Friday 25 February 2011

Bad Luck But Also Some Things Deeper - Part 2

Life is, undoubtedly, sometimes a bitch. Just as on Saturday, we created enough chances to win, even aside from the penalty, and another referee might have sent off their goalkeeper before the break. Were we unlucky? For sure. We call for the return of Racon and the dropping of Abbott and Notts County serve up a pudding of a pitch which would have been tailored to suit Abbott and McCormack. Haven’t seen worse since Stamford Bridge. I bemoan the fact that our main strikers previously didn’t want to take a penalty and tonight up steps Wright-Phillips (with Jackson having been replaced at the break) to put in an effort was the worst I’ve seen since a certain Gray at Wembley. But did we deserve to win? As on Saturday, no, even though video highlights of the game will make it look like another day when nothing goes for you. Well, after Sir Chris was appointed we had four in a row when they did.

People talk about good teams having a spine which runs through the main areas. Tonight it was in evidence at the back, for most of the game, but was missing in other areas. We all love players with attitude; John Robinson was a prime example. But attitude (or character) isn’t just about whining at the ref when a decision goes you (Wright-Phillips was booked for it on Saturday and only just escaped another card for the same reason tonight), or pushing the ball past a defender, pulling him back by the shoulder, and throwing your arms up in horror and whining when the decision goes against you (Wagstaff). We expect better.

It was a game which deserved to be settled by something off someone’s backside deflected off a defender, because the common theme was the dire quality of finishing from both sides. With the exception of one effort from them, the shooting was uniformly awful, as were crosses and free kicks (we had two in good positions in the first half and wasted both). But within all this, the game had distinct periods and when we were on top we didn’t take the chances and once behind, aside from the penalty, we didn’t test their keeper. County adjusted after being too open in the first half and once in front did a good job of closing out the game. Not scoring first perhaps did for us again, but what you looked for was a response; instead the longer the game went on the more you felt like players were ready to use the pitch as an excuse.

Powell’s post-match comments were appropriate in that in recent games it’s been little things that have cost us, like not putting the ball actually in the net and giving away silly goals. As he said, we have to get better. That recalls Doherty’s remarks at the start of the season that what you’re looking for is steady improvement and to kick on around the turn of the year. We’re now at the end of February and we’ve shown no consistent improvement. We’ve strengthened the squad and it’s time for them to deliver.

The pitch was enough to ensure the game was messy and not suited to playing through midfield. But after an uncertain and hesitant start to the game the 4-3-3 formation (which was retained, with Anyinsah replacing Abbott as the focal point up front, Francis returning at right back, and Jenkinson switching to the left instead of Fry, and Racon instead of McCormack in central midfield) looked for a while like it would pay off. Every now and then the front three would combine to good effect, at least until the bag came into view. Anyinsah, Eccleston and Wright-Phillips all created and spurned opportunities we’d expect them to take. They didn’t often come from great play through midfield, it wasn’t the night for that. But in the first half at least there was enough space behind their defenders to ensure that running at people, or a long ball over the top, caused problems.

The defence, Doherty in particular, seemed hell-bent on no repeat of Saturday’s errors – and that’s fine with me. The simple options were usually taken and after the initial flurry from County and some dangerous balls across the face of the box we generally got a grip of their attacking threat. We just failed to make our chances count. When Anyinsah was flattened outside the box by their keeper and the ref reached for a card I thought it had to be red, even though there didn’t seem any Schumaker-like intent. But there was at least an element of doubt, given that Anyinsah had knocked the ball forward and was unlikely to get on the end of it. Whatever the outcome (and the outcome was another waste of a shot from the free kick) we went into the break thinking that we should have been at least one goal to the good and that our forward power should settle matters in the second half.

