Sunday 30 April 2023

Almost Over

And so we are a material step closer to the end. Last home game completed (and with this my only actual game at The Valley this season), club shop emptied of end-of-the-range stock (come on, I couldn’t resist a Charlton Xmas jumper at £3, would have bought more if I could have carried them to France), opportunity for pre- and post-match drinks with fellow Addicks (including some of the International Addicks), and with the three points secured the options for our final placing much reduced. We will now end up either 10th, 11th or 12th, depending on which of us, Lincoln or Shrewsbury (who meet in the final round of fixtures) can put aside the beach towels for one more effort.

The game itself, despite five goals, never got above interesting, with the fans acknowledging the circumstances – although of course for Port Vale the afternoon ended happily for their decent turnout with MK Dons’ failure to hold onto a three-goal advantage securing their place in the division for next season irrespective of the result. We will of course be joining  them in that regard, although this has been clear to us for a long time (basically once the threat of relegation had been seen off).

What were the points of note? Our first was marked by this conversation with another Addick as the move developed. We were discussing the isolation of the lone forward and what he – and those around him – could do to minimise this. As we worked the ball down the right I commented to him that this is where Campbell has to get into the box and close to Leaburn. “He’s getting there but he’s not going to score” was the reply. Well, he did. And with Rak-Sakyi forging another one of his own doing, winning a tussle for the ball with their defender then moving across the box before shooting home, followed by Leaburn notching our third, it meant that all the front three had scored.

The game might have had a different outcome had the ref not mystifyingly decided not to give Hector a second yellow shortly before half-time. He had seen a first for his part in a bit of handbags with one of theirs, then blatantly pulled back another who had gone past him. Morgan was yellow carded in the second half for a much less obvious one in a less dangerous situation. Perhaps the ref just felt generous in the circumstances. The gesture was reciprocated as Hector went over to shake his hand when substituted in the second half.

The end of the game was followed by a ‘lap of appreciation’, which was remarkable for Holden taking the opportunity to address the fans and talk of delivering next season a team we could be proud of. The message surely can’t have gone unnoticed by the players actually walking around the pitch. A number of course simply return to their clubs (some, such as Bonne and Penney, may have already done so, not being called on). But others will be waiting to find out if there will be a contract offer, bearing in mind also those who will return to us still under contract.

Otherwise the only actually disappointing note of the afternoon was that there was no concrete news on the takeover front. There was the possibility of those involved waiting for the final game to make the announcement and introduce themselves, whether or not with guitar in hand, but nothing happened. We continue to ‘watch this space’.

Sunday 23 April 2023

Back To Below-Par And Beaten

As the season limps to its undramatic conclusion, it was the turn of another team scrambling for points at the foot of the table to come to The Valley. While for us the midweek win at MK Dons had eased just a little of the pain of the Ipswich drubbing, Morecambe arrived on the back of a win over Wycombe, and before that a creditable (if reportedly resolute – ie backs to the wall) 0-0 at Portsmouth, results which had given them renewed hope of avoiding the drop. It didn’t promise to be an especially entertaining afternoon. Rather surprisingly it delivered goals in a curiously unbalanced game. Having put in another lame first 45 minutes, we remarkably went into the break on level terms; then despite a better second-half showing we conceded twice more and lost the game.

The team showed some minor surprises, in that Fraser was given a rest, dropping to the bench, replaced by Henry, while Campbell returns from injury but also only as a sub, Payne keeping his place in the front three having scored the winner at MK Dons. And despite having seemingly paid for his social media faux pas by being left out of the midweek squad, there was no return for Bonne; neither did Kilkenny make the squad, having been a sub in midweek. Kanu supplied the only forward option from the bench, Campbell the only wide option.

Holden after the game, clearly angered by what he had seen, said “we didn’t turn up first half”. No disagreement there. Although Payne looked quite lively, Rak-Sakyi was well marshalled and appeared jaded, Leaburn was static and ineffective while seeming out of sorts (summed up by a silly shove on one of their guys to get a yellow), while Henry disappointed, more for a number of misplaced passes than his hand in their opener. He was not the only one. Once more we lapsed into a slow tempo with little or no movement, creating precious little.

