Friday, 7 May 2021

Duchatelet Still Barking

Reading the reports of Sir Chris’ account of his time with Duchatelet sent me off to check to see if the dotty owner of our stadium has been up to anything lately. Seems he’s been upsetting some football fans closer to home, if a piece in Voetbal Belgium is anything to go by. I’ve done little more here than run the piece and associated comments through an autotranslate and added a few words. I think it needs no further explanation; but in the words of Paul Simon, still crazy after all these years, and still mired deep in self-denial.

It seems that in the wake of the failed European Super League there has been talk of a ‘BeNeLiga’. The report says that Duchatelet does not expect that will come to fruition either. “The people who are against the BeNeLiga are idiots, who have self-interest or who don't think carefully,” says Roland Duchâtelet at PlaySports. "Or they should have gone to school longer, because they are stupid. Humanity has more fools than intelligent people. That is unfortunate, but that is the fate of humanity”, said the former chairman and owner of Sint-Truiden VV, Standard Liège, Charlton Athletic, CD Alcorcon and CZ Jena.

It seems these comments sparked a “massive response at Voetbal International. A selection of those responses:

“Perhaps if he had done things smarter himself, he could have learned at school that addressing people like that in a derogatory and inappropriate way only arouses aversion. What an idiot he is!” 

“So Mr. Duchâtelet calls me stupid while he doesn't even know me, and with me several million people.”

“Just as crazy as that president of Real Madrid and Barca, but in miniature. There is nothing wrong with self-interest, but to call other people stupid idiots is a sign of lack of self-reflection.”

"So everyone with a different opinion or train of thought to him is a fool according to him ..."

“This is another one in the “you either agree with me or you're a penguin” category. Certain politicians also like to use this style. If Duchâtelet really had a good plan, he wouldn't have to vomit this nonsense.” 

"Spoke the man who helped Charlton, Ujpest, Standard and Sint-Truiden to their destruction." 

“That is very mature, people with a different opinion than you are called stupid. Come up with arguments and start the conversation. Scolding people is really not going to help. That only makes me an even bigger opponent.”

“The trick to morally dismiss people with a different opinion as stupid, I know it all, is very hip. But that is precisely what is not very intelligent. Convince people with arguments, respect a different opinion.”

“Sorry, but if you need such strong wording to convince people that the majority is wrong and you have the wisdom, then I don't trust it.”

“So this Belgian dismisses a large part of the Dutch people as stupid? Well… that helps to bring people closer together”.


Tuesday, 4 May 2021

Season Extended Until Sunday

I suspect for most of us it was with mixed emotions that we logged on this evening for the penultimate game of the regular season, after two points from three games almost certainly our penultimate game period. There was no telling what frame of mind we might be in, perhaps even how up for the game Lincoln might prove with their play-off place already secured, while it went without question that nothing but a win would do. And anyone hoping for a prettier spectacle than Saturday’s horror show might not have been taking into account the fact that it was blowing a gale outside.

The team showed four changes from Saturday and what looked like a change in formation, back to the 4-5-1/4-3-3 which had previously been deployed. In front of Amos there would be a back four of Matthews, Inniss, Famewo and Purrington. Watson returned as the defence’s protector, with Forster-Caskey and Gilbey alongside him. Millar was back in at the start and Maatsen on the right side, both either side of Stockley as the lone forward. From the bench Gunter and Pearce provided the defensive options, Pratley and Morgan for midfield, and Washington and Aneke up front. It wasn’t exactly reassuring to see Adkins’ pre-match comment that “I’m taking a gamble on a few players tonight because we have to”.

The first-half was something of a non-event. We didn’t manage a shot on target (and only two shots in total), although Millar should have done better than hitting it well over the bar late on having cut inside. In general we struggled to get the two wide men really into the game and Stockley was isolated, our lack of threat emphasised by Stockley putting a cross into a deserted box. Lincoln were dangerous early on and came very close to taking the lead after 10 minutes, a ball played through our defence which was claiming offside but Maatsen on the far side was clearly playing them on. Their guy hit it hard but too close to Amos, who blocked well. Otherwise Purrington was caught out and picked up a yellow for the foul that followed, Forster-Caskey picked up an injury and had to depart, replaced by Morgan, as did the referee.

Lincoln did seem to fade as an attacking force through the half and at the break there was the impression that two teams were playing as if there wasn’t a lot riding on the result. Certainly it was hard to square our efforts with the need for a win, although we were in the game and it was still there to be won.

And there was a clear statement of intent at the start of the second half, as Aneke came on. Purrington was sacrificed, perhaps because of the yellow, but as we switched to a 4-4-2 Maatsen moved to left-back and Gilbey took a wider position on the right. The game changed.

Within a minute of the restart we were ahead. Lincoln must have wondered what hit them. A good attack saw Stockley move it on to Millar. His cross was blocked but Watson moved it forward again to Gilbey. He turned and clipped in a cross to the far post, where Aneke nodded it down into the path of Stockley, who hit a crisp half-volley into the roof of the net. Lincoln immediately went up the other end and almost equalised, Watson being caught out, but minutes later we came close to making it two as Chuks just couldn’t quite get his shot away, then Morgan intercepted and moved it on to Chuks again only for his shot to be saved. Then a Millar cross was only just too high for Stockley.

We did double our lead not long after. Maatsen went on a galloping overlap and his cross was blocked for a corner. Whatever happened as far as movement and players being blocked off, Morgan curled it to the far post and Inniss was all on his own. The header from close range didn’t need to be too powerful to beat a despairing keeper. And shortly after that it was effectively game over. Millar took it down the left, fed it into Aneke. His shot seemed to be covered by the keeper but a defender waved a leg at it and ensured it cleared him and went into the net.

All that was left to do was play out the final twenty minutes or so. Not surprisingly we eased up and Lincoln did have a few moments, but as the clock ran down we were looking comfortable. With less than 10 minutes left Aneke picked up a yellow and crazily a few minutes later needlessly put in a rash challenge from behind, felling their guy. It should have been a second yellow and red, perhaps we have the injury to the ref in the first half to thank as the replacement was lenient in the extreme. And with a couple of minutes of normal time left Lincoln did get one back with a decent shot, then in six added minutes Amos was required to make another save, while Pratley, who had come on to replace Aneke to ensure he would be available for Sunday, still managed to get a yellow himself. But we had done the damage and took the points.

We know it still probably won’t be enough, the permutations for Sunday are pretty straightforward. We need help from Burton, Accrington Stanley and Hull. That’s bound to put the focus between now and then on what might have been, the obvious points dropped (even the possible implications of Lincoln’s goal and goal difference if we were to draw at Hull and the other two lose). But at least tonight we did what we had to do. Man of the match? Aneke changed the game and would have been a shoo-in but for almost getting himself sent off.


Sunday, 2 May 2021

Let's Not Forget, It's Been A Very Good Season

We’re all feeling gloomy about yesterday’s result(s) almost certainly finishing off our play-off and promotion chances, resigning ourselves to another season in the third flight. We will never be comfortable in this division. But I do think we are, perhaps understandably, losing sight of the bigger picture. This has, after all, been our best season since 2012/13. Duchatelet still owns The Valley, so isn’t completely out of the picture, but if it had been a choice between promotion and Duchatelet still owning us and what we’ve ended up with – a decent owner we can all get behind, getting out from under the nightmare of ESI, and not going out of business – I know which one I’d have gone for (and of course I wanted promotion too).

Today Man Utd v Liverpool was postponed because of fans’ protests. It wasn’t that long ago I was among those throwing pink pigs onto the pitch. Those days we hope are behind us as a fan base and if we’re moaning today about the deficiencies of the squad (and as others have pointed out we should at least acknowledge that in just about every game the players have given their all, no lack of effort and determination), what we’d like to see change on the pitch, perhaps we ought to be taking a minute or two to count our blessings.

If we’re on the subject of teams having a tough season, it wasn’t that long ago I considered myself an adopted supporter of Lyon Duchere. I watched them get promoted twice, from the French regional equivalent of the conference to a regional fourth division, then remarkably to National, the French third division. And they stayed up, punching well above their weight, with an attendance that would normally be around a few hundred. They had a longstanding coach who had overseen the rise.

