Friday, 25 June 2021

Certainty In Short Supply - But Lyon Duchere Reborn!

Death and a nurse they used to say. Life may be about weighing risk and opportunity, but I have to say I crave a little certainty right now. The last time we had any was when Oxford went a couple ahead on the final Sunday, we knew for sure we were not going up. Since then everything has been up in the air (and not just on the football front, moving to France involves dealing with a lot of variables – but that is a very long story for another day). Will England get past Germany on penalties? Will we have a trip to Derby next season or Wycombe? And just who might be wearing the shirt when we step out at The Valley on 7 August (against a team that should have been relegated instead of us)?

Clearly signing Stockley was a shot in the arm, especially as he managed to hack off so many other clubs in our division by choosing us over them. But we can only start thinking about our attacking options when we know whether or not Aneke is staying (and today’s rumour mill is not encouraging), whether or not Schwartz is staying – and if he is whether or not he might be of rather more use to us than last season. Equally it seems we are open to Millar coming back but with it unclear whether he is, as suggested, off to a Championship side (personally I suspect the area of his game that needs working on is mental, achieving the confidence and calm to be able to pick out the right option to take when in a good position – as there is no doubting his ability to create those good positions).

As for the rest of the team, all is ... well, uncertain. We wait to hear whether Amos is going to stay (big boost if he does as irrespective of Maynard-Brewer’s potential he is among the best keepers in our division), whether Famewo might return to be the first-choice partner for Inniss, and if not who might be brought in (Pearce adding another year to his contract is welcome but hardly sufficient). And perhaps the biggest imponderable just how we build a midfield effectively from scratch. There’s no doubt that Forster-Caskey would have been the lynchpin but losing him for some months means we have to start from scratch, even with Watson also adding a year to his contract. Morgan and Gilbey will presumably be options, plus Jaiyesimi out wide. But just the list of the midfielders we got through last season is enough to drive home the point that we are not going to be challenging at the top without some new faces and greater stability in the first choices.

As for old faces, of course we all wish the best for Pratley, Shinnie and Oshilaja. Pratley’s departure was understandable, given Adkins’ desire to lower the age of the squad, and a move to Leyton Orient looks good for both. No Addick will forget his play-off goal on a glorious night, his disciplinary failings last season will however fade. Oshilija still has a fair bit to offer, especially if he could adjust the nature of some of his challenges in dangerous areas as too often they leave the ref with a decision to make. The decision not to retain Shinnie was the surprising one, especially given Forster-Caskey’s unavailability. At times last season he was our best midfield option and I think there was a case for him being given the main role for the coming campaign. But it’s not to be, no doubt he will find another club soon.

As for finding another club soon, my best news of late is that it seems I have a French team to support again. I took great pleasure in supporting Lyon Duchere, sometimes one of a few hundred souls on a freezing night at the Stade de Balmont, as the team secured two promotions to find themselves punching well above their weight in the nationwide third division (those below being regional). Things turned sour as the president of the club seemed to have ideas to create something different.

The one stand began to have the only padded seats roped off into a ‘VIP area’ and before long plans were announced to change the name of the club, part of a scheme to move across to the other side of Lyon, to take the old ground of the city’s rugby team (which had moved into Olympique Lyonnais’ old ground). There was a spurious claim on Wikipedia that a new name had been chosen by the fans; the truth was different versions of the same theme were offered as ‘choices’, none of which contained ‘Duchere’. Renamed Sporting Club de Lyon, under a new manager and with an influx of new players, the stated goal of the president was to make Sporting the ‘second club’ of all Lyon and to take it into the French first division within a few years.

You might guess the rest. ‘Sporting’ made a dreadful start to the season and never really recovered, despite changing manager in mid-season. A 5-1 thrashing from Villefranche (btw, if you ever get the chance visit that town, it has a wonderful medieval main street) on the final day of the season confirmed their bottom place finish. No doubt the pandemic had an impact, but some might say that a club stripped of its identity, marking time before a move to a new ground and district, and with a freshly assembled squad and new manager got its just desserts.

