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  • Professional

    The mighty Hatters swung back into action yesterday and comprehensively outplayed Oxford, despite half the squad being afflicted by the trots presumably in a show of support of the broken-legged right back.

    Despite being down in numbers, the performance was professional from beginning to end, as ever our cause and our confidence being greatly aided by a good early goal from Luke Wilkinson.

    And what a good game Wilkinson had. Even without his headed goal he was my man of the match. He was the archetypal rock at the back. Sure-footed and commanding he swept up Oxford’s attacks - when they did occasionally venture into our half - and won header after header. We can now see why John Still was so keen to sign him in close season. Four games without conceding a goal suggests that we are doing something right at the back. Today we defended in such a way that only on two occasions in the whole 90 minutes did Oxford get around the back of us. The first one caused the heart to flutter as McNulty, suffering from nappy syndrome (his mind addled no doubt by sleepless nights and the thought of nipple pads) let the ball go over his head rather than to head it clear. It was like he was pushed forward by an imaginary Micky Quinn. As it happens that moment served to galvanise the defence and they hardly put a foot wrong after that, forcing Oxford to shoot from miles out – they couldn’t get close.

    I think Oxford had only two decent shots on target and Tyler had to make a couple of reflex saves, the first was very nearly world class and to be added to his long list of brilliant point blank saves too numerous to tally, where he touched a shot from Barnett round the post – I don’t know how he got down in time. The second was a near point-blank header from Barnett where he got down to save in exactly the right place. A bit like a baseball catcher who knows where the pitch is going. Without those saves the result would have been very different. Earlier in the season I indicated that MT was beginning to show signs that he was starting to show his age. His recent form has dispelled this, in fact you could assert that he has improved. Mark Tyler is a fine wine, improving with age.

    Alex Lacey started at right back today and had a pretty tidy game, he was up against their only attacking threat down the left in O’Dowd.

    Scott Griffiths battled excellently on the left and had Ruffel in his pocket. He played well all game and largely neutralised Oxford down the right.

    Nathan Doyle made his debut, sitting in front of the back four. He had a physical presence about him and was tidy enough I think. Survived the attempt to rearrange his kneecaps by Tyrone Barnett. Bearing in mind many of John Still’s acquisitions often take time to bed in and get up to speed, I look forward to seeing what he is like after ten games...Drury replaced him later on when we changed to a 4-4-2.

    In the middle too – but in a more advanced role than I seem to recall was Smudger Smith, who as ever ran and worked hard in the middle, charging people down with impunity.

    More or less the most advanced midfielder of a three – but still back and forth in his ‘box to box’ role was PRM who had a slightly strange game compared to his Trojan performances recently. He certainly posed an attacking threat but seemed to have a gear in reserve. Perhaps he didn’t need his top gear such was the underwhelming threat of Oxford. We could have doubled the lead within a minute when Pelly was given a good chance after good play in the box from Cullen and Whalley but he popped it over the bar.

    On the right of front three (or the right of a midfield 5 if you prefer) was Shaun Whalley, a slightly revitalised version of the walking shambles we saw at the start of last season. He was a direct threat, and tracked back well when needed. He does get bumped off the ball a bit easily. Didn’t perhaps cut through their lines in the way he would have like but at least was felled for the free kick which led to the goal. His replacement by Layafette re-injected vigour into our performance, so he played a part in that way I guess – he was the facilitator for the final push by being substituted. I wish Shaun well, hopefully by starting yesterday that will give him some of the confidence he was lacking.

    On the left up was Jake Howells who had an outstanding game and his alertness was rewarded when he sprung to score from the rebound from his own penalty a la Cullen. He didn’t just whack it back though, but got it under control, dribbled a bit, did a shimmy, checked his emails, before slotting it home. The penalty itself was for handball by Mullins on the edge of the box. The sort of penalty decision you get when things are going your way as the Mr Magoos of the lower leagues invariably fail to spot that sort of thing. For example later on in the second half one of our team (I can’t recall who) played catch with himself and the ref missed that one. It was Howells’ inswinging freekick that gave Wilkinson such a perfect opportunity for the goal.

    In the middle was the long suffering Mark Cullen, ploughing a lone furrow, until Lafayette came on. Too often though he was left isolated when, having received the ball, had no one to lay it off to. Such is the nature of the system I guess. Late on he went on a splendid run with a golden opportunity to make it three – but stumbled and shot rather than passing it. Great when they go in and you can’t blame a centre forward for having a go, especially when we were two up already. If it had been 0-0 then he might have been lynched for not passing it.

