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.