The good news is that this has been followed by a new president, Jean-Christophe Vincent, taking over the club and immediately switching the name back, to Lyon La Duchere, with a new club crest. He is said to be looking to “turn the page on a sporting failure” and “return to the original identity of the club”. There is even talk that former OL star Brazilian international Sonny Anderson might be brought to the club in some capacity.

The news might get even better. Derby and Wycombe eat your heart out as although as Sporting La Duchere finished bottom of the league, it is at least not yet decided that they will be relegated (back to one of the regional fourth divisions). It seems that the lower leagues were some way short of completing their seasons, due to the pandemic (games were suspended in October and never resumed), and it is not clear which team(s) – if any – should be promoted. A decision is expected soon.

I’d love it if La Duchere can keep their third division status, but quite frankly am more pleased by the prospect of being able to end another boycott (is it me?) and enjoy some football if I ever make it back to France. It’s a strange time for all and others have it much worse, but it might also be nice to see my French partner, in over 20 years I don’t think we’ve previously had four months apart. So roll on the new season – and a little more certainty please.

Friday, 7 May 2021

Duchatelet Still Barking

Reading the reports of Sir Chris’ account of his time with Duchatelet sent me off to check to see if the dotty owner of our stadium has been up to anything lately. Seems he’s been upsetting some football fans closer to home, if a piece in Voetbal Belgium is anything to go by. I’ve done little more here than run the piece and associated comments through an autotranslate and added a few words. I think it needs no further explanation; but in the words of Paul Simon, still crazy after all these years, and still mired deep in self-denial.

It seems that in the wake of the failed European Super League there has been talk of a ‘BeNeLiga’. The report says that Duchatelet does not expect that will come to fruition either. “The people who are against the BeNeLiga are idiots, who have self-interest or who don't think carefully,” says Roland Duchâtelet at PlaySports. "Or they should have gone to school longer, because they are stupid. Humanity has more fools than intelligent people. That is unfortunate, but that is the fate of humanity”, said the former chairman and owner of Sint-Truiden VV, Standard Liège, Charlton Athletic, CD Alcorcon and CZ Jena.

It seems these comments sparked a “massive response at Voetbal International. A selection of those responses:

“Perhaps if he had done things smarter himself, he could have learned at school that addressing people like that in a derogatory and inappropriate way only arouses aversion. What an idiot he is!” 

“So Mr. Duchâtelet calls me stupid while he doesn't even know me, and with me several million people.”

“Just as crazy as that president of Real Madrid and Barca, but in miniature. There is nothing wrong with self-interest, but to call other people stupid idiots is a sign of lack of self-reflection.”

"So everyone with a different opinion or train of thought to him is a fool according to him ..."

“This is another one in the “you either agree with me or you're a penguin” category. Certain politicians also like to use this style. If Duchâtelet really had a good plan, he wouldn't have to vomit this nonsense.” 

"Spoke the man who helped Charlton, Ujpest, Standard and Sint-Truiden to their destruction." 

“That is very mature, people with a different opinion than you are called stupid. Come up with arguments and start the conversation. Scolding people is really not going to help. That only makes me an even bigger opponent.”

“The trick to morally dismiss people with a different opinion as stupid, I know it all, is very hip. But that is precisely what is not very intelligent. Convince people with arguments, respect a different opinion.”

“Sorry, but if you need such strong wording to convince people that the majority is wrong and you have the wisdom, then I don't trust it.”

“So this Belgian dismisses a large part of the Dutch people as stupid? Well… that helps to bring people closer together”.

Tuesday, 4 May 2021

Season Extended Until Sunday

I suspect for most of us it was with mixed emotions that we logged on this evening for the penultimate game of the regular season, after two points from three games almost certainly our penultimate game period. There was no telling what frame of mind we might be in, perhaps even how up for the game Lincoln might prove with their play-off place already secured, while it went without question that nothing but a win would do. And anyone hoping for a prettier spectacle than Saturday’s horror show might not have been taking into account the fact that it was blowing a gale outside.