Things changed before the end of last season as absurdly what was an open stand (the only covered stand at the Stade de Balmont) suddenly had stewards restricting access to a roped off VIP section. Then the news broke that the team from an unfashionable district of Lyon would be rebranded and moved to the other side of the city, with the president of the club outlining his plans to ditch the Duchere element of the club and get it into the French top flight within a few years. The coach left and a new team was bought for this season. If you google Lyon Duchere now you get Sporting Club Lyon and the lie that the club “took its current name in June 2020 in a rebranding exercise voted for by the fans”. The fans did not vote for the rebranding exercise, they were presented with a few options, variations on a theme, with none of them mentioning Duchere.

How did it go? On Friday evening what was Lyon Duchere went down 1-3 at Le Mans to confirm their relegation. They sit bottom of the league with 28 points from 32 games and with just two games left they cannot now get out of the bottom four and avoid the drop. So it will be back to the regional fourth division for Sporting Club Lyon. Whether or not the president will, like Duchatelet, tell himself he’s now too busy to bother and walk away remains to be seen. But the next time our name is erroneously brought up as the example of fans wanting to take the ‘next step’ and getting their comeuppance, cite Lyon Duchere instead.


Saturday, 1 May 2021

Door Slammed Shut

Win or bust today, nothing else mattered – except of course for the other results. We didn’t win, Portsmouth and Oxford did. Mathematically it’s still possible, but we all know how unlikely it is: we have to beat Lincoln and Hull and hope that neither Portsmouth nor Oxford win their final game (unless we close a six-goal deficit on goal difference with Oxford in the process). Two points from three games, when it came down to it we weren’t good enough to make the top six. Yes, we have to go for it on Tuesday night, but mentally I suspect we’re already done for. I even felt mixed emotions with Chuks last-kick equaliser as keeping alive a glimmer of hope only prolongs the agony.

There were decisions to be made on personnel and formation and it was clear that the team meant a move away from the 4-3-3/4-5-1 formation that we’ve gone with of late, but switched from during the game against Crewe, to a 3/5/2/5/3/2. In from the start came Gunter, Innis, Pratley and Washington (for Matthews, Purrington, Watson and Millar, three of whom moved to the bench but with Watson missing out completely). That meant a back five, with Gunter and Maatsen as wing-backs and Pearce, Inniss and Famewo. Pratley would be partnered in midfield by Forster-Caskey and Gilbey, while Stockley would have a partner up front in the form of Washington. On the bench Morgan, Shinnie and Millar would give options in midfield and Aneke the change up front (for the defence presumably if one of the centre-backs had to come off Gunter or Pratley could become the third centre-back).

The purpose of the formation and how we would play at least the first half were pretty clear from the start. Accrington had been scoring goals for fun of late (I watched the highlights of their game against Portsmouth and it looked like it could easily have been 6-6). And to an extent it worked. Every ball was hoofed forward, while we prevented them from having a clear sight of goal. To say that it wasn’t pretty was a massive understatement; it was dreadful to watch. But if we won that really wouldn’t have mattered. The pitch was narrow, the wind blowing, and nobody cared much about possession. It seemed to be all about territory, with both teams expecting to get something from a set piece.

After 25 minutes we were leading 2-1 on shots, with one over the bar apiece (ours was deflected and should have been a corner). On 30 minutes Accrington came close to breaking the deadlock, producing a scramble in the box with a couple of shots blocked. And right on 45 minutes their guy cut inside Inniss rather too easily and put in a shot from a narrow angle, hitting the bar.

That was it. But getting into the dressing room at half-time Adkins and the players will have known that, although Oxford had gone from being a goal up to 2-1 down, Portsmouth had done the opposite, equalising quickly at Wimbledon having gone behind and scoring twice just before the break. That only increased the pressure to win the game and meant that at some point in the second half, unless we had gone ahead, Adkins would have to change the formation and go for it.

That proved to be the case. In truth in the first period of the second half we were rather fortunate not to have gone behind. Accrington were finding more space around our box and starting to dominate. Pearce was caught out and had to pull down his guy on the edge of the box, taking a yellow, and from the free kick Stockley somehow managed to divert the ball behind for a corner. Before the hour was up the first change came, Aneke replacing a tiring Washington, but the formation was unchanged and the game continued as before. Amos had to turn a shot around after their guy had beaten off Inniss and from the corner we switched off and Accrington played it short, with two of theirs against Aneke. Forster-Caskey saw yellow for a professional foul. But with a little over 20 minutes to go we did have a break and after Maatsen was almost clear it was played towards Stockley, who was taken out just outside the area. Forster-Caskey curled the shot towards the near post but with their keeper beaten it went just over.

That was the cue for changes to chase the game. Pearce was sacrificed for Millar and we switched to a 4-4-2, with Gilbey on the right. Fair enough, we have to win, we needed to fashion something in the final third, and getting Millar on was a priority. But I thought it was poor not to make further changes to adapt to the new formation, if not immediately then shortly after. We were now playing 4-4-2 and could use fresh legs. Why not bring on Purrington to help shore up the defence, either for Maatsen or to allow him to go wide right, perhaps Morgan as a better option on the right side than Gilbey. But nothing more was done.

With 10 minutes to go it felt like the season was in the balance. And the balance swung very much against us as Accrington scored. Their guy got past Famewo and into space, took it into the box, and shot well low into the corner. Seemed like game up. We went into four minutes of stoppage time and for some reason changes were made then. Morgan and Shinnie came on, for Pratley and Forster-Caskey. It seemed irrelevant until right at the death Millar was upended, Morgan curled in a decent ball, and Aneke diverted it past their keeper. As on Tuesday night, there was barely time to kick off.

I wouldn’t blame Adkins for the choice of formation, for the changes to bring on Aneke and Millar. Fact is we had a gameplan and it didn’t pay off. We might have played expansively and been beaten, who knows? In other circumstances a point might have been a decent result. Today it wasn’t, with Portsmouth seeing out their game and Oxford coming from behind to win.

No player ratings today, it was a game where they were asked to play a certain way which was never going to look good. We have come up short this season and there are many reasons for that, all of which can wait for another day.


Wednesday, 28 April 2021

Play To The Strengths

It’s still not easy to pick through the bones of last night, to assess what we might have done better given the players available and their fitness, and related to that what we might do to be best positioned for Saturday. But as an overall assessment, and allowing for players carrying knocks and not being able to last 90 minutes (or 96 as the case may be), I’d suggest that Adkins got the formation wrong at the start and only really changed it for the final 15 minutes.

I’m not suggesting we should have had some sort of gung-ho approach, just that we didn’t play to our strengths and instead allowed Crewe to play to theirs. I suggested in an earlier post that some of Adkins’ early decisions had been pretty much made for him through the unavailability of some players. In particular, with Washington injured and Schwartz not a viable option, going with Stockley on his own up front was almost imposed. Give him credit though for going with a wide player either side and opting for Jaiyesimi and Maatsen, rather than Millar. That formation worked well for a spell, not least because we could select two from three with the third available from the bench. When Maatsen dropped out injured we coped with Millar and Jaiyesimi, but the replacement option was Morgan, clearly not any kind of like-for-like. Last night Jaiyesimi was not available and Maatsen was clearly coming back too soon, so we had Millar operating effectively down the left side but nothing coming from the other flank.

The two replacements for Maatsen were Morgan or Washington. Quite understandably I think when Maatsen was withdrawn early in the second half it was Washington given the nod, the formation unchanged. But a little later, when Adkins wanted to get Aneke into the action, the formation demanded that it be Millar to be taken off. So we withdrew prematurely our main attacking threat (I’m assuming he wasn’t injured), someone who had the beating of them all night on his side, in order to bring on an alternative threat, with Aneke beginning by ploughing the left channel.

When that didn’t work, we switched to three/five at the back, with Purrington and Matthews as wing-backs, kept a more central midfield trio, and with Stockley withdrawn shifted Aneke and Washington into a front two. Fine, Chuks ran them ragged, able to almost bulldoze his way through them. Just that we weren’t able to see how he might have influenced the game alongside Stockley in a front two - if that meant going long so what? - with Millar on the left.

Now all this was going on as Crewe were dominating possession and basically playing us off the park. We had a system that wasn’t working, in part because of an error in selecting Maatsen which then sparked a chain of adjustments in personnel but not in formation, again until the closing stages. We made Crewe look like world-beaters by not putting them on the back foot and trying to protect a vulnerable defence. Not gung-ho, but rather attack being the best form of defence.

