Sunday 28 April 2013

No Cigars; Well, Maybe A Couple

So the dream is over, so shortly after the nightmare went away. It is some consolation for being cruelly robbed of two points yesterday – if Sir Chris says we should have had two penalties for me they were nailed on – that they wouldn’t have made any difference when it comes to keeping the play-offs possibility alive for the final round (barring of course Palace going into administration). However, while I was pretty relaxed about the outcome yesterday, having seen the daft post-match comments from Tony Mowbray I wish we had indeed mullered them.

When anyone begins by saying “with respect ...” the chances are what follows shows anything but. His full quote on the BBC site was “with respect, in my opinion we should be beating teams like Charlton here at our place. And the fans think so too”. In that case you are all suffering from the sort of denial apparent from Dean Saunders’ remarks: “forget this game, we should never have been in this position”. Sounds a bit like the old joke about ‘well, I wouldn’t start from here’. To be (a little) fair to Mowbray, on the Middlesbrough site his quote is a little different: “With total respect to Charlton, who have finished the season strong, I feel we should be beating them”. But the message is essentially the same.

I’ve absolutely nothing against Boro (among our entourage there is a Boro fan who now views Charlton as her second-favourites) or Mowbray, who usually comes across as a decent guy. But for the record, Mr Mowbray, with total respect, there is absolutely no good reason for you or any Boro fan to be thinking in such terms. When Middlesbrough came to The Valley and took us apart, we didn’t question that the better team had won, with Boro then looking like a shoo-in for the top six at least. I have no idea why they’ve fallen away so badly; clearly Mowbray doesn’t either. Suffice to say it can’t have anything to do with some misguided idea that there Boro are a ‘bigger’ or ‘better’ team/club. If Mowbray really meant to say something like ‘if we want to get promoted we need to be winning games like this – but we didn’t because we are falling down the league while they are climbing up it and we’ve blown it anyway’, fair comment.

So, all that remains is to have a bit of fun on the last game – but at the same time ensure that we at least hold onto ninth place, which will be a more than respectable outcome. Given that aside from the first few games of the season we’ve not been anywhere near the play-offs until the last couple of weeks, it doesn’t feel like a case for ‘what ifs’. I think there was too much disruption to the team in the first half of the season, largely due to injuries but also some filtering out of some players struggling then to cope with the step up, for a serious and sustained promotion bid to have been feasible, following the failure (for whatever reason) to land some targeted players. We should be happy that we are ending the season on a high and in good shape. But if we have to indulge in the blame game, aside from the inexplicable decision to hand over 11 points to a couple of local rivals, in hindsight it is possible to point to Birmingham’s two stoppage-time equalisers which cost us four points that we deserved. Stoppage time was blindingly good for us last season but it’s only been the last two home games when for this campaign we’ve more or less evened things up.

There will be time enough after the formal end for the debriefing, awards, and assessments of what will constitute continued progress next season and what we might need to do to make that possible. But for me, as reflected in some of the recent comments from Morrison in particular, the biggest plus has been no loss of the character and commitment of the squad which showed through in bucketloads last season. It’s fair to say that last season we did indeed get our Charlton back and this season we’ve kept our Charlton. The credit for that goes to the players and to Powell and his staff, plus the fans, whose support at key points (most obviously Cardiff) was vital. You do generally get back what you put in. More of the same next season please.

With our promotion hopes killed off in the afternoon, it is apparent that in the interests of the entente cordial (especially with my French partner Suzanne in London for the weekend) Lyon Duchere decided that they should turn their backs on their own ambitions, to wait for us to go up together. They had a top-of-the-table clash last night at home to Strasbourg in CFA Groupe B, with six teams closely grouped for the one promotion place. They lost 1-5. A victory would have seen Duchere move up to second, behind Raon l’Etape, who could only muster a 0-0 draw at home. As it is, they drop back to sixth, six points off first place with only four games left to go. As Saunders reminded us, strange things do happen in football. But both Duchere and Charlton will settle for progress this season but no cigar. Suzanne and I will settle for the rabbit I’m about to smother in wine and plonk in the oven, plus a good bottle of St Joseph, followed by her excellent first effort at tarte au praline. Plus a cigar or two for me in any event.

Monday 22 April 2013

This Is All It Takes

In light of a gratuitous comment posted by a friend, and an inquiry from another non-Addick as to what might need to happen for us to make the play-offs, here is a simple breakdown of the combination of results that would see us win promotion (I haven’t spent too much time on the exact scores required for each game, but you’ll get the drift).

