Friday, 31 March 2023

Set The Bar High For Changes

Let’s face it, while we all have our opinions on how next season’s team/squad might look (and how we might want it to look), it is right now an almost completely blank page, even with the club’s recent extension of a few contracts (Maynard-Brewer, Blackett-Taylor, Chin, earlier Dobson). Until a takeover happens and new owners can give an indication of priorities and budgets, and after that Holden gives some insight into how he wants us to play (including the preferred formation), we are just engaging in idle speculation. But perhaps there are some conclusions to be drawn, including from Peter Storrie’s recent meeting with the Trust and the most recent Fans Forum.

You have to start with the basics, what are we hoping to achieve next season? Storrie said (Trust report) that “the priority has to be to get out of League One, with plans focussed on achieving at least a top six finish next season”. Pretty good, but I’d go a little further. The objective is promotion, anything else is another season of failure, including getting a play-off place but not going up. It is an important distinction I think, not least in framing who is retained and what is done in the transfer market. My own view is that for sure it’s a real plus to have so many products of our youth system in the first-team squad; but if I had to choose between a team of academy products which developed through next season but didn’t get us promoted and a bunch of seasoned old lags which did, I’d take the latter – as our club cannot thrive in this division and, with no disrespect intended to them (but plenty to Duchatelet), we are not Crewe.

Of course the two positions are extremes and not mutually exclusive. Perhaps a team based around our youth products will be good enough to get us promoted. But it sets the bar. When assembling the team which blew away the division, Sir Chris talked of going for players who could get us promoted and be capable of playing in the Championship. I’d suggest that is the base line for us now, that the only decision on a player is whether he meets those criteria, irrespective of where he comes from.

Next formation. And it matters. This season 4-3-3 has generally been the favoured option, for good reasons. We have no established forward partnership and more often than not we’ve been very short of options (initially Stockley with Aneke sometimes in reserve, more recently Leaburn with Bonne and Kanu available). With two exciting players in Blackett-Taylor and Rak-Sakyi, it made sense to choose a set-up which got the best out of them. This meant asking someone to play as effectively a lone striker, but the goals return from the set-up has been respectable, with them spread around (Rak-Sakyi still leads with 10, Leaburn on 9). For the record, I’d suggest the areas we’ve fallen down in have been goals from midfield (ie Fraser, Morgan, Payne), although the distinctions are blurred, and defenders from set pieces. 53 goals in 38 games isn’t great but it isn’t bad either (the top seven have all scored more but nobody below us has); at the other end conceding 50 is just too many to win promotion (nobody above us has conceded fewer). Over the season the statistics tell their own story: we’ve not been good enough going forward to blow teams away/outscore them or at the back to grind out results.

This does not mean we look to keep 4-3-3 as Plan A. Rak-Sakyi will presumably not be here next season, which leaves Blackett-Taylor and Campbell, with current loanees Jaiyesimi (whose miserable season is summed up with him being sidelined with a hamstring) and Kirk perhaps with us, perhaps not. The system suits CBT, possibly Campbell too, it does not suit others. So if we want it to continue to be Plan A we will need to bring in one or two players who will thrive with it. Otherwise, forget it. CBT and Campbell are perfectly capable as operating as outright wingers (but please not as wing-backs!).

The same for me applies to a back five/three with wing-backs. Currently we do not have any; of course we can and do ask some – Clare, Sessegnon, Egbo – to take on the role, but it isn’t natural for them (and although Chin’s contract has been extended you can’t pencil him in for the job, while Clayden has been let go). So before looking at whether we can create an effective central trio, if Holden wants to play that way we need to bring in some (at least one if it is felt that Egbo can do the job on one side). As for the central positions, I’ve been pleasantly surprised at Hector and Inniss being able to work well together. If both are retained, with Ness, then Thomas perhaps plus one or more of Elerewe, Mitchell and Barker (who will all need to push on next season) and it’s possible. But starting from scratch you can’t say right now we have the basis for a promotion-winning defence (whether as a back four or back three/five).

You can say the same for our forward options. We can’t tell whether Bonne will be given a new contract (his not getting off the bench of late suggests not but it’s up to Holden and what he sees), if Aneke will be available and fit (how many times have we asked that?), whether Leaburn will be sold, and whether Kanu develops sufficiently to be a regular option. All you can say is that in this area we’ve been light all season and will be next season as things stand. We won’t get promoted if we still are through next season. If you look to play two up front you normally need to be choosing from four, even if Holden favours a tight squad. Leaburn has come on leaps and bounds this season and of course we hope he continues to develop well; but he isn’t 20 yet and we need to have options for when he needs a rest and/or has a drop in form.