What does this suggest for Saturday? Only Adkins and his staff will know who is fit enough to start and who might only last an hour at best. What I would suggest is that first, if Famewo and Inniss are able to last a game we need to start with that pairing in central defence, which would be tough on Pearce, who’s played a real captain’s part, but Famewo to me looks more mobile and able to play around Inniss. Second, if Jaiyesimi is still out (which looks likely according to reports) and Maatsen is not fully up to speed, change the formation. Keep Millar on the left and start with two up front. Just which combination that is I can’t say, depends on who can last 90 minutes – and I don’t know where his mind is at but I’d find a place on the bench for Schwartz as well. We have to win on Saturday and he is a goal poacher. If we’re chasing the game in the final 10-15 minutes he could be an option.

Every change involves sacrifice and if we start with two up front the midfield has to change too. Assuming there’s a ‘protector’ in the form of Watson or Pratley, give Forster-Caskey the central role and then decide who out of Gilbey, Shinnie or Morgan is best suited to a role more down the right. Have to say, depending on how it shapes up in training, but there has to be a case for pairing JFC with one of those three and overlooking both Watson and Pratley. It would be bold.

Equally, a case can be made for switching from the 4-3-3/4-5-1 to an outright 3-5-2/5/3/2 and using wingbacks. That would rely on three centre-backs being able to last 90 minutes, or being ready to ask Pratley or Gunter to resume central defence duties, either at the start or during the game. Matthews or Gunter down one flank, Purrington or Maatsen on the other.

I watched the highlights of Accrington Stanley v Portsmouth and from the look of them it might have ended 6-6. We all say the table doesn’t lie by this stage of the season, so it isn’t an accident that Accrington have conceded 67 goals, well above par for their position in the league. So either we set up on the basis of ‘we will keep a clean sheet, come what may’ and rely on pinching one (or more) against a dodgy defence, which has worked a number of times away from home this season, or ‘they are weak at the back, we can outscore them’. We have to hope Adkins chooses what proves the right option.

I honestly don’t care whether or not we’re good enough to get into and then win the play-offs. One of us, Portsmouth or Oxford (who do come into the equation now in light of last night’s results) will get sixth place (I can’t believe Sunderland will fail to beat either Plymouth or Northampton, or that Blackpool might fail with their final three matches), then all bets are off. There’s no merit any more these days in the idea that we might benefit from another season in the third flight to be better prepared if we go up, the team will be completely different next season whether or not we go up. Ahead of the last two home games you’d have said we had become favourites for that final spot. That’s no longer the case.

Neither can we tell what points total we will need. We know Portsmouth have two entirely winnable games left, we could need to win all three. If we don’t we are looking for other results to go our way. And to take a leaf out of Adkins’ book of positivity, had Portsmouth’s keeper not pushed the ball against Marquis at the death last night we would have been truly staring down the barrel. He did. Last-minute goals finally did for us last season, if we miss out this time around it will be a similar story.


Tuesday, 27 April 2021

We Came Up Short

We might not yet be down to the wire, but we all know the wire is in sight. Only thing that mattered tonight was the result, nothing but a win would do. Three points and we’d at least be back above Oxford, depending on other results potentially Portsmouth and Blackpool too, conceivably also pulling to within three points of Lincoln; or staring down the barrel five points adrift (six really given goal difference) with three to play. We didn’t get the win, didn’t play well enough to merit a win but almost stole one; and with Lincoln and Blackpool both winning the only consolation came with a last-gasp equaliser for Accrington against Portsmouth, news which came through moments before Crewe equalised for a second time as two points once again slipped through our fingers in stoppage time.

Tonight’s results leave us in the strange position of knowing both that if we win our final three games of the season we will take a play-off spot, equally that unless we play a good deal better than we did tonight we can forget about extending the season. We looked tired and, in sharp contrast to Saturday, not mentally up for the task. We played as if we just wanted the game to be out of the way, win it without too much exertion and start to think about the tougher challenges that lie ahead. If so, and the game's all about fine margins, that was disrespectful to Crewe, who through the game outpassed and outmanoeuvred us, only falling short because of what looked like an inability to create the final opening and a vulnerability in defence which we should have been able to exploit more convincingly. Perhaps Peterborough on Saturday took too much out of us, perhaps as Adkins hinted some were playing while not fully fit. Probably all of that, but for me we made the cardinal error of having gone ahead not finishing off the game with a second and then relaxing, instead making the game hard for ourselves by allowing Crewe to dominate possession and come at us from all angles.

There were some decisions to be made regarding the team, with Jaiyesimi ruled out through injury and doubts about Inniss’ fitness after Saturday, while some consideration may have been given to either changing the formation to play two up front or going for Washington as one of the two wider men. In the event Inniss was rested, swapping places on the bench with Famewo, while Maatsen returned to take the wide right role, the rest of the team being unchanged, the bench looking similar too, with Washington and Aneke the options up front, while Morgan kept a place ahead of Shinnie.

Let’s face it we were pretty poor for most of the first half, this time not just the first 15 minutes. Whether it was the formation match-up or just less energy on the pitch, we were sloppy in and out of possession and looked edgy. Famewo looked rusty on his return, while Maatsen looked as if he knew he shouldn’t have started. The exception in all of this was Millar, who was at the heart of all our good moments and once again looked to have the beating of the opposition. Indeed, there were times when we had three moving down the left – Purrington, Millar and Gilbey – and it was from one such occasion that we took the lead, against the run of play. Millar had the ball in space and found Gilbey making a run ahead of him. It looked like he might fail to make it before the ball ran out for a goal kick, but he did and whipped in an excellent cross, meat and drink to Stockley who once again stooped low to head home, this time in off the post.

That goal you felt might settle us down. It didn’t. Millar continued to create problems down the left, jinking past two only to be brought down, then putting in a low cross that wasn’t converted. The plus point was that we did seem to tighten up defensively and prevented Crewe from turning dominance of possession into real chances, with Amos making routine saves but not called on for anything more. And we did have the opportunity to really rub salt into the wound as Stockley was fouled in first-half stoppage time, giving Forster-Caskey the sort of position from which he’d scored earlier in the season. This time it hit the wall – and we almost managed to get caught on the break as Millar and Purrington left the ball for each other and were bypassed.

At half-time we were winning, Portsmouth were 0-2 down, and Blackpool were drawing at Sunderland, although Lincoln were ahead. As long as we kept hold of the three points that was a combination of results that would be pretty good. The nagging thought was just get another goal then play on the break and conserve energy, didn’t want a final 10 minutes holding onto a one-goal lead.

The second half if anything saw increased pressure from Crewe as we really struggled to clear our lines, let alone do anything at the other end. Maatsen was yellow-carded rather harshly, but shortly after committed another foul. It wasn’t surprising that not long into the half he was replaced, with Washington brought on to run the channel on the right side. And he did have more of an impact, although Crewe continued to call the shots.

In quick succession Gilbey was very harshly given a yellow, followed by Pearce getting one that was more understandable. It was all getting edgy and it really came as no surprise that on 66 minutes Crewe did draw level. The ball was worked down their right and their guy cut inside a tired challenge from Pearce to shoot into the far corner of the net.

Now we faced a real challenge to get the three points. Almost immediately Adkins made another change, with Aneke coming on and perhaps surprisingly Millar making way. He was probably the only option if we were to retain the formation and get Aneke on the pitch, but it seemed we were shooting ourselves in the foot by withdrawing our main attacking threat when we now needed to chase the game.

Indeed, although Aneke made an impact further changes followed with less than 20 minutes to go. Inniss and Pratley came on for Stockley and Watson, with us going to a back three/five and wing-backs, with two forwards. And with Aneke clearly having more power than they could handle, the changes did make a difference as Crewe were pushed more onto the back foot.

It was still something of a surprise when we took the lead again, in the final 10 minutes. Forster-Caskey played a delightful ball to Gilbey, whose shot was blocked for a corner. An outswinger seemed to carry no danger, even though it was headed towards goal by Pearce, but Gilbey had taken a chance and made the Martin Peters-like run and was on hand to deflect the ball past their keeper.

The game had swung again, now all we had to do was see out the final minutes – although by now Portsmouth had produced a turnaround of their own to lead 3-2. Into five minutes of stoppage time and it looked as though we had managed to hold on for a win that was as welcome as it was undeserved. Instead in the sixth minute of time added on the ball was headed out twice in succession by Inniss. It was about to be the third in a row when he was I thought fouled and failed to make a decisive contact, the ball dropping to their guy around the penalty spot and he shot home. Barely time to kick off and we, like Portsmouth, had dropped two points right at the last.