The team showed four changes from Saturday and what looked like a change in formation, back to the 4-5-1/4-3-3 which had previously been deployed. In front of Amos there would be a back four of Matthews, Inniss, Famewo and Purrington. Watson returned as the defence’s protector, with Forster-Caskey and Gilbey alongside him. Millar was back in at the start and Maatsen on the right side, both either side of Stockley as the lone forward. From the bench Gunter and Pearce provided the defensive options, Pratley and Morgan for midfield, and Washington and Aneke up front. It wasn’t exactly reassuring to see Adkins’ pre-match comment that “I’m taking a gamble on a few players tonight because we have to”.

The first-half was something of a non-event. We didn’t manage a shot on target (and only two shots in total), although Millar should have done better than hitting it well over the bar late on having cut inside. In general we struggled to get the two wide men really into the game and Stockley was isolated, our lack of threat emphasised by Stockley putting a cross into a deserted box. Lincoln were dangerous early on and came very close to taking the lead after 10 minutes, a ball played through our defence which was claiming offside but Maatsen on the far side was clearly playing them on. Their guy hit it hard but too close to Amos, who blocked well. Otherwise Purrington was caught out and picked up a yellow for the foul that followed, Forster-Caskey picked up an injury and had to depart, replaced by Morgan, as did the referee.

Lincoln did seem to fade as an attacking force through the half and at the break there was the impression that two teams were playing as if there wasn’t a lot riding on the result. Certainly it was hard to square our efforts with the need for a win, although we were in the game and it was still there to be won.

And there was a clear statement of intent at the start of the second half, as Aneke came on. Purrington was sacrificed, perhaps because of the yellow, but as we switched to a 4-4-2 Maatsen moved to left-back and Gilbey took a wider position on the right. The game changed.

Within a minute of the restart we were ahead. Lincoln must have wondered what hit them. A good attack saw Stockley move it on to Millar. His cross was blocked but Watson moved it forward again to Gilbey. He turned and clipped in a cross to the far post, where Aneke nodded it down into the path of Stockley, who hit a crisp half-volley into the roof of the net. Lincoln immediately went up the other end and almost equalised, Watson being caught out, but minutes later we came close to making it two as Chuks just couldn’t quite get his shot away, then Morgan intercepted and moved it on to Chuks again only for his shot to be saved. Then a Millar cross was only just too high for Stockley.

We did double our lead not long after. Maatsen went on a galloping overlap and his cross was blocked for a corner. Whatever happened as far as movement and players being blocked off, Morgan curled it to the far post and Inniss was all on his own. The header from close range didn’t need to be too powerful to beat a despairing keeper. And shortly after that it was effectively game over. Millar took it down the left, fed it into Aneke. His shot seemed to be covered by the keeper but a defender waved a leg at it and ensured it cleared him and went into the net.

All that was left to do was play out the final twenty minutes or so. Not surprisingly we eased up and Lincoln did have a few moments, but as the clock ran down we were looking comfortable. With less than 10 minutes left Aneke picked up a yellow and crazily a few minutes later needlessly put in a rash challenge from behind, felling their guy. It should have been a second yellow and red, perhaps we have the injury to the ref in the first half to thank as the replacement was lenient in the extreme. And with a couple of minutes of normal time left Lincoln did get one back with a decent shot, then in six added minutes Amos was required to make another save, while Pratley, who had come on to replace Aneke to ensure he would be available for Sunday, still managed to get a yellow himself. But we had done the damage and took the points.

We know it still probably won’t be enough, the permutations for Sunday are pretty straightforward. We need help from Burton, Accrington Stanley and Hull. That’s bound to put the focus between now and then on what might have been, the obvious points dropped (even the possible implications of Lincoln’s goal and goal difference if we were to draw at Hull and the other two lose). But at least tonight we did what we had to do. Man of the match? Aneke changed the game and would have been a shoo-in but for almost getting himself sent off.