We were behind inside the first 10 minutes as from our throw-in just inside our own half Henry had a poor touch and Stockton saw the opportunity. He really had nothing else on as he collected the ball but saw Maynard-Brewer off his line and hit a screamer beyond him into the top corner. As others said, it was a harsh penalty for what was a routine – and in the context of the first half an unexceptional – mistake by Henry. Indeed, shortly before the interval Dobson and Hector managed to upset each other with a badly placed pass, then Dobson’s ball back was easily intercepted. The resulting cross to the far post found Stockton on his own, but fortunately Maynard-Brewer closed down the space quickly and he lifted the ball over the bar.

Morecambe were to rue that miss as somehow we levelled it up (we did have the ball in the net around the half-hour when the ref blew for a foul for us, not waiting for an advantage; Payne went on to shoot home but to be fair everyone else had stopped with the whistle). Sessegnon received the ball inside the box and laid it out to Payne on the left. For once we had numbers in the box and his ball across was bundled in by Rak-Sakyi, who had done well to stay ahead of his marker.

At the break nobody was in any doubt that we were very fortunate to be level rather than 0-2 down. But despite their efforts Morecambe are in the relegation zone for a reason and the feeling was that with a few choice words in the dressing room we could come out and take the game by the scruff of the neck. We’d been given a lifeline, we needed to exploit it.

We did indeed up the tempo and had the better of the first 10 minutes of the second half. Leaburn headed over from a corner – or rather the ball hit Leaburn’s head with him still on the ground after their guy missed a clearing header – and a good run by Morgan down the left ended with his dangerous ball into the box not converted. A free kick in a decent position was hit into the wall by Henry.

Then rather out of the blue Morecambe regained the lead. We were not given a free kick around the centre-circle and failed to regroup. From the right side their guy slid a ball into the box along the ground. Almost in slow motion you saw the danger emerge as it bisected Hector and Maynard-Brewer. The former let it go behind him and it just didn’t reach the latter as Stockton showed a striker’s instinct to read the situation and get a decisive touch.

Our first changes came on the hour as Campbell and Fraser came on for Payne and Henry. Both were to have an impact, but before they could we had gone further behind. Nobody closed down Stockton on their left around our box and he was able to put in a curling shot. It was decently saved by Maynard-Brewer but palmed out into a dangerous area. Two in a red shirt stood and watched as their guy anticipated a possible opening, leaving him to tap into an empty net.

That prompted a further change and a switch in formation as Kanu replaced Sessegnon, to give us two up front. And we then had a couple of decent shouts for a penalty as first a long ball reached Kanu in their box. He was having his shirt pulled and was unable to bring the ball down, the ref was a long way away and his assistant didn’t flag. Seen them given. Then Campbell worked his way to the by-line and laid the ball off, only to get clipped. The ref decided presumably he no longer had the ball or the contact was not a foul. I thought it was but it wasn’t a stone-cold one. Nevertheless, with 12 minutes left on the clock we did narrow the gap. Good work down the right saw the ball played in for Fraser to control and shoot home.

That not surprisingly shook Morecambe as they saw the risk of at least two precious (for them) points being dropped. And we might have nabbed an equaliser, with a couple of crosses finding a number of red shirts competing for the ball but nobody able to apply a decisive finish. Morecambe were able to run down the clock and see out six minutes of stoppage time with no further serious scares.

So rather than the MK Dons win drawing a line under the Ipswich humiliation it now seems like a blip between two poor defeats. Two games left and the stark reality is that we can at best make tenth (we have known that for a while), while conceivably we could end up 17th. Holden will no doubt want a response next Saturday when Port Vale come to town – accompanied by my good self, with a weekend visit to London enabling me to take in what is likely to be a muted end-of-season affair – but we’ve surely gone past the stage when he is looking to find out about players for next season. It isn’t fair on them to be assessed when too many are underperforming and look jaded. Let’s get this season over with, then leave it to Holden to determine just who he wants from what he has, what will return from loan spells, and what is brought in, with long-awaited clarity on the ownership front.