A good deal of thinking needs to be done ahead of Saturday, in addition to getting tired bodies ready to go again. Adkins will have to take a hard look at who he can rely on as we have to grind out a win at Accrington, while hoping that Wimbledon take something from their game against Portsmouth.

Player Ratings:

Amos – 7/10. No chance with either goal, decent punches clear and otherwise did what he had to.

Matthews – 7/10. Decent enough game, wasn’t able to create much at the other end as our real threat was coming on the other side.

Famewo – 6/10. Shaky start I thought but did grow into the game.

Pearce – 6/10. Did seem to be looking tired towards the end, may have been at fault for at least one of their goals.

Purrington – 7/10. Generally good game and linked up well with Millar and Gilbey going forward.

Watson – 6/10. Less commanding than of late, another who looked tired, although did defensive duties well as we were under the cosh.

Forster-Caskey – 6/10. No individual’s fault but we didn’t have any control of midfield tonight.

Gilbey – 7/10. Took his goal well, one which demonstrated his ability to read situations and make good runs, while involved our first, laying on the cross for Stockley.

Maatsen – 6/10. The actual performance merited a lower mark, but I don’t think (with hindsight) he was in a state to start the game.

Millar – 8/10. Had the beating of the opposition again, helped create our first goal, unfortunate to be taken off.

Stockley – 6/10. Took his goal well but otherwise isolated and struggled to get in the game, not really his fault as we had so little possession.

Subs:

Washington – 7/10. Brought more when he came on.

Aneke – 7/10. Did help to drag us back into the game and almost helped us over the line.

Pratley – 7/10. No complaints, came on and did his job.

Inniss – 7/10. If he’d got that third consecutive header in right at the end we would have won the game.


 

Saturday, 24 April 2021

Close But No Cigar Today

If we’d sent the right message with the 6-0 win at Plymouth, that we were gaining momentum at the right time of the season, today we were looking for a statement of intent against one of the two teams going up, to show that we have the quality to match up. Today it didn’t quite happen, for a combination of reasons: we were up against better quality opposition than of late, we failed to convert a penalty, but most tellingly – and similarly to the Ipswich game but in total contrast to the Plymouth match – we regularly couldn’t convert good work and promising positions into clear goalscoring chances, while the quality of our balls in from set pieces was poor all afternoon. The stats show 62% possession but only three shots on target, while the deflected ones – and there were some promising ones in the second half – failed to find the net.

I’d say we were unfortunate to lose but by no means we were robbed, didn’t have enough chances for that. Fact is Peterborough got a goal and, like us at their place when we went ahead, concentrated on holding what they had. They nevertheless had the better chances to extend their lead, even during the second half when we were in their half most of the time. Amos was called on to make the sort of saves that their keeper was not, bar the penalty of course.

With possibly all three of Innis, Maatsen and Washington available again, Adkins did have some decisions to make. He opted to retain the formation that has served us well of late, while making one change, bringing back Inniss, and deciding to partner him with skipper Pearce rather than Famewo, who dropped to the bench. Millar and Jaiyesimi kept their places as the wide men, with Maatsen not making the bench (perhaps still injured) but Morgan retained there, ahead of Shinnie, available to operate wide if needed, while Watson got the nod again ahead of Pratley for the defensive midfield duties. With Aneke and Washington in reserve (no sign of Schwartz) we would have options up front.

It was a pretty even first 10 minutes, we started rather more brightly than in other games of late. Nevertheless, whereas in those games we tended not to concede and to play our way into it, this time we went behind. I actually missed their goal (went to put some laundry in the dryer, came back and we were one down), apparently we were too open at the back and their guy had a shot from the edge of the area that went inside the far post. We were fortunate that it wasn’t 0-2 before 20 minutes were out as this time a ball down the middle caught Inniss rather flat-footed. Their guy was in with only Amos to beat, but the shot wasn’t convincing and Amos managed to get a touch on it to turn it behind for a corner.

We were getting into decent positions, Gilbey got into the box with a one-two but overran it, and we had to wait until the 26th minute for our first actual shot, one from Stockley getting blocked. By that time Jaiyesimi had departed with what looked like a hamstring, Morgan coming on. No change of formation but it did mean a blunting of the outright attacking threat. In that sense it was unfortunate that Maatsen wasn’t on the bench for a real like-for-like.

On the half-hour we had the opportunity to square the game as Forster-Caskey won the ball back and played in through to Gilbey, who was clipped in the box. With Washington not on the pitch, the duties fell to Stockley. He hit it well enough but, like Schwartz’s effort against Oxford, at a good height for a keeper. Their keeper guessed right and made the save. For the rest of the first half we probed without success. Morgan shot over, Millar put in a dangerous cross, we had free kicks (badly underhit), while a poor Purrington clearance almost put Peterborough in only for Watson to make a vital interception.

At the break you felt that we had to do to them what they did to us at their place, stay patient and take the chances when they come to turn it around. There was an issue whether and at what point Adkins might feel obliged to change the formation it we were still chasing the game. But we were playing well enough, Peterborough were looked less threatening than in the early period of the game, just needed to get back on level terms.

Unfortunately the second half became a tale of close but no cigar. Millar, who had struggled early in the game, came into his own and ran them ragged down the left, without ever managing to deliver the killer final ball. Stockley was inches away from crosses, Gilbey made a super run from deep but couldn’t get enough on the final shot (or play in Morgan who was in space). It wasn’t all one-way traffic and it was indicative that one Peterborough move almost saw their lead extended as their guy cut in from the left and with everyone moving that way backheeled it into space for another to run on to. Strong shot was touched over by Amos.

With around 15 minutes left Aneke made his appearance, but given the state of the game it wasn’t Stockley making way but Gilbey, giving us two up front in a switch to 4-4-2. He looked dangerous, a Forster-Caskey shot then one from Millar were both deflected wide, then in the final 10 minutes Washington and Famewo came on, for Inniss and Morgan (unfortunate for him but this gave us the option of another forward threat). Still we couldn’t manage that gilt-edged chance. Although Peterborough were content to run down the clock, in the final moments as we tried to play out and had people committed forward they did hit the post, if that had gone in it would have rubbed salt in the wound. But it mattered not as in truth Peterborough protected their goal well and saw it out.

This game just has to be quickly forgotten and filed under ‘irrelevant’. We now have two games, against Crewe and Accrington, that we simply have to win if we are to get a play-off spot. Get the points, then see where we stand with two to go. On Tuesday, in addition to our game Portsmouth will play at Accrington, Lincoln at Shrewsbury, and Blackpool at Sunderland. Beat Crewe then go again.

Player Ratings:

Amos – 8/10. Once again made saves that kept us in the game.

Matthews – 7/10. Good game defensively, wasn’t able to get forward that much as our threat down the right side changed with Jaiyesimi departing early.

Inniss – 7/10. Mostly did what he does well enough, but we were opened up for their goal and he was involved in another good opportunity for them not long after.

Pearce – 7/10. No complaints, usual committed performance against difficult opponents.

Purrington – 7/10. Unfair to penalise for one poor clearance when otherwise he was good, also linked up well with Millar at the other end.

Watson – 8/10. Thought he was excellent today, breaking up their play and protecting the defence, as well as moving it forward.

Forster-Caskey – 7/10. Some excellent stuff winning possession and using it, performance just spoilt by some poor set pieces.

Gilbey – 7/10. Came close to getting us a point with his well-timed runs, just didn’t quite happen.

Jaiyesimi – 7/10. Only on the pitch for around 20 minutes before leaving injured.

Millar – 7/10. Could easily have been a score of 9 had his final ball, cross, pass, shot been better. So nearly a match-saver/winner but wasn’t.

Stockley – 7/10. Unfair to mark down for the penalty, worked hard and combined well with Aneke.

Subs:

Morgan – 7/10. Not his fault he isn’t an outright winger, contributed to our second-half dominance, no reflection on him that he ended up being subbed to make way for another forward.

Aneke – 7/10. Looked dangerous without getting a clear sight of goal.

Famewo/Washington – Not on long enough for marks.

 

Wednesday, 21 April 2021

Stats Swing In Our Favour

Wow. In the cold light of day we can regroup. Let’s start with the stats, because some of them are revealing (IMHO). For the first time since the end of 2020 we are in a play-off spot on merit, ie actual and on a points-per-game basis. This has come curtesy of our run of form since the end of February – which has lifted our PPG from 1.419 (projected total of 65) to 1.610 (projected 74) – and three defeats and a draw in the last four for Portsmouth. Didn’t see that coming. I’d been assuming that Lincoln would be our main target, especially if they came back from an enforced Covid-19 break off the pace. But they’ve delivered three straight wins to move if not out of sight for us then close to it, only by virtue of our having to play them. Fair play to them.

