Wednesday 21 December 2011

Rest(?) Ye Merry Gentlemen

‘Tis that time of the year, apparently. When everything is in abundance, especially stress. If it’s not trying to finish off the last hundred things to do before the supposed break, while still finding time to play with the new things that you just had to add to the online Xmas ordering process, it’s the anxious wait to discover whether Santa’s bag to be lugged around the relatives will be filled with actual gifts or just promissory notes/email confirmations (‘I ordered it in plenty of time, honest, the bits I bought for myself have been delivered, including the essential radiator shelf’). And you’d think that with the fixture list having been available for a little while at least the preparations for our upcoming games would have been simple. Not so.

Yeovil on Boxing Day will have to be passed up, I’m afraid. Although the recent minor contretemps between the UK and France has not (yet) soured personal relations, with my partner Suzanne flying into London that day I suspect a message from me saying ‘we’ve just gone past Bristol, make yourself a cup of tea and I’ll join you later’ might get the Gallic fur flying (some people just have no sense of priorities). If she’d planned properly she could have flown in the day before and we could have gone together.

Orient away on New Year’s Eve ought to have been a breeze and a delight. However, when asked some months back whether I’d like to usher in 2012 in Seville I forgot to check. Seemed like a good idea at the time (basically anywhere easyjet flies to given the Lyon connection). To her credit she’s trying hard to repair the damage by scouring lists of bars in Seville which might be willing and able to tune into Sky on New Year’s Eve for a League One game to satisfy one forlorn Addick. Ah, come on. I’m confident that all of Seville will be putting the festivities on hold to watch the game and I’ll find myself surrounded by well-wishing Addicks-at-heart singing Valley Floyd Road (with a slight accent) and keeping my sherry glass topped up as we stroll to victory. The alternative scenario sees me plonked in front of a screen in some Irish bar with hushed conversations all round about the sanity of some strange Englishman. Either way, as long as victory is delivered I won’t give a monkeys.

I am after all defending a proud recent record of not having seen us lose when I’ve watched the game from a foreign bar. In Madrid I watched with delight as Bryan Hughes stooped low at the far post to notch the winner against Aston Villa (come to think of it that was over New Year too). In Amsterdam I cheered as BWP’s shot found the back of the net. But at the risk of going back a few years (before the advent of texting and internet access) it doesn’t yet compare with reaching San Franciso after a few months of hitch-hiking around the States during a gap year, going to the library to scour the English newspapers and discovering that while away we’d beaten Chelsea 4-0 (among other results which haven’t stuck in the mind).

The flight back from Seville is apparently scheduled to land at Gatwick at 14.10 on 2 January. I hope Suzanne isn’t counting on any assistance with her bags, or company while she waits for her flight on to Lyon. Nobody’s going to see my tail for dust (unless I have to wait for a bag full of sherry) as at best I’ll be hard-pushed to get to The Valley much before half-time. I shall forgive the lads if we’re 3-0 up and game over before I get there. Note to easyjet: an early arrival would be much appreciated.

Then it will be a (hopefully) more relaxed sojourn across town for Fulham in the cup. Splendid draw, dire statue. I did manage to get up at sparrow’s fart that Wednesday to be at the head of the queue when the shutters opened. Apologies to all those in line who must have been hoping for a quick turnaround. The logistics of getting tickets for nine adults, two U-21s and four U-16s were challenging.

So basically my upcoming footballing experiences, after a relaxed boozy day watching the score from Yeovil, will involve scouring Seville for an accommodating bar, haring back from Gatwick, then slogging across town. God rest ye merry gentlemen. But it is all in a good cause; it had bloody better be as two consecutive draws amounts to a second hiccup which needs to be addressed before the Sheffield matches. Sir Chris had better pull his socks up and take a good look at himself. I was advised on Saturday that he was wearing a suit with a sweater underneath. This inexcusable sartorial error did for Parky a year back (similarly after getting Manager of the Month for November). You’ve been warned.

All that remains is to wish all and sundry a splendid Xmas and a healthy, happy 2012!

Saturday 17 December 2011

One Not Enough

Today, even more than usual (if that’s possible), all we wanted was (in order of priority) an easy win, pay respects to Peter Croker, stay warm, stay dry, and get home. It didn’t turn out that way, but there’s not a lot to carp about. There was nothing wrong with the players’ attitude or commitment and nobody took it too easily. It just proved to be one of those days when we should have won but didn’t. Against a team that would have embraced 0-0 from the start, if it had ended up that way you would have thought ‘hard lines, credit to Oldham for riding their luck, move on’. Having made the breakthrough in a game where we were patently better than the opposition it does, however, it does feel worse as I doubt that any Oldham fan would have put money on them squaring it. They did, with a decent enough goal, and if there is any criticism it’s that we didn’t show enough composure in the closing minutes to carve out a stab at a winner; indeed, thinking about it I don’t think we created a serious chance after we’d gone ahead. Perhaps the feeling in the crowd that one would be enough extended to the pitch. Learn from it and move on.

The team pretty much picked itself, the only mild surprise for me was that neither Hayes nor Benson made the bench, leaving Euell as the only available replacement forward. That seemed more pertinent as a nasty clash of heads saw both Kermorgant and their defender both leave the pitch for some stitches and both return bandaged up. That injury break didn’t help the flow of the game in the first half, which was more detrimental for us than them, as we had a spell of 10 against 10, leaving both teams not sure how to adjust; and Kermorgant must have started bleeding again as he had to take another break. What became clear through the first half was that we were by a distance the more potent force and when we got it right they couldn’t cope. A Morrison header from a set piece went wide, Wright-Phillips saw an overhead kick go just wide (although he was flagged offside), and after a delightful pass by Hollands Green found himself clear but put the shot just the wrong side of the post. It wasn’t a case of just a matter of time, but leaving aside the extensive use of the long throw Oldham had really just one moment in the first half when the ball flashed across the box.

Attacking the Covered End in the second half you hoped that the intensity would increase and that one chance would be taken. It seemed to arrive as Wright-Phillips was played in but having rounded the keeper BWP allowed said keeper to thrust out a paw and prevent him from putting it in the net. Wright-Phillips had another that went into the side-netting, while Green shot narrowly wide from a free kick, although in both cases their keeper probably had it covered. Finally on the hour the goal came. A decent ball in from the right saw Russell time the run right and get on the end of it to head home. Celebration and relief all round, but still a third of the game to go.

The fact that Oldham had caused us next to no problems was only a qualified comfort. They made two substitutions in response and clearly they would have nothing to lose. This was the time for the wingers to make more of an impact in exploiting the space and for the forwards to finish off the game. That proved not to be the case as neither Ephraim nor Green managed to come up with telling contributions and, although Kermorgant was chasing and competing for everything, seemingly locked in a battle of the headbands with their centre-half, our play with the ball became a little sloppy when the requirement was to keep possession and not give them encouragement.

None of this looked like mattering as the clock wound down. But they worked a move down their left which seemed to catch Solly out. It came to nothing but just a couple of minutes later there was something of a repeat and having been pulled out of position Solly lost his man, who squared it for another to hit home well from around the edge of the area. Wagstaff came on for Ephraim for the final five minutes or so, but during that period the anxiety set in as Oldham sat back again and happily headed away balls coming into the box. No final chance, no last-minute winner.

Disappointing for sure, but really only in terms of the result. Fact is it was a decent game of football played in a good spirit by both teams, only slightly marred by a ref who was overly fussy from the start (albeit consistently, giving free kicks to both sides for innocuous challenges). On the balance of play and chances we would have won it nine times out of ten, but today it wasn’t to be. A second consecutive draw makes it a little more difficult to just shrug off; you’re tempted to say don’t be greedy, we’re still five points clear at the top. Nothing wrong with being greedy this time of the year and nine would have been nice.

Player Ratings:

Hamer: 7/10. Didn’t have a serious shot to save aside from the goal, for which he had no realistic chance. Handled the crosses well enough and an unremarkable rating only reflects the fact he had little to do.

Solly: 6/10. Has to be at least partially culpable for the goal as he was caught out and that led to the ball being squared and finished off, just a couple of minutes after a similar situation. Didn’t really get forward either. So be it, he’s been outstanding this season.

Wiggins: 8/10. Another superb game; he took the ball out of defence twice in a fashion which showed how on top of his game he is.

Taylor: 8/10. He and Morrison covered and cleared just about everything through the game, not giving their forwards a look-in. That included dealing with the long throws.

Morrison: 8/10. As for Taylor.

Ephraim: 6/10. Struggled to have a real impact today and our lack of penetration down the flanks, with two genuine wingers out there, was apparent.

Hollands: 8/10. Might just get edged out for man-of-the-match by Kermorgant, but it’s a close call for me.

Russell: 7/10. Timed the run into the box well for the goal and generally competent.

Green: 6/10. Perhaps a little harsh, but today I felt we didn’t get enough going down both flanks. No shortage of effort, however.

Wright-Phillips: 6/10. Didn’t come off for him today in front of goal and after scoring in five league games in a row that’s three consecutive without one. So what, the guy’s a natural. He could easily have had a couple today.

Kermorgant: 8/10. Absolutely full marks for commitment as he went for everything despite the head injury. Crying out for a decent ball into the box from the flanks (the one that did come in saw Russell get ahead of him to score).

Subs: Wagstaff (no time to make an impact).

Saturday 3 December 2011

'Keen' Enough

Sir Chris pretty much summed it up in his programme notes. We were indeed “keen” to get to the third round; not desperate, but not entirely indifferent. The first-half performance didn’t get much above indifferent, but by raising the effort in the second period we did enough. You can’t expect the same level of commitment as we saw on Monday night, not from the players - with changes to the team but Wright-Phillips and Kermorgant on the bench if required – nor from the fans. With the crowd down to around 7,500 the atmosphere was missing until we attacked the Covered End. But again, we did enough. And we’re still happy.