Wednesday 19 April 2023

Poorer Opposition, Better Result

When you’ve been thumped 6-0 the game before you want to put something on the board less unpalatable and some distance from the previous game. We did just about manage that, against poor opposition (but a team which had been unbeaten in a while, had posted some decent results of late, and still needed points to end relegation fears), on the back of a much improved second-half performance (which followed a cautious, low-key – OK dull - first-half, with most entertainment provided by a series of weird decisions by the ref). Indeed, for a period of time after we took the lead we could well have put the game to bed as MK Dons’ heads dropped, before several changes and them throwing caution to the wind meant some desperate defending at the last to hold onto the points.

The team showed a couple of enforced changes, plus a couple more for different reasons. With Inniss suspended and Campbell apparently picking up a niggle. Holden’s choice was to stick with the formation, bringing Thomas into the centre alongside Hector, helped by the return of Clare at right-back, with Sessegnon replacing Egbo on the left side. Midfield was unchanged while Payne, available again after his suspension, came in to play on the left, Rak-Sakyi on the right, while Leaburn returned in place of Bonne, whose post-Ipswich social media actions saw him excluded from the squad.

Family commitments meant I actually missed the first 20 minutes. But from the sound of it, and from what followed until the break, I didn’t miss much. Perhaps it was understandable that after Saturday and with a reshaped back four we focused on keeping things tight, seldom venturing forward in numbers, while MK Dons buzzed around but generally to little effect. What was missing included any sense of high tempo or precision in passing. We had no attempts on target in the first half (and just two in total) and the only moment of note I can recall was on the half-hour Clare and Morgan combining down the right and Morgan’s cross finding Fraser in a good spot but unable to bring the ball down or make decisive contact. That we made it to half-time all square was then down to Maynard-Brewer, who managed to get a touch on a powerful drive from the edge of the box from Leko (who we remember well and who apparently signed for MK Dons in the January window) to deflect the ball onto the post and behind.

And early in the second half we were again indebted to Maynard-Brewer, although this time his save was fairly routine. Some comical defending on our right side allowed their guy to dance down the wing and put in a decent cross, which found another in space inside the box. The volley was turned aside for another corner (and MK Dons did have plenty of them).

Increasingly you felt that one goal would probably win it and early in the second half that did not look like us. But rather out of the blue, before the hour mark, Sessegnon cut inside and unleashed a powerful, swerving drive. Not as dramatic as his recent goal, but enough to unsettle their keeper and seemingly give us a reminder that we were allowed to attempt to score and that we were not up against a team like Ipswich. Shortly after Leaburn, who had been generally out of the game, managed to wriggle through to get off a shot palmed away for a corner. And from that we did take the lead, the ball played back then forward to Rak-Sakyi, who laid off a good pass into the path of Payne in space inside the box. He was able to curl it around their keeper and into the net.

For the next 20 minutes or so it was really all us, aside from a Leko run which Dobson ended at the cost of another yellow card. Morgan found Rak-Sakyi at the near post but his flick went just wide, a low Payne cross didn’t get converted, then Sessegnon had another shot blocked. But as we seemed to tire and MK Dons made changes to chase the game, the tide turned towards the end. Egbo came on for Clare with about 15 minutes left, then after a remarkable Dobson run forward led to Rak-Sakyi curling a shot wide Kane and Kilkenney replaced Rak-Sakyi and Fraser, later Mitchell for Sessegnon. In the final minutes, including seven of stoppage time (perhaps the ref added time for his strange decisions), there was some desperate last-ditch defending and shots blocked, but nobody got through to test Maynard-Brewer again and the points were finally ours.

The win of course doesn’t compensate for Saturday, but it was the best we could expect and at least sees us back into 10th, albeit with Lincoln and Shrewsbury having a game in hand. Three to go, all against shall we say uninspiring opposition (Morecambe next up will presumably be desperate for the points but Port Vale and Cheltenham should both be on their holidays by the time we play them). I don’t think we’re really finding out anything more about the players now. With Ness, Inniss, Aneke and Blackett-Taylor all unavailable, Rak-Sakyi and other loan players set to depart (whether any return remains to be seen), and very little available in reserve (just where is Penney?), we hope I think for a dignified end to the season – and more important some news on the ownership front to give us some grounds for optimism over next season.