Sunday, 2 May 2021

Let's Not Forget, It's Been A Very Good Season

We’re all feeling gloomy about yesterday’s result(s) almost certainly finishing off our play-off and promotion chances, resigning ourselves to another season in the third flight. We will never be comfortable in this division. But I do think we are, perhaps understandably, losing sight of the bigger picture. This has, after all, been our best season since 2012/13. Duchatelet still owns The Valley, so isn’t completely out of the picture, but if it had been a choice between promotion and Duchatelet still owning us and what we’ve ended up with – a decent owner we can all get behind, getting out from under the nightmare of ESI, and not going out of business – I know which one I’d have gone for (and of course I wanted promotion too).

Today Man Utd v Liverpool was postponed because of fans’ protests. It wasn’t that long ago I was among those throwing pink pigs onto the pitch. Those days we hope are behind us as a fan base and if we’re moaning today about the deficiencies of the squad (and as others have pointed out we should at least acknowledge that in just about every game the players have given their all, no lack of effort and determination), what we’d like to see change on the pitch, perhaps we ought to be taking a minute or two to count our blessings.

If we’re on the subject of teams having a tough season, it wasn’t that long ago I considered myself an adopted supporter of Lyon Duchere. I watched them get promoted twice, from the French regional equivalent of the conference to a regional fourth division, then remarkably to National, the French third division. And they stayed up, punching well above their weight, with an attendance that would normally be around a few hundred. They had a longstanding coach who had overseen the rise.

Things changed before the end of last season as absurdly what was an open stand (the only covered stand at the Stade de Balmont) suddenly had stewards restricting access to a roped off VIP section. Then the news broke that the team from an unfashionable district of Lyon would be rebranded and moved to the other side of the city, with the president of the club outlining his plans to ditch the Duchere element of the club and get it into the French top flight within a few years. The coach left and a new team was bought for this season. If you google Lyon Duchere now you get Sporting Club Lyon and the lie that the club “took its current name in June 2020 in a rebranding exercise voted for by the fans”. The fans did not vote for the rebranding exercise, they were presented with a few options, variations on a theme, with none of them mentioning Duchere.

How did it go? On Friday evening what was Lyon Duchere went down 1-3 at Le Mans to confirm their relegation. They sit bottom of the league with 28 points from 32 games and with just two games left they cannot now get out of the bottom four and avoid the drop. So it will be back to the regional fourth division for Sporting Club Lyon. Whether or not the president will, like Duchatelet, tell himself he’s now too busy to bother and walk away remains to be seen. But the next time our name is erroneously brought up as the example of fans wanting to take the ‘next step’ and getting their comeuppance, cite Lyon Duchere instead.

Saturday, 1 May 2021

Door Slammed Shut

Win or bust today, nothing else mattered – except of course for the other results. We didn’t win, Portsmouth and Oxford did. Mathematically it’s still possible, but we all know how unlikely it is: we have to beat Lincoln and Hull and hope that neither Portsmouth nor Oxford win their final game (unless we close a six-goal deficit on goal difference with Oxford in the process). Two points from three games, when it came down to it we weren’t good enough to make the top six. Yes, we have to go for it on Tuesday night, but mentally I suspect we’re already done for. I even felt mixed emotions with Chuks last-kick equaliser as keeping alive a glimmer of hope only prolongs the agony.

There were decisions to be made on personnel and formation and it was clear that the team meant a move away from the 4-3-3/4-5-1 formation that we’ve gone with of late, but switched from during the game against Crewe, to a 3/5/2/5/3/2. In from the start came Gunter, Innis, Pratley and Washington (for Matthews, Purrington, Watson and Millar, three of whom moved to the bench but with Watson missing out completely). That meant a back five, with Gunter and Maatsen as wing-backs and Pearce, Inniss and Famewo. Pratley would be partnered in midfield by Forster-Caskey and Gilbey, while Stockley would have a partner up front in the form of Washington. On the bench Morgan, Shinnie and Millar would give options in midfield and Aneke the change up front (for the defence presumably if one of the centre-backs had to come off Gunter or Pratley could become the third centre-back).

