Tuesday 31 January 2012

Not The Expected Script, But Decent Ending

Just goes to show how unpredictable football is. We score a goal, of course, but we don’t win. What’s going on? What went on tonight was a reasonable reminder of some home truths: first, nothing’s perfect – and nothing’s entirely predictable; second, unless and until we rediscover our goalscoring touch we are vulnerable to at least the occasional setback; and third, sometimes you’ve got to tip your hat to the opposition. Bury worked hard, made few mistakes, and while not threatening much almost saw the game out for a notable victory. On the balance of play and chances created, we should have won. But after three 1-0 wins in a row, each a testament to the team’s defensive capabilities, perhaps a little of the bravery has gone out of our game in terms of players taking the risk of getting forward. That’s a bit harsh on a night when we could have won well if we’d scored first; a quick look at the stats shows we had 21 attempts on goal (against seven for Bury, with four notionally on target but only one real strike). But don’t you just love stoppage time goals to get something out of a game?

The team showed two changes. Stephens did indeed come back to replace Pritchard in central midfield. Harsh on him but I think understandable. Less predictable was the decision to give Wright-Phillips a rest (he wasn’t even on the bench) and the pairing of Kermorgant with Clarke rather than Haynes. I’d imagined that after a few very tough games in which we’ve not created that much BWP would have been licking his lips at the opportunity tonight. Also, I’ve been assuming that Clarke is the natural back-up for Kermorgant and Haynes for BWP. Perhaps tonight Sir Chris was expecting Bury to defend in depth and was looking for maximum muscle in the box. It didn’t work to the extent that Kermorgant and Clarke are not a natural pairing, looking used to playing a similar game. The lack of pace up front meant that Bury were seldom pulled out of position. That said, the chances did come; we just needed to convert one to go ahead. When Haynes did come on, with about 20 minutes left, he caused them more problems with his pace and greater mobility.

Powell talked about the different atmosphere at Exeter after the intensity of the two Sheffield games and tonight, with the crowd less than 14,000, the place didn’t exactly rock in the first half. Neither did the team, although after an indifferent start as we began to go up the gears it did seem that we would have too much for Bury to hold out. Wiggins was doing sterling work down the left; one cross went invitingly across the face (where were you Bradley?). And from set pieces their keeper looked dodgy on high balls (although perhaps too many through the night were put under his nose). The best opportunity created was when Jackson robbed their guy of possession and moved towards the box. Instead of shooting he slid it left to Clarke, but the space was a bit tight and the shot was blocked by the keeper. There were other moments and no sense of danger at the back, even though Bury played it around well enough. Then they scored.

It was a strange goal in that there were probably four, maybe more, almost 50:50 challenges in the build-up and each time we just failed to nick the ball or get in a block. It ended up getting played through and their guy put in a decent enough shot. Hamer got at least one hand to it but failed to keep it out. I remember thinking that if you have to win that many challenges to score against us there’s nothing wrong with our defending. Just that this time they did. By the law of averages it had to happen sometime.

The rest of the half was much as before, with us not exactly playing great football but showing enough to have confidence about the outcome. At the half-time whistle I swear I heard a few isolated boos. Just what are some people on? (for once whatever it is I don’t want any of it).

Attacking the Covered End in the second half raised the spirits but as the minutes ticked down and the chances came and went the crowd’s anxiety increased. The policy of putting corners under the nose of their keeper continued, but one delivered to the far post was hooked back by Kermorgant and Taylor coming onto it seemed sure to score but put it over the bar. Even a free kick outside the area was put over, by Kermorgant (it was the wrong side for Jackson). Bury’s not surprising time-wasting tactics intensified, to the extent of Hamer giving one of their guys a helping push towards the touchline. But the clock kept ticking.

The introduction of Haynes for Clarke did change the pattern of the game as there was someone on the pitch capable of getting in behind them. This made their clearances more hurried and helped us to increase the pressure. But still no goal. One dropped invitingly around the penalty spot but the shot went just wide, with claims that their guy had handled it; the ref gave a goal kick, so I guess he wasn’t convinced. Green had a decent enough shot, but still nothing was dropping.

Pritchard came on, for Hollands rather than Stevens, whose reintroduction to the team was steady to that point but unspectacular. And sometimes as a manger you either get lucky or have a moment of inspiration. Most people would have expected Stevens to make way, given he is feeling his way back. Heavens be praised that he didn’t. As after the board showed five minutes of stoppage time another race through the middle led by Haynes saw a desperate clearance which dropped to Stevens outside the box. I don’t know what went through his mind, but he executed it perfectly. Stayed over the ball to keep it down but absolutely leathered it, which gave their keeper and retreating defenders no chance whatsoever. There were still a couple of minutes left but no perfect ending. Just a decent enough one.

