Saturday 25 February 2012

Another Stride Forward

Another game against a top six side, another win. If only we could play them every week. And when you have to surface at 04.30 French time to make your way back home in time for the game, all you really want is a problem-free journey and three points. Mission accomplished, even though it was a bad start. When you get a train that early you’re inclined to think that no-one else will be daft enough to do so. Only to be reminded that the train from Lyon to Lille for the Eurostar connection goes through Marne La Vallee, ie Disneyworld. With a passable hangover after a few hours’ kip, it’s not what you need. The day got better after that.

We all knew that a win today was important to remain on track, so we would have taken one however it came. In the end it came with a performance that got better as the afternoon progressed, largely because the pressure lifted once we went ahead and as a second gave some comfort. The sub-plot was Wright-Phillips’ afternoon, as just about every passable opportunity fell to him. By the time he departed the scene I made it one out of seven, but the important thing is the one. Everything else can be forgiven, especially as the fact that the chances came his way was no accident.

After the enforced shuffling against Rochdale, the team was pretty much Plan A, with Solly and Jackson returning from injury. Stevenage were to have the better of the early exchanges, without looking particularly threatening, except for an iffy back pass. But we were to discover that if we could play the game in their half we’d get chances and a spell of sustained pressure almost provided the breakthrough. Kermorgant was to win the first of a series of effective headers to leave BWP juggling with the ball going through and ultimately unable to get the shot away. Green, who’d fluffed a cross from a good position, then curled in a peach crying out to be buried, only for Wright-Phillips to put it over the bar. After that Sevenage proved adept at breaking up the play and a few injury breaks worked against any momentum, although we should have been awarded a penalty for a clear shove from behind; the referee might not have been well place, but the linesman had the same view we had and it was blatent.

The third BWP chance of the first half was the best of the lot, but having been played through and the ball sitting up the attempted lob also went too high. That was a bad miss and at that stage the world seemed against him – except for the crowd, which kept doing all they could to keep the spirits high. Stevenage did have a shout for a penalty of their own, as a set piece move saw their guy move on to a flick at the far post and seemed to be claiming a pull back. I certainly didn’t see one. They also had an opportunity at the death, but left in the clear at the far post from a cross their guy mishit the shot into the ground.

At the break we were clearly ahead on chances, but no cigar. The feeling was that the midfield hadn’t worked as well as it might, with Hollands and Stephens, and Jackson, a little subdued and clearly controlling the game, but the defence was holding firm, with Solly winning balls he had no right to and getting forward to good effect. It seemed to be a case of whether Wright-Phillips would actually bury one.

His next chance came so early in the second half it almost went unnoticed. But it was a good one. The shot seemed to lack conviction and sailed wide. That only served to galvanise Morrison to show the forwards how it’s done. When the ball broke to him around the edge of the box he fairly hammered it home, with their keeper getting a hand to it but really standing no chance. The goal lifted everyone and it was apparent that Hollands and Stephens were getting more of a grip. Stevenage would have to be more aggressive and that promised more opportunities. The next one came, of course, to BWP and this time the shot was dispatched, probably with a deflection or two, but who cares?

Drought over, you felt that the next one that came his way he would bury without a second thought. But their keeper had other ideas as two more gilt-edged chances to finish off the game were blocked. It didn’t seem to matter much, but Stevenage were throwing on forwards with abandon, with nothing to lose, and the key moment came when they fluffed their best chance of the afternoon. Another set piece was flicked on and their guy running onto the ball towards the far post only had to put it between the sticks. A goal then and the ending could have been tough, but he put it wide. Haynes had by then come on for Jackson, to try to take advantage of the greater space going forward (once chance did come his way as he made the most of an opening to fire in a good shot which brought a smart save), and Wright-Phillips departed for Pritchard to keep things sealed up. Stevenage had had their chance, hadn’t taken it, and the final minutes were negotiated without alarm.