Enforced and optional changes to the team were always on the cards. Sullivan started in goal, Wiggins and Solly were retained, but Cort came in to partner Morrison, with captain Taylor taking a break. Evina started wide-left in place of the unavailable Ephraim, with Green on the other flank and Pritchard alongside Hollands in the centre. Up front Hayes was partnered by Wagstaff rather than either Euell or the not-departed Benson. It looked like a decent enough mix, with a chance to look at Evina playing further forward and the opportunity for Wagstaff to show he can do a forward’s role if required.

However, when the work-rate drops and players aren’t fully focused, it’s hard to make things happen. Through the first half there were flashes and moments when we threatened, but I can’t remember their keeper being forced to make a save. I did see Wiggins get caught out trying something he wouldn’t in a league game and Hollands robbed of possession. That summed things up. After a wobbly start Cort settled into what he likes best, heading the ball clear – and almost getting on the end of a couple of corners at the other end – but it was telling that Sullivan was by far the more active custodian, making a couple of more than decent saves and leaving those in front of him in no doubt if they’d erred – especially when a back pass or two put him under pressure.

The second half brought a more determined approach and with the effort raised suddenly players who had looked peripheral in the first half – Green, Evina, Hayes, Wagstaff and Pritchard – were suddenly involved. Hayes had a good spell in linking up play, Wagstaff managed to control well a through ball to get in, but stretching the shot was saved. And their keeper splendidly turned one over the bar. It wasn’t all one-way traffic and Sullivan added to his tally of decent saves. But we were looking the more likely and the break came from a set piece, with two or three attempts blocked before the ball sat nicely for Morrison to plant it into the net.

After that Carlisle didn’t exactly go for it with all guns blazing, perhaps still stung by their recent league reverse at The Valley. There wasn’t a great deal of conviction about their play after going behind and, while we looked comfortable – especially with Solly blocking off their left side - with just one, we were more likely to add to the total. Evina managed to wriggle his way through and provided one delicious cross which was nearly converted. Kermorgant came on for Green, with Wagstaff moving back out wide, and then Wright-Phillips was obliged to break sweat for Hayes. His first involvement was to run onto a through ball, but the angle wasn’t good as he declined to shoot with his left and the chance was gone. Finally Euell came on for Evina and as the clock ticked around to 90 minutes Kermorgant made progress inside the area and squared it for Euell to slide in and round things off.

So, we’re in the bag for the FA Cup proper. Any one of three options will do for me: home or away to one of the big boys, home to a decent Championship team, or home to one of the remaining minnows (I’ve nothing against sneaking into the last eight playing no-one of note; after all, Millwall made it to Wembley that way). Equally, I’ll not have many gripes if the cup run ends in the next round, although I will be ‘keen’ that we go through whoever we’re against. The games come thick and fast after Christmas; a cup run mixed with a couple of postponements and we’ll have an unwanted problem. But it’s not such a bad problem to have.

According to the recent ONS study, apparently about three-quarters of people in the UK are satisfied with life. But the survey was conducted between April and August. If it had been done between August and November the reading would surely have been much higher, given our season to date and the effect this must be having on the mood throughout the country. It couldn’t of course be 100% as it’s impossible for a Palace or Millwall fan to be happy, whoever they roll over in secondary competitions.

No player ratings from me for today, given the proverbial game of two halves. Suffice to say that Sullivan should take the man of the match award, with special mention in dispatches for Solly and Cort. On to Walsall on the back of seven straight wins since the Stevanage game, including five clean sheets. May it continue. I just can’t help worrying that this time around Powell might just get that manager of the month award.

Monday 28 November 2011

Plaudits All Round

Ahead of tonight’s game for me it had all the echoes of when Sheff Utd were putting together an impressive run and came to face us at Selhurst Park in what proved to be Lennie’s promotion season. That day we did a job on them and came away with a 2-0 victory, one that said that the side he’d put together had the backbone, will and ability to get us up. I only have one truly warm memory of that place (it involved Paul Kitson; Dennis Rommadahl’s doesn’t really count as I was in The Crown watching that one), but if I look back on any game there with affection that was it. I didn’t want to tempt fate before by drawing comparisons, but tonight turned out much the same. A genuine rival, full of confidence, turned up at our place (this time) for a real top-of-the-table clash and to a man our team more than matched them. Sure, the last 20 minutes or so were a struggle; it’s hard to play the game when you’re winning 2-0 and only want the final whistle. It might even have turned out differently if they’d pulled one back. They didn’t, it didn’t, and the team deserve all the plaudits, especially for a first-half performance that had everything you could want.

With Jackson missing, Powell went for it by bringing in Ephraim from the start. The surprise was that the other loanee just arrived, Russell, also began the game, with Hughes unlucky to be on the bench. The first five minutes were a blur as I was waiting outside in the queue, having lingered too long over the pre-match wine. But once in the early exchanges were not surprisingly somewhat frantic, with both sides trying to establish some sort of dominance in the key areas. What seemed apparent was that Huddersfield could clearly cause us problems, especially from set pieces, but they lacked the pace or individual ability to turn the game. By contrast, when we made openings they either did or nearly did count. It wasn’t going to be a game for pretty football, there was too much at stake and no shortage of effort or commitment on either side. But by the break, in every department we’d come out on top.

The first real opening saw Wright-Phillips spring an offside trap (which he played with all night), but having cut inside opted to shoot instead of squaring it and the keeper made the save. Huddersfield had corners and a couple of shots, but they produced nothing to match that moment of quality. Then the ref began giving free kicks for 50-50 challenges; three to them, which came to nothing, then one for us, which Green curled in and Kermorgant made it all his own. The first goal was always going to be very important and we had it. The game continued as before, but once again we manufactured a decisive moment and made it count. A fair challenge – which seemed to be contested by them – produced a throw which was quickly taken to BWP, who turned the defender and despite a heavy touch got the strike in. It was well blocked by their keeper, but bounced out to Ephraim, who buried it.

Three moments, two goals. The rest was contested, but with our defence more than holding solid at the break they’d been restricted to some corners, a few shots, with Hamer having no shot to save. It was as close to the perfect performance as you could wish for at this level.

At the break Russell was replaced by Hughes (no idea if it was an injury or tactical) and nobody was in any doubt that there was still all to play for. Huddersfield had a very proud record to defend and had nothing to lose. The first chance – which had it gone in might have finished the game – saw a long throw in met superbly by Kermorgant, who managed to take a ball from behind him and get a meaningful header in, only to see it come back off the bar. They followed up with one off the woodwork too, although it looked to me like a cross which went wrong rather than a deliberate attempt.

As the game wore on it was hardly surprising that we came under more pressure. Kermorgant and Wright-Phillips, having worked their socks off, were tiring and looked increasingly disjointed; without a regular outlet we gave away possession too easily. Again, we wanted it to be over. The half-chances for them were becoming more frequent, with one ball across that somehow wasn’t converted, and then what proved to be the crucial moment. A ball in and for once our central defender (the TV can say whether it was Morrison or Taylor) slipped, allowing their forward to get in the shot. Hamer managed to get a glove on it and turned it on to the post and safety. He’d had no real saves to make before then, but when it mattered he – like everyone on the night – rose to the occasion.

Thereafter it wasn’t done and dusted, but their moment hadn’t produced a goal and it showed. Ephraim was replaced by Wagstaff and then Kermorgant fell awkwardly in the box and was stretchered off (have to wait to see if that was serious), with Hayes coming on. I’d been trying not to look at the watch and didn’t even realise we were playing stoppage time, so when the ref blew the whistle I was surprised – and delighted. No doubt the players are too (we know Sir Chris is, by the end-celebrations) and they have every right to be.

There’s no player ratings tonight as it would have to be a 10 for each and every one. Some may saw that Wright-Phillips wasn’t at his most effective, but he was instrumental in the second goal and worked hard until the last spell of the game. Kermorgant won headers all night, scored superbly and nearly had a second. Green provided telling contributions; Ephraim was excellent in the first half before tiring. And I just don’t have the time to sing the praises of Solly, who was almost inspirational, Wiggins (just another excellent game for him), Morrison and Taylor, who were magnificent, and Hollands, who worked tirelessly (as did Russell and Huges). Hamer made the save when it mattered. I think that’s everyone.

Wednesday 23 November 2011

Planning Departments

The week in Lyon is going splendidly, helped of course by the marvellous result at Brentford (a fellow Addick at the game gave his man of the match award to Green for the ball in for the goal). I’m quite happy that their manager feels they didn’t deserve to lose. As far as I’m concerned, Hamer had the one that hit the post well covered (no, I haven’t seen highlights I just know it to be the case) and we were unlucky to only beat them by one. It’s a useful time to pull out the old Shankly quote about the best team always wins and the rest is just gossip. However, it seems that my planning department is leaving a bit to be desired.

First, having arranged to fly back to London on Saturday morning in time to get across London for Huddersfield (in fact in time to get home, changed, and to the pub before Huddersfield) it has been pointed out to me that the game has been moved to Monday night. I’m sure I noticed this before, but in the rush hadn’t put the two together. I now have to explain to Suzanne that had I known when I booked the flights I would have chosen a relaxed trip to the Croix Rousse market for food and pastis followed by an afternoon of wine and the smells of French cooking over getting up at sparrow’s fart to be herded onto an easjet flight now in time for a forced trip to the supermarket (I’ll explain it in those terms but I’m increasingly inclined towards assuming a takeaway curry on Saturday night, come what may).

Second, I had hopes of taking in a Lyon Duchere game while here. I know they played away the previous weekend, but the France Football site seemed to be finding it difficult to list the fixtures. I checked out the Duchere site instead and was pleased to inform Suzanne that, although there was no Saturday evening match, the following day it was a cup game against Annecy. The site is in French (how inconsiderate) but even I can work it out. So, just before 15.00 on Sunday we set off for the five-minute stroll to the ground, wearing our Duchere scarves. Turns out the cup game was at Annecy. If I’d realised the previous day we just might have gone; it’s no hardship to spend some time at the town and the lake, although thoughts of the drive back might have ruled it out. As it was, La Duch duly won 4-1 and we ended up comprising probably about 10% of the crowd which watched Duchere’s reserves take on Valence reserves. A full report on a Duchere reserves game might be stretching it, so suffice to say it was a 2-0 win for the home side (a penalty in a first period that Duchere dominated and a breakaway second in stoppage time at the end after an increasingly tough contest).