Sunday 16 April 2023

Exposed And Humiliated

If the thoughts ahead of last Saturday’s game were that anything less than a win would be disappointing, this time around I’m sure I was not alone in being pleased if we could avoid defeat, perhaps just avoid a nasty defeat. We knew Ipswich were desperate for the points, probably still smarting from the two they dropped in the dramatic stoppage time at The Valley, and remembered the dismantling of JJ’s team last time out at Portman Road almost exactly a year ago. But hey, this is football, everything is possible.

In the event, what Holden had flagged as a “fantastic challenge for us” became an embarrassing rout. From the first minute to the last we were torn to shreds, exposed as a team neither capable of competing with the best in the league (and yes, Ipswich were excellent, full of verve and attacking threat) nor prepared to tailor its approach to try to neuter the opposition, even to engage in damage-limitation. When you lose 6-0 there’s normally a goal or two you can pin on the keeper, perhaps a worldie or two from distance. Not the case here.

Whether the bulk of the blame lies with the defence or midfield is a bit chicken and egg. With good passing and movement Ipswich poured through our midfield, asking questions of our defenders, who invariably came up with the wrong answers, epitomised by Hector, who committed himself to stopping the ball across the box and couldn’t make it, then charged forward to their guy with the ball only to have it chipped over him to leave the scorer of the first in the clear again. That’s not to say Inniss didn’t have a dire game too, as for the first time since they were paired together a team fully exploited their weaknesses. And Inniss’ afternoon was summed up by his late dismissal, an almost indecisive challenge from the wrong side which left the ref with no option. His lengthy ban means his season is over.

Neither should the midfield escape blame. Morgan was a virtual bystander as the game went on around him, Fraser was involved in our best moments going forward but was frequently left trailing in the wake of their guys as they headed towards our box. Dobson tried manfully to cover, but was swamped and like Hector ended up making poor decisions. At the other end, while the service to them was poor, Campbell and Rak-Sakyi were sat on by their opposite numbers, usually doubled up on and dispossessed – the notable exception being when the latter beat his man with a deft control and might have won a penalty – which all left Bonne, then Leaburn after him, isolated. Bonne’s one chance was a good one, a delightful cross from the left by Fraser met with a decent header but one not powerful enough or directed far enough away to beat their keeper.

None of this explains why we were so nervous and hesitant from the start. Ipswich won three corners in the first minute and were two up before the 15th minute. It was as if we wanted to play a slow, deliberate game, to perhaps grow into it, and were taken by surprise by a team which wasn’t going to put up with that. Then we were incapable of reacting, either immediately or when we had the chance to regroup at half-time, being still only 2-0 down. As against Bristol Rovers we ended up persevering with something not working for too long, switching to a back 3/5 after their third goal had ended any lingering doubts about the outcome. That is perhaps understandable, given the absence of alternatives available to Holden (there was no like-for-like from the bench for either wide man). But if the switch in formation after their third was an exercise in damage-limitation, that didn’t exactly work either.

Four games to go, starting with MK Dons on Tuesday. They have been grinding out results of late to try to beat the drop (draws against Derby, Portsmouth and Wycombe, plus a win over Morecambe) and will be angry at having dropped two points yesterday, conceding a very late stoppage-time equaliser. With Inniss unavailable presumably either Thomas moves inside and leaves Sessegnon, Egbo, Kane and possibly Clare to contest full-back positions, or Mitchell comes into the reckoning with a back five. Quite honestly it matters little, although hopefully there will be a reaction in the form of determination and character following a drubbing. After all, from 10th and top of the also-rans league we could conceivably find ourselves back to 14th if we lose.

Tuesday 11 April 2023

Top Of The Also-Rans

With Shrewsbury and Exeter also having lost on Friday, the same permutations applied ahead of today’s game: on top of our game we’re looking for favours, this time from Barnsley and Peterborough, if we are to go up a place or two, while this time we could even drop a place if Fleetwood were to do what we failed to and beat Bristol Rovers. Really after a poor performance and defeat and back on home turf it was a case of anything less than getting back to winning ways counting as a disappointment. Burton have rescued their season after a decidedly sticky start under Hesselbaink and, with three wins out of the last five (including over Barnsley and Wycombe), have pulled clear of the relegation zone, albeit not yet sufficiently to feel really relaxed. Hopefully relaxed enough to be a tad below par.