So who do we have that we know will still be here and can form the basis of a team to challenge for promotion? Maynard-Brewer. If Wollacott is happy to stay and be number two, that’s great; but it would be understandable if he chose not to and asked to go, in which case the club will presumably not stand in his way. Clare has demonstrated his worth through versatility. I hope he will still be around next season, but not used as a first-choice defender. I’d suggest the only defender we have on the books who would be considered nailed on is Ness. Of Inniss, Hector, Thomas, Egbo, Sessegnon (if he is available), Lavelle (if he returns), plus the younger players, you can make cases either way. Hector has impressed (we have been fortunate, given the Ness injury, that he didn’t take as long to get up to speed as was indicated when we brought him in) and Holden clearly likes him. Fine. If we start next season with Ness, Hector and Inniss available, plus one or two others, and get both full-back positions sorted (hopefully Egbo will be one), we might have the foundations for a better defence than this season.

In midfield we have Dobson and if you put him in this category Blackett-Taylor (while Campbell will for sure be in and around). Nobody else has made an irrefutable case for being considered central to next season’s push if we set the bar high. No doubt some of Fraser, Morgan, Payne, along with Henry, Kirk, Jaiyesimi and McGrandles will still be with us next season (safe to assume that Gilby won’t be back while Kilkenny would be a surprise). Personally I’d like to see Clare included in this group, even as our best option to cover for Dobson (while also being available as cover in defence). But I’d suggest we need to strengthen with some extra quality and for some to move on. For some it will presumably be for Holden to assess who is most likely to thrive in a better/more successful team.

So really we have Maynard-Brewer, Ness, Dobson, Blackett-Taylor and Leaburn as pretty much certs. Add Egbo, Hector, Inniss, possibly Sessegnon, plus Clare in the squad, along with Henry, Campbell and Kanu as at least being involved. Again, Holden has talked of wanting a tight squad, one which comes close to picking itself. That requires a spine and to achieve that we need two or three quality new signings, including a central midfielder and a forward. Oh, and new owners.

Sunday, 26 March 2023

Low-Key Affair Ends All Square

After the two recent mini-series - four against teams around the top (which we lost, one point), and three against teams around the bottom (which we won, taking seven points) – yesterday felt like the first game of the final phase of the season, during which the quality of opposition would be more varied – and for which you have in all honesty say we have precious little to play for. It would begin with a toughie, with Wycombe presumably desperate for the points, especially having failed last time out to take advantage of the slips by Derby and Bolton to close the gap on a play-off spot, but missing some key players. Perhaps it was all set up for a game which left nobody feeling elated, with a point apiece probably right in that neither side deserved to win but both could have done.

With Ness having joined Aneke and Blackett-Taylor in the ‘season effectively over due to injury’ camp, and Thomas off on international duty, we knew the team would be pretty much a case of going with what we have, with perhaps a little rotation around the edges. In the event Sessegnon came in for Thomas in an otherwise unchanged team, with Leaburn deemed fit enough to start. Harness replaced Wollacott as substitute keeper and Mitchell took the defensive cover spot, with Henry and Kilkenny for midfield and Bonne and Kanu up front. They needn’t have bothered as in the end unusually we made no substitutions.

The first 10 minutes were all Wycombe as we began tentatively and were very close to being behind in the first minute as a decent but fairly routine cross from their left eluded our defenders to fall nicely for their guy, only for him to plant the header just wide with Maynard-Brewer a spectator. But after that spell we progressively took control, finding space down both flanks, and took the lead. We had just fluffed a very good chance of our own as Campbell evaded his guy on the left and reached the byline inside the box. He pulled it back to an incoming Morgan, but he failed to control the ball or shoot first time and bundled the ball harmlessly wide. No matter, through luck or judgement Morgan was involved in the goal which followed. On the right side Rak-Sakyi fed it on to him. The first attempted cross was blocked but it rebounded to him. What followed was either a drilled, low cross to the far post or a midirected shot which would have gone for a throw-in. Either way Leaburn was around the back stick to turn it into the net.

The rest of the first half was reasonable enough, although on actual chances Wycombe probably shaded it, with some head tennis inside our box leading to an overhead kick which Maynard-Brewer saved and a free kick curled just over the bar, while we collected a couple of yellows (Clare and Hector). We continued to threaten from wide positions, but didn’t force their keeper into action.

At the break I felt that Wycombe had been pretty ordinary and there was general agreement that a second for us would probably be sufficient to take the points – but as Brownie was warning on CATV would probably be necessary, given that whatever the opposition clean sheets for us are hard to come by.

Instead of going out determined to score that second we seemed to adopt a more cautious approach. And for a long spell the game just drifted in a low-key fashion, niggling fouls breaking up play (with Leaburn on the end of some hefty challenges but managing to pick up a yellow for a reaction). Early on Rak-Sakyi got on the end of a Morgan long ball and was able to cut inside, only for his shot to be turned away. Similar moments were seen at the other end, with a Wycombe free kick finding a guy in space at the far post only for him to shoot over, while Inniss managed to get a block on a goalbound effort.

