Ben Garner said it was a ‘horrible’ performance and nobody’s going to challenge that, other than perhaps to argue it was worse than horrible. Seems that MK Dons set the template for how to beat us and Port Vale had done their homework: everyone behind the ball, challenge up the pitch so that we were focused on retaining possession rather than doing anything with it, and rely on capitalising on an error or two to nick a goal. They were under no obligation to make it open and pretty; and they surely didn’t. But none of that adds up to an excuse for a lame, spiritless showing, one which it was hard not to conclude was the result of us, collectively, simply not being up for it.
Curbs said after the game that he questioned whether anyone aside from debutant Maynard-Brewer came away with credit, although even here when they were showing his finest moments they amounted to picking the ball up and clearing it, he had no chance with the goal and no other shot (or cross I can remember) to deal with. But I’d add another as Sessegnon strived through the game to make something happen. For the rest, the returning Clare seemed in petulant mode, Inniss and Lavelle did most things OK but were culpable for the goal, Dobson and Fraser were less than precise with their passing and shadows of the enthusiastic pairing we’ve seen before, Blackett-Taylor as ever had the beating of his opposite number but couldn’t make it count before running out of steam, Rak-Sakyi was crowded out, Kirk you would have thought on the back of two excellently taken goals last time out would be up for it but failed to have any impact on the game, and Stockley was anonymous.
The subs had a modest impact in that Aneke had our best chance of the game, shooting over badly from the edge of the area having turned well, and Payne had one turned over in stoppage time (although it may have been too high in any event). The only other time I can remember us looking dangerous was when Rak-Sakyi managed to get clear on the right side but Aneke couldn’t get on the end of his ball across. Forster-Caskey, Campbell and Morgan also appeared, but all the changes made came when we were behind and chasing the game against opponents with something to hold onto.
That we were behind was another sorry tale. After a first half as unmemorable as any I can think of, with no efforts on target from either side, they scored as one forward made mugs out of three. A long ball out was contested by Dobson and he was pushed out of the way. It was a sneaky foul but a foul nonetheless. Reminded me of the one Washington got away with against Rotherham last season. Then their guy ran with the ball across the face of the goal as both Inniss and Lavelle seemed off-balance and failed to get near him, then hit it back in the opposite direction into the net. Far too soft.
There’s nothing else from the game worth dwelling on. Give Port Vale some credit for having an effective plan and sticking to it, then just ponder on whether anything could have been done to alter the outcome. Clearly there’s nothing in terms of personnel, just about everyone available was in the match-day squad. Perhaps just a few things that might have been done. First, make changes earlier. It wasn’t working and there was no reason to expect on the day that it would. Second, is there a particular reason why Garner won’t try bringing on Aneke to play alongside Stockley rather than replace him? Yesterday it might have given Port Vale something to think about. Third, with Kirk not in the game I would have thought trying Payne in that role might have brought more joy. Again, couldn’t have turned out any worse.
My only other thought was something hinted at in the CATV post-match discussion. If you complain about lack of movement when we have the ball in our own half, imagine you are a forward playing for us. When the next period of play is all about keeping possession what’s the point of making runs? There has to be purpose in playing out from the back – and that is playing out, not sideways and back, unless drawing out the opposition – and Port Vale were not going to be drawn out.
What is more worrying is that the performance indicated a collective lack of ambition. We didn’t show enough courage, character or determination to merit taking the points. Exactly why that is I’ve no idea – but I don’t think some of Garner’s post-match comments are in any way helpful. He is reported in the South London Press as saying: “I’ll be looking to make changes moving forward. We have to turn this squad over. We need to get better players in. We have to strengthen. We have to invest. You can see at the moment, across this part of the season, we’re not competitive enough in this division.” Just how does he expect players to be motivated to perform when he says something like that? I don’t care that he didn’t get to spend what he wanted to, that he wants to strengthen the squad (we all want that). To say ‘we’re not competitive enough in this division’ is lamentable, tantamount to ‘it’s not my fault’. We have shown that on our day we are competitive in this division, with what we have – but not consistently and often enough. Just why that is and what to do about it should be Garner’s focus I’d suggest.