I had no plans to actually go to the game today, just intending to turn up for the CARD photo, suitably attired. Turns out we missed the first shoot, which had been brought forward, but made a repeat effort put on for us late arrivals, then a ticket for the match found its way into my possession. Let me just stress that no transfer of money to the regime was involved in the manufacturing of this post.
The game proved to be a criminal waste of three points. After 20 minutes I'd pretty much come to terms with just how empty The Valley is these days, we were 1-0 up, looked perfectly capable of adding to that, Wimbledon didn't look as if they carried a real threat, and my thoughts were just nothing silly at the back and we should run out comfortable winners. At half-time we should have been two or three goals to the good but no particular reason for concern, given the way the game had gone. After 60 mins I remember thinking we'd gone off the boil rather but were still comfortable, just hadn't put the game to bed; I also wondered why Wimbledon seemed so content to be carrying on with one up front and seemingly just going through the motions headed for defeat. After what proved a pretty material substitution by them, two goals, and a lame response from us, by the final whistle my mind was turning to just how we'd lost a game that was there for the taking.
That may seem a little unfair on Wimbledon. Perhaps they had a game-plan all along (although the substitution that they made, which involved the introduction of a second forward, one with considerable physical presence, came as a result of a clash of heads at a corner and their guy going down poleaxed and getting stretchered off). Truth is that with that change Wimbledon looked a different team going forward, scored two decent goals, and ended the game in the ascendency.
The team was unchanged from the Fleetwood game, with Solly and Fox either side of Pearce and Konsa in front of Rudd, Crofts and Ulvestad in central midfield and Holmes and Lookman occupying the wide positions, and Magennis and Ajose up front. And after Konsa was a little fortunate not to pick up a yellow card after an early slip prompted a clear foul the first chance came the way of Lookman. He was given far too much time, moved inside onto his right foot, but put the shot wide of the far post. Really should have at least tested the keeper and you felt at the time that surely it can't be that easy for him, surely Wimbledon wouldn't give him that much space again. Wrong. Seems the clock was only showing eight minutes gone when the ball was played square to Lookman and he took it forward to the edge of the box. Again he cut inside, shaped to shoot and their defender obligingly fell to the turf, allowing Lookman to take it further to the right, then to direct his shot unerringly inside the near post. It was a calm and effective finish, a goal all his own work, but the defending was shocking.
It looked like the first of many. Magennis was doing a good job of bullying their two centre-backs and laying it off, Ajose was buzzing around with intent, Holmes was threatening, and there was also Lookman. Crofts and Ulvestad didn't seem to be getting forward to provide support, but quite frankly it didn't look as though they would be required to do more than feed the others and protest the back four. Wimbledon did produce an early scare or two but nothing clear-cut, with Pearce in particular cutting out most balls forward, whereas the chances for us were to come with regularity through the first half.
Holmes had a decent shot beaten away, Ajose was played in, not really a one-on-one as he was further out than that but he was clear and failed to test the keeper, then the one that was laid on a plate for him. Down the right Ulvestad and Solly worked to create space for a cross, eventually Ulvestad floated one up to the far post, Magennis headed it down invitingly, but Ajose blazed it over the bar. It was a bad miss as finishing chances like that are the reason he is out there. Instead he'd been well placed twice and hadn't put in an effort on target.
There may have been other chances in the first half but no more come to mind. At the break we were ahead but really should have been out of sight. There was no strong feeling at the time that the failure to score more might come back to haunt us as we seemed in control of the game, but you did feel that a team looking to be around the top six needed to be more clinical in front of goal - and that if we ended up failing to beat a team that looked as limited as Wimbledon we will have problems.
