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.

Friday 9 September 2011

And So It (Finally) Begins

It’s getting closer, we’re almost there. OK, for most it began some weeks ago, but all being well tomorrow I actually get to watch a game in anger. I did see the second X1 take on Reading and on Monday I was able to view the splendour that is The Valley from three different vantage points: going past on the train at sparrow’s fart on the way to Amsterdam, from the air after taking off from City airport, and finally – praise be to Irish pubs around the world – on the box for the Sheff Wed game. But tomorrow I should be able to take up my seat and howl in proper fashion (not that there was any shortage of howling in a foreign field when BWP buried the shot in the opening minutes).

It goes without saying that the pressure is on for a home win. I’d be happy gaining promotion by winning all our away games and drawing at home, but it’s not the most reliable template for success and we don’t want to start getting a complex about not taking maximum points at The Valley. And we do owe Exeter one after they ruined the party last year (come to think of it, a Dutch work colleague was in London at the time and came to the game and also watched Monday night’s game with me; 0-1-1 might suggest another Jonah). Of course when on holiday as the news of three straight wins came through you start to contemplate heading the league through the entire season. That may no longer be possible, but as things stand 4-2-0 is a start we would all have taken with open arms. 5-2-0 and that still very much applies; anything less and we start to worry more about whether we have the necessary strength (and strength in depth) to win promotion, especially if victory is not secured by being outmuscled.

I’m sure others have given the appropriate analysis of Monday’s game. From a distance the first 30 minutes was a rout, albeit helped by the early goal. Excellent pressing in midfield when out of possession, some lovely passing, decent supply to the forwards, and every prospect of a second goal. But as everyone saw they wore us down with football of a different sort. They were only ever a threat from set pieces, but whether or not we like it that was a weapon which ended up paying off. And our inability to respond in the final 25 minutes meant we couldn’t really complain about the outcome over the full game.

Without the option of bringing on Green to provide a fresh spark, we were short of options. Replacing Hayes with Euell was understandable; Hayes did well enough, but by then the problem wasn’t up front but rather the service from midfield, where we had lost control of the game. Passing our way forward went out of the window as they pressed harder. Yes, a big target man might have been an option, given the way the game was going, but fresh legs in midfield seemed the priority. Pritchard was on the bench, but perhaps Sir Chris didn’t want to take the risk (same presumably applies to Bover as yet). Perhaps I’ve missed something, but where is Alonso? I’d assumed he’d be first-choice back-up in central midfield. I assume he’s still not available, but without him we did look short of good options when it came to winning back midfield. It seems that neither Green nor Benson will feature tomorrow, so the onus could be on getting the game secured before legs might start to tire towards the end.

For me, it’s just a pleasure to be contemplating being there. It’s been a while.