My overall impression of the game was that we didn’t play at a high enough tempo throughout to really stretch Bury. On most nights it probably wouldn’t have mattered as the game would have opened up if we had scored first, as we had opportunities to do so. We didn’t look like going behind but once we did there was a lack of guile and neither the passing nor movement was incisive enough, at least until Haynes came on. Let’s learn from it and move on. Ten points clear at the top and all is well enough, just some thinking about how we set up for Rochdale on Saturday.

Player Ratings:

Hamer – 6/10. Might have done better with the shot for the goal as he seemed to get hands to it, even though it was well struck. Otherwise seldom troubled.

Solly – 8/10. Even when he’s beaten he’s not beaten as his capacity to recover and win the ball back is outstanding. Was instrumental in keeping the pressure on them especially in the second half.

Wiggins – 9/10. It’s getting boring, but I’d give him the MoM award (again). Some of his interceptions, covering, tackling etc were exceptional and a couple of his crosses were begging to be put away.

Morrison – 8/10. Sterling work at the back as usual.

Taylor – 7/10. It’s not fair to dock a centre-back a point for missing a chance up front, but it was a very good one. No problems otherwise.

Jackson – 7/10. Didn’t feature prominently but linked up with Wiggins to good effect and generally sound.

Hollands – 7/10. Back paired with Stevens, our passing game still really didn’t get going; but I’m inclined to think that that was as much down to the forward combination and lack of movement than anything else.

Stevens – 8/10. Decent return if undramatic until stoppage time. When the chance came he did everything right.

Green – 7/10. Did threaten and some of the balls played in would have tested a keeper happy with the high ball. A shot or two as well, but tonight didn’t make the vital contribution.

Kermorgant – 6/10. I don’t think the pairing with Clarke did either of them any favours as it made us more inclined to lump it too often and as there just wasn’t the pace and movement to stretch them often enough.

Clarke – 6/10. Same thinking really; had the chance in the first half to make his mark but didn’t bury it.

Subs – Haynes (8/10 – his introduction changed the game); Pritchard (7/10 – only on for the last 10 minutes).

Wednesday 25 January 2012

Be Prepared

OK, gloating, smug satisfaction and staring at the league table over. It doesn’t need to be stressed that it would be criminal if the hard work of the past two games - and the outcome – was to be blown by any easing up as we look ahead to four games that look winnable on paper. It’s reasonable to view them as a batch, before MK Dons come visiting, and Exeter and Chesterfield away bracketing Bury and Rochdale at home has to be seen as the opportunity to drive home a hard-won advantage, not an invitation to indulge in any premature patting on the back. The league this season is likely to be exceptional in terms of the points needed to get automatic promotion, so it’s one game at a time and full focus.

Seven points clear with a game in hand is of course splendid, especially as we only have two more games against teams in the top five (three if we start to include Stevenage). It’s too soon to be in any way definitive, but the way things are panning out it looks as if the top five are going to continue to scrap it out for the two automatic places with the three missing out to be joined by Stevenage, Carlisle or Bournemouth for the play-offs. But we haven’t (yet) reached the stage where any of them have abandoned hope of a top-two finish, or whereby they’re assuming that we’re uncatchable. It’s up to us to make the latter happen. We can’t expect the others to slip up, although they will have to play each other from time to time and something will have to give. I’d be more comfortable if there was a decent gap between second and third, but that’s not in our hands.

For the season to date, we’ve averaged 2.31 points per game, a stat bettered only by Man City. West Ham top the Championship but have ‘only’ managed 1.96 and Southend are top of League Two with 2.0. To be pedantic, even though we are seven points clear with a game in hand, our current (notional) target of 111 points (or 2.55 points per game) to be indifferent to everything else is actually higher than the equivalent number for either West Ham (107) or Southend (110). That is a reflection of the relatively stretched division we are in (largely because of us there’s a 40-points spread from top to bottom whereas in both the Championship and League Two it’s 31).

Again, nobody needs telling but there’s still a lot of work to be done, starting Saturday at Exeter. The FA Cup games mean that aside from us only Huddersfield have a league match (away at Tranmere), while the following Tuesday, while we take on Bury, MK Dons will be hosting Sheff Wed. Two wins for us, plus defeats for Huddersfield and Sheff Wed (OK, a draw with MK Dons wouldn’t be bad), and we’re suddenly 13 points clear at the top (perhaps annoyingly the automatic promotion points target would be unchanged at 111). We can but dream, but only a little over a week ago I was dreaming about beating both Sheffield clubs.

I do think Sir Chris has one selection issue to consider for Saturday. Beating Brentford and the two Sheffields and not conceding a goal in the three games (Fulham was fun but irrelevant) hardly makes a case for any change. But in these games we I feel haven’t had the degree of control in midfield that we’ve previously enjoyed – and I don’t think it’s unrelated that the service to the front two has been poorer than before. Pritchard has taken his chance well, done nothing wrong, and of course it’s a factor that the three games have been against higher class opposition – also that in all three games we spent long periods protecting a one-goal lead rather than bombing forward. But just as the front two and central defence is about partnerships, so for central midfield. And I’m not yet convinced that Hollands and Pritchard are hitting it off together.

