Saturday 27 February 2021

Horrible Afternoon

I think today we were looking for something to help blow away the mood of gloom that has set in following our latest home defeat in midweek. Whether this came in the form of a win, a stirring performance, or free-flowing football with a bucketload of goals, hopefully all three, remained to be seen. Another match against a team below us in the league but in better form, with Blackpool having won four of their last five compared with a win, a draw and three defeats in February for us. It was going to be tough. What we got was a nightmare. But it was one that you can interpret one of two ways. 

According to the first, we are outplayed in the first half, don’t manage an effort on target, concede two. We make four changes at the break and within minutes were are down to 10 men and concede a third, then round things off with another red card to end the game with nine. Go with those bare facts and the questions after the game are indeed whether Bowyer will walk and, if not, does Sandgaard sack him.

The other version – and it isn’t entirely daft, certainly one that Bowyer was sticking with after the game – is that every decision went against us and determined the outcome. Neither penalty was stonewall, the first we might have on another day got away with, the second was soft at best. In the first half we did put the ball in the net, seemed clearly offside at the time, but the replay seems to indicate that Stockley was onside (others were not) when he headed in. If that’s given the game’s 1-1 and different. Then Pratley’s second yellow is harsh (his first was for an accumulation of fouls, the ref warned him before the handball which drew the yellow), could have been a free kick for us, while Aneke gets a straight red for challenging for the ball, nothing more (and Bowyer indicated that the club will appeal).

I’d suggest the truth lies somewhere between the two. Both penalties on another day we might have got away with, but you can see why both were given, neither was a clearly poor decision. Stockley’s goal might have stood. But Pratley let the side down by getting involved in an altercation when being on a yellow he needed to avoid trouble. Aneke’s sending off may have been harsh, but it obviously didn’t affect the game. And behind it all we played poorly in the first half, getting nothing from the two wingers, and conceded another poor goal, allowing a guy to run towards goal and pick his spot with not a hint of a challenge from either a defender coming out or midfielder tracking back. Blackpool’s first penalty was the result of them getting in behind us. In short they were better than us in the first half and the chance to turn things around in the second was thrown out of the window by a piece of stupidity followed by an iffy challenge to give away a second penalty. However you cut it up, everything went wrong today and that wasn’t down to the officials.

For the record, the team showed three changes from Tuesday night with what looked like a switch back to a basic 4-4-2. Gunter came in for Matthews and Famewo for Pearce, with Oshilaja and Purrington completing the back four in front of Amos. A central midfield pairing of Pratley and Shinnie (with Forster-Caskey still unavailable) plus Millar and Jaiyesimi on the flanks. Up front Washington was back to partner Stockley. The options from the bench included the other two forwards, Aneke and Schwartz.

The first 10 minutes or so were even and uneventful. Then a ball was played inside Oshilaja, who had to turn and found himself the wrong side of their forward. What followed was a tussle between the two and their guy going to ground. The ref had a decision to make and he gave the penalty. That was driven home down the middle.

On 15 minutes we had the Stockley ‘goal’. We won a corner, which was half-cleared but fell to Pratley who swung at it and missed, only to end up hooking it back over his head. Famewo nodded it towards goal and Stockley finished it off. Again, at the time it looked clearly offside but the replays suggest otherwise, that Stockley was OK. The game continued without serious incident – and without us creating any actual chances - until with half-time not far off they had the ball on their left side. The guy turned inside and played a pass to another running onto the ball. No-one was with him, no-one got back to him, and no-one came out of the back line to challenge him. He took it forward unchallenged, looked up, and from outside the box shot well and low into the corner of the net.

In the first half we had looked pedestrian, predictable, and ineffective. If you play with two wingers you’d expect the play to be down the flanks and the threat to come from there, with balls into the box for the front two. That didn’t happen. Millar and Jaiyesimi both had moments but basically didn’t deliver. So it was no surprise that changes were made at the break, and four substitutions should say enough about how Bowyer viewed the efforts made. Off went Purrington (perhaps harsh on him), Millar, Jaiyesimi and Washington, replaced by Maatsen, Watson, Smith and Aneke.

It looked as though we’d pair Watson and Pratley in central midfield with Smith and Shinnie wider. We didn’t get the chance to find out. Pratley had in the first half committed three or four fouls, the ref had a word with him (presumably to say next one gets yellow), then he used his hand to stop a through ball. This time he was challenged heavily near the goalline and as he landed on their guy seemed to take the chance to leave something in there. Their player stayed down clutching his face, others reacted, and after a while the ref pulled out the yellow again and the red.

If that was almost game over there was no question a few minutes later. Their guy had the ball in the box, Watson stuck out a leg, there was some contact, and their guy went to ground. It was soft, a dive really, but with this one too you couldn’t say it was obviously the wrong decision. Amos dived the right way but the ball went under his hand and in.

The remaining 40 minutes or so were a waste of time. Blackpool had no need to exert themselves to get more. There was some decent effort, from Maatsen and Smith notably, but it really didn’t matter. Shinnie picked up a yellow and with around five minutes left Aneke jumped for a high ball, his arm swung around and seemed to catch their guy in the face. Out came the red card again and the game couldn’t end soon enough.

Where do we go from here? Another game on Tuesday evening. It will be interesting to see who’s picked for that one; obviously Pratley won’t be involved and neither will Aneke (for four games), unless there is a successful appeal. Hopefully Forster-Caskey will be available again as without him the wheels have well and truly come off.

Player Ratings:

Amos – 7/10. Might have saved one of the penalties but you can’t blame a keeper for that. Really didn’t have much to do.

Gunter – 5/10. Can’t remember him doing anything of note.

Oshilaja – 5/10. Got caught out for the first penalty.

Famewo – 7/10. Strong and effective in what he did.

