Sunday, 27 November 2011

Serving up a hammering

One of the many enjoyable things about doing radio commentary at away games is listening to how the opposition commentators and - more importantly - the opposition fans react after a game.
BBC Oxford have an after-match phone-in and the presenter was a busy man fielding moans about Chris Wilder, his team selection, their performance and the referee (was he from Swindon, asked one caller).
That should sum up in a nutshell just how dominant our performance was on Saturday.
We have, over the past few weeks, turned up at various places, seen the team go out and win, left happily but always had this nagging thought in the back of our minds.
Remember last season.... remember last season.... remember last season.
Tell you what, it might just be time to forget about last season after a display and victory like that.
'An automatic promotion performance' was how one friend of mine described it.
A tweet I read from an Oxford fan said they hadn't been outplayed like that at home for two years.
From the moment Russ Penn charged up the wing in the first 30 seconds and won a corner, you could tell which team fancied it, and which one didn't.
Their midfield didn't want to know in the face of the intensity of our Three Musketeers, while their two centre halves were dominated by Darryl Duffy's movement.
Kaid Mohamed had the beating of his full back but let himself down with poor decision making - the only minus of the afternoon - while James Constable can come out of Steve Elliott's pocket now.
Our first half performance was as good a 45 minutes as we have played away from home in the past four or five seasons, let alone just the last six games.
We should have been at least three goals ahead, but led thanks to Sido Jombati's goal in the eighth minute.
Did he mean it? I am not sure.
Mark Yates said afterwards that Steve Book had noticed Ryan Clarke tended to come off his line a bit, and suggested that Sido had spotted that and lobbed him, but both Russ Penn and Sido suggested there was maybe a bit of fortune about it.
Who cares though. The celebration was special, and the large smile he always plays with was even bigger than usual for a player who has quickly become both a cult hero and an integral part of the side.
Remember that he has ousted last season's player of the year, the Bilston Cafu himself, Keith Lowe, and Mark Yates compared him to a Brazilian full-back after the game.
He said it was Jairzinho, but maybe the boss's knowledge of 1970 was a bit hazy - sure he meant Carlos Alberto - but Sido's reaction at being called Brazilian was a bit muted... 'Pah, I am Portuguese' he said, rather like an Englishman being told he plays cricket like an Australian, one would suggest.
Kaid Mohamed had a shot saved when he should have passed to Darryl Duffy, Russ Penn had two decent chances and Duffy nearly got a second right on half-time.
After such a dominant display there was a slight worry that we would not maintain that intensity, and a rollicking from Chris Wilder would see Oxford storm back after the break.
But we are the best 1-0 team in the division - the only games we have not won this season after we have scored the first goal is the 2-2 draw at Torquay. Not a bad record...
Oxford sent on a striker, Deane Smalley, for Paul McLaren, who had been smashed throughout the first half by Russ Penn and Luke Summerfield.
Then Liam Davis got two yellow cards in six minutes - and should have gone earlier for fouling Penn, who was somehow booked for diving after the linesman had signalled for our free-kick.
Another substitution saw a defender, Harry Worley, come on for Lewis Guy, and then Jimmy Spencer got the second with a clever finish after Luke Summerfield volleyed a corner across the face of goal.
Mark Yates then took Russ Penn off and replaced him with Junior Smikle - good management as Penn was booked, had treatment for an injury and the game was becoming increasingly fractious.
We lost Penn's work rate and it allowed Oxford to have their best spell of the game and Jack Butland made good saves from Robert Hall, a Peter Leven free-kick and even the invisible James Constable had a shot.
But we were still comfortable, and maybe the only worry came when Leven curled in a fantastic free-kick for the first league goal we have conceded away from home since Lee Brown's goal on October 1 at Bristol Rovers - 387 minutes ago.
After a sublime free-kick, our goal came from a ridiculous one, Kaid Mohamed's 'shot' hitting Leven and dribbling past Clarke.
That was that, and there followed a mass emptying of the home stands as more than half of the Oxford contingent of the 8,037 crowd vanished almost immediately, or quickly donned fancy dress costumes as blue seats.
But the 766 members of the Ruby Army kept singing as they had from an hour before kick off, and the team celebrated with them after what I thought was our best away display in the recent run we have had.
So that is the Magnificient Seven away from home, matching what we did under Steve Cotterill in 2002, and our 12th win of the league season - remember, we only won 13 games in the whole of last season...
So on to Luton, then Southend at home, followed by Shrewsbury over Christmas.
Tough games yes, but after a performance like this, we should be fearing no one. If anything, they should be worrying about us.