Third, I’m in France, with a French woman. And somehow I’ve been lined up to cook a boeuf bourguignon. Hardly the natural order of things, I hope you’ll agree. I’m not sure how I was talked (conned) into this, but I’ll have my revenge. I’ll call it an English dish of beef stew with red wine. Suzanne managed to unearth a recipe, in English, which didn’t involve the essential and natural use of carrots in the dish. She is French, which means that she doesn’t not like carrots, she is ‘allergic’ to them. A harmless carrot for heaven’s sake. When I explain that I’m not allergic to cheese but merely have a natural disgust at the thought of consuming something that has so obviously gone off (at best; at worst it’s still alive), smells like it, and has the gluey consistency of clotted vomit it is deemed to count for less. I have a plan to buy a carrot for said beef stew and dye it another colour. I can say it’s a special English delicacy.

All of which leads us seamlessly on to another, rather more important, planning department. We’ve had the confirmation that Jackson will be out for some weeks. Bad news for sure; he’s really taken on the captain’s role this season, chipped in with goals (including impeccable penalties), while Wiggins and when called on Evina have compensated for the fact that he’s not an outright winger by getting forward beyond him to great effect. Just as the introduction of Kermorgant for Hayes and Green for Wagstaff (even to a less effect Hughes for Stephens) have changed the way we play, how we cope without Jackson will involve a change. If Sir Chris opts to bring in Ephraim and make no other changes, we will be playing with two genuine wingers. Exciting, but it also has to affect the way that Wiggins and Hollands approach the game as the scope to get forward may be compromised for fear of being stretched. Powell could of course opt for Evina and keep Ephraim in reserve, or balance the team by starting with Wagstaff on the other flank instead of Green.

At least the team and management have all week in training to work out what’s best; I’m sure they’ll get their necessary planning right. As for the captain’s armband, I’m assuming it’s between Hollands and Morrison. Just who takes on the penalties is another matter. I’m usually in favour of a team’s main goalscorer stepping forward. The guy should want to score come what may and should have enough swagger and confidence to do the necessary. I never thought that Killer was an especially good penalty taker, but he knew he’d score more often than not and, like all great forwards, regarded missing from time to time as an occupational hazard. But given Wright-Phillips’ last effort, the dire penalty away at Notts County last season, either he’s been getting in some practise or he gives the job to someone else. I hope he’s been planning too.

Wednesday 16 November 2011

Getting Ahead Of Myself

I don’t know if it’s just pressure of work or the absence of anything to complain about (or a mix of the two), but I’ve not felt the urge to write much recently. Sir Chris even managed to get the balance right on Sunday, between ensuring no repeat of the Northwich embarrassment and giving some a run-out to some, most obviously Hayes and Euell but also Evina. Perhaps tellingly he kept the central defence and midfield partnerships intact. I assumed everyone saw it for themselves on the telly and with my laundry causing some post-match delays (I don’t own a washing machine so take it to my mother’s – no carping please, it provides regular contact and enables me to do all the necessary and strenuous bits around her place, like changing the clocks) didn’t rush to print.

I guess I don’t need to add my note of sympathy for the Carlisle supporters. A repeat of their recent trip to London probably wasn’t quite what they hoped for. Suffice to say that for the past couple of seasons I really didn’t care about the Cup. The last thing I wanted was to draw Premiership opposition (I gave the Spurs away tie a miss), which would only serve as a reminder of what used to be the norm. This time around, while glad that the Carling Cup and Johnstone’s Paint Trophy are out of the way, I’m actually feeling up for it. While by no means taking the Carlisle game for granted, some luck with the draws and sneaking through to the later stages before a plumb tie would be good, or failing that a home game in the third round against a decent Championship team would be good (I said ‘decent’, so that rules out near neighbours), to get a taste of how the team might shape up against what we hope will be the norm next season.

We are, however, getting a little ahead of ourselves. One thought I did come away with after Sunday was whether – and if so where – we might need to strengthen in January and (honest) whether we might opt for a loan signing or two. The Powell goes and signs one on loan, Ephraim from QPR. Loan signings aren’t ideal, as we have found out all too often of late, but it might not be easy to make the right permanent signings. It’s far too soon to contemplate what we might need for next season if we go up, and anyone who comes in would need to be at least competing for a starting place but probably having to wait as no-one merits replacement. It’s a nice problem to have.

Going on Powell’s comment on Ephraim’s arrival, that “I have two players in more or less every position”, it seems to be a process of elimination. With Francis having departed, cover for Solly at right-back is a possibility. The option of switching Morrison there and bringing in Court is fine if we have to, but breaking up the central defensive partnership isn’t ideal if you don’t have to (Court and Doherty will no doubt get their chance through injury and suspension sooner or later). I know nothing about Ephraim, but from what I’ve read he will be a useful option at least from the bench. Jackson wide-left has worked even better than I’d hoped for, largely because the outstanding Wiggins and when required the exciting Evina have both done excellent jobs of overlapping him going forward. At some point in some games having an outright left-winger will be handy.

With Hughes a real bonus of late, Hollands in excellent form (and scoring goals, perhaps helped by the industry of his recent partner), Stephens waiting for a fresh chance, and Pritchard returning from injury with a bang, we don’t look short in central midfield either. Of the signings, Bover from what I’ve seen doesn’t look ready for the first team, but he undoubtedly has promise and time on his side. The only disappointment to date is Alonso, for so long the invisible man and then he failed to grab the opportunity in the Brentford cup game. Where he stands in the pecking order now I have no idea; but I hope that, like Hughes, if the chance comes along he’s up for it.

It still seems to me that it’s the fourth forward that should be our main concern. I can’t comment about whether Smith, who came on for a debut on Sunday, or even the developing Sho-Silva and Azeez, can be considered ready to make a first-team contribution. Otherwise of course Wright-Phillips is a shoo-in and Kermorgant his current chosen partner. As pointed out by others, the Breton has made a difference, even if it was harsh on Hayes to make way. Hayes can as we’ve seen partner BWP, or at a pinch Kermorgant, but if there was a negative note from Sunday it has to be that, harsh as it sounds, Euell’s usefulness as the fourth striker is questionable. A moment late on in the Preston game stuck in my mind. In a tight space he jinked beautifully past a defender but just didn’t have the legs to take advantage. That of course leaves Benson. I still see him as the natural replacement for Wright-Phillips should disaster strike, and think he can do the job if called on. But if Powell has doubts and/or if he’s going to depart, as looked likely through the summer, I hope it’s sorted quickly in January. If he goes, I think we’ll need the cover – and here especially a permanent signing might not be easy, given the job spec (good enough but ready to wait for the chance).

Of course, injuries could change the picture. What’s nice about our situation as January approaches – in addition to being five points clear at the top – is that it would be surprising were we to lose someone we didn’t want to. All of them have the realistic prospect of playing Championship football with us next season and, excellent as the signings have been, the risk of a Premiership club coming knocking on the door doesn’t look high. Never say never, but I’m assuming the focus in January will be on whether we want to strengthen, not watching the deadline day news with dread.

And I thought it would be a quick, short post as I had nothing to say (I’m not suggesting that I’ve actually said anything, but there’s enough words to be going on with). It’s Lyon for me on Friday (and the possibility of a Lyon Duchere game; after two creditable 0-0 draws they’re looking good in second place, behind OL’s B team), so Brentford will have to be passed on. I’m back (easyjet permitting as before) in time for Huddersfield. By 4.45 that afternoon (if not before) I trust we’ll all be on our feet singing ‘stand up for the champions’. Getting ahead of ourselves? Wny not; just as long as the players aren’t.

Saturday 5 November 2011

Happy Bunnies

You can always find something to complain about. To nobody’s surprise my appeal against a ridiculous parking fine (I don't even have a car) has been rejected by some jobsworth in the council (who probably doesn’t have the authority to actually make a decision), the gents in the East Stand hummed rather worse than usual at half-time, and just before the break we had a goalkeeper utterly unable to deal with any cross but in quick succession a corner failed to clear the first man and then Green sent a free kick sailing into the South Stand. But that’s about it. And in the greater scheme of things, after our blip, four straight wins, 15 goals scored, two homes games in the bag before half-time, we’re entitled to be happy bunnies. I’m trying anyway, but the hangover just won’t let me.

No surprises with the team, or the subs. All as before. The first 10 minutes proved to be decidedly cagey, with Preston having the greater possession but doing nothing with it, then getting back behind the ball. It looked like being a tough encounter during which we would have to be patient to break down strong opposition. However, we hadn’t counted on the absence of Preston’s regular keeper, with a certain Arestidou filling in. Apparently he played against us in the Carling Cup game, but that night we didn’t test him at all. This time around he did a passable impression of Rabchuka, who it seems was responsible for four scored by Blackpool at Leeds before half-time and was then substituted for an apprentice. I don’t think Preston had another keeper on the bench; it would have been an act of mercy had the ref correctly sent him off for the penalty. I can only assume he didn’t because he consulted the Charlton players and the unanimous verdict was that it was to our advantage to leave him on the pitch.

During the first 10 minutes I worried that we would be sucked into playing their sort of game as the absence of movement saw us hit too many long balls and give up possession too easily. The only moment of note was a nasty challenge on Solly which got the deserved yellow. But the game changed with something out of the blue, all the work of Green. He picked up the ball and sped past their defenders before sending in a decent enough shot which the unfortunate Arestidou managed to palm not to safety but just within reach of Jackson, who planted it into the net. That settled us down, ruffled them, and we quickly found their Achilles Heel. The second was soft as from a corner Arestidou’s uncertainty saw a bit of head tennis before it fell to Morrison, who slotted home well.

