Thursday 23 July 2020

Barnsley's Stoppage Time Miracles

Believe me I’ve nothing in particular against Barnsley (apart from the obvious, that it voted for Brexit). I was at Oakwell when we won 6-0. As Palace fans once sang at The Valley, ‘who’s effin’ laughing now?’. They deserve the plaudits for staying up; I admit when it came to looking at the permutations with a few rounds left I’d written them off (Bowyer had not), given who they were going to play and their points total. But have people really taken on board how outrageously lucky they were? I don’t know who they were praying to over the last week or so but I’d like to know for a rainy day.

They win at home against Notts Forest with a 93rd minute goal. They scored the crucial goal relatively early last night, grabbing the utterly unlikely winner away at Brentford in the 91st minute. OK, fair play to them, they got the breaks (and a goal in stoppage time to win a game always amounts to getting the breaks). But what else did they need to stay up?

Birmingham’s 93rd minute equaliser against us denied us two points. With those points we would have finished above Birmingham and Barnsley in 20th, they would have ended on the same points and same goal difference but with Birmingham above Barnsley having scored more (and Birmingham would surely have gone into their final game with a different attitude if they needed something out of it to stay up, as they would have done).

That’s not all. We scored our equaliser against Wigan in the 92nd minute. If Bonne had missed, sure we would have had one point less and still gone down, but Wigan would have had two points more – and stayed up at Barnsley’s expense even with their points deduction.

In other words, at the conclusion of the season four stoppage time goals, two of which had nothing to do with them, were all required to go their way for them to stay up. One of them doesn’t happen and they would be down instead of us (or Wigan). Just think of the odds. Four points went begging for teams above them and they garnered an extra four.

When they come to write the book about great escapes from relegation this has to be right up there for the odds involved, especially when you add in the fact that Barnsley’s last-gasp goals cost Notts Forest a play-off place and Brentford possibly automatic promotion (they would have needed a winner themselves to finish second). If anybody mentions Barnsley in the foreseeable future I am just going to go off on one. Especially as a fellow Addick has just reminded me that Barnsley also scored a stoppage-time winner at The Den.

Wednesday 22 July 2020

We Know Where The Fault Lies

I’ve watched games before when you are focused just as much as on another result; I’m not sure I’ve watched one when progressively through the first 45 minutes everything – from all four games relevant for us - fell apart around you. We were getting soundly beaten, but more important Wigan were beating Fulham and Luton were ahead against Blackburn, sending us into the relegation zone. And just to round things off, before the break Barnsley went ahead against Brentford. It was absurd, we were 45 minutes away from disaster.

For the record after the half-time changes we threatened to get one back against Leeds, but once their third went in from a corner we were past caring about the game we were watching. Luton were now running away with things at home to Blackburn and it was all about Wigan/Fulham and Brentford/Barnsley. We needed both to turn around to stay up.

Cruelly they did. Fulham equalised at Wigan, then Brentford equalised against Barnsley. That would do it (even though Leeds had a fourth by then). And we were keeping our necks above water until another stoppage time goal. I’d feared Wigan winning but Barnsley at Brentford? After they won against Notts Forest in stoppage time? It happened. We were relegated.

Stoppage-time goals. We would have stayed up but for Birmingham’s equaliser, Barnsley’s two winners against Forest and Brentford. When all’s said and done, after the resumption we got ourselves into the position where one more win would have done it. Instead we lost tamely to Millwall and to Reading, both at home, then failed to beat Birmingham and Wigan. We just couldn’t haul ourselves over the line, while Luton and Barnsley – to their credit – did, and Sheff Wed – to the shame of the EFL – didn’t get a points deduction in time.

OK, it’s done. We now have to be ready to do what we can to ensure our club is in existence for next season. Those of us so long in the tooth know that the third flight is not where we belong, but it is somewhere we can – and will – escape from again. But sorting out the ownership situation is a prerequisite for any progress and that is the priority now.

Presumably Bowyer will be on his way (let’s hope not but you wouldn’t blame him). As long as he doesn’t take Jackson with him you make Jackson his successor. But just who makes such a decision is what has to be resolved first. We know that we will be there to support the return, next time in a fashion which gives us a decent platform to progress rather than trying to wing it like this season. But that's for tomorrow. Tonight we are entitled, like Bowyer and the players, to lick our wounds. Because we shared a common goal and did our best, only to be let down by those who look to make a fast buck and those who will sell to those that do. We know where the fault lies. 

Tuesday 21 July 2020

One More Effort

What is there to say about tomorrow evening? All Addicks will already have the permutations left imprinted in their minds and we’re all aware that we may end the day still not knowing if we will be relegated or not. No pain no gain? Perhaps. We know there’s going to be plenty of pain, for us fans and for the players, who will have to work the legs off Leeds if we are to prevail. So let’s stick to what we (think we) know – and please correct me if any of the following is wrong!