Leicester 0 Watford 6
Blackburn 3 Palace 0
Cardiff 6 Bolton 0
Millwall 1 Forest 0 (much as I hate to predict it)
Middlebrough 0 Charlton 6

We end the weekend on 64 points, go above Forest (on goal difference) into eighth, behind Leicester (65), Bolton (66) and Palace (67).

Millwall 1 Palace 0 (can’t bring myself to go for more goals for them)

Final round:
Bolton 0 Blackpool 6 (Bolton finish on 66 points)
Forest 1 Leicester 0 (Forest finish on 67 points but behind us on goal difference, Leicester finish on 65)
Palace 0 Peterborough 6 (Palace finish on 67 points but behind us on goal difference)
Charlton 10 Bristol City 0 (we finish on 67 points, and in fifth place).

In the play-offs, we take on (and understandably beat) Brighton over the two legs. The other contest would see Watford (or conceivably Hull) up against Forest. On to Wembley to beat whichever one it proves to be.

What could be more simple? The more analytical website still puts our chances of promotion at 1.8%, but we know it’s (almost) a done deal.

Saturday 20 April 2013

Now We're Even Winning Ugly

What’s going on? Now we’re even winning ugly. We looked leggy and jaded through the game, which is understandable given the run of games and effectively unchanged side, lost Hughes to injury after about 15 minutes, and struggled throughout to create much worthwhile in a game that won’t go down in too many people’s choices for their most beautiful games. The ball spent a lot of time being humped in both directions. That we won said a fair deal about Wolves. Met a couple of their supporters in the pub before then game and they mentioned that their team had no pace, which proved to be true as they failed to get behind our defence once. What was surprising was their lack of ambition, given their position, as with more endeavour they could well have won.

Perhaps they know their limitations, but having gone 1-0 down they made a change to bring on a forward, then made another when they went 2-1 down. They even had a corner in stoppage time and their keeper started to go forward, only for them to take it before he reached half-way. No problems, we’ll take the points and keep the play-off fantasy alive. I’ve never bemoaned a win and am not about to start now. Neither am I going to suggest that we truly deserved to win, other than that their lack of ambition and some praiseworthy defending on our part (one effort on target from them – admittedly one outrageous effort from distance in the first half came back off the bar - tells its own story) perhaps saw us edge it on points.

The team was unchanged again, as were the subs. Perhaps the real question was whether, with safety already all but assured (it is now), we would relax and play well or whether we’d look quite frankly knackered and ready for the summer hols. In fairness it was something between the two. After inconclusive early exchanges the first incident of note was Hughes pulling up and leaving the scene, to be replaced by Gower. That did provide an opportunity for him to show what he could do and to provide a comparison with Hughes. It’s a bit unfair to do so since as a team we didn’t play as well as we have been. He did well enough, but we missed Hughes’ drive and effort, especially as the game was passing Jackson by (I’d just voted for him as player of the season and I don’t think he touched the ball more than a few times before being subbed in the second half).

Harriott was a menace down the left and good work by him fashioned an opening for Fuller, who turned on the pass just inside the box and hit a shot that was fierce enough but straight at the keeper. But with Wolves seemingly content to rely on balls to Doyle to do something with and generally sitting back, the game was generally about two defences thumping the ball out and neither midfield able to provide any control, while a series of injury stoppages worked against flowing football. The only other first-half moment of note was their effort from distance. With Hamer off his line all he could do was watch it come back off the underside of the bar and, like the rest of us, give thanks for the fact it didn’t dip enough.

No sweat, attack the Covered End in the second half and let’s see if we could pick it up. We did, to an extent, but with Kermorgant and Fuller pretty well shackled and Harriott by now getting crowded out (and us not supporting him well enough by getting players closer) it was hardly pulsating stuff. The comfort came from the fact that Wolves seemed to carry little threat, with all of the back four working well. With the game in a stalemate, after the hour Sir Chris made a bold change, but one which on the day could hardly be argued with. Jackson went off to be replaced by Green, with Pritchard moving into the centre. The impact was immediate, not least as the first thing they did was to play a sloppy pass across the pitch straight to Green, who forced a corner.

That one – and a few other decent deliveries – came to nothing, but when another corner came our way the deadlock was broken. Let’s face it there was luck involved. Green slipped as he took it and the ball ended up around the near post. A first effort was saved by the keeper but Devitte managed to get enough on the rebound for it to go over the line. Like the rebound against Bolton, he was in the right place.