There were some fine performances this afternoon – not least from Solly, Morrison and Kermorgant, while for me Hollands and Stephens got to grip with things after the break – and we were worthy winners. There was palpable relief at the finish; two goals from open play, and one for BWP, and another major step towards the end-goal. Today was another tough test and a pressure game, given some recent home draws, and overall they deserve another pat on the back. If the text lacks inspiration today, that’s because I’m fading fast through a combination of fatigue and red wine. But there’s a smile on my face.

Player Ratings:

Hamer – 8/10. Not much to report in terms of saves, but he was assured with the high ball against a team noted for its aerial threat and exuded confidence.

Solly – 8/10. Splendid, not least for his ability to read situations (in defence and attack) and to regain and retain possession.

Wiggins – 8/10. Some hesitation at times, but only by his very high standards. Also made important interceptions and got forward to good effect.

Morrison – 9/10. Strong at the back against a team which likes it in the air and scored a goal out of almost nothing which was to prove decisive.

Taylor – 8/10. Nothing outstanding, but when the opposition have two chances all afternoon things are working very well.

Jackson – 6/10. Perhaps feeling his way back but not as influential as we’re used to in a first half in which we didn’t dominate in midfield.

Hollands – 7/10. Would have been a lower mark at the break, but the midfield all round operated better in the second half.

Stephens – 7/10. With him too the second-half performance seemed to me to go up a notch and it had the desired effect.

Green – 7/10. Something of a mixed bag, with a naff cross here and there but also one beauty which deserved to produce a goal.

Kermorgant – 8/10. Truly good performance in leading the line and creating chances. Won headers with regularity and seldom were the flick ons aimless.

Wright-Phillips – 6/10. What mark do you give a guy who has broken his drought but could easily have had four (or more)? Has to be marked down for not converting some of them, but never hid and played his part outside the box. On that basis could have been a much higher mark.

Wednesday 15 February 2012

Pressure? This Team Can Handle It

Pressure. It’s everywhere, in every circumstance. What matters is how you deal with it, whether you can turn it into a positive (motivation, commitment etc) or whether it makes you small. And on reflection I think last night’s game (especially the second half) was the season condensed. We may be eight points clear at the top and at least nine clear of third with two games in hand, having never been out of the top three and having held the top spot since mid-September. But let’s not pretend that doesn’t bring pressure of its own. From the hard-won position we are in, we can after all only blow it; and nobody wants to think about the consequences of not going up. Last night in a short space of time an even contest turned into a 2-0 lead against 10 men and a half-time break to think about it. We could only blow it.

What we saw in the second half last night was a team increasingly frustrated at its inability to either finish it off with another goal or at least play out time comfortably, with players arguing with each other. We know how it can go when you’re a man up as the opposition work harder and players naturally, perhaps subconsciously, tend to pass the buck in the expectation that someone else will make the extra man pay. That is being harsh; we were up against a decent team. And it’s not attributable to any one or few players; it’s a collective thing and hard to turn around. The players just wanted the game over and won.

We clearly haven’t been helped by the cancellations. One would have been OK for a breather, but two in succession against the bottom two sides meant some rustiness in our play but perhaps more important they meant that the team had to get up mentally for another big test against a promotion rival. I can’t help thinking that the two games in quick succession against the Sheffield clubs have left us mentally running low, if not on empty.

Let me stress I have absolutely no complaints about how we have found ways to win against our closest rivals. The resolve and commitment shown by the players has been magnificent. We are where we deserve to be and the criticism from others that we are just grinding out results, including a string of remarks from opposition managers about having played better than us, had more chances etc count for absolutely nothing. But it is reasonable to conclude that a deterioration in the quality of service to the forwards and their current goal drought (none from the front two in seven, with our only goals from open play in the last five games having been Green’s fumbled cross and Stephens’ wonder strike), perhaps the result of a greater focus on defence (four clean sheets in the last six), have taken out some of the joy and exuberance from the team, the simple pleasure of playing.

