7/10. Was the one player throughout who tried to control the game, just a pity that unlike last weekend the shots went over the bar.

Wagstaff – 7/10. Was involved throughout and made a nuisance of himself, almost notched what would have been a goal to seal a win.

Kermorgant – 7/10. About as tireless a showing as a lone striker as you could wish for.

Subs – Oh come on, I don’t think that two of them touched the ball (Green did for a couple of late, desperate free kicks).

Tuesday, 22 January 2013

Highs And Lows

I usually enjoy the last day of the transfer window (the exception to the rule of course being selling Scotty Parker and failing to land a replacement, even though we knew he was on his way), listening to the latest porkies from the unlovable ‘Arry, trying to second-guess the last-second desperate move by Arsenal etc. It seems to have a lot in common with the banks’ post-results conferences. Ignore what’s said, focus on what isn’t, the body language and the lies. I’ve never been fond (in an investment sense) of Deutsche Bank, not because of their indecipherable structure (perhaps my favourite moment in these gatherings was when that bank’s management tried to explain a slide outlining a plan to simplify the group structure; it prompted laughter all round as the ‘explanation’ was itself unfathomable) and dodgy balance sheet but because they are so bad when it comes to conning the audience. Perhaps some things get lost in translation, German to English, cockney to English etc.

But I can’t abide this stage of the window. Insider information may be frowned upon in certain areas, but it’s always at least useful and I’m so far removed from it when it comes to our impending ins and outs that all I can do is keep my counsel (no doubt a relief for some), watch what others are saying, and wait for concrete developments. As nobody’s gone or arrived as yet, the dangers of us being embroiled in some late dramas seems to be increasing by the day. Three wins in a row (the last rounded off by that absolutely splendid Kermorgant header) and, while certain additions would be most welcome, the last thing we want is disruption.

In that context, I hope that all concerned display the sort of attitude shown by Stephens. When his August move to Villa didn’t materialise, he really did seem to just dust himself down and get on with things. We’ve seen the rumours of players being offered as makeweights in possible deals. I’d imagine it takes a similar kind of character if you are considered dispensable and end up staying; but such decisions are seldom definitive and if they stay I hope they too are ready and willing to go out and prove to the manager that they are worthy of fresh opportunities.

After all, most careers have peaks and troughs (usually the former when they join us and the latter when they leave). Darren Bent we all of course wish the best for, but the whistle’s just gone in the League Cup semi-final and he’ll be back to convincing a seemingly sceptical manager that he’s worth a place in any Premiership team (he is) while Phil Parkinson is doing the triumphant interviews and looking forward to Wembley. It may not have worked out for him at Charlton, but it was a tough ask at the time and who knows how far he can go now (perhaps an eight-year contract to manage Newcastle?).

While we’re on the subject of former managers, can BBC Radio Five Live, all who comment on it, and all who phone into it please stop repeating the mistake that Curbs was sacked and that Charlton provide the template for wanting the next ‘step up’ and coming a cropper. Mick McCarthy, who normally talks sense, trotted out the line a couple of months back and it’s resurfaced with the ludicrous change at Southampton. Sure we had a few moaners at the time, but they were a minority, we know that Curbs wasn’t sacked (we know about the remaining time on the contract and his desire not to extend it, plus the unsettling effect of being shortlisted for the England job), and we knew what our next step up was: stay in the Premiership and continue expanding The Valley. Any team with a capacity of below 30,000 and without rich owners is only one bad season away from disaster. If there’s another daft comment made either the radio goes out the window or I march on the BBC to demand recompense (if their offices are still in London and it’s not snowing).

On the subject of snowing, I’ve just seen the appeal for help at the ground. As I’ve bought a ticket for my French partner Suzanne (who weather permitting arrives for the weekend) and as she wants to see another Kermorgant header flying into the net, it’s going to be a case for me of an early check on the work emails and assessment of a lingering cold before (hopefully) setting off.