As far as points deductions are concerned, what I believe from the EFL statement and other posts/reports is that we can forget about Sheff Wed or Derby dropping into the mix for this season. If their disciplinary commissions give either/both a points deduction sufficient to put them in the bottom three, they appeal. Irrespective of the outcome of an appeal, the process would take us beyond the mid-August EFL AGM, which I’m led to believe marks the formal end of the season. So any points deductions would apply next season, not this. I think it’s pretty safe to assume that they would appeal if the alternative is relegation (and that they won’t bother if they are safe).

Wigan’s situation is different. They will end tomorrow’s games outside the bottom three and so will take a 12-points deduction for going into administration. But that deduction is subject to an appeal, scheduled for 31 July. If Wigan end tomorrow’s games outside the bottom three even with the 12 points deducted, they drop the appeal. Otherwise, whoever ends up fourth from bottom will have to wait longer for finality. Of course if Wigan end tomorrow night in the bottom three and go on to win an appeal against the points deduction, presumably the club set to be relegated instead of them will be exploring (quickly) every available legal avenue.

We know that if we win at Leeds we are safe (conceivably there is still our own EFL investigation, but we could pull the appeal trick too). Obviously if we don’t win we can forget about anyone above us (not including Wigan). If we draw, we will be relegated (along with Hull and Barnsley) if Luton and Wigan both win their games. If we draw and Luton do not win, we are safe (Hull, Barnsley, Luton/Wigan). If we draw, Luton win but Wigan do not, we would occupy that fourth from bottom spot and stay up if Wigan’s appeal is rejected (Barnsley could match our points total but surely not overturn the goal difference under this scenario).

If we lose, we require either Luton to lose and Barnsley not to win (in which case we are safe, period) or Wigan and Barnsley not to win (fourth-bottom again, waiting on the appeal). So although Barnsley’s game is still material, for us it only comes into play if we lose, enabling Barnsley to go above us if they win. Of course if we lose and Barnsley win, we still stay up if Luton lose and Wigan do not win (fourth-bottom again).

If I had the time I’d do a proper critical path analysis. But putting odds on these games is the bookies’ business. Some salient factors could be that if West Brom are winning 6-0 at half-time at home to QPR and have secured automatic promotion, will Fulham and Brentford continue to bust a gut? It is a worry, so let’s hope QPR do us a favour (whether or not they stop West Brom from going up is irrelevant here, they need to be in with a shout to keep Fulham and Brentford interested).

There’s no point either in deliberating on how up for the game Leeds will be. We have a greater motivation than them, it’s a fact. We have to make sure we capitalise on that and run them into the ground. At the same time we’ve developed a nasty habit of starting games pretty poorly. At Birmingham we could easily have been a couple down in the first 10 minutes, we also gave Reading and Wigan a goal start. Cannot have that tomorrow night, let's be at it from the start. We have all summer to rest up, one more effort.

Saturday 18 July 2020

Game Framed By Two Bonne Chances

There’s not much point when so much was at stake in talking in terms of who deserved what from the game. Both teams will look back on it and feel overall they could have taken the three points, both will be aware that on another day they could easily have taken nothing. In midweek we were unable to see out the game and come away with an away win, today it was Wigan conceding in stoppage time. In the end the game was framed by the two chances that fell to Bonne. Having equalised he had the gilt-edged opportunity to put us 2-1 up and fluffed it; then in stoppage time he had his second chance and put it away. If the outcome is different in either instance everything would look different now (and let’s face it, if he’d missed the second one, arguably the more difficult, he would not be Mr Popular tonight).

The team news saw Bowyer revert to a 5-3-2 with Sarr coming in to join Lockyer and Pearce and Matthews and Doughty the wing-backs. In central midfield, with Pratley now out, Cullen was joined by Field and Forster-Caskey, while up front the surprise move was giving Davidson a starting spot alongside Bonne. On the bench it was a case of every available forward player taking his place (I can only think of Otzumer missing out) with just two defenders (Purrington and Oshilaja) available. It almost screamed out we know we might find ourselves in desperate need of a goal towards the end.

When it comes to goals, we repeated the trick against Reading and gifted the opposition an early one, with a combination of awful defending and very bad luck giving us just the start we didn’t want. I think it was Doughty or Pearce faffing around with the ball inside our area and playing a poor ball out under pressure which was picked up by them. The cross was met with a decent header and at close range Phillips parried well, only to see the ball then hit his foot, rebound to hit his head, then loop up under the bar for another of theirs to nod into the net.

Just horrible and, despite what had been a decent start to the game by us, you feared what might happen for a team struggling to score against one on a fine run of form with a defence giving away nothing. But what do we know? Within a couple of minutes we were level. Sarr sprayed a pass out to the right and Matthews put in a decent cross. It dropped towards Doughty at the far side of the box. Didn’t look especially dangerous but he swung his left foot at it and connected on the volley. Their keeper may have been caught by surprise but failed to make the save.

