Another miserable game made worse by the fact that for the first 30 minutes or so we were in total control, creating chances and not allowing Bristol Rovers to get into the game. With hindsight it all started to go wrong when we scored as progressively we seemed to go back into a shell. Rovers were at least in the game towards the end of the first half, improved after the break with a change, made more, enabling Marquis to be on hand to take advantage of Inniss’ howlers, while we became progressively more disorganised and seemingly disheartened. For me, while for sure the mistakes changed the game, what really disappointed was our reaction to going behind. There were still 20+ minutes to go but there was no strong reaction, no fresh drive to turn the tables. We sank to defeat rather tamely.
It had all started so well. I liked the look of the team, with Hayes opting for a formation which looked like parts in their right place, helped for sure by the return from suspension of Stockley. With MacGillivray apparently unwell, Maynard-Brewer was between the sticks. In front of him, in a 4-3-3 which also doubled as a 4-4-2, Inniss and Lavelle in central defence with Sessignon and Clare either side. Dobson and Fraser, then Payne (finally) given the role of getting into the box in support of Stockley, with Rak-Sakyi and Blackett-Taylor in the wide positions (although unusually the former was on the left, the latter on the right). With Aneke joined on the bench by the returning Leaburn, we looked likely to create chances, but as was stressed on Charlton TV could we eradicate the mistakes at the back?
For the first 30 minutes worries about the defence just didn’t come into play. Rak-Sakyi was able to take advantage of the Rovers set-up (a back three or five) to find space, while Blackett-Taylor showed that as usual his pace was going to produce openings. And with Payne ready to support Stockley all looked well. Indeed, in the first few minutes we might have scored as two balls into the box were not far off being converted. Stockley’s shot from distance had their keeper worried and led to him colliding with the post, Payne shot wide from a Fraser cross. In the first 10 minutes the stats showed we had four shots, two on target (to zero on both fronts for Rovers). Another spate of chances came in the following 10, with a Rak-Sakyi shot caved by their keeper’s legs, then he saved again from Payne. However, from the resulting corner Inniss was able to get in a firm header and Stockley’s presence was enough to put off their defender on the line and it went in the far corner.
With hindsight that was as good as it got. In the final period of the first half Rovers were allowed into the game, had a couple of shots from distance (one palmed away by Maynard-Brewer, the other curled over), and we seemed to take our foot off the gas. At the break the stats still showed seven attempts on goal and four on target for us, against two and one. We had been by a distance the better team, but had just the one goal to show for it.
The second half began well enough. A CBT cross was met by Fraser in a good position but he completely missed his shot. But on the hour the disaster story started to unfold. Clare played a ball across the line to Inniss, who clearly didn’t welcome it. He took a touch, looked up to see what was on, and Marquis, who had been introduced to the fray five minutes earlier, came in from the side to take it off him, advanced, and curled it in beyond Maynard-Brewer.
All the good work of the first half now undone. But you thought OK, so be it, let’s get going again and win the game. Hayes reacted by introducing Aneke and Leaburn, for Stockley and Rak-Sakyi. With Leaburn seemingly in the centre alongside Aneke, we switched to a back three/five, with Clare making up the three and CBT and Payne operating as wing-backs. We almost went behind shortly after as a Rovers attack down their left led to a cross to the far post, where Marquis had only to put the ball into an empty net, which he failed to do. Just after Inniss almost scored again from a corner, but his hero to villain afternoon was to continue.
Inniss was given another pass and, seemingly intent not to dwell on the ball, he stroked it forward – and crucially kept moving forward, while Lavelle stayed rooted to the spot. When a Rovers player simply headed it back beyond Inniss, Marquis was through on goal. He scored again.
After that we did have moments, with a shot driven in blocked possibly with a hand and a CBT cross almost fell to Payne. Equally Rovers might easily have made it three. Further changes saw Morgan and Chin introduced for Blackett-Taylor and Sessegnon, which meant a switch to 4-4-2, while late on Kirk was introduced for Fraser. But in the final 10 minutes and five minutes of stoppage time we failed to create anything worthwhile, or look like scoring again.
What can usefully be said? Once again we showed that we can for periods of a game be pretty good, but also once again that if the opposition is patient and stays in the game we are likely to fall apart. More specifically, I think Hayes – or whoever comes next – needs to look at how we play when changes are made. In Rak-Sakyi and CBT we have potent weapons. But their replacements (Kirk, Jaiyesimi) are not like-for-like, so when/if the time comes to make changes the gameplan has to be revisited. If we switch to playing two up front, does it make sense to bring on two new at the same time? Fact is neither Aneke nor Leaburn had an impact on the game. For me, what was clear in the final 20 minutes or so was that Fraser and Payne were tired and we had lost control of midfield. I thought the situation was crying out, not for the first time, for Forster-Caskey to provide some control and direction, but he was not in the squad.
Equally, there’s no substitute for character and we came up short on that front. Sure confidence is low, we need a win from somewhere. For a while it looked like that would come yesterday. The fact that it didn’t, the nature of the goals which led to defeat, plus the apparent change of approach to become more cautious and negative once we'd taken the lead, rather than driving on to extend it, leave us all looking for answers. No reflection on Hayes, but perhaps the first issue is to get the new manager in and let him provide fresh ideas. Otherwise our drift is taking us into dangerous territory.