Partnerships can take time to gel, but Hollands and Stephens began the season together in fine style before the latter seemed to lose form and got injured. In the 13 games they started together they contributed four goals between them (although it was none in five before they were separated). Hughes came in and with more defensive cover Hollands was able to get forward more and notched three goals in the five games in which they were paired. Then Russell joined him, to good effect, and the pair added two goals.

It’s unfair to draw conclusions after three league games of Hollands and Pritchard, especially given their nature. And Pritchard has earned the right to keep his place and to see how the partnership works in games where we should get more midfield control. Of course, Russell is not available (I’ve not seen any indication we’re appealing the sending off, although looking at the replays the decision looks very harsh), but Stephens and Hughes are options. It’s in Sir Chris’ hands and I’ve no idea how things look in training. Whatever he decides is fine with me.

I don’t think there’s any case for changing the front two, despite BWP’s run of goalless games (eight) and none in four for Kermorgant. Wright-Phillips just needs one to go in off his backside. But we now have Clarke and Haynes to press them hard, plus Hayes, who was unfortunate to be dropped and must now be suffering from lack of competitive games. Same may start to apply for Wagstaff if he continues to get squeezed out of a spot on the bench to accommodate both alternative forwards. That’s the only downside to a squad that’s now looking very strong; there are of course going to be more injuries and suspensions and Cort, Evina, and the midfielders and forwards just have to make sure they’re prepared.

Prepared? Well, my partner Suzanne is coming to London for the weekend and Exeter was, I’m afraid, a coach trip too far to justify. At least as Santa brought an ipad I can be with her in the living room during the game and pretend to be paying attention instead of burying myself in the kitchen watching the screen. And if we’re making sure all the dates are kept open to celebrate the day, it’s worth noting that our current 111 points target means 51 points left to secure, or 17 straight wins. Now on that basis we could secure promotion at .... you guessed it, Carlisle away. Deja vu eat your heart out.

Saturday 21 January 2012

Got the Goal; Won the Game

It would appear from Wyn Grant’s posts that the Sheffield papers have been labelling us a team that grinds out results while theirs play the beautiful game. It’s unlikely that that impression will have changed after this afternoon. We ground out a result for sure, which is testament to a defensive display that should be sung about for years to come. As for them, quite frankly there’s no point in playing neat, tidy triangles without a cutting edge and a change of pace when it matters. The stand-out statistic, according to the BBC, is that they had one attempt on target all game. As that was a shot from outside the box that Hamer turned away comfortably enough, they can have no complaints. We got the goal that mattered and after that protected it with aplomb – and the assistance of an idiot called Beattie.

It wasn’t pretty from start to finish. We struggled to get anything going up front, never had control of midfield, and failed to keep possession in a way that would have made things a lot easier. I really think that today the pressure of the game got to us a bit. We knew that a victory would leave us at least seven clear – the target for automatic promotion is now 111 points, or 51 from 20 games – and that getting over the line today would mean just two more games against teams in the top five. We just wanted to win. Having gone in front the priority was a clean sheet and that did affect how we went about the rest of the game. Absolutely no objections from me. We’ve just beaten both of our main rivals, home and away. Proud? I’m glad all over and it’s only going to get better with the Sunday papers.

The team contained no surprises, with Pritchard keeping the central midfield spot alongside Hollands. On the bench, Haynes and Clarke provided the back-up for the forwards, Russell in midfield, and Cort for the defence. The opening 20 minutes were edgy as both teams sized each other up, aware of the importance of the game. They had the edge in possession but gave no indication of making it count; we didn’t threaten, but kept the shape. Aside from one Kermorgant knock-down that Wright-Phillips almost got on the end of in the box, and a Green free kick that had too much curl to be on target, I really can’t remember a goal threatening. But we’ve seen all that before.

On 20 minutes we won a free kick in a central position. It was well set up as it could go either way, with Kermorgant and Jackson lining up, both having scored direct in recent games. In the end it was Jackson – and if last week’s was good this one was better. Bent to the keeper’s right and in off the post. Unstoppable.

After that it was about nerve and resolve. We gave them some encouragement as Hamer was having trouble with balls in the air in the blustery conditions. He elected to punch two when catching them looked easer and when the third came around, direct from a corner, tried to catch it and failed. The ball was dragged behind the goal-line, but the referee had seen enough of a push and the danger passed. It had me a little worried for a moment I have to say, but if you reach the break ahead and that’s the best the opposition have offered things ain’t bad.