In the end we did end up with the points – and we got the favours we were looking for, to sit at the end of the day in 10th place, top of the also-rans. But what for a period had looked capable of being a repeat of the Shrewsbury game turned into something altogether tougher, an ugly contest which we failed to either run away with or shut the door on, with a two-goal cushion twice pared back and us hanging on in the final stages.

The team showed a couple of what looked like forced changes. Sessegnon was deemed not available so soon after playing on Friday, with Egbo getting his first start since October, which meant Thomas switching to left-back, while Leaburn was also not risked after picking up a knock. Bonne came in for him. Otherwise it was same as before, with Kane and Kilkenny taking the two vacant slots on the bench. When it came to renewing old acquaintances, MacGillivray was in goal for Burton, Oshilaja in midfield for them, while Kirk and Lavelle were not available being on loan from us (with the latter injured in any event).

Burton had the better of the opening exchanges, with Hector being required to make important interceptions, although Campbell had a decent run down the left and a fierce shot pushed into the air by MacGillivray then cleared. That proved the hors d’oeuvre as inside the first 10 minutes we took the lead with a quite superb goal, all of Rak-Sakyi’s making. He collected the ball on the right touchline, no particular danger. But he cut inside and moved into the box, then as their defenders shaped for him to go onto his left side again touched it the other way, completely wrongfooting them, then struck the shot well across MaGillivray and into the far corner of the net. That one will have had the Palace minders thinking about where’s best for him next season.

That clearly rocked Burton and their defensive frailties stayed to the fore. Thomas on the overlap put in a good cross which neither Bonne nor Rak-Sakyi could convert, then Bonne held it up well and played in Morgan whose shot was saved. And before 20 minutes were up we doubled our lead. This time Fraser lent Rak-Sakyi a helping hand, taking it forward and playing it to him to run onto. He still had to get past a rather lame challenge by their defender but did that, and put the ball into a similar spot to before. When was the last time we had a player on a hat-trick before 20 minutes?

Perhaps predictably we eased off a little after that and Burton had a better spell. Rak-Sakyi did manage to chip the ball into the box from the right for Campbell, who met it on the half-volley but sent it just over the bar. But Burton’s first chance came with a free header, their guy having escaped his marker. Fortunately he headed straight at Maynard-Brewer, followed shortly after by another good position as Hector tried an ill-advised chip over a guy’s head and failed to clear him, making amends with a timely recovery challenge.

Now against Shrewsbury we effectively put the game to bed with a third before the break. There was a third goal, but this one went against us. From a throw the ball was lofted into the area and Maynard-Brewer decided it was his to claim. But Hector couldn’t get out of the way and Maynard-Brewer couldn’t collect, the ball dropping loose and hooked into an empty net by their guy. Keepers make mistakes and this was one.

That rather changed the mood at the break. But not long into the second half it seemed it wouldn’t matter as we restored the advantage. A ball forward found Bonne, who held it up and played it back for Campbell, then made his way into the box. Campbell made it to the byline and his low cross wasn’t dealt with decisively by the Burton defenders, allowing Bonne – by now in poacher position – to prod the loose ball home.

It got rather messy again after that and after the hour Holden made the first changes. Egbo, Fraser and Dobson all departed (Egbo had started the game looking pretty rusty but grew into it, Dobson seemed to be limping), with Henry, Payne and the returning Kane coming on. And the chance to finish the game off seemed to arrive with about 20 minutes left as Rak-Sakyi cut across the box from the right and seemed to be caught by a trailing leg. I thought it was a penalty, but the ball ran on to Bonne who understandably took the shot, which clipped the top of the crossbar. Whether the ref thought he’d played advantage, or just that it wasn’t a penalty, I don’t know (surely another case for football clearly following rugby union and allowing the ref to indicate he is playing an advantage and can come back for an original offence).

Instead with 15 minutes left on the clock Burton were back in it, with another goal conceded by us from a set piece. A corner found a guy in space at the far post, his header back across was flicked goalward. Morgan did manage to hoof it out, but the ball had crossed the line.

