Sunday, 19 May 2013

Clearing the decks

After what seemed like in inordinate amount of time, we finally know now who is staying, going and those who remain stuck in the middle.
Out for definite go Darren Carter, Harry Hooman and Bagasan Graham. Kaid Mohamed and Marlon Pack look 99.9 per cent certain to join them.
In limbo land are Russ Penn and Connor Roberts, along with Darryl Duffy, last season's invisible man, who materialised in the Northampton game for what we thought would be a farewell appearance - but maybe not...
Starting with the outs, Hooman and Graham are not a surprise.
Hooman started the season superbly, was player of the month in August as he deputised first for Steve Elliott, then for Alan Bennett.
He looked very solid aerially, setting up a couple of goals in early games by winning headers from corners, but was found out when the ball was played through the defence on the floor - especially against Accrington, the game which proved to be his downfall.
Bennett and Elliott were re-united but Hooman played against Oxford in the JPT defeat, where his Achilles heel re-emerged and that was it for him.
Graham only came on once this season, in the opening game against Dagenham and Redbridge. He was farmed out to Gloucester and AFC Telford during the season and didn't appear to pull up any trees there so like Hooman the writing was on the wall for most of the campaign.
Bags made one start and seven sub appearances and despite the odd flash of pace he never looked like being capable of nailing down a starting place. The 'rabbit in the headlights' display at Swindon last season will, I'm afraid, be most people's abiding memory of him.
Carter was an enigma. He scored six goals, but rarely stamped his authority on a game as many expected him to.
Coming as he did from a career at the highest level with Birmingham, West Brom and Preston, the expectation was that he would be a colossus at this level. It didn't really happen.
Occasionally it did - Northampton away this season, when he almost single-handedly hauled us back from 2-0 down to win 3-2, and Morecambe at home, when he scored both goals and ran the show at times. But not enough.
He suffered from being paired with Marlon Pack in a midfield two which never worked. Many of their games in tandem ended in heavy defeats, or poor team displays - and the focus fell on their partnership, saying the lack of bite and the keenness of both to go forward together and leave the back four exposed behind them was the cause of those defeats.
Carter came to us on the back of an injury which had kept him out for a year and he didn't seem to have the dynamism and mobility around the pitch that I expected him to have.
A long-term injury is never the easiest thing for a player to recover from, and it would seem to me that Darren's game has been affected by it, but I wish him luck and hope he carries on his career at a good level.
With Pack also going, there was some possibility that Carter could have stayed, and maybe taken on Pack's mantle as the 'hub' of the team, but Mark Yates has decided otherwise and obviously decided he can get better value elsewhere.
A big call, so Yatesy now has to go and find that 'marquee' midfielder to replace both Pack and Carter.
He will also have to replace Mohamed, as he has told the manager his future lies elsewhere.
This departure more than any has sparked much debate, re-affirming once again the 'marmite' status of Mo among CTFC fans.
The goals he brings, and the pace which he possesses to scare defences is evened out by fans' frustration at his decision-making in key areas and the perceived lack of work rate at times, especially when helping out Billy Jones or Sido at left-back, or his seeming lack of willingness to go in for those 50-50 challenges.
Whatever his failings, his critics cannot deny that he has scored 18 goals in all competitions over two seasons, playing on the left side of midfield. Those goals will be hard to replace.
Also tough to substitute will be his pace. It can be a massive asset at our level - a player with pace who can just run away from a defence, as Mo showed in spades at times.
I will always remember that goal at Bristol Rovers last season - he just got the ball at his feet and ran about 60 yards before smashing it into the net.
He wasn't as effective this season, and most of his goals came from headers rather than direct runs and finishes - proof maybe that teams had done their homework and 'worked us out' this time around.
The Mo debate has also brought the focus on to his opposite number Jermaine McGlashan, and my comments on the Robins Nest forum have led to some accusations that I have an 'agenda' against Jermaine.
Let me put the record straight here, once and for all.