There was no change in the pattern of play in the second half. If anything, we were committing fewer players going forward, which left Kermorgant to nod on balls to nobody, as BWP seemed out of sorts with little support. There was an entertaining few minutes as Green fouled his opponent, who hobbled around for the subsequent five minutes and allowed Green to get in two decent shots in quick succession. Otherwise it was tick, tock, clock running down. I have to say I thought we should have had a penalty for handball as their guy clearly raised his hands to one headed back rather than the ball just hitting him, but the ref was having none of it.

Sheffield had to do more to put us under pressure as aside from an occasional dangerous cross nothing was happening for them. They made two changes with about 15 minutes left, with the one Green crocked going off and the other seeing the appearance of the ubiquitous Beattie. We adjusted with Russell coming on for Green, with Pritchard moving out wide as Wagstaff wasn’t on the bench and we did need to stiffen up midfield as our inability to hold the ball was only encouraging them. The changes were to set the scene for the final drama.

The ref had already booked Wiggins for a perfectly good tackle and this hinted at a little over-reaction to anything that could be considered rash. Only a few minutes after the changes Russell made a tackle which looked fair enough to me at the time, but a red card was quickly shown. I’ll have to see it again on the highlights. But just as Sheffield should have been thinking this is the opportunity, in wades Beattie. I’m not sure what he did, but there were some afters and the ref duly sent him off too. If I was their manager I’d have him running up and down sand dunes for a week. If Russell was over the top (again, I really don’t know) Beattie was plain stupid as in an instant he sacrificed their advantage.

Both sides dropping to 10 suited us more than them as it disrupted play and if anything reduced their ability to turn the screws in the final minutes. Haynes made his debut for Wright-Phillips and in the little time he was on the pitch showed a zip which augurs well, winning one free kick on the edge of the area (which this time Jackson elected to hit hard and very wayward) and winning the ball back a couple of times. There was one cross of theirs which clipped the bar, a couple of corners, but we denied them any real sight of goal right through to the end. Five minutes of stoppage time came and went and it was just left to Sir Chris to conduct the celebrations.

We all know it’s not done and dusted; there’s 20 games to go for crying out loud. But the big challenges have been dealt with and surely only complacency – or some horrendous bad fortune – can cost us now. The management, the team, and us can enjoy Sunday looking at the table and get back to it on Monday. Have a nice day off guys, you’ve earned it.

Player Ratings:

Hamer – 6/10. Has to be marked down for the uncertainty he showed with high balls in the first half. Could have cost us.

Wiggins – 9/10. Picked up a booking for no good reason but defensively superb and showed the usual drive going forward.

Solly – 9/10. Never passed, played his part to the full in a near faultless defensive display.

Morrison – 9/10. It could have been a 10.

Taylor – 9/10. Same as Morrison. Just look at the stats for their attempts on target.

Jackson – 8/10. Solid game and the free kick was just sublime (we’ll forget about the second one).

Hollands – 7/10. This was a day for holding what we secured and there were no frills. That said, we didn’t control midfield at all today.

Pritchard – 7/10. Not a bad game, although the fact he was pushed out wide to accommodate Russell (for a few minutes) said that we needed to beef up central midfield.

Green – 7/10. Dangerous at times and could have scored with the couple of shots.

Kermorgant – 6/10. The service today to the front two was limited; it just wasn’t a day for them to shine. Won his fair share in the air, but to no effect as BWP didn’t get on the end of any of the touches.

Wright-Phillips – 6/10. Expected more from him outside the box in a tough game. Not much happened for him today.

Subs – Russell (well, what mark do you give for a guy that’s sent off after a few minutes? I’ll reserve judgement as the decision looked harsh to me); Haynes (no mark, but an encouraging cameo).

Man of the Match – No question. Beattie.

Thursday 19 January 2012

Song For Yan; And More On Fulham

Funny where idle conversations can lead you. Last time my French partner, Suzanne, was in London I was trying to both extol the virtues of - and acknowledge the chequered previous career in England – of Kermorgant. Then on a boat near Charing Cross ahead of the Fulham game I was outlining why I blamed them for at least two of the six relegations I’ve suffered as an Addick (more later). Both streams of thought may, I hope, prove to be fruitful, not least as I’ve found it hard this season to post much other than match reports. This might be pressure of work, but may also relate to the fact that there’s been really nothing to take issue with regarding team formation, selection, tactics, signings (and departures) etc. I don’t profess any understanding of these things in any event, but the spleen venting of recent seasons (very happily) just doesn’t apply.

Taking these in turn, I was telling Suzanne about Yan’s rather unfortunate penalty for Leicester in their Championship play-offs semi-final and - in addition to unearthing a video of the strike (it’s hardly difficult) - came across the song that Leicester fans subsequently penned to sum up their feelings about him. I’m not going to include any links as it’s annoyingly catchy and totally inappropriate for a guy who’s been truly splendid for us (may he continue to be). I was decidedly uneasy when I saw the Mail’s piece on Celtic making a play for him (I wouldn’t read the obnoxious rag if you paid me but the BBC’s gossip page had the link), especially as it indicated that he was “available” for £1m. Just sloppy journalism I trust, but reassurance came with the SkySports report indicating that after Celtic made contact it won’t go any further. This report suggested he is happy where he is, as he should be.