However, with around 10 minutes of normal time it was all-square. We thought we had got away with it as their guy turned in our box and his shot looked destined for inside the far post, only for Maynard-Brewer to stretch and get enough on it to turn it around for the corner. He needn’t have bothered as from that one their defender timed his run well and powered a header unchallenged into the net. From our point of view, Clare had been marking the guy and got completely turned around and left for dead, no other defender attacked the ball, Morgan was on the post but moved inside and ended up wafting his right leg vainly at the ball as it went past him. Shoddy defending.

Still as it proved almost 20 minutes left to play, but neither side was able to add to the score. After Morgan found Leaburn (who lasted the full game, despite a very poor late challenged from a guy with his feet off the ground), he set up Fraser, who should have done better from around the edge of the area than the curled effort over the bar. Shortly after, Leaburn made it first to a Rak-Sakyi cross only to glance the header just wide. But Wycombe had moments too, Maynard-Brewer saving again from a shot sent in from around the edge of the area.

If we want some positives we can now point to four games unbeaten, for what it’s worth, and having at least matched a promotion-chasing team, albeit a depleted one. We were ahead for most of the game and might well have won with a second to finish things off. For their part Wycombe might see it as a point won, given their missing players, perhaps one which will prove valuable as they are still only three points off a play-off place with eight to play.

So basically the game and the result altered nothing for either team. But there is a material issue going on as Holden tries to get clues for next season. He gave Kanu 45 minutes on his own up front against Cambridge and yesterday the focus was on Morgan. In his interview aired on CATV before the game he indicated that Holden had said he would be given a run of games, which seems like a double-edged sword: let’s see if a run in the side can lead to greater consistency, or if it doesn’t the implications for next season would seem clear. In the interview Morgan seemed to agree with the suggestion that knowing he would play a few might help him to relax and show his best. Personally I want to hear players welcoming pressure and delivering their best under pressure.

Sunday, 19 March 2023

Proverbial Game Of Two Halves

Could we really manage two in a row, ie sustained the improved performance and take three points again? The answers proved to be in part yes and no, and yes. We probably deserved the win overall for a first-half of good movement, pace, effort and control, reflected in the two-goal lead at the break. But the changes made at the break by both teams changed the game and we were under the cosh for most of the second, grateful for the final whistle. So there was a good deal in common with the Morecambe game except in that one when they scored to get back in it we had a better cushion and repaired the damage with a good goal to finish the game, yesterday we didn’t have those comforts.

So a welcome win, but before anyone goes off talking about improved performances, progress etc all that has happened of late is we had a mini-series of four games against teams gunning for promotion. We emerged with a draw and three defeats. Now we have had a mini-series of three against teams around the bottom. Two wins and a draw. It isn’t hard to draw the conclusions. Assessing progress is also rather pointless as who knows which of the players will still be with us for the next campaign? And while a lot is being made of the number of academy players now in the team/squad, that – while undoubtedly a positive – has to be set against the fact we will be spending another season at this level.

The team did highlight the bad news that Blackett-Taylor is out for 6-8 weeks, effectively the rest of the season along side Aneke. Rak-Sakyi took his place, with Campbell the other side of Leaburn. The midfield was unchanged, with Dobson accompanied by Morgan and Fraser, both starting ahead of Payne, while the defence was a case of last man standing. Thomas was asked to continue to fill in at left back, with Inniss and Hector in the centre, Clare on the right. Sessegnon was back for the bench, with Egbo taking a breather after his cameo at Morecambe, the only defensive replacement, Henry, Kilkenny and Payne the replacements for midfield, Bonne and Kanu the forward options. In January Holden was saying he wanted a smaller squad and, while not down to the bare bones, you struggle to think of anyone – aside from Penney, who seems decidedly out of favour – not included.

The first 10 minutes were pretty ordinary, although we were doing OK in terms of dictating the play and not giving Cambridge a look-in while probing down the flanks. And like on Tuesday night we took the lead before 20 minutes were up. A pass down the right side saw Rak-Sakyi spring the offside trap (or two yards offside but the linesman not watching, depending on your colours, the available replays were inconclusive). He took it to the edge of the box before squaring it perfectly for the inrushing Leaburn to convert from a couple of yards. Simple and effective. And also like Tuesday night, before 30 minutes were up we were two to the good. Leaburn was fouled (a common theme) on the right side. The free-kick was played in low and Rak-Sakyi made a telling contact to lift it beyond their keeper into the net. Good technique, pretty poor defending.

We might have added to the lead before the break against decidedly crestfallen opponents, but unlike Tuesday night we did not. They did have occasional moments when they looked threatening, with their main forward a handful and troubling Hector and Inniss; but Maynard-Brewer didn’t have a meaningful shot to save and the closest they came was in stoppage time when a low cross from their right came off Hector and went into the side-netting.