That set up a final 20 minutes during which we were pretty much under the cosh and happy for the final whistle to come. Whereas against Bristol Rovers Holden had arguably missed the opportunity to change shape before we went behind, this time around the triple substitution left us rather lightweight and vulnerable. Burton almost levelled things immediately after their goal, their guy getting around Rak-Sakyi in our box and shooting into the side netting. We could have finally settled things in the final 10 minutes as Payne and Bonne combined and the ball was sent over to the far post for Rak-Sakyi to run onto for the match ball. Any low shot would surely have found the net, but instead he caught it on the volley and sent it over the bar.

Rather than being able to relax we had Payne given a yellow for a badly timed tackle, Morgan and Bonne were taken off for Mitchell and Kanu, and it was down to the corner flag when possible. In five minutes of stoppage time Payne was to receive a second yellow and a red for another tackle which missed the ball but caught the guy. Fortunately it was too late to make a difference and blessedly the whistle came with us still with our noses in front.

So, six to go and we are as high as we can realistically get this season. Nobody is going to be predicting us to get anything at Ipswich next time out, especially as they must still be smarting from the stoppage time at The Valley and desperately need the points. It is a no-lose one, although we are getting down to the bare bones and must be starting to think of the summer hols. I know I am.

Friday 7 April 2023

This Time One To Forget

The monumental struggle to secure 10th place in the third flight resumed today at Bristol Rovers. Cynicism to one side for the moment, this spell of games does have one positive aspect, namely that they have been bolstering confidence in Holden’s ability to shape and fashion a team/squad capable of challenging for promotion next season – provided of course he gets the necessary backing. In that context we were looking at least to extend the unbeaten ‘run’, ideally climb a place or two if we took the three points and Peterborough and Bolton did us favours in the other games. We did get those favours but did ourselves none as we put in a subdued and very much below-par performance and were beaten by ordinary opposition.

That said, Bristol Rovers deserved their win as they had done their homework, kept to a gameplan which nullified us, and for the first hour denied us any time and space. Having frustrated us and helped make it an ugly contest, they made changes to switch to a more offensive system. It worked in that they had the better of a key period and took the lead, then saw out the game despite some moments at the death when we were throwing caution to the wind. By contrast we persisted with something that wasn’t working for far too long. On this day, Barton got it right and Holden didn’t – although the blame for the performance has to rest with the players, who were, compared to last Saturday, just off the pace and level of intensity required.

As for the team, already without Ness, Blackett-Taylor and Aneke, there was uncertainty over whether Clare would be fit and available – and if not whether Egbo or Kane might be ready to challenge Thomas and Sessegnon for the full-back slots. In the event Sessegnon would start with Egbo on the bench. Otherwise it was a case, not surprisingly after a 6-0 win, of as you were.

CATV at the break pretty much summed up the first half. “The first 15 minutes were pretty drab and it didn’t pick up after that”. The two teams were doing a good job of cancelling each other out, neither making mistakes in defence but neither managing to create a decent opening. For us a cross from the right which Leaburn flicked on and went wide was about as close as we got, although there were corners and moments when something might have been created with a perceptive run or pass. Both Rak-Sakyi and Campbell were struggling to have an impact and without a threat from the wider guys we were well contained.

At the other end Hector and Dobson generally protected our box, but right at the end of the half Bristol did come close twice. We did have a warning as a crossfield ball was taken well by Sinclair, which saw Sessegnon facing him with no cover, but having cut inside his shot went well over. From a free-kick worked back from the far post and then squared their guy was able to run onto the ball and strike a powerful shot. Maynard-Brewer was able to stick out his left arm and turn it around the post. From the resulting corner their guy met the ball at the near post but his low effort went just wide.

That really was just about it. At the break you suspect that those there in the sun would have happily taken a point each and decamped to the pub (apparently some coaches didn’t make it). You hoped for a better spectacle, but if not at least something to take from the game. In truth there was more incident in the second half, but we would have been happier with a repeat of the first (or the pub).

We did have a couple of moments before the hour mark as Campbell wriggled free down the left and his low cross to Leaburn just couldn’t get converted, then one in the air was gathered by their keeper before it could reach Leaburn. Whether or not Barton saw the game slipping away from them, or whether the changes had been planned for around this time, they then made a double-substitution, their leading goalscorer being introduced, and followed this up five minutes later by bringing on Marquis, who succeeded in making the game even uglier.

