Wednesday, 17 September 2014

Reffing hell

Getting back from the game last night, I sat down as I usually do to write this blog - then gave up.
I decided that it would be better to give myself 24 hours' reflection on the night's events, and try to rationalise things in the cold light of day.
After the game, the talking point was the actions of one man, James Linington, who got as hostile a reaction from the Whaddon Road crowd as I can remember in recent times.
Many of his decisions were bizarre to say the least - but I am not convinced that he was the central figure and the main reason for our second successive 1-0 defeat.
His performance has taken the heat off another man who was probably more culpable, and whose actions changed the game more than Mr Linington's whistle (or lack of it) did.
That man, of course, is Jason Taylor. His reaction to Conor Clifford's tackle ultimately cost us the game. Not Mr Linington's increasingly eccentric decisions.
For the 38 minutes before that incident, it was an even game.  It was bubbling up into a decent contest, both sides had chances and it could have gone either way.
After the red card, we were on the back foot, and Southend were always going to be the more likely winners, as things transpired.
We know Taylor is a combustible character, never far from confrontation in a game. This season he has been a revelation - the enforcer we have been missing with tough tackles and good distribution.
The misfit has become an integral part of the side, and there is no doubt we will miss him for the next three games.
I hope that the lay-off will see him just have a little think to himself and realise he cannot go around like a bull in a china shop every time he is challenged. Yes, we want you to compete, but there is a line to be drawn.
Clifford's tackle was not the best. He had just come on and wasn't up to the pace of the game but still he was late, but the challenge was nowhere near as bad as Jon Meades' leg breaker for Oxford recently.
Meades got a deserved red, but only after Taylor had responded like a bucking bronco to the tackle.
It does no good,  and, after getting a ticking off from Mark Yates after the reaction to that incident, which he got yellow for and could also have been red, he has paid the ultimate price for a second offence. He hasn't learned from that perceived let-off.
Now (if he wasn't already) he will be a marked man. Footballers are not stupid - they will see that and think right, we can wind him up. Referees will know as well, and will already have the Cheltenham number 25 marked down as one to keep an eye on.
But for the reaction, I am sure Clifford would have got a yellow. He didn't, as Taylor's reaction took over the referee's thinking. As Yates said afterwards, JT gave the official the chance to send him off.
It's our first red card for nearly two years, and the criticism has been levelled at us of being too nice. This season, we had committed 85 fouls before this game, the fourth-highest in the league.
Not too nice any more maybe. And Taylor had made 13 fouls ahead of this game, with only three L2 players having made more (top of the pile was a certain Mr A Akinfenwa, by the way).
There is competing, and there is competing. You have to stay on the right side of the line. Yes, we want the team to show some battling qualities, but picking up red cards is not going to do us any favours.
I will, however, mention the reaction of the Southend players. It is, I'm afraid, typical of the game these days as they all descend on the incident - including, for some reason, goalkeeper Daniel Bentley from 80 yards away. I hate to see it, but they wanted to make sure the referee got the message.
He did, and from then on we were left up against it.
The first half was a decent watch. I thought Southend passed it nicely, but we kept them at arms' length with our usual good shape and pressing.
Southend were clever - they looked to use Myles Weston and Kevan Hurst as wide as they could, looking to pen in Craig Braham-Barrett and Jordan Wynter, making them defend - not their strongest suits.
They were quick to shift the ball from side to side but we mostly coped with it, and tried to break when we could, but didn't create too much bar a Wynter shot and a couple of half-chances from set-pieces.
Yates had put Omari Sterling-James in for his first start in an advanced role in the midfield three, trying to take up pace in the pocket behind the front two, and he was just growing into the game when Taylor was dismissed.
That changed his role immediately, and he was eventually replaced by Joe Hanks - a switch I thought might have even been made at half-time.
Up front, John Marquis worked hard as he has in every game, but got little or no change from Mr Linington or the Southend centre-halves - and he wasn't helped either by his partner.
It was another off-colour night for Byron Harrison, and I would say that bar Tranmere and Bury, that has been the norm for last season's leading scorer in this campaign.
Last season's leading scorer. He has, I'm afraid, looked anything but that this season, and last night's display was the worst of the season so far from him.
He was left out on Saturday, supposedly as a kick up the backside as Marquis and Koby Arthur deserved their starts. The kick clearly didn't work.
We need more from him. We need the unplayable Byron we saw at times last season, not the lacksadaisical Byron, who gives up lost causes, plays lazy passes and allows centre-halves to bully him and have an easy ride.
In the second half especially we needed him. We were on the back foot, under the cosh, so we needed a presence, a target higher up the pitch to hang on to the ball, relieve the pressure and maybe set up the odd counter attack.
Marquis tried his best to do that, but was soon walking a tightrope as he was entrapped in a losing battle against the referee, and so ultimately we had no reprieve from the yellow and black tide.
It was inevitable they would score and only brave blocks, good goalkeeping and poor finishing prevented them doing so, and we never looked like taking an unlikely point.
The red card had thrown the game plan away. OSJ was sacrificed for Hanks to give a bit more stability and ball-winning presence in midfield, and Wynter pushed up as we effectively played 4-3-2 then at the end tried 3-3-3, but all to no avail.
The positives to be drawn were two-fold - again the attitude of most players was spot on, commitment, bodies on the line, and the other was the crowd sticking with the team, albeit against the referee as well.
Ah yes, the referee. I must come back to him. As I said above, I thought he had little choice with the red card, and arguably so got the big decision of the game right.
But there were others he was way off kilter with. Binnom-Williams got a yellow for a tackle which looked high and late. That could have been Mr Linington's opportunity to even things up, but he didn't take it.
Then a great tackle by Steve Elliott where he won the ball, penalised. Failure to stop the game for a Marquis head injury, then doing so for a Luke Prosser one as we had a three on two 20 yards from goal, and then the most farcical of all, the Marquis yellow card after Bentley knocked his own player Prosser over.
As the game wore on, and especially after the Southend goal, he lost the plot more and more, and was allegedly given a 45-minute plus grilling from the assessor post-match, whatever good that will do.
But ultimately, I don't feel he didn't cost us the match. One of our players did that himself I'm afraid, and it only adds to the problems for Yates and his team-mates ahead of Saturday's game.
It is  typical of how quickly things can turn round. 10 days ago, we came back from Morecambe with a decent point, unbeaten in six games and a confident-looking squad full of options.
Now two defeats later, we have gone three games without a goal, and the squad again looks a bit thin.
There will be no Taylor for three games, Lee Vaughan's injury seems to be dragging on longer than we envisaged, and Asa Hall has almost become the forgotten man while a big-impact loanee has been called back - and then not even making the bench for his parent club.
Yates might get another body in by the Dagenham game at the weekend, when you know that You-Know-Who will come back and get his customary goal.
I think the manager has to at least consider a change of system to get the impetus back.
Maybe it's time to give the 4-3-3 a whirl on Saturday with maybe Steve Elliott being given a breather.
I'd be tempted to try this: Carson; Vaughan, Brown, Taylor, CBB; Richards, Hanks, Wynter; OSJ, Marquis, Haworth (assuming Vaughan is fit of course).