Wednesday 1 May 2013

Playing the lottery

Ah well, it was always unlikely.
We turned up, more in hope than expectation, looking for an unlikely miracle, and until news came through midway the second half of Jonny Mullins' goal at the New York Stadium, it was on.
After that news, the game turned into a bit of a damp squib, and when all is said and done, we couldn't break down a Bradford side showing eight changes and with 10 men for half an hour.
It was great once again to see the ground packed - 5,888 turned up, but from my position on the halfway-line gantry, it was the 1400 or so Bradford fans who made all the first-half noise.
It was a dead rubber for them - we were the ones who had it all to play for, who needed to win, yet it all seemed a bit muted, as though most of our fans didn't really believe it was going to happen.
But when it got to half-time, and both games which mattered were 0-0, then it seemed that a bit of belief went round the ground.
There seemed to be a realisation that maybe, just maybe, it would all work out for us, and the noise levels from the home end seemed to go up a notch or two.
The red card helped, then Mark Yates threw on Paul Benson to join Byron Harrison to look for that elusive goal, just in case Aldershot could do the seemingly impossible.
But just as the atmosphere got to where it should be for such an important game, news of Mullins' goal went through, the home ends went flat again and the Bradford fans had the decibels to themselves again.
The noise stopped, and the whole game degenerated into an end-of-season affair.
There was the sub-plot however. With Burton winning, we dropped a place and the play-off permutations would match us with Northampton, and not hand us three games in eight days with Bradford.
So despite Marlon Pack hitting the post with a header late on, maybe a 0-0 and a fall to fifth was not such a disaster - the post-match consensus seemed to be that most were happy to avoid the prospect of Thursday at Valley Parade in front of 20,000 screaming Yorkies in favour of two games with the Cobblers.
I didn't feel that were in danger of losing the game - Scott Brown had no saves of note to make and only Nathan Doyle's late shot wide of the post presented any threat to his 20th clean sheet of the campaign.
Matt Duke at the other end had a few saves, Pack hit the post and Steve Elliott had a header which he put wide but should have buried - but I don't think we did enough overall to win it, either.
However, Yates seemed happy enough with the performance of his team - but less so with the display from the pitch and the fans - not the first time he has been critical of these two things.
The pitch didn't seem any worse than it has in recent weeks and Yatesy seemed to base his mini-rant on the incident near the end where Kaid Mohamed got a terrible bobble as he broke away then tried a cross which he shinned horribly.
The fans I have mentioned earlier - strangely subdued at the start, loud for 20 minutes after the break, then understandably subdued again after Rotherham scored... Yates subsequently admitted that his players also went into their shells after the Rotherham goal news, so it was obviously catching.
I am not comfortable with Yates criticising pitch or fans though. The pitch is what it is. We share with Gloucester, solely, it seems, because doing so helps your playing budget, it has lots of games on it, the weather has been rubbish - deal with it.
The fans pay their money. If they don't want to scream and shout all game, that's up to them. You can't make them. Some of the youngsters do their best and should be commended (but unfortunately too often get slagged off) for trying to get behind the team and make some noise.
I wish more of the fans would join in, as it would make Whaddon a more hostile place for away sides - look at the noise Bradford's contingent made, as it seemed that all 1400 of them, young and old, were joining in with the clapping and chanting.
But overall, while I can take his point to a degree that he wants noisier backing for his team, I think his comments were ill-judged coming soon after the Plymouth contretemps, and with the need to get everyone in the club united for the play-off push.
Someone said to me post-match that Saturday was microcosm of our season - we had a job to do, win - but failed to do it against Bradford's reserves, and 10 men for a third of the game.
A bit harsh maybe - but also true. If the Shots had done the job up North, we would have fallen short, and think how sickening that would have felt, especially against a weakened side and with numerical superiority...
But anyway, that's all done with now, and we look forward to Thursday and Sunday, and the two games with Northampton.
In our favour is the fact that we have done the double over them this season, and go into the games with three successive clean sheets and an impressive unbeaten home record.
A good omen too is that we have the away leg first - as we did in our previous two successful play-off campaigns, when we won at Wycombe and drew at Hartlepool before drawing both home legs but getting through to the final.
But despite the win at Exeter, our away form is not exactly convincing, and there is also Mr Akinfenwa. He hasn't scored for a while... on the plus side, we kept him quiet on Easter Monday.
Talking of goals, and the lack of them, that is my main worry as we go into these two games.
In recent games, and it was true again on Saturday, our premier goal threat has been from set-pieces with our centre-halves getting on the end of something.
Our last two home wins have been 1-0, thanks to first Elliott, then Michael Hector scoring from a corner, and but for Billy Jones' deliveries at the weekend, we would not really have looked like scoring.
For all his endeavour and work-rate, Harrison didn't at any stage look like breaking his home duck for us, and that is something which has to change if we are to get through.
It's not all his fault. He cannot magically conjure up chances on his own - he needs some help from the midfield and out wide.
He is six foot four inches tall - yet how many times since he has been with us has he been able to say there has been a decent cross put into the box for him, excluding a set-piece, to get on the end of?
He scored with a fantastic header for AFC Wimbledon against us earlier this season, so we know he can be a threat, but we are not using it with our inability to deliver from out wide.
For all their undoubted threat when they get the ball down and run at people, and they do scare defenders judging by the number of free-kicks they win, but Jermaine McGlashan and Kaid Mohamed need to improve their crossing.
It is such a frustration to see them tear past someone, then deliver a tame cross which goes behind everyone, or even worse doesn't beat the first defender. It undoes in an instant all the good work that has gone before.
Also, I remain unconvinced by Russ Penn being the right man to be playing just behind the main striker if we are to play one up front. Two league goals in 70-odd starts is not conducive to a second goal threat, and he doesn't always make those runs needed to read any flick-on from Harrison, or whoever the 'one' is.
I am sure Yates will play 4-5-1 on Thursday. 4-4-2, while it might on paper increase the goal threat with Benson or Shaun Harrad up there, might also leave us a bit open to midfield runners, and you-know-who.
In the 3-2 win earlier this season, Keith Lowe was used as a midfield holding man, and it worked well once he and everyone else got used to the idea, but now with Jason Taylor here, I am sure he will be used in that role.
They will be tight games, make no bones about it. Northampton are very direct - they will sling high balls and long throws at us. But I think they are prone to leak a few goals, and as we are a team of few chances, we will need to take the ones which come along.
This whole season has been hard work - nothing seems to have come easily, almost every result we have earned seems to have required a monumental effort, and this will be no different.
We haven't always been an easy team to watch, and that will go on in the next 180 minutes, and we all have to stick together and give the team our backing - after all, we all want the same outcome.
So it has been slightly disappointing to see some fans criticising others for not buying tickets for Thursday and Sunday, citing the fact that Northampton's tickets have been selling quicker.
They are at home in the first leg, so buying a ticket for them carries no risk. It's 0-0. I suspect many of our fans are waiting for the result of the away leg before committing fully - nothing wrong with that, their prerogative, etc.
As for our away leg, it is on a Thursday night. Only on Saturday afternoon did we know for sure that we were going to be needing it.
Therefore, time off work, families, cost all becomes an issue for many. Northampton fans buying for their away leg do not have that issue, and it is on a Sunday before a bank holiday, so they can buy straight away as not many of them will need to get time off etc.
So if you can afford to go, get the time off work, and don't have any family issues, then great - get down to Sixfields and shout yourselves hoarse - but don't have a go at those who can't as they are no doubt wishing they could join you.

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