The goal came with around 20 minutes left on the clock. A one-two down their right left their guy in space. Dobson came across to try to head off the danger, but as the ball was chipped inside his arm came out and the ball hit it. I thought he got away with a similar one against Shrewsbury but there was no escape this time and the penalty was awarded. Marquis stepped up, Maynard-Brewer went to his left, the ball went in the other corner.

Now it was a real challenge to get at least a point. With around 15 minutes left Bonne and Payne were introduced, Morgan and Campbell giving way, with us switching to a 4-4-2. And just by necessity some half-chances did get forced. A cross from Thomas on the left seemed to catch Bonne by surprise and he completely fluffed his header from close range. Then after Leaburn had been caught late on the left side Fraser’s free-kick into the box found Inniss in space. But he seemed to mistime his contact and it went harmlessly over. Really should have done better. Kanu came on for Sessegnon (now a sort of 3-5-2) and he almost got the equaliser after Payne won the ball back and played him in, only for his shot to be blocked. Finally, at the end of three minutes of stoppage time Inniss found himself on an overlap down the right and sent in an excellent cross to the far post. Leaburn headed it back across but a defender got to it first before Dobson could bundle it over the line.

That makes it sound like non-stop pressure, but it really wasn’t. They were moments, on another day one goes in, but their keeper wasn’t called on to make a real save. The stats at the end of the game showed we had six attempts on goal and one on target, despite 59% possession. We hadn’t done enough to make a serious claim to have been hard done by.

So something of a reality check after the Shrewsbury game; and let’s face it we’ve had too many of them this season. Maynard-Brewer and Hector came out of the game with credit, Thomas too. None of the players responsible for making and/or taking chances did. Perhaps they will reflect on that and resolve to do better, I’m looking forward to the match exiting my memory.

One final note. I don’t know if retrospective action can be taken against a player for poor sportsmanship but this one has to be noted. Late in the game Marquis received the ball on their left. One of their players was on the ground holding his head. Marquis stopped, looked at the ref and pointed to his colleague. Then when everyone had also stopped, assuming either the ref had/would stop the game or Marquis would put the ball into touch, he skips off down the line with the ball. If they’d scored from that I hope the ref would have had the bottle to disallow it. As it was, a yellow for Marquis and free-kick for us was the appropriate response, followed by his immediate replacement by Barton.Pigs might fly I guess. 

Sunday 2 April 2023

One Of Those Afternoons To Enjoy

Of late we’ve got used to games against either teams around the top or around the bottom. This one, even though Shrewsbury won’t have given up hopes of a play-off place, looked like a contest between two midtable teams. They’d won two, drawn one, and lost two of their last five games (against our won two, drawn two, lost one), not especially high scorers, don’t concede that many either, and have been under the radar through the season. So no strong expectations for the result in advance, especially given our recent indifferent home form. So let’s just say we didn’t see it coming, neither did Shrewsbury.

Some days everything goes your way, which is not to deny the effort and ability which went into a 6-0 win. They don’t come around that often (yes, for the record I was there for the 6-0 at home to Swansea in 1972 and the 6-1 rout of Notts County which followed shortly after, the 1976 6-2 win against Southampton, and was at Oakwell for the more recent 6-0 win against Barnsley in 2013). Just after I write something including the fact that this season we hadn’t scored enough to really blow teams away and couldn’t keep clean sheets to grind out results, we deliver a clinical performance in front of goal (at one point during the game I checked we had 9 shots, 6 on target, and 5 goals) and let in none (thanks to the crossbar in a second-half scramble when the game was over and arguably the linesman just before half-time). It is a real pity that aside from pride the game meant nothing, but nothing to stop us enjoying it for a while.

The team saw just one change as Thomas returned from international duty and replaced Sessegnon, who dropped to the bench, with Kilkenny missing out on the squad (while Wollacott also returned). Otherwise it was all as you were. And to say the first 20 minutes gave no indication of what was to come would be an understatement. Scrappy and disjointed, the only point of note was Clare turning an ankle and having to limp off, Sessegnon getting an early reintroduction at right-back (he did have an edgy start but grew into the game). In fact the first real opening went Shrewsbury’s way as a ball in from their left found a guy in space in the box. For a reason known only to himself he opted not to shoot but to try to play in a colleague – and got it all wrong.