    As I said earlier – the introduction of Lafayette gave us the momentum to finish the job, it levered away the slow momentum Oxford had gained as our high tempo approach was difficult to maintain. When he came on he posed an immediate threat and gave us the edge and gave Oxford something to think about. He might not be the most refined front man yet, but yesterday he brimmed with confidence. Oxford’s centre halves who had been barely coping with just Cullen, suddenly had  a big strong bloke to try to manage and they struggled and thereafter were on the back foot. It was a masterstroke, as was shoring up the right hand side by changing to 442 and bringing on Drury.

    It was a good game and one which I thoroughly enjoyed. A good competent, professional win. We played at high tempo and pressed Oxford hard, they were toothless up front and mainly had to rely on long shots. We did a job on Oxford, and their only decent chances fell to Tyrone Barnett, who surely nine times out of ten would have been dismissed for the brutal lunge on Doyle. Hats off to John Still’s men for playing well and keeping them at bay. The only worrying note is that our goals are coming from set plays, but good to be still winning whilst that is the case.

    Next week we renew our acquaintance with the strange Hertfordshire brand of anti-football when we play the cheats from Stevenage, I can’t wait. I’m interested to see if the Westley leopard has changed its spots, or mellowed over the years. Yesterday when Barnett went over the top on Doyle the whole team led by Macca were enraged and were ready to pile in. We all reacted and stood together a la Paul Colingwood for England against the Aussies in 2005. I suspect there might be more of that needed next week if Stevenage revert to type. Had we not got the early goal today, I suspect Mr Appleton’s team would have given us a dress-rehearsal for the tactics we can expect. Certainly the tackling and the constant whining to the ref were straight out of the Westley text-book.

    Come on you Hatters.

  • Mark Tyler saves the day & welcome back Smudger

    A welcome return to winning ways after a hard-fought 1-0 win. Whilst the performance was better and the battling was excellent, we have Mark Tyler to thank for some excellent saves that kept us in the game.

    At the final whistle there was tangible pulse of relief from the crowd – a P-wave of appreciation and acknowledgement of the efforts undertaken.

    The team lined up with four tactical changes. Interesting to say the least, especially as John Still had said how well the team performed in the last game. However, we matched Cheltenham’s formation like-for-like with a 3-5-2. Curtley Williams made his debut, whilst Ross Lafayette made his full debut. Smudger Smith returned for his first game since his leg-break horror on Boxing Day and Luke Wilkinson returned in the heart of the defence. Missing out were Drury, Rooney, Howells and Connolly.

    Williams and Griffiths pushed up against their opposing wing-backs. Lacey, McNulty and Wilkinson formed a back three. Smudger Smith was the holding man in front of the back three and Pelly and Gutts were further forward. Lafayette and Cullen were up front.

    So what of the game? Well we clung on by the skin of our teeth as Cheltenham pressed and pressed in the second half. We had plenty of chances to go two up though, to be fair. The goal came from a throw on the left. Griffiths took the throw to Layette who held the ball up under pressure and forced the ball back to Griffiths, who crossed a lovely ball for an excellent glancing header by Mark Cullen. One up after 7 mins and that was it for the goals, but not the action. If Cheltenham had been able to finish better the outcome would have been different, but I suppose you could say that of us too. Other than the sustained pressure, there was nothing about them that suggested they were worthy of their starting position. Shrewsbury they’re not.

    I thought Curtley Williams slotted in well at right wing back. He is a tidy player, good on the ball and seemed to have a good understanding of what was required. He tired in the second half, and went off after about 75 mins looking a bit sore, I hope he is okay. We transferred to a 442 shortly after the start of the second half as Cheltenham had swapped around too. It also helped us to defend and keep men behind the ball. I think dear Curtley forgot he was no longer a wing back though as he was stuck forward out of position with the Robins looking to get the ball behind him. Perhaps it was just as well that he went off!

    Lacey was the first substitution when we changed formation, the tactical sacrificial lamb again. I recall he had a free header at the far post from a corner which truthfully he should have hit the target with. This left Wilkinson and McNulty in the heart of defence. Both had good games, apart from one tiny cock up by Nults. He put himself in the line of the ball time and time again, and hurled himself to block shots. What does Sir Ian say in that film? “They shall not pass”? McNulty should have that tattooed somewhere special. In fact I think Wilkinson had his best game for us and made a vital clearance off the line. Boy, they needed to be at their most dogged, we were stretched and pushed and pulled for all our worth and needed to be at our best to hang on.

