Saturday, 17 December 2011

On the slippery slope

Underhill looks to be in the dying embers of its life as a Football League ground, but I have always enjoyed my trips there.
Cheltenham Town have not, as it maintained our record of having gone there six times in the League, taken the lead each time, and not won any of them.
Two of those games were lost, and last night's became the fourth draw - as scrappy affair punctuated by two contentious refereeing decisions which both came down our way.
The first came just before half-time, when Luke Garbutt's free kick was played into the box, and the referee, Simon Hooper, blew his whistle and pointed at the spot.
Just about everyone inside Underhill was confused, as no Cheltenham player made an appeal, and the Barnet players demanded an explanation.
The referee made a signal to indicate a shirt-pull on a Cheltenham player and that was that - Darryl Duffy stepped up and made no mistake from the spot.
Then, on the hour, Sido Jombati misjudged a long ball, making the cardinal error of letting it bounce, and Izale McLeod got goalside of him.
Sido tussled with him, McLeod went down and it looked like a penalty to me - that was given, and I waited for Sido's red card, as he looked like the last man to me.
Josh Low was just behind him but if it had been the other way around we would have wanted a red - the referee produced yellow and the only person sent off was the Barnet manager Lawrie Sanchez.
McLeod sent Scott Brown the wrong way and Barnet had the point I felt they deserved.
We have been very good in the past few months, and we have been spoiled by the football the team have served up, but we were below par.
Whether the loss of Russ Penn was wholly to blame I don't know, but there is no question it was a factor as we lacked that energy and drive in midfield and at times Darryl Duffy was isolated up top.
Mark Yates opted for Josh Low in that role, and that was a surprise and a move which I did not feel worked at all.
Josh's more languid style as compared to Russ's get-in-their-faces mentality seemed to change the way we played, and I would have had Jimmy Spencer in there, or even tried out Bobby Reid, which may have been a more like-for-like replacement.
Once again, Barnet lined up in a similar way to us - it seems to happen every week now - and playing down the slope first half they caused us problems.
As you would expect as they play on it every other week, they know how to cause teams problems on the slope, and they looked to release McLeod or Mark Marshall at every opportunity, trying to isolate our centre backs.
Only a brilliant goal-line clearance from Alan Bennett kept it level, while we failed to test Dean Brill with Duffy and Jimmy Spencer having half chances.
But we went ahead when Kaid Mohamed was left unmarked from the first corner of the game and headed in a great Marlon Pack delivery for his sixth of the season.
McLeod levelled after Sam Deering was allowed to cross from the right and McLeod escaped from Bennett to tap in at the near post, past Scott Brown.
I am sure there will be some wanting to blame Brown for the goal, claiming Jack Butland would have saved it, but after first Deering and then McLeod were left too much space in front of him, he was left exposed.
Anyway, Butland has gone, so we have to get used to that, rendering it a futile argument - I would be more unhappy with the defending in front of him on this occasion.
Our so-called penalty put us back in front, before theirs pegged us back and the game had a feel of our Luton cup-tie about it - we had led twice, were pegged back twice, and then found ourselves under a bit of pressure.
But at Kenilworth Road, we went on to win it, but we didn't really look like repeating that last night - our second half display was very disjointed and not deserving of a win.
We could have got it however, and only Junior Smikle will know how we didn't, as he got on to a clearance and with only Brill to beat he somehow lobbed it wide.
Duffy or Spencer would have scored it, but nothing seems to go right for poor Junior in front of goal, and I'm afraid it just gives his critics more ammunition to beat him with. At this level, chances like that have to be taken.
After the second equaliser, Barnet didn't create a chance to win the game either, failing to test Brown, but overall they were far from the worst side we have played and should have enough to stay up - as long as they find somewhere to play.
Mark Yates said he was happy with a point, and on reflection I agree, even though Southend lost to Bradford and we missed a chance to go second, so the eight-match winning streak on the road is over.
Time to set off on another one now...

Player by player
Scott Brown - On a bit of a hiding to nothing as most Cheltenham fans are pining for Jack Butland. Not to blame for the first goal, and the second was a penalty.
Sido Jombati - A bad night by his standards, and his worst game since coming into the side. Lost Sam Deering for the first Barnet goal, and misjudged the ball to give away the penalty. Lucky to stay on.
Luke Garbutt - Steady performance, and put the free-kick in which led to the very dubious penalty.
Alan Bennett - Tough night against Izale McLeod. Brilliant goal-line clearance but McLeod escaped from him to score the equaliser.
Steve Elliott - Also a tough night but stuck to his task and held firm to get us a point.
Marlon Pack - Unable to run the game as he has in previous weeks, so was very quiet. Great corner delivery for fist goal.
Luke Summerfield - Also quiet, but won some important challenges. Seemed to miss Russ Penn alongside him.
Josh Low - Selected in Russ Penn's central position but looked lost there. Rarely able to get on the ball and re-create Penn's forward drives and just not the same force in the 50-50 challenges.
Kaid Mohamed - Great header for his goal but very little opportunity to run at Barnet. I expected him to cause problems down the slope, but didn't, so he was taken off late on.
Jimmy Spencer - Quiet game, but missed a good chance in the first half. Started wide right then swapped with Duffy into central role, but well looked after by Barnet defence.
Darryl Duffy - Penalty takes him to 11 goals for the season, and he took it confidently. Only one real sight of goal apart from that.

Substitutes
Junior Smikle (for Low 70) - Brought his usual work-rate and commitment, but horrendous miss overshadowed everything.
Bagasan Graham (for Mohamed 85) - Cameo from Bags at the end but didn't get a chance to run at Barnet.
Jeff Goulding (for Spencer 88) - Almost a forgotten man, but came on and had a shot which Brill nearly made a mess of in the last seconds.