Wednesday, 6 February 2013

A bolt from the blue

After every game that is drawn or lost, practically every fan plays the blame game.
Whose fault was it? The striker who missed that gilt-edged chance? the midfielder who missed that tackle? the defender who didn't close down the space or allowed the man to turn, or get that crucial header in?.
Or was it the goalkeeper, who could have done better? or the manager's poor tactics or ill-timed substitutions? Possibly, but in these situations I am afraid it inevitably comes down to one man. The referee.
Since Oliver Norburn's 94th-minute-plus-a-few-seconds equaliser last night, David Phillips is the man many fans were blaming.
Now, I must admit I wasn't keeping a stopwatch on the game, and it did feel a lot longer than four minutes after the board went up when Norburn smashed his one-in-a-million strike into the top corner.
But those I have spoken to who did time it varied between 10 and 20 seconds over the four minutes - which, in any case, is always announced as a minimum time. The BBC text commentary said it was 17 seconds over.
Okay say the critics... but how did he arrive at the four minutes? Six subs at 30 seconds each makes up three of them, a couple of bookings and a bit of timewasting here and there answers that one.
I will accept that maybe we sat a bit too deep in the last few minutes and invited some pressure - but we had dealt with it comfortably.
We had held Rovers comfortably at arms length - almost - but I just feel that sometimes you cannot legislate for someone hitting a worldie strike like that. We just have to take it on the chin, and move on.
I know, it hurts. I know it sticks in the craw to see their players and fans jumping up and down on our pitch and in our stands
But if we had gone to the Mem, and Russ Penn had smacked one in from miles out in the last minute, I hardly think we would have reacted quietly, would we?
So we have to allow them their few minutes in the sun, and I take it as a compliment that they wildly celebrate a (let's face it) lucky equaliser against a club dismissed before the game as 'tinpot'.
All we heard in the build-up was how the fans from their 'massive' club were going to take our ground over, invade the home ends etc etc.
So to see them all leaping around as if they had just won the league thanks to a lucky last-gasp strike that Oliver Norburn will never repeat as long as he lives means we must be doing something right.
Even Norburn said he only shot as a last resort because he thought the referee would have blown had he passed or slung in a cross.
Scott Brown said he never sniffed it. "I just waved it by," he said ruefully as he came off after the warm down. In a post-match conversation, Neil Howarth and Marcus Stewart were just collectively shaking their heads at it. Russ Milton also agreed it was a worldie.
But when all is said and done, even though there was little we could have done about it, it's another late goal conceded; another two points snatched away (I will refrain from saying dropped, or thrown away as I don't feel we did anything wrong to lose them).
We were seconds away from a four-point cushion in third, seconds away from going into two tricky trips to the far east in a very chipper mood indeed.
Anyway, enough about the last kick of the game, what about all the ones which went before...?
There were no complaints about the starting side - the same as Saturday. With Connor Roberts away with Wales under-21 (he came on for the last 15 minutes as they beat Iceland 3-0 at Llanelli) Marlon Pack was back on the bench, but Billy Jones was still not fit enough to come back in.
In the build-up to the game, some of our fans on the Nest and on Twitter said they didn't want Marlon to be in the squad. One or two described him as an 'average' player' and others said 'we didn't need him anymore'.
I find this absolutely unbelievable.
I was also told that he doesn't care about the club any more because he thinks he is leaving. He won't try from now on if he has to stay as he won't be signing a new contract anyway and will go in the summer, so Yatesy shouldn't play him any more. More nonsense. Of course he should use him if he stays here.
He had got his head round the fact that he was off to Swindon, had said his goodbyes, and that was that - but then the move was on hold and he is back with us.
I had a brief chat with Marlon after the game and can only sympathise for him in the situation he is in. He cares about this club and loves playing for us, and if he ends up staying I have no doubt that he will give his best.
But it is a difficult situation for him as he has gone from being an automatic choice to being fourth in line for a central midfield place, all through no fault of his own, but just because Yatesy had to start planning for him not to be here.
He is a confident young man, and I could tell by talking to him that he is in a state of flux. He said that he was nervous about coming into training at the start of the week - amazing for someone who is always at the forefront of the dressing room and Twitter banter, and a popular guy among the squad.
He has been an automatic choice for us for the two and a half seasons he has been here, and for the majority of those games has been in sparkling form, and scored some fantastic goals - especially the one which took us to Wembley.
It is the fickle side of football I despise. The side which automatically turns players who deign to leave your club to try to prove themselves at a higher level into public enemy number one.
As far as I am concerned, if he does go, I say good luck to him, and we will lose one of the most talented young players ever to play for our club. Until he goes, he is our player and I will back him 100 per cent.
Sorry, I digress.
Saturday's performance had been hugely encouraging, given the changes made in the week running up to the game, and I was confident we could keep up the same level, or go higher last night.
But in the first 20 minutes, Rovers were the better side, and Scott Brown had to make two good saves.
