Saturday, 11 July 2020

Hard Done By But ...

The result was all that mattered, so no positives to be taken, just a third in succession to quickly forget and move on to the next. Three consecutive defeats, each by a single goal with only one scored (and now just three in the six games since the resumption). That tell’s its own story. As Bowyer has left nobody in any doubt, on another day Aneke’s follow-up is not ruled offside and we get the penalty late on. Fact is their keeper didn’t get really tested all afternoon, stats showed two efforts on target, despite more good positions worked.

I send a message in our group that as soon as we kicked off we would go up two places, which we duly did. That lasted all of three minutes, before Oshilaja was caught out of position and the wrong side of their guy in the box. A clumsy challenge from behind and the ref had no option but to give the penalty. In previous games Oshilaja has had spells when he gave away too many free kicks for poorly timed or slightly rash challenges (and to be fair he has been unfairly penalised sometimes). You felt it was only a matter of time before one of these happened in the box. Something he does need to work on to develop.

I suspect that start pretty much meant the game plan being thrown out of the window. We’d set up as a 4-4-2 again with Bonne and Aneke up front from the start, giving the impression that we’d go for it, look to get ahead in the game, and adjust later on to protect a lead, with Hemed the only other normal forward option on the bench (with Green missing). Instead we found ourselves chasing the game almost from the off, with Reading able to play with even less pressure.

In the first half you’d have to say that we had more possession and openings but they looked the more likely to add to their lead. Their forwards were able to find space between our defenders with good movement and fluid passing, especially down the flanks. By contrast we looked static, with their central defenders handling our front two pretty well and not a lot coming from us down the flanks. But that’s perhaps too negative, we did create possibilities, half-chances, occasionally something better as Bonne failed to get a decisive touch on a ball in at the near post, then as McGeady’s shot was palmed out and Aneke put in the rebound, only to find himself flagged offside.

In the second half Reading seldom threatened and it became a case of whether we could, finally, get the ball into the net. The introduction of Doughty gave us a real threat down the left, while that of Williams helped us to dominate possession as he won his usual share of free kicks by drawing challenges. The closest we came was when Doughty put in a good lowish cross and Pratley just failed to connect.

But the minutes ticked away and we understandably became increasingly desperate. The introduction of Hemed as a third forward left us looking decidedly disjointed, especially as we were getting no joy from long balls. And then with five minutes left on the clock came the moment, with Forster-Caskey (on by then for Pratley) going down in the box. The referee opts for a dive and a yellow card. I’d have to see it again, but this was a day when we got none of the breaks.

Bowyer’s blaming the officials for the result was understandable, perhaps predictable. But when the opposition’s manager (albeit someone we know well, with a surely a soft spot for us) comments that “there were decisions that I raised my eyebrows at too” you get the sense that we were indeed hard done by.

There’s nothing to be done about it, we wait for the other results over the weekend (and without wishing to jinx things those being played today were looking good at half-time) and then prepare for what is obviously a massive game for us at Birmingham. It’s been a few years since we staved off relegation at St Andrews. Going to need a similar result this time around.

Friday, 10 July 2020

So Tight For The Final Rounds

Hearty congratulations to Jason Pearce on becoming the first ever Sky Bet Championship Player of the Month for June. He did seem to struggle at times earlier this season with the step back up to the Championship, but since the resumption he has been outstanding, kicking off our clambering out of the relegation zone with his bravery at Hull. May he (or another of ours) get the gong for July too.

Of course nothing’s going to be decided tonight or over the weekend, but we are getting to the stage where there could be a little clarity. Huddersfield have the opportunity tonight to given themselves some breathing space and all but relegate Luton – although looking at the fixtures left they will feel they have three winnable games remaining after tonight, so nobody’s giving up yet.

For the record, with effectively nine teams in the mix (up to Birmingham in the table plus Wigan), these are the games left for each club (reading up from the bottom):

Luton:  Huddersfield (A), QPR (H), Hull (A), Blackburn (H). Current points per game over 46 games would give them 44.90 points and relegation. But again those games look winnable, can’t write them off even if they lose tonight.

Barnsley:  Wigan (H), Leeds (A), Notts Forest (H), Brentford (A). Current points per game over 46 games of 46.00 and relegation. Have to say their position and those fixtures point to a relegation spot.

Hull:  Millwall (H), Wigan (A), Luton (H), Cardiff (A). Current points per game over 46 games gives them 49.28 points. Given that the Spanners are gifting points to everyone except us, you have to say in their own hands.

Stoke:  Birmingham (H), Bristol City (A), Brentford (H), Notts Forest (A). Current points per game over 46 games 50.38 and safety. But you have to say it looks down to their next two games given the two that follow.

Charlton:  Goes without saying we win our four remaining fixtures (unless we’re already safe and decide not to spoil Leeds’ party) and stay up.

Huddersfield:  Luton (H), Sheff Wed (A), WBA (H), Millwall (A). Their points per game projection is 51.48 and if they beat Luton tonight you’d have to fancy them to pick up another win (you know who) and be safe.

Birmingham:  Stoke (A), Charlton (H), Preston (A), Derby (H). On points per game projection they are almost comfortable, on 53.67. But are they in disarray having sacked their manager, lost their last three? If they lose at Stoke they will be well in the mix, given that defeat follows in their match after.

Wigan:  Barnsley (A), Hull (H), Charlton (A), Fulham (H). Points per game projection puts them on 58.05, or 46.05 with the 12 points deduction. But you have to say that given their form three of their remaining games look winnable and nine points would see them end the season on 50 points with the deduction, which could be enough provided one team in addition to Barnsley and Luton fall away.

Being realistic I’d say we have to get at least one win against one of Reading, Birmingham or Wigan, at the same time making sure at least we don’t lose to either Birmingham or Wigan. If we get to 50 points, as for Wigan, that could be enough. Nothing is written of course but it looks like a very heavy ask for Barnsley to get above 45 points, certainly if they lose to Wigan next time out. Luton obviously need a result tonight, but a defeat against Huddersfield and they would have to win two of their final three to stand a realistic chance (even then 47 points would probably see them go down).

It is so tight for the third relegation place that it will almost certainly go down to the wire. One win for Hull or Stoke, or of course us, and all the tentative conclusions have to be revised. But if you have a hunch for the unexpected, Birmingham could just end up getting suckered in and not having what it takes to get back out (of course if they win at Stoke strike that, they are safe).

Wednesday, 8 July 2020

Ante Raised For Saturday

As ever it’s the hope that kills you. An early goal, up at the break, can’t help but start to think what the three points would mean, even if nobody was in any doubt then that we would still have our work cut out to emerge with something from the game. Brentford raised the intensity and pretty much pummelled us in the second half. Even so, it required a debatable penalty decision (OK, first reaction was that it was a dreadful decision) to draw them level, followed by what looked at first suspiciously like an own goal from a corner to win them the points.

You could see the hurt and frustration from the players at the end of the game, even before it as Cullen, whose challenge had been deemed to be a foul for their penalty, picked up a yellow for a tackle that was just the other side of determined (although it paled in comparison with a very poor one from one of their guys in the second half). Balance of play and chances had Brentford streets ahead, but they only mean something for the neutral. The major fact was that for over an hour of the game we were ahead. When that happens and you lose there’s no avoiding the deflation, given the importance of every game now, making it hard to focus on the positives (another determined performance which saw us compete against one of the league’s best sides). And there’s not the time for that, it’s a game lost, focus on the next one. Perhaps just keep in mind that our season will end in either triumph or failure and last night won't be the decisive result. 

