Tuesday, 10 April 2012

A kick in the teeth

There are not many gloomier places in football than the Don Valley Stadium in the rain.
You are sat in an athletics stadium, miles from the pitch - and when your side musters about two shots and are forced to defend stoically for a lot of the game, it gets no better.
The Rubies (or the Nerazzurri as we were here) did the latter fantastically for precisely 92 minutes and 51 seconds until Ryan Cresswell's header smacked us in the solar plexus, and 71 seconds later it was all over.
Had Jack Butland punched the ball away and not connected with Steve Elliott's head instead, this blog would have read much different. We didn't deserve to win it, but I felt we didn't deserve to lose it.
That is not a criticism of Jack by the way. It was a good header by Cresswell, which Steve Elliott may have prevented but for Jack's fist.
It was just about the only thing Steve didn't get in the way of. Once again, he was magnificent, and Alan Bennett was equally solid as they coped well with Alex Revell. When they weren't there, Jack was.
The problem we had was in front and to the side of them, especially in the first half.
Down the flanks, Lewis Grabban and especially Gareth Evans had the beating of Luke Garbutt and Keith Lowe.
In the centre, Russ Penn and Luke Summerfield were forced back and outnumbered by Jason Taylor, Ben Pringle and Danny Schofield. They could not get out of an area about 20 yards from the edge of our box.
It was here that I felt we missed Marlon Pack, as he might have been able to play the right pass to free the shackles a bit and get the creative players moving.
But, as has happened many times, having two central midfielders and coming up against three caused us problems, and had us on the back foot.
It was a shame as Yatesy had picked an attacking formation, with Jermaine McGlashan, Kaid Mohamed and Jimmy Spencer all supposed to be providing support to Ben Burgess in a 4-2-3-1 line-up.
It didn't work out that way though, as it was all hands to the pump, with Jimmy almost becoming a third midfielder and the wide men helping out the full-backs.
All this rendered Ben a passenger - isolated up front and gave Rotherham licence to push right up almost to the halfway line.
I don't think we got into their box at all in the first half - Rhys Taylor definitely had no saves to make and may have caught a long through ball or hacked away a clearance, but that was about it.
Jack had made two or three good saves, and then there was the penalty.
Benno was penalised for a challenge on Grabban, who was going down the left channel and heading out of play towards the running track.
It was a rash challenge, but a harsh decision - one of those which home sides tend to get - but Grabban's penalty was too close to Jack and he caught it well.
His handling was good. He got down to save a few long-range efforts well given the wet, slippery conditions, and the penalty save gave me hope that our luck was changing a bit.
Following on from Clovis Kamdjo's header against Barnet which rebounded off the post back to Jack on Friday, maybe, just maybe, I thought things were going our way. Not so it seems.
Before we get there, some credit for Mark Yates.
At times this season, he has been criticised over his substitutions, usually the lack of them or the timing of them, but he acted quickly here.
It is almost unheard of for him to make half-time changes, and we could tell one was in the offing as all five subs were not on the pitch passing the ball around in a pointless fashion, getting drenched during the half-time interval.
I could see the idea behind taking the isolated Burgess off and pushing Jimmy into the front role, but it was a surprise to see Junior Smikle coming on.
He has been the invisible man of late, but he was very easy to see in his lime green boots, and he had a very good half.
His only start this year was at Macclesfield, and he did well there in the three-man midfield as we won 3-1, and again he buzzed around well, giving Penn and Summers some assistance and respite, and was a good link between them and Jimmy.
He helped set up our best chance (some might say only chance...) setting up Keith Lowe to cross for Kaid to head wide. As I was watching the game from somewhere near Leeds, it is hard to tell how close the header came.
Josh Low came on for Jermaine, which was a more defensive substitution as Jermaine was unable to affect the game from an attacking point of view - not his fault, but just the way the game panned out for us.
Mark had to decide whether to stick or twist, and he opted for stick, so Josh came on, then he switched Darryl Duffy for Jimmy in the last 10 minutes.
We didn't look like winning it, but I also felt in the second half that we didn't look like losing it - they had few if any clear-cut chances until that header right at the end.
The Smikle change had shored it up and solved our problem, and a point would have been a good return from a tough game in tricky conditions.
We had shown great effort, commitment and backbone, even if the quality and attacking flair was lacking, and would be harsh to apportion blame at the end for the winning goal.
It was a decent corner, but as I mentioned earlier Steve collided with Jack and Cresswell headed in. Gutting.
Steve told us afterwards that he was a bit dazed afterwards, and didn't realise Rotherham had scored until he got up off the floor and saw us kicking off again...
So that was that. 71 seconds away from a decent point, and still being three points ahead of fast-rising Crewe in 8th place. But now we sit only two ahead with that game at Gresty Road looming large.
Our March madness has left us in a battle for the top seven when it could already be done and dusted, but I feel wins at home against Accrington and Bradford will do it whatever the result at Crewe - my feeling is 74 points will get us in the top seven. Time will tell.

Player by player
Jack Butland - Good saves in the first half, and kept the penalty out comfortably. Deserved a clean sheet.
Keith Lowe - Stuck to his task, but struggled with Gareth Evans down his flank especially in the first half.
Luke Garbutt - Same as Keith, and had his hands full with Lewis Grabban.
Alan Bennett - Solid at the back alongside Steve as they dealt well with Alex Revell. Slightly rash challenge for penalty, but still a harsh decision.
Steve Elliott - Commanding - won everything in the air and on the floor bar the one at the end.
Russ Penn - Hard working as usual but unable to influence the game going forward.
Luke Summerfield - Same as Russ, and I think they will be happier when Marlon comes back.
Kaid Mohamed - Had our best chance with a header but no attacking runs of note.
Jermaine McGlashan - Back in the starting line-up but a peripheral figure, restricted mainly to defensive duties.
Jimmy Spencer - Became a third midfielder in the first half and unable to get forward to support Ben, before moving further forward, but again had little joy.
Ben Burgess - Isolated in the first half as we were pressed back, and taken off at half-time.

Substitutes
Junior Smikle (for Ben Burgess, half-time) - Did well in my opinion. Linked between attack and midfield and worked hard to pen Rotherham back as they had done to us in the first half.
Josh Low (for Jermaine McGlashan, 60 mins) - Half an eye on making us more solid with this change, but Josh had our only shot on target...
Darryl Duffy (for Jimmy Spencer, 80 mins) - Worked hard and chased lost causes, but no chances to grab a winner.