Football Blog: Tangerine Flavoured

Saturday, April 10, 2021

Vanilla Slice denied: Lincoln City vs the Mighty

The better we get, the less there is to say. How should we play today? It doesn't matter as whichever formation we play, we're wizards. Who should we play? Throw all the names in the air and see where they land and we'll still be world beaters. 

Maybe it's time to calm down a bit. We've done what I honestly wasn't very confident that we'd be able to, we've put ourselves into the play offs, we've given ourselves a cushion where we can afford one or two poor results and now, so convincing have we been recently, I find myself doing maths to see if we can get automatic promotion. 

Here's some facts... 
  • The most points we can get (if we win every remaining game) is 90. 

  • 90 points would be enough to gain promotion in only 2 of the last 5 completed seasons. 

  • The highest points total for 6th place in the same period was 74 points (to achieve this, we'd require 1.22 points per remaining game - we currently average 1.70 points per game)

  • Hull are currently on track to reach an improbable 87.4 points. 

  • Peterborough are headed 86.1 and Sunderland for 85.94 

  • We're on track to finish 4th currently, with a total of 78.2 points
What this shows I think, is we definitely can pull Sunderland a lot closer to us by taking 6 points off them but it's going to need either Hull or Peterborough to implode a little bit no matter what we do. To not finish in the play offs, we'd need to go off the rails in in a spectacular fashion. 




Hi Neil, it's Sam here, yeah, Sam from West Brom, that's right... listen, mate, one tip for you, I know it's all going well, but you need to sign a random loan keeper to replace the really good keeper you've already got. Trust me on that. It's a fool proof way to make sure the run in goes with out a hitch... 

Critch hasn't spun the roulette wheel much. The Viking comes in for Thorniley, presumably because Lincoln are a bit more mobile than Gillingham. The defence on the bench looks outstanding and it's good to see Brad Holmes back from Covid and amongst the subs.

But hang on! Where's headless really pretty damn good Demi? Another mystery vanishing act, presumably an injury. It does look a very defensive set of subs, but with unlucky Matty recovering and Bez wherever Bez is, I'm not sure there are actually another other options beyond Rob Apter. I'd love to see Holmes get a chance. If (in a weekend of national mourning, I don't want to add to your burden but...) we're not going to see the goal machine again, then it would be really good to see if either Holmes or Bange are up to the challenge as I don't think 2 strikers is enough, especially, if we're starting with both of them. Whilst this is a big game ('Clive, they're all big games at this stage of the season') if Gary Goals doesn't reemerge, the danger is one of them is going to get thrown into a really big game out of necessity.

Weirdly I wasn't nervous, but as kick off approaches, I am getting much more nervous. Lincoln are missing key players, Jorge Grant a particular miss for them, but I can't help but worry that we're more comfortable than them and they're going to be desperately up for this as they are at real risk of falling out the play offs. There's literally no logic in being worried that we're in much better form than they are, but such is the mind of a football fan.

Let's get on with this... 

---

Isn't two minutes ages? You think time flies, but then, when you stop and observe it, it doesn't. When my nan died, I was struck by how old she was only after her death. What really brought it home was looking up the film of the 1925 FA cup final. That sounds daft, but it summed up to me what changes she must have seen in her life, going from the cloth capped 20s, all black and white and horse and cart to the credit card and virtual reality future of now. Ol' Phil was even older than she was and whilst I'm anything but a royalist, it's something just to stop and think of mortality, life and all the connections to a bygone world that end when someone venerable passes on. Here's the (pre Wembley) FA cup from the year he was born...


It's all about Callum Morton in the opening, his turn sets up a crossing chance, Ballard dives and heads it away. Then, the same defender knocks a heavy ball back to Maxwell. Fear not, for Maxwell, controls and kicks away, but the Imp's man launches himself at Maxwell and catches him hard on the ankle with lunging tackle, some time after the ball has gone. It looks a red card to me. 

We float a corner high over everyone. Ballard makes a great sliding challenge to stop Lincoln getting away on the left. Dougall and Garbutt make a couple of challenges that suggest revenge for Morton's assault on Maxwell is their key aim. 

Lincoln are having the better possession but haven't really made anything of it. There's a lot of head tennis and it's from a prolonged bout that we make our first chance, Ward leaping well and flicking it forward with real vision for Yates to peel away. He's a sniper, but he's a footballer too and his slide rule pass for Simms is lovely, Simms takes it well, makes an angle and hammers an effort that is deflected inches wide. 

It's Simms again, being fouled on the edge of the box. Sullay lines it up, hits a a side foot curler just inside the far post, the keeper springs and turns it round the corner. Garbutt whips it in, Turton makes a near post run, connects beautifully and the net ripples, but for the second time in about a minute, it's the side netting. 