Wigan looked decidedly rattled after that, probably wasn’t in their script. In fact the period to half-time was very open and we should have scored again, getting success out of pressing high and winning back possession – although Wigan clearly carried a threat too, especially with their pacey No3, and with notably players getting joy coming into the box on our left side. Our midfield was working pretty well, Davidson was doing a good job of holding and harrying. And then there was Sarr. He brought the ball out down our left and looked up. Nothing seemed on so he took it a little further. Then he played the pass of the season to Bonne to run through on goal. Bonne controlled it well and had the time to set himself. Perhaps too much time as he wasted the opportunity with a tame finish which their keeper easily smothered. It was one which called out for a forward to decide what to do (or really to know in advance what he would do in that situation). It would have been meat and drink to Super Clive.

We continued to press, a cross scrambled away by a defender and their keeper, a corner not quite falling for Sarr at the far post, and we had a couple of appeals for a penalty. In both cases it looked as though there was contact but was there enough? Really have to see the replays. We are perhaps due one but this ref wasn’t interested. We were on top and really needed to get in front before the break to capitalise. Instead we conceded again. There were chances with tackles to regain possession as their No3 advanced down our right side but he held on and had the pace to take advantage. When the cross came in it was in that danger area on the left side of our box, their guy got to it first ahead of Sarr desperately trying to cover and scored.

That goal really did seem to deflate us in the final minutes of the first half. The players had put in so much effort in that spell for no reward and to go behind was a real kick in the teeth. It looked like a tough ask for Bowyer to get the team properly set up mentally for the crucial second half.

Two changes were made at the break, perhaps with an injury involved, with Field and Forster-Caskey making way for Williams and Morgan. Not long into the second half Aneke made his appearance for Davidson, who had given a good account of himself without getting any sniff of a chance to score.

Wigan were by now clearly playing in a more conservative fashion and the game was tighter as a result. The onus was of course on us and they probably felt they could sooner or later repeat their second goal and put the game beyond us. That didn’t happen but we were struggling to create opportunities. Williams won a free kick outside the box which Sarr took, forcing a save from their keeper, who also palmed away a cross to the far post which looked destined for Aneke, while Pearce – who was by now struggling on with an injury – headed over from a corner. Indeed, with about 10 minutes of normal time left he gave way for McGeady – and you felt we were getting into desperation mode.

It was getting more ragged and it seemed typical that the clock for 90 minutes ran out with Cullen on the ground being treated. Wigan were looking if not comfortable better able than us at Birmingham to run down the clock. Instead, out of the blue really, we got the leveller. A ball forward from Matthews was flicked on by Aneke and dropped to Bonne inside their box. Just how Wigan allowed him that space is something for their manager to bother about. This time Bonne had to react quickly and did, curling his effort into the far corner. It was a finish which for calmness and composure completely contrasted with the earlier miss.

That goal sparked a final few minutes when we might have nicked a winner, with Wigan looking confused as to whether they should go all out for another or look to take the point, and we finished off with a couple of corners which led to nothing.

At the end we didn’t (and still don’t) know whether to cheer or cry. That will be conditioned by the Hull-Luton result. The point could end up being massive or count for nothing. We will only know for sure on Wednesday.

Thursday 16 July 2020

Possibilities Narrowing But Still All To Play For

It's been a morning for the calculators as with now really just two rounds left the possibilities are inevitably narrowing. I think Bowyer has it right that if we had held on for the win last night we would, on 49 points and with a better goal difference than those around us, probably have been safe. We didn’t, so what are the odds?

I’m informed that Betfair has us staying up, above Barnsley, Hull and Luton (but below Wigan). Don’t know what points assumptions lie behind that, and of course the bookies only deal in probabilities (and money wagered), not forecasts per se. And that’s not the outcome I’d say was likely.

Let’s leave aside Barnsley, given their final three fixtures and position – although no doubt they will go and win at Leeds tonight. I have Luton to beat Hull, Hull then to lose at Cardiff, and on 45 points they take the second relegation spot. Luton, if they beat Hull, would have a home game against Blackburn to win to stay up. Entirely possible. Then we have Huddersfield. If they lose at home to West Brom, which you would say is likely (but no more than that), we have to rely on the Spanners finally doing us a favour and beating them in the final round. That would leave them on 48 points, with a worse goal difference than us.

That leaves us and Wigan. All you can say at this stage is that if we beat Wigan I’d say we are 95% likely to stay up, with 50 points looking like enough. Only problem is that Wigan will of course be aware that if we do beat them they are most likely down, as even victory in their final game at home to Fulham would leave them (assuming the 12-point deduction) on 48 points, then hoping that Huddersfield blow it. A draw for us against Wigan and I’d say we are 60% likely to go down, with survival probably dependent on Huddersfield losing their final two games, or Wigan losing their last one. We could always get something at Leeds on the final day but it would be against the odds.