Jermaine has fantastic pace and the ability to beat a man and pose a real threat to a defence. His fleet-footed runs earn plenty of  free-kicks and penalties for us - but he could be so much more with better end product.
That is all that is missing. We have seen players like Chris Hackett, Kevan Hurst and Jennison Myrie-Williams give Billy and Sido the runaround this season AND deliver quality balls - if Jermaine could replicate that we would create so many more chances and potentially score many more goals.
But no player at this level is perfect. He has the potential to be one of the most dangerous players in League Two, and could earn us a lot of money - put it this way, I am delighted he is in our team rather than playing against us and if he has a big season in 2013-14 we will be back in the mix.
Another massive ingredient in getting us back in the frame again will be the signature of Russ Penn on a two-year contract. Yatesy says he has verbally agreed it, so let's get it signed please!
Russ is the heartbeat of our team. The cog which keeps us ticking over, and as our skipper he is the lead from which other players get their inspiration, and it is vital that we keep him.
Connor Roberts seems to be a notch up on our 'reserve' goalkeepers of recent years. A Welsh Under-21 goalkeeper with a grounding at Everton is a decent back-up to have.
However, I must confess that I haven't seen him play - and he never had a sniff with Scott Brown's form last year although nearly got thrown in due to Brown's foot problem towards the end of the season.
He has been a victim of the lack of reserve team football last season, so he has barely had a game - I really hope the club can find a way of rectifying that this time round.
We need regular reserve games for people like Connor who cannot be loaned out as we need him for the bench, so without games he cannot get that sharpness.
The same goes for Darryl Duffy. It's been no secret that he has been very unhappy not to be used more this season, and most fans share that bemusement at the manager's reluctance to get him on the field.
I hope he stays, but it seems that decision will ultimately be up to him, and will come down to whether he thinks the manager will give him a better crack of the whip come August.
Duffy started three games last season, and scored three goals. Having scored 15 in league and cups last time round, it is strange that we haven't seen more of him.
Darryl has scored goals at this level. He is proven - and I think it would be a mistake to let him go, but if Yatesy thinks he can get better value elsewhere, and backs himself to bring in THREE better forwards, then good luck to him.
I think Darryl alongside Byron Harrison or another 'big' man to take the hits for him would work - Darryl scored goals alongside Ricky Lambert, so I am sure he would alongside Byron or a similar player. I hope he gets the chance to try.
So that's the outs, stayers and maybes. Now, what about the ins?
With the departures, and assuming Pack and Mo are gone, the squad is now a bit clearer and looks like this:

Goalkeepers: Brown, Roberts
Defenders: Lowe, Elliott, Jombati, Jones
Midfielders: Deering, Taylor, Hanks, Williams, McGlashan, Penn
Forwards: Harrison, Duffy

So we have the nucleus of the squad, but are short at centre-half and up front, and have lost a lot of midfield creativity, and those are the areas Yatesy will be focusing on.
Jon Palmer's article here gives Yatesy's reasong for the Duffy situation and also states at the end that he has a player on his radar, a forward who has 'done well in our league this year'.
This has got the rumour-mill going as you would expect, with Rene Howe and Jamie Cureton seeming to be the most popular guesses for players who would fit that description.
Howe would certainly give us a presence, but the downside is his injury and disciplinary record - he got 15 yellow cards last season, the most in the division.
Cureton would be more of a Duffy-type player, but is 38 years old in August, so hardly a long-term prospect. He may have one more decent season in him at this level.
However you look at his record - and last season he played 38 league games and scored 21 goals. He got one red card so missed three games for that, so his fitness would not be in question.
I think he needs two centre-halves, two strikers (three if Duffy goes), two central midfield players and a left winger (an orthodox one please - not a midfielder who can play on the left) as priority - if that doesn't use the budget up then left-back cover would be nice.
With Pack, Mo and Carter gone, as well as the well-documented large payouts for Paul Benson and Shaun Harrad off the wage bill, you would think Yatesy has a decent amount of cash to play with... assuming the budget has been maintained at a similar level.
