Friday, 14 September 2012

An opportunity missed

OVER a season, you will get results which surprise, frustrate and annoy you in equal measure.
This one was definitely in the 'frustrate' category, as even those with the intellect of an amoeba would have left Adams Park knowing we should have had the three points tucked away in our back pocket.
After four goals between them in the reserves, Darren Carter and Sam Deering were unsurprisingly brought into the starting line-up, and there was also a first start of the season for Keith Lowe.
It was Keith's 100th League and Cup appearance for us, and consigned Harry Hooman back to the bench after his difficult afternoon against Accrington.
For a few days before the game, it looked like Alan Bennett would be back against his old club, but now we are unlikely to see him until York next weekend at the earliest.
So Mark Yates, having decided to take Harry out of the firing line (rightly in my view) turned to the ever-dependable Bilston Cafu - and he took three minutes to make an impact with a great finish.
Unfortunately it was past Scott Brown, who could do nothing about it - but it could have been prevented further up the field.
From our corner, Nikki Bull caught the ball, threw it to Dennis Oli, he fed Joel Grant, and one cross later the ball was in our net. No tackles, no pressure as the ball travelled from their penalty area to our net.
Before that, we had two corners and has started well, and that own goal was as bad as it got in the first half.
As poor as we had been against Accrington, this was the total opposite.
I can barely remember the ball coming into our half during that first period, and there is no argument that we should have been in front at the break.
Our passing and movement, especially from our central midfield trio of Carter, Deering and Marlon Pack, was too much for Wycombe, and we looked a threat out wide, especially down the right.
Deering and Kaid Mohamed missed good chances, and we had a few long-range efforts, then we got a stonewall penalty after Pack was fouled and up stepped Shaun Harrad to smash it in.
Wycombe had been no threat at all, and also lost two players to injury - Oli and Matt Spring - in that half, and it looked odds-on for us to go on and win the game.
But to Wycombe's credit, they were better in the second half, led by Gareth Ainsworth, who has tormented us in the past and kept Billy Jones on his toes defensively.
It was a sweltering day, and was hardly a surprise that Mark made three substitutions - with two of the players introduced, Jeff Goulding and Chris Zebroski, having good late chances to win it.
But they weren't taken and we had to settle for a point, and I have been surprised by the somewhat negative backlash to the result.
Before the game, I would definitely have taken a point from Adams Park as I thought pre-season that Wycombe would be in the mix this season.
But as it transpires it might have been a good time to play them - they recently sold hotshot striker Stuart Beavon, had a few players missing, lost two more players during the game and it seems they had pressed Ainsworth into action (although he was their best player and won their man of the match award).
Yes, we should have won the game as it turned out and I understand people being disappointed that we didn't do so, but some of the reaction since the game has, I feel, been disproportionate and over the top.
We are not going to win every game, and it is arrogant to believe that we will. There will be disappointments along the way.
Much of the post-match ire was aimed at the subsititutions, and especially the decision to take Jermaine McGlashan off.
Once again, Jermaine had angered the home fans by (in their view) going down too easily and too often. On this occasion, I think it was 50-50 on that front, and I wonder whether this was a factor in Mark taking him off.
Shaun Harrad was limping slightly when he came off, and Sam Deering had run himself silly before he came off, and I cannot argue with the changes - put it this way, Mark has made worse substitutions in other games than these.
The fact that Goulding and Zebroski came on and then missed chances could have coloured some views on the decisions - Zeb's chance was the best in my view as he screwed his shot wide.
Jeff was denied by the goalkeeper with a good save then put a late shot over the bar, and we had to settle for a draw.
I am not going to get too deeply into the alleged incident involving Jeff towards the end of the game as I didn't see him make any gesture, and I wasn't in the away stand to hear what may or may not have been shouted towards him.
Anyway, no player should ever be gesturing towards rival players or his own fans, and if Jeff did that, he is out of order.
But equally, I also find it disturbing if some of our fans have started turning on certain players only five games into the season.
It's not only Jeff. I have  read on the Nest and Twitter this week that Billy Jones is 'not good enough', only five games into his CTFC career, and Darryl Duffy (a player desperately in need of a goal and looking very low on confidence) is also coming in for some criticism.
We need 'better back up' apparently. Darryl needs fans to help him through a rough patch, but instead it seems that some fans are only happy when they have a scapegoat or two amongst the squad.
I find that sad and wish it didn't happen, but I guess it is the case at every club and I find it one of the more distasteful sides to the modern game.
The manager said the other week that Mo was his 'favourite player' - with tongue firmly placed in cheek. Unfortunately for some of our players, they are not favourites with anyone it would seem.
The likes of Marlon, Jermaine and Sido, it seems, are impervious from any criticism at all, but practically everyone else in the squad would appear to have their share of detractors.
What happened to getting behind everyone in your team? Surely it isn't rocket science to work out that certain players perform better when there is a positive atmosphere coming from the terraces?
Why should there be ANY negativity anyway? We have eight points from five games and sit in 9th place, which is hardly a disastrous start.
I read somewhere this week that the games with Southend and Oxford this week are 'must win' games and it would be a disaster if we took less than four points from them. Really?
Well, here's a fact. If we beat Southend tomorrow, 11 points from 6 games will mean we will have made our best start to a Football League season in 12 years.
Hardly a disaster that, is it?