So 48 points for us could conceivably prove enough for us, but is so dependent on other results that it probably would not be. And of course our game against Wigan will be over before Hull and Luton kick off, both of them will start with a better idea of what they need to stay up (most likely even a win will not be enough for Hull, given their now much worsened goal difference, a win for Luton and they could smell survival, a draw and it’s probably curtains for both – which would be fine by us of course). If we lose to Wigan you’d have to say we’re 90% likely to go down, needing probably to win at Leeds to stay up, depending on the other results.

There’s no questioning the character and commitment of the squad, they’ve demonstrated that since the restart. But this is now also about nerve, trust and confidence. The ability to remain calm and to focus when the chances come along, and to remain calm and organised when looking to see out a game. On both those fronts we have come up short too often.

I’ve seen the criticism of Bowyer’s substitutions, but for me there’s too much hindsight involved here. At the resumption it was assumed that players would need to be rotated (and subbed) due to lack of fitness. We’ve now since 20 June played seven games, seven in three-and-a-half weeks, with two more to come in a week. Clearly there are a lot of tired limbs during games. Add in the complicated mix of how many substitutions you can make in how many changes and I don’t know how anyone can say they got it right – or wrong. You can’t repeat the experiment. If you cough up points in the final minutes (Brentford, Birmingham) you come in for flak, if you see the game out (Hull, QPR, Cardiff) you are deemed to have got it right.

Of course none of this matters. Saturday is a showdown, a high noon shootout. Depending on the outcome, on Wednesday we either play the part of the Forlorn Hope (or to please my partner Suzanne les enfants perdus) or join Leeds for a party.

Wednesday 15 July 2020

Cruel At The Death

What can you say? A few minutes away from a famous victory against an increasingly desperate team resorting to intimidation only to have two of the three points snatched away. A neutral might say that both sides had the opportunities to win the game and both sides failed to take most of them, with over the whole game a draw perhaps a fair result. Birmingham could have been clear in the first five minutes and didn’t score from the spot; having gone ahead we hit the post and had another good chance to double our lead. But we’re not neutrals and nothing matters at the moment than an equaliser which has left us right up against it.

Bowyer opted for what looked like a straight 4-4-2 with Doughty in at left-back to replace Oshilaja, while in midfield Cullen and Field were paired in the central slots, Pratley on the bench, with McGeady and Williams the wider men, while Hemed and Bonne resumed what we hoped would be a burgeoning partnership with the addition of goals up front.

We started in awful fashion, nervous and disjointed, and Birmingham had maybe three good scoring opportunities in the first five minutes, with Doughty caught out for one of them. It could have been game over before we’d got into any sort of stride. But unlike against Reading we managed to get through that period without conceding and we did begin to come into it more, with Doughty, McGeady and Williams causing them problems, even though the front two were winning nothing in the air. Remarkably Williams went over with his first two touches and the ref gave nothing, although normal service was soon resumed. And after about 15 minutes we had a great chance to open the scoring, with Matthews whipping in the cross from the right and Williams just failing to get something on it at the far post.

Around the half-hour and it was looking evenly balanced, but then we gifted them a golden opportunity to take the lead. Cullen had the ball at his feet outside our box but seemed to get knocked off balance and ended up prodding it back, into the path of their forward. Phillips came out to try to cover and the ball was prodded over him, looked to me like it was being shepherded out for a goal kick. But their guy’s momentum took him into Phillips and he managed to leave something trailing as he jumped over and duly went to ground. For me it wasn’t a penalty but the ref saw it differently, giving Phillips a yellow. I fail to see exactly what he could have done to get out of the way, other than to stand and watch their guy put it into the net.

There was some justice as Phillips plunged to his right and blocked the spot kick. The rebound looked like a sitter but their guy couldn’t get over it and lofted it over the bar. Great save but also an enormous let-off in a game in which the first goal was always going to be crucial.

We saw it through to the break and it was still all to play for. We might have scored once or twice but after our poor start and a penalty miss we were well aware that things could have been a lot worse.

The second half started with another escape for us as Phillips pulled off a blinding save from a shot through a crowd of players. But it was us who broke the deadlock, around the hour mark, with a truly splendid, well-worked goal. Williams did well to keep possession on our left side and played a ball forward inside their defender for Doughty to run on to. He managed to get there, took it to the by-line and squared it, creating a tap-in for Bonne.

When the screaming died down we had something tangible to hold onto, although not surprisingly Birmingham raised the tempo in response, making a couple of changes. Aneke came on for Hemed and soon after we came within a whisker of extending our lead as more good work down the left ended with the ball squared to McGeady, who cut inside and stroked one which may have taken a deflection off their defender but ended up coming back off the post. And not long after another good chance went begging as Bonne found himself with another cross to convert only this time the goalkeeper was there to parry. One of those where as a fellow Addick commented you wanted him to put the ball, himself and the keeper into the net.

As the clocked ticked down it was Birmingham getting more desperate – and more violent. Challenges were now being made with something left in, including what looked like a clearly swung elbow into Lockyer’s face, leaving him bleeding from the nose. The ref chose to have seen nothing. We brought on Morgan, Pratley and Purrington for Williams, Field and Doughty and with Birmingham relying on long throws it was backs to the wall.