I am sure he will use the loan system for at least one of those players, but already looking down some of the released lists, there are some decent players around, and I would back Yatesy to find the quality we need.
It's going to be an interesting summer.

Friday, 10 May 2013

That's that then...

So there we go. No Wembley, no promotion, no Wolves. We must get ready for Accrington and Newport instead.
Over the 180 minutes against Northampton, we got what we deserved, I think. The first leg performance was pretty insipid. In fact the more I think about it the worse it becomes.
The second leg saw us throw everything at them, but after the penalty miss and Mo's header against the bar, coupled with Luke Guttridge's worldie, we may as well have just packed up and gone home - that ball was not going to go in whatever we did, was it?
The team selection was interesting. First we had Michael Hector and the Tale Of The Incredible Healing Ribs, and the return of the invisible man, otherwise known as Darryl Duffy, unfrozen from the cryogenic ice box to play, slightly curiously, on the left wing.
Hector showed no ill effects, and I was surprised that Bayo didn't give him a quick jab in the chest early on to test him out. Darryl was bright for the time he was on the field, but ithe role he was asked to play was a strange one.
Having played 4-4-2 in the first leg in a game we needed to be tight in, then to play 4-5-1 at home with Paul Benson as the 'one' and a striker on the left wing will, I'm afraid, only add fuel to the fire of those detractors of Mark Yates' tactical nous.
We kept Bayo very quiet. Most of the game we kept Chris Hackett quiet. We created great chances for Duffy, Harrad, Deering and Sido, as well as the penalty miss and Mo's header -more chances than we have created in the previous four or five games out together.
But we couldn't take them, while Scott Brown barely had a save to make.
The first goal was always key, and we should have had it. Now, I am not going to criticise anyone for missing a penalty, especially when they have had the bottle to step up and take it.
It's one of those things. Having seen the replay umpteen times, I am going to give Lee Nicholls credit for a good save, but that was no consolation to Marlon Pack after the game.
That was his last game for us. He knows it, we all know it. So for it to end like that was heartbreaking after everything he has given us over three seasons.
Credit to him for fronting up after the game and talking about it, and I just hope that is not people's abiding memory of his time with us. It certainly won't be mine.
I'd rather remember that free-kick at Plainmoor this time last year, or some of the raking 40 or 50 yard passes he has delivered.
I have seen some tweets and posts on the Nest forum calling him 'over-rated' and saying we won't miss him. Ok, each to their own but for my two penneth I think he ranks as one of the best midfield players I have seen in my time watching the club. In my view he is alongside players like Archie Howells, Grant McCann and Steve Brooks. Lofty company.
Yatesy will have to replace him, and I will wager that by about November some of those calling him over-rated from behind a keyboard will wish he was still in ruby.
He is a top bloke as well, and I hope he goes on to have a great career. he deserves it after everything he has given to us.
So a message to those 'fans' who have abused him on Twitter since Sunday is simple. Go away and re-evaluate your lives somehow.
Same goes for those who threw items at Lee Nicholls near the end. I hope the ground's CCTV picks you out and you get a visit soon. I don't want to see Neanderthal behaviour like that at Whaddon, thanks very much.
We gave it a good go and came up short - a mantra which could ring true for the whole season.
Having done so well to maintain a challenge again after the Wembley defeat last season, our failure to create enough chances and to supply a regular, reliable goalscorer has cost us in the end.
It was best summed up on Sunday when our best cross of the season so far was headed against the bar by Mo. It came from Michael Hector. A centre-half.
In Paul Benson, Shaun Harrad, Duffy and Byron Harrison, we have four forwards who should have scored plenty of goals, and have done so elsewhere in their careers.
It can be argued that Harrad and Duffy didn't play enough, Harrad especially in the later weeks of the season. Five of his eight league goals came by September 18, the other three in January and February - then we barely saw him.
