Pinball

Another non-league classic to tell the grandkids about. Great stuff it you enjoy watching one goalie and then the other lump it down the middle. It was 90 minutes of high tempo-full-of-good-intentions football, with little in true quality to show for it, save for the goalkeeping and sound defending.

How apt that Mark Tyler got man of the match – his three classy and brave saves in the first half kept us in the game.

Whilst Cambridge had the clear better of us in the first half I think we shaded the second, without really creating a clear-cut chance. How frustrating all round. Poor Jon Shaw, used as a target man and the focal point for all of the kicks is still suffering from his hernia and is trying his best. He lasted a half before being substituted. It was a blessing in disguise, as once he had gone off we at least had a bit more nous and guile and built the ball up from the back a few times rather than just pinging it towards Shaw. A bit more – not a lot.

Mark Cullen too was struggling, and only managed half an hour before being taken off JohnStill said it was partially tactical partially because he was struggling for fitness and couldn’t make an impact sufficiently to feed off the occasional scrap won by Shaw, or on the wing when swapped with Andre Gray, who had started on the right.

Andre Gray looked keen and up for the battle. He grew increasingly frustrated and angry at the poor service he was receiving from the midfielders and wingers – but he himself played pretty well. Increasingly in the last twenty minutes he would find himself with space in front of the back two defenders and he would selflessly sweep the ball right for Shaun Whalley to do something – or as it transpires nothing much – with.

Ah, Shaun Whalley, a fearsome pain for premiership and non-conference left backs, but in our division has had a weak start. Whilst he is always in a position to pick up the ball, I think his confidence must be low and it is affecting his play. His crossing, touch and passing were short of the required standard today and once again he was bottled up. He started on the left (with Gray on the right) but, when the pack was shuffled after Cullen’s departure moved out to the right, up against former Hatter Greg Taylor as it transpired. Brought in as an impact player, a snazzy quick winger, he’s turning into a toothless tiger. On the way back, I listened hard to Luton Legend John Moore, who explained it thus –whilst Whalley is hard to play against if you’ve never come up against him before, clubs in the conference know exactly what he is about and what he is capable of and set the teams up accordingly. Moore said that Whalley must progress his game further and adapt if he is going to be the player JohnStill wants and needs.

At the back, once again we coped reasonably well. Playing too deep initially we were seemingly allowing Cambridge too much time and space in our half hence the two early opportunities for them. Once we sorted that out, howler from Lacey aside, we looked in control at the back I thought. Good to see Scott Griffiths improving after the ‘mare he had last week – one or two of his passes did go astray, but defensively wasn’t given the run around he had had against Macclesfield and was less vulnerable still once Jake was brought on in front of him on the left. He improved more as the match wore on.

We did fashion a number of half chances. Once the ball was on the deck a little more, having Jake on the left made a difference. Looking at the match statistics apparently we had five shots on goal – I don’t think I can remember them. I remember McNulty going close with a header at a corner and Jake having to shoot with his right foot and not his left. Not sure about the others – help please?!?

Richard Money’s team were tidy, but without many frills – tactically it was the same as when he left us. Long ball up to Cunnington. We did well against him in the air, which was good – but it was Cambridge who were better at feasting off the bits and pieces afterwards.
With Cullen and Shaw both off, and no striker on the bench, the formation ended up with Whalley on the right Jake on the left and Dave Martin (introduced for Jon Shaw) just behind Gray, who, as I’ve said was increasingly isolated and frustrated.

Our midfield today of Guttridge and Smith had teeth but were not afforded enough room to be creative. Guttridge made one fantastic last ditch save off the line to bail out the Lacey howler I referred to above. I suppose we might be asking too much – they are two similar-ish players. We miss Lawless something terrible. Someone to put their foot on the ball and look to do something with it. Too often the midfielders, starved of room just lobbed it forward hopefully. Barca it wasn’t.

But that said – the tempo of the game, if not the outcome, made it a not unpleasant watch. It did strike me as having 0-0 written all over it, but there have been worse 0-0s at the Kenny. There was a lack of quality in the final third something JohnStill was only too happy to concede (well it was pretty damn obvious). Once again we played soundly at the back without doing much up front. We’re playing uninspiringly but still picking up points and scraping along. Once we go through the gears, which I have no doubt we will, then things will improve. We’re not playing particularly well but still getting points against the stronger teams. Furthermore, we are getting some of the trickier fixtures out of the way early – once we have got Kiddy Grimbsby and Wrexham out of the way, slightly easier fixtures are coming up after mid-September. I’m hoping that we will have a little more of a cutting edge by then…

Scores on the doors: Tyler 8.5, Henry 7, McNulty 7.5, Lacey 7.5, Griffiths 6.5, Guttridge 6.5, Smith 6.5, Whalley 4, Gray 6.5, Shaw 5.5, Cullen 5.5, Howells 7, Martin 6.5

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Guttridge uses Get out of Jail card

Poor old Macclesfield – very rare I feel a bit sorry for the opposition, but having bossed the game  for good chunks of the afternoon,  a last minute equaliser from Luke Guttridge gave us an undeserved point.