Player by player
Jack Butland - Made some fabulous saves in the second half as Oxford had a decent spell, and was commanding throughout. Probably only one more game left of his loan spell but would love him back in January.
Sido Jombati - Great goal, whether he meant it or not, which has cemented his cult status. Another good performance overall.
Luke Garbutt - Kept Lewis Guy and Robert Hall quiet on the flanks and some decent set-piece delivery. Has been a big asset and glad he is here until January at least.
Alan Bennett - Usual commanding performance at the back. Never seems to panic, just goes about his job calmly and effectively. A great leader.
Steve Elliott - Brilliant display to keep Constable very quiet. He and Bennett have been imperious in the last two months.
Russ Penn - Work-rate and intensity set the tone for the whole display. He is the heartbeat of the team, and I lost count of how many 50-50 tackles he won, especially in the first half. Would love him to get a goal!
Marlon Pack - Superb passing and tackling as usual. One brilliant turn to outfox two Oxford midfielders and set us on an attack in the first half. Now on eight bookings for the season.
Luke Summerfield - Becoming a vital player now he has his real match sharpness. Under-rated by many and the 'quiet partner' of the midfield three.
Kaid Mohamed - Had the beating of Damian Batt from the off but too often made a poor decision when the play opened up for him. Could see the Oxford defenders didn't want to know when he ran at them.
Jimmy Spencer - Took his goal superbly and work rate was excellent down the right hand side, while he also linked up well with Darryl.
Darryl Duffy - Movement was superb and was a constant pain to Andy Whing and Jake Wright. Performance deserved a goal.

Junior Smikle (for Russ Penn 65 mins) - Good decision to take Russ off, but Junior failed to acclimatise to the pace and intensity of the game and looked a bit lost.
Josh Low (for Darryl Duffy 71 mins) - Useful outlet for us on the right in the closing stages, even won a 50-50 tackle.
Marlon Jackson (for Kaid Mohamed, 90 mins) - Cameo for the new loan signing. Touched the ball once.

Monday, 21 November 2011

The numbers game

I love my stats.
So much so, that many people call me just that, and to live up to that mantle, I have been compiling some numbers pertaining to Cheltenham's loan players, and just how much they have added to the side in recent weeks.
Jack Butland is at the centre of much of the focus on the team at the moment.
The 18 year old Bristolian's loan ends on December 11, so as it stands his last game will be against Southend the day before, meaning we have two more games to enjoy having the future England goalkeeper in our side.
Yes, future England goalkeeper. Gareth Southgate said so, therefore it must be true.
On Twitter, Jim Proudfoot sent me this about Jack: "Never seen a young player who I would be so confident about winning 50 caps. JB is sensational"
This from the man who commentates on the England Under 21 games for ESPN or whoever is showing it, so he does know his stuff, despite being a Torquay fan.
Several papers are touting Jack to be called up for the Euro 2012 squad as back up for Joe Hart, and he is also being backed to be Team GB's number one for the Olympics.
Amazing stuff - and it would be amazing if Mark Yates could find a way to keep him after Southend, but Chris Hughton might want him to challenge for his team, or play higher up the leagues.
He has to weigh up whether he is ready to replace Boaz Myhill in the Championship, or whether there is a League One side who would give Butland a regular game as we have done.
I suspect goalkeeping coach Dave Watson will have a say in what happens, and the suggestions I have heard are that he would like Butland to stay with us, which is good news, so it's all down to Mr Hughton now.
Butland appeared in our side first against Macclesfield, and has played every league game bar Dagenham, which he missed for England duty, and Crewe for which he was injured.
In those 10 games, we have won seven, drawn two and only lost one, which was the 4-1 loss at AFC Wimbledon.
Butland has kept six clean sheets, and let in eight goals - half of which came at Kingsmeadow.
Two of the others were long-range efforts at Torquay in our 2-2 draw and one was Lee Brown's deflected shot at Bristol Rovers.
The other, of course, was his only real mistake in those 10 games, dropping the ball on Steve Elliott's foot for Plymouth's goal in our 2-1 win.
Scott Brown has played in our other eight league games. We have won four and lost four of those games, with Brown keeping only one clean sheet, against Swindon, but only letting in one more goal than Butland has, with nine.

Another factor in that run of success recently has been the decision of Mark Yates to change the full-backs, with Sido Jombati coming into the side and the arrival of loanee Luke Garbutt.
The season started with Keith Lowe and Danny Andrew keeping the full-back positions they held last term.
Few Cheltenham fans were complaining at that decision, as Lowe had been player of the year and Andrew's attacking runs, crosses and free-kicks had supplied a few goals - even though his defensive capabilites were criticised at times.
This season, with Lowe and Andrew at full back, we played 10 games, winning four, drawing two and losing four, and conceding 13 our our 17 goals.
Andrew was left out at Bristol Rovers, so Lowe partnered Jombati, and we won that game 3-1.
After that, Garbutt and Jombati were paired, starting with the win over Dagenham, and we have not looked back since, with six wins in their seven games, and three goals conceded - the penalty Sido gave away against Crewe, the own goal against Plymouth and Dagenham's scruffy tap-in.