There’s clearly not going to be any respite in terms of games coming up and we’re some way yet from talking about the run-in. We play Saturday and Tuesday all the way to mid-March. But the fixtures from now on are against lesser opposition (no, I’m not encouraging complacency and every game is a challenge to be won). We have got ourselves into a position whereby an occasional setback is far from terminal. We can only blow it – but we’re not going to. The players and the management have shown they are made of stronger stuff.

There’s nothing here that Sir Chris and his team will not be fully aware of. But perhaps there’s a case for a bit of letting off steam, pinning the league table on the wall and the whole squad patting each other on the back for the fruits of their labour. A collective love-in and bit of R&R. Once that’s done, you focus again on the next task as we venture north again to Tranmere and then welcome Rochdale and Stevenage.

For my part, having planned a week in Lyon I shall not only be staring at the BBC site on Saturday afternoon but the following Tuesday as well. Why always bloody Rochdale? Perhaps it’s some grand plan to prevent me from being able to exorcise one of my worst memories as an Addick – a 1-0 home win against Rochdale (Arthur Horsfield) on a freezing January night in 1973 at an old, open-plan Valley in front of 5,000 scattered supporters. Eurostar permitting (or more probably my partner Suzanne’s ability to get me out of bed in time for a train before 06.00 French time), I will be back for Stevanage. Bring it on.

Sorry to say that my Lyon trip won’t include a Lyon Duchere game, but they are doing well enough without me, tucked in in third spot in CFA Groupe B. They have a record of won eight, drawn five and lost only two of their 15 games so far, with Olympique Lyon’s B team heading the division. The way things are shaping up regarding planned future trips, it seems that Suzanne won’t even be able to get to one of our games this season (I had been looking forward to a few cries of encouragement in Breton for Kermorgant from her). But we are doing well enough without her.

Tuesday 14 February 2012

Mostly Gossip; The Table Doesn't Lie

When they come to write the history of this season, the records will show that we secured another victory against a promotion rival. That’s four points from two games against MK Dons, the same return against Sheff Wed, six from two against Sheff Utd, and three from one game against Huddersfield, making it 17 from seven games against our main contenders, with just three goals conceded. The rest, as Shankly apparently once said, is just gossip. Sometimes you have to graft, sometimes you blow the opposition away, and sometimes games are handed to you in a few minutes. There’s no complaints from me, although perhaps we stretched playing out a game seemingly won a little too far in the second half.

It did prove to be a strange night. The team saw the perfectly understandable return of Wright-Phillips up front, after his break, but otherwise no changes, with Stephens retaining the spot in central midfield alongside Hollands. Having gone to the away game against MK Dons, we knew that they could play football; we also had a fair idea that on the basis of the evidence of that night they can struggle to convert possession and chances into goals. With us not firing on all cylinders it was going to be a tough game and an important night, with the top six playing each other.

Both teams settled into a sort of pattern, with them happy to knock it around and us looking to be more incisive when we had the chance. Attempts on goal were few and far between, but a key moment of the night came when they did fashion a chance inside the box, but Hamer reacted sharply and pulled off a superb save. They score then and the night’s different. For all their nice football, MK Dons were not averse to a physical challenge, or to going for balls in the air by wrapping themselves around their opponent, usually Kermorgant. But aside from a deflected effort, which their keeper took somewhere around the goalline and which the linesman was in no place to judge whether it had crossed the line (it almost certainly didn’t, but I appealed along with everyone else), we hadn’t done much to test them. Rather tellingly, when BWP got into a decent position he was crowded out and looked like a guy crying out for a goal.