Had Macc’s finishing been sharper – they had two shots go across the face of the goal only needing a touch – and had Mark Tyler not made some key saves, they would have slaughtered us.

As it was, they were hoist by their own petard. Whilst they had done a bit of the standard time wasting we get every week, in extra time they were suddenly dropping like flies. The ref had given four minutes, which wouldn’t have been enough, but the ref quite correctly and fairly added the extra time in extra time, and it was sufficient for Luke to get his second in two games, to drive it home.

I think we started quite well. I think we were surprised by the space we were afforded by Macclesfield at the back. Rather than being squeezed and closed down like on Tuesday suddenly we were getting to the ball first, winning the ball and winning the knock downs. Do you know what? At that point, what with Macclesfield’s previous record this year, I think our players thought it was going to be easy. I think they started to canter, to knock the ball around with less purpose, thinking that it was only a matter of time. How wrong they were. Full credit to Macclesfield they were a good footballing side. They moved it around nicely and at pace. I thought they lacked a bit of confidence in the first half, but boy did they come out all guns blazing in the second half. They knew how to play against us, and tore us apart at times. Or rather, tore our left hand side apart. Scott Griffiths had a bit of a stinker. A lack of support in front of him in David Martin and a modicum of naivety from Alex Lacey didn’t help. Griffiths was dragged all over the place like a five year old trying to walk a wolfhound and was second best time and time again. Dave Martin was replaced by Jake Howells on the left wing and he was immediately dragged back, and was at fault for the goal. Kissock playing a neat one-two and sprinting past a statuesque Howells to cross the ball for Holroyd to stick in. They were all over us.

Macclesfield had further chances to extend the lead – and will be so annoyed with themselves for not making the most of it.

That said, we did have some dominant spells, in the first half we looked half decent on occasion. Gray hit the post just before half time and the break couldn’t have come at a worse time for us. What was disappointing was both the lack of control and the dearth of crosses. Dear Shaun Whalley got into lots of good positions to cross, and either fluffed it, looked to go down or his cross was blocked. I think he only got two crosses in all day.  I’m hoping that ratio will improve. He was bundled over in the box at one point, I wasn’t near enough to see how legitimate an appeal it was – but I’ve seen great Oak trees felled less dramatically.

Taiwo seemed off the pace and made lots of errors – when the simple pass was on he would over elaborate, he was trying hard but it just didn’t click. He was lucky to stay on as long as he did.

They say it is a mark of a good team to play badly but still get a result. A point JohnStill made after the game. Four points at home without playing particularly well. Lots of room for improvement after today and much to work on still. The ease at which we were torn apart down the left was worrying, but it gives the management food for thought.

How many times in the past few years have we dominated games, only to concede a soft goal – today the boot was on the other foot – perhaps our luck is changing at long last?

Anyway – I’m off. Sorry for the truncated report. I’m off to celebrate Northants’ first trophy in 21 years.

 

Scores on the doors: Tyler 9, Henry 7, McNulty 7, Lacey 6, Griffiths 3, Whalley 5.5, Guttridge 7, Taiwo 4.5, Martin 6, Gray 7, Shaw 6.5. Subs Howells 5, Cullen 6, Smith – not on long enough.

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Off the Mark

After the pleasant amuse-bouches of Villa and Arsenal,  the rather dodgy starter at Southport, by half time I was still a bit worried that the main course would leave a bitter aftertaste or even have a spicy kick to it.

Fortunately, all was to be well. Andre Gray injected some life pace and purpose into the game as soon as he was introduced on the hour. His pace stretched and worried the Salisbury centre halves. We had a bit of fortune with the penalty award – he was out of play by a good two feet when he was felled by Clarke. But it is about time we had a bit of luck isn’t it? Taiwo converted the penalty with a hop, a skip, a jump and a side foot.

Minutes later the first decent corner from Dave Martin perfectly met by a screaming and unmarked Luke Gutteridge put the result beyond doubt. Clinical, not particularly pretty in places. But a sound enough and competent start to the home campaign. A win is what we needed and a win is what we got. Let the flashy goals from open play come later on in the season, for tonight I’m happy with a pen and a corner thank you very much.

Of course a disappointing and bitty first half had the intelligentsia booing already. Where do we get them from? No staying power. No patience. No thought.