Any thoughts that a goal might open up the game were quickly dashed as, after their first substitution, they equalised. If you like route one this was a classic. Long throw into the box flicked on and Doyle making contact to send it looping over Hamer, who had no chance. That perhaps should have been the cue for Wolves to go for the win, as they should have had the momentum. Instead the game settled back into its previous pattern. A few efforts from us came and went without troubling their keeper, while Hunt drove through for them and opted to continue when the ball was clearly Hamer’s, resulting in a poor challenge and a yellow.

All that was left was for us to bring on Obika to produce his customary stoppage-time winner. Powell waited until around five minutes were left on the clock, with Fuller making way. And when it was around the ninetieth minute Green put in another good delivery and Obika cropped up at the far post to convert the chance. Six minutes of stoppage time followed, but Wolves failed to make Hamer work, aside from catching/punching the obligatory long throws. Cue final whistle and, if the mood was less celebratory than for the Leeds game, it is good enough for me.

There’s no point in looking at the table and thinking about what might have been. We’re ending the season in some style and can use that as the basis for preparations for next season. But two more wins and it only needs Palace to lose three, plus Bolton, Leicester and Forest losing their last two. I’m happy enough to still be looking at the possibility.

Player Ratings:

Hamer – 8/10. Dealt well with what he had to, which wasn’t much (apart from Hunt’s studs). No chance with the goal and would have been unfair to mark him down if their one off the bar had gone in.

Solly – 8/10. Outstanding defensively, not in evidence much going forward but that’s picking holes.

Wiggins – 8/10. Same as for Solly.

Morrison – 8/10. The defence today was individually and collectively excellent and deserved a first home clean sheet since November.

Dervite – 9/10. My man of the match. We’ve all focused on the difference that Hughes has made and have perhaps overlooked the fact that he’s come in and, after a poor first 20 minutes against Bolton, contributed to the tightening up of the defence. He’s also notched two goals.

Pritchard – 6/10. The midfield didn’t function well today, but he put in his usual good shift and switched into the centre well enough.

Jackson – 5/10. His efforts this season have sometimes been immense and today it looked as though there wasn’t much left in the tank. Fair enough.

Hughes – 7/10. Only on the pitch for 15 minutes.

Harriott – 7/10. The main threat in the first half but less in evidence in the second as they teamed up on him.

Kermorgant – 6/10. Found it tough today against decent defenders and he too looked a bit knackered. As with Jackson, no complaints.

Fuller – 6/10. Sometimes effective but generally kept under wraps by their defenders.

Subs – Gower (6/10 – Passed the ball well enough but in a scrappy game wasn’t too influential); Green (8/10 – Undoubtedly made a difference when introduced and involved in both goals, his crossing is still the best we have); Obika (9/10 – What can you say? His goals-per-minutes ratio must be the best in the league).

Thursday 18 April 2013

I (Still) Believe

Ah, what a bittersweet aftertaste even an utterly praiseworthy 0-0 away draw against the league-leaders can sometimes leave. I certainly don’t begrudge Cardiff their party, they earned it, just as we did last season. But. But. To (loosely) quote Topol, would it have spoiled some vast eternal plan? If they had let us sneak a last-minute winner. They would still have been up and, just like those moments before checking the euromillions results, there was just that outrageous hope that all could be possible. Our unlikely – and only recently born - dream of the play-offs could have lived on for a bit longer. I appreciate when it comes to Charlton I do (happily) spend a good deal of time in cloud cuckoo land.

So let’s take it for what it was: a splendid result, especially as it continues the run and as it involved a fifth game in less than three weeks for effectively an unchanged team. Three wins and two draws, three of the five away (which yes has tended to be an advantage this season, although not necessarily one to be relied on when it involves Brighton and Cardiff). And it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to conclude that the key has been not conceding goals: just one in the last four-and-a-half of the games (and that the obligatory deflected effort from a former player). Clearly you have to have some good fortune to have that outcome, but it’s also involved better defending (including good goalkeeping). We saved our best run for when it mattered.

We’ve struggled to come up with good reasons for the difference through the season in our home and away form, but the defining statistic is obvious: 23 goals conceded in 22 away games (only Leicester have let in fewer) and 32 in 21 home games (only five have let in more). It’s a bit dangerous to draw conclusions from a sample size of one, especially as it was a 0-6 victory, but from the off last Saturday the tackling, covering, blocking and overall workrate was exemplary. There have been away games when we’ve not really been at the races in a similar fashion; but perhaps, just perhaps, the attitude going into away and home games has been marginally different (and that can be all it takes). I don’t mean we’ve been complacent or lazy at home, far from it. But we’ve done the ugly side of the game much better away, possibly because the players are fully aware the away games will be tough and as the onus isn’t on us to make the play and entertain the fans (personally I’m always entertained by a win). Clearly a frequent 4-5-1 formation for away games has also contributed to that.