Just what’s happened to Portsmouth I’ve no idea. But their loss of form has cut the current projected points total for making sixth to below 72. The benchmark has always been 75, and that may still prove the requirement, but as things stand 72 would get you in. All will change again for sure, but right now we’re looking at facing Lincoln and then beating either Sunderland or Blackpool at Wembley.

I remember writing a post in February suggesting we needed to win every other game until the end of the season to make the play-offs. Despite four points thrown away (the penalty against Oxford, the draw against Wimbledon), which I admit I thought at the time had scuppered us, this is pretty much what we’ve done, plus a bit. Since the start of March our record reads: P10, W6, D4, L0, F18, A7, Pts 22 (ie 2.2 per game). But just as important has been a team in the top six falling away, in this case Portsmouth (Ipswich, Doncaster and others have just about disappeared and Oxford losing last night was reassuring).

 

However it ends up, we are going to look back on this as a very curious season. Our results in March and April carry echoes of the October/November period. Our record for those months reads: P10, W7, D2, L1, F16, A7, Pts 23 points (2.3 ppg). In other words, in two 10-game spells we’ve generated 45 points. The other side of the coin is that in the 23 games outside of these periods our record is: P21, W5, D6, L10, F29, A37, Pts 21 (1.0 ppg). In other words, we have now had two title-winning spells (which if extended over 46 games would have seen us amass 103/104 points) amid relegation form for the rest of the season (46 points).

The reasons for the swings in fortune are many and some do stand out (most obviously that in the poor spell we have conceded an average of 1.76 goals per game against 0.7 for the two good spells). But I don’t think I can remember a season where the divide between the good and the bad has been so acute. We just have to ensure that in the final five games we continue with the good – but a material change last night, although academic, is that we could now afford to win only four of our last five and still be guaranteed a play-off spot.

That of course doesn’t give any real margin for error and we have the momentum at the right time that we have craved since January. Suddenly we have real competition for almost all places – the main exceptions being goalkeeper (no reflection on Maynard-Brewer’s ability and potential but I hope he is not called upon) and centre-forward (we have Stockley and Aneke but assuming they are to be interchangeable in the current formation it would only take an injury to one to leave us short; Washington will still play a role when fit but alongside one of the other two, while Schwartz has to wait and see if he gets a chance). 

Saturday will no doubt be a good test of our progression, but come on, it’s Peterborough for crying out loud. Congratulations to them on their prospective promotion but we’re not exactly talking European Super League contenders. After all, after last night we do have in common with them that we’ve both been beaten at home by Gillingham.


Tuesday, 20 April 2021

Message Sent

While the rest of the footballing world was still shaking its head in disbelief that a European superleague could possibly omit Charlton, we embarked on another game that could reasonably be described as ‘must win’, given our situation and other games in our final six, while keeping fingers crossed that others would screw up: Portsmouth at Swindon (they did), Blackpool at Rochdale (they did too), and Lincoln at Burton (they didn’t), even Oxford at Wimbledon (they did). After all, Plymouth may have been in 16th place but looked pretty comfortable, surely with nothing other than a bit of pride to play for, while we knew that all we needed to do was win our final six games and we could not be denied a play-off spot. And tonight we did what we had to. 

Whether Adkins had any significant decisions on team selection tonight seemed to depend on whether any of Maatsen, Washington or Aneke would be available. In the event just one was, Aneke, who was among the subs, but the starting XI saw two changes. Inniss was given a rest, with Famewo coming in to partner Pearce (and Gunter and Oshilaja the back-up on the bench), while Watson started instead of Pratley, perhaps on the back of his display when he came on as a sub. It looked like the same 4-5-1/4-3-3 formation with Millar and Jaiyesimi either side of Stockley and Forster-Caskey and Gilbey making up the midfield. There was a further change on the bench with Morgan named instead of Schwartz, giving us more options than on Saturday.

As on Saturday we started sluggishly. Plymouth rattled up six corners in the first 15 minutes, had some dangerous positions, a cross well cut out by Watson, a shot deflected, an Amos save, and a low cross which somehow evaded everyone. We did have a Forster-Caskey shot which curled wide but by and large we struggled to hold the ball, especially with Stockley curiously getting regularly beaten in the air. Plymouth passed the ball better than us and had us on the back foot.

But that was the first 15 minutes. And just as on Saturday the game changed after that. We began to look more dangerous, Forster-Caskey helped to set up Jaiyesimi, whose shot was well saved, and we might well have had a penalty as a Gilbey shot from the edge of the area clearly hit the raised arm of a defender. No matter as on 25 minutes we were ahead. Millar drove past his marker on the left and fired in a low cross. Their keeper managed to push it out but Forster-Caskey bent his neck and headed it back goalward. Their defender looked as though he was going to keep it out with his hands but perhaps thought better of it (penalty and a red card or the goal and a yellow) and in it went.

The lead was nearly extended later in the half as Purrington ran on to a loose ball on the left side and fired in a cross, one which Stockley just failed to connect with. But after Jaiyesimi had almost played in their guy with an ill-conceived back pass, only rescued by Watson, we did score again before the break. Forster-Caskey and Matthews worked it down the right and Matthews delivered an excellent cross, one which was met low down from close range by Stockley, who’d left his marker for dead.

At the break we were looking good, despite the start to the game. Just felt that Plymouth would surely be getting a rollocking and look to get back into it early in the second. And they very nearly did. Their guy got into the box and checked inside, goal looked gaping but he hit his shot low and Amos made the save. To add insult to injury we immediately went down the other end, Millar has a shot which is blocked but then hits their defender and goes in. Instead of 1-2 it was 0-3 and probably game over.

In case there was any doubt, a couple of minutes later and it was four. We attacked down the right side and for some reason all their defenders were drawn to that side, leaving acres of space. This was spotted, the ball chipped over them, and Gilbey with all the time he might have wanted swept it home. Before the hour was up we’d scored again. Also down the right side, Jaiyesimi cross and Stockley cleverly dummied it, allowing it to run through to Millar who scored.

That was the cue for Gunter to replace Matthews and not long after for Shinnie and Morgan to come on for Gilbey and Jaiyesimi. And quite frankly now it was only a case of whether there would be a consolation or two for Plymouth as we not surprisingly rather took the foot off the gas. More changes saw Aneke and Pratley on for Stockley and Forster-Caskey; and just when everyone was getting ready for the final whistle Pratley saw space inside and chipped it to Aneke, who controlled it and stabbed it home. Still a couple of minutes left to beat the 0-6 at Barnsley (I was there) and remarkably Aneke missed a glorious chance to make it seven in stoppage time, through on the keeper but shooting just wide.

With the other results tonight we are sitting nicely in sixth place with five games to go. Technically we can now afford to win only four of those five to be sure of a play-off place, but we know it’s still going to be tough, with Peterborough, Lincoln and Hull still to play. No matter, tonight (and tomorrow) we enjoy it, hope the players do too because they deserved it.

Player Ratings:

Amos – 9/10. Another important contribution to prevent us going behind in that early phase; basically did everything asked of him.

Matthews – 8/10. Fine performance, Curbs attributed our lead at half-time to the defence and that was about right.

Pearce – 8/10. Important interceptions and tackles, didn’t let the change of partner unsettle him.

Famewo – 8/10. Slotted back in seamlessly, not noticed much but that was a good sign.

Purrington – 8/10. Also a good game as after the opening spell our defence was on top.

Gilbey – 7/10. Decent game and took his chance well.

Watson – 8/10. A couple of key interventions to prevent them scoring, shored things up in front of the defence. Tough call after Saturday and today whether he or Pratley starts.

Forster-Caskey – 8/10. Pretty effective all round, including his goal.

Jaiyesimi – 7/10. Not everything came off but still looked lively.

Millar – 8/10. He had the beating of them on the left side all night, scored one, big role in our first.

Stockley – 7/10. Did well for his goal but did miss another and was unusually less effectively than usual in the air outside the box.

Subs:

Not fair to give them marks as they all came on after the game was won.


Saturday, 17 April 2021

One Gained Or Two Dropped?