Nevertheless, we were two minutes into seven minutes of stoppage time before the cruel blow. Phillips parried a shot at the near post and it went to their big guy, the one I think who’d left Lockyer bleeding and went away unpunished, who scuffed something which ended up nestling in the far corner.

There was never much chance of us being able to threaten a second in the time left and Birmingham were reasonably content to take a point, one which for so long had looked beyond them. They emerge from the game knowing they may already have enough points and certain that another two would see them survive. We all know what that late equaliser means for us. We now surely have to beat Wigan on Saturday, with Hull playing Luton.

We were hard done by tonight but there were times when we could easily have been behind, not just the penalty. Having got in front we hit the post and had another chance to seal the win. Instead just when we were starting to think of being two places higher it was taken away from us, by a team which deserved nothing for their conduct when they started to get desperate. Let’s see what the world looks like in the morning because we are going to have to go again on Saturday, against a team which in terms of form is on fire but which also knows that if they lose to us they will probably be relegated.

Monday 13 July 2020

Definitely Something To Carp About

While Bowyer and his people scratch their heads over what formation and combinations might deliver us the win we need on Wednesday, I think it’s worth reiterating now what an outstanding job he’s done this season, whatever the outcome. Just do a recap on the circumstances and what he's had to contend with.

Arguably we began this season weaker than we ended the previous one at Wembley, losing Bauer, Bielik and Aribo, followed by Dijksteel. Sure, Gallagher turned out to be a real find (for six months), Lockyer has been excellent, but in terms of preparing for a tougher challenge in a higher league it wasn’t exactly promising (and for a variety of reasons others who came in early on – Hemed, Field, Leko, Oztumer, Kayal – were to play only bit parts). Nevertheless, Bowyer had us hit the ground running and the first few months of the season were a success. In August we registered four wins and two draws; even at the end of October we’d won 6, drawn 4, lost 4.

In November and December the injuries took their toll on a small squad, but we went into the January transfer window with hopes raised by the takeover and the comments made by the new owners. In reality, we emerged from it weaker still, losing Gallagher. Although Green came in, he’s been unable to nail down a starting place, while McGeady, Smith and Davis on deadline day looked like desperation. Little did we know at the time that we were actually under a transfer embargo and all the promises made to Bowyer were so much hot air from a couple of chancers.

No matter, we struggled on. Into early March and after the Middlesbrough defeat the season is suspended. When we resume, perhaps not surprisingly given what has gone before ... we are materially weaker yet again, given Taylor’s decision (and to a much lesser extent those of Davis – who surely takes a place in history for declining to move back from Birmingham to London on the grounds it was too dangerous – and Solly). That we came out of the traps as at the start of the season seemingly better prepared than others (and won two and drew the other of the first three games after the restart) was again a testimony to the work done by Bowyer and his staff.

Add in the off-field farce, which is continuing, and uncertainty over EFL investigations and/or possible going into administration and the focus, restraint and commitment displayed by Bowyer and his team have been admirable. It deserves to be rewarded.

All this does, however, raise the issue if we do avoid relegation how on earth are we going to put together a squad to compete in this division next season? It’s going to be early August before the play-offs are done and dusted but the 2020/21 season could it is said begin before the end of August. That would be a challenge even if we knew what ownership structure would be in place and what resources made available.

That of course is an issue for another day. Unusually this time around we are playing our next game the day after most of the rest. Desired outcomes from Reading v Middlesbrough, Luton v QPR, and Sheff Wed v Huddersfield are pretty obvious, which leaves Wigan v Hull. That looks like one of those where all outcomes have positives and negatives for us, although if I had to choose I think I’d go with Wigan thumping Hull. That would leave Hull with only Luton at home and Cardiff away. The other games through the week fall into the obvious category: Bristol City v Stoke, us at Birmingham, Leeds v Barnsley, then Huddersfield v WBA.

There’s only just over a week left of the season for us, still so much to be crammed in and nothing yet decided. We stay up and I hope Lee packs up his fishing rods and takes a well-earned break back at Etang des Bows:

Saturday 11 July 2020

Hard Done By But ...

The result was all that mattered, so no positives to be taken, just a third in succession to quickly forget and move on to the next. Three consecutive defeats, each by a single goal with only one scored (and now just three in the six games since the resumption). That tell’s its own story. As Bowyer has left nobody in any doubt, on another day Aneke’s follow-up is not ruled offside and we get the penalty late on. Fact is their keeper didn’t get really tested all afternoon, stats showed two efforts on target, despite more good positions worked.

I send a message in our group that as soon as we kicked off we would go up two places, which we duly did. That lasted all of three minutes, before Oshilaja was caught out of position and the wrong side of their guy in the box. A clumsy challenge from behind and the ref had no option but to give the penalty. In previous games Oshilaja has had spells when he gave away too many free kicks for poorly timed or slightly rash challenges (and to be fair he has been unfairly penalised sometimes). You felt it was only a matter of time before one of these happened in the box. Something he does need to work on to develop.