His last goal was against Bristol Rovers - then Benson was finally signed and took his mantle, however he only managed four goals in his stay, and rarely looked like the player who faced us for Dagenham and Swindon down the years.
But they have not been played to their strengths. Benson and Harrad spent a lot of time employed as a lone striker. Not their game. Yes, rotate the strikers, but also give them a chance to maximise their potential.
If (say) Benson and Harrad together doesn't work, try Benson and Duffy, and so on. The fixation with the one up front (especially at home) and a seeming reluctance to experiment, both with personnel and systems in attack was a frustration.
Harrad seemed to become a scapegoat for poor performances. Rochdale was a case in point. He and Chris Zebroski were axed after that night, and from then on Harrad's appearances became sporadic.
Once again, it points to some fans' perception of Yates as manager with no plan B, and fires up those who criticise his timing and choice of substitutions during games.
The one up front is perceived as negative, especially at home. That goes back to when John Ward used it.
I lost count of the number of times while sat on the gantry at Whaddon, people have a moan at me about the 'one up front' policy. Most supporters don't like it - they want two strikers at home.
Late in the season, Harrison arrived and he was the only one seemingly suited to that lone role - yet he rarely looked like scoring a goal because of the service issue and the lack of effective midfield runners which often left him isolated.
His most effective performances came from the bench (Burton and Port Vale especially) and with a partner (Southend away for instance). On Sunday I felt he should have been introduced earlier. I thought with around 15 minutes to go I would have gone for broke and taken a full-back off, probably Sido, gone three at the back and thrown him on. Ah well... hindsight...
Our midfield has been oft debated. Russ Penn was the pick of the bunch over the course of the season, yet missed out a lot due to the Pack-Darren Carter pairing which not many outside the manager's office ever really thought was effective.
Jermaine McGlashan and Mo were very hit and miss, but all too often miss, and the inabilty to get that engine room firing didn't help matters further forward.
Last season, the midfield dynamic of Pack-Penn-Summerfield was key to the system we played. The failure to recreate that this time round was a big factor in why we never found any real consistency.
Carter was an enigma. Like Benson, he came with hype and expectation because of his past career, but never consistently lived up to it.
He scored six goals and showed his quality at times, but not enough times. It is highly doubtful he will be here next year, but, ironically, with Pack gone, could he be just the sort of player we are looking for to take his role in the side...?
Defensively, after the arrival of Hector, we looked more sound. Burton was the only real abberation, plus maybe Port Vale but that was down to the division's stand-out forward, Tom Pope.
By and large, Yates' decision to dispense with Alan Bennett, while still unpopular with many, was vindicated; Hector providing the 'legs' alongside Steve Elliott that the manager decided was needed.
Say one thing for Yates - he never shirks tough decisions. To axe Bennett, his captain and leader, was a big one. He was decisive and ruthless, and I think he has been proved right.
After the heavy losses to Rochdale, Rotherham and Chesterfield, he knew something was wrong. I think some of the goals Everton scored against us merely confirmed it, and in January he had the chance to address it, with Hector's arrival.
Nineteen clean sheets over the season bears out that the defence was not a major problem.
Yes, they had a few bad days, mainly those away games when we went beyond Birmingham - we still haven't won one of those since Macclesfield last season, but by and large we were solid, especially in the latter weeks.
No disrespect to the magnificent seasons Scott Brown and Steve Elliott have had, but for a team in the top five to vote their goalkeeper as player of the season, closely followed by a centre-half suggests where the Achilles heel lies. The fans know it, the board knows it, and the manager knows it.
It's up to him to solve it. He needs to find a way of taking off the shackles without sacrificing anything at the other end.
The paucity of goals has made this season, at times, a tough one to watch. Many of our wins have been ground out - reliant on not conceding rather than being able to dominate and kill sides off.
We finished a place higher than last season, but scored eight less goals, won three less games, got two less points, and conceded one more goal. We did have four less defeats - but also seven more draws.
Football is an entertainment business, but for Yatesy it is about winning games, however he can achieve it. That's his job, not to ride a unicycle across the pitch wearing a comedy red nose.