Too late to go over the game in detail (and if truth be told due to technical problems I missed actually seeing most of the first half, wasn’t really aware we might have added to the early lead provided by Bonne’s close-range header). The second half was obviously a struggle and that Brentford scored twice wasn’t a real surprise, just the nature of their goals was hard to take when set against more excellent saves from Phillips (even if he repeated the habit of pushing out shots in the fashion which resulted in Millwall’s goal) and one which crashed against the underside of the bar. Unlike Cardiff and others, Brentford didn’t get desperate or run out of ideas, rather displayed the signs of a team confident in its ability to turn things around.

When the season resumed it wasn’t rocket science to look at our fixture list and see where the priorities lay. Games away at Cardiff, Brentford and Leeds you assume anything out of them is a bonus (albeit with some element of doubt as nobody could be certain how teams would perform after the break, especially early on). The first game at Hull was essential to get something out of, ‘home’ games against QPR, Millwall, Reading and Wigan, plus away at Birmingham, were the ones that surely had to provide the bulk of the points for us to stay up.

We ‘won’ the first three-game mini-season with the victories against Hull and QPR, plus the bonus point at Cardiff, to haul ourselves back out of the relegation zone. Having now lost two of the next three, we have failed to take the opportunity to give ourselves a cushion. So be it. It goes without saying that it is crucial we get something from Reading on Saturday; perhaps not a must-win game but it is a must-not-lose.

Of course how we go into that game is now out of our hands as we wait for tonight’s results with fingers crossed. The weekend results after Friday’s defeat went pretty well, now it’s over to Middlesbrough, Hull and Wigan (and it will be very important to see how they shape up in light of their situation, not least with our game against them coming up). With at least nine teams involved in the relegation scrap, four/five games left, and nobody truly adrift, there are still too many permutations to make confident predictions, with many games between sides around the bottom.

We resumed the season in the bottom three and we are still in a better situation than then. On a points-per-game basis we would still avoid relegation (Wigan bottom if they get the 12-points deduction, then Luton, then Barnsley, we would be were we stand now, 20th, fractionally above Hull and fractionally below Middlesbrough). May it stay that way.

Tuesday, 7 July 2020

Lockyer Gets My Vote

You always want to vote for Player of the Year when everything is done and dusted, not when we’re still deeply embroiled in a fight against relegation. And especially in this case when surely it’s a close call between three candidates: Phillips, Lockyer and Pratley. Nobody else I think comes close (Cullen and Pearce undoubtedly merit mentions in dispatches, while Taylor, Gallagher and Solly ought to get a mention of a different nature) and one of the three could swing it with fresh heroics in the final five games.

As things stand I’ll cast my vote for Lockyer. Like Phillips he’s been an automatic selection all through the season and the foundation of the defence. But it’s a close call.

Just as it’s surely a close call how Bowyer sets us up for tonight’s game. We’ve seen the same starting X1 grind out the results against Hull and QPR, the seven changes for the start alternative get the highly valuable point at Cardiff, but then the reversion to the first group come up short against Millwall. Of course in each case the plethora of substitutions mean we’re not looking at 11 for a game, while each game has different requirements. We know that tonight the emphasis will have to be on keeping another clean sheet and if that means the forward(s) fighting for scraps so be it.

It's obvious to all I think that in addition to setting up conservatively we have problems when it comes to scoring. Bonne and Hemed have both had good chances in the games since the resumption and have not only not taken them but really failed to put in good enough attempts. They haven’t gelled especially well as a front pairing in a 4-4-2. At the same time Bonne doesn’t look to me effective as a lone striker, the one who does is Aneke but he is also our best impact substitution up front. And since the resumption we’ve not been finding a place for either Green or Williams, players who you look to for creativity in the final third.

I’m always reluctant to suggest any line-up as for all I know they guys I’d select are not right physically or mentally. But for Brentford I’d make it a 4-4-2, with two solid banks in front of Phillips. Defence of Matthews, Lockyer, Pearce and Purrington. With Pratley and Cullen in central midfield, I’d go for Morgan on one side and Doughty on the other (and not as a wing-back). Of course you could start with McGeady and have Doughty come on. I’m not sure they would hit it off together but would be tempted to start with Green and Bonne, with Aneke and Hemed the outright forward replacement options (I’m assuming if all are fit they will get the nod ahead of Davidson at the moment), Williams an option depending on how the game pans out. We will need both good outlets tonight and some weapons to hurt Brentford, even if the emphasis is on keeping it tight.

We could of course hope that, with WBA and Leeds both winning at the weekend, leaving a five-points gap with only five games to go, Brentford will decide that it’s time to plan for the play-offs and give their first-team a rest (before bringing them all back further down the line for their games against Stoke and Barnsley). OK, that’s not going to happen, and there are still far too many permutations – including Wigan’s prospective points deduction and the curious circumstances behind their going into administration – to be able to make any confident predictions. Except that I’m confident if we come away from tonight’s game with something I’ll be happy.

Saturday, 4 July 2020

Take The Pain And Move On

Clearly wasn’t the evening any of us had in mind. We saved our least impressive performance since the restart for Millwall, perhaps the result of a fourth game in less than two weeks and the intensity of effort in the previous three, perhaps as Millwall’s physical presence and equal determination (their manager pretty much acknowledging before the game that for them it was pretty much win or kiss goodbye to the play-offs) swung the contest. Any other team and we might comment on their discipline, game-plan, and ability to win the key contests on the pitch; but any sort of praise for Millwall sticks in the throat so we’ll forget about that. Suffice to say that after three very tight games which went our way the law of averages said we could well end up on the losing side of another.

We can look at the overall balance of play, possession stats etc, but in the end we lost the game because in the first half a decent chance fell to both of our two forwards and both Hemed and Bonne failed to really test their keeper, let alone convert, and in the second their keeper made a reasonable save from an Aneke effort, while at the other end, after an excellent first-half save to block a one-on-one, Phillips’ turning away of another shot regrettably fell into the path of their guy. And having gone in front Millwall were content to sit behind the ball and see out the game, we were unable to fashion a good opening to level it up despite by then having Aneke, Doughty and Williams on the pitch, plus late on Sarr as an extra forward in an act of desperation.

I don’t think we should overlook the fact that the defence performed as well as it had done in the previous three games. It wasn’t an outright error by Phillips for their goal, while Lockyer and Pearce continued their excellent form (albeit Millwall had a fair claim for a penalty in the first half as a result of a little manhandling from a set piece to prevent their guy getting what looked like being a clear header into the net) and Pratley slotted in as a third centre-back when we adjusted the formation. The problem wasn’t there but rather in being outmuscled in midfield (especially when Pratley dropped deeper) and, as Bowyer acknowledged after the game, failing to take either of the two good first-half chances. Score then and we can play the more containing game, then looking to the subs to make use of the probable extra space. Wasn’t to be.

So we keep our fingers crossed for the games being played today and tomorrow. On the face of it Huddersfield and Middlesbrough have winnable games at home, if they both take three points we drop to 20th. Stoke v Barnsley of course means one or both will pick up points, Stoke could go above us on goal difference. Luton have a game at home that they will view as must-win. Hopefully at least we can rely on Brentford and WBA thumping Wigan and Hull respectively, to keep them below us (taking account of Wigan’s prospective points deduction).

Getting down to the final five/six games and it is remarkable that no team finds itself adrift (Wigan may technically be bottom but their run of form still gives them a shout). Those around us have come back with the same attitude as us and no doubt the picture and the odds will shift with just about each passing day. Nothing we can do now until Tuesday except wait, watch and hope, while Bowyer and his team of course have to plan for Brentford, looks at who has the legs to start. Last night may have been a missed opportunity but it’s done, I really don’t care that it was Millwall or about our recent record against them, I’d be bemoaning the three points that got away whoever it was against. other than the fact that three points got away. On points-per-game we are still out of the relegation places. May it stay that way.