Purrington – 6/10. Don’t think he did much wrong in the first half, presumably withdrawn to give us better attacking options with Maatsen.

Jaiyesimi – 5/10. Largely ineffective in the first half and taken off.

Pratley – 4/10. The guy gets praise, makes his 100th appearance for us, and blows it. Let the team down today.

Shinnie – 5/10. Cut a rather forlorn figure today, summed up by some poor corners.

Millar – 6/10. Was involved in some of our better stuff in the first half but was still disappointing.

Washington – 5/10. Didn’t really have an impact in the first half.

Stockley – 7/10. Unlucky not to have another goal.


Maatsen – 7/10. Did good stuff although the game was over by then.

Smith – 7/10. Ditto.

Watson – 5/10. Not just the challenge for the penalty, one or two wayward passes in bad positions.

Aneke – 6/10. Not marking him down for the red, which was at the least unfortunate.


Friday 26 February 2021

Pratley 500? But Greatest Ever?

I was checking around on some details, one of which was just how much of a ‘veteran’ Darren Pratley can claim to be. And one stat which drew my attention was that, at least according to Wikipedia, he is now on 497 league career appearances (550 games in total apparently). I hope the club is planning at least a modest presentation to mark the 500th – assuming of course his entry isn’t out of date and it hasn’t already happened. And it would be appropriate if he could at least pick up a yellow in that game.

He doesn’t qualify as a one-club man of course, but it’s a pretty remarkable record to make your debut in 2003, for Fulham (his league debut was against us, as a substitute for the last 15 minutes, we won 3-1 with goals from Graham Stuart and a brace from Jonatan Johansson), notch up 50 appearances on loan for Brentford, then 177 for Swansea (the highlight obviously being scoring against Palace), 178 for Bolton, and so far 91 for us. Effectively four clubs in around 15 years. That is a fair reflection I think of how he was valued each place he went to.

We know his style is, ahem, combative. My partner Suzanne watching a game with me recently noted “your No.15, ee seems to be trying to start a fight with everyone”. Every team needs one. So we’ll overlook the occasions when the tackle was just a bit too late, celebrate that glorious goal in the play-off semi-final, and hope that his best moments with us are still to come.

You’d have to imagine that he’s hot favourite for player of the season, given his efforts to shore up the defence as well as midfield when asked. But I do have to add that some may not go as far as to agree with the following from his Wikipedia entry: “Darren Pratley is considered by many as an elite midfielder and one of the greatest footballers to ever play the game”.

Tuesday 23 February 2021

Ended Up Dispirited And Disjointed

Perhaps it was just plain arrogance, but I suspect I wasn’t alone ahead of tonight’s game in thinking we need not just a win (having failed to get any sort of run going so far this year) but an emphatic one, to send a statement. This against a team which may be languishing at the foot of the table but which tore us to pieces at their place in November and which in a current form table would be higher than us (three wins in the last five against two and a draw for us), led by the familiar face of Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink (who let’s not forget did have one good game for us, when we played Chelsea and he pulled his finger out).

What we witnessed proved thoroughly depressing as after a bright start we progressively deteriorated as Burton improved. You might suggest we were unlucky in that we could easily have scored two or three in the first half while Burton scored with their only effort on target, while what proved to be the winner was a speculative effort cruelly deflected. But they made things happen, we didn’t do the basics well enough, and once they were ahead Burton were more likely to score a third than we were to get back into it, with a powerful Purrington shot turned over by their keeper just about the only serious chance we had in the second half. Substitutions and formation changes added to the dismay as Burton worked their socks off to win the game, proving more determined than us. Rather than us peppering their goal in the final 15 minutes or so it took two excellent Amos saves to prevent a heavier defeat and at the end we looked dispirited and disjointed. Burton must love playing us, we’ve provided them with 24% of their points tally for the season to date.

The team showed some freshening up after Saturday, with Gunter, Maatsen and Famewo all rested, Matthews, Pearce and Purrington coming in to replace them. As it turns out we operated with a back five, Pratley dropping back into defence. With Forster-Caskey still unavailable there were also changes in midfield, with Watson given a start alongside Shinnie. Millar and Jaiyesimi were selected to play either side of Stockley, making it a kind of 5-2-3, or a 3-4-3 depending on which way you look at it, with three forwards – the returning Aneke, Washington and Schwartz - all on the bench.

The formation did seem to confuse Burton and for the first 15 minutes we were well on top, sometimes operating with three down the left side. The game was only two minutes old when Purrington found Oshilaja on an overlap and his cross found Stockley, who headed powerfully but their keeper managed to turn it onto the bar and the ball was cleared. No matter as before 10 minutes Shinnie played in Matthews but the ball was nicked away for a corner. Shinnie swung that in and the movement was good enough to enable Stockley to this time power the header into the net.

We continued to dominate and after Jaiyesimi had made an awful attempt at a dive inside the box Millar showed him how to get the decision, drawing a free kick outside the area. Shinnie sent in a curling shot that beat their keeper all ends up only to hit the crossbar. A second goal at this point and the game may well have had a very different outcome. Instead progressively from that point on Burton came into it and reminded us that they put four past us in the previous game. A set-piece move from a corner – the ball played low outside the box - caught us napping only for their guy to shoot wide.

It was nevertheless still something of a surprise when Burton equalised, in the 25th minute. They had a throw on the left side, we had numbers, yet everyone seemed to stand still as it was thrown to their guy, who had all the space he needed to send in a hanging cross. Seemed Amos might have come for it but didn’t and from close range their guy headed in. Just criminal to concede like that as shares of the blame had to be taken by a number of players, including it seems Jaiyesimi who seemed to switch off.