This season we have seemed to be more direct - whether that is simply because we have not been able to fire consistently down the flanks, so sub-consciously we have become more narrow as we try to make some headway I don't know.
The major plus has been the home record, as we have only lost twice in the regular league season - but again there hasn't been much style, bar the wins over Rotherham, Exeter and Wycombe.
In many of the home games, we have merely 'done enough' or snatched a late win; but some were pretty dour affairs - Rochdale, Chesterfield and York spring to mind here.
While it has been good to be more formidable at home, again the lack of panache would not have appealed to the floating punter.
It is a fine line though - the manager, board and the more 'regular' fan will simply be happy that we have won the majority of home games, but those who pick and choose may be left wanting more.
You can't turn it on like a tap, and you can't guarantee a good performance when a big crowd rolls up though.
Away from home, there has not been much to shout about for the travelling fan. It started off okay with three wins and three draws (and we should have won at Wycombe) until mid October, then it all went downhill.
Only three more wins, some thumping defeats (Rotherham, Rochdale, Chesterfield) and - let's face it - some pretty abject performances... I'm thinking of Dagenham, Accrington, Plymouth, Oxford and Burton here. Makes me cringe to think about them.
Aside from the wins, there were very good displays at Fleetwood and Gillingham - but both games were drawn, and for 20 minutes at Port Vale when we took the lead before throwing it away - but the bad far outweighed the good on the road.
We actually lost one less away game than we did last season (nine compared to 10) but won four less... teams who win six away games do not get promoted, as we have now found out.
Sorry if a lot of this seems to be negative, but it goes to show what a curious season it has been.
We have stayed in the top seven constantly since September, and in a tight league it is a disappointment that we have not managed to get out of it.
However, it has to go down as another good season. We have punched above our weight again against teams with bigger squads, bigger resources and bigger crowds (Burton aside...).
Off the field we remain in decent shape, and on it Yatesy deserves credit for assembling a decent squad, choosing his loan players well and maintaining another challenge for promotion having picked his players (and himself) up from the Crewe loss last May.
It was a small squad. We used 27 players - only Torquay (26) used fewer, and every programme listing the squads sees ours finish halfway down the page while most of the others stretch much further.
Our disciplinary record was good again - one red card (only York with none had fewer) - and no major injuries to speak of. Bennett missed a few games at the start and Benson at the end, and Hooman was the only real long-term absentee but he was not a first-team regular.
Credit to Ian Weston and Jason Murphy for their fitness work and the way they manage the workloads of the squad outside games - At 34, Steve Elliott played all 46 league games for the first time in his career.
Now Yatesy has to lift everyone once more, and try to do it all again. He faces a tough summer where he will have to pull more rabbits from hats and perform some pretty major surgery on his squad.
Pack will go, he will most likely be joined on the way out by Duffy and Carter. I cannot see Hooman or Bags Graham being kept on. Loanees Benson, Harrad, Hector and Jack Deaman have gone home, with, I suspect, only the latter two being realistic possibilities for a return.
Elliott has been signed up again thankfully, Penn and Mohamed, I hope, will join them but will have admirers. Who knows if any clubs will be sniffing around Brown, Jombati or McGlashan?
If everyone that I expect to sign stays on (big if...) the squad looks like this:
Goalkeepers: Roberts, Brown
Defenders: Lowe, Elliott, Jones, Jombati
Midfielders: Mohamed, Penn, Taylor, McGlashan, Deering, Hanks, Williams
Forwards: Harrison
So with 11 under contract and another three to come hopefully, my list of 'wants' is three stikers, two central defenders, two midfielders (creators - as in Taylor and Penn we have the bulldogs), and, if there is anything left in the pot, a left-footed winger and maybe some left-back cover.
Off you go Yatesy!
That's a big shopping list, and already the silly season of rumours has started with a list of names, 99 per cent of whom will come nowhere near Whaddon, already doing the rounds, from Rene Howe to Rommy Boco via Joe Devera, Joe Anyinsah and Danny Hylton.