The CATV guys called it right at the break: get another and its game over, then experiment with some changes; concede a goal and it’s a different game. Unlike the Morecambe manager, Cambridge’s boss decided something had to change and made three substitutions at half-time, changing their formation. Disappointingly we also made one as Leaburn was withdrawn, apparently feeling his hamstring and after some rugged treatment. And perhaps surprisingly, with a full half to play and the task being to operate as a lone forward, the job was given to Kanu, not Bonne. Might have been a case of Holden wanting to find out more about Kanu, but if he did the message was operating on his own is at least at this stage of his career asking too much. The service to him was often poor, with the snap going out of our game as too many relaxed, but he was also caught offside too often and looked lost. Cambridge’s change of shape seemed to restrict our threat down both flanks and it all left us struggling to retain possession or do anything with it.

Although Clare threatened down the right, with a one-two with Rak-Sakyi ending with him shooting over from a tight angle, our play became sloppy for a while, not least as Clare struggled to contain his opposite number. A ball in from the left saw Hector almost put it into his own net and from the resulting corner a downward header drew an excellent save low to his left by Maynard-Brewer. Clearly encouraged by the turn of events, Cambridge continued to press and were finally rewarded with around twenty minutes to go. Clare slid in to stop an attack and from the resulting corner the ball was flicked on to the far post. We all stood still and watched while their guy was able to hook it beyond Maynard-Brewer into the net.

Holden responded by sending on Sessegnon (for Thomas) and Kilkenny (for Morgan), but the pattern of the game had changed and it was Cambridge creating the openings. A series of corners, danger as Clare was skinned and the resulting shot was blocked. Payne came on (for Campbell), another Cambridge corner and a header over the bar. But as perhaps Cambridge blew themselves out we did exert better control in the final 10 minutes, with Payne playing his part. And we might have avoided a nervy finish as Kanu appeared to be held down at the far post but no penalty was given. No matter, we negotiated the closing minutes reasonably well, with Bonne getting on in place of Rak-Sakyi, helped by Maynard-Brewer claiming a couple of high balls in the box.

The remaining nine fixtures are a more mixed bag, starting with a tough one at home to Wycombe, who after failing to close the gap on the top six will be desperate for the points. We sit 11th in the table and barring something remarkable that’s as good as it’s going to get, with seven points separating us from Shrewsbury. So we enjoy two wins in a row away from home and wait patiently for some developments off the field, something to really get us enthused about next season’s prospects.

Wednesday, 15 March 2023

Welcome Relief, Even A Team Goal To Celebrate

It may not matter a great deal (for us), but it’s been a while, so let’s not knock it. A win and four goals, even if against very soft opposition, can’t be bad; and after we’d been reminded by Sessegnon in midweek that it is possible to put the ball in the net, his screamer was in its way matched by our fourth, an excellent team effort rounded off in style by Fraser. The three points pretty much finish off any fears we might get dragged into a relegation scrap and, after Accrington Stanley had reminded us that we could struggle against teams around the bottom as well as the top, Morecambe showed frailties which serve as a reminder that teams in the basement are there for a reason.

It was something of a scratch side put together by Holden, with Ness and Sessegnon dropping out with injuries. That meant a questionable pairing of Hector and Inniss in the centre of defence while Thomas was asked to play right-back, with a welcome return on the bench for Egbo to provide what little defensive cover we had. In midfield Kilkenny was nowhere to be seen while Payne dropped to the bench, with Fraser returning after injury and Morgan getting a start. Up front Leaburn was flanked by Blackett-Taylor and on the right Campbell, who came in to give Rak-Sakyi a break, although he was fit enough to make the bench.

There wasn’t a great deal in the early exchanges, but before 20 minutes were up we had taken the lead and just four minutes after that doubled it, both goals coming from set pieces (with Inniss, Hector, Thomas and Leaburn we carried a threat from these which Morecambe were just physically unable to deal with all night). The first was a messy affair to begin with, as a low ball in was followed by a scuffed effort from outside the box. But Thomas managed to flick the ball goalwards and as their defence was moving out Leaburn was left in splendid isolation to take the ball on his chest, turn, and shoot on the volley powerfully enough to get past their keeper. No camera angles we saw could say whether or not he was offside, but the linesman’s flag stayed down and we were in front.

The second was perhaps more routine but just as calamitous from Morecambe’s perspective. A corner from the same side, this time to the far post, was met by Inniss. He headed it back and across goal to the far post, where CBT was moving in on it. The replays seem clear that it was their defender who got there first, thumping it into his own net. The smirk on Blackett-Taylor’s face as he was receiving the congratulations said it all.

Not surprisingly the goals knocked the stuffing out of Morecambe and we were able to play without pressure. Clare went on an outrageous run from our box to theirs, although at the finish he shot tamely when others were well placed. CBT set up Fraser, who curled the shot over the bar. And although the priority was to get to the break without letting them back in it, there was no great surprise when we added a third, curtesy again of some poor defending. Campbell found space on the right and was able to hold the ball up and consider his options. He dinked it to the far post and this time Blackett-Taylor undoubtedly got there first as his marker just stood and watched. The finish may have been a little scruffy but all he had to do was make meaningful contact.

