Tuesday 31 August 2010

Cup Success!!

Having been starved of the early exchanges of this season, tonight offered myself as well as Benson the opportunity to make a debut appearance for the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy. At least it made the programme something of a collector’s item; I haven’t seen one before where one of our players is listed in the opposition’s squad. And we both seemed to have a reasonably enjoyable evening, with Benson getting a decent reception from the Dagenham & Redbridge fans (before the more predictable chants during the game).

With Elliot being maybe still suffering from the back injury that kept him out on Saturday, Worner was in goal (with a hastily afforded squad number given for his back-up on the bench). Goal-a-game Fry was given a start at left-back, Llera and Dailly occupied the centre of defence, with Francis making up the back line. Given the silly restrictions this worthless competition imposes on player selection, I thought Parkinson made some astute selections elsewhere. He paired Semedo and Racon together in central midfield, giving the latter the chance to put the poor game against Oldham behind him alongside the player who he seems most comfortable with, and Sodje and Benson up front, with Martin moving out wide and Wagstaff starting. Abbott, Doherty, Reid, McCormack and the reserve keeper (I’m sorry, I missed the name) made up the bench.

This meant that the game threw up some interesting questions: how would Benson look on his first outing, would there be a better partner for him in Sodje rather than Abbott, would Racon provide more of an attacking option than seemed apparent on Saturday (I can’t comment on the game, just noting through the afternoon of the disappointing statistic of no efforts on target until the goal we scored in stoppage time), and would Worner look reliable if we need to continue to use him rather earlier than might have been expected? Not surprisingly there can’t be definitive answers. Abbott did come on for Sodje in the second half after Akpo took a knock, to provide a comparison against the same defenders, but the game had changed after we went one up, with more space. Racon was to have an indifferent first half, but was much more influential in the second, especially for a period linking up well with Martin; they seemed to be on a similar wavelength. He took the goal well enough – and seemed very pleased with it. After early Dagenham pressure Worner didn’t have a lot to do, but pulled off a good save in stoppage time at the end to save us the pain of being reminded of penalty shoot-outs at The Valley.

But really all eyes were on Benson. He had clearly been our main target and, while I can’t pretend to know much about him, success in getting him in is a boost. Everyone knew we needed a goalscorer and, although our recent record in signing forwards from lower down the league (yes I know Dagenham are now in the same league as us, but he’s still stepping up from last season) isn’t exactly inspiring (Dickson, Fleetwood, McLeod, even Varney), he did look like a goalscorer. He was on the end of most things in the first half and usually made the keeper work. Perhaps he should have scored when he ran onto a through ball, with the finish more Varney than Mendonca (OK, we know Varney’s now knocking them in for fun in the Premiership), but the keeper did well to turn the effort over the bar. And perhaps he could have got a shot away faster when the opportunity arose in the second half. But he was there in the right place and first impressions are that he will score a decent number for us. The question for Parkinson is whether Sodje or Abbott will work best alongside him – and whether there’s a starting place for Martin as a wide man (while providing cover for Benson). It does add up to improved options and competition for places in most areas of the pitch.

The game itself? The first half was tight and even. Dagenham had the better of the early exchanges, threatening down the left in particular. With little space to be had the tendency was long through balls, most of which came to nothing, the exception being the one Benson got on the end of. The period ended with a nasty clash of heads for Dailly, but after treatment he just got on with things and came out for the second half as if nothing had happened.

The game opened out more in the second half as we passed the ball better and as Wagstaff and Martin caused them more problems, and most obviously as we scored. A ball in was half-cleared and Racon followed up to shoot in off the post. We had the ball in the net again shortly afterwards, but after their keeper parried a shot Sodje was given offside when knocking in the rebound. After that we had the better of the chances to make it safe, but a second goal didn’t come. Abbott came on for Sodje, then Reid for Martin, and finally McCormack for Semedo (another who took a knock, although none of them looked serious). The late Dagenham pressure was hardly intense and the occasion meant that nerves were not exactly jangling, but Worner needed to make that last-ditch save to ensure the win.

I’d have to give man of the match to Dailly, who was calmness personified and delivered another display of pure class. Llera had a decent enough game alongside him, being required to head away numerous crosses; but he still has moments of insecurity (and for good measure took another free kick and delivered a shot as poor as the one against Oldham at the end of last season). When he is really on song he looks commanding, but he also looks like he needs a regular starting spot and plenty of games to really cement his confidence. And it’s hard to see that happening as Doherty and Dailly would seem to be the first choice pairing, while Fry is available and Mambo and now Fortune on the scene, even if they are sent out on loan. We know the reasons for not having a reserve team, but the downside is obvious too.

With Martin and Anyinsah to push Wagstaff and Reid, we have enough options out wide; we seem to have good cover in the defensive positions and, with Benson and Martin, plus Abbott and Sodje (and Tuna), the options we want up front. What concerns me most now is central midfield. Whether Stavrinou is ready I don’t know; but at the moment it’s perm two from three of McCormack, Semedo and Racon. It’s an area where we were blessed with options even last season (Bailey, Racon, Semedo, Shelvey, Spring, even Sinclair). Now we have to hope that Parkinson gets the right combination, while injuries and suspensions are bound to be a factor.

As for the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy, I don’t expect to be getting up early on Saturday to find out who comes next. I suppose that the absence of reserve team games means it could be useful for necessary match practise for a number of the players. But I really don’t want a Wembley appearance in this fashion. Did it before with the Full Members Cup and it wasn’t a pleasant experience.

Saturday 21 August 2010

Reality Check?