The purpose of the formation and how we would play at least the first half were pretty clear from the start. Accrington had been scoring goals for fun of late (I watched the highlights of their game against Portsmouth and it looked like it could easily have been 6-6). And to an extent it worked. Every ball was hoofed forward, while we prevented them from having a clear sight of goal. To say that it wasn’t pretty was a massive understatement; it was dreadful to watch. But if we won that really wouldn’t have mattered. The pitch was narrow, the wind blowing, and nobody cared much about possession. It seemed to be all about territory, with both teams expecting to get something from a set piece.

After 25 minutes we were leading 2-1 on shots, with one over the bar apiece (ours was deflected and should have been a corner). On 30 minutes Accrington came close to breaking the deadlock, producing a scramble in the box with a couple of shots blocked. And right on 45 minutes their guy cut inside Inniss rather too easily and put in a shot from a narrow angle, hitting the bar.

That was it. But getting into the dressing room at half-time Adkins and the players will have known that, although Oxford had gone from being a goal up to 2-1 down, Portsmouth had done the opposite, equalising quickly at Wimbledon having gone behind and scoring twice just before the break. That only increased the pressure to win the game and meant that at some point in the second half, unless we had gone ahead, Adkins would have to change the formation and go for it.

That proved to be the case. In truth in the first period of the second half we were rather fortunate not to have gone behind. Accrington were finding more space around our box and starting to dominate. Pearce was caught out and had to pull down his guy on the edge of the box, taking a yellow, and from the free kick Stockley somehow managed to divert the ball behind for a corner. Before the hour was up the first change came, Aneke replacing a tiring Washington, but the formation was unchanged and the game continued as before. Amos had to turn a shot around after their guy had beaten off Inniss and from the corner we switched off and Accrington played it short, with two of theirs against Aneke. Forster-Caskey saw yellow for a professional foul. But with a little over 20 minutes to go we did have a break and after Maatsen was almost clear it was played towards Stockley, who was taken out just outside the area. Forster-Caskey curled the shot towards the near post but with their keeper beaten it went just over.

That was the cue for changes to chase the game. Pearce was sacrificed for Millar and we switched to a 4-4-2, with Gilbey on the right. Fair enough, we have to win, we needed to fashion something in the final third, and getting Millar on was a priority. But I thought it was poor not to make further changes to adapt to the new formation, if not immediately then shortly after. We were now playing 4-4-2 and could use fresh legs. Why not bring on Purrington to help shore up the defence, either for Maatsen or to allow him to go wide right, perhaps Morgan as a better option on the right side than Gilbey. But nothing more was done.

With 10 minutes to go it felt like the season was in the balance. And the balance swung very much against us as Accrington scored. Their guy got past Famewo and into space, took it into the box, and shot well low into the corner. Seemed like game up. We went into four minutes of stoppage time and for some reason changes were made then. Morgan and Shinnie came on, for Pratley and Forster-Caskey. It seemed irrelevant until right at the death Millar was upended, Morgan curled in a decent ball, and Aneke diverted it past their keeper. As on Tuesday night, there was barely time to kick off.

I wouldn’t blame Adkins for the choice of formation, for the changes to bring on Aneke and Millar. Fact is we had a gameplan and it didn’t pay off. We might have played expansively and been beaten, who knows? In other circumstances a point might have been a decent result. Today it wasn’t, with Portsmouth seeing out their game and Oxford coming from behind to win.

No player ratings today, it was a game where they were asked to play a certain way which was never going to look good. We have come up short this season and there are many reasons for that, all of which can wait for another day.

Wednesday, 28 April 2021

Play To The Strengths

It’s still not easy to pick through the bones of last night, to assess what we might have done better given the players available and their fitness, and related to that what we might do to be best positioned for Saturday. But as an overall assessment, and allowing for players carrying knocks and not being able to last 90 minutes (or 96 as the case may be), I’d suggest that Adkins got the formation wrong at the start and only really changed it for the final 15 minutes.