In stoppage time Morecambe had perhaps their only really threatening moment of the half as after Hector put the ball behind for a corner it required a block by Clare to keep them out, then Maynard-Brewer failed to make contact on the follow-up cross, only for it to go behind in any event.

At the break there was (for once) good reason for quiet satisfaction on the part of the team and Holden, irrespective of the opposition’s problems. The only questions for the second half seemed to be could we still conspire to throw it away, could we turn it into a rout, and would there be the scope for a little experimentation and to give some a breather?

We did have a wobble. A poor 15 minutes began with Blackett-Taylor needing treatment and eventually being replaced by Rak-Sakyi, with Campbell switching to the left. And on the hour we conspired to gift Morecambe one back as their guy was allowed to run along the touchline, with inconclusive challenges and an attempted back-heel by Inniss failing to stop him. The space opened up and a ball inside was followed by another to a guy in space advancing on the right side. He was able to pick his spot.

That goal lifted them, got the crowd back in the game, and just for a little while an improbable comeback loomed. Another goal for them and it would have been game-on. As it was, we provided the perfect retort with about 20 minutes left as we fashioned our best team goal of the season. Good interchanging of passes helped to pull them around, Clare and Rak-Sakyi combined well on the right, the latter played a one-two with Fraser, and he converted well from inside the box. Crisp, progressive, and decisive. Not often those words have been used this season to describe our forward play.

That was truly game-over. Holden was able to make a triple change, with Bonne, Henry and Kanu on for Leaburn, Fraser and Dobson (who it seems had good reason for looking a little jaded against Accrington), then into the final 10 minutes and Egbo was able to make his return, for Thomas (who had started the game looking vulnerable, threatening a repeat of his unhappy experience being thrown back into the team in a makeshift back three at Oxford, picked up a yellow, but in the end coped well in an unfamiliar position). At the death Rak-Sakyi fluffed his shot from a good position having gone for goal rather than play in Kanu, but it mattered not a jot.

Now it’s off to Cambridge on Saturday, a rather easier trip for the team and the fans, to round off this little mini-series against teams around the bottom. They’ve lost four out of their last five (and won just once this year apparently) and are the division’s lowest scorers. Can we really manage two in a row?

Sunday, 12 March 2023

End Of Season One Game Closer

Two positives to take from yesterday’s game – three if we include Dean Holden signing his contract (in the wake of Maynard-Brewer extending his). First, a point at home against Accrington Stanley at least means the gap to the relegation zone is not narrowed; second, another round is ticked off, another step closer to the end of this bloody awful season. As for the game, either side could have nicked it, neither deserved to, we deserved to less than they did. That our point came curtesy of a stupendous strike from long range if anything only served to underline our inability to create and score in a more normal fashion. I suppose we should include as another positive the simple fact that we scored, after four previous blanks.

With the series of games against teams at the top over and Inniss seemingly unavailable (due to the effect of a dental operation), we switched back to a 4-3-3, with Blackett-Taylor returning and Leaburn given the central forward slot rather than Bonne, who was back on the bench, while no return for Fraser meant Kilkenny and Payne accompanying Dobson in midfield.

The opening spell boiled down to whether CBT’s ability to skin his opposite number would be translated into a goal or two for us. It didn’t, although Accrington almost obliged as a cross from him was headed by a defender against his own bar. Accrington looked workmanlike but limited. Nevertheless, they took the lead before the half-hour with a truly awful goal (from our perspective). Clare did well to keep the ball in play but emerging on our left side played a poor pass out of defence which was latched onto. A cross to the far post – where Clare was not to be found – still seemed to carry no danger, being too high for their guy to do much with. He managed to get enough on it for the ball to look back across goal. Inexplicably none of ours went to meet the ball, or their player standing and waiting for it to eventually come down. He was left to plant a header into the net, unchallenged and without having to jump for it, in a central position just a few yards from our goalline. Truly dire defending.

A sour mood could have turned decidedly ugly as Accrington came close to doubling their advantage, nobody managing to connect with a whipped cross from the right. We were getting increasingly frustrated, looking at a cacophony of boos at the break and surely some harsh words from Holden. Just to show how difficult it was becoming, when Sessegnon got the ball on the left and cut inside, some distance from goal, he appeared to shape to shoot. Like everyone else I thought for crying out loud don’t shoot from there, we aren’t (yet) that desperate. But he did. And as it left his boot we started to get interested. Their keeper, like the rest of us, was taken by surprise and reacted far too late to be able to influence the outcome. With a late bend inside it found the far top corner of the net. As pointed out by others, our two goal of the season contenders so far have been super strikes from full-backs.

The goal changed a great deal going into the break. Another game where you felt we could and should play better and that by kicking on we would take the points. Instead in a very mixed second half Accrington had more and better chances than us to win the game. That neither team converted one said a great deal about the quality on display. 