    Scott Griffiths had a good game, though more than once or twice he was caught betwixt and between as he had two players coming at him down the right. This stopped once Howells came on – but in both of the last two games Scott has been badly exposed on occasion with too much to deal with on his own. Anyway – we kept them out and Scott played pretty well, including the 'assist'. But the clean sheet was really down to Mark Tyler who had a fantastic game. I think I counted four decisive, crucial saves without which we would have conceded a goal. I can see how Cheltenham came from two down last week – they came at us hard – but the last time of defence, M Tyler esq., stood firm. His kicking was really accurate too, in the first half he sent ball after ball out to Williams on the wing and otherwise accurately sought out the heads of Lafayette and Cullen like a heat seeking missile. Early season wobbles behind him, this was Tyler’s latest tour de force.

    Pelly Ruddock is in fine form, he had another good game today, and in the first half was a constant threat. With half an hour to go he slotted into right back and took to it like an eager puppy. It didn’t stop him marauding down the flank like a border reiver. He was kicked to death by Cheltenham and each time he was felled the miscreant was decorated with a yellow card – but no more. Somehow it seems a bit wrong to see a team from Cheltenham filled with bruising thugs. The gnarled bully-boys they had at centre half would be better suited to somewhere like Grays, Millwall or Barnsley not the pleasant spa town with the ladies college.

    ~~intermission~~

    Switching away from football for a second – dear reader – I’ve got a little topical question for you. It’s a bit of a moral-maze type question. I’m not sure which I would do. I wonder if you can help me out...

    If you are disturbed in the night and hear a noise in the bathroom do you:

    a) turn over to see if the wife* has got up for a midnight pee

    b) fart & go back to sleep

    c) if you are really concerned, get up, put your legs on (if necessary) and walk over to the bathroom door and whisper “Is that you in there my love? Has that curry brought on a touch of the collywobbles? I told you not to have them prawns.”

    Or d) immediately reach for the semi-automatic 9mm firearm in your bedside cabinet and loose off a few rounds through the bog door just in case?

     ~~~

    Back to the football, Jonathan Smith played the full 90 minutes, which I was surprised at. And he played well, he was everywhere and faultless in his effort and spirit. He was tiring at the end, which meant that some of his passes went astray but he had a really good game – like he’d never been away. I wondered, what with the massed ranks of midfielders JS has recruited, if he’d get many games this year. If he carries on like he does today, Robinson will have a job in getting his place back.

    Luke Guttridge was a constant thorn in their side, but not quite as much of a threat as last week – when we moved to 442 he moved out onto the left before Howells came on. He got a standing ovation, from my bit of the Kenny End at least. He came close to scoring on a couple of occasions, including a lovely 1-2, but also did a dodgy back pass too.

    Lafayette, also tired towards the end but had a pretty good game I reckon, bearing in mind he’s new to us. It was his strength which enabled Griffiths to cross the ball for the goal. He made some good touches some poor ones. He’s learning and he’s keen- and furthermore, with Benson injured and Alex Wall in the maison du chien, he’s our main man.

    Speaking of goals, what a lovely header it was by Mark Cullen. He knows how to sniff a goal, and it was great that he got the winner and only goal. I think that’s just desserts. There’s tons of pressure on him this year in the absence of Gray – and to give him credit I don’t think he’s had two games the same with either striking partners or formations. I hope he goes from strength to strength.

    Jim Stevenson nearly got a goal with his first touch when he came on to replace Lacey. From a corner and a melee he twisted and turned and slotted home his fourth goal in a week. However, after thinking about it, lighting up a fag, settling down with a good book and sending a couple of texts, the lino decided to raise his flag, allowing poor Jim in a few seconds of ecstasy only for it to be dashed. I like the look of Stevenson – he seems to be growing with each game, with each touch almost. Not sure why the goal wasn’t given though.

    Andy Drury let us have a couple of glimpses of him at his best when he came on to replace Williams. A close shot followed by a lovely dink through for Pelly.

    In other news, it’s nice to see Mr D’Urso hasn’t much improved with age. I’m not going to say anything more.

    Good to see their keeper Carson foolishly engaged in what I think the young-folk call ‘banter’ with the Kenny End, which basically means he was daft enough to react to the abuse/friendly career advice/fatherhood-news he was receiving from the front row. Which meant that he got it in spades back. Silly boy.