There's a more typical Ollie Turton moment a few moments later as he wizards his way out of a tight corner, shimmies past two then crosses to no one at all. Pool are dominating now and starting to get Embleton on the ball. Simms benefits from another ballooning header forward, his first touch takes him away from his man, the challenge comes, Simms keeps going and as he realises he's not going to make the ball as his touch was a bit heavy and was probably fouled in the challenge, he falls over, but a stride or two too late to be natural. It's maybe a VAR penalty, but this isn't VAR football. 

At the other end Lincoln are breaking and Morton runs at the Viking but he makes standing up and getting a well timed foot in look so easy. No matter what their ginger villain does or how many step overs he performs, Gretarsson just keeps his eye on the ball and strikes at the perfect time. We hit back with a lovely move, Kenny Dougall with a pass possibly superior to Jerry's earlier effort as he spots a tiny gap and slides Kaikai in behind their defence. The enigmatic genius races to the goal line and drives it across, but it's blocked. Embleton then plays another brilliant pass, shaping as if he's going into the box, but playing a ball of divine weight down the right hand penalty box line to give Turton a chance to cross, but again, it's blocked.  

Johnson runs past everyone, but can't find away through. He seemed to beat about 5, but there seemed to be more players to beat, no matter how many he went past. Maybe our defence is actually magic?

Morton again causes problems, taking the ball down 5 yards outside the box, both the Viking and Ballard shadow him, it looks like they've got it under control, but the red menace sees the brilliantly named Conor Mcgrandles coming from deep, Dougall trailing in his wake, he plays the perfect ball, Mcgrandles goes round Maxwell but the keeper forces him wide enough for the shot to hit the side netting. A let off. 

Turton has another classicly Turton moment as he races forward again (he's been really advanced today,) turning down all options because he's the league 1 Cafu and then hammering it as high and wide as he possibly can. Was it a cross or a shot? Who knows...

Then a goal. A goal for us. A magnificent goal. Embleton is a fighter as well as a dream weaver and he's scrapping for the ball on the edge of the box. There's one of him and about 5 Lincoln players but he's gets the final touch. The ball pops loose and Simms is alert, he picks it up, drags it away from one tackle, takes another touch to set him self and absolutely leathers it home from just inside the box, one of those rising shots that bounces back off the net crisply. Beautiful and well deserved. 

Yates flicks it over his head, spins and almost gets in. As part of the same move, Sullay plays a gorgeous cross from which Simms attempts a back header from that doesn't quite come off. Yates then controls, turns into the box and drops an audacious back heel. Embleton feasts on it, driving a low, arrow like shot from the right hand corner of the area at the near post that the keeper can only parry wide. From a deep corner, Yates shows ridiculous skill to get away from his man who is following him with parasitic closeness, only to be shaken off by Yates' brilliance. A heavy touch lets him down at the last and we go in only 1 goal to the good. 

---

Like Gillingham, we've earned the right to play and having done so, we've been magnificent again. There's no point picking out individuals when we play like this as we're a unit, but I think Yates has looked lively as hell this half. His confidence is off the scale, his link up work has been something else and that is reflected in the willingness of the rest of the team (Turton included) to have a go. 

Here's the thing. It took us till about 15/20 minutes to make anything, but once we started, we seemed to have such control and such a forward looking mentality that it felt like we were ahead before we actually were. I can't remember the last time I felt like that, as if we were inevitably going to score, so used am I to ruing missed chances and worrying that they're going to count later on. 

---

Lincoln make two subs. I'm now worried that missed chances are going to pay as there's always something slightly ominous about half time changes. 

Why worry? Why fucking worry!!! We are outrageously good. Simms turns it round the corner first time to Yates, Yates back heels to Sullay who is racing through the middle, taking it on and sliding it low into the bottom corner, just as I start to think he might get caught. It's a a fucking ridiculously good goal. It's a Sullay goal. It's everything I could possibly have asked for and more. 

Chissy implores us to 'set the recorders' as if we're all reliant on Betamax. We nearly then score another equally good goal as Embleton threads it through a tiny space, finding Simms in the box, he opts to fire it across goal to Yates who for once gets his feet wrong, the ball striking his standing leg about 5 yards out. 

Lincoln have a couple of breaks, but we snuff them out. Simms, Kaikai and Embleton combine to cause chaos on out next attack. It feels as if we're more than 2 up such is the ease in which we're making chances. Instinct kicks in. Nerves return. If we fuck this up, it'll be a nightmare. Rogers has a lovely drifting run and cracks an effort from inside the D. Someone gets a touch to it and deflects it over. From the corner, they get on to it at the far post and head it just over the top. Come on Pool. 