On the subject of things French (sometimes the links are just seemless), while our fortunes have taken a turn for the better, Lyon Duchere’s promotion drive has, it has to be said, stuttered in 2013. They suffered a 0-1 reverse away at Strasbourg and followed that up with a 1-2 defeat away at Mulhouse. Two top-of-the-table clashes and no points to show has seen Duchere overtaken at the top by said Mulhouse (apparently a town tucked in close to the Swiss and German borders, ie Wenger territory), who are two points clear and have a game in hand (which can amount to four points in this league), with Strasbourg now only one point behind in third. Ah well, plenty of time to go yet – and after a long wait I will be able to attend a game coming up in February, at home to Grenoble. I hope all the snow, everywhere, will have gone by then.

Wednesday, 16 January 2013

Kids Out But Shouldn't Be Down

Not the result for the kids that we were hoping for; and not the one that seemed on the cards at half-time as we’d more than tweaked Chelsea’s noses and deservedly led 2-0. Always a dangerous scoreline, especially when you have a break to ponder on the fact you really just want the game to be over. And whereas in the first half we’d been matching them for passing and movement if not always composure (and never strength), and outdoing them on chances, the second half saw us progressively pegged back and hanging on, with the attacking threat all but evaporating. When they got one back we wanted the game over, when they equalised we’d have settled for penalties at the end of 90 minutes; and when in extra-time they scored their third we were really hoping for a miracle that didn’t come.

Although Chelsea started brightly and knocked the ball around at ease, we grew into the game and began to hustle them into mistakes, with Poyet pulling the strings, Palmer going past players with ease, Derry causing problems down the right, Sho-Silva offering a muscular outlet, and the defence after some uncertain moments keeping their pacey but erratic number nine under wraps. As the balance shifted, we took the lead. A high ball in from the left should have been dealt with by their central defenders or keeper, but with the latter sticking to his line Derry was the only one to attack the ball, heading home from close range.

The goal raised our game and sewed seeds of doubt in their mind and we perhaps should have been awarded a second as a double challenge for the ball by Sho-Silva against their keeper involved no foul that I saw, only for one to be spotted by the ref (who did tend to act like a benevolent grandfather to Chelsea throughout the game, which contained its fair share of robust challenges from both sides) before he put the loose ball in the net. Chelsea had their best chance of the half when a guy was played through, but his effort went wide of the post and instead we stretched our lead as this time Derry turned provider, putting in a cross that was converted by Muldoon.

We might have notched a potentially decisive third with a goalmouth scramble, and then as their keeper pulled off a truly outstanding save to keep out a downward header. But at the break we were looking good, even though Chelsea had given fair indication that if they put their minds to it they could still get back in the game.

The second half began much like the first, with them dominating possession. But this time around, with us tending to sit back more the forward threat was much less apparent, especially with Sho-Silva getting little change out of a centre-back who might have ambitions to be better than John Terry but is already a good deal bigger than five-foot-three. Just as we seemed to be weathering the storm they scored, a sort of sneaky near post effort after it had appeared that the danger had been contained.

After this, it looked like a case of whether we could hold on, with our balls forward getting longer and with Sho-Silva being substituted the physical presence up front disappearing. The disappointment was the nature of their equaliser. We were moving forward but a misplaced pass caught us on the wrong foot and, with space available, Chelsea played it forward quickly to a guy running in on goal who buried it in the bottom corner.

Further changes followed, with Palmer and Edwards being replaced. But now on level terms Chelsea were prepared to take their time and keep us penned in our own half, with the efforts expended not surprisingly taking their toll. At the end of 90 minutes not many in the crowd were sure what would happen next (straight to penalties or a replay perhaps?). Turned out to be extra time and there was no question which team was in the ascendency. The first period was negotiated with only a few scares, even though the defending had an increasingly last-ditch appearance to it, but in the second they scored what proved to be the winner. Again, the nature of it was the disappointment. Their centre-back sprayed a long ball wide left and their guy took it on in his stride, going past the defenders to find himself with only the keeper to beat and he curled it into the bottom corner.