Nevertheless, we do need to come up with a song for him and, as there’s a decent chance he’ll line up for us against Leicester next season, what better than to adapt their one, with more appropriate lyrics? They just might sing it next season and we should be prepared to drown them out with our version. They used the Bonnie Tyler ‘classic’ Total Eclipse of the Heart. This repeats ‘turnaround’, for which Kermorgant is substituted. The rest should remain unsaid and not listened to (the original and the Leicester version) but an appropriate ending for us might be ‘knocking ‘em in from the start’ So, for me it’s ‘Kermorgant, he’s been knocking ‘em in from the start’ (repeat ad infinitum).

Having failed miserably before to generate support for an adaptation of David Essex’s Rock On for Therry Racon (‘Racon .. ooh my soul’) I hold out no hopes, but we’ve a team to be proud of and they deserve more songs. (Should be said, Racon’s been doing a standout job since moving to Millwall; takes their money and so far one appearance, in the League Cup.) Surely we can redo the Nicky Bailey one for someone. It might help if the club site published the places of birth of all the first team. We don’t have to have someone from Portugal (or Senegal) to pin the Jorge Costa/Semedo one on; there’s Donegal for example. I thought if Michael Smith made an early breakthrough into the first team he might get it, coming from Newcastle (or thereabouts). OK, it’s stretching it, but if we can make Solly rhyme with quality .....

It’s a well-worn mantra, but as with the team’s focus the vocal support on Saturday has to be spot-on. It’s going to be a big crowd, a tough game, so pleeeeze no moaning, no howls of anguish at every misplaced pass. They deserve better.

So, back to Fulham and first clearing up the number of our relegations they should be held accountable for. Most of us were there for the linesman’s gaffe that did for us in the Premiership (yes, the blame could be spread around a bit but I’m content to continue to blame Fulham). One. Now our relegation from the Championship can be directly linked to the turmoil following eviction from the Premiership. Two. Before that, in 1971/72 a Fulham revival in the final third of the season (which admittedly coincided with us not winning any of our 10 games, including a 2-2- home draw against Fulham when they equalised with a couple of minutes left) saw us replace them in the bottom two after the final game (we were never in the bottom two until after the final game). Three.

Now it might be pushing it to blame Fulham for us going down from the old Second Division in 1979/80. We did finish bottom and seven points adrift of third bottom .... Fulham. But if you look at the stats we failed to win in our last 12 games and these included two 0-1 losses to Fulham. If we had instead won both, we would have stayed up. Four.

Just how we can point the finger for the 1989/90 relegation from the old First Division under Lenny Lawrence, or for the one from the Premiership under Curbs, is not so easy. Fulham weren’t in our division. So for now the count stands at four from six. If anyone has any good suggestions for why it should be higher I’m open to suggestions. (For the record, I have nothing but good feelings about Fulham, a splendid club with tremendous supporters.)

Anyway, the said onboard conversation about the 1971/72 season centred on my befuddled memory at the time telling me that Fulham’s revival that season was sparked by them getting Alan Mullery in on loan from Spurs at a time when this was exceptional (we’ll pass over us having borrowed a certain Swedish forward at an opportune time some years back). A fellow Addick checked the records and saw that late in the season Mullery turned out for Spurs in a European game, suggesting my recollection might have been faulty. This in turn prompted me to dig out the scrapbooks that I kept, from the mid-60s through to the mid-70s (can’t think why I stopped). This did confirm that Mullery didn’t play for Fulham against us in the game towards the end and further research suggests that Mullery did indeed go on loan to Fulham, was behind their upturn in fortunes, but was recalled by Spurs before the season ended.

The trawl through the scrapbooks threw up all sorts of reminders of past glories and I hope to put together a mini-series, not exactly reviewing the seasons concerned but perhaps highlighting some of the dafter cuttings that I kept and some of the more memorable moments (as I remember them, which must be the truth). After all, following victory on Saturday there’s going to be even less otherwise to carp about.

Sunday 15 January 2012

Proud Indeed

Sod’s law again. Catching up after my usual monthly trip to Amsterdam, I decided that I just couldn’t spare the time to get to Sheffield yesterday. In the event I probably could have gone there and back twice in the total time that I spent in a state of suspended animation while the game was on – I had to resort to doing the washing up to avoid just watching the clock tick down - and subsequently staring at the league table with a silly, smug grin on my face. Haven’t stopped yet.