I have also been looking at our midfield partnerships, and how they have performed in our league games.
Much has been made of how much the trio of Marlon Pack, Luke Summerfield and Russ Penn have contributed and when they have all played together (eight games) we have won seven and lost the Crewe game, letting in five goals in that time.
Many fans (myself included) figured that we would be seeing Penn and Pack together, and they have played seven games together, of which we have won only two, drawn three and lost three.
The wins were at home against Swindon and Crawley, but the defeats included the one at Wimbledon.
Pack and Summerfield played at Gillingham on the opening day and in the win over Plymouth, while the only time when we saw Penn and Summerfield together was in the 2-0 win over Macclesfield, when Pack was suspended.

In attack, Jimmy Spencer has been with us on loan from Huddersfield since the start of the season, and is due to be here until January.
He has started every game bar two that he has been eligible for, having been suspended for four games, three after his red card against Swindon and one for five bookings against Plymouth.
He started the season alongside Jeff Goulding, and they have played together three times - and we have not won any of them, losing at Gillingham and AFC Wimbledon and drawing at Torquay.
Spencer and Duffy has been tried twice in a 4-4-2, in the 1-0 win over Swindon and the goalless draw with Hereford.
The six games in which Spencer has been banned or left out has seen Jeff Goulding and Darryl Duffy partnered, and we won four and lost two of those games, beating Northampton, Crawley, Macclesfield and Plymouth, and losing to Aldershot and Morecambe.
Then, in seven of the last eight games when we have played the 4-5-1 or 4-3-3 formation (bar Plymouth when we played 4-4-2 as Spencer was banned), Spencer was used as the central front man for five of them.
Four of them have been won, and only the Crewe home game ended in defeat.
The other two, the win at Bradford and at home to Port Vale, have seen Duffy in the central role - mainly because of his two goal display against Plymouth - while Spencer displaced Low on the right flank of the midfield.

Sunday, 20 November 2011

Rolling along

Another Saturday, another win... almost becoming boring now then isn't it?
No, of course not.
It's good to see the positive vibes around the place, and that was best summed up at Thursday night's Fans' Forum, where those in attendance were almost struggling for questions as, let's face it, there isn't really anything to moan about.
Alan Bennett came up with the quote of the night when he said he felt the club were 'shackled by the memory of previous regimes' when he arrived - spot on Benno!
But more wins like this one against Vale will keep up the attempts to consign those times to the history books once and for all... this was as convincing a home win as we have had all season.
We controlled the first half with the bedrock of the midfield trio once again winning the battle in the middle third of the field, and the centre backs having the best of it in our own penalty area.
The only thing missing was that elusive final ball but it felt like only a matter of time before we got it right and came away with the points.
That is the sea change this season - previous seasons have seen us held at 0-0 at the break, then fans and players get jittery, the away side builds up confidence, nick a goal, shut up shop, game over.
Yes Vale had a few players out, and I had people saying to me it would have been different had Marc Richards or Gary Roberts been out there.
They weren't, so that's an irrelevant argument and I think we would have won the game whatever side we were up against, so let's just enjoy another win.
The first half was short of goalmouth incident, as, while we had more territory and possession, we didn't make Stuart Tomlinson work hard enough.
At the other end though, Jack Butland also had a quiet half, with Steve Elliott's tackle on Shaun Rigg as he shaped to shoot stopping Vale's only threat on our goal.
After the break, I thought we had started a bit slowly but after we got the penalty, there was only one winner.
Russ Penn won a penalty like that against Macclesfield earlier in the season cutting in from the edge of the box and Darryl Duffy made no mistake.
That's nine goals in 11 starts for Duffy now - an excellent return, even though four are penalties, and I am not sure yet whether we are allowed to count penalties again, after Justin Richards wasn't allowed to by some idiot fans when he was here.
The second goal was a good move and Luke Garbutt's cross was fired in by Luke Summerfield for his third goal of the season, that was just about that.
Vale never threatened to get back in the game, Kaid Mohamed fired a shot wide and Jimmy Spencer had a shout for another penalty.
Much has been made of our displays on the road, but we are now 6-1-2 in home games and 5-1-3 away in the league - so maybe we have done our home record a bit of a disservice.
This game also showed that we can make the system we have used away work for us on our home patch, a feature of this win being how effectively we got Garbutt and Sido Jombati coming forward, borne out by the second goal.
So we stay in third (yes, Football League Show, that's stay in third not move into third) and it was nice to see us get a little bit of focus from Manish and Steve Claridge - as he said, they seem to be talking about us every week now.
It all sets up what is going to be a very big three weeks coming up, with a game down the road at Oxford as we go for seven in a row away from home against a side well beaten at Crawley and seemingly going through a little dip in form.
We should take a decent following down the A40 and the Kassam is always a difficult place to go, but surely now we are at the stage where we don't worry about who we play, and go into the game confident - but not complacent.
That's followed by the FA Cup game at Luton, where getting in the hat for round three is all that matters, and then the next home game is leaders Southend on December 10, and what a game that is shaping up to be.
Exciting times - long may it continue.

