Saturday, 21 March 2015

It's the hope that kills you

After two highly-promising away games which should have yielded more than two draws, hopes were high going into the Exeter clash that we could get that much-needed win.
But instead of building on what we had started at Newport and Portsmouth, we took another massive backward step and the inconsistency which has blighted us for as long as I can remember reared its ugly head again.
Once again, Trevor Carson was not ridiculously overworked. The same had been the case at Newport and Portsmouth, but like those two sides Exeter didn't have to work hard for their goals.
Our ratio of goals conceded to opposition chances created has been far too high and if we do end up in the Conference that will be one of the big reasons why.
We have been a soft touch defensively, and it is almost becoming too late to rectify it. The stats show we had more goal attempts and corners than Exeter.
Teams don't have to work hard to score against us, and at the other end we haven't created enough opportunities or taken anough of the ones we have made to make up for these deficiencies, and that pure economics means you will be in trouble.
And we are. Big trouble. It's made even worse by Hartlepool's resurgence, and now it becomes two from four, with them, York, Tranmere and ourselves in the mix go down.
That is only because York conceded a last-minute equaliser, otherwise they would just about be out of it, and I think we can forget about Carlisle, Oxford or Cambridge being dragged down into the mix now.
This performance was a relegation display. It was lethargic and lacking in energy in key areas, and a promising first five minutes and a head of steam in injury time was never going to be enough.
With Troy Brown banned, Matt Taylor came back in, but he always looked shaky. He is clearly not fit and the decision to give him a two-year contract last summer looks more and more crazy as he surely won't stay fit to see it out.
Will Packwood, after two superb games on the road, looked to have caught the jitters from Taylor and his decision to go for the same ball as Craig Braham-Barrett cost us the first goal.
It was another goal down our left-hand side. This has now happened for a season and three-quarters and is the most baffling thing that we have done nothing about that position.
Braham-Barrett has somehow played practically every game for the past two seasons, and, bar a good spell of form for a few weeks when we played three at the back, he has cost us goals.
Left-back seems to be a position we cannot get right. Danny Andrew and Billy Jones also struggled at times, but I'd have either of them in the side now.
It baffles me that neither Mark Yates or Paul Buckle tried Paul Black in what was his most natural position while he was at the club, and that he was then allowed to leave. Surely he could not have been any worse? Surely it was at least worth trying?
Black must have been so downhearted that he wasn't able to get a go there, and was left to play his four games for us as a central midfielder (where he had never played before) or on the left of a back three (where he had never played before). Ridiculous.
It's the kind of decision that could send us to Braintree next season and are endemic of the poor decisions that have made at all levels of the club in the last few years.
Anyway. No use crying over that spilt milk now, although you do wonder how many goals might have been prevented had we tried an alternative.
In midfield, Pablo Mills put in a determined display as ever, while Matt Richards was again one of our better players, but Matt Sparrow has just dropped off recently after a really promising start.
He was lucky to avoid a red card just after Exeter's first goal - his challenge was a very poor one as I was expecting him to go, and he never really got to grips with the game.
Several times he had the ball in promising positions but then gave a poor pass or made the wrong choice and it was no real surprise when he got the hook.
The same can be said for Danny Haynes, who I don't feel would have been in the side had Eliot Richards been fit. Like at Portsmouth in midweek, he was largely anonymous and, considering his higher-league pedigree, I expect more from him.
Once again, our main threat was Wes Burns, and he nearly gave us the ideal start, and Haynes needs to learn from his urgency when he has the ball.
At times, Haynes had a chance to break quickly, but didn't move it swiftly enough as Burns did, and we squandered a few promising situations.
Too often we made it too easy for Exeter, especially after they scored. We allowed them to win too many second balls, and they were able to dictate the tempo of the game and control it - something we have not been able to do when we have got ahead in games, hence why we have lost leads so often.
I have some sympathy for Shaun Harrad. He has spent the majority of his return to the club with his back to goal being buffeted by centre-backs without much help from referees or team-mates. He has worked hard with little reward.
At half-time we crying out for changes, but I felt Russ Milton left it a bit late. I'd have made the substitutions he eventually made about 10-15 minutes earlier, and the switch to three at the back and pushing Burns more central with Harrad had an effect.
It made the failure of Mathieu Manset to negotiate the M5 closure all the more annoying as he would have been an asset in that mini-Alamo.
We looked more dangerous, but then Trevor Carson's error to put us 2-0 down left us with too much to do - or it should have done as we then ridiculously created enough chances to win the game in stoppage time after a ludicrous own goal gave us some hope.
It's testament to our season and our predicament that we didn't take any of them.
Omari Sterling-James' shot was deflected wide. Burns shot over the bar. Harrad's golden chance put wide. Joe Hanks had an effort really well saved. Richards' shot was blocked on the line. Five great opportunities all created as we went a bit direct and caused a bit of panic.
The fact that we did that showed that we should have done that earlier and made the gift of the second goal all the more galling - but the bottom line is that we didn't deserve anything out of the game.
Next week, we go into the Plymouth game without Packwood and Burns, as well as still having Troy Brown banned. It's not an appetising prospect, but we really do need people to step up now.
Mills has to drop into centre back to deal with Reuben Reid and I would play three centre backs, bring Hanks into central midfield, and then perm two of Harrad, Haynes, Richards (if fit) and Manset up front.
But we need some grit and determination. We saw it at Newport and Portsmouth, but it was absent here.
If it isn't found again very quickly, and we continue to turn in displays like this one, then there is only one place we are heading.