It suggests for next season – and for the remaining games – an emphasis on ensuring that all concerned are fully focused on the fact that winning any game in this division, home or away, requires the same approach (unless of course we sign Messi in pre-season). Otherwise, should we just attribute the recent run to the return of Hughes (leaving aside the opening period of the Bolton game)? He might have left it a bit late to get the player of the year award, but if there was one for most positive impact it would be between him for the last five games and Obika for his five minutes against Leeds. Others have rightly commented on how we seem to have stumbled on a midfield set-up that is currently working better than previous combinations, with Hughes greatly assisting Jackson, Pritchard getting around, and Harriott offering an exciting outlet.

So suddenly, with the weather improving (this afternoon’s downpour notwithstanding), survival ensured, play-off hopes all but gone, and the player of the year vote on Saturday, what had looked set to be a nail-biting finish has the air of an end-of-season coast. For the record, having voted last season for Morrison – while not in any way suggesting that Solly didn’t deserve it (as did Hollands, Kermorgant, Wiggins etc) – I’m voting for Jackson this time around; Solly would of course be a worthy winner again, but Jackson’s been almost ever-present and played a captain’s role, his goals digging us out of a number of situations.

I’m sure Sir Chris and his staff will be beating any end-of-season thoughts out of the players’ heads before Saturday as, having got into our position, we want to round things off with positive momentum. And to be pedantic it ain’t done yet. The website assessing chances of relegation and promotion gives us a zero risk of the former even if we lose the last three (technically we need three points from three games as the bar has belatedly been lowered to 61 points); but it still gives us a 1.8% chance of going up with three wins. The real chances are in fact greater than this, since the site cannot easily encompass the prospect of Palace losing their last four; we know the odds on this are better than they seem (of course Leicester beating Palace on Saturday means we will have to score a bucketload in our remaining three to pip them for sixth on goal difference).

After all, Holloway is showing signs of the strain. He’s quoted on the BBC site today as saying “we’ve got to believe in ourselves; it’s going away from us and we’ve got to try and get it back”. A certain David Flitcroft wrote the following in a recent programme. “Belief. When your belief is strong enough you can achieve anything. There is no challenge that we face where this group of players will not believe we can have a positive outcome”. They lost 0-6. Clearly they had a lapse in belief and if Holloway’s right and Palace have lost belief, well it’s all over. Sitting here I’m telling myself I really can perform brain surgery if I believe enough. It’s just that I’m not willing to try it on myself.

Sunday 14 April 2013

Further Ramblings On A Special Day

Is there anything sensible to add about yesterday? Not really, but that’s never stopped me before (and it does provide a rather spurious excuse to put up another photo). Perhaps best to start by saying that the day wasn’t perfect or without regrets. The eggs, bacon and black pudding at the service station was pretty ordinary and not worth the money (basically I should have known better); in Barnsley on the way to find a relatively inviting pub I walked past a bookies advertising odds on the game (3-1 to them being prominent) and didn’t have the foresight or conviction to put a few quid on us winning 0-6; and during the game some passes went astray and some shots missed. Then again, these are probably too few to mention (I will sooner or later run out of regrets clich├ęs, but not yet). Oh, and I have a completely redundant photo as I took one of the scoreboard when it read 0-5.

Thankfully the game passed with no serious Thatcher/Scargill chants (a few of ours tried to start one for Thatcher but with creditably very few takers and it very quickly petered out; there’s no prizes for suggestions as to just how a daft one minute’s silence would have passed off, with Barnsley miners’ flags prominent around the ground). With not a great deal of tension regarding matters on the pitch in the final half-hour, there was the opportunity for some rather more enlightened singing; my favourite was ‘4-0 and even Pritchard’s scored’. There wasn’t much directed at the Barnsley fans, most of whom stayed to the end and continued to back their team (no boos at all please note, although whether their reaction would have been so understanding if the game had been mid-season is another matter). I think we all felt that we’ve been there too and were more intent on enjoying the occasion than wallowing in others’ misery.