Tuesday, 30 June 2020

Another Point Added

No question we would have taken this result before the game like a shot. Third consecutive clean sheet, two wins and a draw since the resumption. Sure, the others around us are picking up results too, but we focus on ourselves. And this was another disciplined and effective performance. Although the priority throughout was on defence, for a couple of spells in the first half we knocked it around very well and looked as if we could score; and early in the second half we almost had a tap-in but for an untimely intervention by their defender. Not surprisingly in the final period we were under the cosh, but we were really only opened up twice - Phillips pulled out another excellent stop for the first and their guy messed up the second - and emerged the more pleased with a point of the two teams, a decent return for another gritty display. The fact is they didn’t score and that always gave us something to hold on to.

You’d have got pretty good odds I suspect if you had predicted the starting line-up, with seven changes from Hull and QPR, only Phillips, Lockyer, Pearce and Cullen being retained. We switched to five at the back, with Lockyer, Pearce and Sarr in front of Phillips flanked by Doughty and Lapslie, a midfield trio of Cullen, Field and Forster-Caskey, Green providing the link and Aneke pretty much the lone striker. Hemed and Matthews didn’t make the bench. The suspicion when looking at the line-up might have been that we were viewing anything out of the game as a bonus, but that would be very unfair to those on the pitch, who came in and did a job, even if there were probably some tired legs at the end.

I thought if anything we edged the first half, in terms of good situations, with neither side fashioning a clear opening. Some shots, often from Cullen, Green and Aneke linking up for the former to get in one which was blocked, and Doughty troubling them with his running with the ball. At the other end our problems early on seemed to come down the left as Lapslie was caught out a couple of times, but before long we tightened up on that. In addition to the drinks break play was broken up by Field taking a knock and not long after him involved in a clash of heads which resulted in him leaving the scene early, replaced by Pratley (so much for his rest), and their forward following not long after.

There were real chances in the second half. What proved to be our best one of the game came when a ball half-cleared was turned back in by Doughty and it appeared that Forster-Caskey only had to knock it into the net but their defender somehow got in a blocking tackle. Just after the hour changes were made by both sides, with Bonne for Aneke and Oshilaja for Lapslie for us, followed by a couple of changes for Cardiff. And as the commentator noted their substitutions, especially Hoilett, threatened to turn the game.

They did work some space and got Hoilett free on the left side of our box but his effort across the face of the goal was superbly turned away by Philipps. Not long after half our defence played for offside and allowed Hoilett the space to control and turn in the penalty area, but he made a mess of the eventual shot and the danger passed. And Green’s final contribution was a challenged adjusted to be a push that saw their guy tumble in the box, only for it to be judged to have happened just outside.

Going into the final 10 or 15 minutes we made the last adjustments, with Morgan replacing Forster-Caskey and Purrington coming on for Green. By now, with the exception of Doughty running with the ball and an occasional set piece, we were pretty much done as an attacking threat. But we kept that discipline and with Phillips dealing well with a ball in from a free kick given unfairly against Oshilaja we were able to play out the game.

We know what’s coming up next and it will be interesting to see which combinations Bowyer opts for on Friday. What we can be confident of is that whichever players get the nod they will continue to give their all. Three games into the nine-game mini-season and it really couldn’t have gone much better.

Player Ratings:

Phillips – 9/10. Once again no other mark is possible as he pulled out the save when called on and otherwise dealt with balls into the box.

Doughty – 9/10. Excellent game, both covering and especially taking the ball out of defence (if we pass over the first time, when he misjudged where the touchline was).

Lockyer – 9/10. Another resolute performance at the heart of the defence.

Pearce – 9/10. Same from him. Seems to me he is playing better now than at any other stage of the season, immense work rate.

Sarr – 9/10.  Any doubts about his ability to slot in after not being selected for the first two games soon disappeared. He stayed focused and disciplined throughout, sprayed one or two delightful passes.

Lapslie – 8/10. The early instances of being caught out might have cost us, but after that spell settled and played well.

Cullen – 9/10. My Man of the Match. Really outstanding, won and kept the ball, moved it well when required, and appeared in and around their goal with some threat.

Field – 8/10. Only lasted 35 minutes before having to go off after the clash of heads, unfortunate. But we were playing well when he was on the pitch.

Forster-Caskey – 8/10. Decent game, kept things ticking over, almost on hand to score the winner.

Green – 8/10. Worked hard and effective in possession, carried a threat, just didn’t manage to fashion a real opportunity.

Aneke – 8/10. Played well and while he was on we had an out ball.

Pratley – 9/10. Came on not long into the game and did what he does.
Oshilaja – 8/10. Helped to shore up the left flank when he came on, timely tackles, penalised unfairly when their guy ran into him.
Bonne – 7/10. No shortage of effort but playing as effectively a lone striker is not his game.
Purrington – 7/10. Not on for long, did make a poor choice going forward and ended up taking a yellow for a pull back.
Morgan – 7/10. Similarly only the final 10/15 minutes when we were content to run down the clock.

Saturday, 27 June 2020

All We Could Ask For - Again

If last Saturday’s win was massive, this one comes a close second. And as a week ago the players did everything we could have asked of them, which is to the credit of Lee Bowyer and his people. You felt before the game that we should be able to outcompete QPR, given the difference in importance of the result for the two sides, and that proved to be the case (which is not to say QPR did not try). When you looked around at the end and looked for the key people of the game, they were all in red shirts.

We lined up as against Hull, with a basic 4-4-2, Hemed and Bonne up front. And we came out of the traps the faster, playing some decent stuff. Nevertheless QPR caused the first moment of danger as Lockyer made his only mistake of the afternoon, willing ball to go out for a goal kick only for their guy to get around him. That he got away with no yellow card for the pull back which followed was astonishing. No matter, the free kick was excellently punched away by Phillips and before long we had a second corner of the game. The first had sailed harmlessly over everyone but this one was on the money and Pratley made it his. Their keeper seemed to go the wrong way at first and was unable to adjust in time, palming the header onto the inside of the post but not keeping it out.

With the goal in the bag we didn’t sit back but perhaps inevitably QPR came more into it, giving the ball away less in key areas and picking up free kicks. One bit of danger involved Oshilaja getting clipped by their guy as he went past and although the ball ended up in our net the free kick was given our way. At the other end some great approach play ended with Hemed in space just inside their area, although he seemed to stumble as he shot and the chance went begging. Morgan found space down the left and somehow his low cross evaded everyone. Then Bonne was played in down the left and, with nobody managing to stay with him, he opted for the shot from a tight angle (perhaps a Jensen deft chip would have worked better), which was turned aside for a corner.

QPR enjoyed more of the game in the final 15 minutes or so of the half, giving the ball away less and with our front two getting less service. But at the break we were in a good position, playing well. Aside from the couple of dodgy moments we had protected our goal well, gave up no clear opportunities with Phillips not having a shot to save despite QPR looking confident in possession. By contrast we had one and could have had another.

Felt that if we could start the second half as we did the first and grab a second we would be able to see out the match. But it was QPR who began the brighter and fashioned what was to prove their best chance of the game. Patient build-up play ended with a ball into the box that caught us for once short of numbers and their guy found the space for the shot. But Phillips pulled off an excellent save to push it away.

We had a couple of decent situations but failed to make the best of them and as the hour was up the changes began. Hemed, who had been very good in the first period of the game but seemed to fade, was replaced by Aneke and Doughty came on for McGeady, who had played his part.