    Another comedy moment was when their excellent wing back Braham-Barrett got a kick ‘amidships’ as Blowers would say on TMS. Jesus did he look in pain. He could barely walk let alone run, such was the state of his nether regions. He limped around on tiptoes. I liked the way that he was so concerned about his balls he wasn’t bothered about dropping his shorts in front of us all for the physio to check that everything was still there, and that nothing was hanging off. His pained face gave us an idea of what a Scottish taxpayer would look like post-Independence.

    I’m pleased with the win – it was no footballing spectacle, especially in the second half when we were largely under the cosh, but a gritty win which - from the looks of what we’ve seen from this division so far – is what is needed for success whilst we acclimatise.

    The next two games are against Cambridge and Blackbird Leys FC and I’m looking forward to locking horns with Richard Money again next week. They’ve had a slightly better start and are 6th – but only 3 points ahead. We let them have a bigger lead last season before we overhauled them...then, after Oxford come the footballing purists and fairplay specialists of Stevenage. Not.

    Well done lads, a good win.

    PS Just noticed that there are two Luton references in the MoTD title sequence. Sorry if everyone else spotted them first.

    PPS I still think that Diego Costa looks like an evil Danny Crow, but without the love-handles.

    *or hubby, partner, girlfriend, boyfriend, lover, neighbour, one night stand, window-cleaner, significant other etc etc delete as appropriate.

  • Still Adjusting

    To lose to a side wearing Ebola-yellow was bad enough, but for the winner to be scored by an ex-Hornet was galling, especially when that ex-Hornet had earlier performed the very same tackle that Robinson was sent off for last week. He received a mild rebuke and a yellow card. Robbo got the book thrown at him. Refs. Don’t ya just love ‘em?

    As it happens, I was thoroughly enjoying the game. I thought we outplayed Plymouth certainly in the first half, but the goal just wouldn’t come.

    Once again it was a loss of concentration that cost us a goal – we switched off for the briefest of seconds, but it was enough to let them take their chance. Things weren’t helped terribly by Mr Magoo the ref who - when not slipping on his arse or getting in the way of the ball - was terribly good at not being terribly good. Countless pushes on Cullen were missed and Bray, their first substitute inflicted a leg-breaker on Lacey and got a yellow, where we have so often seen red. In a premiership game, Plymouth would have been playing with nine at the end.

    After the surprising draw at Accrington and the disappointing performance against a resurgent Shrewsbury (who were a much better team) the game against Plymouth was a chance to right those wrongs and to pop the train back on the rails and inject some confidence and momentum into the team. No such joy. There is a difference between the conference and league two. The opposition are stronger, close you down quicker and break faster than in the conference; the managers are cannier and quicker to adjust their tactics. It is a big wake up call. But once we’ve made and completed the readjustment then we will be fine and able to push on. I think that is why sometimes we are too elaborate in front of goal: we’re not able to stretch their defences and penetrate in the way we did last year. The pace and pressure of dear Andre is being missed.

    We started with a 4-5-1 formation. Guttridge sitting just behind Cullen who was on his own up top, with Howells on the left and Rooney on the right. Alex Lacey was at centre half partnering McNulty. Early on, Plymouth, having watched how a couple of our goals this year had been conceded, targeted our skipper. Their early intent being to play the ball over the top behind him to the pacier Reid. Fortunately, we adjusted to compensate for this and this tactic was largely snuffed out: we pushed up less – one man went on Reid whilst the other covered.  He was then toothless until the second half where he moved to the right to torment poor Scotty Griffiths instead.

    Rooney is a funny player. At times he looks like a live-wire and our only direct threat, he can play quick balls which get us on the front foot, but occasionally he over-elaborates, takes too many touches and deflates, defuses and denudes our counter attacks. In one fell swoop this man can turn a snappy counter into a slow build up, whether he receives the ball in midfield or up front. He collapses our soufflé. He releases the pressure valve on the opposition. He lets our balloon down.

    Pelly and Drury were in the middle. Pelly had an excellent game – driving from box to box – being first to the ball in defence and supporting up front. In little bursts Pelly oozes class.

    Drury was certainly better than he had been but not playmaking as he was before he left. He’s still adjusting to how we play, and this division too. He has to do his fair share of breaking up play and chasing down, rather than having the luxury of standing in the centre circle and spraying it around.  He did, however, play some creative and intelligent balls. Guttridge was really effective on the edge of the box and played a number of juicy one-twos with Cullen and others, but it never quite clicked. Griffiths had a hard time of it at left back – he got better as the first half went on, but was caught out of position a number of times in the first half and given a good working over by Alessandro. In the second half, with the introduction of Bray he had Bray and Reid to contend with as Plymouth manager John Sheridan obviously targeted our left side as the chink in our defensive armour.