The madness will continue, no doubt, until the end of July, so best get used to it...!
The good news for Yatesy is that his budget is expected to be about the same when Paul Baker and the board discuss it on Monday - and is believed to be around the £1million mark.
That's a lot less than many clubs at this level (and below this level...) have at their disposal so once again it shows we are doing a good job to challenge for a place in League One.
Finally, here are a few awards...
Player of the season: Scott Brown. I voted for him in the club award ahead of Steve Elliott. After losing his place last season, he has been brilliant this time round.
Match of the season: the 1-0 home win v Gillingham wins this, mainly because of the guy in the other dugout. It was my Keegan 'I would love it if we beat them... day.
Goal of the season: A tricky one as not many goals instantly come to mind. I have narrowed it down to three - Lawson D'Ath v Exeter, Jake Taylor v Wycombe and the one I have chosen. The player who scored it is no longer here, but I think, as piece of skill, it took some beating, and it was an important goal as it won us the match. I am picking Jeff Goulding's chip against Barnet.
Moment of the season: Because of the importance of it to the club financially and because we simply never win there, I have to say Kaid Mohamed's header hitting the net at Hereford wins this one.
Villain of the season: Could be Martin Allen, or Steve Evans... but I'm going to pick Fleetwood's Jamie McGuire for his pathetic gloating which got Alan Bennett sent off at Whaddon. I know Benno shouldn't have retaliated, but McGuire's childish actions were totally unnecessary.

The blog will re-appear in the summer, when there is something to talk about... in the meantime, thanks for reading and see you all in July at the first friendly!

Friday, 3 May 2013

It's only half-time...

So, how are we all feeling then?
Optimistic? Pessimistic? Fair to middling? All a bit 'meh'?
I have to admit my own frame of mind has varied between all four of those states since the end of last night's game.
The bottom line is that we were lucky to get away with 1-0, and we are still in the game, despite a pretty average overall performance.
I have seen our display described as 'awful', and various worse adjectives than that which would require liberal use of the asterisk on a family-friendly blog such as this.
Personally, I don't think it was that bad. Average, okay, not great yes, but awful, terrible or worse? No, I don't think so.
Several key players failed to make much of an impression on the game, and lost their individual battles, which had a big bearing on the result, and that was especially true in the wide areas.
Mark Yates made what some might suggest was a bold decision to play two forwards in Paul Benson and Byron Harrison, and employ again the 4-4-2 which succeeded at Sixfields in December.
It worked then thanks to the supply - Darren Carter had a particularly good game that day - but in the 90 minutes last night we gave the pair of them only two decent passes.
Both of those came from Keith Lowe, the ball to Benson for his golden chance straight after the Northampton goal, and then a cross which Benson headed at Nicholls, also in the first half.
But that was that.
Conversely, there is the argument that we played 4-4-2 in a game where the main priority is not to lose - while last week, in a game we had to win to stand a chance of a top-three place, he played 4-5-1...
Everyone knows we struggle to score goals, and much of that blame is laid at the strikers' door.
Harrison is now copping flak because he has only scored once in nine starts, and the clamour is that Shaun Harrad and Darryl Duffy should get a chance on Sunday.
But would they fare any better? I doubt it very much.
Northampton's win last night was set up by their wide players, and Chris Hackett in particular.
Every time he got the ball, he had one thing in mind - beat his man, and get a cross into our six yard box, looking for Big Bayo.
He did it very well. I would say about 70 per cent of his crosses hit their target and Bayo should have a had a hat-trick. Browny made two saves, one fabulous and one a bit fortunate, and there was a second-half header which went over the bar.
Sido had his hands full, and poor Billy Jones when he came on was given an even more torrid time.
Contrast that with Northampton's full-backs - who were midfielder Ben Tozer and centre-half Lee Collins, but were barely tested by our wide men.