We went on to create more opportunities, almost getting Bonne played in, Aneke turning in the box but not connecting properly with the shot, opportunities from corners, a ball in finally headed into the net by Bonne, who had been so far offside for so long that the linesman eventually had to flag. But not surprisingly we were playing more on the break by now. The only time we got caught out was when Oshilaja made a hash of a good position outside their box and they sprang forward quickly, the resulting panic seeing Pratley trying to hold the fort and getting a yellow while an offside flag brought the move to a conclusion. Oshilaja gave way for Purrington not long after.

As we entered the final 10 minutes the priority was keeping possession and running down the clock. Bonne and Morgan departed, replaced by Green and Field, with Aneke operating as the lone forward (which he did very well, carrying the ball to the corner flag when necessary). Understandably it looked like we were trying to tie things up. And we did indeed see out the game, including five minutes of stoppage time, without serious alarm, almost grabbing a second as Doughty created something out of nothing and got in a decent shot turned away for a corner.

A neutral might say that QPR were a little unlucky to get nothing from the game, but they didn’t have a match-winner in their side. For us, Phillips made the crucial save when we needed him to, Matthews was outstanding, Lockyer and Pearce kept out just about everything thrown their way, Oshilaja made crucial tackles. In front of them Pratley – who I would make my man of the match – worked tirelessly and made crucial contributions in both boxes, Cullen was equally effective, Morgan, McGeady and Doughty (and Green) all contributed well, while the forwards ran themselves into the ground. Again, nobody could have asked for more.

With the later games still going on we have an away win for Luton while Hull and Middlesbrough are both winning. As things stand despite consecutive wins we are still only three points above the relegation spots, which will be cut to two if Huddersfield get anything from their game tomorrow. Cardiff away is obviously going to be tough, but all we can do is focus on ourselves. Nobody can question we have the character needed to stay up.

Player Ratings:

Phillips:  9/10 – Made the save when we needed him to, dealt with everything else.

Matthews:  9/10 – Thought he was excellent from start to finish, against lively opponents down the flanks.

Lockyer:  9/10 – Can’t really dock him a point for the error which ought to have seen him pick up a yellow. Otherwise, as against Hull, outstanding.

Pearce:  9/10 – Determined, committed and effective.

Oshilaja:  8/10 – Like a week ago gave away rather too many free kicks for comfort and was fortunate to get the free kick when their guy went past him. But also made loads of tackles and interceptions.

McGeady:  8/10 – Good performance, intelligent use of the ball.

Pratley:  9/10 – Outstanding and tireless, plus he got the goal. As the commentator pointed out when the changes were being made you thought Bowyer might take him off to avoid the risk of a second yellow, but that proved not to be necessary.

Cullen:  9/10 – Truly effective work in relieving the pressure on the defence, knows how to buy a free kick when we need the breather.

Morgan:  8/10 – Another good game, both on the right and the left after Doughty came on.

Bonne:  8/10 – Ran himself into the ground. Thought he was a bit sluggish early on but put himself about and came close to getting on the scoresheet.

Hemed:  8/10 – Very effective in the first 30 mins but did fluff his shooting chance and was fading by the time he was replaced.

Aneka: 8/10 – Must scare the life out of defenders given his pace allied to physique. Held the ball better in the late stages than a week ago.
Doughty:  8/10 – Impressive contribution in the final 30 minutes, almost got a second for us.
Purrington:  8/10 – Slotted in very well for the final stages.
Green:  8/10 – Not much chance to affect the game but played his part.
Field:  8/10 – As with Green, not on for long.

Saturday, 20 June 2020

Well Deserved In The End

Wow, what a win! We all know how important it was. Nobody outside the club could be sure how the team would perform after the enforced break; I don’t think we could have asked for more. Of course it wasn’t perfect, but whereas at the break we might have been fortunate to be ahead (even though in addition to scoring we had the best chance), at the end Hull could have no complaints about the result. Indeed, we should have scored more while Hull looked increasingly impotent, like a side that has forgotten how to win. For that the credit goes to Lee Bowyer and his team for the preparations, and to Lockyer and Pearce for their marshalling of the defence.

We lined up with Matthews, Lockyer, Pearce and Oshilaja in a flat back four in front of Phillips, with Sarr and Purrington the two missing out and on the bench. McGeady, Pratley, Cullen and Morgan made up the midfield, with Hemed and Bonne up front in what looked like a straightforward 4-4-2. With nine on the bench and three absentees, I’m not sure anyone missed out.

Both teams were pretty open in the first 20 minutes, perhaps adjusting to the situation and working each other out, which made it quite an entertaining spectacle although I suspect most of us would have preferred something tight and dull. Hull started the brighter but we did get into it after a while to suggest we could hurt them if we had enough of the ball. However, if there was a difference between the two sides, which ran through the first half, it was in the forwards’ ability to hold the ball and retain possession. Theirs could and ours couldn’t, with the result that we were unable to build pressure and found ourselves increasingly under the cosh.

We also found ourselves ahead after 20 minutes. A corner should have been dealt with by their keeper but he flapped and Pearce put his head in among the boots at the far post and bundled it into the net. Brave when it mattered, just what we needed.

We also had the chance to extend the lead when a ball across the face of the goal only needed a touch but Hemed arrived at the far post too late. But Hull were having the bulk of possession and for a period of time we seemed to wobble, giving away a series of free kicks. Oshilaja not only gave away a few but also seemed to get concussed with a clash of heads, then injure himself stretching to give away a foul just outside the box. For that period he looked flustered. But when their chances came Hull didn’t take them. There was an air shot, shots wide and over the bar.

At the break we were probably fortunate to be ahead, on chances and balance of play. But it wasn’t our fault that Hull didn’t take advantage of good situations and their keeper failed to deal with a cross.

Early in the second half our problem still seemed to be an inability to retain possession but as the minutes ticked by we were coping and if anything starting to boss the game and had the chances to extend our lead. A ball in saw Bonne in space in the area but he put the header wide. He really should have put that one on target. Then good work down the left saw Oshilaja in the clear only to fail to pick out a red shirt with his ball across. Of course we worried that not scoring again from such good positions would prove very costly.

The changes were started by Hull with a triple substitution after around an hour, including the introduction of Magennis, who proved to be a handful from the off. Our first change saw Morgan give way for Doughty. Morgan had done well but the change perhaps gave us the possibility to have someone capable of carrying the ball into their half. Not long after Purrington came on for Oshilaja, who had looked more composed in the second half, then Aneka for Hemed. We now had a couple of players capable of running past players – and Chucks announced his arrival by breezing past one of their defenders.

Going into the final 10 minutes it was Williams on for Bonne and Field for McGeady, who had played his part, with legs no doubt getting heavy. But through it all Lockyer and Pearce continued to repulse everything thrown at them, as Hull increasingly resorted to long balls forward.

The final spell was by no means comfortable, it never can be at 1-0 and we’ve conceded too many this season in stoppage time. But it was played out without disasters and we were all able to celebrate in our own ways, with Hull looking very down and out.

We’ll worry about QPR in due course. For now we hope everyone returns from Hull safely and Bowyer, his team and squad are able to enjoy the trip back. Pat yourselves on the back guys, you did yourselves and us proud.

Player Ratings:

Phillips – 7/10. Can’t remember a real save he had to make, but can’t penalise a keeper for that. Dealt with what came his way.

Matthews – 7/10. Tested in the first half in particular by their guy, who is a handful, but stuck at it and came out on top.