The rest of the half was fairly even and rather more scrappy, with Burton perhaps working out how to cope with our formation. But in stoppage time came what would prove to be another turning point. We had a free kick in a fairly central position and it was squared to Matthews on the right, who sent in the cross. Stockley was there again but his header crashed against the bar and out (Oshilaja putting the rebound in the net but from an offside position). If that had gone in and we went into the break ahead … ifs, buts, didn’t happen.

We were unfortunate not to be ahead at half-time. But we can’t say we were unfortunate to lose the game for the way the second half played out. We nearly coughed up another goal as Matthews looked to play the ball forward but saw his pass intercepted, which led to a low cross which eluded one of their guys only for a second at the far post to see his effort blocked by his colleague by then lying on the ground. And not long after that escape we were behind. There seemed little danger as their guy brought it forward and opted for a speculative long-range shot. But it took a deflection off Watson and looped up over Amos and into the top corner. After that it was downhill all the way.

Bowyer made an immediate change, bringing on Aneke for Jaiyesimi, who had faded after a bright start, and we seemed to move Millar into a more central position behind the front two. On the hour we had what with hindsight was the closest we came to levelling things as a ball in was flicked on by Stockley and Purrington sent in a powerful shot which was very well saved by their keeper. That was the exception as by now too many passes were going astray and we were beginning to look desperate as not surprisingly Burton were working hard to keep their lead, even creating chances to extend it, with one of their efforts clipping the crossbar.

With around 20 minutes of normal time left Bowyer made a double-substitution, Maatson coming on for Purrington and Schwartz for Pearce. This meant a back four, Millar moved back wide left, Shinnie on the right, and curiously Aneke dropping deeper into the position behind the front two, having only been brought on to play as a second forward 15 minutes earlier.

The changes didn’t have the desired effect, to say the least. Schwartz I don’t think touched the ball, Aneke looked at sea in a deeper position, Millar and Maatsen were unable to create much on the left side, and our efforts to hit the ball longer only made us look desperate. With about five minutes left on the clock Smith came on for Watson but seemed to find it difficult to say on his feet. And it took two fine saves by Amos to deny Burton a third. In truth Burton saw the game out quite comfortably.

Sure we’ll go again on Saturday but you get the impression that this defeat will be hard to come back from. The manner of our second-half disintegration was disturbing, as was the fact that we were outfought by Burton and also outplayed as they did the simple things better than us. No point in drawing any conclusions about our season on a miserable evening, as they could hardly be positive.

Player Ratings:

Amos – 7/10. Have to see it again but thought he could have come for the cross for their first goal. Otherwise excellent.

Matthews – 6/10. Not a bad game but gave the ball away badly once which nearly cost us a goal and some smaller errors.

Pratley – 6/10. Asked to do a job again in defence and did that, even just about managed to avoid picking up a yellow.

Pearce – 6/10. Nothing bad but we did concede one headed in by a guy close to the goal line.

Oshilaja – 7/10. Plenty of effort and decent work going forward down the left.

Purrington – 7/10. Did nothing wrong and got into goalscoring positions, unlucky not to score in the second half.

Watson – 6/10. Made some important tackles but didn’t add much drive to the team when we needed some. Should be a leader on the pitch.

Shinnie – 6/10. Did some good things, almost scored from a free kick. But faded along with others in the second half when we lost our way.

Jaiyesimi – 5/10. Started well but faded, perhaps at fault for their first goal.

Millar – 5/10. Perhaps his least effective game for us. He’s been excellent but seemed off the pace tonight, body language wasn’t good. Is he another who needs a rest?

Stockley – 8/10. Scored with one header, saw one turned onto the bar, hit the bar with a third effort.


Aneke – 6/10. Not going to give a worse mark as I can’t see the logic of bringing him on as a second forward only to bring on a different second forward 15 minutes later and ask him to play in an unfamiliar position.

Maatsen – 5/10. Disappointing.

Schwartz – 4/10. Worse than disappointing. Sure he needs service and tonight that was lousy but I don’t think he touched the ball.

Smith – Not on long enough for a mark, leave it at that.


Saturday 20 February 2021

Lucky Point But Another Game Gone

With the setback against Gillingham, today you felt was all about the result, especially as the early pictures from Fleetwood underlined how strong the wind was up there and how difficult it would be to play any pretty stuff. We wanted a win and didn’t get it, we didn’t deserve a point but at least got one, and we suffered a game in which especially in the second half we were by a distance second-best. We tried substitutions, different formations, but were unable to secure good possession or retain the ball, underlined by a period of playing it out from the back which repeatedly ended in us coughing it up in a bad position. It looked like they wanted it more than us and made us look bad; all you can say in our defence is that Fleetwood are probably well versed in how to play these conditions while we failed to adapt.

We knew the team would show at least a couple of changes, given the unavailability of Forster-Caskey and Aneke, and in the event Bowyer opted for four. In front of Amos, two changes to the back four with Famewo making his long-awaited return, partnering Oshilaja, and Maatsen also back in and Gunter on the other side, with Pearce and Purrington dropping to the bench. A midfield four saw Smith brought in alongside Pratley, Shinnie and Millar, with the potential replacements being Watson, Morgan and Jaiyesimi, while Stockley was paired with Schwartz up front, the returning Washington on the bench. It looked like a basic 4-4-2, although the surprise when the game began was that Millar was operating on the right side, Shinnie on the left. Perhaps Bowyer had seen something in the Fleetwood line-up, but it meant we wouldn’t get the Maatsen-Millar partnership on the left that has promised so much.

An awful opening five minutes during which neither side could hold the ball ended with us taking the lead. Millar on the right intercepted, passed square to Maatsen and pertinently kept moving towards that side. Maatsen to Shinnie, on to Millar, back to Shinnie and a good ball curled behind their defenders for Stockley to run on to and head home. Good movement, good goal. It was as good as it got, we were unable to produce anything similar for the remaining 90 minutes, although we had no way of knowing this at the time.