I suspect that start pretty much meant the game plan being thrown out of the window. We’d set up as a 4-4-2 again with Bonne and Aneke up front from the start, giving the impression that we’d go for it, look to get ahead in the game, and adjust later on to protect a lead, with Hemed the only other normal forward option on the bench (with Green missing). Instead we found ourselves chasing the game almost from the off, with Reading able to play with even less pressure.

In the first half you’d have to say that we had more possession and openings but they looked the more likely to add to their lead. Their forwards were able to find space between our defenders with good movement and fluid passing, especially down the flanks. By contrast we looked static, with their central defenders handling our front two pretty well and not a lot coming from us down the flanks. But that’s perhaps too negative, we did create possibilities, half-chances, occasionally something better as Bonne failed to get a decisive touch on a ball in at the near post, then as McGeady’s shot was palmed out and Aneke put in the rebound, only to find himself flagged offside.

In the second half Reading seldom threatened and it became a case of whether we could, finally, get the ball into the net. The introduction of Doughty gave us a real threat down the left, while that of Williams helped us to dominate possession as he won his usual share of free kicks by drawing challenges. The closest we came was when Doughty put in a good lowish cross and Pratley just failed to connect.

But the minutes ticked away and we understandably became increasingly desperate. The introduction of Hemed as a third forward left us looking decidedly disjointed, especially as we were getting no joy from long balls. And then with five minutes left on the clock came the moment, with Forster-Caskey (on by then for Pratley) going down in the box. The referee opts for a dive and a yellow card. I’d have to see it again, but this was a day when we got none of the breaks.

Bowyer’s blaming the officials for the result was understandable, perhaps predictable. But when the opposition’s manager (albeit someone we know well, with a surely a soft spot for us) comments that “there were decisions that I raised my eyebrows at too” you get the sense that we were indeed hard done by.

There’s nothing to be done about it, we wait for the other results over the weekend (and without wishing to jinx things those being played today were looking good at half-time) and then prepare for what is obviously a massive game for us at Birmingham. It’s been a few years since we staved off relegation at St Andrews. Going to need a similar result this time around.

Friday 10 July 2020

So Tight For The Final Rounds

Hearty congratulations to Jason Pearce on becoming the first ever Sky Bet Championship Player of the Month for June. He did seem to struggle at times earlier this season with the step back up to the Championship, but since the resumption he has been outstanding, kicking off our clambering out of the relegation zone with his bravery at Hull. May he (or another of ours) get the gong for July too.

Of course nothing’s going to be decided tonight or over the weekend, but we are getting to the stage where there could be a little clarity. Huddersfield have the opportunity tonight to given themselves some breathing space and all but relegate Luton – although looking at the fixtures left they will feel they have three winnable games remaining after tonight, so nobody’s giving up yet.

For the record, with effectively nine teams in the mix (up to Birmingham in the table plus Wigan), these are the games left for each club (reading up from the bottom):

Luton:  Huddersfield (A), QPR (H), Hull (A), Blackburn (H). Current points per game over 46 games would give them 44.90 points and relegation. But again those games look winnable, can’t write them off even if they lose tonight.

Barnsley:  Wigan (H), Leeds (A), Notts Forest (H), Brentford (A). Current points per game over 46 games of 46.00 and relegation. Have to say their position and those fixtures point to a relegation spot.

Hull:  Millwall (H), Wigan (A), Luton (H), Cardiff (A). Current points per game over 46 games gives them 49.28 points. Given that the Spanners are gifting points to everyone except us, you have to say in their own hands.

Stoke:  Birmingham (H), Bristol City (A), Brentford (H), Notts Forest (A). Current points per game over 46 games 50.38 and safety. But you have to say it looks down to their next two games given the two that follow.

Charlton:  Goes without saying we win our four remaining fixtures (unless we’re already safe and decide not to spoil Leeds’ party) and stay up.

Huddersfield:  Luton (H), Sheff Wed (A), WBA (H), Millwall (A). Their points per game projection is 51.48 and if they beat Luton tonight you’d have to fancy them to pick up another win (you know who) and be safe.

Birmingham:  Stoke (A), Charlton (H), Preston (A), Derby (H). On points per game projection they are almost comfortable, on 53.67. But are they in disarray having sacked their manager, lost their last three? If they lose at Stoke they will be well in the mix, given that defeat follows in their match after.

Wigan:  Barnsley (A), Hull (H), Charlton (A), Fulham (H). Points per game projection puts them on 58.05, or 46.05 with the 12 points deduction. But you have to say that given their form three of their remaining games look winnable and nine points would see them end the season on 50 points with the deduction, which could be enough provided one team in addition to Barnsley and Luton fall away.