Lockyer – 9/10. Outstanding. Timely tackles and blocks, kept calm under pressure, my man of the match, just edging out …

Pearce – 9/10. Gave his all, scored the goal, and the fact is Hull looked progressively blunter as the game went on.

Oshilaja – 6/10. Has to be marked down slightly for the spell when he was conceding free kicks, picked up the yellow. Perhaps he was concussed. Certainly looked more composed in the second half.

McGeady – 7/10. Decent game, showed flashes of what we hoped he would deliver for us.

Pratley – 7/10. No shortage of effort as usual and sterling performance in front of the back four.

Cullen – 7/10. Tough test for a first day back and stood up well.

Morgan – 7/10. Pretty good stuff, given accolades by the commentator when substituted.

Bonne – 6/10. We did struggle to hold the ball up front and he failed to convert the good chance in the second half.

Hemed – 6/10. As for Bonne, and he failed to connect with the ball across the box in the first half.

Subs:  Doughty (7/10 – made a difference with his ability to run with the ball and relieve the pressure); Purrington (7/10 – played his part, no mistakes I saw); Aneka (7/10 – would have been an 8 if he’d held the ball better in the final minutes when we were crying out to keep possession, otherwise was a real handful and hope to see more of him); Williams (7/10 – unable to see much of the ball once on but brought fresh legs); Field (7/10 – can’t remember him featuring but was only on for the period of seeing out the game).

Thursday, 11 June 2020

Any Sense To Make Of It All?

It’s hardly surprising that our latest ‘change of ownership’ has prompted a somewhat muted response from most Addicks. We can’t exactly go around hailing the dawn of a new era when we have no idea if Paul Elliott and his consortium is in it for the long haul (and if so on what basis and with what objectives), if he’s someone taking advantage of an opportunity for a quick purchase and resale (perhaps or perhaps not involving the Varney/Barclay combination), or indeed if he’s part of some daft plot involving Nimer aimed at screwing Southall (and if that’s the case you can bet your house that it will end up in court, along with the possible reversal of the sale of our club to ESI via the claims of the former directors).

I’m not ITK on any of these fronts, have no idea who Elliott is. It’s too early for Companies House to have published the presumed filing for the change of ownership of ESI. And the statement on the club site published yesterday quite frankly raised more questions than answers. Here is apparently a new owner, our next chairman, someone with no known background in football, with the opportunity to outline to major stakeholders (ie the fans) why he has got involved etc (and a little reassurance from a property developer that his plans do not involve a move away from The Valley would not have gone amiss).

Instead we get “I will be looking to ensure the stability of the club moving forward so we can look to put behind us the recent boardroom events and concentrate on building a unified boardroom and a unified football club”. Fine as far as it goes, but come on. Anyone can build a ‘unified boardroom’ if you own the company and if Donald Duck was in charge there would be more chance of a unified club than under Duchatelet. Understandably it was added that “our immediate focus will be on getting behind the team and the Manager and giving ourselves the best opportunity of staying in the Championship”. Other than presumably providing a guarantee that wages will be paid and the prospect that for a little while the focus of attention will switch away from a boardroom farce it’s hard to see just what that might involve, especially as we await the EFL’s verdict on what went on before.

Have Nimer and Southall definitely left the scene? Obviously we hope so. Personally I find it hard to believe that Nimer would have walked away with no cash, taking a £1 offer for the club. That 35% of whatever sum was paid would end up in Southall’s pocket is, I think, unavoidable. There are laws to protect the interests of minority shareholders, for obvious reasons, and if Nimer was dumb enough to have given Southall a stake in ESI more fool him. Live with the consequences. I also find it hard to believe that Southall will have written off any outstanding invoices he has submitted to the club for his so valuable services and his such precious time. So perhaps the new owners, if they stay long enough, will still have some dealings with him.

If Southall’s swansong was his absurb threatening of the Trust, including his pompous comment about his having made time in his “incredibly busy schedule” (I’m assuming that schedule is rather less busy now, until he finds some other scam), Nimer also leaves us with a laugh. “I have made the difficult decision, having received advise, and listening to fans wishes …” He didn’t exactly listen to the wishes of the fans in January (‘Dear Nimer, please inject a bucketload of cash for some players instead of dicking around’) but apparently is listening now. Well that’s good, because no doubt plenty of Addicks are expressing their wishes now as regards what Nimer might do next. Please continue to follow their wishes.

And perhaps the best news yesterday was the report that Duchatelet is apparently “furious” with what has happened. Good, he is largely responsible for the current state of affairs and we deserve some payback. The heart of the problem is the daft price that Duchatelet has been asking for our club. A series of what seemed like serious potential buyers were put off, leaving only chancers who saw an opportunity to make some money. Duchatelet has ended up dealing with such ‘investors’ because of his own stupidity (we know he doesn’t like rules but the first one for investment is when you are considering whether or not to put more money into a venture you own you pay no regard to what has gone in to date). And I can’t buy into the notion that he would be able to ‘force’ our new owners to buy The Valley and the training ground. If I understood the ESI deal correctly, ESI has an option to buy at an agreed price; and you cannot compel someone/something to take up an option. If Duchatelet ends up having to renegotiate the price, he would be stupid not to.

Sunday, 17 May 2020

Southall Digging Deeper

Clich├ęs may be overused but that’s usually because they are grounded in truth. And ‘truth will out’ is a reliable maxim, not least because where there is confusion and it’s unclear who to trust, what to believe, often one of the parties involved will say or do something that that says all you need to know. We got to learn a lot about Duchatelet because ultimately he couldn’t help himself, when he felt he was ‘misunderstood’, and posted daft statements, which made sense only to him, or gave himself away in interviews. Each time he opened his mouth or put pen to paper it was another turn of the screw as Addicks shook their heads in disbelief.

Seems Matt Southall is cut from the same cloth, at least in terms of unmerited arrogance, with his silly attempt to bully the Trust with the threat of litigation for alleged defamation, for the sin of publishing verbatim answers to questions put by fans to a Charlton Athletic director. Is it telling that there is to the best of my knowledge no threat being made against the club for publishing these answers on the official website? The Trust’s published response is entirely appropriate and to be applauded. The unanimous support from Addicks for the Trust ought to tell Southall something, but it probably won’t.

Anybody who writes (in the email to the Trust) “I’d also like to note that I made time in my incredibly busy schedule at short notice …” is so far up themselves as to merit being viewed as an object of ridicule. Further evidence of such comes from his Twitter feed (assuming it is a genuine one), which even includes a retweet of an inane comment from Trump of all people. And to round things off, the Conversation on YouTube involving Lyle Taylor leaves us in no doubt how Southall is perceived. Add in the invoices and the Range Rovers, as others have commented, whatever happens to our club, there is no role for him in it, which just leaves him scrabbling around to try to secure a settlement or any other funds he can before moving on.

Enough of him, he will be fully out of the picture soon, what of our club? We’re just days away from the anniversary of the Wembley play-off final triumph. That evening we were looking forward to a campaign back in the second tier (I assume we were, don’t remember that much about it), even though the assumption was it would be a struggle at least as long as Duchatelet held on, with a realistic expectation that promotion would hasten his departure. A worst case scenario then would have been Duchatelet not selling up and relegation. I doubt we would have guessed that a year later we would be facing the possibility of being relegated on the basis of points per game having lost the final one at home and the season frozen before the Hull match, under a transfer embargo, with the threat of EFL sanctions hanging over us (including presumably points deduction for either this season – if the decision is to relegate us on points per game the least they could do is dock them from this season’s total – or next), with an owner who may or may not have funds and may or may not be ready to at least pay in enough to keep the club afloat, and the possibility that the transfer of ownership will be made null and void by the former directors.