As for the records broken, well aside from the obvious ones I’ve never seen a game which produced two red cards and no yellows. When was the last time we had six different scorers in a league game? And when was the last time that a text request was answered so quickly? At the break, at 0-2, my French partner Suzanne sent one to say that Kermorgant had to score. It took him about three minutes to oblige.

I can’t remember a season when in the space of 14 days we’ve gone from being all set to end a game outside the bottom three only on goal difference (if we’d lost to Bolton) with seven to play, only to sit ninth and just six points off the play-offs. And one when a team (as it happens Millwall) could at this stage of the game still either get relegated or make the top six. For the record, the bar for guaranteed survival now stands at 62 points, or five from four for us; more realistically, the website I was informed of gives us a 0.1% chance of being relegated if we lose the last four (see, not certain yet) and zero if we get another point. For the first time in a while our odds on going up are better than those on going down. Four wins, 69 points, and the site gives us an 8.7% chance of making the Premiership (presumably incorporating the play-off options).

OK, we know in our hearts (somewhere, deep down) that an extension to the season isn’t likely. But that didn’t stop me checking out the dates this morning. Thankfully a week away in Lyon in May which I rashly booked wouldn’t compromise anything (I leave after the two-legged semis and return on the weekend before the final). Suzanne is ready to return to London with me if we make it. After all, we only have to take it one game at a time, as we are always told, starting with being real party-poopers on Tuesday night.

Talking of party-poopers, who on earth are Raon l’Etape (apparently the town is known as the ‘Gateway to the Vosges? My adopted French team, Lyon Duchere, have turned it around with three wins and two draws in their last five to revitalise their promotion bid. And those that were around them – Grenoble, Moulins, Strasbourg and especially Mulhouse (who seemed set to win the league but have won just one in five) - have faltered, with Duchere moving above them. However, Raon l’Etape have reeled off five wins in a row and now top the table, one point above Duchere with a game in hand (which guarantees them at least one point in CFA Groupe B). There’s six games left (seven for Raon l’Etape), so it could change again. Duchere may have to win them all to grab the one promotion spot, just as we may need to if we are to grab sixth.

Saturday 13 April 2013

Not A Bad Day's Work

I have to admit that over the years I’ve chosen worse daft away trips. Ahead of the Bolton game, the decision to get tickets for Barnsley away was motivated by the prospect of it being a crucial contest, with a leap of faith required at a difficult juncture (one which after 20 minutes of the Bolton game seemed a good deal more difficult). To say that the day turned out well enough is perhaps an understatement. I’m happy to wait for confirmation of just how many records were broken, and for now will settle for the facts that I’ve never before seen us win 6-0 away from home; and that undoubtedly I’ve never before felt more confident with 20 minutes left. Even for a wizened old git it proved to be a bit special.

There had been enough time to sink a decent espresso before we headed off just after 09.00, but I have to confess I feared the worst. Two wins and a draw had taken the edge off our struggle, but with Barnsley in good form and still in desperate need of points I thought they’d edge it in the motivation stakes. There was general consent in the car that a draw would be a decent enough outcome. What we hadn’t counted on was a balancing of a fair bit of bad luck at home through the season in one afternoon, including a Barnsley goalkeeper who will be keen to erase the highlights from his season’s DVD, plus what has to go down as an exceptional performance from us by any standards, on a blustery afternoon which made controlling the ball difficult but ended up working to our advantage.

The team showed no changes, in the starting X1 or on the bench, with Haynes and Cort still absent. And after settling into good if a little exposed seats and enjoying the exchanges between the Charlton contingent and the Barnsley mascot (‘get yourself a proper job’, which he took in splendid good spirit) the game had barely begun before we went ahead.

The ball was played across the box from our right side and I suspect Kermorgant had a shot on the turn, which their keeper parried but only into the path of Pritchard. He hasn’t been in the right spot at the right time too often this season, but this was to prove a day of exceptions to the rule and he buried it. That settled us down nicely and although Barnsley had decent possession they lacked strength up front on a day when passing wasn’t easy. After 20 minutes we broke up one attack, and with Barnsley appealing for a foul moved it out quickly once more down the right. A similar ball in saw Jackson coming in on it and after his first effort was blocked once again the rebound fell kindly and Jackson didn’t need another invitation.

If there are turning points in a 0-6 victory they came in the following period. Barnsley belatedly realised that the conditions meant that this was a day for simplicity in defence and power up front and made a change to bring on a big forward. For a while it changed the game as he caused us problems. After a couple of efforts they had one chance which Wiggins (I think) hacked off the line. If that had gone in, the half-time talks would have been very different. As it was, the moment passed and just a few minutes into the second half the game was effectively won.