It was soon apparent that in the first half we would be operating with the wind behind us, which brought both opportunity and problems. It was difficult to control the ball and play passes so the temptation was to go long, in the expectation that the wind would make it difficult for their defenders, but too many balls were overhit. We saw Amos take a free kick and it sailing through to their keeper, while during the second half we had a couple of occasions where we thought we might catch out their keeper with a shot from long range. At the other end Fleetwood’s five-man midfield increasingly caused us problems, especially their guy down their right against Maatsen and Shinnie. We saw balls played in behind Famewo for their forwards to run onto, with Fleetwood looking far more effective when they played the ball on the deck.

We did fashion a second opening after the half-hour when Stockley and Schwartz seemed to bundle the ball forward and Smith almost got on the end of it. But not long after that it was all square. Fleetwood played a one-two down their right to bypass Maatsen, Shinnie was unable to get back and the ball was played into the box, where their guy was more alert to the situation and slotted it home before any Charlton player could get to it.

At the break we really had no complaints over the scoreline, although the contest had been pretty even and we had led for most of the game to that point. It was a pretty dire spectacle, but we really wouldn’t care if we won and it remained to be seen if we could cope better playing into the wind rather than with it. For the record, we could not.

It wasn’t clear early in the second half if Millar had switched to the left, or was occupying a more central role. What was clear is that we came out with instructions to play the ball out from the back, which Fleetwood were alive to and pressed, resulting in us giving the ball away repeatedly in our final third. Thankfully before long we abandoned the option and settled for Amos hoofing the ball high into the wind and not making the half-way line.

Pratley was caught in possession and committed the foul, picking up a yellow, and it really didn’t look as though we knew how to get the ball forward. The result was on 55 minutes a triple substitution, with the anonymous Schwartz withdrawn for Washington, Smith – who had some good moments but struggled against their extra man in midfield – taken off for Morgan, and Pratley replaced with Watson, presumably with the yellow card in mind. The changes seemed to result in Millar playing as the point of a diamond, with Shinnie and Morgan either side of Watson, but it was hard to tell as we had so little possession.

It was around this time that Fleetwood began to reel off chance after chance. Never great chances, usually bringing routine saves from Amos or good blocks, but with us becoming frustrated at our inability to hold them back or play in their half. On the hour we made a further change with Purrington coming on for Maatsen, who doesn’t look like he has the enthusiasm he did when he first arrived. Fleetwood almost scored from a throw-in, with Amos saving well and Gunter hacking the rebound behind.

I did check after 75 minutes – before the commentators picked up on it – that at this point we had had three efforts on goal, one on target, to 21 for Fleetwood (8 on target).

Fleetwood then did themselves no credit with silly overreactions to a Stockley challenge. The ball had been lost by their guy and was loose. Stockley and another went for it and he was beaten to it, ended up fouling the guy. It looked poor but clearly there was no intent, unlike their guy who tried to kick Stockley in the face while he rolled around, while others piled in. Stockley was shown a yellow, which was fair enough, but the ref did well to do no more – and to book two of their guys for the silly overreaction (Oshilaja was also shown yellow).

As we went into the final 10 minutes the hope grew that somehow we’d nick an utterly undeserved winner, which would have been very funny. Why not? We did have a corner or two but the fluke didn’t come. Instead with five extra minutes and Millar taking a yellow for the team it was indicative that Amos was not exactly rushing when taking goal kicks. We knew really we were getting away with a point that we did not deserve.

The only thing we can do is move on, regard this game as a reflection of the conditions (and perhaps the absence of Forster-Caskey and Aneke), and look to the next game to get the long-awaited run going. We might even get the cliché of who knows how important that point might be at the end of the season? This was a game that gave no reason to believe that we can get into the mix, but we have another opportunity on Tuesday night to change the picture. There aren’t that many more.

Player Ratings:

Amos – 7/10. A number of routine saves, one good one with his legs, claimed some balls, came a long way for one.

Gunter – 6/10. Nothing wrong really but like everyone else struggled with the ball at his feet.

Oshilaja – 6/10. One or two iffy clearing headers but no serious mistakes, except when trying to play the ball out in the second half. Can’t really blame the defence for the game.

Famewo – 6/10. Of course we’re delighted to see him returning, not surprisingly a little rusty, some good work, once or twice they played it in behind him.

Maatsen – 5/10. I really hope we haven’t burnt him out. Just doesn’t seem to have the enthusiasm for the game that he had early in the season. Want to see him enjoying the game.

Millar – 7/10. Involved in just about all our good moments, the guy seemed to play wide right, in the hole, then wide left. Didn’t see enough of the ball but was once again our main hope.

Pratley – 6/10. Combative as ever, sort of game where his experience was a real plus, withdrawn because of the danger of another red.

Smith – 5/10. Tough game to judge him on, we were outnumbered in midfield in awful conditions.

Shinnie – 5/10. Problems in the first half came down our left side and like others he struggled to do anything with the ball when he had it.

Stockley – 8/10. Scored well, combative throughout, he I thought had a decent game despite playing off scraps.

Schwartz – 4/10. Perhaps he’s suffering from high expectations, perhaps trying too hard. But in our exchanges during the game we noted after 30 minutes he hadn’t touched the ball, his only contribution to the first half was a spat with the ref. We have to get more out of him.


Watson – 6/10. Replaced Pratley to reasonable effect.

Morgan – 5/10. Unable to have an impact on the game.

Washington – 5/10. Ditto.

Purrington – 6/10. Fair enough, did his job. 