I’m not suggesting we should have had some sort of gung-ho approach, just that we didn’t play to our strengths and instead allowed Crewe to play to theirs. I suggested in an earlier post that some of Adkins’ early decisions had been pretty much made for him through the unavailability of some players. In particular, with Washington injured and Schwartz not a viable option, going with Stockley on his own up front was almost imposed. Give him credit though for going with a wide player either side and opting for Jaiyesimi and Maatsen, rather than Millar. That formation worked well for a spell, not least because we could select two from three with the third available from the bench. When Maatsen dropped out injured we coped with Millar and Jaiyesimi, but the replacement option was Morgan, clearly not any kind of like-for-like. Last night Jaiyesimi was not available and Maatsen was clearly coming back too soon, so we had Millar operating effectively down the left side but nothing coming from the other flank.

The two replacements for Maatsen were Morgan or Washington. Quite understandably I think when Maatsen was withdrawn early in the second half it was Washington given the nod, the formation unchanged. But a little later, when Adkins wanted to get Aneke into the action, the formation demanded that it be Millar to be taken off. So we withdrew prematurely our main attacking threat (I’m assuming he wasn’t injured), someone who had the beating of them all night on his side, in order to bring on an alternative threat, with Aneke beginning by ploughing the left channel.

When that didn’t work, we switched to three/five at the back, with Purrington and Matthews as wing-backs, kept a more central midfield trio, and with Stockley withdrawn shifted Aneke and Washington into a front two. Fine, Chuks ran them ragged, able to almost bulldoze his way through them. Just that we weren’t able to see how he might have influenced the game alongside Stockley in a front two - if that meant going long so what? - with Millar on the left.

Now all this was going on as Crewe were dominating possession and basically playing us off the park. We had a system that wasn’t working, in part because of an error in selecting Maatsen which then sparked a chain of adjustments in personnel but not in formation, again until the closing stages. We made Crewe look like world-beaters by not putting them on the back foot and trying to protect a vulnerable defence. Not gung-ho, but rather attack being the best form of defence.

What does this suggest for Saturday? Only Adkins and his staff will know who is fit enough to start and who might only last an hour at best. What I would suggest is that first, if Famewo and Inniss are able to last a game we need to start with that pairing in central defence, which would be tough on Pearce, who’s played a real captain’s part, but Famewo to me looks more mobile and able to play around Inniss. Second, if Jaiyesimi is still out (which looks likely according to reports) and Maatsen is not fully up to speed, change the formation. Keep Millar on the left and start with two up front. Just which combination that is I can’t say, depends on who can last 90 minutes – and I don’t know where his mind is at but I’d find a place on the bench for Schwartz as well. We have to win on Saturday and he is a goal poacher. If we’re chasing the game in the final 10-15 minutes he could be an option.

Every change involves sacrifice and if we start with two up front the midfield has to change too. Assuming there’s a ‘protector’ in the form of Watson or Pratley, give Forster-Caskey the central role and then decide who out of Gilbey, Shinnie or Morgan is best suited to a role more down the right. Have to say, depending on how it shapes up in training, but there has to be a case for pairing JFC with one of those three and overlooking both Watson and Pratley. It would be bold.

Equally, a case can be made for switching from the 4-3-3/4-5-1 to an outright 3-5-2/5/3/2 and using wingbacks. That would rely on three centre-backs being able to last 90 minutes, or being ready to ask Pratley or Gunter to resume central defence duties, either at the start or during the game. Matthews or Gunter down one flank, Purrington or Maatsen on the other.

I watched the highlights of Accrington Stanley v Portsmouth and from the look of them it might have ended 6-6. We all say the table doesn’t lie by this stage of the season, so it isn’t an accident that Accrington have conceded 67 goals, well above par for their position in the league. So either we set up on the basis of ‘we will keep a clean sheet, come what may’ and rely on pinching one (or more) against a dodgy defence, which has worked a number of times away from home this season, or ‘they are weak at the back, we can outscore them’. We have to hope Adkins chooses what proves the right option.

I honestly don’t care whether or not we’re good enough to get into and then win the play-offs. One of us, Portsmouth or Oxford (who do come into the equation now in light of last night’s results) will get sixth place (I can’t believe Sunderland will fail to beat either Plymouth or Northampton, or that Blackpool might fail with their final three matches), then all bets are off. There’s no merit any more these days in the idea that we might benefit from another season in the third flight to be better prepared if we go up, the team will be completely different next season whether or not we go up. Ahead of the last two home games you’d have said we had become favourites for that final spot. That’s no longer the case.

