Wednesday 21 December 2011

Rest(?) Ye Merry Gentlemen

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday 17 December 2011

One Not Enough

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

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

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

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

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

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

Player Ratings:

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

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

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

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

Morrison: 8/10. As for Taylor.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday 3 December 2011

'Keen' Enough

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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