    Mark Tyler didn’t have too much to do. But when called on was back to his best – getting down to shut down a couple of opportunities where Reid had stolen in. His kicking was very accurate to his great credit.

    In patches we played really well. On a different day, we would have had the run of the ball and with a bit more confidence we would have slotted a few home, but it was not to be. What is good is that all of this will balance out at some point and we will get the rub of the green and start banging them in.

    Plenty of chances came our way:

    Guttridge’s direct free kick in the first minute or so which was parried over by McCormick. There was a corner from the right shortly after that, which the keeper had to beat clear.

    After a nice build up Guttridge had another chance drawing a low save from McCormick. Good work from Jake on the left cut Rooney in to make a blistering half volley which was just over – on other days that would have been a net-buster.

    In the 20th minute Cullen dragged a good chance wide from the edge of the box, having been played in with an incisive ball by Guttridge.

    Five minutes later Guttridge again played in Jake, who will be kicking himself for missing a guilt edged chance which was pure Luton.

    After half an hour again, good play from Gutts gave Cullen a good chance, but this time dragged with wide with his left foot.

    With two minutes to go in the first half a lovely combination of passes between Howells, Cullen and Pelly saw Jake get another fine chance to open the scoring. It would have been a lovely goal – but it wasn’t to be.

    The first chance of the second half was a good through ball from Drury to Cullen – but Cullen was just offside.

    A couple of minutes later a deft interception from Jake on halfway let Gutts play a weighted ball in front of the on rushing Cullen. Alas the ball was a centimetre or two too long, otherwise he would have been played in perfectly. As it was McCormack snuffled it up for his umpteenth save.

    After 10 minutes in the second half Paul Connolly mistimed his strike at the far post, after a good cross by Griffiths. From the following corner, Pelly picked up a loose ball at the far post and turned and struck it – but it didn’t find a way through and was blocked.

    Lafayette, who was brought on to replace Cullen (I think many folk wanted Alex Wall) played a quick one two with Alex Lawless (who had replaced Howells) but Lafayette fluffed his golden opportunity and sliced it wide.

    Lawless posed a further attacking threat when getting into the box he crossed it for the on-rushing Lafayette, but Nelson scrambled the ball away before the tall target man could make contact.

    With a couple of minutes to go an unlikely chance came from an enormous kick by Tyler – deep into the box Nelson mistimed his header and nearly looped it over McCormack.

    The final chance came when Rooney played a deep cross from the half way line towards Lafayette whose cushioned header played in Guttridge who, given a second longer would have got a shot away, as it happens the ball was cleverly taken off his toe and he was flattened in the process.

    So, we had plenty of opportunities. Though things smacked a little of desperation towards the end, this wasn’t a hark back to the dark days under Mr Brabin where we’d only make a couple of chances in a match, this was good stuff – good attacking creative play, where we had done more than enough to win. But you have to stick it in the old onion bag, and, like the game against Wimbledon we could have played another 90 mins and I don’t think it would have happened. It was in effect another game from the season before last: dominating, missing chances, not scoring, and being caught on the hop.

    Lawless added a spark of momentum and decent crosses. Good to see him back. Last year his return galvanised us. It wasn’t quite enough today. He pushed up as part of a front three when he was on and was an immediate thorn.

    One thing to note is that I don’t recall seeing so many players slip over in the game. Is the pitch greasy? Did they all need longer studs? It was peculiar. More people slipped over in this match than the televised bog-farce at the start of the year.

    There were two early pointers to the Plymouth goal. Firstly, after about an hour Plymouth were focusing all of their moves down our left with Richard Reid and the sub Bray taking it in turns to power their way through. On this occasion Reid forced his way through the right and put in a good cross for Blizzard to take a snapshot in the middle, just turning the ball wide of the post: alarm bells should have been ringing. Secondly, a minute later, yet another attack down the right saw Bray on the ball spearing down the wing only to go over on his ankle, unchallenged, and he went down as if a sniper hid in box 10 had taken him out (seeking revenge for the dirty studding of Lacey’s shins?) We had the stretcher on and it took a couple of minutes out of the game, but Bray eventually got up and was fine. A couple of minutes later and yet another attack down the right saw Bray run towards our box again. He got as far as the edge of the box and then collapsed again in agony unchallenged. We froze for a second, Reid picked up the ball on the edge of the box, played Cox in, who slipped the ball to Blizzard who skipped around Connolly, a lunging McNulty and a stationary Lacey and slotted in a well-taken goal all with Bray dead on the edge of the box. Had we not gone sleepy-bo-bos when Bray went down Reid would not have collected the ball.