Neither can we tell what points total we will need. We know Portsmouth have two entirely winnable games left, we could need to win all three. If we don’t we are looking for other results to go our way. And to take a leaf out of Adkins’ book of positivity, had Portsmouth’s keeper not pushed the ball against Marquis at the death last night we would have been truly staring down the barrel. He did. Last-minute goals finally did for us last season, if we miss out this time around it will be a similar story.

Tuesday, 27 April 2021

We Came Up Short

We might not yet be down to the wire, but we all know the wire is in sight. Only thing that mattered tonight was the result, nothing but a win would do. Three points and we’d at least be back above Oxford, depending on other results potentially Portsmouth and Blackpool too, conceivably also pulling to within three points of Lincoln; or staring down the barrel five points adrift (six really given goal difference) with three to play. We didn’t get the win, didn’t play well enough to merit a win but almost stole one; and with Lincoln and Blackpool both winning the only consolation came with a last-gasp equaliser for Accrington against Portsmouth, news which came through moments before Crewe equalised for a second time as two points once again slipped through our fingers in stoppage time.

Tonight’s results leave us in the strange position of knowing both that if we win our final three games of the season we will take a play-off spot, equally that unless we play a good deal better than we did tonight we can forget about extending the season. We looked tired and, in sharp contrast to Saturday, not mentally up for the task. We played as if we just wanted the game to be out of the way, win it without too much exertion and start to think about the tougher challenges that lie ahead. If so, and the game's all about fine margins, that was disrespectful to Crewe, who through the game outpassed and outmanoeuvred us, only falling short because of what looked like an inability to create the final opening and a vulnerability in defence which we should have been able to exploit more convincingly. Perhaps Peterborough on Saturday took too much out of us, perhaps as Adkins hinted some were playing while not fully fit. Probably all of that, but for me we made the cardinal error of having gone ahead not finishing off the game with a second and then relaxing, instead making the game hard for ourselves by allowing Crewe to dominate possession and come at us from all angles.

There were some decisions to be made regarding the team, with Jaiyesimi ruled out through injury and doubts about Inniss’ fitness after Saturday, while some consideration may have been given to either changing the formation to play two up front or going for Washington as one of the two wider men. In the event Inniss was rested, swapping places on the bench with Famewo, while Maatsen returned to take the wide right role, the rest of the team being unchanged, the bench looking similar too, with Washington and Aneke the options up front, while Morgan kept a place ahead of Shinnie.

Let’s face it we were pretty poor for most of the first half, this time not just the first 15 minutes. Whether it was the formation match-up or just less energy on the pitch, we were sloppy in and out of possession and looked edgy. Famewo looked rusty on his return, while Maatsen looked as if he knew he shouldn’t have started. The exception in all of this was Millar, who was at the heart of all our good moments and once again looked to have the beating of the opposition. Indeed, there were times when we had three moving down the left – Purrington, Millar and Gilbey – and it was from one such occasion that we took the lead, against the run of play. Millar had the ball in space and found Gilbey making a run ahead of him. It looked like he might fail to make it before the ball ran out for a goal kick, but he did and whipped in an excellent cross, meat and drink to Stockley who once again stooped low to head home, this time in off the post.

That goal you felt might settle us down. It didn’t. Millar continued to create problems down the left, jinking past two only to be brought down, then putting in a low cross that wasn’t converted. The plus point was that we did seem to tighten up defensively and prevented Crewe from turning dominance of possession into real chances, with Amos making routine saves but not called on for anything more. And we did have the opportunity to really rub salt into the wound as Stockley was fouled in first-half stoppage time, giving Forster-Caskey the sort of position from which he’d scored earlier in the season. This time it hit the wall – and we almost managed to get caught on the break as Millar and Purrington left the ball for each other and were bypassed.