Player by player
Jack Butland - Little to do. One slight alarm but we'll let him off.
Sido Jombati - New contract in his pocket and another top notch performance as he galloped up and down his wing all afternoon.
Luke Garbutt - Set up second goal with a great cross and like Sido got forward well and did defensive duties superbly.
Alan Bennett - Usual commanding display. Tom Pope was a an awkward customer but Benno handled him well.
Steve Elliott - Pick of the back four. Just oozing confidence with Bennett alongside him.
Russ Penn - Terrier like display, winning tackles all over the pitch.
Luke Summerfield - Another good display, capped with a goal. Becoming a vital member of the side now.
Marlon Pack - Ran the game from the start. Loves that role as the deeper of the trio where he can find space and pick his passes.
Kaid Mohamed - Fairly quiet and only had a couple of runs - one of which he nearly ended in spectacular fashion.
Jimmy Spencer - Worked hard as usual running the channel and trying to support Darryl as much as possible.
Darryl Duffy - Like Jimmy, work rate superb and deadly from the spot but found it tough against Vale's uncompromising centre backs.
Josh Low (for Duffy 83) - Barely touched the ball after coming on.
Junior Smikle (for Mohamed 88) - Was a bit worried Junior wasn't going to make his customary appearance, but he did, so all is well with the world.
Jeff Goulding (for Spencer 90) - Got his win bonus.

Sunday, 13 November 2011

Win at all costs...

When I was about eight years old, I went to watch a celebrity cricket match near Southampton with the family of my best school mate of the time.
It was the mid 1970s, and there were lots of famous TV faces of the time there, but I only wanted to meet one of them.
He wasn't playing, but he had crowds flocked around him, so my mate Simon and I pushed through them, and got to the front, and asked to have our photo taken.
We sat down, and he turned to me, and asked me what football team I support. "Watford," I replied. "It's where I live."
He looked at me, grinned that smile I had seen a thousand times on the TV, laughed his head off, lifted his famous glasses up, and said "I'm not talking to you then," as he opened his jacket to reveal a large Luton Town rosette.
That man was Eric Morecambe, and as you can see from the above, I have never forgotten that moment.
I also have an aunt, uncle and two cousins who live with 10 miles of the place, and my uncle turned up at my 21st birthday party with a rosette on. I still haven't properly forgiven him now.
That is a small insight into a rivalry which I have carried with me for the majority of my 45 years, and is the reason why I am so desperate for the Rubies to do the business at the Kennel on December 3 (or 4).
I don't think I have ever wanted us to win a game more than this one.
After our brilliant win yesterday, I sat down for the draw with a list in my head of teams I didn't want to play - Carlisle, Southend, Preston, the Sheffield clubs, Charlton - and some teams I did - mainly the non-League sides like Sutton, Salisbury, Hinckley/Tamworth, Redbridge/Oxford, Totton and the like.
That's because getting into that third round draw is the most important thing.
But when I saw Luton come out, I then really wanted it to be number 17 which followed, as I can think of no team I would rather beat to take us into round three, and our inevitable trip to Old Trafford.
It's not an easy draw, but neither is it a terribly difficult one.
Yes, they beat Northampton on Saturday, but we have won there and with our record on the road we have nothing to fear by going there.
The only bad part about it is that we have to go the Kennel, arguably the worst ground in the top five levels of English football.
I haven't been there since I saw Ron Futcher score a hat-trick on his debut against Wolves at Christmas 1975, and to be honest, the thought of going there turns my stomach.
I have never seen Cheltenham play there, and all my Watford-Luton games have been at Vicarage Road.
They are intense affairs, and there is true hatred between the fans of the two clubs, much more than people think.
The rivalry was at its' heyday in the mid 80s when the two sides were in the top flight. Watford had Luther Blissett, John Barnes, Mo Johnston, Kenny Jackett and co; Luton had the likes of Brian Stein, Paul Walsh, Ricky Hill and Mal Donaghy.
The highlight of those games was an FA Cup third round game in January 1984, where Watford came back from two down at the Kennel to draw and won the replay 4-3 after extra time back at the Vic. The Golden Boys went on to reach Wembley that year. Heady days.
Luton later won the League Cup which they never shut up about, but the British clubs' ban of the time meant they didn't play in Europe, which, let's face it, is a good thing. Watford have done, and that rankles with the Beds lot, so we never shut up about it.
Basically, they have always had ideas above their station.
Having got caught fiddling the books the other year, they are down where they belong in non-League, and after thinking it would be a cakewalk to get back up again, they haven't managed it.
Let's hope it takes them a few more seasons yet.
But I mustn't get too vitriolic about things. It's a very winnable game for us, and that's the main thing, getting into that third round draw.
Their squad includes our former loanee and Gloucester City fan Stuart Fleetwood (suspended on Saturday); our old youth teamer James Dance and an ex-Watford player in Jamie Hand - one of very few players who have played for both clubs over the years. Their chairman is Nick Owen, which is another reason to dislike them, quite frankly.
I have just one message for Mark Yates and the squad. If you only win one more game this season, make it this one. Please. I don't care how you do it, just beat them.