That proved not to be the case. Instead County again started the half the brighter and more purposeful of the sides and this time made it count, albeit with a joke goal. Racon was a little unfortunate to be penalised for the tackle, having played the ball, but may have gone through the player first. Ball in, backside, deflection, goal. That cried out for greater effort and intensity, or changes to the team. Wagstaff had replaced Jackson at the break and Reid was to come on for Eccleston (to revert to 4-4-2) but once in front County did all they could to hold what they had. I don’t think there was much doubt about the penalty, with Anyinsah cutting inside only to be taken out by a tackle which if repeated in tomorrow’s rugby would still have been penalised. If their keeper had dived the wrong way all would have been well (I think the ball would still have crossed the line). But he didn’t.

After that County became more and more determined and we became increasingly frustrated. We didn’t create another chance of note (sorry, an overhead kick from Wright-Phillips didn’t amount to one). Dailly almost thighed the ball in from a corner but the game was up.

The hope was that the four wins in a row, while involving considerable good fortune, would encourage a winning habit. That hasn’t proven the case. Now, with two home games coming up, we just, as Powell said, have to get better.

Player Ratings:

Elliott: 7/10. Goal was a fluke and apart from strange hesitation after a poor back pass dealt with most things well enough.

Francis: 7/10. Can’t blame him for the deflection for their goal, efforts to get forward were often frustrated by the inability to move the ball on that surface. But loses a mark for the quality of balls into the box he delivered.

Jenkinson: 7/10. Didn’t seem a problem for him to switch to the left and for a young guy coming into the side put in another good display, even allowing for that back pass.

Doherty: 8/10. For me he played like a man who knew he’d cost us on Saturday. The priority was no silly mistakes and no chances taken. It wasn’t pretty but fair play to him.

Dailly: 8/10. The problem tonight wasn’t the defence. Did have problems with Hughes when he came on as the wily old git knows how to work a centre-back.

Jackson: 5/10. No great influence in the first half and disappointing effort with our first free kick in a good position. Would have got better mark if he’d stayed on and scored the penalty.

Semedo: 7/10. I thought he was excellent for a period in the first half when we rested the initiative away from them after their bright start. But became increasingly peripheral as the game wore on and they were holding onto their lead.

Racon: 5/10. Neither the night nor the pitch were for him. No real opportunity to play through midfield and when we tried there were too many misplaced passes. Evening summed up by playing a throw in back into touch and gave away the free kick for the goal.

Wright-Phillips: 5/10. I watched Mans City in midweek and all the talk after the game was about Ballotelli and how miserable he looks during games. Seemed the same for SWP tonight. Nottingham on a wet Friday night isn’t where anyone wants to end up. Showed flashes of real class but has to be judged on goalscoring and tonight fluffed the main chance.

Anyinsah: 6/10. Some storming runs and plenty of effort, but his shooting too, from good positions, was lamentable and became increasingly ineffective through the second half. It was a night for Abbott to come on.

Eccleston: 6/10. Also great in parts, but also wasted scoring opportunities with dire shooting.

Subs: Wagstaff (5/10 – Didn’t have the impact we were looking for); Reid (5/10 – didn’t have any impact).

Saturday 19 February 2011

Bad Luck But Also Some Things Deeper

The pain of shattered illusions. Last Saturday Peterborough had the temerity to score against us (not once but twice); on Tuesday night Hartlepool went so far as to inflict actual defeat; and today Exeter showed that even under Sir Chris we can lose at home. Sorry, but whatever deity was working before just ain’t now. You just know it’s not your day when you see the rain coming down (special occasions for us always see the sun shine) and when after the game you pass on the train back to Blackheath in favour of a another glass of commiseration only to return to find the train you want cancelled, walk up the hill to see a bus pass the other way, then approach the top and watch a 54 complete the scene. So was today bad luck – and we all know we’ve had the breaks in Sir Chris’ previous games – or something deeper?

The game was a lot about tactics, combinations and formations, but also luck. We can talk ‘til the cows come home about whether the 4-3-3 set-up worked, whether the starting line-up was the best available etc. For me it was a game that if we played it 10 times we would have won perhaps eight; if we’d scored first – and we had the chances - I have no doubts we would have gone on to win comfortably. But did we deserve to win? Not when you concede three goals at home, one which was bad and two which were awful. It could have been so different but it wasn’t. So there are lessons to be learnt.