That proved to be it. The final minutes saw some hopeful balls forward, but it was apparent to all that the chance of a notable scalp had gone. No matter, there was no shortage of positives. I’ve not seen this crop play before and there’s plenty to admire. Poyet shows a maturity beyond his years and keeps things ticking over nicely, centre-half Gomez looked assured (after some early misplaced passes), and both full-backs (Holmes-Dennis and Edwards) got forward well. Sho-Silva clearly has potential, as do others, but for me the star of the show was Palmer. He tired in the second half, but before then showed a range of abilities that bodes well, including one second-half run through their defence which ended with a curled effort just over the bar.

All’s well that ends well as they say and for us it didn’t end well. But what went before looks pretty good, especially on a bloody cold night.

Saturday, 12 January 2013

Reward For Hard Work

After last Saturday’s limp performance and a week punctuated by struggling to get to Amsterdam and back with a lousy cold, a victory of any sorts and back home for tea and a lie-down was all I craved. So all is well. For me it was a game that proved the cliché about goals changing games. Blackpool played the football, had loads of possession, but after an early scare – when for once in his career Kevin Phillips didn’t convert against us – seldom converted their passing into scoring opportunities. We lined up pretty defensively but scored when it mattered, which took the pressure off us, and saw out the game reasonably untroubled, with insufficient time left for ‘old boy’ Eccleston’s late strike to matter.

With Sir Chris having acknowledged that those given an opportunity in the Cup failing to take it, there was no sign of Kerkar or Cook, while Wright-Phillips stayed on the bench. With Cort and Dervite unavailable, the defence picked itself, with Taylor alongside Morrison and Solly and Evina the full-backs in front of Hamer. We opted for 4-5-1, with a central trio of Stephens, Jackson and Pritchard, Wilson on the right and Wagstaff getting the nod on the left, leaving Kermorgant to plough a lone furrow up front. Along with BWP, Fuller and Green, the bench contained Harriott, Fox and Ajayi.

In the first 10 minutes or so it wasn’t a case of us not getting an opportunity to score but rather us not getting a touch of the ball. Blackpool knocked it around and we appeared very subdued, getting numbers behind the ball but doing nothing more. The real scare in that period came after a few minutes as a cross to the far post saw Phillips unmarked. His header back across the goal seemed to be half-blocked by Taylor, who then somehow managed not to put it in his own net. It was to prove Blackpool’s only clear-cut chance of the game and it wasn’t taken.

Blackpool continued probing, but Evina was keeping Ince under control and we gradually started to get into the game, even though possession was often hit long to an isolated Kermorgant, with no indication that one of the three central midfielders was intent on getting forward in support. But just as it seemed that the crowd might start getting restless, after about 20 minutes we took the lead as at the first sign of pressure Blackpool’s defence looked suspect. Somewhat against the run of play, but who cares? The ball went to the far edge of the area and was knocked back for Jackson in space. His shot wasn’t his cleanest strike, but as it bounced it’s way goalwards their keeper seemed to have it covered, then seemed to think it was going wide, and ended up doing nothing as it found its way into the bottom corner.

That raised the spirits and we were starting to get more of a foothold in midfield. Indeed, not long after it seemed to me we were robbed by the ref. Kermorgant delightfully back-heeled one into him into the path of Wagstaff running in on goal. He seemed to be clipped by their defender, who was the wrong side. Can’t say whether it was in or out of the box, but if the foul was given a red card should have followed. Instead the ref waved it all away. Fortunately it wasn’t to matter.

Blackpool had a routine shot or two, but going into stoppage time at the end of the first half we were to double the lead to give us the platform to see out the game. A cross in from Wilson was met by Kermorgant and although his shot was parried it came out to Wagstaff who was able to convert.