Being realistic I’d say we have to get at least one win against one of Reading, Birmingham or Wigan, at the same time making sure at least we don’t lose to either Birmingham or Wigan. If we get to 50 points, as for Wigan, that could be enough. Nothing is written of course but it looks like a very heavy ask for Barnsley to get above 45 points, certainly if they lose to Wigan next time out. Luton obviously need a result tonight, but a defeat against Huddersfield and they would have to win two of their final three to stand a realistic chance (even then 47 points would probably see them go down).

It is so tight for the third relegation place that it will almost certainly go down to the wire. One win for Hull or Stoke, or of course us, and all the tentative conclusions have to be revised. But if you have a hunch for the unexpected, Birmingham could just end up getting suckered in and not having what it takes to get back out (of course if they win at Stoke strike that, they are safe).

Wednesday 8 July 2020

Ante Raised For Saturday

As ever it’s the hope that kills you. An early goal, up at the break, can’t help but start to think what the three points would mean, even if nobody was in any doubt then that we would still have our work cut out to emerge with something from the game. Brentford raised the intensity and pretty much pummelled us in the second half. Even so, it required a debatable penalty decision (OK, first reaction was that it was a dreadful decision) to draw them level, followed by what looked at first suspiciously like an own goal from a corner to win them the points.

You could see the hurt and frustration from the players at the end of the game, even before it as Cullen, whose challenge had been deemed to be a foul for their penalty, picked up a yellow for a tackle that was just the other side of determined (although it paled in comparison with a very poor one from one of their guys in the second half). Balance of play and chances had Brentford streets ahead, but they only mean something for the neutral. The major fact was that for over an hour of the game we were ahead. When that happens and you lose there’s no avoiding the deflation, given the importance of every game now, making it hard to focus on the positives (another determined performance which saw us compete against one of the league’s best sides). And there’s not the time for that, it’s a game lost, focus on the next one. Perhaps just keep in mind that our season will end in either triumph or failure and last night won't be the decisive result. 

Too late to go over the game in detail (and if truth be told due to technical problems I missed actually seeing most of the first half, wasn’t really aware we might have added to the early lead provided by Bonne’s close-range header). The second half was obviously a struggle and that Brentford scored twice wasn’t a real surprise, just the nature of their goals was hard to take when set against more excellent saves from Phillips (even if he repeated the habit of pushing out shots in the fashion which resulted in Millwall’s goal) and one which crashed against the underside of the bar. Unlike Cardiff and others, Brentford didn’t get desperate or run out of ideas, rather displayed the signs of a team confident in its ability to turn things around.

When the season resumed it wasn’t rocket science to look at our fixture list and see where the priorities lay. Games away at Cardiff, Brentford and Leeds you assume anything out of them is a bonus (albeit with some element of doubt as nobody could be certain how teams would perform after the break, especially early on). The first game at Hull was essential to get something out of, ‘home’ games against QPR, Millwall, Reading and Wigan, plus away at Birmingham, were the ones that surely had to provide the bulk of the points for us to stay up.

We ‘won’ the first three-game mini-season with the victories against Hull and QPR, plus the bonus point at Cardiff, to haul ourselves back out of the relegation zone. Having now lost two of the next three, we have failed to take the opportunity to give ourselves a cushion. So be it. It goes without saying that it is crucial we get something from Reading on Saturday; perhaps not a must-win game but it is a must-not-lose.

Of course how we go into that game is now out of our hands as we wait for tonight’s results with fingers crossed. The weekend results after Friday’s defeat went pretty well, now it’s over to Middlesbrough, Hull and Wigan (and it will be very important to see how they shape up in light of their situation, not least with our game against them coming up). With at least nine teams involved in the relegation scrap, four/five games left, and nobody truly adrift, there are still too many permutations to make confident predictions, with many games between sides around the bottom.

We resumed the season in the bottom three and we are still in a better situation than then. On a points-per-game basis we would still avoid relegation (Wigan bottom if they get the 12-points deduction, then Luton, then Barnsley, we would be were we stand now, 20th, fractionally above Hull and fractionally below Middlesbrough). May it stay that way.

Tuesday 7 July 2020

Lockyer Gets My Vote

You always want to vote for Player of the Year when everything is done and dusted, not when we’re still deeply embroiled in a fight against relegation. And especially in this case when surely it’s a close call between three candidates: Phillips, Lockyer and Pratley. Nobody else I think comes close (Cullen and Pearce undoubtedly merit mentions in dispatches, while Taylor, Gallagher and Solly ought to get a mention of a different nature) and one of the three could swing it with fresh heroics in the final five games.

As things stand I’ll cast my vote for Lockyer. Like Phillips he’s been an automatic selection all through the season and the foundation of the defence. But it’s a close call.

Just as it’s surely a close call how Bowyer sets us up for tonight’s game. We’ve seen the same starting X1 grind out the results against Hull and QPR, the seven changes for the start alternative get the highly valuable point at Cardiff, but then the reversion to the first group come up short against Millwall. Of course in each case the plethora of substitutions mean we’re not looking at 11 for a game, while each game has different requirements. We know that tonight the emphasis will have to be on keeping another clean sheet and if that means the forward(s) fighting for scraps so be it.