Saturday, 12 November 2011

Taking the biscuit

On the album Achtung Bono, by the greatest band to come out of Birkenhead - Half Man Half Biscuit - there is a track called 'Depressed Beyond Tablets' (lyrics here
If I was a Tranmere fan, which singer Nigel Blackwell and the boys are, I would be just that after witnessing their performance.
But I am not, so quite frankly I am delighted they rolled over and kicked their legs and helped us to earn probably the easiest 18 grand we will get for a long time.
Tranmere were seventh in League One, so one of the toughest draws we could have pulled out.
They have only conceded four goals in their nine home league games, with only Sheffield United, Carlisle and Walsall managing to score against them.
We have now won six away games in a row, the last four without conceding a goal, and I would say that this was the best of the lot.
Yes, Tranmere were poor and very one-dimensional, but once again let's not detract from our performance, which was the usual away mix of commitment, quality and resilience.
There had been a few worries before the game that the loss of our loanees Jack Butland, Jimmy Spencer and Luke Garbutt would weaken us. Not the case. Jack who? Luke wotsit? Jimmy thingymebob...
These worries were also based on the limp JPT exit to Barnet, which maybe exposed our squad as not being as strong as we thought it was, but this result refutes that again.
As we have have seen at Rovers, Accrington, Burton, Wycombe and Bradford, the win was based on our solid back four, our fantastic midfield trio, unpredictable wide men and hard working striker.
Keith Lowe came back in, and it was like he had never been away. Solid as ever, offering an option going forward, causing trouble and corners and not giving anything away.
Sido switched sides and didn't let that affect his performance, while Steve Elliott and Alan Bennett just get better and better.
The midfield trio were all imperious, but none more than Luke Summerfield.
He had been in the spotlight all week with his dad sat in the opposite dugout, and he must be as proud as punch deep down after seeing his son's performance.
He was, quite simply, everywhere. Late in the game, he was our furthest attacker making a chance in their box, and seconds later he was making another biting tackle on the edge of our box to keep Tranmere at bay.
Russ Penn and Marlon Pack were not far behind as we collared the midfield from the off and never released our grip.
Having three in the middle to their two, there was always a pocket of space for one of them to drop into, meaning we always had an option in possession and just managed to play around Tranmere - toying with them at times.
There was one passage in the second half where we must have put 20-plus passes together, just keeping the ball, frustrating the opposition and taking the sting out of the game.
Out wide, Josh Low came back into the side, and while he didn't provide an attacking threat bar a second half header which nearly crept in, his defensive work was superb as he backed up Keith Lowe superbly.
Kaid on the other side was a threat at times and it is to his credit that Tranmere doubled up on him straight away and were very keen not to let him have any space to run into.
Up front, without Jimmy Spencer, there had been worries that Darryl Duffy could not play the central role on his own. Worry no more. He was a right royal pain for Ian Goodison (38, but played like he is 58) and the Tranmere back four.
His penalty was perfect, and he never stopped running or forcing Goodison and co into little niggly fouls which the referee was not picking up, and finally went off injured.
Behind them all we have Scott Brown. Oft-criticised but always reliable for a brilliant save when one is needed, and he delivered from Andy Robinson's free-kick just after half-time.
But it was testament to the 10 in front of him that that stop was just about the only one he had to make all game.
So into round two we go, and tomorrow at about 2.40, all eyes will be on number 17.
On paper, there will be some teams in the draw we might not want to pull out, but let's face it after this win, on grass we shouldn't be worried about anyone, should we?
But can we please have Salisbury, Totton, Redbridge or Oxford City, Sutton United or Hinckley or Tamworth at home please?
Thanks - and with Huddersfield going out, Jimmy Spencer may get the nod - if he can get in the side, that is...
Before that tie, we have the first of a tough run of league games, starting with Port Vale at home and Oxford away.
Yes we have won six away games in a row, but at home we have lost our last two without scoring a goal, and the win before that came with two late goals against a young side who ran out of steam.
That may sound a bit churlish, but the task for Yatesy now is to translate that away formula into one which can work at home.
He has to work out how we can combat sides who come to the Theatre of Shattered Dreams and play like we do on the road, ie adopting a 'contain and destroy' policy.
If he can do that, who knows what we can achieve this season...