If we end up relegated without another ball being kicked we could lay claim to being the unluckiest club in the country. It would be grossly unfair, but if it happens, so be it, this is an environment where there are no easy options (personally I thought a guy on the radio backing playing out this season to a close, even if it takes until Christmas, allowing the time to consider options for next season, made sense). Such a kick in the teeth would presumably leave it in doubt whether Lee Bowyer would want to stay to take on the rebuilding task. That in turn will I guess be heavily influenced by the ownership situation. If we have to prioritise the prime goal for us is to have a club to support (including club staff being paid), after that to have the foundations for optimism over the future (ie some resolution of the ownership situation, whether or not it involves Tahnoon Nimer), only then comes retaining Championship status by one means or another.

Let’s end with a weightier matter. Much as we might love Abba (at least half of it), and I was recorded with my partner Suzanne at the Abba museum in Stockholm howling out the song, it has to be pointed out that at Waterloo Napoleon did not surrender. He did lose, and retired from the field, but only surrendered six weeks later, at Rochefort on the HMS Bellerophon.

Tuesday, 10 March 2020

What Would Lee Say?

Like every other Addick I’ve been trying to follow and make some sort of sense out of what has been issued, in various forms, by Matt Southall, Tahnoon Nimer, and the EFL. I’m by no means ‘in the know’ and don’t have sources for inside info, so please don’t expect any. Like everyone else I’m holding my head in my hands as we wait for the drama to unfold. But quite frankly it stinks and to date nobody is looking like coming out of the affair smelling of roses.

Just one thought. If I was the majority shareholder and (presumably) major funder of a company and was informed that the chairman was behaving in a fashion detrimental to the company, I would – if direct communications with the chairman were not possible – convene a board meeting at which either the air is cleared to the satisfaction of all, the chairman is deemed to be in breach of his contract and immediately dismissed, or you ask for the chairman’s resignation and discuss terms. I wouldn’t turn to social media to spread the allegations, which can only damage the standing of a company in which I am a majority shareholder, as I already have the power to act (unless of course for some reason I do not).

That is not to suggest in any way that I’d be lining up alongside Southall in the power-struggle. I have simply no way of telling who might be telling the truth and who, if anyone, has the best interests of our club at heart. As and when a couple of facts are established – first, has Southall been making and taking payments which are inappropriate; second, has Nimer promised investment and not come through (whether via a change of mind or lack of funds) – we should be able to tell whether either or neither stack up.

Bottom line is we are back to being a club in crisis. There is of course one person in whom we have confidence to do what is in the interests of the football club and who, to the best of my knowledge and for good reason, has been silent today. That is of course Lee Bowyer. So if he is unable to speak out, perhaps we might suggest what he might say right now in a letter to supporters:

“If this had been any other club I would have walked away a long time ago. I put up with a great deal under the previous owner (although to be fair by the time I was installed he had lost any interest he might have had in what we were up to and did leave me and my team pretty much to our own devices) and, like all Addicks, hoped that a resolution of the ownership situation would pave the way for clarity, support in the January transfer window, and the club moving forward in a sustainable but ambitious fashion. These hopes have if not gone out of the window now been put in serious doubt.

But you know what? Screw it. I can walk any time I like but I’m not going to, there’s a job to be done. Nine games left to get the points to stay up beginning with the next six-pointer at Hull. Win that and we are back out of the bottom three at least. So any doom and gloom from supporters regarding the situation off the pitch is entirely inappropriate.

At the same time, any player carping about this or that, wondering about whether he should be playing, thinking about whether or not those who came to us in January are good enough to do what’s necessary, is going to get short-shrift. I want to see players who are hungry to show me they will put their bodies on the line, hungry to prove doubters wrong over their ability, hungry to work to forge (quickly) the partnerships in key areas that we need – and I’m only going to pick those that are up for this. Any player right now starts moaning to me or the rest of the squad, or not pulling is weight, screw him too.

Players and fans alike have common interest in avoiding relegation. Although I wasn’t here at the time the players and management achieved this in the first year of Duchatelet’s ownership, in spite of his antics. Beating the odds is usually what Charlton is all about and right now I’d guess the odds on us going down have shortened further. Well screw the bookies too.”

Saturday, 7 March 2020

No Excuses, Have To Improve

There are stages of a season when you look at trends, details, what positives might be taken from a game whatever the outcome. When you’re in a 10-game season and begin it just above the bottom three it isn’t one of them. You want results and if not evidence that everyone is up for the fight. And today we had neither. We lost, against a pretty ordinary team, and have no real complaints. Conceded an awful goal after 20 minutes and after that failed to make their keeper produce a decent save, relied on our own to pull off one blinding save to keep us in it. Yes, we were better in the second half, but the bar was low, we might have converted one of a few half-chances. But I don’t think anyone went away thinking other than that we have to play better than that if we are to stay up.

Let’s get the details out of the way. I was quite encouraged by news of the starting line-up. Looked like a 4-4-2 with Matthews, Pearce, Oshilaja and Purrington in front of Phillips, but it proved really to be 4-5-1 with Cullen and the returning Pratley in central midfield, plus Williams and Green operating wide, Lapslie in a central advanced role, and Taylor really on his own up front. Whatever the formation, you look for evidence that all out there are on their toes and ready from the start.

Instead through lack of concentration we gave away two bad positions in the first couple of minutes. Middlesbrough get a free kick in our half on their right side and we stand around and watch, only for them to play it short and almost get in as we were on the back foot. Just not acceptable. And shortly after a cross from a similar position flashed across the face of the goal.

To be fair in the first phase of the game we had our moments. Green and Taylor combined twice to create chances for each other. First Green was played in but from a reasonable position hit the shot straight at their keeper, then a ball in from Green found Taylor in space only for him to put it over the bar.

Then we gifted Middlesbrough a crucial lead. Our throw, in our half, nobody was paying attention because there was no danger. Until we passed the ball into space and their guy gratefully received the ball, took it forward, played it inside to another who simply slotted it home. A goal out of nothing and from our perspective utterly absurd in any game. In a game like this just not acceptable.

That gave Middlesbrough everything they needed, to be content behind the ball with a couple of decent centre-backs, to absorb most of what might get thrown at them. And for the remainder of the first half that wasn’t much. We looked sluggish and short of confidence, unable to fashion anything more of note going forward. Neither did Boro, but they didn’t need to.

To be frank in the first half we looked like a disjointed rabble, as if we didn’t believe in ourselves. Three of the back four were not automatic first choices and played as if that was in their heads (with the exception of Oshilaja), Cullen was strangely subdued, Williams looked short of match fitness, Pratley was chasing everything, Lapslie was drifting around to no real effect, and after a bright start Green was becoming isolated. We’d given Boro a goal and not put them under the sort of pressure to suggest we might get one back.

Had to be a change at the break and Lapslie was taken off for Bonne. And we did improve, not necessarily because of the change but because the attitude and intensity were better. Taylor was causing problems and it looked like we might get something out of the game. At least things were happening and Boro were looking less comfortable than before, even if their centre-backs dealt with most of what was thrown at them.

We did manage to create moments, just no real chances. Taylor’s cross found Bonne at the near post but the best he could do was prod it towards their keeper, Taylor himself went down for a penalty shout only to get a yellow card for simulation, and later in the game, after Doughty had replace Williams and Hemed came on for Purrington in a final desperate gamble for the final 10 minutes, we had more shouts for penalties (a possible handball and one where Taylor was being manhandled), a header from Hemed, and what proved to be the final opportunity as a ball in was met by Bonne only for his header to flash wide. But not one of these opportunities could be called a real chance; and not one of them resulted in their keeper having to make a save. By contrast Boro, while content to keep what they had, were only denied a second goal by a superb save to his left from Phillips and their own inability to shoot on target from decent positions.