    So, Plymouth weren’t anything special at all. Hard working, brutal in the tackle and opportunistic but not a great side. We had plenty of chances to put the game beyond doubt in the first half alone, but didn’t and got caught napping.

    Our fortunes will change at some point, we will get that rub of the green and that spark we need to get the season properly started. It might seem as if we’ve not yet settled on the right team, combination and formation but at least we know that John Still has the know-how, experience and common-sense to get us to where we need to be. He’s no liar or bullshitter, if there were problems then he would say. He is finding out about his players and his squad and what they can do in a match situation. I’m not disheartened, just downcast about the latest defeat. A good chance to put things right next week against Cheltenham and I can start looking at the league table again.

    By the way – I think I was a bit harsh about Rooney - do you agree?

  • Shaken not stirred....

    Hey – it’s early days. You never know  tonight’s game may have been a creditable draw against the side that finishes in the top two. Just like Cambridge last year – a rather dour point at home to them at the start of the season turned out to be a good point against the team that went on to be the form side for the first half of the year. The 90th minute goal came as a huge relief and revitalised the crowd.

    When we dropped down to the conference most of us, myself included thought it was going to be easier than it was, a walk in the park no less. This season perhaps we’ve been listening to the hype – perhaps we’ve taken on board too much of the League Two is not that much stronger than the conference. So far it is by no means straightforward – it is going to be a hell of a fight to make instant headway in this division by the looks of it.

    As for the Wimbledon game on Saturday, I was so spitting mad (literally spitting mad, my apologies to the chap in front of me) that I couldn’t bring myself to type something I might regret the morning after. I shall limit my comments on Saturday’s game to the notes I made: ‘the clash of Akinfenwa and McNulty was measured on the Richter scale’. ‘Is the ref making it too obvious that he’s bent?’ ‘Tubbs & tubbs up front for the Dons’. ‘What a nasty little team they are’. ‘Drury seems half asleep.’ ‘When Akinfenwa fell over on his arse, the shockwaves spilt my coffee’.

    Bury were a different team altogether. If there’s anything I can summarise the first two home league games it would be that we are getting much less time to play, that we are being over elaborate in front of goal and the lack of an out and out paceman up front has not allowed us to get the ball behind the opposing defence on the counter in the way we could last year.

    We’ve also had plenty of different formations in the two league games (and Swindon for that matter): 4-3-3, 4-4-2 for a spell on Saturday and it ended 3-5-2. Today it started the same formation that we ended the 2012/3 season with – a flat back four, two in front of them, three in front of them and Benson as a lone man. This changed towards the end whereby we went to three at the back, Pelly and Howells on the wings as wing backs, three in the middle and Lafayette and Cullen up front.

    And what of Andy Drury? The one we sold to Ipswich is not the one we got back via Crawley. Despite having less room to play in these last two matches he was barely adequate on Saturday, and largely anonymous today. He’s there to hopefully pass teams out of existence and open up the play – he’s not doing that yet despite plenty of huff and puff. There’s plenty of hard work going on but I’m thinking that perhaps in tough games like these we either need a player who can definitely assert his skill or someone who can assert himself a bit more and win the ball and find an orange player. To be fair he did do one nice cross field ball today and was involved in some nice one touch stuff at the end. Perhaps it is time for him to get used to us and this division – let’s not cast him into the bin of disappointment just yet!

    Paul Benson has had neither had the support nor the delivery he received last year, and has not yet struck up a golden understanding and thus partnership this year. He barely won a ball today and seemed a little off the pace. This is hardly surprising bearing in mind he has two people on him most of the time. There is no doubting his commitment and ability. Not an easy start for him when he is on his own against towering centre halves, getting virtually no room to play and hardly any service from out wide.

    Controversially perhaps, I think perhaps we have seen the best of Mark Tyler? Still hugely experienced and a fantastic goalie, we are starting to see the odd aberration creep into his game where before there was none. It is only a matter of degrees but again, at a higher level it might get exposed a little more readily than the safe haven of non-league. We will see – early days. He can’t go on forever and he has been simply superb for us – no more no less – superb. I do wonder though, time will tell.