As the game moved towards half-time there was nothing much in it, aside from the Hamer save and a Jackson free kick which perhaps surprisingly (in view of recent efforts) went wide of the post, although we seemed to be gaining the upper hand in terms of possession. Thoughts turned to us having to play with greater commitment, and better movement, in the second half to get the win. Then it changed, entirely for the good. A ball into the box was cleared and as everyone’s eyes (including mine) followed it out, the referee spotted an obvious case of violent conduct, seemingly involving their centre-back and Kermorgant. Penalty and a sending off. Who could argue? Jackson stepped up and hit it well to their keeper’s right; he got a hand to it but didn’t keep it out. And it just got better. Instead of making a substitution, MK Dons carried on and as we moved into stoppage time Green moved forward and unleashed a terrific shot which came back off the bar. In the scramble that followed Jackson (I think) jinked inside only to be brought down. Penalty number two, again no arguments. This time Jackson put it in the opposite corner and the keeper was nowhere.

Basically a game which was looking like a real contest, one in which we could easily have gone behind, suddenly appeared over at the break. 2-0 up against 10 men. Serves them right for obliging us to attack the Covered End in the first half.

The problem was how to get motivated for a second half when all you really want is the game to be over. The priority was not to give them any encouragement and ideally to get the third to finish it all off. That perhaps understandably converted into players not looking to force the game but instead sucking them forward to catch them on the break. Again, no complaints from me. We just didn’t really do it well enough as a number of half-chances – usually falling to Wright-Phillips – were not converted. As the game progressed, our intent was increasingly to hold what we have and we did get a little sloppy in seeing out the game.

There was one fierce shot from outside the box which Hamer managed to get a touch on and send over the bar. But aside from that it was comfortable, if not riveting. Haynes came on for Jackson, with Green switching to the left, and as against Bury showed menace with the ball. With about five minutes left and the crowd often complaining about balls back, I turned to a friend and said I have no complaints whatsoever – but that now is not the time to let one in. As the words came out their guy on the right took a ball and drilled it past Hamer into the side of the net.

With nothing to lose, MK Dons understandably went for it, to the point of their keeper coming up for corners, and the possibility of blowing two points was very much to the fore, even though Wiggins broke forward and unleashed a decent shot which forced the save. We just wanted the end and eventually, after Pritchard had come on for Wright-Phillips, it came.

This was an important game, our penultimate one against our four closest challengers, and came after a couple of cancellations. That an MK Dons defender set us on the road to victory isn’t our fault. All it provided was further evidence that our team works out ways to win games even when we aren’t as fluid as we’d like to be. It has been seven games since our front two scored. We should have closed the game out better, but I’m still a happy bunny looking at the league table, even if the Rochdale game has been rearranged for the week I’m going to be in Lyon. Given the other results, we’re eight clear at the top, 10 clear of third with two games in hand (OK, nine with two in hand if Huddersfield win their extra one), and our number for points required to gain automatic promotion is down to 101 points, or 34 from 17 games. The rest is just gossip.

Player Ratings:

Hamer – 9/10. His save in the first half was pivotal to the game. That goes in and it could all have been different. Very good one too in the second and I don’t think he can be blamed for their goal. But still gets edged for man of the match by their muppet defender who cost them big time.

Solly – 8/10. Another good game in which he did nothing wrong defensively and got forward to good effect.

Wiggins – 8/10. His standards mean you notice even the slightest mistake and there were a couple. But nothing of note.

Morrison – 8/10. Assured through the game, some misdirected distribution but that’s about it.

Taylor – 8/10. Didn’t see anything wrong with him either.

Jackson – 7/10. Gets an extra point for two coolly taken penalties, but wasn’t especially influential in open play.

Hollands – 7/10. A driving force – one break forward in the first half won us the free kick which Jackson went close with - and covered effectively.

Stephens – 6/10. Still perhaps feeling his way back; not a bad game, but not especially influential in keeping possession and moving us forward in the second half.

Green – 6/10. Good moments, including the shot which came back off the bar and led to the second penalty.

Kermorgant – 7/10. Perhaps deserves higher mark as whatever he did to upset their centre-half worked. Put in a real shift in the absence of decent service in.

Wright-Phillips – 6/10. The guy clearly needs a goal; one off his backside will do. But didn’t hide and looked to shoot at every opportunity. It will come.

Subs – Haynes (7/10 – once again looked threatening, with pace to burn); Pritchard (not enough time for a mark).