In the pub before the game we were musing on how would Powell accommodate both Wright-Phillips – who clearly has to start – and Eccleston, given that the two together up front had misfired in the first half against Peterborough. Powell’s decision was to play a real 4-3-3, with the two either side of Abbott. If we had put away one of the two excellent chances in the first half, which we dominated, it might have been a master-stroke, even allowing for the fact that neither Wright-Phillips nor Eccleston seemed comfortable with the set-up and we seemed to be falling into the trap of playing too many balls up to the big guy (Abbott) and hope something would happen. Neither of the two either side of him seemed sure whether to go wide or tuck in. And if there’s a bottom line to that formation it’s the need for full backs to provide the width going forward. Fry and Jenkinson both played well, but it was asking an awful lot of them to make the formation work.

Nevertheless, in the first half Exeter managed to lull us into a false sense of complacency by showing precious little ambition going forward. It didn’t seem to matter that too often we wasted possession and had no real width. One ball broke to Eccleston in the box and was blocked well on the line and another chance went begging. It wasn’t perfect, but it was surely good enough to win the game – if we could just get ahead. The goal didn’t come in the first half, but at the break I don’t think we were unhappy, just expectant.

However, two things happened. First, Exeter showed greater ambition after the interval. Second, we seemed to switch off defensively. Early in the second half, before any goals were scored, we were sleeping when they took a short corner and again when they took a short free kick. Neither led to anything but both gave the impression that all we were thinking about was how to score, not about how to keep a clean sheet. Suddenly we were open and they took advantage.

I’m not going to dwell on the details, but even though we outplayed them in the first half their first goal in the second came as no surprise. We just weren’t closing people down. Big wake-up call, but before we had time to adjust and get things going we were 2-0 down. I’m back late enough to see that the header was attributed to Doherty; as gifts go it was wrapped as nicely as you want them to be. If that wasn’t bad enough, suddenly Elliot was exposed and took down their guy. I thought it was outside the box (and that a yellow card and free kick was OK) but the ref thought otherwise and the spot kick was awarded and dispatched. That was effectively game over – and the cue for a lot of £5 wasters to depart the scene. That served as a reminder that a full ground is great but no substitute for a ground full of supporters.

The goal back from Wright-Phillips came shortly afterwards (before I’d had the time to text Suzanne that the day was going from awful to something a notch below), but it wasn’t that difficult for Exeter to see out the remainder. We hit the woodwork twice in the second half, had other chances (although sorry, their keeper didn’t take the ball outside his box on either occasion and Wagstaff should get an award for the worst dive for a penalty for many years, not even good enough for a yellow card), and had created enough chances to win on most days. But when you’ve not scored first and conceded three what the bloody hell do you expect to get out of a game?

Today’s first lesson is an obvious one, that we can’t expect to coast to victory in every game and promotion on the magic touch of Sir Chris. It was good while it lasted. The second one is less clear-cut and points to some deep thinking on his part, on three key issues. First, how do we stop giving away silly goals? Watching the video highlights of Harlepool was bad enough (watching Jackson get out-muscled for a routine cross); today was worse. The error for their second goal was almost enough to kill off the game. There’s work to be done and possibly changes to be made, if Fortune or Llera are up to the task. Doherty has been good overall (although I must say I expected more of a leadership role from him than we seem to be getting), but mistakes change games . Something for Powell to think about.

The second and third related points at issue are how to get the best out of what compared with the start of the season is an abundance of riches going forward. Abbott, Anyinsah, Wright-Phillips, Eccleston, Benson, Reid, Wagstaff, even leaving aside the goals we get from Jackson, plus the decision over which two from Semedo, McCormack and Racon. For me the key (unanswered) question is just what are our strengths? Every good team plays to them and it’s been a long time since we knew just what our real strengths are. It’s time for decisions; Powell has had a look at what’s available. We know that it’s about more than a starting XI, with options needed. If you want to play a real passing game you go one way; if you want to rely on longer balls another.