Thursday 18 February 2021

Win Every Other Game For Play-Offs

I missed the Gillingham game, spending the time on what proved a fraught trip across France for an enforced return to the UK (I wasn’t thrown by a text from Eurostar advising me to get to the Gare du Nord terminal 180 minutes before departure despite booking with them a train from Lyon that was due to arrive on the other side of Paris only 120 minutes before the Eurostar left, but a train diversion and prospective 90 minute delay did throw a spanner in the works, pointing to an overnight stop in Paris, but in the end we were only an hour late and made it with a dash across town on the RER and some sympathetic treatment). So half-way through my self-isolation it’s time to get back to the things that matter.

Nobody comes away from losing at home to Gillingham thinking things are going well. Perhaps disrespectful to them, just a fact of life. While the defeat at the hands of Portsmouth might have been explained away by tough opposition we weren’t yet ready for, the win at Rochdale and the nature of it had raised hopes that we were getting our act together such that confidence in a storming final third of the season might bring a play-off spot with positive momentum behind us. Irrespective of the nature of Gillingham’s goals the fact that we lost, and let in three more, was a kick in the teeth. So be it, we go again on Saturday. But what do the numbers say about our chances of ending up in the top six?

With 43 points from 28 games we’ve averaged 1.536 points per game so far. (For the purposes here we have to gloss over the fact that our record includes that exceptional month of October - five wins and a draw out of six - without which we would be averaging 1.227 points per game.) Extend that over 46 games and you get just short of 71 points. The stats show that the average number of points for making sixth place and the play-offs in this division is 74.5; the lowest total ever was apparently 69. Currently Accrington Stanley are in sixth place and they seem a decent yardstick, with 45 points from 26 games, or an average of 1.731 points per game. That means they are currently on course to finish on 79.6 points, which if they were still in sixth would mean an unusually high points total required to make the play-offs.

So it’s reasonable I think to view the parameters as: get 70 points and if everything goes your way you just might squeeze in (but the chances of doing so this season look even lower than normal); get 75 points and you are unlucky if you miss out (but may well do this season); get 80 points and you are almost certainly in one of the places. (I’ll try and keep these numbers in mind as the season progresses.)

Everyone is aware we need to ‘go on a run’ and put current form – which since end-November has been horrible (played 15, won 4, drawn 5, lost 6) – behind us if we are to have a shout. To get to the bare minimum of 70 points we would need 27 points from 18 games (an average of 1.5 points per game), perhaps at least seven wins required. To get to 80 would require 37 points from 18 (2.1 per game), which would probably mean winning more than 10 of them.

Of course these figures and calculations will change/sharpen up with each round of games, but perhaps the bottom line is from now on we have to win at least every other game we play, starting Saturday.

Nobody’s suggesting that’s going to be easy, with seemingly two names chalked off: Aneke (suspended) and Forster-Caskey (injured). Aneke’s absence and the indication today that Washington will be available means Stockley and either Schwartz or Washington to start. No point in putting pressure on, but it is surely time for Schwartz to step up to the plate. I was pleased to see that on Saturday when Forster-Caskey was withdrawn Bowyer kept the same system and shape, with Shinnie moving inside. But there is a decision for Saturday, whether to keep to that (and have Morgan operating on the right side – unless Gilbey is to come back into the frame – and Jaiyesimi ready to come on) or to make deeper changes. You might even make a case for pairing Watson and Pratley in central midfield in a 4-4-2 with a ‘they shall not pass’ approach, or look at Smith featuring, perhaps him or Millar in the hole behind the front two.

Those are decisions for Bowyer to make. At least it is clear that Forster-Caskey won’t be playing and the team will have had the opportunity to prepare. It’s too soon to talk about games being ‘must win’ but this one comes close, to repair the damage from last Saturday. I’ll settle for a clean sheet and one off somebody’s backside.

Saturday 6 February 2021

What The Doctor Ordered

In the context of our situation and the season to date, that was just what the doctor ordered. A professional and disciplined display that left Rochdale increasingly frustrated, with good performances throughout the team. Most important, given not least their tendency at The Valley to score with every shot on goal, we were past the half-hour mark before Rochdale had a shot of any description and according to the stats we limited them to six in the whole game and just two on target. We bossed the game pretty much from start to finish. 

The team showed four changes from Portsmouth, including a rejigging of the defence. In front of Amos Pearce and Purrington came in, with Gunter moved to right-back and Oshilaja continuing, Maatsen presumably given a rest (he wasn’t on the bench). It looked like a flat midfield four, with Pratley and Forster-Caskey in the central spots and Millar and Shinnie wider, while Aneke started alongside Stockley, Schwartz dropping to the bench, where there was also new signing Jaiysesimi (as well as Watson, Smith, Matthews and Morgan).

The opening minutes were uneventful but in the first attack of note we took the lead. Millar put the ball into Aneke inside the area and he was able to hold it up, turn, then shoot low into the far corner. It was a simple goal, one that you are furious if you concede, but one that owed everything to Chucks’ strength and ability to hold off the challenge. Ultimately there was nothing they could do to stop him.

That sparked a period of dominance which effectively lasted to half-time. Not long after his goal Aneke almost gave a repeat performance, after a Stockley knock-down, only for the shot this time to be blocked, then in a lively spell Millar cut in from the left and saw his shot deflected up to hit the bar and behind for a corner, followed by Forster-Caskey having a fair shout for a penalty as he was bundled over by a defender challenging for the ball over from a corner. From another corner Stockley put in a good header, similar to his recent goal, only for their keeper to pull off an excellent save, but the ball stayed in play and sent back in, Pearce managed to head it goalwards, and Oshilaja turned it in from close range.