We were grateful for a double save from Maynard-Brewer, turning a shot aside then the follow-up effort over the bar, a goalline clearance from Dobson (whose performance perhaps summed up the game, a great interception and other good work, some wayward passes, and a yellow card which was followed by a couple of fouls which might have produced another), and their forward’s failure to convert a one-on-one, allowing Sessegnon to get back to block. For us Payne fizzed in a couple of set pieces which somehow eluded everyone, Kanu (on for Payne just after the hour, which with Morgan replacing Kilkenny at roughly the same time involved some rejigging) was unable to make much of a long ball which found him outside the box but with only the keeper between him and the goal, and before seven minutes of stoppage time were up a low cross from the left from Campbell (who had replaced a tired and injured Rak-Sakyi) which nobody could get a touch on.

Next up we travel to Morecambe then on Saturday the somewhat shorter trip to Cambridge. Morecambe haven’t won in their last four, Cambridge in at least their last five. But then neither have we.

Sunday, 5 March 2023

One Mini-Series Over, Another Begins

We didn’t learn anything new from this one – although probably some individual performances will have reinforced some already entrenched views. To the recent list of Bolton, Derby and Sheff Wed, teams in the top six which have looked a class apart, add Plymouth (the exceptions to the rule here being Barnsley, while with the help of the ref we did come away from Peterborough with a point). The game itself carried echoes of bits of these other games: the first half resembled that against Peterborough, in that we kept dangerous opponents pretty quiet in the first half but barely threatened ourselves; as against Derby we threatened for a while in the second half to get back on level terms only to concede a second to kill off the game; and as in our previous three games we failed to score, which is now a worrying trend (after all, it’s now only two goals in six games).

The team showed just one change from the Peterborough game in midweek, with Kilkenny coming in to replace Fraser, who had picked up a knock. The place on the bench was taken by Kanu, while Penney didn’t feature, with Thomas included as the defensive cover. As before, you could call it a 3-5-2 but in practise it was more of a 5-3-1-1 with Payne and Rak-Sakyi having freer roles rather than operating alongside Bonne up front. And while we appeared to be matching Plymouth’s formation, it was indicative that their left-sided wing-back, Mumba, spent most of the first half at least in our final third, putting Clare under considerable pressure.

Nevertheless, as against Peterborough in the first half we largely succeeded in containing an opposition attack with a pretty good track record. But that’s not to say that Plymouth’s probing and movement didn’t carry more threat, with Hardie giving an object lesson in how to play on the shoulder and get between and expose three centre-backs (just why we didn’t designate one of them to just stick to him like glue I don’t know). That we kept them out, with until the final minute of the half Maynard-Brewer not actually called on, was down to a number of last-ditch interceptions and blocks, with Inniss, Hector and Ness all contributing in that respect. By contrast, when we manoeuvred ourselves into decent positions there just wasn’t the same cohesion, too often the decisive ball to create a real opening was lacking, while Bonne struggled again to make a real contribution in and around the box.

The team-talk at the break came very close to a different tone as in stoppage time Plymouth really should have taken the lead. A contested ball in the middle of the park went their way and then a clever turn created some space. Hardie made the run and was picked out, leaving him through on Maynard-Brewer. His first effort was blocked but the rebound ran kindly for him. It appeared he was about to slot the ball into an empty net when out of nowhere Hector came flying in and managed to divert the effort wide for a corner. The replays showed Hardie had failed to keep the ball down, enabling a desperate lunge by Hector to get in the way. Hector did lead with his arm, and the ball hit it, but the arm was by his side. Had it not been the decision surely would have been a penalty and a red card. As it was I’ve no idea whether VAR would have deemed it to have been handball. The ref gave a corner, no more, and at this level that’s all that counts.

At the break against Peterborough we were worrying that they would probably raise their game and provide a sterner test. This time around we were thinking (at least I was) that the odds favoured Plymouth scoring sooner or later, question being whether we could nick one before they did (unlikely but always possible). Questions were answered before we were settled back in our seats as the kick-off went back to Ness, who took a little too long and allowed Hardie to get in a block. This rebound also went in his favour as it sailed over Inniss and allowed the forward to run onto it, getting there in time to dink it over an advancing Maynard-Brewer into the net.

For the next 20 minutes or so Plymouth came close to extending their lead, denied again by some desperate blocks. At the same time we were creating nothing of note and changes had to come. And they did, with Blackett-Taylor, Leaburn and Kanu all coming on, for Payne, Bonne and Hector, which meant a switch to 4-4-2. It was a case of throwing everything we had available at them, and for a while it looked like it just might work; at the least it gave Plymouth plenty to think about. Plymouth still looked dangerous going forward but we started to match them in terms of opportunities. Twice inside a few minutes we came close, with Ness not quite able to get on the end of a good ball into the box, then Kanu breaking with Leaburn in support, only for his cross-come-shot to be too strong for anyone to get on the end of and too wide of the far post.

In the final 10 minutes we still looked as though we could nick a point, with CBT always a threat. But just as we were gearing up for a grandstand finale we were caught cold. A break from our corner saw us stretched and we never really regained our balance as the low cross from the right found their one guy in the box and he had the time to place it inside the far post. Game most definitely over.