For me the choice is now to say, OK, we’ve got players good enough to dominate games and outscore the opposition. In Wright-Phillips we have the proven goalscorer, with Benson now the back-up. And if firepower up front is the key, we go for Racon now over McCormack, and to give Reid the starting position and run in the team. If it’s Wright-Phillips, who plays best alongside him? Abbott made a real difference against Peterborough, but starting games if Anyinsah is available doesn’t look right. Use Abbott as the battering-ram change in a game if it’s required. If that means telling Eccleson to play wide right, so be it, he’s good enough. If Chris feels that Wagstaff is worthy of a place above these guys, that’s fine too. But if you start the game with the battering ram on the pitch you can’t easily change things if they aren’t going according to plan.

If we’d scored first today and won the game we’d be having a different debate. But we didn’t and we know we’ve had the breaks in previous games. Now we need consistency and players to know the formation and just how we intend to play. There’s a bit of time to nurse the wounded and draw breath after the run of games and work on things on the training ground. But they come thick and fast after next Friday. We should know we need to improve if we are to secure a play-off spot, let alone the top two. We haven’t to date this season shown that improvement and consistency. For me it has to start with clarification of how we intend to play – and perhaps trusting people going forward, while also cutting out those bloody mistakes at the back.

Player Ratings:

Elliot: 7/10. Having for once looked at the club site report before posting this I’ve seen Powell’s comments about the first goal. I’d have to see it again to think it was his error – and to assess his role in the penalty; but I wouldn’t forget either one splendid save in the second half to turn around a shot that had been deflected.

Jenkinson: 8/10. May have been culpable in part for the penalty (it was in his area of the pitch) but otherwise showed enormous promise, not least going forward in the second half.

Fry: 7/10. Some indifferent balls into the box from decent positions, which made their keeper’s life easier, but generally sound.

Doherty: 5/10. The howler for their second goal was the sort of error that just has to go; Dailly made one against Swindon let’s not forget. Just can’t be tolerated.

Dailly: 7/10. Generally excellent, especially in the first half when we completely contained them. But we conceded three goals.

Jackson: 5/10. Asked to play in a midfield three rather than wide left and didn’t look especially comfortable; dropped back to full-back to accommodate Reid.

Semedo: 7/10. Jose does a job and does it well. Today we suffered from the defensive partnership in central midfield and the formation meaning no genuine wingers.

McCormack: 5/10. A real mixed bag of a game. He did some things well, but some poorly, not just some passes but sometimes being totally static when we have the ball. We have to get more out of him to control the game, or we need to play Racon. Does himself no favours with his histrionics when (possibly) fouled and was lucky to escape a silly booking for petulance. That said, those that cheered when he was replaced should take a good look at themselves. We are going to need him.

Eccleston: 8/10. Of the two playing either side of Abbott for much of the game he was the one that adapted by far the best in the first half especially. He clearly has class (his involvement in that goal against Peterborough and his strike against Hartlepool) and has to play, even if not in what I assume is his normal role as an outright striker.

Abbott: 6/10. Pave earned a good deal of respect for his performance against Peterborough, enough to suggest he can play a role in the rest of the season. Could easily have scored today. But I’m not convinced by the formation and for me his physicality is best employed by coming off the bench if we need to change things.

Wright-Phillips: 7/10. Someone asked the very reasonable question after Peterborough what does BWP have to do to get a higher mark? For a start he has to not get himself booked for petulance, and not look distracted during the first half playing in a system which might not suit him. But he’s scored again and I look forward to a better mark when we find his best partner and play a system that’s geared around his abilities.

Subs: Racon (7/10 – game had gone before he had the time to turn things around, but like Reid perhaps it’s time to just trust him); Reid (6/10 – must be fed up coming on to try to change games; give him the run); Wagstaff (6/10 – tempted to give a higher mark just for the sheer optimism of the dive for the penalty).

