A week ago you could say that the Derby game was one that nobody could confidently predict the outcome of. Today we were sure be a stiff test at the least. The approach to any game may be to win it, but this was one where a point would have been taken in advance. After all, the two league games so far could easily have left us with no points – and easily six. We’d outplayed the opposition in two of the four halves – and vice versa. What seemed certain is that if we had a repeat of the first half against Derby we would most likely be beaten by the break. In the event we did have such a repeat, just that we were Derby this time around, dominating play, possession and chances – but not scoring. And like last Saturday we ended up paying the price for that as Sheff Wed got stronger as the game went on and scored. Like Derby we ended up looking very tired and unlikely to get back on level terms – and like Derby we can have no complaints about the result.
Team selection was always going to involve some issues. The defence might be picking itself at present, but if McGrandles was fully fit would he start, or would Dobson - who replaced him against Derby to good effect - get the nod in an away game against promotion candidates? For the front three would Aneke be available – and if so feature in the squad – and would incoming Rak-Sakyi also get a place? If they did, who would miss out? In the event, Dobson was retained to start, with McGrandles on the bench, and with no sign of Chucks or the new guy it was everything else as you were.
After an initial scare from a dangerous ball into our box we took over the game and dominated the first 10 minutes, to the extent that Wednesday were starting to look shell-shocked and clueless. Good passing and movement, just a question of the end-result. After 25 minutes Kirk won the ball on the left and ended up squaring it for Fraser in a good position on the edge of the box. But his shot was well over the bar. Shortly after Kirk found Sessegnon and his powerful drive was closer but also too high.
The real opportunity of the half came not long before the break. Morgan latched onto the ball, rode a challenge and brought it forward. The idea was good, to slide a pass in between their centre-backs for Blackett-Taylor to run on to, with a good chance he would outstrip them. The execution was, however, poor and it was easily covered, only for one of their guys to prod it back to an unsuspecting keeper, who palmed it away (raising the possibility of a back-pass free kick). That pushed it back into the path of CBT, who sent it goalward but without much conviction and one of their two guys was able to block.
By the break it was starting to look more even, but the stats were heavily in our favour, if that counts for anything. 56% possession, six shots, two on target, against one and none for Wednesday respectively. But you just knew they wouldn’t be as disjointed and ineffective in the second half.
We actually had a couple more decent opportunities to take the lead in an even start to the second half, both crafted by CBT. First time he went outside his marker only to pull the shot across goal just wide; second time he chose inside but the shot was comfortably saved. At the same time Wednesday were putting some dangerous balls into our box, while our passing around at the back offered another opportunity as a Clare ball back was left by Inniss for Wollacott only for their guy to nip in, only to lead to nothing.
Just before the hour Wednesday made a triple substitution. It smacked of desperation at the time, reflecting the state of play, but now appears to have turned the game as on a hot day as players tired it was their bench which made the difference. We responded by withdrawing Stockley for Leaburn – with Garner saying after the game that the former had not been well and was struggling – and Payne for Kirk.
There was another potential turning point not long after as Sessegnon played a long ball down our left for Payne to run on to, in a contest with their guy. Their guy fell over, handled in the area, only for the ref to take the easy way out and give him the free kick. Might have gone the other way. As it is that was probably our last opportunity to break the deadlock and possibly go on and win the game, at least get a share of the spoils.
With about 20 minutes left a tiring CBT was replaced by Jaiyesimi. But we were getting progressively pushed back and with less than 10 minutes of normal time remaining they got the goal. It was a good one to the extent that the ball played in from their right was just about perfect, clearing O’Connell but not making it as far as Inniss, instead dropping just right for the well-time run between the two by their guy, who headed home powerfully from close range.
That prompted further changes, with McGrandles and Clayden on for Fraser and Sessegnon. But the game was up. Indeed, Wednesday might easily have scored again as weary players made mistakes. We had nothing left to give by the end, despite the desperate act of sending Inniss up front.
What did we learn from the game? No doubt the good news was the way we played for perhaps an hour against tough opposition on a hot day. Plenty to build on. The other side of the coin is that we had a clear reminder that if we start with Kirk and Blackett-Taylor, two wingers neither of whom are natural goalscorers, we need more midfielders getting into the box to support the central striker. Leaburn has done well so far coming on to play on the right side, but asking him to cope single-handed against big centre-backs was another matter. We badly needed a fit Aneke to provide the power and physical presence when Stockley was below par, while the door would seem to be wide open for Rak-Sakyi to offer a greater goalscoring threat in a front three.
Given the fixtures, a win, a draw, and a defeat in the first three games is no disaster, for a team still finding its way under a new manager and system. Just that it is a setback in terms of points per game and a sobering reminder that we are a work in progress – and that not every week we will get the breaks.