The second half carried on in a similar vein: us in control, Wimbledon sitting back despite being behind, and just the need for a second goal to make it safe. It didn't come. We probed, threatened, still had the weapons. One squared by Magennis almost provided Ajose with a tap-in but didn't quite find him. When we did get one on target, a good header from Magennis I think, their keeper dived low to his right and pulled off a stunning save. That was a turning point. So was the injury Wimbledon suffered from a corner. There seemed to be some confusion as their guy had been on the ground for some minutes with a stretcher called for, yet when the guy was carried off nobody was ready to replace him. The pitch announcer said someone else was coming on, but eventually a big guy pulled on a shirt and prepared to enter the game. He moved alongside their lone forward and suddenly the game seemed different.
Slade seemed to sense that Wimbledon were now a different kettle of fish and withdrew Ajose, sending on Novak with around 20 mins left. But he didn't change the shape, didn't look to the available Jackson to help close things down (and perhaps pop up with a goal). Instead the next material event saw their left-winger force or take advantage of a slip from Solly to cut in on goal, only for Konsa to save the captain's blushes with an excellent block. Like our goal, it was to prove a portent of things to come. Not long after the ball was worked to that same guy. Lookman seemed to realise the problem and doubled up, only this time the guy knocked it between the pair of them and was suddenly in, rifling the ball past Rudd.
Still more than 10 minutes to go, plus stoppage time, so their equaliser really should have made it game on. But by then we'd lost momentum and the chances were not coming along so frequently, while they knew that they were back in a game they had no right to be. It was at this point I thought Slade should have made a change, probably to bring on Jackson, as on the pitch we looked in need of drive and leadership. Nothing happened and with five minutes left on the clock we were to concede again.
To be fair, this goal was a peach. Former Charlton youth player Fuller hadn't looked the most comfortable right-back playing football this afternoon, up against Lookman, but he moved forward down the line and onto a ball, to curl in a superb cross. It was curling away from defenders, came in just behind their sub, he twisted his neck and directed it like a bullet past Rudd, who again had no chance.
With five minutes of stoppage time we still had around 10 minutes left to get something out of the game. We didn't. Wimbledon not surprisingly chased everything down, we looked desperate (especially when Solly found himself in space at the far post but was unable to square it to someone in a red shirt), and although Magennis nodded one down for Novak to finish he was clearly in an offside position. Instead their sub proved pretty adept at running down the clock and the game ended with them in raptures and us ruing both missed opportunities and an inability to respond to a change in circumstances.
As this is the first game I've seen this season I can't compare with what has gone before, only give my impressions. I hope the manager and the players are annoyed with themselves and use that anger to positive effect next time around. Today they came up short. It was a case of Shankley's 'the best team always wins, the rest is just gossip'. They took advantage of our failures.
Rudd: 7/10. What rating do you give a keeper who made no saves and had no chance with their two goals?
Solly: 6/10. No lack of effort but got outmuscled by their guy twice and the second time it cost us a goal.
Fox: 6/10. Nothing decisive at either end of the pitch, no problems but no great contribution either.
Pearce: 7/10. I was impressed with him, a classic 'no nonsense' performance. For most of the game our defence was untroubled, for which he took much of the credit. But that changed with their substitution.
Konsa: 6/10. One excellent block, some good tackles. Clearly an excellent prospect, just question whether he is ready to deal with the sort of sub they threw on.
Holmes: 7/10. Always a threat, even towards the end when he carried the ball half the length of the pitch only to not get the curled shot right. Another shot beaten away.
Crofts: 6/10. Pretty anonymous for most of the game, but for most of the game we were in control and all he needed to do was shore things up.
Ulvestad: 7/10. He wasn't exactly box-to-box today, still finding his feet. But showed glimpses of what we hope is to come in giving our midfield more guile and energy.
Lookman: 7/10. Should have been the match-winner but wasn't.
Magennis: 7/10. Really overall did his job, was effective in leading the line and keeping their defenders unsettled. Just didn't make a decisive contribution.
Ajose: 6/10. Has to be judged on whether or not he takes the chances that come his way. Today he didn't.
Subs: Novak (6/10 - made no real impression, went offside when might have been played in).