On another day we might have scrambled an equaliser. On the balance of play in the second half we might then have said we deserved it. That would be to draw a veil over a dire first half and the fact that we didn’t force a decent save over the full game. If we are to stay up we have to be better than we were today and that is down to Bowyer and his people coming up with the right combinations from what’s available, plus those selected believing in themselves. After the Huddersfield defeat Bowyer said “that will be hurting them today; I’m looking forward to the reaction I get”. He will be disappointed by that reaction, as we all are.

Player Ratings:

Phillips – 9/10. Little to do after their goal but pulled off an outstanding save to deny them a second.

Matthews – 7/10. Decent game really, can’t remember any material errors and doesn’t deserve a worse mark.

Purrington – 6/10. I’m not sure who was really to blame for their goal, like our players wasn’t paying that much attention as there was no danger. Otherwise it was a shaky start but then did OK.

Pearce – 6/10. He did struggle, looks short of confidence. No lack of commitment.

Oshilaja – 7/10. One awful pass out of defence in the second half but otherwise had a decent game, just has to look and play as though he belongs, which can’t be easy when he isn’t viewed as first-choice.

Cullen – 5/10. Strangely subdued performance, I’ve no idea why, perhaps just tired.

Pratley – 6/10. Can’t fault the effort but sometimes, especially in the second half, was getting on the end of things through that commitment when others were better placed.

Williams – 5/10. Also for me off the pace, perhaps just not match-fit. Failed to have much impact in the first half and replaced not long into the second.

Lapslie – 5/10. Flitted around to no real effect in the first half and replaced at the break.

Green – 6/10. He was often our major threat, just didn’t deliver either the killer pass or clinical finish we were hoping for, also seemed to switch off at times.

Taylor – 7/10. Did cause them problems, no idea if he should have had a penalty or two (or if he deserved the yellow card). Struggled with what looked like an ankle injury – and if he has to take another break that would be serious for us.

Subs – Bonne (6/10 – certainly we improved in the second half but he failed to convert the two chances that came his way, the cross from Taylor and the late header); Doughty (5/10 – had much of the second half but really didn’t get in the game); Hemed (5/10 – only 10 mins on the pitch and his introduction, as at Huddersfield, was really a last throw of the dice).

Saturday, 15 February 2020

Not One To Remember

It looked like a horrible afternoon to play football; it was certainly a grim one to watch it. You try and take positives from any game but I can’t think of any right now, we ended up well beaten having put in a disjointed, confused performance. Try and learn a few lessons (and there were some) then forget the match as quickly as possible, hope it was a bad day at the office, keep in mind we just won away at Forest, blame the conditions or the curse of ‘football for a fiver’, and move on.

We lined up in a 5-3-2 with Doughty and Matthews the wing-backs and Lockyer, Pearce and Sarr lining up in front of Phillips, as against Forest. The midfield trio saw Cullen and Davis retained from midweek but with McGeady starting instead of Oztumer. Taylor and Hemed were again paired up front. The bench was pretty similar to the Forest game too, with Green taking a place rather than Aneke and no sign again of either Pratley or Williams.

We started the game brightly and undoubtedly bossed the first 10 minutes or so as both teams got accustomed to the swirling wind. Didn’t fashion a serious chance (we did have a couple of shots) but moved the ball around well. We weren’t to know that was about as good as it got. Blackburn slowly worked themselves more into the game and started to look dangerous, keeping the ball on the deck.

Indeed, the first major incident of the game could have seen them take the lead. A clipped ball seemed to put their guy in behind Pearce, who appeared to wrestle him to the ground from behind. My first reaction was a penalty and to wonder whether Pearce would be given a red. But the ref may have seen something before his contact as he gave us a free kick. He may have been right, would have to see it again; undoubtedly we were very relieved.

Before long we did commit the cardinal sin in such conditions by going behind, giving away a soft goal. Their guy was allowed to run across the edge of our box without a serious challenge going in and was given the time to line up a shot. Still didn’t look that worrying but seems the strike took a deflection to leave Phillips and everyone else wrong-footed. From the East Stand we were all surprised that what looked like a rather tame effort had ended up in the net.

It got worse. A few decisions in quick succession went against us and fans and players were getting riled. A Blackburn player went over rather easily and another free-kick was awarded on the left side. Not an especially dangerous position but when the ball came in nobody rose to head it clear. Perhaps it was taken by the wind but it dropped easily to their guy in the middle of a cluster of players and he turned it into the net. As with the first goal, there had been no sense of imminent real danger, but there it was. And we’re 0-2 down.

Perhaps the real turning point of the game came just after and before the break. We floated a ball to the far post and Taylor read it best and peeled away. He was able to nod it goalwards but their keeper stretched to turn it over the bar. Get one back then and the second half might be a different story, would have been a different mood going into the break. But not to be. It was tough on us to be two behind, but after that bright start our midfield had failed to function, the front two were starved, and our defence had coughed up two soft goals.

Bowyer changed the formation at half-time to a 4-4-2 with Pearce sacrificed and Smith coming on to play on the right. The feeling was just get one back and we can still get something out of the match, but we struggled to get out of first gear. Blackburn were not surprisingly content to knock it around and probe, retaining possession much better than us and not having to chase the game. It all went rather flat as far as we were concerned.

On the hour mark Bowyer tried to freshen it up by bringing Green on for the ineffective Hemed, to play alongside Taylor. Perhaps this would give us some cohesion. But nothing really changed. And after 10 minutes or so of this set-up Bonne was introduced for McGeady, with Green dropping deeper having had a very short spell as a second striker. Again nothing really changed and by now Blackburn were looking very comfortable. We had a shot or two but so did they, one from a decent position which was perhaps surprisingly put wide.

With about five minutes left of the 90 we finally made their keeper work, with a free-kick just outside the box curled in by Taylor, who had previously put one from a similar position over the bar. That goes in and despite all that has gone before we have a barnstorming finish. Not to be and the game, for us, ended tamely.

This report seems pretty downbeat because that was the game, from our perspective at least. A formation and an almost identical line-up to that which had secured three points at Forest today just didn’t work, nor did the changes made make much difference. For that you have to give Blackburn some credit and take account of the conditions. It was an easy day to look bad (manager as well as players as his substitutions really didn’t work). Equally, you’re at home, 0-2 down at the break, make three substitutions, and it’s five minutes from the end before their keeper has to make a save. That wasn’t good enough.

So far in February we’ve had the joy of beating Barnsley at The Valley followed by what by all accounts was a poor display at Stoke. We beat Forest on their patch only to come back and get turned over by Blackburn. Perhaps we just have to live with the inconsistent performances, but we clearly can’t afford another poor one next time out against Luton. You’d hope that both Pratley and Williams are available for that one as we missed them today.

Player Ratings:

Phillips -  7/10. First goal was a deflection, second he seemed to have no chance for. Otherwise really didn’t have much to do.

Matthews – 6/10. Was caught out one by their winger but generally fine. Still that problem that with a back five you hope to see the wing-backs bombing forward and we didn’t get that.

Doughty – 6/10. Stuck to his task well enough. Still prefer to see him in the opposition half as an outright winger.

Lockyer – 6/10. Two soft goals for which the defence has to take collective responsibility.

Pearce – 5/10. Caught out a couple of times and might easily have conceded a penalty (possibly with a red card to go with it). Sacrificed at the break to change the formation.

Sarr – 6/10. Perhaps deserves a slightly higher mark as he did well enough, just that like others may have to take some responsibility for their goals.