We might have got a third before the break. Aneke was again fed by Millar and cut in from the edge of the box, but his shot came back off the post. Then Millar, played in by Pratley, skipped past one and seemed to be taken down inside the box, but again nothing was given. Rochdale did finally manage an attempt on goal, the dangerous Baah shooting over, but also Shinnie drew a good save from their keeper.

At the break it had been not a perfect performance but a very effective one. Our front two had caused them problems through the half, Millar was a constant threat, Pratley and Forster-Caskey were tying up midfield, and the defence had coughed up nothing. The only concern was whether we could keep it going, whether Rochdale would put up a stiffer challenge in the second half, and related to that the lingering concern that we knew this was a team capable of scoring frequently and reversing deficits.

No changes at half-time and in general we remained in control, if perhaps playing a little more conservatively, enabling Rochdale to come a little more into the game. Inevitably it was Baah causing the problems, but whereas at The Valley we had put Smyth up against him, today we ensured that two or three (or more) got to him. He’d skip past the first but the cover was there, albeit with Gunter picking up a yellow for fouling him one time, which led to a fracas, evidence of Rochdale’s frustration (also apparent in two double-substitutions before long).

There was a scare as a Rochdale corner seemed to either hit the near post or bring a save out of Amos (or both), but that was very much the exception, we were doing a decent job of running down the clock while continuing to look capable of adding to the lead, albeit not from an Aneke free-kick. He won one in a decent position and seemed to usher everyone else away from it, only to curl the shot well over the bar.

With around 15 minutes left we made our first changes, with Matthews replacing Gunter (perhaps in part due to fear of a second yellow) and Jaiyesimi making his debut to replace Shinnie down the right side. And he made an immediate impression, putting in a couple of dangerous balls. Then we had the chance to really put the game to bed. Aneke found Millar in the box with only the keeper to beat. For once his touch let him down and their keeper was able to smother it.

Schwartz came on for Aneke with around five minutes of normal time left and as we moved into four minutes of stoppage time there was one moment of poor discipline on our part. We had a free-kick in a decent position but not surprisingly chose the corner-flag option. Only managed to hold it there briefly and were almost caught on the break, resulting in a free-kick for Rochdale on the edge of our own box. Where was Tony Watt when we needed him? It didn’t cost us. Morgan came on (for Forster-Caskey) for one of the shortest Charlton substitute appearances on record, less than a minute on the pitch. And that was it.

We badly needed a result, a stabilising one, and a performance to provide grounds for optimism. We got what we needed and nothing more could be asked. Rochdale were strangely flat compared with their display at The Valley, but that’s their problem – and reflected not least the fact that we gave them nothing.

Player Ratings:

Amos – 7/10. Very little to do, just don’t know if he made a crucial save from their corner or whether it came back off the post.

Gunter – 7/10. Sure he will have appreciated the break from playing centre-back. For the most part kept Baah quiet.

Pearce – 7/10. Good game, efficient and not caught out.

Oshilaja – 8/10. Excellent really, bandaged from the start, no poor free kicks given away.

Purrington – 7/10. Also a good game, helped ensure that Rochdale offered nothing down his flank.

Millar – 7/10. The guy really has given us a great deal more, not just from his goal threat but also his ability to judge when to go for it, when to play the percentage pass, and his reading of the game. Would have been a point higher if he hadn’t blotted his copybook by missing the excellent chance.

Pratley – 7/10. This was a performance that would have had Pratley-lovers purring. Annoyed them all through the game.

Forster-Caskey – 8/10. So much more effective when in control of midfield from a central position. Basically ran the show.

Shinnie – 7/10. Good performance, effective, might have had a goal, no reflection on him he was withdrawn.

Stockley – 7/10. Impressive all-round display, from knock-downs, lay-offs to a near repeat of his goal from a corner.

Aneke – 8/10. Showed that he can be impossible for defenders to deal with, took his goal very well, might have had more.


Matthews – 7/10. Played his part is a solid defensive display.

Jaiyesimi – 7/10. Good start, looked dangerous on the ball.

Schwartz – Not on the pitch long enough for a mark.

Morgan – What mark for a performance of less than a minute? Didn’t put a foot wrong I suppose.

Friday 5 February 2021

October Results Distort Picture

I’m sure we all found Tuesday night a sobering experience, even if with hindsight we were probably expecting too much too soon given the January changes. Instead of a new dawn, the start of a promotion drive, we saw familiar weaknesses and evidence that we are right now still some way short when set against a promotion contender, which felt like something of a reversal of the situation when we played them at their place at the end of October. After the game LB reportedly said “I do believe now I have a squad that can compete with those better sides ... if we don’t finish in the top six then I won’t be happy with that”. Fair enough, rightly or wrongly for us any season in this division which doesn’t end with promotion is at least in some respects a failure (which is not to say in any way we have a right to be at a higher level but that playing in the third tier will I hope never become an acceptable norm for us).

Let’s take a reality check. Played 26, won 11, drawn 7, lost 8, scored 39, conceded 35, currently eighth but with teams below having games in hand. OK, look at the table and you’d say still in touch – and over halfway through the season the table shouldn’t lie. But remember October. In that month we played 6, won 5, drew 1, lost 0, scored 8, conceded 0. Take out that one month’s results and our record would be played 20, won 6, drawn 6, lost 8, 24 points (or 1.2 points per game), scored 31 (respectable), conceded 35 (awful, 1.75 per game).

Sure it might not be fair to separate things out in such a fashion. No team keeps six consecutive clean sheets without some luck. Some may wish to discount all the games played before TS took the reins (it would make the numbers a little better). But if you take the period from the end of October until now you have a pretty unimpressive record of P17, W5, D6, L6   (F28, A30). If you feel truly masochistic try from the end of November: P13, W3, D5, L5 (F20, A23). We suspected at the end of October that sooner or later we would probably concede a goal; but even with the loss of two first-choice centre backs with no available replacements for a while we did not expect to go swiftly and consistently to letting in an average of almost two per game.