The only positive I’d take from the game is that it’s over, and with it the mini-series of games against opponents fighting for promotion. Now we look ahead to a few fighting for something else, avoiding the drop. Accrington at The Valley, a midweek game away at Morecambe, then away at Cambridge, three of the bottom five. This trio of games surely has to deliver a couple of wins, and some goals, if the mood is not to turn truly sour. We have to live with being seen off by better teams, with a mood of grim resignation, but if we are also beaten by teams around the bottom as a result of their greater determination that would be a different matter. And perish the thought, were we to lose to both Accrington and Morecambe that trap-door will look not yet entirely closed.

Holden will have to decide what he considers our best starting formation, against on paper lesser opposition, with the resources available. If we play a back 3/5 we don’t have natural wing-backs, either Blackett-Taylor has to be one of them or used as a sub while Rak-Sakyi is asked to play a different role; if we play the 4-3-3 we have only Campbell as an in-game replacement for CBT or RS; if it’s 4-4-2 we are choosing two forwards from just three available. Whichever path he takes surely we have to view these three upcoming games as the chance to end any lingering relegation threat and to turn the focus very much to next season.

On that front, good luck for sure for Scott Marshall, whether or not he joins up again with Garner at Colchester. Hopefully Holden’s contract will be sorted quickly and he will be given carte blanche to make his choice for a number two. I’d add something about the takeover getting clarified, but guess that is hoping for too much.

Friday, 3 March 2023

Time Running Out

Although the exchanges, legal threats, rumours etc continue, we are as much in the dark about the takeover/fresh investment situation than we were with the surprise announcement almost a month ago that Sandgaard had terminated the prospective deal with SE7. Information is sporadic and only forthcoming when someone or other wishes to make a point, using media outlets of their choice (ie supporters are not being treated as stakeholders). Anybody hoping for some inside info here will as usual be disappointed, but perhaps it’s worth underlining a few points, in the vain hope that someone takes them to heart.

The January transfer window is a dim, distant memory, we are not going up or down, so on the face of it there might appear to be no rush to get anything sorted out. Certainly if I was a potential investor (which thank the Lord I’m not sir) I would be inclined to take my time. What is the possible benefit of shelling out to cover operating losses for a period of time when you can really do nothing except plan? On the other hand, if I was Sandgaard I might be starting to think that the pressure to do a deal is only going to rise, in the interim I’m losing money, and the longer the process goes on the more likely it is I will end up having to compromise (on the amount and/or whatever stake I may be left with).

After all, last year season ticket renewals went out in April 2022. If nothing gets resolved before this time around, what chance a campaign to boycott renewals? Or just a decidedly poor response to the first applications sent out? If I was a possible buyer of the club I’d be reacting to any such news by trimming the offer price.

I think the plea is just get it done and dusted, quickly. Perhaps Sandgaard and others don’t fully appreciate just how bloody miserable being an Addick has become. Sure, these things go around, sure, this was always going to be a very tough season to get promoted, given the others involved. But we haven’t come close, face a fourth consecutive season in the third flight (I knew it was never before in my lifetime but seems it stretches a bit longer than that), in fact it will be the eighth out of the last nine for crying out loud! We might talk as if we ‘belong’ in the Premiership (‘if only we can sort things out …’) but many others not in it have a stronger claim and most others simply don’t care. We have gone from being a model club for overachievement to the most obvious underperformers in the Football League (just try to find a ‘bigger’ club below us).

To add insult to injury, Palace in the Premiership? Millwall possibly joining them? To say that would hurt is something of an understatement. In practical terms the chances of attracting new supporters are flying out of the window and right now the chances of The Valley being full and rocking next season are considerably less than those of a significant erosion in real attendances. We (and Sandgaard) have got a little lucky with Holden and his approach for good reason getting a positive response from the fans; without reason to believe in next season that will not last.

It simply has to change, quickly, if an increasingly poisonous atmosphere is not to develop. There have for sure been three distinct phases which could lay claim to being the worst for an Addick: the Selhurst Park years (which of course top the list but included four seasons in the top flight and a first Wembley appearance in my time, which helped sustain our hopes alive of getting back to The Valley), the Duchatelet years, and now. I don’t equate Sandgaard with Duchatelet (of course you can draw similarities if you try). Duchatelet had no interest in football and was ultimately trying to prove a point; he couldn’t handle it when he failed and when it was clear nobody loved him. Sandgaard has tried, but failed, it is obvious that the enjoyment and enthusiasm he had at the start has gone, with I’d imagine it highly unlikely to return.

Barring some Damascus moment (involving a plea to supporters to start anew accompanied by a realistic plan for next season), the last, decent thing Sandgaard can do for our club is to pass it on to good new owners. The acid tests on that front are their track record(s) and a credible plan and related investment to get us out of this bloody awful division next season. If they are amenable to him retaining a minority stake, that is their choice. But neither that, nor the asking price, will make any difference to us supporters, our interests relate to the success of our club on and off the pitch, and there will be no sympathy if the takeover process drags on because of what for us are just details.