I expect to see us score as many late goals this year as we were prone to concede under Gary Brabin. Being fitter than fleas means we can run for longer and stay sharper. Whilst the part timers and journeymen in this league (not drilled within in an inch of their lives in Portugal) wilt and fade, our boys will be making hay. That is why Andre Gray is such a bonus to have on the bench. He’ll cause more damage in the last half an hour than in the first half an hour.

And didn’t he look hungry for it. JohnStill was keen to repeatedly emphasise that he was slow to start in pre-season, though equally keen to make the point that this sometimes happens and it doesn’t make him a bad player. When I saw Gray come on in the pre-season games he looked very determined to make his mark and again so today. He galvanised the team just as we were looking a little disjointed.

Mark Tyler started in goal – clocking up his 156th appearance for the Hatters. I’m not sure, but I don’t think he had a shot to actually save. For all of their passing game, initially at least, Salisbury were pretty impotent as an attacking force. Ex loanee Ben Wright was largely anonymous. Rob Sinclair chucked his toys out of his pram, made a fuss then had had enough and was subbed. Presumably with strict orders to go to the barbers in the morning. Ironically, Ben Wright was replaced by another ex-Hatter our famous non-goalscoring striker Warren Feeney (him of the “two one, even Feeney scored” chant against QPR in 2006) making his 2nd appearance for his eleventh club. Amazingly, though he left us for Cardiff in March 2007, he has only scored 16 goals since then. The game was in the bag when he appeared. Bringing him on as sub, bless him, is the footballing equivalent of raising the white flag. My old gran had more bite even after mistakenly putting her dentures in the waste disposal.

Smudger Smith continued to deputise for Ronnie Henry at right back. I think he had a solid enough game, from what I can remember. In the middle ‘Steeevo’ McNulty had a very good game indeed. Sticking his head on everything that came his way, rightly reprieved after a successful review of the DRS by Luton. Alongside him Anthony Charles had a sound enough debut , before being sawn off on 71 minutes. I hope he is okay. He looked good – and clearly likes to play an early ball into space – I suspect this year his long balls will convert into a goodly number of counter attacks, but also a goodly number of throw ins and goal kicks.

On the left was Scott Griffiths, not afraid to get stuck in or get his head in the way too. Occasionally a little bit loose with his passing, otherwise he played quite well. Though, as with all of the defenders and the two midfielders, was regularly closed down quickly enough to prevent him from passing out as he would have wanted to.

In the middle were Luke Gutteridge and Solomon Taiwo. Gutteridge had a good game, getting stuck in, spraying the ball nicely and intelligently joining up the play. Though he got a deserved goal today, I suspect he has much more to offer. Taiwo had a strange game as if he was two people. Often he was the guilty party causing our forward movement to break down with a dodgy pass, but to be fair to him, he had often won the ball back in order to be in the position to make that pass. From what I saw of him last year, this was a pretty par for the course performance from him. You can’t doubt his effort and I suspect JohnStill will be pleased with his standard of play tonight.

On the left was David Martin. He was fed quite a few balls down his flank and had to battle hard to get his crosses in, which he did pretty well. On the right was Shaun Whalley, who had a bit more of the ball, in the first half at least and tormented the left back, but (and I suspect I’ll be typing this once or twice this year) didn’t quite have the final ball. When he did have the final ball, there was no one quite on it. Thought to be fair to DM and to SW – on another night, they could both have contributed to a goal each. If the ball had run slightly better it could have been a slightly flattering 3-0 or 4-0. Whalley is a tricky player who loves to run at full backs in ye olde traditional way. For those youngsters who can’t recall wing play: a lot of runs down the wing will inevitably mean that defenders will win the ball occasionally and the run will seem to have come to nothing and be ‘selfish’. Worry not, for ultimately it only takes a few crosses to be got in from the by-line. And that is where goals are born.

Up top was big Jon Shaw. A little off the pace today and I thought out of sorts in the first half. Much improved in the second half he got his head to more balls and also played in the strikers a couple of times. Perhaps, he’s not quite at 100% yet after the weekend. Again on another day, his header would have evaded the keeper and he would have been a foot further forward/back/left or right to get on the end of one of the crosses. A sound enough start and plenty to build on.

Alongside for the first hour was the promising Mark Cullen. His appearances in the pre-season showed that he knows where the goal is. Tonight he was closed down (hacked down) quite mercilessly. He was replaced by AG after an hour and the rest is history. Salisbury were lucky only to  get 2 yellows. There were 4 or 5 pretty scything challenges that would have caused any premiership ref to have apoplexy.  We didn’t see the best of him tonight, but he has a host of goals in him.