Preston did manage a shot and a tricky run down the wing, but as against Carlisle the game was put to bed before the break. First, Kermorgant managed to get his foot to a ball played through before Arestidou arrived and was duly clattered. The ref had no doubts about awarding the penalty, but seemed to take a decidedly lenient (or sadistic) approach to brandishing a card. I can’t say what the logic was of not sending him off, but it really didn’t matter. Jackson was never going to miss from the spot. And while last time around we had to wait until a few minutes into the second half before adding the fourth, this time another corner was headed back to Wright-Phillips who duly nodded it into the net.

Just what was said in both dressing rooms at half-time I can only guess. I would imagine that our bunch were discussing whether to go to the Blackheath fireworks and where to eat afterwards; Phil Brown may have had some more contentious matters on his mind. Not surprisingly we found it a little difficult to get truly motivated when play resumed and Preston, having made two substitutions, at least stuck to their task to prevent total humiliation. We had to wait until around 70 minutes for the next goal, but it was the best of the bunch. Wiggins won a ball down the left that he had no right to and delivered a delightful cross met perfectly by the inrushing Hollands whose header flew into the top corner. Arestidou can’t be blamed for that one.

His plight was summed up by Green deciding to cross from the right to the near post, where there was just their keeper and a defender. They nearly managed between them to bundle it into the net. The substitutions saw Hayes and Wagstaff on for BWP and Green, before Euell came on to allow Jackson to get his merited applause. Another player on two goals denied a hat-trick. Oh, and Carlisle scored two late goals, one a centre-back header from a corner and the other a quite delightful strike on the turn by someone. It gave their fans something to cheer about, but by that time we were more concerned with the other results, which went very nicely thank you very much.

So, on to Halifax for the FA Cup (presumably a few changes for that one, although we could do without a repeat of last season) and then Brentford away, which I shall miss by going to Lyon. I’m going to have to wait for the visit of Huddersfield for my next match. I didn’t make it to Wycombe either as the logistics fell apart when nobody took up the mantel and decided to drive (I listened live on the BBC site and the commentator was remarking about people leaving at 21.30 when there were still five or more minutes left and the game still in the balance; fact is that was the only way to get back in time for a train to return to London with a chance of getting back home – which is exactly why I didn’t go). That five-point gap at the top is reinstated and we’ve 40 points in the bag after 17 games (which puts us on course for 108 for the season). I’m going to struggle to find something to complain about tomorrow, or for a few days.

Player Ratings (looking at them again they seem perhaps a bit mean, but when the opposition's blown away by four goals in 20 minutes a mark covering 90 isn't easy):

Hamer – 7/10. Can’t be blamed for either of their goals, but did have a few iffy moments clearing the lines.

Solly – 7/10. Undemostrative but decent enough game.

Wiggins – 8/10. He did misplace a pass in the first half and once or twice was tested in defence, but the way he works down the left with Jackson – usually overlapping to actually provide the crosses – is a delight.

Morrison – 8/10. Got the overdue first of the season from a centre-back and not even with his head. Until late on Preston offered little threat.

Taylor – 7/10. Only gets a lower mark because it wasn’t him that scored. No mistakes I saw, and that’s plenty good enough for me.

Jackson – 8/10. I think he’s really grown into the captain’s role and provides calm, assured leadership. His goals don’t go amiss either, while he and Wiggins have it seems worked out how to compensate for the fact that he’s not a flying winger.

Hollands – 8/10. Won the midfield battles and notched an excellent goal. The change of partners for him hasn’t affected his form and if anything gives him greater license to go forward.

Hughes – 8/10. I’ve got to phone my Norwich mates and tell them that they were wrong. He’s taken his opportunity very well, plays the game simply but effectively.

Green – 8/10. His break set up the first goal and looked lively throughout, with some decent crosses (except for the couple just before the break). Might easily have scored.

Wright-Phillips – 7/10. Not the greatest of games, but who cares? Notched another, which is what he’s there for, and with six in four games he’s flying.

Kermorgant – 7/10. Perhaps lucky not to be booked in the first half (and the second) but won his share of headers and won the penalty. The debate about him and Green v Hayes and Wagstaff is settled for now (although I’d give the latter two the start next weekend).

Subs – Can’t really mark them as the game was more than won before any of them set foot on the pitch; Euell did work a lovely position near the by-line but didn’t have the legs to make it count.

Saturday 22 October 2011

No Contest By Half-Time

Having just moaned about the failure in the past four league games to score in the first half, you can hardly complain about anything – team selection, tactics, attitude etc – when this time around we reach the break 3-0 up and are playing against 10 men. And indeed, I have no complaints, even if I did have to get up at sparrow’s fart with a sore head from the previous night’s excesses in a Lyon buchon to make it to the game. After the flight back, dash across, and a few glasses I didn’t want a nailbiter. And this turned out to be as relaxed a game as you could want. The final 40 minutes were totally irrelevant, once their keeper had gifted us a fourth.

It would be tempting to conclude that after a defeat and doubts about team selection we went out and took the game by the scruff of the neck from the start. But that wouldn’t be the truth. Truth is, after an even first 10 minutes Carlisle gave us the game by conceding two quite soft goals. That they went on to concede a third, then had a player sent off (quite rightly), before the break meant that I went home perfectly content. But I don’t think today told us anything about the challenges that lie ahead. We should take the credit for winning very, very comfortably. And I’ve no complaints that we didn’t go on to score more. There’s another game coming up on Tuesday night and if Carlisle needed convincing that it wasn’t going to be their day not converting a soft penalty just about drove the message home.

In the event Sir Chris stuck to the Kermorgant and Green option over Hayes and Wagstaff. Solly was reinstated at right-back, as was to be expected, and the only change was that Hughes came in for Stephens, who was it seems away on family duties. With Stephens not available, the choice was perhaps more straightforward. Nevertheless, there was some pressure to show that the changed set-up could work from the start. And the first 10 minutes were inconclusive. The play was even, but perhaps ominously we had two decent chances, with Green putting in a decent shot and then Wright-Phillips played in only to be a bit slow off the starting blocks – perhaps thinking he was offside – and the defender getting back.

The breakthrough when it came was simple – and pointed to defensive frailties that were to make the game a non-contest. Wiggins and Jackson played a one-two down the left and the former’s cross found Kermorgant effectively unmarked. He did the decent thing and headed it into the net. Ten minutes later Hamer picked out BWP with a long clearance, but the defender had it covered, until he weakly headed back in the direction of their keeper and poacher that he is BWP nipped in to convert from a narrow angle. After 20 minutes, without being especially convincing, we were 2-0 up. Suddenly the world seemed back to rights. There were a few tricky moments, mostly coming from them down their left, but as the break approached you thought one more goal and it’s all over.

Wiggins again did the business. He took the ball down the left and instead of crossing kept going before squaring it. A couple of efforts were blocked before the ball fell to Kermorgant, who fairly hammered it into the roof of the net. If that wasn’t enough, their guy – who had already been booked for his second foul on Green – was caught out by Wright-Phillips and responded with a kick/trip that earned a second yellow. If that wasn’t enough, shortly into the second half Hollands intercepted a pass just inside their half. As he advanced you thought he’d lay it off, but instead kept going and hit a shot that ... went through their keeper’s legs. 4-0 and the game was truly up. Their embarrassed keeper’s next contribution was to lay out his own defender when taking a cross.

Carlisle kept playing and not surprisingly we eased off, but there was never any suggestion that they could get back into the game. Not even when the linesman had a bad moment and gave one of those penalties for the ball stricking a hand as the cross is made, when there’s no intent at all. Poor decision, but it really didn’t matter as Hamer dived to his right to save the spot kick. That the referee – denied the get-out of a linesman’s flag – failed to give us a penalty when a ball crossed in was virtually caught by their defender didn’t matter at all. The final 40 minutes or so were played out as something of a training ground exercise. Wagstaff came on for Green, then Euell for Hollands, and finally Hayes for Wright-Phillips. Other chances came and went, but when the sign went up for three added minutes – despite five substitutions and a few lengthy injuries – the feeling was it might have well have been one. There was a glass with my name on it and a takeaway still to come.

The way the game turned out could be interpreted as us responding well to our first league defeat. In truth, we just didn’t find out as Carlisle’s defensive failties meant the game was if not handed to us made very easy. There’s no criticism implied, you can only beat what’s in front of you – and we had the weapons to do that. So let’s worry about Wycombe and others to come tomorrow and be happy bunnies tonight.

Player Ratings:

Hamer – 8/10. Has to get an extra mark for a penalty save; otherwise everything through the afternoon was routine.

Solly – 6/10. Was given some troublesome moments by their guy down their left, and may have been a little uncertain having been dropped for a game, even if this was tactical. But nothing to worry about.

Wiggins – 8/10. On actual performance he should be man-of-the-match; laid on two of our first three goals and otherwise, apart from being ridiculously penalised for an inadvertent handball, once more didn’t put a foot wrong. Evina must be tearing his hair out.

Morrison – 7/10. He and Taylor, restored as the central defensive partnership, made no mistakes and handled all that was thrown at them. That it didn’t amount to much is not their fault.

Taylor – 7/10. As for Morrison.

Jackson – 7/10. Effective without being demonstrative, instrumental in the first goal, and threatened to score.

Hollands – 7/10. Can’t really give him the extra point for his goal, splendid as it was. This wasn’t a game that ended up testing us.

Hughes – 8/10. Perhaps a generous mark, but he’s my man-of-the-match. At the start of the season you’d have thought he’d be behind Pritchard, Alonso and perhaps even Bover. But he came in and did a calmly effective job. Just what you want from a guy waiting for the chance.

Green – 7/10. Not explosive, but after what seemed to have been a poor display against Stevenage he did the basics well, which meant getting in good crosses.

Kermorgant – 8/10. The guy scored two goals. Barely featured in the second half, but the game was over by then.

Wright-Phillips – 7/10. Scored a goal he had no right to; otherwise a bit lacklustre but again, today we didn’t need him to be firing on all cylinders.