    On the positive side of things I think Jake Howells had a great game on Saturday and was a breath of fresh air when introduced tonight. Not many sides in this division will have players now as technically gifted as Howells on the bench, his game is going from strength to strength as he combines his quality with nous and experience.

    Scott Griffiths has been outstanding in the last two games, really working hard up the flank and doing the simple things well whilst being first to support in the attack. Shame some of the others haven’t been up to speed. Ironic really because Scott was a little slow out the blocks last year but is flying this year. Good for him.

    Cap’n Steve was solid as ever at the back. I genuinely believe, that on ability alone he would be playing at a higher level – it is his natural shape and appearance that makes him look a bit out of place, when in fact, pace apart, he is an absolutely first class centre-half. Life’s a bit like that. He’s not even tubby any more – he’s just wide. Broad. A human wall – and I love him for it. When he started for us I thought we’d signed a comedy defender. Looks are wholly deceptive. Long may you keep deceiving Stevo.

    Fraser Franks is still learning, John Still rates him and that’s good enough for me it is early days and there is much learning still to be done. I want him to become a legend, a great for us.  Not sure if he is really a right back, he’s done adequately without excelling in that position, whilst covering for Connelly. Having him there gives JS the flexibility of having someone who can switch to centre half if he moves to a 3-5-2. He needs more games, more experience and it is better for his development to be stretched and to be learning at this level than the one below. Once the players adjust and get used to it they can kick on. It is early days yet. It’s a bit like Test Cricket in a funny old way – better to have a promising youngster learn at the top level, playing on decent pitches against better players, than grow fat by playing against weak players at county level day in day out. If you are a developing player, better to test yourself against a better quality player than a weaker one.

    Luke Rooney – he makes space for himself and gets into good positions. Today, when he had chances to got outside and go to the byline he cut inside instead and got into trouble. I like him as a player and he seems to work hard, but if I had one criticism it is that he over-elaborates, he takes one touch too many – does the complicated thing, when the simpler thing is the better choice. He certainly possessed our greatest threat today for most of the game.

    Bury were a good side, if uninspiring. They worked hard and pressed hard and gave us little room – defensively and in the middle of the park, they knew exactly how to play against us. I suspect they were much better organised than many of the teams we will play against this year. We largely dominated against Wimbledon but were denied by fate, the ref and some poor finishing. Bury was a different matter, where Wimbledon kicked hard Bury pressed and deprived us of space. Funny that they got more cards today than a much dirtier Wimbledon on Saturday. Today’s ref at least tried to assert himself, the one on Saturday allowed the Dons to get away with whatever they wanted. The more they indulged the more he indulged them. He was like a poor parent refusing to say ‘no’ or to admonish an errant child, and by doing so encouraged further abhorrent behaviour with the child keen to push the boundaries, only to find that there weren’t any. We’ve gone up a division, it’s a shame that the refereeing hasn’t.

    The freekicks haven’t improved in League Two either. Who saw the comedy set-piece from Bury today? Keystone Kops eat your heart out – they even smacked their heads in frustration as if trained at RADA.

    Lovely to see that after three games our good friends** Newport and Oxford are presently on nul points and furthermore Saturday’s opponents are presently bottom. No easy games John Still says, but hopefully, the injection of confidence and relief administered by Pelly Ruddock’s late goal will give us a bit of oomph against the downcast Lancastrians. Not sure if that is how it will stay, they were unbeaten in 8 of their last 9 games last year and ended of somewhat of a high. I’m not bothered where they end up, as long as they are quite happy to cede 6 points to us.

    Right, so whilst this has come across as a bit whingey – I’m not unhappy about things really. Not at all. How wonderful to be back in the league and the normality of a home draw without the aching feeling of being in non-league in the pit of my stomach.  John Still knows entirely what he is doing and knows where he wants to be and what we need. I’d sooner we worked out how much harder we have to work in this division to get results and to build up a bit of momentum that way, than to get some cheap wins and then come crashing to earth when reality kicks in.

    The joy of the M6 on Saturday! See you all again on the motorway. If you look out for me, I’ll be the one dressed in orange. Here’s to another away win and hurtling up the table courtesy of three Andy Drury assists and a hat trick from Benno. You never know….

     

     

    **not 

  • And so the journey continues

    And what a journey! Proud, as ever, of the club and its fans. 1088 fans drove up to Carlisle in the middle of the holiday season – a level of commitment that would flatter some premiership clubs. At least the cricket was on the radio for some of the journey.