At half-time we were winning, Portsmouth were 0-2 down, and Blackpool were drawing at Sunderland, although Lincoln were ahead. As long as we kept hold of the three points that was a combination of results that would be pretty good. The nagging thought was just get another goal then play on the break and conserve energy, didn’t want a final 10 minutes holding onto a one-goal lead.

The second half if anything saw increased pressure from Crewe as we really struggled to clear our lines, let alone do anything at the other end. Maatsen was yellow-carded rather harshly, but shortly after committed another foul. It wasn’t surprising that not long into the half he was replaced, with Washington brought on to run the channel on the right side. And he did have more of an impact, although Crewe continued to call the shots.

In quick succession Gilbey was very harshly given a yellow, followed by Pearce getting one that was more understandable. It was all getting edgy and it really came as no surprise that on 66 minutes Crewe did draw level. The ball was worked down their right and their guy cut inside a tired challenge from Pearce to shoot into the far corner of the net.

Now we faced a real challenge to get the three points. Almost immediately Adkins made another change, with Aneke coming on and perhaps surprisingly Millar making way. He was probably the only option if we were to retain the formation and get Aneke on the pitch, but it seemed we were shooting ourselves in the foot by withdrawing our main attacking threat when we now needed to chase the game.

Indeed, although Aneke made an impact further changes followed with less than 20 minutes to go. Inniss and Pratley came on for Stockley and Watson, with us going to a back three/five and wing-backs, with two forwards. And with Aneke clearly having more power than they could handle, the changes did make a difference as Crewe were pushed more onto the back foot.

It was still something of a surprise when we took the lead again, in the final 10 minutes. Forster-Caskey played a delightful ball to Gilbey, whose shot was blocked for a corner. An outswinger seemed to carry no danger, even though it was headed towards goal by Pearce, but Gilbey had taken a chance and made the Martin Peters-like run and was on hand to deflect the ball past their keeper.

The game had swung again, now all we had to do was see out the final minutes – although by now Portsmouth had produced a turnaround of their own to lead 3-2. Into five minutes of stoppage time and it looked as though we had managed to hold on for a win that was as welcome as it was undeserved. Instead in the sixth minute of time added on the ball was headed out twice in succession by Inniss. It was about to be the third in a row when he was I thought fouled and failed to make a decisive contact, the ball dropping to their guy around the penalty spot and he shot home. Barely time to kick off and we, like Portsmouth, had dropped two points right at the last.

A good deal of thinking needs to be done ahead of Saturday, in addition to getting tired bodies ready to go again. Adkins will have to take a hard look at who he can rely on as we have to grind out a win at Accrington, while hoping that Wimbledon take something from their game against Portsmouth.

Player Ratings:

Amos – 7/10. No chance with either goal, decent punches clear and otherwise did what he had to.

Matthews – 7/10. Decent enough game, wasn’t able to create much at the other end as our real threat was coming on the other side.

Famewo – 6/10. Shaky start I thought but did grow into the game.

Pearce – 6/10. Did seem to be looking tired towards the end, may have been at fault for at least one of their goals.

Purrington – 7/10. Generally good game and linked up well with Millar and Gilbey going forward.

Watson – 6/10. Less commanding than of late, another who looked tired, although did defensive duties well as we were under the cosh.

Forster-Caskey – 6/10. No individual’s fault but we didn’t have any control of midfield tonight.

Gilbey – 7/10. Took his goal well, one which demonstrated his ability to read situations and make good runs, while involved our first, laying on the cross for Stockley.

Maatsen – 6/10. The actual performance merited a lower mark, but I don’t think (with hindsight) he was in a state to start the game.

Millar – 8/10. Had the beating of the opposition again, helped create our first goal, unfortunate to be taken off.

Stockley – 6/10. Took his goal well but otherwise isolated and struggled to get in the game, not really his fault as we had so little possession.


Washington – 7/10. Brought more when he came on.

Aneke – 7/10. Did help to drag us back into the game and almost helped us over the line.

Pratley – 7/10. No complaints, came on and did his job.

Inniss – 7/10. If he’d got that third consecutive header in right at the end we would have won the game.