Scott Brown - One fantastic save from a free-kick was all he had to do. Protected well by the players in front of him, and confidence will be helped by clean sheet.
Keith Lowe - Almost like he has never been away. Didn't miss a header, tackle or interception all game. Proved he is still a steady, committed performer.
Sido Jombati - Moved to left back, but it did not affect his performance at all. Good in the tackle and got forward well to help link play in the opposition half.
Alan Bennett - Usual display from the skipper. Won every header and every interception which came his way.
Steve Elliott - See above. Having Benno alongside him has brought the best out of Stevie. Just a rock at the back.
Josh Low - Back in the side and worked very hard up the right hand flank. Nearly scored with a header in the second half.
Russ Penn - Up and down the field as usual, winning tackles and spraying passes as he went. All that is missing from his season so far is a goal.
Luke Summerfield - Man of the match and his best game in a ruby shirt. The guy was everywhere.
Marlon Pack - The third member of what is becoming the best midfield we have had in years. While his  minders win the tackles, he sprays the passes.
Kaid Mohamed - Tranmere doubled up on his from the off, but he still managed to provide an outlet for us. Nearly scored with a bicycle kick and a header from 20 yards.
Darryl Duffy - Asked to play that lone role, and was superb. Always a pain for the Tranmere defence, and the penalty was never in doubt.

Jeff Goulding (for Darryl Duffy 76) - Put himself about very well as soon as he came on and so close to a second goal for us at the end.
Junior Smikle (for Josh Low 84) - Did what he always does. Came on and gave his all as we closed the game out.
Harry Hooman (for Russ Penn 90) - Hardly touched the ball.

Tuesday, 8 November 2011

After the Lord Mayor's Show...

Right, so that's that then.
Cancel the red and white hat with bells on, stop the order for the big hand things with CTFC on them.
The Wembley dream is over for another year - if it was ever really there in the first place.
The bottom line from tonight's defeat is that we did not deserve anything from the game.
We were poor, as poor as we have been since the heady days of last season, when we struggled to out three passes together, and all credit to Barnet, they deserved their win.
Unbelievably, I heard some boos at the end of the game. If you were one of those booing, take a look at yourself for Christ's sake. What a joke.
We are third in the table. Six wins out of seven. Playing some great stuff, albeit mainly away from home.
And even if the boos were for the referee, he didn't cost us the match.
Those players for whom it was their big opportunity can take the rap for this one.
After the game at Bradford on Saturday, one of the most comfortable 1-0 wins you will ever see, Mark Yates said that he had those players who were outside the 16 beating his door down asking for a chance.
Tonight, he gave them that chance, and they blew it. Spectacularly.
To his credit, Yatesy came out and took the rap, saying he picked the wrong team, and made too many changes.
Magnanimous yes, but also letting the shirkers off the hook. I suspect his team selection for Tranmere has been made a lot easier after that display.
Danny Andrew was considered unlucky to be dropped from the side when he was left out at Bristol Rovers, but the run of form since then and his display tonight vindicates that decision.
The same can be said for Keith Lowe, and you can't see Junior Smikle (despite a bright first half) or Jeff Goulding earning a regular spot any time soon on their displays.
Goulding looked totally lost in that deeper role behind first Jimmy Spencer and then Darryl Duffy. He had the most to gain from tonight, but looked bereft of confidence and summed that up with our only effort on target, a weak header from a decent cross.
As it stands, he has probably lost the most, with Spencer and Duffy free to keep their places in the pecking order ahead of him.
Harry Hooman clearly still has a lot to do to make inroads on Alan Bennett and Steve Elliott's partnership with the poorest by far of his three starts in the competition.
In central midfield, Russ Penn and Luke Summerfield looked lost as a pairing, and we have also seen the Pack-Summerfield duo struggle my feeling is that if we don't play them as a trio, Pack-Penn is the only pair that works.
Barnet, in contrast, made only two changes from the side which drew at AFC Wimbledon on Saturday, and they were enforced by injuries, so therein probably lies the reason for their greater cohesion.
Sam Deering and Mark Marshall were particularly impressive, and even the loss of top scorer Izale McLeod to injury did not halt their progress.
The first goal was a shambles from our point of view. Whether it was a free kick is open to debate, but Keith Lowe was penalised.
However the wall we set up was pathetic and Marshall drove his free kick through the rabble of rubble and Scott Brown had no chance.
The second came from a long ball and substitute Charlie Taylor controlled it well and beat Scott Brown with a low shot, but Hooman may feel he could have defended it better.
We never remotely looked like getting back into the game. Barnet's defence and goalkeeper will never have an easier night.
It was as limp and disappointing a display, especially from an attacking point of view, as we have seen all season, and let's hope it was a one-off, and was down mainly to the changes we made.