    It was sort of fitting that the league would see to it that our first game was Carlisle away, it was like a final test of our resolve, the final paroxysm of spitefulness from the FL, like a scally having been outmuscled and outnumbered flicking a V sign as he retreats down the street, tail between his legs –it's all they had left to throw at us, an empty gesture a 600 mile round trip to welcome us back. But as many have said this week, better this fixture was on a sunny Saturday in August than a cold Tuesday in February. 

    Though a great relief to be away from our friends in non-league, we (like Portsmouth) are still punching below our weight in this division, and whilst we can proudly hold our heads up to be part of the '72' again (where did that branding come from?) I want us to be out of league two asap. It's still an embarrassing division to be in for a club our size and with our support and history.  Our average equivalent league position in the seventeen football league seasons since we dropped out of the top tier in 91/92 is 9th in League One. League One is bad enough, but at least it is like the resting room for those keen to get back into the Championship. The proverbial wardrobe to lean on to get your breath back before you go back for some more. The good news is that the fans, the management and most importantly the board share the ambition to be out of League Two as soon as we can.

    So what of Saturday? Other than being grim up north, I thought it was a splendid performance showing the determination and resilience that characterised last season. Whilst we dominated the first half aided by Carlisle's determination to play a formation that had both me and their players dumbfounded, the second half, or at least the first half of the second half was a different matter with them coming out as if their manager Kavanagh (ex Middlesbrough I think, good fantasy league player in his day) had rebooted them and recharged them at half time. Presumably Carlisle started with three centre halves because they thought they would up against a narrow front three – as it happens it was just Benson causing them bother with Cullen and Howells swapping flanks in support. In any case Kavanagh got it wrong.

    The goal was a snappy interplay between our attacking players that would grace any era of the team. Started by Benson, the ball went to Robinson and Howells who played Benson in (who had sprinted into the box) down the right hand channel behind the left back. He approached the byline and crossed across the face of the goal and Cullen popped up at the far post to tuck it in. If you blinked you would have missed it. The Carlisle defenders stood and blinked in the sunlight, patting their pockets to see if their wallets were still there.

    It was the type of performance of which John Still is typically proud – a tough away game after a long journey against a decent side. The sort of game you'd otherwise think of as getting a point being a reasonable result. I seem to recall that last season Still described the 2-1 win at Macclesfield as the most battling/pleasing performance of the season, and this was from the same mould. We dominated when we could and dug in when we needed to.

    Benson impressed, old war dog that he is. Didn't win too much in the air seemingly but fought for everything. Started the move and got the all important assist for the goal, and worked his socks off.

    Wilkinson played well in the heart of defence,  as did Cap'n Steve, the scouse wall. Connolly, having taken one for the team with the booking was then sensible enough not to sell himself short for the rest of the game though was put under the most pressure as Carlisle's main tactic was seemingly to punt it ahead of Amoo on the left. Griffiths was characteristically tenacious and occasionally a threat down the left. Determined to turn up to each new season with a shocking haircut. Tyler, unusual bizarre dalliance where he messed around and didn't clear the ball aside, didn't need to do that much, but made an outstanding save to keep out Meppen-Walter.

    I thought Robinson was our best midfielder and boy has he got a good work ethic and an old head on young shoulders. Drury was good, and excellent in places – not the sort of game for him to impose himself perhaps – or rather – less opportunity to do so in the second half. He still showed elements of brilliance and certainly in the first half pulled all the strings. Alex Lacey played the anchor role ahead of the defence a new role for him (trialled in pre-season) and good to see him starting. Jake played an intelligent game and seemed very alert. Lovely for him to be back in the football league, though of course he made his debut whilst we were in league One. Nice to see that he has bowed to the inevitable hair-wise.

    Cullen got the goal an spurned a other good chance….Andre who? Mark has a natural eye for goal a talent and a hungerthat will get us plenty – he doesn't have Andre's pace (who does?) and so I guess we will be less of a force on the counter,  but we will see. If we continue to create the chances we did last year – he will have the opportunity for a hatful. I'm chuffed for him to get what was the winner.

    So a good win, good to get the first one under the belt. Swindon on Tuesday in the cup (the one that Watford are never bothered about) and then Wimbledon on Saturday. I shall miss the Swindon one because of my new business but wild horses would struggle to hold me back next Saturday. For the record, Swindon beat Scunny 3-1 and Wimbledon drew 2-2 at home to Shrewsbury at the weekend.

    It's lovely to be back in the league. I don't know what the fuss was all about – it's like we've never been away….

    Come on you Hatters

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