Wednesday, 1 March 2023

Missed Opportunity But A Point's A Point

Even the most optimistic Addick was I suspect struggling to go into last night’s game with grounds for confidence. Peterborough, on the back of their thumping of Plymouth, still badly needed to win to close the gap on the top six, while we, following defeats recently against good teams (Sheff Wed, Derby, Bolton) and ordinary ones (Fleetwood), were left to ponder whether the team had it in them to compete when quite obviously there’s nothing left for us this season, while injuries from the weekend would probably limit options. But football doesn’t usually turn out as planned and Peterborough, after a poor showing in the first half, spent most of the second a man down (just how it wasn’t 10 against 10 only the ref knows). We should have been able to take advantage but couldn’t and it ended up as a stalemate between two teams short of the quality we have seen of late from those in the top six.

The team showed some changes but a retention of the 3-5-2 starting formation used against Sheff Wed. Sessegnon came in as one of the wing-backs, replacing Blackett-Taylor, while Payne was given a rare start ahead of both Morgan and Kilkenny, while the unavailability of Aneke and doubts about Leaburn’s fitness meant Bonne would start, with Rak-Sakyi sort of alongside him up front, although he and Payne seemed to alternate.

We did play pretty well in the first half, generally controlling the flow of the game, winning most of the individual battles, and restricting Peterborough to only a few dangerous moments. Bonne proved reasonably effective outside the box. But we carried little in the way of a goal threat. Early on Bonne had an opportunity inside the box but his shot on the turn went well over (a later shot from him went for a throw-on), later Ness got on the end of a corner but his header went over the bar. For them some good moments down the flanks and one good ball in from their left which was met by their guy towards the far post. His goalbound header forced a smart save from Maynard-Brewer. The only other incident of note was a challenge by Dobson facing his own goal, their guy tumbling to the ground. In real time I thought it was probably a penalty, albeit a soft one – and not surprisingly Peterborough boss Ferguson considered it nailed on. But the replays at the break seemed to indicate that the guy had lost his footing and was on his way down before any slight contact.

At the break Holden would have been reasonably pleased with the display. You doubted that Ferguson would feel the same way and the thought was surely Peterborough would shake off their lethargy and up the ante in the second half. You also felt that if they went ahead at any point we would struggle to get something out of the game. The first half had delivered one effort on target from the two teams combined. That said, with Leaburn and Blackett-Taylor on the bench there was always the chance that the second half would produce more in the way of attempts on goal.

Before the second half had really taken shape we had the main event of the night. This is how I saw it in real time. Rak-Sakyi took the ball forward in their half and seemed to be fouled by one, then another, and went to ground. A bit of a tussle on the ground with the second guy, then as he’s getting up Rak-Sakyi swings his left arm into their guy’s face. After the inevitable melee which followed it seemed clear we would be down to 10 men. When the ref flashed a red at their guy I thought ‘great, 10 against 10’. And with the benefit of replays that decision appears correct for their guy kicking out at Rak-Sakyi when both were on the ground. But when the ref then brandished a yellow for RS I just laughed. And watching the replays haven’t changed that. Ferguson talked of the decision being ‘just astonishing’ and there’s no disagreement there. Holden after the game talked of there not having been a punch and more an attempt to push the guy away, but that’s not a fair description.

We had been handed a clear advantage, now had around 40 minutes to make it count. In terms of possession and half-chances we did, but poor finishing and poor decisions in good positions meant we just didn’t stick the ball in the net – or indeed require their keeper to make more than routine saves. Peterborough still carried a threat, albeit now a sporadic one on the break. But the list of our chances included Sessegnon setting up Dobson to shoot well over the bar, then Fraser doing the same. Payne and Blackett-Taylor (who had by then replaced Hector to try to make the extra man tell, with us switching to a 4-4-2) then combined only for Payn’e shot to be diverted wide. An excellent swivel by Leaburn (who came on with Penney, Fraser and Sessegnon making way) found CBT but his shot after cutting inside was turned around by the keeper.

In truth, as the sum total of about 45 minutes (including six of stoppage time) with a man advantage, it didn’t amount to that much. Peterborough were conceding territory and possession but were never desperate and saw out the game reasonably comfortably. The final stats showed we had 10 attempts on goal in the second half (after five in the first) and just two on target (against zero). And to add to that we never threatened from set-pieces.

We would have taken a point before the game and the draw does prevent consecutive losses becoming four defeats in a row (after Plymouth on Saturday). We got away with Rak-Sakyi not getting a three-game ban (and his yellow card means he can’t be given a retrospective red), seem to have come through the game with no further injuries, and can go to Plymouth with nothing to lose. It ain’t what we want but them’s the breaks, until matters off the pitch can be clarified.

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