In short, we have spent most of the season to date struggling, before and after one exceptional month. October is at the moment looking like a short spell as a result of which we are in the play-offs picture rather than on the fringes of the relegation zone. We were then hard and determined, with something of a gameplan imposed by limited options: give nothing away, hope to nick one, let Bogle try to beat up/run down their centre-backs, bring on Chucks to score a winner. Either side of the month we’ve had a patched-up defence, players out of position, and no settled partnerships in key areas. It’s normal for teams around the top of a division at this stage of a season to be quite high on confidence, used to winning, usually with a settled squad and style of play. We can’t (yet) lay claim any of those attributes but we (the fans) still expect to win against teams which can.

There are for sure plenty of good reasons for this, most obviously the absentee defenders, plus what Gallen before Tuesday’s game agreed was something of a rush to sign players once we were able to, then having to juggle later on to keep within the salary cap (and now apparently juggling given the number of loan signings). That has worked against us achieving a kind of balance, resulting in players moving out of position (not defence here) so they can be accommodated.

The time for that is over, it’s time now time for us to begin a sustained improvement and show that we can not just mount a promotion challenge but can also get into the play-offs with momentum. We won’t find out too much tomorrow against Rochdale, but that’s where the run has to start. It would help if, unlike at The Valley, Rochdale don't score with every shot they have.

Tuesday 2 February 2021

Second-Best In Key Areas

With the transfer window closed and a little more time required for the late additions to start to make their mark, tonight we were really just focused on getting three points, with the lure of moving back up to fifth with a win (hoping for fourth on goal difference was perhaps a little unrealistic). We’d done a job on Portsmouth at their place with a determined, disciplined and gutsy performance, one which was built on denying them meaningful goalscoring opportunities. Tonight we went for something different and were far too open, made mistakes at the back, and failed to show the necessary precision in and around their box. Not exactly a recipe for victory. We weren’t that bad, just second-best in all areas of the pitch against a team which looked like it had improved from earlier in the season.

The team contained at least one surprise, with Millar named among the subs, presumably to give him a rest. After his own rest Maatsen returned, giving a defence of Matthews, Gunter, Oshilaja and Maatsen, with Famewo not yet ready to return to the squad. We had a midfield four, with Pratley and Forster-Caskey accompanied by Morgan and Shinnie, although that left it unclear whether we would have a flat midfield or a diamond – and if so who would be the point? Stockley and Schwartz started up front. The subs bench effectively saw Pearce and Purrington as back-ups for the defence, Watson, Smith (who would seem to have been given the nod over Gibley) and Millar for midfield, and with Washington not fit Aneke as the only alternative up front, so we wouldn’t be seeing both forwards changed during the game.

The midfield set-up according to the commentators was a diamond, with Morgan as the point, but exactly who was where wasn’t clear to me. It looked like Pratley as the base but with the other three quite fluid, which meant they often combined to look dangerous going forward but were too easily bypassed when we were out of possession. The result was a quite entertaining first half but one in which we gave up more good opportunities than we created and had no complaints about being behind at the break.

After a bad early foul on Gunter was punished with a yellow the first real moment came as a result of a horrible pass by Maatsen, which led to some desperate defending, while we came close as Stockley chested down a ball in for Morgan to run on to. His shot seemed to have the keeper beaten but clipped the bar. We were then undone again too easily, Portsmouth squandering the opening with a shot over of their own, followed by Oshilaja adjudged to have fouled their guy on the edge of the area, although the wall did its job and the shot and rebound were blocked.

Portsmouth had a second glorious chance to take the lead on the half-hour as the ball was allowed to run to Marquis in the area, only for Amos to pull off a blinding save. The next piece of action saw Pratley stretch to make a challenge and after the ref had given us a free kick for a foul on him seemed to have a change of mind as the free kick went the other way and Pratley was given a yellow. To be fair the replay did show him going in with studs up, which while harsh could have been interpreted as a red. Portsmouth did eventually open the scoring. A poor clearance from Gunter sent Marquis away and his shot was deflected for a corner. That was half-cleared with an Amos punch but when the ball was played in again from the right it fell nicely for their guy to hit one on the turn into the roof of the net.

There were other moments before the break but none that came to anything and at half-time, although we’d had our fair share of possession, we were behind in the game and on good chances. Stockley was causing them problems but Schwartz struggled again to make an impression, while the midfield structure seemed to be getting the best out of no-one: Forster-Caskey was less effective shunted out of a clearly central position, Shinnie also, while Morgan had good moments but didn’t suggest he was a natural to play behind the front two. Also the absence of a natural wide player on either flank worked against decent delivery into the front pair.

So no real surprise that two changes were made at the break. Another Pratley challenge just before half-time must have set the alarm bells ringing and he gave way for Watson in a straight swap, while Millar came on for Morgan to play for sure in the hole, at least to begin with.

Perhaps with a little encouragement from Bowyer during the interval we did look more effective, perhaps just moving the ball faster. Stockley found Millar, who was fouled, and from the ball in on what looked like a training ground routine - the first runners were ignored and a second pairing looked for – might well have produced a penalty as Watson appeared to be held back from getting on the end of it. Whether or not there was enough to merit one didn’t matter a minute or so later. A Forster-Caskey effort was blocked for a corner and when the ball was swung in Stockley proved strongest and headed in off the far post.

Now you thought we might even go on and win the game. But we were level only for a couple of minutes. There was even time for a fantastic save from Amos from their guy clear in the box before from a set-piece of their own Portsmouth went back in front in a not dissimilar fashion to our goal. And on the hour we went further behind, this time with something of a gift. A ball in saw Matthews head back into a dangerous area rather than away, Watson in an exposed position on the edge of our area tried a touch to turn the ball on, but that was read easily enough and the result was their guy in front of goal. He didn’t miss.