Saturday 12 February 2011

Winner Takes It All

And so it continues. At half-time we could have been forgiven for thinking that nothing had changed as the players were booed off as we found ourselves behind against a team playing better and more incisive football and had failed to create a decent scoring opportunity. The only difference from Plymouth and Colchester was that in those games we’d kept a clean sheet in the first 45 minutes whereas this time we’d got away with only conceding one. Obviously nobody had told the referee the script as he failed to find a reason to disallow the goal – and paid the price. Some sort of divine intervention saw him stretchered off shortly after his aberration. But we should have known better. All it took was a rollicking at the break, a change or two, and suddenly we’re 2-1 up and go on to win the game, helped by substitute Abbott playing out of his skin.

Of course it wasn’t that simple and another victory won’t disguise some of the limitations. In the first half Peterborough were first to the ball and used it to good purpose. With Anyinsah absent we’d started with Wright-Phillips and Eccleston paired up front, Wagstaff and Jackson taking the wide berths, Semedo and McCormack the central midfield positions, and with Bassone returning the defence as was expected. But we struggled to keep possession or to do anything with it. Early mistakes by McCormack and Jackson nearly cost us and with no obvious attacking threat down the flanks the service into the front two was poor. Most of the time we were on the back foot, with Semedo repeatedly called upon to do the equivalent of putting fingers in the dykes to stem the wave of Peterborough attacks. For the most part he did the job and the defence just about held firm, but whereas we’d not troubled their keeper Peterborough had hit the post, wasted a couple of inviting opportunities, and had finally taken the lead when their guy had time and space in the box – as a result of willing runners either side – and held onto the ball long enough to curl in a shot which gave Elliot no chance.

It’s fair to say that the midfield just wasn’t functioning and at the break we were pleased to still be in the game. Things needed to change and the first alteration was the subdued Wagstaff being withdrawn; surprisingly Abbott was the man brought on, with Eccleston moved out wide right. And after a mixed start to the half within the space of a couple of minutes we’d scored twice, both goals coming from work down the right. First Francis takes the plaudits for an excellent run and cross, which saw Jackson time his run to perfection to meet it and score. Then Eccleston worked some magic and delivered a ball in which found Wright-Phillips in space. He made no mistake. Peterborough, having controlled the game, were suddenly behind and we were able to play a different game, with a real threat on the break.

They still posed plenty of threat and at 2-1 I don’t think anyone would have bet on no further goals. An injury to Bassone, which saw him stretchered off, but we seemed to make the game safe as Abbott fired in a shot from the edge of the area that took a couple of deflections but found its way into the net. It was just deserts for a player who had come on and made a real difference with his ability to win headers and hold up play. Perhaps more important he competed for everything. It looked like an object lesson in how a player needs to be ready to make a contribution when called upon and for that he deserves credit. With us by now happy for the game to finish, Wright-Phillips was withdrawn for Reid, with Jackson stiffening central midfield. The various stoppages saw six minutes of added time and that was enough for Peterborough to pull one back as a corner was not dealt with and their guy had ample space in the box to score. But mercifully enough the final whistle came before it became truly frantic.

So, a team has scored against Sir Chris but hasn't stopped his winning run. We once more had the breaks, primarily as Peterborough didn’t move as far ahead in the first hour as their dominance might have suggested and as we came back to score a couple of very good goals. The third gave us the breathing space we needed. It ain’t perfect by a long shot, but for me the credit today goes to the defence, Semedo, and Abbott. The real plus point today is that we didn’t lose it when Peterborough were dominating play and took our chances when they came. Winning is a very nice habit. But Powell said for some reason we weren’t at the races in the first half against Yeovil; today we weren’t either. Sooner or later that’s going to cost us unless we put it right, which means getting the best combination in midfield. That's for tomorrow. Today Suzanne has seen five goals and a Charlton win. That's enough for me.

Player Ratings:

Elliott: 8/10. No chance with the goals and dealt once more with everything else capably.

Francis: 7/10. Perhaps deserves higher as he made the vital contribution for the first goal; just wonder about their second goal and who allowed their guy that much space.

Bassone: 6/10. Distribution in the first half wasn’t great and got crocked in the second. Hope it’s not serious.

Doherty: 8/10. The midfield deficiencies saw the defence under a lot of pressure today and he and Dailly were largely responsible for us staying in the game. Excellent.