Subs – Wagstaff (6-10 – had the opportunity to make a real nuisance of himself against a side already beaten; didn’t really take it, but again the game was already over); Euell (7/10 – came on to play in central midfield and played the ball around well enough); Hayes (6/10 – no real chance to impress as all around him were playing at 50%).

Friday 21 October 2011

Five To One

Five to one in a couple of weeks. Having viewed the October fixtures following Sheff Utd away as on paper at least less challenging than those coming up in November, offering the opportunity to drive home the advantage, we’ve obviously stuttered. That the stumble has coincided with the first material changes to the team to date hasn’t helped the cause and there’s no doubt that Sir Chris faces a selection dilemma for tomorrow’s game. Reinstate Hayes and Wagstaff for Kermorgant and Green and if we win it looks as if it was a mistake to have made the change; stick with the same starting X1 and .... well, we all know the permutations.

I would suspect that if we were playing away tomorrow there would be no question – barring injury, mishap etc – that Hayes and Wagstaff would be back at the start. But we’re not and there’s a trickier decision to be made if we expect Carlisle to play it tight. We’ve seen the references to Carlisle looking to take advantage of our ‘nerves’ and to be going for the win, but that doesn’t mean some gung-ho approach to the game. Bottom line is we have to focus on ourselves and how we want to play the game from the start. Powell is undoubtedly correct to suggest that you need Plans A, B, C and D; but the danger is forgetting just what Plan A is. If we start with Kermorgant and Green that is by definition Plan A. The point about B, C and D is that they come into play if things are not working out and changes need to be made. As has been pointed out elsewhere, the problem with starting with these two is that the back-up plan doesn’t look strong if we find ourselves chasing the game.

Let’s start with the statistics. First one, which we mustn’t lose sight of, is that after more than a quarter of the season we are top of the league. We are in the position everyone else, including Huddersfield, wants to be. We have earned that. Forget Brentford, it was irrelevant. A disappointing home draw followed by away defeat doesn’t amount to a slump; for the time being it’s a hiccup. It becomes a slump if we don’t win tomorrow. But the more meaningful statistic for me is that in our last four league games we’ve failed to score in the first half; and in the ones that I watched (MK Dons and Tranmere) we didn’t look like scoring; from others’ accounts the same could be said of Sheff Utd and Stevenage. And it’s not as if the switch to Kermorgant and Green is responsible. At MK Dons we were quite simply outplayed in the first half; against Tranmere we were equally lacklustre before the break.

No team can dominate for 90 minutes and I can’t point to a game so far this season (having missed a number) in which we’ve been in charge throughout. For me the best starting period to a game was at home against Sheff Wed. For the first 20 minutes or so we mullered them and could well have put the game to bed then. But thereafter we deteriorated and we undoubtedly second-best after the break. Perhaps the message is that we are, at least as yet, not good enough to be able to play at the right tempo, sticking to a game plan, through a full game. But compare the absence of goals in the first half in the last four games with the remarkable statistic previously of the number of matches in which we have gone 2-0 ahead (yes, I know we ended up in that position against Sheff Utd). If you add away at Bury, when Powell said we weren’t at the races in the first half, and you get a picture of very uneven performances through the season.

That perhaps leads us to the obvious conclusion: when we’re good we’re very, very good and when we’re not we’re ordinary. I rather doubt that there’s some magic formula to being good which can be periodically applied (unless it’s down to the pre- and during-match supplements), but there has to be something in the attitude of the team starting a game. Powell has stressed the need to be patient, especially in home games. No question. But being patient means neither the crown nor the team getting unsettled if we’re not quickly ahead; it doesn’t mean that it’s OK to be ponderous and unambitious in our play from the start, seemingly on an assumption that all will be fine as and when we get going.

As the song goes on to say, ‘five to one, baby, one in five; no-one here gets out alive; now you get yours baby, I’ll get mine; gonna make it baby; if we try’. Plan A for me this season is about the pace and tempo at which we play and the message from recent games is that we need to begin games with greater conviction and sense of urgency (not panic). We’ve shown we’re able to play better football than most others if not all others in this division for spells. But these spells are a damn sight less effective if we’re losing and the opposition can play to their strengths. So yes, for me it’s back to Hayes and Wagstaff to start tomorrow, with a genuinely effective Plan B ready and waiting, but whatever the decision let’s see the first half not wasted.

Saturday 8 October 2011

Point Rescued

I have to admit to a slight sense of foreboding ahead of the game. If France can beat England in a rugby World Cup and if Wales can reach the semi-final of anything, the world’s turned upside down – and on a day like that Tranmere turning us over might be par for the course. In the event the football proved to be similar to the rugby in that we put in a first-half display that was well below par and found ourselves deservedly behind. But at least it wasn’t 16-0. We improved in the second and on another day might have taken all three points – undeservedly on the balance of play and chances over the 90 minutes, but with Wright-Phillips of all people failing to convert from a couple of yards out and according to others another penalty denied . We might have lost it too, with Tranmere carrying a threat throughout and Hamer and Morrison grateful that after a failure to communicate and a collision the ball bobbled behind for a corner rather than their guy getting a tap-in. Also, I felt one of theirs should have seen red. By the same token our goal came from the sort of penalty you only get once or twice a season. So, strange day, take the draw and move on.

There were rare changes to the team, with Green and Kermorgant getting the nod ahead of Wagstaff and Hayes, who were on the bench (with Doherty included there as Cort was unavailable). Both had earned the starting places with cameo substitute contributions, and there was an obvious logic to picking Green to provide the crosses if the threat in the air of Kermorgant was to be used. But fact is they didn’t really work. A lot of Hayes’ work involves making himself available and linking up play, helping to get the midfield engine room of Hollands and Stephens going. Without that, we had a tendency to go long towards Kermorgant, and Tranmere were up for that challenge, with an experienced centre-back in Goodison. The related problem in starting with these two is that the options to turn a game around with impact players on the bench were lacking.

With Green struggling to find space and get in the game, we failed to create anything meaningful in the first half. I can only remember a shot from Wiggins on his right foot which went wide. By contrast, Tranmere didn’t look blessed with pace but had a game plan and generally bossed midfield, were in control of our forwards, and with Showunmi carried a threat going forward. They’d already bungled a great opportunity as two went for the ball in the area and got in each other’s way, but after a couple of harmless long-range efforts they took the lead with something of a fluke. Their guy shaped to cross from the left and either he sliced it or it took a deflection (consensus on the way back was that it did indeed come off Solly) and Hamer was left stranded having come a bit off his line, with the ball squirting in at the near post.

At the break we’d given a passable impression of underestimating our opponents and, whatever the line-up, not putting in the drive and effort needed to win the game. It left me thinking that this was the third game in a row in which we’d failed to score in the first period, the second of which we’ve gone in behind. Something for Sir Chris to ponder since as England found out sometimes the game is lost in the first half.

The workrate had to improve in the second half and it did. And we started to see some cracks emerging as once put under pressure Tranmere looked less than comfortable, especially with a goalkeeper who when not timewasting – just why do refs give a guy a warning for this in the first half and when it’s repeated go and have a chat to them instead of just brandishing a yellow? – seemed likely to spill anything that came his way. We nearly had a farcical own goal to celebrate as two defenders managed to contrive to bundle a harmless cross just wide, then said keeper nearly let a shot through his grasp. The play was still fairly even, with midfield keenly contested, but at least we were making some things happen.

Green was more involved in the second half and delivered one excellent cross, but it wasn’t surprising that he gave way for Wagstaff, who nearly had an immediate impact, running through before being blocked off (and Tranmere’s tackling was keen through the game). It was around this time that we were denied a penalty. The ball was being seen out for a corner when their guy clearly shoved ours off the ball. The ref gave a free kick just outside the box where our guy fell, but those I talked to in the North Stand say the challenge was inside. The free kick itself should be glossed over as a training ground move saw it squared straight to a defender.

The penalty when it came was a surprise. Wright-Phillips was doing good stuff outside the box and he won a corner. The ball was crossed and in the usual melee somebody must have climbed on somebody. The ref had no doubts and clearly indicated climbing, but you don’t get them often. Tranmere tried every trick in the book to unsettle Jackson, playing around with encroachment and their keeper even going forward and picking the ball up off the spot. To absolutely no avail as Jackson simply buried it low to the keeper’s left.

That still left around 15 minutes to win the game and our golden opportunity came as the ball bobbled in the box and Wright-Phillips twisted round to bury it a la Mendonca. Unfortunately this time around he made minimal contact and from a couple of yards out it looped up for their keeper to collect. There were other moments, but nothing to compare – except for the Hamer-Morrison misunderstanding that left both in need of treatment and their forward cursing his luck that he couldn’t catch up with the ball. Just one more incident to mention. Just how does their player not get a red card when after a midfield tussle which left him and our guy on the deck and, with the ball 20 yards away, as ours gets to his feet is clearly kicked? The ref gave us a free kick but took no further action.

So, a game we could have lost but which if we’d turned up in the first half might well have won. We’re far from perfect and, after we all indulged in some deserved back-slapping after the Sheff Utd game, this afternoon served as a reminder that there aren’t many walkovers in this division. They didn’t come to shut up shop and more than matched us for passing and movement in the first half. We’ve got where we are by hard work and if the tempo of our play drops we are a shadow of the team that we can be – and need to be if we are to retain our current position. As in the rugby, we gave our opponents hope and something to fight for with a below-par first-half display. That in turn raises the question for Powell as to the best starting X1 as on prevailing form the changes made were justified but sometimes, like a rowing team, the boat goes faster with a different combination. All to be sorted out on the training ground before Stevanage.

Player Ratings:

Hamer – 7/10. Don’t think he can be blamed for the goal, despite being beaten at his near post, but has to share the fault for the incident with Morrison which could have cost us the game. Otherwise dealt with the high balls well.

Solly – 7/10. Was caught out a couple of times and picked up a yellow for a late tackle, but for the most part held up well once more against much bigger opponents. Their goal may have deflected off him, but that’s just one of those things.

Wiggins – 7/10. Another calmly effective game. Doesn’t seem to like passing or shooting with his right foot, however.