Having beaten Doncaster and Sunderland away from home, of course thoughts were turning to a banana skin today, at The Valley against a team seemingly out of sorts and slipping out of the play-off picture. We managed to avoid that, but it proved to be a tough afternoon, a game in which both sides fashioned decent positions but failed to turn them into clear-cut chances. Nobody broke the deadlock. We can justifiably claim that, especially if you ignore the first 15 minutes, we had the greater number of attempts on goal and might have been given the verdict on points. But that doesn’t count for anything at this stage of the season.

The team saw one enforced changed, with Maatsen not making it, joining Washington and Aneke on the injured list. With Millar in to replace him, it looked like the same formation: 4-5-1 or 4-3-3. In front of Amos, Inniss and Pearce flanked by Matthews and Purrington. Pratley holding the fort with Forster-Caskey and Gilbey for company, then Millar and Jayesimi either side of Stockley up front. Only doubt was which sides the two wide men would operate on (proved to be Millar on the left and disappointingly they didn’t try mixing it up during the game), only concern was that with the injured trio options from the bench looked thin, only Shinnie and Watson in midfield and Schwartz up front, with nobody able to slot into a wide position if anything happened to Millar or Jayesimi (why not have Morgan on the bench instead of one of the three defenders?). Indeed, we ended up making just one change, Watson for Pratley, despite some tired legs towards the end, which underlined the lack of viable options.

If Ipswich were supposed to be out of sorts it seemed that nobody had told them at the start as in the first 15 minutes we barely got a kick. They were brighter from the off, their formation caused us problems, and they almost took the lead in the first minute as from a free kick drawn by a foul by Pearce a header required a blinding save from Amos, a shot from the rebound was cleared off the line then headed over for a corner. That was to be as close as Ipswich came to scoring through the game.

After 15 minutes I checked the BBC stats and they indicated 81% possession for Ipswich. But after that we did manage to get a foothold in the game, with some decent pressing winning the ball back and disrupting their play. By 30 minutes Ipswich’s possession stat was down to 65%. And around that time we did have our first real chance. A cross from the left was not claimed cleanly by their keeper and it fell to Stockley. He probably had more time to pick a spot but instead turned the ball towards what we hoped was an empty net only for it to be kicked off the line.

Millar was played in down the left, checked inside and the ball rolled for Pratley to take the shot only for it to be blocked. Ipswich did have a breakaway and a poor Inniss header was picked up and ended with a shot over the bar. Equally, before the break they might have had a player sent off. Their guy had already been booked and seemed to deliberately handle the ball, foul given but no second yellow. Instead the card came out for Jaiyesimi as we made a mess of a short free kick shortly before the break.

At half-time we knew we were in a tough game against decent opposition. We’d not played well enough to feel especially confident, too many set pieces and crosses in not precise enough, the wide men both failing to make a decisive contribution. But you felt that we were looking the stronger team and that if we could take the lead they might wilt. Alternatively, if they grabbed a goal and had something to defend we would struggle to turn it around, especially with the options from the bench looking so limited.

Neither was to happen. Plenty more hard work, half-chances, but no breakthrough goal. Inniss was making his presence felt from the set pieces but that only led to near misses, albeit with one a decent save from their keeper as his powerful header was deflected by Jaiyesimi. Millar was denied a good position has having turned their guy the referee made a poor call and gave a free kick against him, and around the hour we had a glorious situation. Pretty much a three on two as the ball was played into Forster-Caskey, with Millar and Stockley for company. We didn’t make the most of it, ended with a Millar shot comfortably saved.

Our one change was a like-for-like as Watson replaced Pratley, and as if to complete the similarity almost immediately picked up a yellow for a foul after a poor first touch. Ipswich did look dangerous at times but by and large it was us forcing the pace. A Forster-Caskey shot was only parried by their keeper but Stockley couldn’t get to the rebound first, then Millar teed up Forster-Caskey for a super curling effort which ended up just over the bar.

Into the final 10 minutes and another Inniss header from a corner was almost turned in by Stockley. The three minutes of stoppage time were disrupted by a little altercation as Inniss squared up to their guy, who collapsed holding his face. I hope he’s embarrassed when he looks at the replay. He should be. Still time right at the death for Gilbey to head wide from a free kick. But just wasn’t to be today.

By the end we’d managed to get up to 47% possession. More tellingly, we’d had 12 shots to their 5, six on target. On another day something goes in (or a defender hacks a clearance off the line into the roof of the net). But perhaps our situation was summed up by striving for a winner at home with one up front and the only forward on the bench not being introduced. Perhaps Adkins was fearful of disrupting the formation and conceding a late goal to turn a reasonable point into a real setback. But it’s hard to see Aneke or Washington not being used if they were available. We need them, and Maatsen, back.

Not sure as yet whether to focus on the positives or the negatives, we’ll only know at the end of the season if it was a point won or two dropped. The latter are Blackpool beating Sunderland and Lincoln winning a second in a row. That leaves a gap of five and six points (plus their better goal difference) between us Lincoln and Blackpool. The positive is of course Portsmouth losing at MK Dons. Two points behind them now with a game in hand. To be really upbeat, you could say that for the first time in quite a while it is all now in our own hands. If we win our final six games nobody can stop us being in the play-offs. But we know tough games lie ahead. To end on a positive, we would have taken two wins and a draw from the last three games. 

Player Ratings:

Amos – 8/10. Excellent save at the start and thereafter dealt with everything he had to. Quite a relief that he got up and continued after treatment in the second half.

Matthews – 7/10. Was seriously tested in that opening spell as a couple of times Ipswich carved us open on his side. But weathered that and went on to have a decent game.

Inniss – 7/10. Commanding again, just a pity that his ability to win headers from set pieces didn’t this week turn into goals.

Pearce – 7/10. Also a slightly shaky start but no problems after that, good game.

Purrington – 7/10. Saw more of him as an attacking threat in the second half, almost set some things up, no problems defensively.

Gilbey – 6/10. Less influential than against Sunderland, still made good runs and cropped up in dangerous positions.

Pratley – 6/10. No complaints, did his job. Even left it to Watson to pick up the yellow card.

Forster-Caskey – 6/10. Rather quiet first half, more prominent in the second but for once struggled to pick out the killer pass and his shots were just wide of the mark.

Jaiyesimi – 6/10. Disappointing first half, much more threatening in the second. Like others just a whisker away from a decisive contribution.

Stockley – 6/10. Did the job asked of him, just unable to convert the one good chance that came his way or any of the half-chances.

Millar – 6/10. A number of good contributions, especially in the second half. Just nothing that proved match-winning.

Subs:

Watson – 6/10. Fair enough.

 

Friday, 16 April 2021

No Grounds For Complacency

Ahead of our next cup final, think it’s worth updating the points-per-game and projected totals, just to put our position into context. We have, of late, got the results we needed to and we are for sure in the mix for a play-off place. We are still considered by the bookies not favourite to end in the top six, plenty of work still to be done. Starting tomorrow.

The midweek results were not bad for us, but they could have been better, largely because Lincoln won. Having been on a poor run of results and having had an enforced Covid-related break (including the postponement of our game against them), I was hoping they would be off the pace and fade away. They were after all the team in sixth place and our clearest target. Instead they trounced MK Dons 4-0. Others, most obviously Portsmouth, did come up short. Again, could have been worse.

Leaving aside the top three - for the record Hull are on course for 88/89 points and top spot, with Peterborough just behind on 87, Sunderland having fallen away to a projected 82 but still firmly cemented in third – Lincoln are now on course to amass 77/78 points and fourth spot, Blackpool 76/77 and fifth, with Portsmouth hanging on to sixth spot on 74/75. Our points-per-game – which had fallen as low as 1.419 at end-February – is now up to 1.590, giving a projected points total of 73 and seventh place. Others – including Lennie Lawrence it seems – have been flagging the 75 points total as the magical goal, but that number only gives you a decent chance of a play-off spot, doesn’t guarantee one.

The usual proviso: of course things are going to change with each round, still too many points up for grabs to draw any firm conclusions. But note that even if we beat Lincoln in our game that’s not sufficient to get us above them. One possible positive from Sunderland falling away from the top two is that – in an ideal world – Hull and Peterborough might be inclined to feel their job is done when we come to play them, rather than being in a three-way scrap for two automatic places. Probably wishful thinking.

One game at a time for sure. Absolutely no grounds for any complacency tomorrow just because Ipswich are on a poor run and were publicly criticised by their manager. Tomorrow’s game is pretty much last-chance saloon for them, they have to beat us. That could make them dangerous opponents.