Dailly: 8/10. As for Doherty. They threatened all game and the central defence held up well.

Jackson: 6/10. Gets an extra mark for the goal, but otherwise subdued. With Wagstaff ineffective, we suffered in the first half especially from having no serious threat down the flanks.

Semedo: 8/10. Countless tackles and interceptions when we were under the cosh, which was much of the game.

McCormack: 5/10. He’s been playing better of late in my view, but today he struggled. The choice between him and Racon is still a difficult one.

Wagstaff: 5/10. Once more failed to provide a real outlet or serious threat as an out-and-out winger. Can’t complain at being replaced at the break, after which the threat down the right came into being.

Wright-Phillips: 7/10. Didn’t seem to work in the first half alongside Eccleston, but that was probably down to the poor service. Scored again – and who can ask for more?

Eccleston: 7/10. Far more of a threat when moved out wide for the second half and played his part in turning the game around.

Subs: Abbott (8/10 – whatever his limitations, today he came on, helped tilt the balance in our favour, and scored what turned out to be the winner; deserves a big pat on the back and my man of the match); Fry (7/10 – did the job required to replace the injured Bassone); Reid (7/10 – not much time or opportunity to sparkle but helped to run down the clock when the final whistle was all we wanted).

Thursday 3 February 2011

No Problem, Mr Nice Guy

Well, the BBC highlights of Tuesday night are now available and some things are clear. First, I should have given Elliot an even better mark than 8/10; somehow I seem to forget opposition attempts on goal. Second, while we know the full explanation for the goal that wasn’t, I think we can quietly forget the idea that we stopped playing when the ref blew his whistle. Dailly does put a hand up to claim for offside – and he may have helped to encourage the ref to blow (extra mark there as well; who says play to the whistle as refs are never influenced?) – but he wasn’t going to get to their guy. And I don’t think Elliot gave up on the shot because of the whistle; his first reaction is to pick the ball out of the net and to get on with things.

So it goes down as a dreadful mistake by the ref and him alone. One compounded by trying to get away with it by giving the goal, only to have to be told what the rules are. As others have commented, the reaction of the Colchester manager and players does them credit; in fact I think both teams deserve credit after an incident like that as it could easily have spilled over (if Man Utd or Arsenal had been involved I’m sure things would have got out of hand on the pitch). Let’s even give the ref a little credit for not trying to balance things up by giving them a soft penalty (and he had the chance to). I think we’ll all support the inquiry into the incident – just so long as there’s no suggestion of a replay (which there won’t be; if we start replaying games because of a ref’s howler seasons will never end).

Onwards and if not immediately upwards (due to the other results on the night) we are feeling a good deal happier than either side of the Swindon game. No imposition on us of Wise, a manager we all respect and like (all of which has at least in my book greatly eased doubts about the new owners), two home wins and two clean sheets – and saints preserve us we’ve even now got a positive home goal difference. But after the aborted Rochdale trip and with my usual Amsterdam trip starting Monday, a trip to Yeovil on Saturday isn’t possible for me (although no doubt the necessary work on Saturday afternoon will be shelved by staying glued to the scores updates). Instead the next task is to get back on Wednesday evening in time for the Slater & Powell Q&A. Ticket for that has arrived and with luck I’ll land at City Airport on time (18.20), get home to dump bags and make it back out to The Valley before 20.00 (failing that I might have to go straight there suited and booted).

No doubt Sir Chris will be asked to expand further on whether he’s too nice to be a successful manager (even the BBC site has taken up the theme). It’s nonsense. There is no one successful style of management, in football or anything else. I’ve tended to view myself through the years as a decent enough bloke, but I never worried or lost sleep about sacking people (of course, others may suggest that this is evidence enough that I am in reality a complete bstard). If you’re clear on the reasons and are going to make such a change, and do it fairly, in my book it’s self-indulgence to pretend to go through the agonies. Nobody in their right mind enjoys doing it, but it doesn’t exactly help the person on the receiving end (no, it doesn’t hurt you more than it hurts them). Rather the danger (I believe) is that people keep going on about how nice he is and that plants seeds of doubt. There’s never been a shortage of indecisive people who under pressure make all sorts of ‘decisions’ to try to prove that they are nothing of the sort, or ‘nice guys’ who over-react because they start to feel that they’re being taken advantage of. I have no doubt that Powell is intelligent and experienced enough to know that consistency is far more important. There will be times for rants, but rants for good reason (when players are doing what’s asked of them). If being nice means people are inclined to work harder for you, use it.