Morrison – 7/10. For the most part he and Taylor dealt well with an evident threat in the air and the physical presence of Showunmi. Just that collision again.

Taylor – 7/10. As with Morrison, no nonsense and effective against a big team.

Jackson – 7/10. I’d just about make him our man of the match for the calmness with which he waited for and then took the penalty. Otherwise mixed game as we seldom had control of midfield and didn’t pop up in the box as he often does.

Hollands – 6/10. We struggled to get our passing game going and central midfield has to be a key part of that. Didn’t play badly, but didn’t stand out either.

Stephens – 6/10. As with Hollands. They are the engine room of the team and for much of the game it didn’t get out of a low gear.

Green – 6/10. He was in the team to provide the ammunition and came up short today. Still seems to be feeling his way back after the missed games.

Kermorgant – 6/10. Again, won a fair share of headers and almost played people in once or twice. But by and large was shackled by their defenders.

Wright-Phillips – 6/10. You wouldn’t have wanted that chance to fall to anyone else, but for once he failed to convert.

Sub – Wagstaff (7/10 – caused them problems when he came on; he and Green are I hope going to contest the spot through the season and it may well be a case of one starting and one finishing a game).

Sunday 2 October 2011

First-Quarter Report: Bloody Hell!

As the first quarter of the season is effectively completed, it’s time to draw breath and assess progress to date. It’s a difficult task for a natural-born contrarian. We’re five points clear at the top, unbeaten, won eight out of 11, with the exception of a couple of outfits based in Manchester have the best points-per-game return in the country, have not just scored in every game but have only failed to score at least twice in two, and have kept four clean sheets. Some concern that we might be rabbit-killers who would struggle against the better sides in the division (as with the exception of Sheff Wed we hadn’t played them) were dispelled by getting a deserved point away at MK Dons and then winning away at Sheff Utd.

In addition, with Green back from his virus, Alonso hopefully getting close, and Cort and Kermorgant brought in, we have much better options from the bench and to cover for inevitable injuries and suspensions, nobody in the first team is playing badly enough to merit being replaced, and we are playing (albeit not yet for full games, which may be a little too much to ask) with panache and style, as well as determination when things are not going to plan (as in the first half at MK Dons). We have the division’s best finisher in Wright-Phillips, who’s notched seven in 10 starts, Hayes and Kermorgant have contributed five between them, and the midfield has more than chipped in (in fact the only statistics against us are the penalties count and the absence so far of goals from the central defenders). And to round things off for me we have a Frenchman scoring goals (which might ease Suzanne’s pain next Saturday when England demolish France in the funny-shaped ball game) and a philosophy fan (Alonso) waiting in the wings.

The season to date consequently amounts to a massive success for Sir Chris and his staff, for everyone involved in the selection of the players brought in, and directly or indirectly for the new owners. It’s been rightly pointed out by New York Addick in particular that the actual net investment made in new players looks quite limited, taking account of the fee received for Jenkinson. And as outlined in the recent Evening Standard piece we are guessing over most of the fees paid, while we still see references to the club having been close to administration without adequate explanations. These concerns will linger, but for the time being at least pale in comparison with the delight in how things have gone. They couldn't have gone any better if we'd shelled out millions. Just how Powell, Dyer et al have shaped an effective and entertaining team almost from scratch in such a short space of time leaves me speechless. I think given the new influx at the start of the season we would have settled for a top six spot and signs of improvement for this point. I know I would have.

So what can go wrong? Well, for a start Powell is a shoo-in for September manager of the month, just 10 months after Parkinson picked up his award for last November. Injuries and suspensions are bound to arise, we have yet to see how the team might respond to a setback (during games they’ve turned things around, especially against Bury and MK Dons, but we will lose sooner or later), and there’s always the Epicurean Swerve (the unpredictable). Of course there’s no room for any complacency; this division is too competitive for that not to be punished. Perhaps the biggest concern is that from now on we are going to be targeted. Other teams will by now have a good idea how we play and will start to better assess how to stop us. The only game I’ve seen so far where we were effectively neutralised and ended up looking second-best was the Sheff Wed home game, where their physicality and desire to play the game in the air wore us down. We can expect more of the same, especially at The Valley.

This division may be competitive – and will become a scrap when the league fixtures come thick and fast in January-March – but it’s not one in which teams tend to dramatically improve. Apart from Scunthorpe, who I thought would be up there, there are no real surprises regarding who stands where. Huddersfield, Preston, MK Dons, and both Sheffield clubs would have been among most people’s pre-season predictions to be in or around the top six, with Brentford Notts County and Colchester perhaps in the mix. We haven’t played Preston or Huddersfield yet (forget the Carling Cup).

If the season goes in stages it’s fair to say that October looks like a month in which we have the potential to drive home our current advantage. Games against Tranmere and Carlisle at home and Stevenage and Wycombe away all appear winnable (no, not grounds for complacency) before November brings what on paper are stiffer tests – Hartlepool, Preston, Brentford and Huddersfield. After these two months we will have played 19 games and be approaching the halfway mark and there might then be the occasion for a fresh assessment. May it be as positive as the one for the first quarter.

For me, this time around the Amsterdam trip threatens to rule out the vital clash against Brentford on Wednesday night. I’m not against the principle of the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy, but for us it has absolutely no value or interest. Even so, with the return flight due to land at City Airport at 18.30 I might just take leave of my senses (it has been known to happen) and turn up in a suit with luggage. After that and Tranmere, Lyon rules out any thoughts of a trip to Stevenage (I believe Suzanne has booked us in for a wine fair for the afternoon; I just hope the French don’t mistake intermittent howls of joy followed by a dance round the hall as necessarily a reflection of the quality of the sample I’m quaffing), but barring disasters the flight back the following Saturday has been planned to allow time to get across London for the Carlisle game. And after that Wycombe away looks entirely doable. That’s as far ahead as I’ve ever managed to plan.

Wednesday 28 September 2011

Tougher Test, Happy With The Point

The need for a little beauty sleep (well, nearly everything is relative) after the return from Milton Keynes and a few work commitments mean that I’m probably last to post thoughts on last night’s game. For once this means checking out the club report and trying to make sure some of the ‘facts’ included are correct, or at least clear howlers are minimised. And to begin with let’s clear up any doubt. I hope our goal remains credited to Kermorgant, but it was right in front of us and it came back off the post before hitting the keeper’s leg and going in. If the dubious goals committee get their mitts on it, it will be an OG.

How you feel after the final whistle is usually a fair guide to a game – and last night I was more than happy with the point. From the opening minutes it was apparent that MK Dons were a cut above any other team I’ve seen us up against to date. They were comfortable on the ball, from back to front, had threat down the flanks, possessed the pain-in-the-neck Morrison who was annoyingly effective in holding up play, broke with nasty efficiency, and in Chadwick had the stand-out player of the first half. He tended to bypass our midfield when supporting their front two, which seemed to encourage Stephens and Holland to hang back for fear of being caught out. Through the first half we saw precious little of the ball, gave away possession too cheaply, didn’t get anything going out wide, and ended up managing one shot in anger. I counted five efforts on goal from them before they went ahead with the penalty; it was a soft one in that their guy saw a leg stuck out and went for it (I thought the leg belonged to Solly, but the reports say Taylor, who I mistook for Wagstaff on Saturday), but in the context of the modern game there was no doubt that the leg was there to go over.

That’s not being over-critical. MK Dons were at home and after four games without a win were clearly up for it – to the extent of some cynical game-disrupting fouls which were not punished sufficiently by the ref and one disgraceful lunge which didn’t even get a yellow. The onus was on them and perhaps we were reasonably content to try to see off the storm in the first period before upping the effort in the second. And the penalty aside, their attempts on goal, while well dealt with by Hamer, only involved one good save. The others were routine. More worrying was their ability to get into scoring positions and our failure to create.

The break was necessary for us and the second half was to prove a different affair. In fact it was open, pretty even, and could easily have produced a hatful of goals. Good fare for the neutral, but they had too many openings for comfort – and this time Hamer’s saves were of a different nature. He undoubtedly earned his corn. The same cannot be said of their forwards, who somehow failed to score, especially with a few clean headers and a one-on-one. But this time we created a similar number of our own, with the midfield while not in control at least competing on equal terms and with equal effect.

Although our team continued to pick itself, there’s no doubt we carried much greater threat after the two obvious changes were made. Wagstaff had an indifferent first half and in the second it was still a struggle as he wasn’t able to go past his man and his crossing again let him down. One from a good position just hung in the air in the centre of the goal for their keeper to collect. To his credit he stuck to the task and was getting more involved before giving way to Green. Not long afterwards Kermorgant replaced Hayes. Hayes had a decent game, but our new Breton added much more of an aerial threat, even if the direction of his headers was just a bit askew.

The equaliser proved to be a thing of both beauty and farce. The ball was played down the right to Green with his back to goal and their defender in close attendance. A superb flick one side and turn away the other and he was clear away. The cross was sublime, just asking to be buried. If Kermorgant had put it in the net unaided it would have been a goal of the season contender. But again it did come back off the post (and with two other headers from good positions Kermorgant won the ball in the air but didn’t find the net).

Of our chances, one ball flashed across the face of goal without getting a touch, one squared to Stephens (I think) saw the shot fly just over, their keeper pulled off a couple of good saves, one cross to the far post saw Jackson for once mistime (and misdirect) the header, and at the death a ball in the box didn’t quite get the connection it needed and dribbled through to their keeper. We could easily have scored three in the second half, but so could they; and they could have been out of sight at the break.

So let’s concentrate on the fact that we’re still unbeaten, the impression that the team did well not to buckle when under pressure and to show enough courage and conviction to get a hard-earned point, and move on to Sheffield. No point in worrying about what Preston are up to either, we have to just focus on ourselves. And for once Sir Chris will have some thinking to do when it comes to picking the team for Saturday, given the impact that Green and Kermorgant had. Personally, without any consideration of Sheff Utd’s strengths and weaknesses and player fitness (will Wright-Phillips be fit after picking up a knock last night?), I’d be inclined to start the game with the same X1. Green may not yet be ready for a full 90 minutes and Wagstaff does have the defensive qualities he may lack for an away game, while Hayes played well enough last night before giving way. Kermorgant may well prove to be a key signing (not surprisingly I hope he does) but having him to come on may for now still be the best choice. The good news is that with these two – and hopefully soon Alonso (who has to be a star, having read his programme interview and myself having been a philosophy graduate) – ready and available we have more options now.