Blackpool will have been somewhat bemused to be 2-0 down at the break, but quite frankly they didn’t seem that upset. Their managerial uncertainty probably had an impact on their level of commitment and there was no questioning ours, especially as we had something to hold onto. And it’s fair to say our approach in the second half was something less than gung-ho as we held what we had. The onus was on them to get back into it and they didn’t, for which praise is due to our defence. With the exception of one very strange ball across the face of the goal, which no Blackpool forward seemed bothered enough to run on to, I can’t remember a serious threat (until they scored in stoppage time).

Instead we threatened from corners (although the ploy of planting them under Gilks’ nose in the hope he’d drop one didn’t really come off) and might have finished them off with a third. They made changes and late on so did we, with Wagstaff coming off for Harriott. The crowd loves a trier, so Waggy left to warm applause, and they also love a flier and Harriott delivered a very impressive cameo. His first touch of the ball saw him bamboozle their defender on the by-line and his pace was to cause them real concern. A rather stranger late change saw Stephens replaced by Fuller, with Kermorgant (who having put in a real shift had some right to expect a sit-down for the last few minutes) dropping deeper and Wilson moving inside. Eccleston had been one of Blackpool’s three subs and in stoppage time he connected beautifully with a dropping ball on the edge of the area to score. But with only a minute to see out there was to be no late disaster.

Two league wins in a row and the league is looking more comfortable than after the Boxing Day defeat to Ipswich. The team today deserved credit for the commitment and effort, with everyone working hard to break up their moves. Much of our play in possession was less impressive, but we needed a home win of any sort and this will do just fine. We can look forward to a less frenetic period of games, especially if the Sheff Wed one gets postponed, and the focus presumably shifts to who may come in and who may depart during the window. We shall see.

Player Ratings:

Hamer – 7/10. No requirement for outstanding saves as the guys in front of him did the job.

Solly – 7/10. Decent enough game defensively and may have contributed to the first goal. No real need for those barnstorming runs forward in the second half.

Evina – 8/10. Perhaps generous and his distribution in the first half wasn’t great, but he was up against their danger man and kept him quiet.

Taylor – 8/10. My man of the match as he slotted back into the team with no problems, avoided a near own-goal, had his head wrapped in bandages.

Morrison – 7/10. No faults here either, solid performance.

Wilson – 7/10. Generally impressive, but did attempt something on the edge of our box which lost possession and ended with him giving away a free kick; crossing was good with one exception when in a great position he turned it into a back pass.

Stephens – 7/10. Some things didn’t come off, but he does provide the guile and composure that is needed and put in his fair share of tackling.

Jackson – 7/10. Covered and tackled well and chipped in another goal.

Pritchard – 7/10. Not especially prominent through the game and didn’t provide much support for Kermorgant, but it wasn’t a game we needed to chase and the priority was holding what we had.

Wagstaff – 7/10. Made a nuisance of himself and scored, unlike those a week ago he made the most of the opportunity.

Kermorgant – 7/10. A pretty thankless task for much of the game but made the most of it.

Subs – Harriott (7/10 – splendid cameo; hopefully he is finally ready to press for a regular squad place); Fuller (only on for a couple of minutes).

Saturday, 5 January 2013

Missed Opportunities For Some

A sense of perspective is always desirable, even if it’s a pain in the neck when you’ve lost. If it was a choice between winning today and emerging from the Eurostar tunnel on New Year’s Day to discover we’d lost to Watford, or vice versa, there’s no choice. If it was a choice between losing in the cup today or against Blackpool on Saturday, again no contest. I’ll admit to being somewhat ba humbug about the FA Cup. It can have magic and fabulous occasions for some teams, in some circumstances. But quite frankly I’m not interested in watching us play Chelsea, Man Utd (or City) et al, and we were never going to win it. I’d have been happy for us to get any loot going, but it wasn’t to be. Maybe next year.