I’ve been musing on whether we are benefiting from an ‘Adkins effect’, whether he’s just been lucky – or both (and if luck was good enough for Napoleon it’s good enough for me). It would seem clear that the change of manager has revitalised what had probably become a stale environment (I didn’t want Bowyer to go not with any thoughts about promotion this season but on him being our best bet to go up next season).

I do think Adkins has had fortune on his side, primarily with the return of Inniss. We do not have another like him and quite clearly the defence is more comfortable with him as the central element. Injuries have I think also helped to make some of Adkins’ decisions for him. If Famewo had been fit, would he be partnering Inniss or would the captain Pearce have kept the shirt? And probably more important, Washington was on a roll when he got injured. Without him, and with Schwartz not a viable option to start, that really only left Stockley and Aneke. That perhaps forced Adkins into going for one up top. Once you have that in mind, you look to what elements you can bring to make that a productive formation. Now, with Chuks probably still sidelined for tomorrow, we have to hope and pray that Stockley continues to work his socks off and doesn’t pick up a knock.

Nevertheless, if someone had told me we’d be going with one up front, one either side of him, and a midfield three, I would have expected both Shinnie and Millar to have been in the starting X1. Adkins, perhaps coming in with an open mind and deciding on what he saw on the training ground, chose Gilbey over Shinnie and Jaiyesimi over Millar. Those were big calls and so far at least they’ve paid off, even to the extent of Gilbey starting to show us what we hoped he would when he joined. Tough on the other two, but that’s the way it goes – and they are of course both still in the thick of it, rather it’s been Morgan and Smith sidelined so far.

With Maddison’s problems in the news, discussion of Schwartz’s difficulties in adjusting to his new surroundings, and Gilbey’s resurgence, it has perhaps been sobering to reflect on how a footballer’s fortunes can change, and perhaps how little sympathy is given to their troubles when things are not going well. Being paid handsomely doesn’t mean everything else is fine; and we do indeed live in strange times.

On a more upbeat note, belated congratulations to the club’s new fan adviser Lucy Bishop, and to Curbs for the well-deserved honour of having the East Stand renamed after him (I’d also like to congratulate those who won prizes in the streaming raffle but as I won nothing I’ll pass). Good of TS to respond to the campaign over the stand renaming, but perhaps now we can take up another similar cause. I think it would be great to have one of the urinals in The Valley renamed ‘the Duchatelet urinal’. As a fellow Addick pointed out, only problem would be the queue for that one.


Saturday, 10 April 2021

Just A Massive Win

Nobody was in any doubt about the size of the task today, especially with Sunderland in as much need of the points as us. It felt rather like for the first time this season we were truly the underdogs, although in our favour was the knowledge that we had produced our best performances in tough circumstances away from home against promotion contenders: Portsmouth, Ipswich, Doncaster. And glory be that group now includes Sunderland with a massive win, sweetened by the failure of Lincoln, Portsmouth Ipswich and Doncaster to win home games.

Did we deserve the win? Perhaps yes, perhaps no, depends how you read the game and what you focus on. It was not the same sort of dogged display as against some others, incidents and chances were aplenty, for both teams. We led at the break thanks to outstanding Amos saves and their guy’s decision to hack the ball into the roof of his own net rather than clear. Sure at times it was backs to the wall, Sunderland showed why they are fighting it out for automatic promotion, but everyone put in a massive shift and we could have added more goals to Gilbey’s second-half effort, either side of Sunderland’s one goal. A neutral would probably say a draw would have been a fair result, but a late leveller would have been cruel. And it didn’t happen, we got the points, who cares?

There was no surprise to hear that the team was unchanged from Doncaster, meaning a repeat of the 4-3-3/4-5-1 set-up with Maatsen and Jaiyesimi either side of Stockley up front, Forster-Caskey and Gilbey flanking Pratley in central midfield, in front of a back four of Matthews, Inniss, Pearce and Purrington. The surprise was on the bench, with Aneke not appearing, apparently injured, Schwartz taking his place. With Washington still out, it did indicate a limitation of our options if we ended up having to chase the game (and no jokes please about playing with none up front if Schwartz came on).

We started the game well, looked up for the task, only for Sunderland to almost take the lead with their first real attack, a long ball finding their guy between defenders and he turned it goalwards. Really expected it to land in the net but it went just wide. A narrow escape. And the next one came not long after as Pratley badly blotted his copybook. He seemed to be caught in two minds what to do with the ball at his feet and ended up giving it away to their guy, who was in on goal. He tried a chip but Amos stuck out a big hand to block it.

Just after that it was us almost scoring as a free kick was floated in and their defender diverted it back past his keeper and against the post, followed by a decent shout for a penalty as Gilbey seemed to be taken out in the box, the ref unmoved. Still inside the first 20 minutes and a Sunderland cross from their left saw their guy get to it only for Amos to pull off another blinder, although it seems he tried to punch it into the net. Two more penalty shouts were to follow as Jaiyesimi turned in the box and seemed to be clipped, then Pratley took the ball off their guy, advanced into the area, and was about to shoot when their defender took his foot away (or got the ball, have to see a replay of that one). None of the appeals were stonewall, but you’d have thought the ref might have given one of them on the balance of probabilities.

No mater, on the half-hour we did take the lead, in curious circumstances. Jaiyesimi won a corner on the left and Inniss got his head to it. Seems the keeper smothered it but it ran loose on the goalline, only for their guy to slice the clearance and send it into the roof of the net. Probably has to go down as an own goal, unless replays indicate it had already crossed the line.

The rest of the first half saw another Amos save, another Charlton penalty appeal (this time Stockley challenged and indicated the ball hit a defender’s arm), but no more goals. At the break we were probably fortunate to be ahead, but there were enough chances and incidents at both ends for either side to have been in front. The abiding thought was, however, that it was going to be bloody hard to keep a clean sheet.

The first phase of the second half we did manage to keep pretty scrappy, defending well in the face of Sunderland possession and pressure but with few opportunities to get forward. We were already playing if not on the break then conservatively, with Stockley winning every ball in the air but that seldom resulting in us keeping hold of the ball.

That all changed just before the hour as we created a golden opportunity to get some breathing space. A Sunderland defender failed to cut out a ball down the line and Jaiyesimi had it in space, curled in a cross, and Stockley was all on his own about a yard from goal. It had to go in, but instead he seemed to try to guide it home and ended up heading it against a post and out. It was a bad miss and at the time we wondered if that would cost us.

Sunderland reacted by making four substitutions, but whether or not as a result of their confusion we did indeed extend our lead. A throw on the right side was flicked on by Stockley and Gilbey made it his with a well-timed run. It was a poor first touch but he kept going and the second was much better as he fired home from close range. Sunderland might see it as a bad goal to give away, for us it seemed to bring victory close to hand. But still at least another 30 minutes left.

Millar came on for Maatsen, who picked up a knock, taking up his position on the left and Jaiyesimi switching to the right. And we coped with the next 15 minutes or so pretty well, might even have grabbed a third as poor defending let in Gilbey but his shot was well saved. Gunter came on for Jaiyesimi, with Matthews taking up a more advance position, although by now we were not surprisingly being penned back.

The game took a massive turn for the worse with about 15 minutes left as Sunderland pulled one back. A ball over the top looked like finding their guy. Amos came out for it but wasn’t going to get to it first. He did manage to block their forward’s effort, a second shot was also blocked, but when the ball came out the goal was open and at the third attempt a Sunderland guy cleverly stooped to head it into an unguarded net. Should Amos have come for it? Should defenders have got back on the line once it was clear he was coming out? Couldn’t have turned out any worse, now there was going to be a very nailbiting end to the game.

With hindsight we actually saw out the final 15 minutes and five of added time without major alarm, we might even have scored a third on the break, but of course it didn’t seem so comfortable at the time. I remember cheering when Purrington won a goal kick. Sunderland had a final free kick, but when that was cleared and Millar headed for the corner flag the game was up.

Just how massive a win this proves to be will only become clear at the end of the season. Not going to tempt fate by suggesting Sunderland’s dismay at the end was down to ‘surely not them again at Wembley’. To say that there are more tough tests to come is an understatement, with Ipswich up next. But there’s no doubt that this win puts us right in the play-off mix, a position which didn’t look likely at the end of March when we failed to beat Wimbledon. So we sit back and watch another round of games for others on Tuesday and prepare for the weekend. More of the same please.

Player Ratings:

Amos – 8/10. Almost a perfect performance, tremendous saves in the first half, just that decision to come out for a ball he couldn’t gather. Still leaves him, for me, as man of the match.