I can’t comment on the game, but looking at the reports of others the abiding feeling is that, as for the Huddersfield game, the focus was spot on. The home match against Sheffield Wednesday was the only one I’ve seen this season when the opposition were clearly on top in the final third of the game and the final whistle was something of a relief (you could I suppose add Scunthorpe at home, but we were then defending a two-goal lead late on). MK Dons outplayed us in the first half of that one, but we responded in the second. Sheff Wed will have remembered how the previous contest went, as after we wiped the floor with them in the first 20 minutes they gradually ground us down through sheer strength and lumping it up in the air (to be fair, ie playing to that strength). Just how the game would have gone had they equalised as at The Valley is a moot point; they didn’t. The evident frustration in Megson’s post-match comments only add to the delight. And yes, Sir Chris, you’re absolutely right about us being proud of the team.

The victory only serves to cement certain statistics. Everyone’s well aware that the top five in the division are there on merit; two of them are going up and three will be in the play-offs (sod’s law suggests that the team that sneaks the final spot will win through). Against the other four we’ve played five times, won three and drawn the other two. Tellingly, in the five games we’ve conceded just two goals while scoring seven (and not failing to score in any). Of course Sheff Utd could make a mess of these stats on Saturday; but as things stand the perhaps curious one is that our current average for the season is just 0.76 goals per game conceded and the average against the other top teams is even better (just 0.40). Focus and determination when it really matters.

It’s not tempting fate to start a ‘countdown clock’ for promotion; of course we take each game as it comes but we can hardly pretend that the end-goal isn’t automatic promotion. As things stand, 113 points would guarantee a top-two finish. That number will decline pretty much with each passing week (it’s already lower but I’m not sad enough to work out the actual number taking account of teams playing each other) but as of now it’s 56 points from 21 games to remain completely indifferent to the results of others.

Of the games left, only nine will be away from The Valley. It doesn’t mean much, but the other curious stat for me is that at present we have a marginally higher average points return from away games than those at home (2.29 against 2.27). We are going to face a number of games at The Valley where the opposition will just try to shut up shop. We will need to be patient sometimes and it doesn’t need underlining that the crowd has to play its part over the next few months. Let’s make the place rock.

I’ve no idea if there will be further transfer moves in January (or indeed through to March apparently), but with Cort and Russell staying with us and effectively Benson and Euell exchanged for Clarke and Haynes we’re looking strong enough. It’s tough on Hayes (and the younger forwards) to slip down the pecking order, but with the changes we’ve addressed the ‘fourth forward’ issue and perhaps also, with Haynes, the poser of what would happen if Wright-Phillips became unavailable. With Pritchard, Russell, Hughes and the returning Stephens competing for the central midfield spot alongside Hollands (I heard talk of Alonso being released but don’t know if that’s happened/happening), the only positions I can see us possibly wanting back-up are right-back (Solly is playing so well that it seems almost heracy, but as things stand if he’s out we have to rejig the back four) or conceivably the wings. I imagine we’re waiting to see how things pan out at QPR regarding Ephraim, but with Green, Wagstaff, Jackson and Evina we’re not exactly stretched.

A final tribute is that someone asked me who I’d vote for player of the season right now. That Hamer wouldn’t top the list is more down to the effectiveness of the defence in front of him than anything wrong on his part, the ever-present Morrison would have a strong case, Wiggins could edge it for pure consistency of excellence (with Solly close behind), Hollands has been immense (especially considering the number of partners he has had), and BWP might be having a temporary drought but remains the cutting-edge. People talk about successful teams having a strong spine; we have one (and the ones around it ain’t doing bad either).

Saturday 7 January 2012

Forgotten It Already

Today’s not about blame. It wasn’t my fault that everyone else congregating on the boat off the Embankment before the game didn’t want any of the bottle of syrah I’d purchased, obliging me to consume the lot; it wasn’t my fault that having been in the first two in the queue at The Valley for tickets for the game they decided to sell us ones working from the outside in, such that we were to watch proceedings closer to The Thames than the pitch; and the team wasn’t really to blame for a scoreline that really didn’t present an accurate picture of events. You might argue that it did, to the extent that Fulham demonstrated the difference in quality (and strength/physique) and ran out easy winners. But all games turn on moments and at 1-0 down during our purple patch in the second half we created the chance to level the score. It wasn’t easy and Wright-Phillips didn’t take it, but when that one went and Fulham scored again it was pretty much game over. Their two extra goals counted for nothing; we just have to make sure that with two key games coming up the defeat and scoreline count for nothing too.

It was a draw which offered a pleasant day out at a good price; but especially with hindsight a contest against a Championship team would have provided a better measure of where we are. I kept trying to remember (having passed on the recent Spurs cup tie) when was the last game I’d watched when we were so clearly the underdogs. Fulham, barring an unlikely slump into a relegation struggle, have nothing to play for apart from the Cup and were never going to take it lightly, as reflected in their team selection (and although I couldn’t bring myself to boo Murphy that’s the nicest I’m going to be about a club that I still view as responsible for two of our relegations in my lifetime). They will probably look back on the afternoon as something of a stroll – and undoubtedly it ended that way, with the substitution of Wiggins and Hollands a fair indication of our priorities once the game was beyond us. Just that nagging thought at the back of the mind that if we had levelled things when we were clearly on top the story would have been very different.

