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….





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