We battled and fought hard and won at a canter really in the end. Let us not forget though that it was Andre Gray whose introduction was the catalyst to the win – thank goodness.  There will be stiffer tests than this, but it was good to get this one out of the way early season to build up a little momentum and more importantly a big dollop of confidence. It was a good old-fashioned 2-0 win, and whilst not pretty at times, we can’t always tear sides apart with neat passing football and as fans we should remember that. When sides press from the front, put 5 in midfield and close us down, our players simply don’t have the time to play out to feet. It’s something we’ve had to get very used to over these years in non-league. Time will tell, but I suspect our resolve, fitness, skill, and confidence will mean that we do indeed get our noses in front early in games this year and then we will decimate them as they have to come at us for a goal. Like Arsenal.

On Saturday, we are going to be visited by the Macc lads – who are presently on 0 points. I understand that they are a bit financially troubled at present, but that’s no guide to performance necessarily. I know they still have Kissock (how many step-overs on Saturday?) I’m not sure if the likes of Charlie Henry are still there though. Good time to be playing them I’d suggest, and hopefully we can get another win in the bag before the ‘big one’ against Forest Green Rovers (yes, I did type that) the following week.

Some scores on the doors for tonight: Tyler 6, Smith 6.5, McNulty 8, Charles 7, Griffiths 6.5, Gutteridge 7.5, Taiwo 6.5, Martin 7, Whalley 7, Shaw 6, Cullen 6.5. Subs – Gray 8, Howells and Lacey not on long enough.

 

#COYH

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McNulty is better than Messi

Well, that was certainly a pre-season that will live long in the memory. Many players did themselves favours, but our Mr McNulty was a tower of strength. His ball skills still remind me of a blindfolded man trying to stamp on balloons in the dark – but his heading, commitment, marking, positioning and – yes – sense of enjoyment is somewhat addictive. To see him put Benteke in his pocket was a joy to behold. Hats off to him. Top, top defending. His defensive partnership with “Noisy” Alex Lacey has seen two clean sheets against top flight teams. As one son pointed out “not a bad thing to have on your CV”.

So what of pre-season – or rather the pre-season games I have seen.

Having, like most of us, some years ago identified Lacey and Howells as two promising players for the future, it is lovely now to see them finally fulfilling some of that early promise. It is almost as if their development had been temporarily put on hold until a decent coach came along. Like a flower, flowering early, put in cold storage for two months so it could be ready in time for the Chelsea Flower show. Howells and Lacey are no longer in cold storage and have been allowed to bloom and make up for lost time. Jake is almost like a different player. He was almost strutting against Arsenal – such was his confidence and total self belief in his game over theirs.

And confidence and self-belief has been the watch-word for the games against the two top class sides. Not overawed, as it is so easy to be, but self-assured and confident in what the team is trying to do. It has been absent since March 2010. Say whatever you want about JohnStill, but he has pumped this team with a winning mentality and a quiet confidence. Whereas in the past we would create dozens of chances and barely score one or two of them, now, we are converting more regularly: a healthy, healthy sign.

Gutteridge looks good, Griffiths settled, Henry assured. Justham has a long kick and good reflexes. Taiwo looked keen, Cullen hungry and Whalley sharp (though his crossing needs to be tweaked a little more accurately).

And all this without dear Alex Lawless on the sidelines – arguably our best player, but warming the seats in the beach huts at present with the WAGs, the transfer listed players and McNulty’s chubby twin.

How does this set us up for the new season? Well – imagine the difference between starting the season with a 3-0 defeat to Bedford under your belt, as opposed to a 7-0 win against Arsenal’s reserves and kids. Got the picture? Victories shrink doubt and engender the willingness to run through walls for the Gaffer. Defeats breed doubt and undermine confidence.

Southport must be delighted to entertain us again so soon. But starts to seasons have a funny way of throwing up random results that bear no resemblance to what is to come. From Southport’s point of view it might just be the best time to play us.

And what of the team? A headache so soon. Whalley or Gray on the right? Howells or Martin on the left? (Has to be Howells I would have thought after recent performances, not to put DM down, as he is a big favourite of mine) Cullen or Gray up front? Wall or Shaw? Problems a-plenty – but nice problems for JohnStill. What he has is seemingly a hungry squad very keen indeed to play for him and do well. Without wanting to get carried away, at times against Arsenal we were machine-like in our approach. We were the all-conquering unremitting orange beast unflinchingly hell-bent on match-domination. Bring it on I say. I can get used to domination.

A dose of reality of course – Arsenal and Villa gave us more space than any visiting non-league team will all season. As ever, we are happier dining at the Lord’s table than with the servants. At least now we have a manager who is capable of leading us up the stairs to the house proper.

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