The team saw Taylor return in defence after his rest against Brentford, Green back from suspension, and Hamer taking his one-game ban; but otherwise no changes/surprises, with Pritchard keeping his place alongside Hollands in central midfield and Sir Chris opting to play his strongest available side. With 7,000 supporters making the trip across town this wasn’t the time for resting players. The opening minutes were nervy as Fulham passed it around and buzzed rather dangerously around our box; the priority was clearly to settle into the game and not concede. But concede we did, rather unfortunately. A ball through seemed to be overhit and on its way to Sullivan before it took a deflection, leaving him stranded and their guy able to nip in and score.

There’s seldom a positive slant to be put on letting in the early goal, but in this case there was the hope that it would induce some complacency on their part and the thought that if we could make it to the break without conceding again we could give it a proper go after the break. That proved to be the case. Fulham not surprisingly kept the ball better, had most of the play, and periodically looked dangerous, but if anything we had the half-chances, with one nod back from Kermorgant that might have been converted and one that went into the side-netting from wide left after some lacklustre defending on their part. At the break you felt that we hadn’t done ourselves justice in terms of playing as we can, even against higher quality opposition, but that we were still in the game and capable of raising it.

And raise it we did. The first 20 minutes of the second half saw us if not in control of the game at least having the upper hand. More contested balls were being won, the passing and movement were better, and there were signs that Green – who was finding more space - could deliver some telling balls in and that Kermorgant and Wright-Phillips had the ability to get in behind two ponderous central defenders. The chance came when Kermorgant managed to weight a flick on to BWP who got there ahead of the keeper but saw his shot blocked by the outrushing keeper. Shortly after Green had a shot turned over and from a corner another effort was blocked, while the linesman mysterious gave a foul against Wright-Phillips when it seemed he’d got beyond the defender and was held back. But the goal didn’t come and, forced to reassert themselves, Fulham killed off the game with a second. I don’t like to dwell on the opposition’s goals; suffice to say the ball was played across the box and their guy shot into the net, giving Sullivan no chance.

That was effectively game over. A third came from a penalty after Sullivan was adjudged to have brought down their guy and towards the end Fulham scored again. We didn’t deserve to be on the end of a 4-0 scoreline, but we live with it. I’ve already forgotten the game (if it had taken longer to get back I’ve no doubt I’d remember even less of their goals than I already have). As a measure of where we want to get back to it was a little sobering, but such thoughts are irrelevant. We’ve had a good day out and can take comfort from no distracting fixtures over the next few months. We all know we have two crucial games coming up next and if we play to the same level as we did today we’ll be fine. Some of our stuff was a marked improvement on Brentford, not least the much better hold-up play and overall involvement from Wright-Phillips. Sure, he needs one to go in off his backside, but that happens to all goalscorers; there’s no excuse for not maintaining today’s much better performance in the Sheffield games. What gives me confidence is the focus and determination we showed in the Huddersfield game; if that’s repeated I’ll be more than happy – and when it is we’re more than a match for anything else in this division, probably for a good deal of the Championship.

No player ratings today as there’s a major takeaway with my name on it; and I don’t want to judge us this season against anything other than what we need to compete against. But it’s another game where the mention in dispatches has to go to Solly. Outstanding.

Monday 2 January 2012

Not Pretty But Ultimately Effective

Errors are made and there’s a need for some latitude at this time of the year. But I thought the club would have known that the best I could do was to get to The Valley by around 15.30, given that the flight back was scheduled to arrive at Gatwick at 14.10. Delaying the kick-off for 15 minutes was appreciated, but was just never going to be enough. Apologies accepted. By the time I’d settled into the seat, sherry-laden bag in hand, all I really wanted was a win by whatever means, especially after New Year’s Eve in Seville had been ruined by events at Orient (and witnessed in the Texas Lone Star bar; I promised to buy a T-shirt if we won but that just didn’t happen).

So I cannot comment on the first 15 minutes, having been informed that Cort and Pritchard would start in place of Taylor and Russell. A bit surprising it has to be said, not because Pritchard hadn’t earned a chance but rather that, with Jackson coming back and being asked to play a second game in a matter of days, the option of the reliable Hughes wasn’t taken if Russell needed a break. That said, with games in a short space of time you just don’t know what niggles have been picked up and who’s not really available. So no problems, but you have to say that through the remaining 75 minutes or so we struggled to put passes together and to control the game in any meaningful way. You have to give some credit to Brentford, who are no mugs – and if they could shoot would surely have taken something from the game. I’m happy enough to write the game off as a hard-won victory, just as Orient has to be dismissed as just one of those days. But, while happy, let’s just say that in terms of passing, movement and control we were second-best for most of the game. Instead, with Wright-Phillips starting to look out of sorts in a more worrying fashion than before, we seemed happy to rely on additional aerial power from set pieces, with Cort, Morrison and Kermorgant, plus Jackson, undoubtedly a threat all afternoon. From a footballing perspective it wasn’t great. But a win in a congested period means a good deal is forgiven, especially as a failure to pick up three points would have meant one victory in five. As it is, we’ll take being five points clear, have some fun at Fulham, and then gear up for the two Sheffield games.