Jermaine McGlashan got past his man once, and shot, forcing Lee Nicholls into an easy tip-over, deep in the second half.
But he compounded his miserable display by getting caught offside and earned himself a right earful from Jason Taylor - and rightly so. Rather him than me on that one.
No crosses at all - and the same was true for Kaid Mohamed.
Both are frightening to defenders with the ball at their feet running at them, but neither has what Hackett, and the likes of Jennison Myrie-Williams have got - end product.
They might score more goals than Hackett or Myrie-Williams will over the course of a season, but their prime job in the team is to supply crosses for the forwards, and they are not doing that.
Neither, on too many occasions last night, did they do the hard yards and help out their overworked full-backs, putting added pressure on our back four.
Jermaine also needs to be careful. He is starting to get into that habit of throwing himself down whenever he loses the ball in the hope of getting a free-kick or penalty.
Referees seem to be becoming aware of it and he will start getting a reputation as a diver, which won't help him or the team, so it needs to be addressed somehow.
The back four had their work cut out all night, but for the most part I thought they stood up to it well.
Steve Elliott and Michael Hector had their hands full with Bayo early on, but I felt that after around 20 minutes they got to grips (in more ways than one) with him.
Losing Hector was a massive blow. I thought it was a head injury when he first went down, then when he crumpled again after coming back on it was obvious there was a problem.
Quite how the referee Mick Russell could rule that he had fouled Clarke Carlisle while sustaining badly bruised ribs in the process is beyond me...
Hector's loss was a blow, and we will muss him if he is out on Sunday. Keith Lowe took time to settle in alongside Steve Elliott, but then did okay, and we know he won't let us down.
While the wingers were having an off-day, so did Marlon Pack. He has been superb since January, but last night he was barely in the game from an influential point of view, bar one cross which Benson nearly got on to at the far post.
We know Northampton are very direct, so the midfields were never going to be in the game much - but when they were Luke Guttridge and Ben Harding had the better of it.
Pack had few chances to get on the ball, while alongside him Russ Penn - after an over-exuberant start when he was in danger of getting a bit carried away - settled in to another all-action show.
The goal we conceded was a poor one though. Bayo had time to take it on his chest, and hook it round to Hackett, who beat his man and crossed to Roy O'Donovan, who was able to volley it goalwards.
Scott Brown got a hand to it and couldn't keep it out. It didn't seem that fierce a shot, and I think deep down that Browny, by his standards this season, will feel he should have done better.
But despite all that pressure, Browny only had one other save to make - the trouble is, so did Nicholls in reality, the one from McGlashan's one moment of impact on the game.
The rest of the time, we gave Nicholls routine catches or what little threat we had was mopped up easily enough by their back four. That needs to change on Sunday, or we are done for.
In the second half, we offered little coming forward. I thought Benson and Harrison linked well in the first half, but it was a struggle in the second.
Overall, the display mirrored our whole season - all hard work, and a bit of a slog, and not the easiest, most flowing performance to watch.
The supporters at Sixfields were superb. The noise levels were excellent, even after we fell behind, and even when we were under the cosh, the encouragement kept coming. More of the same on Sunday.
They were also restrained (bar the smoke flare) when Northampton fans invaded the pitch to celebrate their first-leg success (the key words here being 'first leg'...) which was mostly good natured I think, bar the usual bravado from a few taunting our fans.
But there is hope that these 'celebrations' could blow up in their faces in two days time..
We got away with a 1-0 defeat. Northampton could have been out of sight, as Yatesy, Penn and Benson all admitted after the game.
On the plus side, Their away record is not great, even worse than ours, while we have a good home record.
However, on the other hand, we have to score twice in 90, or 120 minutes. We have scored twice in our last 360 minutes, one of those from a centre-back and one from a central midfield player. Not a great omen is it?
So, in the next 48 hours or so, Yatesy has to come up with a formula to combat their direct style while freeing up some supply to our starved strikers, or our season is over. Good luck with that gaffer.
It's now or never...

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.