Good work down the left by Wiggins and Harriott produced a peach of a cross which beat their keeper but not Kermorgant, who positioned himself to ensure that nobody could get in his way. The header into a vacant net was powerful, but what was impressive was the way he made sure that nobody else could get near it. Whatever encouragement and belief that Barnsley had come out for the second half with had just gone out of the window. And if they felt bad enough already, it wasn’t long before it got worse for them. And worse. One swerving effort was well parried by Hamer and Harewood came on to give them more muscle up front; they had no option other than to press forward and that was giving us the space to exploit. Harriott hared down the right and opted for a fierce but eminently stoppable shot, only for their keeper to make a complete howler and let it slip through his grasp at the near post.

If winning 4-0 away was good enough, pretty soon we’d be playing out the game against 10 men as a loose ball saw their guy dive in on Kermorgant. It looked like a very bad challenge and there can be no question about the red card shown. After that it was a case of whether we’d score more – and plenty of opportunities came and went as Fuller decided he needed to be on the scoresheet, as Obika (who’d come on for Kermorgant, with Gower replacing Jackson) tied them up in knots, and as just about everyone else wanted to get in on the act. Our final change saw Kerkar replace Harriott and with almost his first touch he made it five. Played through, he finished with aplomb.

There was still time for a run through on goal to be blocked unfairly, with the ref seemingly giving nothing but the linesman flagging for a foul, which in turn gave the ref no option other than to show another red card. And with just about the last kick of the game Fuller finally got his goal, curling one in from the edge of the box.

You had to feel sorry for Barnsley as nobody could have predicted the afternoon’s events; and many of them loyally stayed to the bitter end. But it was our afternoon and the final whistle saw them exit the field quickly and the team and Sir Chris and staff move enjoy a love-in with the Charlton fans. Days like this don’t happen often (especially as the drive back was to the sound of the FA Cup commentary).

That’s it for now. No time for player ratings as there’s a takeaway with my name on it (it was a long drive back). In any event, what can you do after a 6-0 away win, one that all but mathematically ensures survival, but give all of them a 10. Tomorrow we dream of the play-offs.

Saturday 6 April 2013

The Sun Had His Hat On

Ah, one week, seven points, a stoppage-time winner (we had been the only Championship team not to score in added time), and the sun is shining. It doesn’t take much to make me happy. Points required to stay up eases to 64 – and that’s just 10 in five games for us now. Suddenly it’s can we close an eight-point gap to make the play-offs. OK, let’s keep the feet on the ground, if we have to. I’d rather enyoy the moment – and try to stay awake for the Football League Show. Season ticket renewed, tickets for Barnsley bought, and we win.

In truth, I thought it was a fascinating game, from start to finish, not because it was especially beautiful but because there was nothing to choose between the two sides. I thought we carried the greater attacking threat throughout, but you can’t say that we made their keeper work significantly harder than theirs. And I’d give some credit to Leeds. Without a manager, Warnock having left apparently because they couldn’t get promoted, and you felt that it we went ahead they might fade. Instead when we did they upper their game and without really threatening did get their equaliser, which of course had to be attributed to Varney. In the closing stages you felt that a draw was not an unfair outcome, even if we had the better chances. But then it was a game of fine margins and while their sub scored at the death ours did too, with Sir Chris having made one change at 1-0 to try to tighten up the game and a second at 1-1 to try to win it. It all turned out well in the end.

The team was the same as that against Bolton the previous Saturday – and the same as against Brighton away except for Fuller coming back into a 4-4-2 having made way for Wilson and 4-5-1 away. That pointed to a number of tired legs towards the end and the possibility that substitutions would play a part.

The early exchanges weren’t decisive and at least this time around we weren’t 0-2 down after 20 minutes. Leeds are not Bolton in terms of quality in the final third. They did have one opportunity which was blazed over the bar, but any account of the first half would focus on the possibilities that we had, mostly involving Harriott down the left and the ability of both Fuller and Kermorgant to create problems. One run and swerving shot, one well-worked move which saw Fuller square the ball across the face only for Kermorgant not to have gambled to get on the end of it, and one pulled back which Dervite hit to produce the only real save of the period. The neutral might have thought it wasn’t a great game as neither side were displaying that much quality or ability to pull the opposition apart, but it made it an even game in which the importance of a first goal seemed to rise by the minute.