I’ve no idea what further changes to the squad may come as a result of the opening of the loan window. I think it’s fair to say that with Sodje exiting but Eccleston and Wright-Phillips coming in no new forwards will be added, and if Fry’s loan is extended to the end of the season (as has been indicated) it would be surprising if another defender was introduced following the addition of Bessone.(By the way, I might have missed something but is Fortune staying? I thought his deal only lasted until January.) Although Martin has gone, with Wagstaff, Jackson and Reid we aren’t too stretched in that department (especially if McCormack can fill in again if necessary and the reserves guy is ready to step up). The area that still worries me is central midfield. All season we’ve operated with two from three (Racon, Semedo, McCormack). I guess Jackson could do a job there, but with injuries and suspensions likely to take their toll – and the games are going to come thick and fast – it’s a risk.

What am I talking about? The way things have gone so far under Powell we could put out the academy team and not get beat (or concede a goal). Long may it continue.

Finally, I’ve never felt comfortable with the song about ‘they’re turning Selhurst Park into a public lavatory’. It always has been, and will remain, a public lavatory. I swore I’d never go back there, but if they need volunteers with picks and shovels to help demolish it, I’m available. A copy of The Mercury came through the letterbox today. The letters page has a headline ‘Palace will always be a thing of beauty’. Well, they say it’s all in the eye of the beholder, but you’d have to be a pretty daft beholder to agree.

Tuesday 1 February 2011

Scoring Against Sir Chris Not Allowed

Some day Chris Powell is not going to win a game as manager. A 100% record for two clubs is unlikely to prove sustainable. But until then I want to know which deity he prays to, which brand he smokes, and whether he’s available to sort out the Egypt crisis. Parkinson must just watch and wonder, as did the rest of us. Just what the Colchester manager, players and fans made of it remains to be seen and heard. We won, we’re happy, but if we thought we had the breaks against Plymouth, when their shot whistled over the bar and we get gifted a goal to break the deadlock, Sir Chris took it up a notch tonight.

A reasonable explanation for the second-half incident which saw the referee first disallow a Colchester effort, then consult at length with his linesman and give a goal, and then after further protests and discussions rule out the goal and restart play with a contested drop ball will have to come from somewhere else. To restart in that fashion can only point to the ref having blown his whistle by mistake, prompting defenders to stop, but then why on earth did he give the goal? For now I prefer the alternative, that he realised that nobody scores against Chris’ team, a point underlined by a last-second clearance off the line. I can honestly say that apart from Peter Hunt’s side-netting goal I haven’t seen anything stranger at a football match. I expect Colchester may be a little miffed.

I’ll try to keep it short tonight as I’m feeling lousy (one problem with a visit to the doc’s is that the place is full of sick people) and as I have no insight into the incident on which the game turned, one which resulted in seven minutes of stoppage time announced (and at least eight played). From where I sat it looked like a goal as their guy (was it Mooney? And just why did some Charlton fans boo him?) slipped the defender and shot home into the corner. There was no flag for offside and clearly the linesman thought it was a fair goal. It’s one that deserves some airing on the box.

The team saw both Bessone and Wright-Phillips included, with Fry (who presumably is wanted back by West Ham) dropping to the bench, McCormack and Semedo getting the central midfield berths over Racon, Wagstaff and Jackson operating wide, and Anyinsah paired with Wright-Phillips up front. It did mean a solid set-up, albeit one with some limitations creatively. And some indication of our current resources came from the fact that on the bench were Racon, Reid, Benson and Eccleston as well as Fry and Worner.