Player by player
Scott Brown: Hardly had a save to make all game, such was our domination. No chance with the own goal.
Sido Jombati: Got forward well to link with Jermaine down the right hand side but delivery poor. Defended well when he had to.
Billy Jones: Also an asset going forward and as usual with his set-pieces but had his hands full with Gareth Ainsworth in the second half.
Steve Elliott: Solid enough, and dealt with the long balls they were sending downfield and showed composure to start our attacks going again.
Keith Lowe: Recovered well from the own goal and was very good for the remaining 87 minutes, nearly grabbing a goal and dealing with their occasional threat.
Darren Carter: Excellent full debut. Composed on the ball, intelligent passing and calm touches to prompt our attacks and linked well with Marlon.
Marlon Pack: Poor last week, but superb this week as he and Carter ran the game. Confident on the ball and always involved. Won the penalty.
Sam Deering: Seemed to have plenty of space to play and influence the game. Missed an excellent chance in the first half.
Jermaine McGlashan: A big weapon all game as most of our attacks went down the right. Got very few decisions from the ref - hope he isn't getting a reputation as a 'diver'.
Kaid Mohamed: Not as big a threat as Jermaine. Made some decent runs and got into good positions, but then either didn't shoot or picked the wrong pass.
Shaun Harrad: Emphatically put away the penalty and worked hard, showing good touch, especially with his back to goal, but didn't have many chances.

Chris Zebroski (for McGlashan 68): Looked happier on the right hand side, and had a very good chance to win it for us.
Jeff Goulding (for Deering 74): Again playing in 'the hole' but had two good chances, one was saved well and one over the bar.
Darryl Duffy (for Harrad 78): Usual effort in the time he was on but looks very low on confidence. Needs a goal so badly.

Monday, 3 September 2012

Accrington Stanley ... who are they?