Scott Brown - Mixed bag. No chance with either goal, but suspect on some crosses although he made two or three very good saves.
Sido Jombati - Best of a ropey bunch, although he got booked at the end and could even had had a second one quickly after. Pace got him out of trouble once or twice.
Danny Andrew - Very poor. Looked totally off the pace. Mistake to gift Marshall possession and nearly a third goal summed up his evening. One to forget.
Keith Lowe - Looked very shaky. Defensive headers looked uncertain and again looked short of match sharpness. Maybe slightly unlucky with decision for free kick before first goal.
Harry Hooman - Poorest game in the competition. At times looked like a rabbit in the headlights. Struggled against McLeod and then Taylor.
Junior Smikle - Bright in the first half with some good runs and decent crosses, but vanished from the game completely in the second half.
Russ Penn - Seemed to struggle with being back in a more orthodox midfield role, and tried to get forward too much, leaving us over-exposed.
Luke Summerfield - Poor game. His role in the midfield three suits him but looked lost without Marlon Pack alongside him.
Bags Graham - Had beating of Danny Senda early on, but threat negated when they doubled up on him. Also vanished from game after the break as we could not get supply to him.
Jeff Goulding - Very poor. Touch seemed weak and almost complacent, and seemed lost in the 'in-between' role. Would have been better in orthodox 4-4-2.
Jimmy Spencer - Willing running and decent touch as usual, but was isolated and having to come deep too often due to lack of service and support.

Darryl Duffy (for Jimmy Spencer, 59) - Not able to get into the game. No shots as he got no service, and no support.
Marlon Pack (for Russ Penn, 60) - Couple of decent passes but then fell into the malaise of those around him.
Theo Lewis (for Luke Summerfield, 60) - Out of the icebox for a rare appearance but never got into the game and hardly had a touch.

Sunday, 6 November 2011

Remember, remember...