Brentford played it around well enough and had mobile forwards, but ultimately they lacked the firepower and composure up front to emerge with anything. While having the bulk of possession in the first half, all they had to show for it was a couple of shots from outside the box and a moment of panic when Hamer came and punched out a lowish cross only to see it rebound and fortunately settle back in his arms. We had one moment when Green got through, but the absence of midfield dominance meant we were feeding off scraps in a pretty ordinary game of football.

The opener came out of nothing. A ball dinked into the box should have been headed clear; instead their defender slipped, leaving Morrison alone but with his back to goal and the ball hovering around his head. Their keeper made the poor decision to try to claim it and instead became stranded as Morrison made the necessary contact to nod it home. That was about it for the first half.

The second period had two fairly distinct periods. After a mixed opening we did finally put them under some sustained pressure and had the chances – nearly all of them involving high balls in, arguably justifying the selections and approach - to kill off the game. Jackson drifted in beautifully late to a ball in only for his steered header to go just wide, I along with the rest of the East Stand thought another had been nodded in only for it to become apparent that the header went into the side netting, and finally another header crashed back from the upright and somehow wasn’t buried. Amidst all of this, Wright-Phillips was having something of a mare, not proving as effective as Kermorgant in harrying when out of possession and seeming out of sorts, as demonstrated by a left-foot shot after Green had set him up which went for a throw.

The goal didn’t come and Brentford, having survived the storm, came back into it, having made three substitutions in a short space of time. We had to endure two free kicks awarded just outside the area, one perhaps harshly given for handball and the second one for a shove (apparently by Kermorgant) which was a bit tough to argue with. Both saw one of them try to unsettle Hamer by standing in front of him as he lined up the wall; both were wasted, with the first shot blocked and the second well over the bar. Solly picked up a yellow for deliberate handball to stop one going over his head and Cort was to suffer a similar fate. And finally their guy was played in on the left side of the box only for him to hit the shot over the bar.

Just as they weathered the difficult period, so did we. The newly arrived Clark came on for Wright-Phillips and Wagstaff replaced Jackson and by now we just wanted the clock to run down. Instead we were happily deprived of a worrying stoppage time as a ball in from the right was cleverly protected by Kermorgant (he didn’t touch it but made sure the defender didn’t either) and fell to the onrushing Green. He took it to the keeper, checked inside onto his right foot, and slotted home. Hughes came on for the final few minutes and it was job done.

We’re top of the league, we’re five points clear, and we have nothing to complain about. OK, it wasn’t pretty and the bucketload of sherry purchased in Seville has gone back to Lyon with Suzanne (she had the bag checked in). In the greater scheme of things, I’ll live with it.

Player Ratings:

Hamer – 6/10. All considered, he didn’t actually have a serious shot to save (he should have done, but that’s their problem). Missed badly one cross in the second half and his strange punch in the first could have cost us. It didn’t, I assume he sits out the cup game if that covers his suspension.

Solly – 7/10. Basically fine; picked up the yellow for one that would have gone over his head.

Wiggins – 8/10. Read the game very well as usual and dealt with all thrown at him.

Morrison – 8/10. Notched another and generally commanding in defence. No problems.

Cort – 7/10. Not sure why Taylor was rested, but did well enough and may have made a decisive challenge to put off their guy when he seemed to be in.

Jackson – 7/10. Tough ask to come back and play a second game in a few days but looked cultured and assured, nearly scored.

Hollands – 7/10. Not a bad game, but at no stage did we dominate midfield. Deserves credit for playing with a variety of partners of late, which can’t help him.

Pritchard – 7/10. Here too not a bad game, but you can’t expect everything to be fluid when new combinations are tried.

Green – 7/10. Gets the extra mark for the goal, but otherwise a bit peripheral as the service to him was lacking.

Kermorgant – 8/10. I thought he strived tirelessly in the cause today and deserves some credit for our second.

Wright-Phillips – 5/10. Disappointing. Dry spells happen to all goalscorers and you just get on with it. Today there was too much shrugging of the shoulders and complaints, while his hold-up play was weak. Has shown – and is obviously capable of – much better.

Subs – Clark (6/10: rusty start, so we’ll give him the benefit of the doubt; looks like back-up for Kermorgant); Wagstaff (6/10: no real impact coming on late); Hughes (can’t give a mark for a couple of minutes, bit unlucky not to start as he did well alongside Hollands before Russell came in).