And quite frankly although there was another 30 minutes and eight minutes of stoppage time – after a nasty clash of heads and lengthy treatment for Oshilaja – that really was game over. Aneke came on for the ineffective Schwartz, later Smith replaced Shinnie, and Millar was switched to wide left and on a number of occasions looked as though he might single-handed get us back into the game. We became increasingly frustrated and desperate, if anything Portsmouth were more likely to add to their lead.

A disappointing night as we fell further behind in the effort to stay in touch with the top six, while looking disjointed against a Portsmouth team which was anything but. My impression was that the desire to give Millar a rest led to too much alteration of the midfield, with each of the component parts less effective than before. Insufficient protection of the defence compounded by far too many bad mistakes in dangerous areas. You do have to give some credit to Portsmouth, but the feeling was that with the changes made in January we came up against a decent and organised team before we were really ready. For me the only positive from tonight is that we can realistically expect to get better with Famewo and Inniss and the newcomers given time to gel. Only problem is that time and games are luxuries we really no longer have.  

Player Ratings:

Amos – 8/10. Pulled off a couple of blinding saves and had no chance with any of the goals.

Matthews – 5/10. Perhaps harsh but the header out which led to their third goal was one of the costly individual errors.

Gunter – 5/10. Thought he was rather bullied today and made some bad errors.

Oshilaja – 6/10. Some desperate interventions and decent work but also gave away a free kick in the D.

Maatsen – 6/10. Some very effective work but played an awful pass in the opening minute which could easily have led to a goal.

Pratley – 5/10. Almost had to be withdrawn at half-time to avoid him seeing red again.

Forster-Caskey – 6/10. Much less effective tonight than of late, I suspect because of the formation but also was misplacing passes.

Shinnie – 6/10. Also less assured and less effective than of late, we still lost something after he was subbed with 20 minutes or so left.

Morgan – 6/10. Did move around to good effect in the first half but lacked precision in the final third.

Stockley – 8/10. Thought he had a good game, always caused them problems, took his goal well and created openings for others.

Schwartz – 5/10. Sorry but the guy is struggling at the moment to have an impact on games. When one did fall for him in the box in the first half he missed the ball.


Watson – 5/10. Some decent work including good interceptions but has to take the share of the blame for their third, trying a deft touch in an exposed position.

Millar – 7/10. By the time he was on and playing wide left the game was gone, but showed what we had missed in the first half.

Aneke – 6/10. Will have to do more work with Stockley if they are to work as a pairing, did threaten but ultimately couldn’t get us back into the game.

Smith – 6/10. Not sure a 15-minute cameo in a losing cause did him any favours tonight, showed he has ability but not yet clear how he will fit with others in midfield.

Options Refined

The late addition of Jaiyesimi surely tilted the balance in favour of it having been a positive deadline day for us and window in general. If he hadn’t come in, given the apparent failure to land Kirk we would I think have been staring at a glaring lack of options on the right, given the earlier departure of Smyth and the exit of both Williams and Maddison, and a related over-reliance on Millar.

Think we have to tip our hats to those involved for being very fleet of foot over the past few days. They can’t have anticipated a new manager in at Cardiff targeting Williams, or Swindon sending Smith back to Arsenal; Maddison throwing his toys out of the pram was perhaps more predictable, but getting someone else to pick up the tab for him is a bonus. Even then presumably they began yesterday expecting to do a deal for Kirk and then having to change horses.

Looking at window overall, out of the door have gone Doughty, Smyth, Bogle, Williams, Maddison, and Wiredu. Doughty we have been forced to live without in any event and good luck to him (although seems he explained the choice of Stoke by saying that when he thought of Stoke he always thought of the Premiership; personally I always think of travelling there and back to watch a dire 0-0 draw played out in a gale); Wiredu also of course has best wishes for the future, until one day he comes up against us. Smyth going as I mentioned before I find a little disappointing (it may have been QPR’s decision but it was pretty clear Bowyer wasn’t begging them to let us keep him), but if it enabled us to rejig the loans numbers fair enough. Bogle moving on was perfectly understandable given those he was now below in the pecking order.

I suspect everyone a week ago would have been surprised to be told that both Williams and Maddison would leave. Neither has this season shown enough to demand that they are selected, both has been accused by Bowyer of pulling out of challenges. Williams will always be remembered for his contribution in the Play-Off final, one regret being that we never heard at The Valley a rendition of the Nicky Bailey song for him (‘... I want a ginger beard too’). Maddison everyone knew was a problem boy and at least in that respect he lived up to his reputation. You wanted him to come good as obviously he has ability, but Bowyer and his team weren’t able to get from him what they wanted and having him off the books, rather than sulking from the sidelines (or just disappearing), is clearly a bonus.

Set the departures against those who have joined - Schwartz, Millar, Stockley, Smith, Jaiyesimi – and I think all would agree we are net winners. To what extent depends for sure on how Schwartz and Stockley shape up (ie how many goals they score), we already very much like Millar and Jaiyesimi looks like a fit for what we needed.

Quite frankly with Millar and Jaiyesimi down the flanks, supported by Maatsen and (eventually) Gunter, and Schwartz, Stockley, Aneke and Washington in the front two slots, we look like we should be creating plenty of chances. It ought to be entertaining at least. In midfield you’d imagine that Watson and Pratley, plus Forster-Caskey and Shinnie, are in pole positions, with Gilbey, Morgan and now Smith providing alternatives.

So let’s go. No more player changes to consider, just the two central defenders to be back from injury and then everyone is currently available. 21 games left, 63 points still to play for, nobody setting the division on fire, promotion still the objective.