I thought that by holding off writing this for 24 hours or so, my feelings over this limp surrender would have mellowed in the cold light of day. They haven't.
Going into this game, I couldn't find anyone who thought we would not win the game.
All the predictions I read were 2-0, 2-1, 3-0, 3-1... a cakewalk, pipe and slippers job it seemed.
Maybe that was part of the problem. That was the view of the paying customers, maybe it was also the view of those who crossed the white line, so they thought going through the motions would be acceptable.
After all, this is the season when we put right the wrongs of last March onwards, and cruise majestically to a top-three place and march relentlessly into League One. Not on this evidence.
I know it is one game, I know we have only played four games this season. I know this was our first defeat of the season. I know we are still three points off top spot. I know all that.
But all that doesn't stop the alarm bells ringing after as inept a home performance from a Cheltenham Town side since the current manager took over.
It had the hallmarks of some of those displays at home under previous managers. You remember them, the abject surrenders where a limp Cheltenham side is rolled over by a side who are set up well and, quite simply want it more.
We have seen lots of them away in recent times too - Crewe, Stevenage, Southend, but at home they have been a rarity in more recent times.
I usually moan about fans booing the team off. I certainly would never do it myself, but am not going to criticise those who did so yesterday.
Positives? Not many. The final whistle was the main one...
Now I know players have off days, but it is a rare thing when all 10 outfield players choose to have theirs at the same time - however I don't think they were helped by the manager's choice of system, and seeming reluctance to change it.
Our success and best results since he took over have come with a three-man central midfield, but he opted to change to a 4-4-2.
That left Marlon Pack and Russ Penn to be over run by Stanley's trio of Will Hatfield, George Miller and Luke Joyce - but we have seen that happen a lot when we play a two-man midfield and come up against a trio.
We just never seem to be able to cope with it. The extra man always has the upper hand, and surely it should have been changed at half-time.
Marlon was as poor as I have seen him in a Cheltenham shirt. Wasteful in possession far too often, and well closed down by a Stanley midfield who chased and harried all game.
The same went for Russ - unable to impose himself on the game, and was outbattled - something which has rarely happened since he has been with us. Maybe it's the new completely shaven haircut - Samson-style, it may have taken his strength away.
It seems to me that Marlon can not play in a 4-4-2. Very rarely have I seen it work with him in that system as the deeper role he can play in a three suits him and allows him to get on the ball more and play the 'quarterback' role he seems to relish.
Up front, Chris Zebroski and Shaun Harrad were paired in a new-look partnership which didn't make an auspicious start.
Part of that can be put down to the way the game panned out - a goal down in four minutes, 2 down at half-time and the game gone a minute after the break - but the link-up play was fleeting, they were left isolated and the service was negligible.
In the opening minutes, I thought the Stanley back four (and Aristote Nsiala in particular) looked nervous and shaky, and was there for the taking, but we never got a head of steam up to put them under concerted pressure.
Both Shaun and Zeb had a couple of half-chances, but neither looked like scoring and I would have have had one of them off at half-time (or even before) to go back to 4-2-3-1, with either Darren Carter or Sam Deering coming on.
Jermaine McGlashan got into plenty of good positions out wide, and was our main threat - until it came to the time to deliver a cross.
Time and again he hit the first man, and was unable to pick out the ruby shirt. That is the part of the game he needs to work on.
He has the pace, his upper body strength is surprisingly good as he displayed when he took on two defenders and fed Mo in the move which ended with his volley being well saved, but his crossing is erratic.
Mo and his yellow boots lasted an hour on his return from injury, but looked a bit rusty. He should have scored in the first half but got no power in his shot. There were a few flashes of pace but that was it.
As for the back four...
Much of the spotlight will fall on Harry Hooman, and rightly so I'm afraid.
Alan Bennett is fit again, but pre-match you would not have found many people who would have argued with the decision to leave Benno on the bench and keep Harry in the side.
He was voted player of the month for August after some excellent displays in a side which has kept two clean sheets in the first three games, and he has set up one goal and nearly scored himself as well.
But four minutes in, his error led to Padraig Amond's goal, and you saw the confidence drain out of him.
Instead of attacking the ball as he has done on the first four games of the season, he was letting it bounce, and was part of the collective hell from a corner that led to the second goal for Miller.
Then, it was he who hung back to play Romauld Boco onside for the third that consigned the second half to a slow, lingering death, which left us with 44 minutes until the final whistle put us out of our misery.
Post-match, I have seen many comments saying that Yatesy should have given him the hook and sent Benno on, or criticising the decision to play him in the first place.
Hindsight is a wonderful thing, and Yatesy has made plenty of bold decisions in his tenure, and he opted to leave Harry in there, and unfortunately it has backfired.
I think Mark did the right thing in leaving Harry out there. To have taken him off would have killed his confidence even more. The game was gone anyway, so better to use it as part of the learning curve.
Now he can sit down this week with the DVD, learn from his mistakes, go back on the training ground and come back a better player after a return to the bench. Benno has to start at his old club Wycombe next weekend.
Steve Elliott will be happy to see his oppo back alongside him, I would suggest. He would have had the job of lifting Harry up and seeing him through the game while having to also deal with Amond's excellent movement and the runs of Hatfield and Boco.
Billy Jones was the better of the two full backs, although Boco caused him plenty of problems, he did send in some useful set-pieces again.
Sido was his  usual mixed bag. It seems to be sacrilege to criticise him, and he often seems to get man of the match for not doing a great deal, but he was poor defensively and better going forward.
That is a problem as his position in the side is right back, and defending should be his priority - as a mate of mine pointed out in the post match inquiry, if his name was Tom Smith and he didn't come from Portugal, he might get a bit more flak rather than seemingly being above criticism for poor performances.
Danny Andrew was pilloried by fans for his defending but lauded as he was 'good going forward' - I don't believe Sido has started the season well from a defensive point of view.
Scott Brown was not at fault for any of the goals - the 10 in front of him afforded him no protection at all, only serving to heighten the surprise that it took 60 minutes for any of them to be replaced.
Another topic pre-match was the bench. The six outfield players sat there were Carter, Deering, Bennett, Keith Lowe, Jeff Goulding and Darryl Duffy.
A Championship-class midfielder, our club skipper, the 2010-11 player of the year, last season's 15-goal top scorer, one of our marquee summer signings and a striker with 20 goals in the past two seasons for us.
By common consensus, it was one of the strongest benches we have managed to field in our 14 years of League football - and it should have been used quicker.
As I said earlier, at half-time or even before, we should have matched Accrington and gone back to our tried and tested 4-2-3-1, but we stuck with 4-4-2 as Mo was taken off with Duffy coming on, and Zebroski moving wide again.
That the starting line up stayed out there so long almost seemed like a punishment - you have got us into this mess, now it's up to you to try to get us out of it.
Finally, Carter and Deering came on and for 14 minutes we went back to our 'usual' formation but it was too little too late.
Overall, we have to hope this was a one-off, and one poor performance in August does not derail a season.
We now have three tough-looking games - Wycombe, Southend and Oxford in the next two-and-a-half weeks.
It's not make or break this early on, but it's a test of character and heart coming up a little earlier than we had hoped.
The manager has been rightly lauded for his summer recruitment, and the squad he has at his disposal is one of the best we have ever had.
His job now is to find a system they are comfortable with and the right blend of players to make it work.
He admitted post-match that he got it wrong this time - let's hope it's not long until he gets it right.

I am not going to do a player-by-player. It speaks for itself that everyone was poor, bar Scott Brown, who is excused as the three goals were not down to him, rather the ineptitude of those in front of him.