I desperately wanted to avoid all the cliches about November 5th, but I am afraid it was just too hard to resist.
Make no mistake, this display at Valley Parade was a sparkler, has started the month off with a bang and sent us up the League Two table like a rocket, into third place.
Sorry. I will stop now. Promise.
I could now go on about how Bradford were not very good, didn't make Jack Butland make a save until the 70th minute, and were being booed by their own fans after about 20 minutes.
But that would just detract from an away performance which manager Mark Yates quite rightly described as the best of the season.
We should have won the game by about four or five, as we were utterly dominant in all areas from Butland's secure handling, through Bennett and Elliott's winning of every header, via Penn, Pack and Summerfield winning tackles they had no right to, up to Spencer and Duffy's non-stop running.
It was scarily reminiscent of away wins in the Conference title-winning season, when we went to places like Hereford and Morecambe, dominated, kept a clean sheet, won the game and went home.
No fuss, just got the job done, and that's what happened here.
Just like last year, we rolled up and started well, with Kaid's goal after eight minutes putting us in front, as Josh Low's early strike had done last season.
But unlike last season, we didn't cave in, we didn't sit back and I am even starting to get less nervous now about us closing these games out...
A look back at the game at Valley Parade a year (and three weeks) ago shows only two survivors in the starting line-up, Elliott and Pack.
Lowe, Low, Smikle and Goulding were on the bench, Gallinagh is on loan at Bath, Brown, Andrew and Lewis are out of the 16, and the 11th member of the starting side, Michael Pook, has just joined Brackley Town ...
Of the bench that day - Shroot, Jeffers, Artus, Melligan, Lee, Haynes, Lloyd-Weston - only Haynes, nominally, remains at the club.
And it is that bench which starkly tells you just why things have improved so much in a year.
After the 4-4-2 experiment against Plymouth last week, it seemed inevitable Mark Yates would go back to the 4-5-1/4-3-3 which works so well away from home.
But when the team sheet arrived with no Josh Low, but Jimmy Spencer and Darryl Duffy included, it wasn't easy to work out, but it turned out to be Duffy in the central role, and Spencer on the right.
Hence it was more 4-3-3 that 4-5-1 and, as we are becoming strangely accustomed to away from home these days, it worked perfectly.
From the moment Marlon Pack had acres of space in the second minute to shoot over from 30 yards, the pattern was set and I got the feeling we would get something from the game.
Mo scored his goal five minutes later, not the greatest connection or the best bit of goalkeeping by Matt Duke, who was then barracked by his own fans for the rest of the game.
Pack shot wide, Spencer had a shot saved, Pack had a shot brilliantly tipped round, then on the half-hour Spencer had a double chance.
Duffy did what he does best, chasing lost causes and creating something with a cross which Jimmy just failed to connect with, then when the ball came back in, he sliced wide on the stretch.
The reaction of the home fans was amazing. A very loud chorus of boos and whistles came from the 9500 so-called Bantams 'fans'. It was music to our ears.
After that they had a bit of pressure and won some corners, but Jack Butland was never called into action.
The second half was one-way traffic. Duffy had a shot saved, then Marlon Pack nearly wrote himself into folklore.
We won a free-kick about 30 yards from OUR goal. Marlon grabbed the ball and tried a shot, which Duke had to tip round for a corner. It was incredible and if it had gone in they would have been showing it for years.
Then Mo had a shot cleared off the line, Sido shot into the side netting and Russ Penn was fouled on the edge of the box, or just inside it, after winning about four successive 30-70 tackles, but the referee waved play on.
Kyel Reid had a shot in the 64th minute for Bradford and was roundly booed for it, and bar a save for Butland after 70 minutes from Ross Hannah, that was that.
There was no gung-ho home pressure for the last 20 minutes, no desperate defending, no sitting back on our own 18 yard line as the home side swing cross after cross and corner after corner into the box waiting for us to buckle.
It was comfortable, even quite relaxing, and dare I say it, enjoyable to watch rather than anxious and nervous.
So that's four successive away league wins, three clean sheets in a row on the road, and a 10th league win of the season - only 3 less than the whole of last year. We have 32 points, only 15 less than Lincoln went down with last year, and only 20 less than we got in the whole of last season...
Yes, I know people are still going to wary about what happened after Christmas last season, but this squad of players is made of sterner stuff and I think we have the depth of squad to cope.
However, we have not been hit yet - touch wood - by any sort of serious injury, and there would have to be a worry as to how we would cope without players like Bennett, Pack or Penn for a period of time.
Then there is the problem of whether we will lose Jack Butland, Jimmy Spencer and Luke Garbutt at some point when their loans run out - but they are all playing regularly and while the team is doing well there is more chance of their clubs leaving them with us, and, perhaps more importantly, the players wanting to stay.
But let's cross those bridges when they come and just enjoy what we have at the moment, a committed group of players giving their all for the club and getting the results.
The next few weeks are very important with the two Cup games followed by some big league games against teams around us - between now and January 7, we play Port Vale (10th) twice, Oxford (7th), Southend (top), Shrewsbury (4th) and Crawley (2nd), as well as Rotherham and Barnet.
We think we have a good squad here. By January maybe, we will know just how good.
Finally, on the drive back, I listened to 6-0-6 and all I heard were fans moaning about their teams 'not getting any credit' from pundits about playing well this season - Newcastle, Southampton, Charlton and Southend fans mainly.
That drives me mad. Getting credit from pundits, most of whom talk nonsense anyway, does not win matches. I would rather stay under the radar and just prove people wrong in a quiet, under-stated way.
Mark Chapman did mention us and asked for CTFC fans to ring in, and none did. I am glad about that.
If we are still up there in May and if we do achieve something, that's the time when we will deserve credit.

Player by player
Jack Butland - After last week's mistake, he was faultless. Caught everything, stayed alert when he had nothing to do. One take from a corner through about five players was fantastic.
Sido Jombati - Another good game. His ball forward started the move for the winning goal and he kept Kyel Reid quiet.
Luke Garbutt - Dealt superbly with a tricky customer in Michael Bryan very well and also got forward well to give us width on the left.
Steve Elliott - Is now the player we thought we signed last season. Won everything in the air and on the ground.
Alan Bennett - What a signing, and what a leader this guy is. No fuss, no nonsense. Leads from the back and always gives his all. Has brought the best out of Elliott.
Marlon Pack - Ran the game for the first 20-25 minutes, and helped us dominate in midfield from then on. Nearly scored an incredible goal which would have been the best CTFC goal ever.
Russ Penn - My man of the match. Epitomises the 'new' CTFC with his non-stop energy and commitment. Won tackles he had no right to win all over the field.
Luke Summerfield - Ran Penn close as he too was throwing himself into tackles and was just working non-stop all game.
Kaid Mohamed - Took his goal well and unlucky to have one cleared off the line. Better than in previous games.
Jimmy Spencer - Also a man of the match candidate with his non-stop running until he could give no more. Unlucky not to score and more than justified his recall.
Darryl Duffy - Worked very hard and gave the Bradford defence plenty to think about in that central role.

Josh Low (for Darryl Duffy 73): Rightly left out in my opinion, but did well when he came on, offering an outlet as we closed out the game.
Junior Smikle (for Kaid Mohamed, 83): Usual Junior cameo. Effort and energy, and also had time to get caught offside...!
Jeff Goulding (for Jimmy Spencer, 88): Came on to close the game out and did the job perfectly. Seems to be third choice now of our three strikers...