Before we do move on, you’ve got to laugh a little at MK Dons. Their stadium is quite splendid, but far too big for them. Their programme was also impressive, but suffered from the content. Their manager’s column had the headline “we will not underestimate the task ahead of us tonight”. Leaving aside the pedantic comment that by definition it is a mistake to underestimate anything, the fact that we are top of the league and had won every away game to date sounded like Mans City saying they would respect Bayern Munich. That followed the wonderful statement from chairman Pete Winkelman – “in recent years we have had some memorable night games at stadiummk”. Beyond recent years you didn’t have any night games at stadiummk.

Player Ratings:

Hamer – 9/10. Did everything asked of him, especially in the second half.

Wiggins – 7/10. Far tougher match than the recent home games; stood up well and more effective getting forward in the second half.

Solly – 7/10. Was going to be a 6 until I saw it wasn’t him that gave away the penalty. Was asked a lot of questions last night as MK Dons had a winger (Balanta) who was strong and fast. In that context he had a good game, seldom getting exposed.

Taylor – 6/10. Has to lose a mark for the penalty (apparently); more worrying for me was their ability to win free headers in the box.

Morrison – 6/10. Perhaps harsh, but fact is they created enough chances to have scored 3 or 4.

Jackson – 6/10. Much more effective in the second half when we worked the ball forward, but did miss that header from a good position.

Stephens – 6/10. Fact is through the first half they played the ball around in midfield much better than us. Chadwick seemed to unsettle both him and Hollands with his movement.

Hollands – 6/10. As for Stephens, the midfield didn’t really function in the first half.

Wagstaff – 5/10. Harsh mark, but he didn’t have a good game and seemed a little out of sorts in the first half. Was improving before taken off.

Hayes – 6/10. Not his most effective game, but I’m disconcerted by some fans dislike of him. A lot of intelligent work seems to go unnoticed.

Wright-Phillips – 6/10. Didn’t score. But was instrumental in us getting back into the game as when we pushed them back he always looked a threat; failed to get a shot away from a decent position late on with the challenge possibly meaning he’s picked up a knock.

Subs – Green (8/10 – really didn’t do much and saw little of the ball, but his moment that led to the goal was sublime); Kermorgant (7/10 – some may have given a higher mark as you could argue his introduction changed the game; fact is he had three headers from goal-scoring positions and didn’t put one between the sticks; but a great start); Hughes (oh come on, he was on the pitch for all of five minutes).

Saturday 24 September 2011

Basically Splendid

2-0 up again! It is getting weird. This afternoon we did more than enough to see off a decent Chesterfield team, who deserve credit for coming and playing football, but once more delivered a period of angst when it was possible we would throw away points. We didn’t; I’m happy. At times we simply steamrollered them and a quick glance at the BBC statistics shows 14 attempts on target and 11 off target; that’s an attempt on goal every 2.7 minutes. Our only problem was that having achieved that 2-0 lead half time came and, with two tough away games coming up, we took our foot off the pedal. From what I’ve seen, when we do that we get a bit sloppy, vulnerable and sure enough we conceded, to threaten to let Chesterfield into a game that should have been beyond them. No team can play with full intensity for the entire game. Let’s just ensure that when it does drop we keep a clean sheet.

That is perhaps too negative an opening paragraph for a game that we won, deservedly. There were some excellent performances, not least from both full-backs, and we’re clear at the top of the league. Happy days. And even a column in the programme from chairman Michael Slater that I could not agree more with. It seems so good that before long I’m going to have to watch the DVD of last season that’s been sitting by the TV for over a week. Maybe after MK Dons on Tuesday night. There is a lot to like about the team and the way we are playing, not least the evident spirit (perhaps because the players have not been associated with the failures of the past five seasons). But we seek perfection, so don’t see them as grumbles, just warnings – which I’m sure Sir Chris doesn’t need to be told.

The team was entirely as expected and basically continues to pick itself, with Green still recovering and Alonso working his way back from injury. The early exchanges were even, with Chesterfield looking more capable than most, especially with the physical presence of Clarke up front. But quite promisingly they displayed an uncertainty at the back which promised rewards and after the first 10 minutes we took more of a grip on the game and embarked on a period of sustained pressure. This saw a series of corners and various free headers that might have been buried, before the pressure told. A low shot seemed to get various deflections, possibly a rebound from their keeper, before Hayes provided the decisive deflection. Chesterfield did have once decent chance in the first half, but the ball in came at waist height to Clarke and that’s not easy for him to deal with and he put it over the bar. At the other end Wright-Phillips robbed a defender and squared to Hayes, who failed to control it, but it mattered little as a free kick was squared to the inrushing Jackson who put us two up.

At the break it did have an air of job done and for a large part of the second half we played as if that was the prevailing view. The intensity, desire to win the ball back, and movement going forward just wasn’t there any more and Chesterfield took encouragement from that. It opened the game up to some decisions by the ref that threatened to turn things around. He got the first decision right – a cross which may have struck a hand but with no intent. No penalty and their manager seemingly sent to the stands for a futile protest. Then Wagstaff had the ball down the right and clearly felt he’d been fouled, only for nothing to be given. It went forward and as their guy checked back in the box his leg was taken for a stonewall penalty. That was dispatched and suddenly it was truly game on.

We had to raise our game and after a fashion we did. Chesterfield had an opportunity, with the crowd and the team more hesitant, but they didn’t take it as instead of pressing forward they seemed happy to be back in the game and we did respond. By upping our game when necessary the chances started to flow again. One advantage played by the ref saw a header come back off the bar and Wright-Phillips cut inside, only to hit the shot in the centre of the goal for a comfortable save. They also had one where the guy attempted a curler only to find the middle of the goal. We seemed to be doing enough to be just about in control, but at 2-1 you never know. The ref’s next decision came when Wagstaff seemed to be felled in the area, but when all and sundry thought he’d given the spot kick he instead flourished a yellow card for Scottie for diving. Of course, at the time I thought it was a penalty, but at least the ref was decisively and called it as he saw it.

In the event it didn’t matter as after four minutes of added time were announced we rounded things off with a splendid goal. Kermorgant had come on for Hayes (tellingly rather than Euell) and he and Wagstaff fashioned a move down the right, Scott put in the cross, and BWP stooped to bury the header. Angst over and a couple of minutes left to celebrate. Hughes came on for a quick cameo and at the final whistle any complaints were entirely relative. Big crowd, good win, now we have two tough away games to see whether we deserve to be where we are. I’d just prefer us to have the option of calling games done when we go 2-0 up; don’t the opposition realise it’s done?

Player Ratings:

Hamer: 8/10. Actually had very few saves to make, but did everything competently, took crosses well when required, and merits the mark for controlling a difficult back pass with consummate skill.

Solly: 8/10. Another excellent game. There were challenges against bigger guys which he didn’t have a prayer of winning, but was never exposed and quite frankly didn’t put a foot wrong.

Wiggins: 9/10. I made him my man of the match. Every challenge I saw he won, was effective going forward. Splendid stuff.

Morrison: 7/10. Seems it was his challenge for their penalty, which has to count against him, but otherwise absolutely no complaints. They managed two decent attempts on goal other than the penalty and that in itself means the defence did a fine job.

Taylor: 8/10. Much the same as for Morrison. Neither of them stand out, but centre-backs who do their job with efficiency and without mistakes make such a welcome change from what has gone before.

Jackson: 8/10. Gets the extra mark for the goal, which was taken with aplomb. Not outstanding otherwise, but quietly effective.

Stephens: 7/10. No complaints at all; he and Hollands seem to be forging a very effective partnership as the engine of the team. But when we go off the boil the spotlight inevitably focuses on central midfield as that’s the area that matters.

Hollands: 7/10. As with Stephens, good game and no complaints other than how we play when the intensity drops.

Wagstaff: 7/10. Could have been a five or an eight; his cross for the third goal was a peach that just invited the finish, he might have won a penalty. Equally, he convinced the ref that he was a diver and when he didn’t get a free kick for a challenge and lost the ball it led to their goal.

Hayes: 8/10. Had a better game than some around me seemed to think. Intelligent play and movement and when we play with pace and movement he’s involved in it. Took his goal well. But yes, there were times when his touch and pass didn’t work.

Wright-Phillips: 8/10. Passed when I’d have bet my house on him shooting, failed to bury the shot when he’d done all the hard work, but scored ... again. He gives us an edge that ensures that is priceless.

Friday 23 September 2011

Calmly Reassured

There’s something calmly reassuring about a post late on a Friday ahead of a Saturday game, especially when one’s mood has been soothed by a liquid lunch (networking, as they say). It will quickly be buried under match reports, so there’s no danger of anyone actually reading it (which of course begs the point about posts at other times). I was trying to mentally justify writing nothing since the Exeter game (and let’s face it after we scored there was nothing to write about then) and the Preston reserves run-out, on the grounds of the inordinate time taken in trying to sort out a new oven, new boiler, roof repairs (which morphed into brickwork), ordering new cowboy boots from the US (not as easy as it sounds), and a little diversion caused by work (there have been a few wobbles on financial markets of late). But none of this really stacks up. Fact is, when there’s nothing to complain about there’s not much to say.