So, just what is a reality check? Arriving back from two weeks of frying in Portugal to gentle rain in Blackheath, or failing to beat Oldham? The former was predictable, the latter disappointing after the start to the season we apparently have had, if the text messages are to be believed. I’m feeling my way back into this, like many other things, so there’s no long, insightful assessment of the game today, at least not from me. Just fleeting impressions from someone who has seen nothing so far but who was delighted by the two wins to date and not surprisingly disappointed not to see the run continue, especially against a team which looked so poor at the end of last season.

Over the 90 minutes we can have no complaints about the result; about the referee and his assistants maybe (especially for me a ‘referee’s assistant who did absolutely nothing to help point out the frequent fouling of the Oldham defenders). But they won’t be the worst we will see this season. Rather a failure to produce a decent chance through the second half, at home, was telling. It was a game we expected to win but had no right to, and could just as easily have lost, despite their being reduced to 10 men for the closing stages (in something of a fiasco as their player, who could have had no complaints about his second yellow, seemed to kick the ball into our dugout and sparked a rather silly melee).

The details first. Oldham dominated possession and especially controlled the midfield for much of the first half, with two lively forwards who caused us problems. They hit the post with Elliot beaten but we looked as though we had more about us if we could get the ball wide to Reid and Wagstaff and play at pace. Somewhat against the run of play we took the lead. A decent ball in found Abbott being manhandled but able to knock it back to an onrushing Wagstaff who did well to keep it under the bar. That should have been the cue to go on and win the game, but we were being outfought in midfield as Racon, quite frankly, had a mare. The game passed him by and he was unable to do anything to get into it, instead reduced to complaints to the ref over the tackling. It left us short of possession and sometimes overrun, despite the best efforts of the wide men. And although it came late on there were no real complaints about the equaliser. A corner for them saw one of a few training ground moves that seemed to surprise us (coaching staff please advice) and the ball in was only half-cleared to the edge of the box and the shot that followed left Elliot with no chance.

The disappointment was really the second half. We did put the ball in the net with one of those that you get away with sometimes, but with no real complaints about the ref giving the foul against Reid for a shove to enable him to get to the ball. After that, well not a lot. Abbott was manhandled, but was unable to disturb their central defence, while the mobile and intelligent runs of Martin – who impressed me – were either not picked up or smothered out. The game drifted and we were unable to put Oldham under sustained pressure. They had one of those moments of two or three efforts on goal smothered at the last minute, but seemed generally content to run out the game, especially when reduced to 10.

Changes were needed, but the bench doesn’t inspire confidence without Semedo and Dailly. Racon had to be taken off and Sodje needed to come on, but ideally that would have involved taking Abbott off for Akpo and a replacement in midfield. Instead Parkinson didn’t seem ready to trust Stavrinou and Sodje came on for Racon, with Martin dropping back. It didn’t work out to the extent that we continued to fail to fashion a decent opportunity.

No player ratings from me as I’m still feeling my way back into it, just impressions. The plus points for me were Jackson and especially Francis. They both looked solid and won the challenges that mattered. Reid and Wagstaff as the wide men were threatening. Martin looked lively but not yet on the same wavelength as those around him. Less positive, Racon was decidedly poor (I hope just a bad day at the office), Abbott looks limited but did contribute for the goal, while Llera had some dire moments, especially when caught out by a ball over his shoulder. It came across as though without Dailly we didn’t really trust our defence and without Semedo our midfield wasn’t competitive enough, while Abbott up front didn’t cause them enough problems – and the bench didn’t contain enough to strengthen areas. We didn’t overall look a better team than Oldham, but I’d have taken two wins and a draw to start the campaign, for a team still finding its way. So far, so good. Just not the day we hoped for, especially with these things called clouds in the sky.

Tuesday 3 August 2010

Mrs Mopp Reborn

After all these years my conscience is clear; well, at least it’s relieved of one burden (of many). Having failed miserably to help clear up The Valley I duly turned up for bucket and sponge duty this morning. Only for the morning session (there are some work commitments – although if there are how am I finding the time to scribble something? I guess the answer it it’s quicker to rattle off this nonsense than to scrub pigeon crap off a couple of seats, and a good deal less knackering).

I can say it was a truly unique experience. For the first and probably only time in my life I thought it would be useful to have some Millwall fans around. After all, their experience in mopping the prison floors and mucking out would have come in handy. I’m only disappointing that a similar call has not gone out for volunteers to help do something similar for Selhurst Park. I would have arrived with a suitcase full of chewing gum and a laden dump truck, or might have settled for the obvious option of some petrol cans and a box of matches. No amount of cleaning there can make a difference.

The trip did afford the opportunity to pick up a copy of the season’s DVD, although I don’t want to spoil my fragile mood of rising confidence ahead of Saturday by actually watching it yet. There’ll be time enough in the months ahead after a fine victory to risk reopening the wounds. I think it’s worth buying just for a wonderful sentence on the back cover: “this DVD brings together the highs and lows of the season and includes all 71 League goals, plus those from the play-offs, as well as brief cup action”. It could hardly include extended cup action, could it? However brief, a permanent reminder of a certain FA Cup tie hardly serves as an inducement.

Anyway, come Saturday afternoon it all kicks off. We just have to think of songs for the newcomers. Super Pawel Abbott doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue and we have to forget all the things we used to sing/say about Doherty; he has, after all, now gone up in the world. I’m still disappointed that David Essex’s Rock On hasn’t been adopted for Therry Racon, but there’s still time. Come Saturday afternoon, I shall (TAP willing) be on a road heading north from Lisbon, with one eye on the map (I don’t qualify for driving duties) and one on the mobile for the text updates. Come on you Addicks.