Jonjo O'Toole was finding too much space, Joe Anyinsah was troubling Sido Jombati and our central midfielders Jason Taylor and Russ Penn were second best to Norburn and Seanan Clucas.
Michael Hector and Steve Elliott were busy, and we were struggling to get a foothold in the game.
But as the half went on, I felt we grew into the game more and more, but we were struggling still to get good service to Paul Benson and Shaun Harrad.
With grafters and ball winners in Taylor and Penn (aka the Dogs of War or The Mitchell Brothers...) in the centre of midfield, we do lose some creativity. It is therefore almost inevitable that we are going to be more direct.
Couple that with the fact that the wide men, Jermaine McGlashan and Kaid Mohamed, were nowhere near as effective last night and were not allowed the same space as they were afforded on Saturday.
John Ward knew McGlashan was a potential problem, so he played Danny Woodards, a defender usually, further forward to combat him, and it worked.
That is the problem for McGlashan nowadays. Opposition managers know he is a massive threat, so they are hatching ploys to stop him - it is down to Yatesy and McGlashan himself to find a way around these traps.
Mo, on Saturday, had his best game for a while and he was not as good last night. It will be interesting to see what happens with these two if Luke Rooney does arrive - maybe in time for Dagenham.
With Darren Carter fit again as well, Yatesy has a central midfield dilemma. Carter, with his passing vision and energy, could be the man to get the supply lines working properly to Benson and Harrad in the areas they want them.
But that would mean losing one of Penn (now the team's captain) or Taylor (a new signing who does not seem shy in geeing up and giving his team-mates a rocket). Good luck with that decision, gaffer.
We don't want to go back to three in midfield on a regular basis. One of Benson or Harrad would surely be sacrificed - although I can see us doing that at Southend next Tuesday.
Benson has been brought in to help get goals and to get the best out of Harrad, which it has done so far with two goals in two games, and the Bury loan man does look a more confident and happier figure.
Benson hasn't scored himself yet, or really had a clear look at goal, but there are signs of a good link-up between the two, although Benson's first touch was not as good against Rovers as it had been on his debut - although too many balls were played down the centre.
It was meat and drink for the centre-halves - when we played the ball for one of them to run the channels, we had a bit more success.
At the other end, after those two early Brown saves, we weren't really threatened directly until about 20 minutes from time when Brown saved from O'Toole.
Hector and Elliott were excellent, backed up by another impressive display from Keith Lowe and a steady Sido display, who improved after his shaky start.
After the away-day horror at Spotland, our last seven league games have seen us only let four goals in- last night's wonder goal, a penalty, Brown's error on Saturday and York's late strike.
But there is another dilemma here for the gaffer - Billy Jones will be fit soon, and Yatesy must decide whether to bring him back, and decide whether his natural left-footedness and set-piece ability is more worthy of a place than either Sido or the new fast-emerging cult hero that is Keith Lowe, who has now played the last five games.
As the second half wore on last night, the time had come for substitutions, and the first one was Carter for Harrad. Subsequently I was told that the striker had a slight knock, and I called the change 'negative' in the radio commentary - striker off, midfielder on.
I would have preferred to have seen Darryl Duffy come on to maintain the same formation, and with 17 minutes to go, it seemed a bit early to try and keep what we had, at 1-0.
It was inevitable that we would defend a bit deeper and ask Carter and Mohamed, along with Benson to relieve any pressure we came under.
Benson was then taken off 10 minutes from time and replaced by Harrison, whose task was to try to hold the ball up front, which he did well on a couple of occasions.
Disappointingly though, I see some fans have been all too quick to write Harrison off already. This is on the basis of some AFC Wimbledon fans calling him 'lazy' when he was signed, and two appearances from the bench, totalling 25 minutes.
They have come within four days of him joining a new club, in which I suspect he has had no more than two training sessions. Even by CTFC fans' standards, that is knee jerk. In this social media world, it appears that it has to be instant success, or instant criticism, but he is here for two and a half years, not two games.
I will just note that Benson has played 157 minutes without a goal, or barely had a sniff on goal, yet has not come in for the same flak... that has been blamed by the same fans on a lack of service.
The final change was Sam Deering for Mo, and I had no problem with that as we were keeping them at arms length, and I was confident we would see the game out and take the win.
But I reckoned without Mr Norburn's howitzer, and so instead of two successive wins, we are looking at a record of four draws and a win in our last five league games.
No defeats is a plus, but we could have won all four of those draws - Mo's chances and the penalty we were denied at Morecambe; half-chances against Rochdale; a poorly-conceded equaliser against York and last night's late twist. Eight points gone... we could be sat in second on 57 points looking down at the rest.
All ifs and buts.
Back to reality, and in recent games and despite the personnel turnover, we have tightened up again at the back, with Hector the most impressive of the new arrivals.
Now we need to click into gear at the other end, find that ruthless streak and turn these draws into wins.
Three of the next four are winnable - Dagenham, Aldershot and Accrington, while Southend away is always tricky. You feel that we cannot afford another four draws...