Matthews – 7/10. Decent enough game, especially after a tough opening period when Sunderland seemed to be targeting his side.

Innis – 8/10. Another towering performance against good opposition. Hope he gets credited with the goal.

Pearce – 8/10. Captain’s performance, up to and including the time-wasting injuries.

Purrington – 7/10. No complaints, played his part in what was overall a solid defensive display.

Forster-Caskey – 7/10. Put in a shift, as against Doncaster not much opportunity to shine on the ball.

Pratley – 6/10. Has to lose a mark for the early error which but for Amos would have gifted Sunderland the lead. The game would have been very different if they’d scored then. Otherwise decent.

Gilbey – 8/10. When he came back in this role ahead of Shinnie it was a surprise, but today he showed signs of what he can do, took his goal well and might have notched another.

Jaiyesimi – 7/10. Thought he started poorly but very much grew into the game as it progressed, some great stuff including the cross which Stockley should have buried.

Stockley – 7/10. Harsh mark for a guy who ran his socks off, won everything in the air (to the extent that, as Steve Brown pointed out, three centre-backs gave up competing against him), but the miss was a bad one and might have cost us.

Maatsen – 7/10. Played his part at both ends of the pitch.

Subs:

Millar – 6/10. Didn’t always choose the best option to relieve the pressure and hit them on the break.

Gunter – 6/10. Thought he was absent from his position a few times late in the game, with Matthews having to cover.

 

Friday, 2 April 2021

Plenty Of Positives, Mostly The Points

One advantage of the season coming down to the wire is that now ahead of games – especially this one – all the permutations and options can be put to one side. Today was pretty much must-win, a draw would have kept us hanging on but with another game less to close the gap. While we hoped the performance would indicate a positive impact from the arrival of Adkins, if we fluked one in the last minute to secure an undeserved victory that would be just fine. In the event it didn’t come to that, we scored early and thereafter restricted Doncaster to according to my count just three good opportunities (albeit all the result of poor defending), none of which they took. Overall it was disciplined, hard-working and effective, and we won a game of few clear-cut chances. Just what the doctor ordered.

The team showed six changes from the Wimbledon game, with some surprises, in what proved to be a 4-3-3 (or 4-5-1 when out of possession). There was the welcome return of Inniss, who it seemed only needed a shortened run-out in a friendly to be back in the team, alongside Pearce in the centre, with Famewo apparently injured. Matthews was fit again and came in to start, with Purrington at left-back. The midfield three saw Pratley holding the fort flanked by Forster-Caskey and another returnee, Gilbey, who got the nod over Shinnie. Stockley operated as pretty much a lone striker (with Washington still injured and Schwartz not making the bench), with Jaiyesimi to the left and Maasten to the right. It suggested flexibility, provided the two wider players could both support Stockley and get behind the ball when we lost it.

I missed the first 10 minutes (one of the joys of doing work for a French company is a restricted Easter break) and just as I’d settled in we took the lead, in a fashion which highlighted the potential benefits of the formation. Amos kicked long, Stockley flicked it on, Jaiyesimi then won a header to move it into the box, where Maatsen – who’d already caused problems chasing down a back pass – stole in, showed good strength to hold off the defender, and shot into the net.

We nearly gave away that lead just a few minutes later, with a poor piece of defending. A ball in was covered by three Charlton defenders, who all left it to each other, allowing it to run to an unmarked Bogle. His shot wasn’t bad but Amos stuck out a foot and managed to block it. Doncaster didn’t know it at the time, but that was probably the closest they would come to drawing level.

On the half-hours we had defensive error number two leading to Doncaster chance number two. Matthews did well to break up an attack, but hemmed in by the goalline with no easy escape route he chose to backheel the ball into the box, assuming presumably that the odds favoured it going to a colleague. It didn’t, but their surprised guy was only able to put in a weak shot easily saved by Amos.

If either of those two screw-ups had produced a Doncaster equaliser the game would have been very different. As it was, apart from the errors we were generally comfortable. Doncaster had plenty of possession but found it hard to get to or behind our back line, with Forster-Caskey and Pratley breaking up most attacks and Inniss and Pearce mopping up what came their way. We didn’t have many chances, although shortly before the break Gilbey might have done better when a Jaiyesimi cross from the left found him in the box. Perhaps surprised it reached him he tried to control it and it ran away from him.

At the break we looked as though our system was working well to frustrate them, as long as the errors were kept to a minimum, and you felt that if we could concoct a second goal that would probably be enough to secure the points. But clearly a lot of work still to be done.

Indeed, Doncaster started the second half with a period of sustained pressure, which culminated in Bogle winning a free kick on the edge of the area for a touch by Forster-Caskey, despite him clubbing him in the face. It was in a dangerous position, just the left side of the box, but fortunately the resulting shot was into the wall and cleared.

Back up the other end and for a moment we thought we had that second goal. A corner swung in and Stockley heads it goalwards, seemingly into the net. But you could guess from the rather uncertain celebrations there was a problem and the replays showed that the header had been deflected in by Jaiyesimi from an offside position. Pains me to say it but no question the officials got that one right (and by and large they had a pretty good game). Has to be said that without the deflection the keeper would probably have comfortably saved Stockley’s effort.

Going into the final 30 we were doing an even better job than before of demoralising Doncaster, who seemed at times to be losing heart. The game was getting rather stop-start, with a Doncaster defender sparking a fracas with Stockley (both ended up seeing yellow) followed by a long head injury break after Stockley collided with their guy (who eventually went off). We made our first change, Millar coming on for Jaiyesimi down the left, after which Purrington picked up a yellow for a mistimed challenge.

Doncaster made changes themselves, bringing on fresh legs, and there were moments when they threatened. But the third chance they had came from a corner, when inexplicably three of theirs were left to sort it out among themselves who would put in a header. Thankfully they got in each other’s way and the end result was harmless. Really don’t know what went wrong with that one.

And that, despite seven minutes of stoppage time, proved to be that. Aneke came on for a tiring Stockley, then at the death Gunter and Shinnie for Maatsen and Gilbey. We managed to play out the game and took the points.

There were plenty of positives, even though the performance could not be described as pretty (by and large we were happy to concede control of midfield and focus on getting up in support of Stockley while keeping it tight at the back). Sky make Forster-Caskey man of the match, and he did have a very good game, less so for what he did with the ball than his work without it. But for me it had to be Inniss. I wondered if we could get 90 minutes from a guy out for so long, but he pretty much strolled through it. A fellow Addick commented that he makes decisions and sticks to them, which summed it up. On occasions the right thing to do was send the ball into Row Z and that’s what he did. And having that immovable presence seemed to help others to play around him. The crowning glory was his ability to shove Bogle over outside the box and get away with it.

Now we sit back and watch the other scores (at the time of writing we’d dropped back from fifth to seventh), not just today but now on Monday also given the Lincoln postponement. We’ve done what we needed to today, let the chips fall where they may and we take stock on Tuesday.

Player Ratings:

Amos – 8/10. Was called on to make one decent save and delivered, as well as dealing decisively with some balls into the box.

Matthews – 6/10. Have to deduct a mark for the daft backheel. Could easily have cost us a goal. Otherwise fine.

Pearce – 8/10. Determined, committed, and put in some vital interceptions. Would have been culpable in the other two Doncaster chances but hard to pin the blame for those.

Inniss – 9/10. Outstanding, lasted the full game and looked assured, unruffled. Also a threat from corners.

Purrington – 7/10. Decent enough game.

Gilbey – 7/10. Not an easy game for our central midfielders as we didn’t have that much possession, probably should have scored, otherwise a promising display on his return.

Pratley – 7/10. Did the hard graft well and didn’t get involved in any unnecessary altercations. Not even a yellow.

Forster-Caskey – 8/10. Worked tirelessly and effectively, excellent game.

Jaiyesimi – 7/10. Thought it was probably his best game for us so far, worked well and produced some dangerous moments; also seemed stronger on the ball than before.

Stockley – 7/10. Put in a real shift, was out on his legs by the time he was substituted. Hard task to compete on his own but did it well.

Maatsen – 7/10. Did seem to fade in the second half but started very brightly, took his goal well.

Subs:

Millar – 6/10. With us playing on the break he did find himself in good positions and really didn’t make the most of them.

Aneke – 7/10. No real opportunity to deliver a decisive contribution but no complaints.

Shinnie/Gunter – Not on long enough for scores.