It's obvious to all I think that in addition to setting up conservatively we have problems when it comes to scoring. Bonne and Hemed have both had good chances in the games since the resumption and have not only not taken them but really failed to put in good enough attempts. They haven’t gelled especially well as a front pairing in a 4-4-2. At the same time Bonne doesn’t look to me effective as a lone striker, the one who does is Aneke but he is also our best impact substitution up front. And since the resumption we’ve not been finding a place for either Green or Williams, players who you look to for creativity in the final third.

I’m always reluctant to suggest any line-up as for all I know they guys I’d select are not right physically or mentally. But for Brentford I’d make it a 4-4-2, with two solid banks in front of Phillips. Defence of Matthews, Lockyer, Pearce and Purrington. With Pratley and Cullen in central midfield, I’d go for Morgan on one side and Doughty on the other (and not as a wing-back). Of course you could start with McGeady and have Doughty come on. I’m not sure they would hit it off together but would be tempted to start with Green and Bonne, with Aneke and Hemed the outright forward replacement options (I’m assuming if all are fit they will get the nod ahead of Davidson at the moment), Williams an option depending on how the game pans out. We will need both good outlets tonight and some weapons to hurt Brentford, even if the emphasis is on keeping it tight.

We could of course hope that, with WBA and Leeds both winning at the weekend, leaving a five-points gap with only five games to go, Brentford will decide that it’s time to plan for the play-offs and give their first-team a rest (before bringing them all back further down the line for their games against Stoke and Barnsley). OK, that’s not going to happen, and there are still far too many permutations – including Wigan’s prospective points deduction and the curious circumstances behind their going into administration – to be able to make any confident predictions. Except that I’m confident if we come away from tonight’s game with something I’ll be happy.

Saturday 4 July 2020

Take The Pain And Move On

Clearly wasn’t the evening any of us had in mind. We saved our least impressive performance since the restart for Millwall, perhaps the result of a fourth game in less than two weeks and the intensity of effort in the previous three, perhaps as Millwall’s physical presence and equal determination (their manager pretty much acknowledging before the game that for them it was pretty much win or kiss goodbye to the play-offs) swung the contest. Any other team and we might comment on their discipline, game-plan, and ability to win the key contests on the pitch; but any sort of praise for Millwall sticks in the throat so we’ll forget about that. Suffice to say that after three very tight games which went our way the law of averages said we could well end up on the losing side of another.

We can look at the overall balance of play, possession stats etc, but in the end we lost the game because in the first half a decent chance fell to both of our two forwards and both Hemed and Bonne failed to really test their keeper, let alone convert, and in the second their keeper made a reasonable save from an Aneke effort, while at the other end, after an excellent first-half save to block a one-on-one, Phillips’ turning away of another shot regrettably fell into the path of their guy. And having gone in front Millwall were content to sit behind the ball and see out the game, we were unable to fashion a good opening to level it up despite by then having Aneke, Doughty and Williams on the pitch, plus late on Sarr as an extra forward in an act of desperation.

I don’t think we should overlook the fact that the defence performed as well as it had done in the previous three games. It wasn’t an outright error by Phillips for their goal, while Lockyer and Pearce continued their excellent form (albeit Millwall had a fair claim for a penalty in the first half as a result of a little manhandling from a set piece to prevent their guy getting what looked like being a clear header into the net) and Pratley slotted in as a third centre-back when we adjusted the formation. The problem wasn’t there but rather in being outmuscled in midfield (especially when Pratley dropped deeper) and, as Bowyer acknowledged after the game, failing to take either of the two good first-half chances. Score then and we can play the more containing game, then looking to the subs to make use of the probable extra space. Wasn’t to be.

So we keep our fingers crossed for the games being played today and tomorrow. On the face of it Huddersfield and Middlesbrough have winnable games at home, if they both take three points we drop to 20th. Stoke v Barnsley of course means one or both will pick up points, Stoke could go above us on goal difference. Luton have a game at home that they will view as must-win. Hopefully at least we can rely on Brentford and WBA thumping Wigan and Hull respectively, to keep them below us (taking account of Wigan’s prospective points deduction).

Getting down to the final five/six games and it is remarkable that no team finds itself adrift (Wigan may technically be bottom but their run of form still gives them a shout). Those around us have come back with the same attitude as us and no doubt the picture and the odds will shift with just about each passing day. Nothing we can do now until Tuesday except wait, watch and hope, while Bowyer and his team of course have to plan for Brentford, looks at who has the legs to start. Last night may have been a missed opportunity but it’s done, I really don’t care that it was Millwall or about our recent record against them, I’d be bemoaning the three points that got away whoever it was against. other than the fact that three points got away. On points-per-game we are still out of the relegation places. May it stay that way.