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.