After having recently been put in our place by Bolton and Derby, taking on the league leaders, unbeaten for who knows how long, looked likely to be another chastening experience, especially with talk of illness within the squad. Set against this some were harping back to the Plymouth result, despite the special circumstances involved (it was one of those games), with the hope that a good crowd and atmosphere might help to bring out the best in us. It didn’t, we lost (a confused and spineless first-half display did give way to a better showing in the second, to no avail), and five wins out of seven has turned into three defeats in four, with two more tough ones coming up.
The illness reports and Holden’s mentioning of some injuries added an element of doubt as to how we would line up. And there were changes, to personnel and the formation. Inniss came back into the starting XI but Hector stayed, so we had a back three of the two plus Ness. That meant asking Clare and Blackett-Taylor to do their best impersonating wing-backs. Kilkenny came in for Morgan, alongside Dobson and Fraser, while Rak-Sakyi operated as a kind of second forward alongside a returning Leaburn, with Bonne back on the bench, alongside Aneke.
Presumably part of the thinking was to match up Sheff Wed’s formation. If the plan was to deny them space and keep it tight it didn’t work as by the break nobody could have complained if we were two or three down and it was game over. Blackett-Taylor did look a threat, with an improvement on his performance against Derby, but Rak-Sakyi was doubled up on whenever he got the ball, or sliced through. In the first half, as flagged elsewhere, we had no efforts on goal, let alone one on target, and aside from the CBT threat our only moment was when Leaburn was challenged clumsily from behind in the box facing away from goal. It would have been a soft penalty but there you are. Wednesday did cynically prevent anything from developing with a foul here and one there, but with the ref slow to take action to address this.
Wednesday simply passed the ball better than us, moved better without it, and as befits a team on their sort of run had confidence in what they were doing. But what drives me to distraction is for us to go out with three centre-backs and singularly fail to prevent clear goalscoring opportunities for players in space inside our box. In the first couple of minutes a cross from their right found one of the smallest guys on the pitch for a free header, which was deflected behind for a corner. From that corner Bannon had the time to weigh up a curler from outside the box, one which never quite came back in enough and clipped the outside of the post. And before 10 minutes were up we were behind. Ball played from right to left across our box then back again, up popped their guy in total isolation around the penalty spot to slot home. The replays indicated Dobson had been tracking him but saw danger with another unmarked, only for the guy he left to score.
That was by no means the end of it. After 20 minutes another pull back went to their guy open in our box, with Maynard-Brewer making the save. And in the final minutes of the half two more good opportunities for them went begging. The first was denied by an excellent recovery tackle from Ness, the second, the result of complete confusion in our back line, was saved by Maynard-Brewer.
At the break 56% possession for us and no shots. A fellow Addick asked if Garner was still in charge. Things had to improve and if Wednesday had scored a second, before or after the break, it might have got ugly. As it is, perhaps Wednesday eased off a little, perhaps their belated accumulation of yellow cards had an effect, and probably we realised we were at risk of embarrassment and raised the effort.
The catalyst for a change in mood was what turned out to be our best chance of the game. A ball out of their defence was well spotted by Clare, who intercepted then played an early ball into Leaburn around the edge of their area. He cut past one but just as he was about to shoot another challenge came in and seemed to put him off and he pulled the shot just wide of the post. At least it showed that we were not playing supermen. And for a period of time, as against Derby (before their second goal), we just might have got back on level terms.
On 56 minutes Aneke made his appearance, but for Kilkenny, not Leaburn, with us switching to a kind of front three despite the wing-backs. He put himself about and gave them something different to deal with. After 70 minutes CBT had a run, cut inside, and saw his shot turned around by their keeper, perhaps also the post. Shortly after a ball into Chuks saw him take an early shot. It was parried but into the path of either Leaburn or their defender. The latter got there first and cleared, to make things worse Leaburn went down and whether or not it was precautionary was substituted shortly after, Bonne taking his place.
Shortly after that we were in some disarray as Aneke stretched for a ball near the goalline and stayed down clutching his hamstring. We all feared the worse and he was indeed stretchered off. Payne came on, but any cohesive threat had now pretty much gone out of the window. We huffed and puffed in the final stages, ended the game with Inniss up front. And right at the death a cross from Blackett-Taylor was a couple of feet too high for Dobson to repeat his heroics against Ipswich.
14 games left to go, down to 12 in a week’s time. We’re nine points clear of the relegation zone while needing a stepladder to see the play-off spots. The players have each other, the manager, and the supporters to play for, can’t even say they are competing for contracts for next season as nobody has any idea who will own the club by then, whether Holden is retained, and just how we go about creating a competitive team/squad. In truth Wednesday yesterday reminded me of the job Sir Chris’ team did against them and United in short order when we blew away the division. They, like us then, are on their way up and can look at how Sunderland are coping in the Championship to give them encouragement. We have Portsmouth for company in bemoaning a season which has effectively passed us by.