Instead we had a low crowd watching a pretty ordinary game between two teams with only passing interest in the competition. We committed the cardinal sin in these situations of conceding first, after which they had something to hang on to and we struggled. The only really disappointing aspect of the game was that arguably the three players we picked who had most to prove, and to gain (Kerkar, Cook and Wright-Phillips), ended up all being substituted, for good reason. With our three loan players having exited, that causes concern about the depth of the squad, with Cort, Haynes and Wiggins unavailable at present and now Dervitte to face a one-game suspension. In short, no positives to be taken from the afternoon, so let’s forget it.

We lined up with Button in goal, Evina and Wilson as the full-backs, Taylor and Dervitte in central defence, Kerkar and Cook either side of Stephens and Pritchard in midfield, and Kermorgant and Wright-Phillips up front. It looked like a not inappropriate mix of resting a few and still wanting to win the game. How many times have we heard that in the past decade only for a cup side to disappoint? This was to prove no exception to the rule.

It’s not so easy to get a great perspective on a game from Row A of the Lower North, but the first half saw them produce three or four moments of danger and us perhaps one. The decisive moment was a ball in from their right which caused hesitation on our part – with Button and the central defenders seemingly unsure about whether to come for it/attack it. They didn’t and Beckford latched onto it to score with some ease. It would be too harsh to say that Button was culpable, but from his reaction you could tell that maybe he could have been more decisive. It couldn’t have turned out any worse whatever he and others might have done. Button did pull off a decent save from a free-kick, but in front of him on a sticky pitch we had neither the pace nor movement to put them under pressure. The one moment from us I remember was BWP wriggling clear and causing some panic, but it led to nothing and more telling was the fact that neither Kerkar nor Cook were making things happen down the flanks.

Behind at the break in a low-key affair and nothing much changed in the second half, until the next decisive moment. A ball through looked like a routine clearance for Devitte but he air-kicked and suddenly their guy was running on to it, only to be hauled back. It was one of the more obvious red cards we will see this season and, although the free-kick led to nothing we were a man down chasing the game.

We made a fist of it, with Evina becoming more prominent going forward, Stephens and Pritchard working well enough, and Kermorgant putting in the usual shift. Cook was the one to make way for Morrison to come on, having shown some useful touches but not really influencing the game. The subsequent double-substitution saw Kerkar replaced by Jackson and Wright-Phillips coming off for Azeez. Kerkar had looked short of confidence and, like Cook, struggled to really get in the game, while for BWP the fact that he was taken off for a youngster when we’re losing at home says a good deal. So does the fact that Azeez caused them more problems.

Huddersfield saw out the game reasonably comfortably. We did have a couple of moments, especially as it became gung-ho in the final minutes, but the game ended with their keeper having made one fairly routine stop from a free-kick and otherwise not having been called on.

So be it. We didn’t want a replay (OK, I’d have taken a replay in the last 20 minutes) and exiting the FA Cup means almost nothing other than being denied the opportunity of a pay-day. We’ve just had a splendid, possibly crucial, win away and Blackpool at home on Saturday is far more important. You can’t avoid the impression that the owners will be happy as long as we’re not relegated this season – and quite frankly so will I be. Barring something dramatic during the transfer window we’re not going to take the division by storm, making avoiding relegation the priority. So be it, as long as we achieve that.

There’s no player ratings from me for today. The game was really about some players being offered an opportunity to shine and them not taking it. That raises questions about the squad and how we want to play, what are our strengths. I think Sir Chris has some serious thinking to do about the best partnerships in key areas and our best formation, especially with Haynes presumably absent for a couple of weeks more. If Stephens plays best with Hollands, let’s have him back. We are down to three fit forwards, so perhaps 4-5-1 is best for now. Too many questions for this stage of the season, but the changes we make this month, including any we may sell, have to keep the primary objective in mind, which is consolidating in this league.