At the break we were ahead on points but nothing else. But within a couple of minutes of the restart we had grabbed a vital lead. The ball was played in from the right and after an initial block Jackson once more ran on to a loose ball and buried it high into the net. It was a great example of a midfielder following the play and being in the right place to take advantage of a break. There was a question of offside, but he looked OK to me and the rather iffy linesman agreed.

Now ahead, in a close game, you felt that either Leeds would subside or we would become too cautious. It proved to be the latter, which is no real criticism of a team playing its third game in a week. And to be fair to Leeds they did up their effort and started to have more of the game. I don’t think it’s fair to say that we sat back, but it was evident that a 1-0 victory would be entirely welcome and in a game of small margins (yes, again) that played a part. It didn’t become one-way traffic by any means as you still felt that a second for us was possible, while the defence was coping well with their forwards. But as the game entered its final third the feeling was increasingly that the final whistle without further incidents would be fine as the edge went off our forward play. They brought on Varney and there was a decision for Powell to make, to try to tie up the game.

I thought it would be Gower on for one of the forwards, or for Hughes if it was felt he couldn’t last 90 minutes. Instead it proved to be Kerkar on for Fuller. Not an unreasonable change to bolster midfield and to try to shift the balance of possession in our favour. Only problem was that with about 10 minutes left they grabbed an equaliser. Like our goal, you can’t say it was coming, but a ball to the far side of the box was met with a Varney shot that seemed to take one or two deflections before finding the net.

After one change to try to tie up the game, the next had to be to try to win it, with Obika coming on for Harriott. With his first touch he went racing past their guy and set up the first of two chances in a couple of minutes, both of which fell to Solly. One went narrowly wide and it seemed as if the opportunity to win the game was lost. Four minutes of stoppage time were announced (in a game when the trainer didn’t come onto the pitch and there wasn’t a single bad foul), which was extended by an injury/substitution for them. But just when a creditable draw was on the cards Kermorgant chased down a ball to win a throw and a ball in from Wiggins saw Obika rise majestically to deflect it into the roof of the net. Cue celebrations as there was barely enough time to restart the game.

A sober assessment of the game would be that on balance if either side deserved to win it was us, but nobody would have felt aggrieved if it had finished level. Not exactly rocket science when it’s 1-1 after 90 minutes. But on the margins, in the key contests, we had edged it, despite Leeds’ response to going behind Our defence was largely untroubled, which reflected well on all concerned; our midfield had competed well, while our forwards looked more likely to score than theirs. But sod being rational; it was a mighty victory, one which together with the previous two results should result in a flood of season ticket renewals as we showed again we deserve to be in this league.

Player Ratings:

Hamer – 7/10. Only a reasonable mark as he didn’t have a great deal to do; but he looked assured and dealt with what came his way, strengthening the sentiments he himself expressed about his reaction to having been dropped.

Solly – 8/10. Another splendid – even at times inspiring - defensive display; unfair to mark him down for not scoring, but it would have been nice as two chances fell his way in short succession after they’d equalised.

Wiggins – 8/10. Further progress since his return as some of his tackling and interceptions were exceptional. Also played the ball in for the winner.

Morrison – 8/10. Basically dominant as their forwards seldom had a look-in.

Dervite – 8/10. In what was collectively an excellent defensive performance he played his part. Did nearly get caught out early on but almost scored (again).

Harriott – 7/10. Very nearly a much better mark as in the first half especially he caused them all sorts of problems. But less conspicuous in the second and just a feeling that the final ball/shot didn’t quite come off.

Jackson – 7/10. The guy scores again, just when we needed it. Otherwise effective without being dramatic.

Hughes – 9/10. I’m not sure that the performance in itself merits that mark, but I’m just so impressed by his return. I really thought that when we signed Gower it must have been a body-blow for him, having battled back from injury. But he was given a chance and has just played the bulk of three tough games in a week, looked like he hasn’t been away, and today was geeing up the players around him.

Pritchard – 6/10. Perhaps harsh, given the other ratings, and the fact that he was tireless and always involved. Far from a bad performance, but what is (currently) lacking is the instinct to make the right decision in the final third.

Kermorgant – 7/10. Better signs that he and Fuller can work together as a pair; never a question about his commitment and generally effective, really ought to get an extra mark for the effort to win the ball back in the final minute that led to our winner.

Fuller – 7/10. He and Kermorgant kept them unsettled throughout and made the most out of what came their way. No issues about his being substituted as at that stage of the game the priority was to keep what we had.