It was a lively start, with the front two injecting pace and movement and we carved out an early opportunity with some good play. But Colchester replied with an effort of their own and after the early exchanges the game settled down to something of a war of attrition, with both sides cancelling each other out. Some of the early quality went missing and the abiding memory of the first half was that both sides were looking to play football but that both lacked the precision to pull it off. Perhaps that was encapsulated by an incident late on when they stretched us and the ball broke to their guy running in on the right side of the box. We were in trouble and any decent delivery could have produced a goal. Instead he put it behind. As against Plymouth, no complaints about a clean sheet at the break but some concern that we weren’t creating much going forward, especially with Wagstaff struggling to get into the game.

The second half also started brightly before both midfields again took a grip. It looked as though the first goal would prove crucial and for all the world it seemed as though Colchester had it. No they hadn’t, yes they had, then oh no they hadn’t again. It was the break we needed, now to complete the job. Benson came on for Anyinsah but the deadlock was broken by the one piece of quality wing play all night. Francis had shown Wagstaff how to do it minutes earlier, with a good run and cross, but finally Scotty received the ball in a decent position, ran forward with it and picked out his man. Wright-Phillips had moved away from the defender and with the ball delivered just behind him still had a lot to do. But he hit it sweetly on the turn to give their keeper no chance.

That was all we wanted, but the final whistle was still some way off. Fry came on for Bessone and towards the end Eccleston replaced Wright-Phillips. For the most part we coped with the closing stages well, with Semedo and McCormack providing good protection for the defence and with Dailly and Doherty outstanding. But there was still that last-gasp corner and a header that looked like a goal before being kicked off the line. Enough we cried, only for the ball to break to Eccleston, who might have added another substitute’s goal had the ref not blown for the end of the game.

Overall reflections included delight at a second consecutive clean sheet at home, albeit with the realisation than in both games we could easily have had to come from behind. Bessone looked good, especially moving forward with the ball, while Dailly and Doherty excelled, with Mooney a threat all night but not someone likely to expose them for pace. Semedo and McCormack together worked hard and did the basics very well. Up front it was unrealistic to expect Anyinsah and Wright-Phillips to click immediately, but there was enough threat from each of them to suggest promise. I’m sad that it didn’t work out here for Sodje (I really thought he was going to be a key player for us this season), but with Benson and Eccleston (and Abbott) at least we have options. Getting the best combination and improving the understanding is for the training ground tomorrow. For now, if they could bottle Sir Chris’ good fortune I’d swap it for a crate of my best red.

Player Ratings:

Elliot: 8/10. Good saves in the first half and dealt with everything that needed to be dealt with effectively, including a couple of dodgy early back passes.

Francis: 7/10. Iffy start when it came to distribution, but defensively sound and got forward more in the second half to good effect.

Bessone: 7/10. Decent start having just arrived yesterday. Looks comfortable in possession.

Dailly: 8/10. Excellent.

Doherty: 8/10. No mistakes, plenty of headed clearances. Aside from the ‘goal’ Colchester were limited to half-chances.

Jackson: 6/10. Had no great impact on the game; did find himself in a good position inside the box late in the first half but rather surprisingly put the shot wide of the post.

McCormack: 7/10. Did an effective job. He’s not going to set the world alight, but when placed in his natural position did what we can expect of him. Time for some to get off his back as we will need him.

Semedo: 8/10. Decent shout for man-of-the-match. Combative and involved, helped ensure that we matched up to a decent Colchester midfield.

Wagstaff: 7/10. What can you say? Overall disappointing in terms of his contribution as a winger; but made the chance that won the game after scoring to break the deadlock against Plymouth.

Anyinsah: 6/10. Lively start but did fade through the game as it closed down.

Wright-Phillips: 7/10. Gets the extra mark for his excellent strike for the goal.

Subs: Benson (6/10 – poor early touches but got more into it after that); Fry (7/10 – did well in the time on the pitch, especially moving their guy out wide from a dangerous position); Eccleston (not enough time for a mark, but if the game had gone on another 30 seconds he might have added another).