Cullen – 6/10. Struggled to have an impact in a midfield three which at least today didn’t look effective.

Davis – 5/10. Tidy but generally ineffective, not really sure what he brought to the party.

McGeady – 6/10. Some good touches, a shot or two, nothing decisive.

Taylor – 6/10. Not his best game but kept at it to the end. A header in the first half and the free-kick might have ended in the net.

Hemed – 5/10. Thought this was a big game for him, given Bonne and Aneke coming back. He didn’t make a case today for keeping his place.

Subs – Smith (5/10 – not really in the game); Green (6/10 – on as a second striker then moved after 10 minutes for another substitute); Bonne (5/10 – had around 20 minutes on the pitch but failed to make an impact).

Saturday, 1 February 2020

From Comfort To Panic - But Three Points

Now that was a strange one, perhaps football in a nutshell. Plenty of positives. We walk away with the points in what was the first six-pointer of the season, we were in complete control of the game for a period of time, and I get my first win post-boycott (now I’m 1-1-3). Against that, we were a whisker away from not winning a game we thought we had in the bag, for a period of the game we – including the crowd – came close to panic, which indicates the fragility which comes when you have been on the run we have, and without looking at the stats I’d expect them to show that Barnsley had the lion’s share of actual chances (including hitting the woodwork three times and a superb save from Phillips). And there’s no mystery when it comes to reconciling the two sides: when Taylor and Williams were on the pitch we were largely in control, and vice versa.

We set up in a sort of 5-3-2 or 3-5-2 (or if you like 3-5-1-1). Bottom line was that in front of Phillips were a central defensive trio of Lockyer, Pearce and Sarr, with wing-backs of Doughty and Matthews – except that while Doughty operated as a wing-back Matthews, while doing the defensive stuff well, didn’t venture over the half-way line. Pratley and Cullen formed the main midfield partnership with Williams having the role of linking defence and attack, while Green played as a kind of second forward alongside Taylor. That’s not to suggest it didn’t work, just that it was a quite fluid formation with both potential and also an uneasy balance.

In blustery conditions, which made it difficult to play the beautiful game, the early exchanges were pretty even. We had warnings that if Barnsley had the ball in space going forward they could cause problems, while most of our moves forward ended with fouls on Williams – I counted seven fouls on him in the first half, of varying severity - or Taylor. That did reduce pressure on the defence but also broke up play and put an onus on us to make the best of set pieces.

And within 10 minutes we had the lead from one of them, which looked like something practised on the training ground. A chipped free-kick and Lockyer (I think) managed to nod it into that area between the back line and the keeper. Whether it had been practised or whether Taylor simply read it better than anyone else he was first to the ball and only had to divert it one side of the keeper, which he did very well. Good goal well taken.

The surprise was that we almost conceded an equaliser from a set piece of theirs. The referee seemed to let play go on after one more challenge but eventually gave a free-kick. Floated into our area and their guy gets in a powerful header, only for Phillips to spring to his right to scoop the ball out before it crossed the line. Unfortunately it went straight to one of their guys but he hit his effort against the post. Give Phillips the credit for an excellent stop but we had the luck.

Through the rest of the half it seemed to be a case of which challenges the referee deemed to be fouls and which fouls were deemed worthy of a card. Having given a yellow to one of their guys it seemed that the same one then took out Taylor as he laid the ball off, but instead of a second yellow and a red there was only a long lecture. Lockyer also picked up a yellow.

The half came to a close with two more incidents that went our way. First, yet another flattening of Williams gave us a free-kick in a dangerous position. The previous one had been curled well over by Doughty and this time we had two over the ball and went for another training ground routine. One spins away and instead of crossing the ball its played to him. Except that Barnsley saw it coming and nicked it away, launching a counter-attack that saw the ball moved smoothly up to our area. This time it was blocked, but again the warning signs were there.

Then shortly before the break another set piece produced some head tennis only for the ball to finally break for Green in the box. He’d barely had a kick through the first half but hit it with venom into the bottom corner.

So at half-time we were 2-0 to the good and seemingly set fair. We were far from firing on all cylinders: Green was struggling to get into the game and a lot was being asked of Doughty, but Taylor and Williams were linking up well and causing them problems. Bottom line was that we had taken chances and they had been denied by Phillips and some desperate defending when we were caught on the break.

The first period of the second half was when we were really in control. We looked comfortable and more likely to add to the lead than be pulled back and by now Barnsley were starting to look out of the game. But whether due to injury, lack of match fitness, or some other reason, Bowyer decided it was time for a change and on the hour Williams was replaced by Forster-Caskey. That seemed a little strange as the formation was working well enough and Oztumer was on the bench, a change which would have meant continuity. Perhaps Bowyer was looking to tie up midfield and close down the game. As it was, we started to look less effective as the link between midfield and attack was lost.

No matter, we are still winning well. But after 70 mins we made a second change, with Taylor replaced by Hemed. Again, might have been a knock, desire to protect him, or lack of match fitness. Again, it was a change that weakened us. Might not have mattered – and I did think at the time that with Forster-Caskey, Cullen and Pratley on the pitch we should be able to control midfield – except that Barnsley rather out of the blue pulled one back.

We lost the ball in midfield and were caught truly on the hop, a repeat of Barnsley’s ability to move forward in space. Their centre-forward managed it well, slipping one desperate tackle and drawing in another defender, then laying the ball off to his right to the guy in space, who curled it past Phillips into the far corner.

From a position of control we descended into panic for a period of time. Barnsley hit the woodwork again, a free-kick flashed across the box and didn’t get the touch in, and we were reduced to desperate last-ditch tackles and clearances anywhere. Not surprisingly they had their tails up and we came very, very close to being pulled level. That didn’t happen and we were able to run out the game, despite six minutes of stoppage time, with Purrington coming on for Doughty at the death to shore up the defence.

So a strange game, one that perhaps highlighted the fragilities of both teams. We created few chances in the second half – one move which saw Pratley well placed to score only for him to decide to lay the ball off, an excellent cross from Green which Hemer didn’t get the right contact on – and not that many in the first, despite scoring twice. And for a period of time we nearly fell apart. But we ran out winners in a vital game – and for a club that is currently about getting returning players up to speed and looking at the newcomers, grateful that for the first time in a while we should have enough available players, we shouldn’t be asking for more.

Player Ratings:

Phillips – 9/10. A great save, no chance with their goal, dealt with everything else.

Matthews – 7/10. Defensively played his part well, against tricky opponents. Just that if you play five at the back you assume that the wing-backs will be getting forward and he never did, presumably under instructions.

Lockyer – 7/10. Solid and effective.

Pearce – 7/10. Same.

Sarr – 7/10. You’ll never say solid with Nabby, but no real mistakes and he played his part.

Doughty – 6/10. I’m not sure that playing him as a wing-back works, but that’s not his fault.

Pratley – 8/10. Another very important contribution, always competitive, usually successful. Just a pity he decided not to shoot when very well placed.

Cullen – 7/10. Very good for the most part but think he was the guy who lost the ball which led to their goal.

Williams – 8/10. Caused them all sorts of problems. When he left the pitch the game changed.

Green – 7/10. Barely had a kick in the first half until he scored. Worked his socks off.

Taylor – 8/10. Effective, combative, and took his goal well. We are all glad he’s still with us.

Subs:  Forster-Caskey (6/10 – not really his fault that the game changed when he came on, but looked not surprisingly a little short of match fitness); Hemed (6/10 – not easy for him either to get into the game, did some good stuff but failed to convert the chance that came his way); Purrington (no mark, too late in the game).