Subs – Kerkar (6/10 – good to see him getting a fresh opportunity; barely touched the ball but the game changed with their equaliser after he came on and he did hold it up well); Obika (9/10 – what mark do you give a sub who comes on, skins their defender and sets up a chance with his first touch, and scores the winner with his second?).

Wednesday 3 April 2013

Glory Be, Points Required (Finally) Drops

A couple of weeks ago it seemed like it could be a cheap laugh to outline the number of points we needed to be absolutely sure of staying up and to subsequently monitor the inevitable trend towards the sensible as the total needed had to fall. (In truth, it was a move born out of desperation to get away from the never-ending uncertainty of this division.) Only problem is, it seemed less of a laugh as each game passed by with the total required just refusing to budge (the only thing that did move was our points-per-game requirement to meet the notional target). With nine games remaining 20 points would see us safe on 67; with eight left 20 would see us safe on 67. Even after beating Bolton on Saturday (when defeat would have left us out of the bottom three only on goal difference), given the other results it still meant 67 required, or 17 points from seven games.

Finally, glory be, the bar has been nudged a little lower. The best Huddersfield can now manage is 65 points, so 66 and there’s no doubt about it. But that’s three rounds of games gone, just six remaining, and still a plainly daft figure to guarantee survival. We just need 15 points from our last six games. I have nothing against any of the teams currently in or around the bottom three, but can they please just lose on Saturday and make this silly exercise the mild fun it was supposed to be? I realise Huddersfield host Peterborough, so a draw there coupled with our win against Leeds (well, winning home games is now par for the course isn’t it?) and the target drops to 64, or for us 12 points from five.

Somewhat more scientifically, it’s interesting to note the changes in the percentage chances of going down with various points tallies provided by the website I’ve used before. A couple of weeks back and it suggested that with 52 points you had a better than even chance of staying up, with a 40.9-46.3% chance of relegation. That site now indicates that with 52 you would have a 78.5% chance of going down. Previously real comfort came with 54 points (only a 2.9-5.7% chance of getting relegated), while 55 and you’re risk was below 1%. Now 54 and you still have a 17.4-22.2% risk of the drop, with security requiring 57 points, only a notional risk with 56, and not much danger with 55 (3.2-5.0%).

I also realise that Sir Chris has been quoted after last night’s game as saying “I don't think you can put a points tally to get because I feel it will keep going; you look at the number of sides that are bunched together and it will be tight all the way; we can only care about ourselves.” He’s absolutely right of course, but he’s under obligation to say sensible things. The rest of us are at liberty to indulge in idle whimsies. But what he surely would agree with is that the chances are at least one team, possibly three, are going to end up going down feeling mightily aggrieved.

I can’t comment on last night’s game. I’m sure I wasn’t alone in staring at the BBC site updates and just hoping not to hear on the radio ‘there’s been a goal at Brighton’. Call me a pessimist, but I wasn’t ready to back it being in our favour. And I’m glad I only heard about the stoppage time events after knowing the game had finished goalless. But just from the other reports it was a bloody gutsy point won and, while inevitably there’s a bit of fortune involved in all games, it’s fair to say that the character and resolve of the team is still showing through. Last season, in different circumstances, they produced the results required when the pressure was on. Given recently the draw away at Peterborough followed by winning at Huddersfield, now a vital home win followed by a splendid away draw just as the gap from the bottom was getting seriously narrow, and you can say the same. Credit all round. Just keep that going.

My partner Suzanne returned to France yesterday, happy to have shrugged off her Jonah tag (she has seen us win in previous seasons but this one had been dry) and full of English lamb. She can I trust keep me up to date with Lyon Duchere’s final run-in as the promotion picture in France’s CFA Group B has produced a few more twists. Having been in pole position to take the one automatic place, Mulhouse have stuttered with an away defeat followed by a 0-0 home draw. Duchere themselves managed to end their mini-slump with a 2-0 home win over Nancy II, but there seem to be now six teams in with a decent shout as leaders Genoble have lost two of their last four. They still top the table but have played one more than the most of the others and two more than some. If all these games in hand were won, Grenoble would drop to sixth, with Mulhouse moving into pole position from fifth at present.

With nine or 10 games left for most, it’s still up for grabs. This weekend Duchere travel to Villefranche, who could provide some neighbourly assistance (they are midtable with nothing to play for), while Grenoble go to Moulins, currently third. But no, I’m not so sad as to start working out points totals required for Duchere. This one will just have to run its course.