Sir Chris has this truly annoying habit of saying things that I agree with. That may just mean I’m gullible, but how can we quibble about the start we’ve had and the way we’re playing? We’ve even managed to renew the French connection by bringing in Kermorgant, which will keep Suzanne happy (he’s a Breton and she says they are stubborn; but then I did read that people from Lyon are cold and only care about money). Of course it’s early days and there are concerns about our ability to overcome teams full of lumps playing head tennis. But fundamentally things can only get ... well, worse. It is a splendid initiative to try to fill the ground for tomorrow’s game with entry for a fiver (and I wouldn’t for a second gripe about the net value of my season ticket having been further eroded, having managed to attend just one home league game to date) and I don’t mind us tempting fate in view of last season’s attempt to do the same. Pressure is something to be welcomed and this year’s batch look so much better placed to cope with heightened expectations.

What we won’t know for a while is whether they have what it takes when the games come thick and fast after the turn of the year. The stable, key partnerships to date – when did we last play the same full-backs, central defenders, central midfielders, and forwards so consistently? - are bound to get disrupted sooner or later. The news that Pritchard is sidelined for 4-6 weeks means that Hughes is the only viable cover in central midfield, given that Alonso will be some way short of match practise when available (it was nice to see the club site give an update on his progress), unless Euell is pressed into service in that area. In other areas we look well covered, especially defence, provided Green is getting over his virus. Clearly Kermorgant’s arrival does push Benson (and Euell) down the pecking order, with fresh speculation that he will go out on loan once his pinkie’s OK.

If there is a quibble so far, it’s to do with the possible mental effect of going 2-0 up in a game. If there’s a statistician out there (maybe the work’s already been done) I’d like to know if there’s been any other season in our history, or period of games, like the season so far. Eight games played and we’ve gone 2-0 ahead in six of them. In only one of the six have we gone on to extend the lead, while we’ve been pulled back to 2-1 in one and to 2-2 in two (one of which we did score again to win of course). I’m not suggesting that we’re so good that we’ve been taking our foot off the pedal, that we have consciously started to play differently, or even that we are able to play at the same intensity for a full 90 minutes. Rather that with only three clean sheets in the first eight games we’ve not to date proved adept at shutting out the opposition, so there’s absolutely no good reason to think or play any differently when ahead (OK, 4-0 up with five minutes on the clock and it’s a different story).

Of course, when we look back on our times as Addicks it’s the tight games that feature uppermost in the favourites list; I wouldn’t change them for all the tea in China (except for the ones we lost). But I have absolutely no complaints about rolling over teams (off the top of my head slaughtering West Brom comes to mind as far as competitive games are concerned). I like calm, reassuring games where we run out easy winners.

We do of course have another game coming up shortly after Saturday – and I’m expecting to be there for that one. Milton Keynes isn’t far away and with friends driving it’s all doable. It will be another ground on my list for ‘Doing The 92’ (check out the website and you never know possibly the next series of Eggheads). I expect I’m one of the few football supporters in the country that bears no ill-will towards MK Dons (over and above hoping that they don’t interfere with our promotion campaign). The rebirth of Wimbledon is something to be admired and applauded; their fans reacted to what for them was a terrible development in exactly the right way and it’s great to see them moving up the leagues. But if I owned the old Wimbledon I’d have felt obliged to move the team as once they’d lost their ground and been relegated there was no feasible turnaround for them (other than going down the leagues, perhaps stabilising, and starting to move back up to where the new Wimbledon are now). I’m old enough to have been around when there was speculation that we would have to up sticks to Milton Keynes in order to survive. There was never a risk that the move would lead to a US-style franchise approach (there’s more danger on that front if Spurs were permitted to move to east London) and MK Dons now have no links with the past. Good luck to them, no more or less to others. Of course, I reserve the right to call them all the names under the sun if Tuesday doesn’t go to plan.

Tuesday 13 September 2011

We Lost And We're Top Of The League

As trade-offs go, it was fair enough. Sitting through a game in which we were second-best pretty much throughout and watching our first defeat of the season, in return for avoiding thinking about having to travel to Southampton for the next round of a competition we don’t care about and being elevated by other results to the top of the league. I’m a happy bunny, albeit not an ecstatic one. As encouraging as Reading had been for the second string, this time around the omens were not so positive. Preston proved bigger and stronger than us and won the key battles, with Benson and Euell well shackled up front and the service to them patchy at best as Pritchard and Hughes weren’t able to control the game, while Green and Bover on the flanks produced only moments.

The team was almost unchanged from the Reading game, except for Cort partnering Doherty in central defence in place of Mambo. But whereas that game, perhaps thanks to Reading, was open and entertaining, this time we failed to reproduce the fluidity as Preston didn’t stick to the relaxed rules. An indifferent first-half display seemed if anything to suggest that a number of players are suffering from lack of match practise. Francis I thought was excellent against Reading, but nobody’s going to pretend he didn’t have a mare tonight. He began uncertainly, was partly to blame for their first goal (their winger cut inside him and although he got a block on the shot it ran through for another to score), picked up a yellow card and was perhaps lucky not to get a second for a foul on the edge of the box, and appeared hesitant throughout. Getting replaced at half-time by Mambo was something of a relief all round. I’ve been one of his supporters, but comparing tonight with Solly’s display on Saturday leaves no doubt about who merits the place in the first team. Just hope he puts tonight behind him as nobody can tell when he will be needed to fill in.

Of the game itself, having taken the lead Preston continued to look more likely to add to it than us to get back in the game. The introduction of Wagstaff for Benson at the break did liven things up for a while, but before we could build up any real head of steam they extended their lead with a decent shot from around the edge of the area. Our best chance to score, once Euell have been ruled offside after putting the ball in the net, came at the death when two at the far post failed to convert one of the few decent crosses, most of which were provided by Evina. News of Colchester’s late equaliser raised the spirits.

Of the positives from the night, Sullivan looked capable. No worries if he has to start. Evina was lively, but he too is clearly going to have to bide his time as Wiggings has done nothing wrong to date. Cort and Doherty both looked capable of heading the ball away all night and either could slot into the first team as and when injuries and suspensions start to take their toll. Hughes doesn’t exactly excite, but knows his way around a football pitch. Otherwise, neither Benson nor Euell presented a compelling case for a league start, neither did Green, although he’s been under the weather. Perhaps the major disappointment – relative to the Reading game – was Pritchard. It wasn’t that he played badly, but he found it hard to have an impact on the game, in contrast to the previous outing. Bover showed flashes, but he looks as though he has a way to go before fully adjusting to this sort of English football. So basically most of the old hands looked reliable but not much more (no sign yet of Alonso, while Smith didn’t come off the bench).

So, some readjustment from the post-Reading optimism regarding the second string. They had a bit of a lesson tonight in how to control a game. Clearly a number of them are going to get called up before long, even if only for the odd game, as just how far into the season we can go with effectively no change to the first team remains to be seen. No matter, tonight let’s enjoy the league table.

Saturday 10 September 2011

It Looked Over The Line To Me

It’s not often I feel sympathy for the opposition. Usually they have either been dog meat for the forward march of the mighty Addicks or they have somehow robbed us of victory. But today was as close as it comes. The TV replays will presumably shed some light on whether their effort went over the line. From where I was sitting there was no question the whole ball was over. And a team which came to The Valley with no great expectations then saw the injury compounded by a chance remark to the linesman resulting in a red card. After that they conducted themselves admirably, continuing to make a game of it until our second removed any lingering doubts. Exeter, I think you were robbed. The developments meant it was hard to assess our performance as we did enough, without ever producing the compelling football of the first 30 minutes of Monday night. After two home draws the win was all-important, so no real judgements can be made. But we’ll try anyway.

We started sluggishly, in direct contrast to Monday night. Pass and move is all about how quickly you do it, and if you do it slowly you don’t create the space. My impression watching the first 15 minutes was that we thought we could win the game without exerting ourselves unduly. We weren’t playing badly as such, but not with a real edge. In retrospect that applied for the full game. The movement off the ball wasn’t crisp, so we kept possession but didn’t stretch them before the major incident of the game.

They had the ball out wide, the cross was half-blocked but fell to their forward, who managed to get the shot away. After that it all happened in slow motion. The ball squeezed past Hamer and my impression was that he wasn’t going to get back in time. It was so slow that I started to think that going behind might buck us up. But the North Stand and East Stand did exactly the right thing by staying completely quiet – and the linesman did his duty and must have seen a sliver of the ball that hadn’t gone over the line. He had a better angle than me. The replays might decide. I thought at the time it was a clear goal. When their guy continued to berate the linesman and a certain M. Webb called over the ref I jokingly said ‘come on, give us a laugh, make it red’. He did. 20 minutes gone and we’re against 10 men and have got out of jail.

After that it was really a question of whether we could score against a side not surprisingly keeping the remaining 10 behind the ball. Solly crashed one against the bar (now here was a real case for goalline technology) but in general it was mildly frustrating until just before the break when Wright-Phillips was put into the sort of position to do what he does best. No messing about, he scored.

At the start of the second half I thought it we just put in the effort in the first 10 minutes and get another the game was done and dusted and we could relax. It didn’t really happen. We did have chances here and there, with BWP sending in shots that went just past the posts, but the surprise was that Exeter kept their discipline and threatened once or twice. The second goal didn’t come until the 81st minute, when the excellent Solly fed Wright-Phillips and he pulled it back for the inrushing Stephens to sweep it home. Game over.

I’m not really sure how to assess the game overall. We needed a home win after the two draws and there’s nothing wrong winning while playing within yourselves. But it wasn’t entirely convincing. Given the circumstances, another early in the second half and we could easily have gone on to win by 4 or 5. Nothing wrong with improving the goal difference (one more and we’d be top tonight). Equally, the circumstances demanded a win and we didn’t care too much how it came. We didn’t cause the linesman’s decision, or the ref’s. Taking the three points was fine, but the fact is we didn’t play at anything like the same level as the first 20 minutes of Monday night. The fact that we didn’t before the major incident suggests that we approached the game in a different mindset and that no judgements about our prospects going forward can be made.

No matter, I’ve seldom been upset after a home win. Preston and I hope the second string on Tuesday night and then back to business. No player ratings for today as it doesn’t really seem fair in the circumstances; I don't really know how to judge performances when the game is handed to you on a plate and when the win was all that was required. Just enough to say that Solly deserves the mention in dispatches for an outstanding display.