Instead the first goal went our way. Shortly after Rak-Sakyi was caught late outside the box on the right side. It was far enough out to enable Fraser to get it over and under and, although it wasn’t right in the corner, it was well enough struck to beat their flailing keeper. The proved to be the opening of the floodgates. A Campbell cross from the left was met well by Leaburn but his header was tipped over the bar. No matter, a Shrewsbury ball forward was cut out by Fraser and he played it out long in the direction of Rak-Sakyi (before being taken out late, but with the ref playing an excellent advantage). He controlled it well and advanced and Morgan spotted space inside him to run into. Rak-Sakyi played him in, his first touch took it away from defenders and when the ball sat up nicely Morgan was able to keep his composure and hit it across the keeper into the far corner.

Before the break we made it 3-0. Another on the counter as this time Morgan intercepted a ball forward within their half and picked out Rak-Sakyi. He simply bemused them, shaping to go inside then taking it outside, then when he appeared to be off-balance poking at the ball with his left and sending it past a wrongfooted keeper. It was a minor masterclass and a goal just about all his own work.

There was just enough time for the game to have another turning point. A ball forward down our right side into the box saw Dobson and a forward challenging for it. The replays seemed to make it clear that Dobson moved an arm out towards the ball and diverted it away. The Shrewsbury player appealed but to no avail. Doubtful that the ref could have been in a position to see it, but surely it would have been seen by the linesman. Apparently not as he did nothing. Now if that had been given – and if it had I don’t think we could have had complaints seeing the replays – it’s quite possible Dobson would have picked up a second yellow (he had been harshly adjusted to have blocked one of theirs earlier in the game). They score from the spot and suddenly it’s 3-1 and they have a half against 10 men. But this was an afternoon when everything went our way.

If there were any lingering concerns they were dispelled on the hour, just after Campbell had a decent case for a penalty not awarded. It was another Shrewsbury attack broken up and the ball played forward early. Leaburn still had two defenders around him but was able to take it on and opted to shoot early from distance. It went through the second defender’s legs and once again their keeper was wrongfooted, a spectator as the low shot found the net, to the considerable enjoyment of the Covered End.

That enabled Holden to start making changes, with Henry for Dobson (to avoid the red card risk) and Mitchell for Hector. And with still more than 20 minutes on the clock it was 5-0 and Shrewsbury were down to 10. A Sessegnon shot from the left side was blocked and the ref clearly saw an arm moved towards it, in not dissimilar fashion to Dobson’s earlier intervention. It was deemed handball, a penalty, and apparently a straight red for Flanagan (who had already been yellow-carded), extending his run of miserable games against us. At first it looked as though Morgan would take the spot-kick, but Leaburn took on the responsibility and calmly planted it to the keeper’s left as he moved the other way, further closing the gap on his father’s best season tally for us.

Cue more changes as Payne and Bonne came on for Thomas and Fraser, with us seeming to move to 3/5 at the back and playing two up front. Shrewsbury’s scrambled effort followed (the ball seemed to hit the bar on the way down then was somehow not put in the net by their guys), Rak-Sakyi thought he’d made it 6-0 with a header from close range but was clearly offside, then into stoppage time we did get the final one as a shot from Henry turned into a pass to Bonne around the penalty spot, isolated and not offside. He was able to take it, turn, and plant it past the keeper.

The news that Exeter had scored a late equaliser and that as a result we wouldn’t be moving up a place didn’t exactly distract from the happy mood among players, management, staff and fans after the game. If there was one regret, for me it was that it would have been good for Sandgaard to have been able to share in the celebrations. His time may have run its course and during it we’ve failed to recover, expectations have been disappointed, mistakes made etc (off and on the pitch). But he isn’t a Duchatelet and one difference was the obvious enjoyment he previously took from owning the club. He bought our club when we needed someone to get us out of the control of wasters and shelled out money when we needed it (of course we still do). I hope he was able to enjoy a glass in celebration too (I know I did).

Very Welcome Point And Performance

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