This is where you'd want to bring on Demi to burst from deep but he's not there. Turton gets done by Bramhall who burst past him, winning a foul. The cross from the free kick is perfect, the header is strong, but Maxwell throws up his arms and turns it over magnificently. Not for the first time, when he's been needed after doing not a lot for most of the game, he's pulled out a brilliant stop. 

Turton is on one again, this time charging into the box after another bit of wizardry. He does the opposite of last time, putting everything into hitting the target, which he does, a toe poke from 15 yards that is straight at the keeper. An Ollie Turton goal would be the icing on the cake but he does seem to have only two options in front of goal - either timid or belt it miles over. To be fair to our hero Ollie, Jordan Gabriel is also woeful whenever he has a chance to shoot. 

The cake might have been iced minutes later as Garbutt's near post corner is met by a sliding Ollie, his contact is matched by a Lincoln man and the ball pops out nicely for Embleton who lines it up and drives it almost as high and mighty as Turton's earlier effort. 

Lincoln bring three more subs on. We don't change anything as we're dominating. 

Simms feeds Embleton, he's calm in the box, the angle is tight and he waits and feeds Yates, one touch, he aims, and then, not for the first time today he misfires, scuffing his shot, it rolls past the keeper anyway though, but a diving challenge scoops it off the line. 

Simms goes round the outside to reach a ball up the left touchline, he drives forward, fires a shot from an acute angle, the keeper sprawls and palms it away, Yates is sniffing and connects cleanly, low and hard, going the other way from the keeper, but a defender's legs intervene. What do we have to do to get a third?

Then disaster. Lincoln go down the right and drive a hard ball across, Maxwell throws himself forward, punching it, but it loops up for Anthony Scully on the other side of the box, who finishes well from a difficult angle that's made easier, by the fact that Maxwell is having to race back in vain to try and cover his goal, the pain of the goal writ large in the keeper's doomed and desperate effort to get to the shot that he was never going to reach. 

We surely can't fuck this up. We should have been 5 up by this point. Really. Gabriel replaces Embleton. Lincoln are snapping at us now. It's not surprising, seen as half their outfield side have played at least 45 minutes less than ours and they've had time off for Covid... I'd put money on Ethan Robson coming on, but there's no sign of him. Simms has dropped deeper and he looks a bit odd tracking back. 

Then Lincoln score again. Scully (who was one of their ominous subs) cuts inside and threads a pass to Johnson, who clips it home. It's a very well worked goal but whilst I don't know who to blame, it felt pretty easy. I can barely bring myself to type anything more. Robson then comes on for Simms. I'm frankly bricking it now.

Robson wins it well and nearly sets us away. Robson loses it and nearly sets Lincoln away. Chissy mentions half a loaf. I was all set for a fucking vanilla slice of a win, never mind bread. 

4 minutes of injury time. Robson bursts away and is hacked down. Sullay does some questionable defending. Sullay then does some good defending. 

We're going to send a long throw in! Gabriel launches it, no one wins it and there are massive shouts for a hand ball - nothing doing. We get a free kick, it's launched in we win it, they win it, it's headed away and the whistle goes... 

--- 

I don't want to sum this up. We were superb for most of this game. We should have had at least 4 goals and yet somehow we've come away from this with a draw. On the face of it, a draw at a play off contender is par for the course and given our injuries and their fresh legs, perhaps we shouldn't feel so negative, but we dominated that game and got done. For fuck's sake! 

What makes it more strange is that the player whose finishing let us down was the lad who has got us here in the first place. Yeah, Embleton and Turton had a couple of wild efforts, but Jerry missed a hat trick of decent chances, all of which you'd back him to do much better with. Yet his link up play was magnificent and he's more than earned a few misses with his brilliance in recent weeks. The final one was, to be fair a bit unlucky. 

I should right something about crediting Lincoln's character for their comeback, but frankly, I'm not in the mood... It's frankly petulant to complain about drawing away at Lincoln, especially after having played so well but there we go. I think we paid a price for not being able to really make the right changes. Virtue or Mitchell would have suited that game, Kevin Stewart would have been an ideal spoiler, being able to go long to Madine later on and so on. We also paid the price for the referee very possibly bottling a red card and two penalties. Fuck it, we should have been 7 (SEVEN) up before they scored. 

I also don't like Michael Appleton the Greek finance minster looking ex North End freak. (actually, I don't mind him normally, but I don't like him tonight) 

I'm going to stop now. We're 4th. We played very well mostly. Watch the 1921 cup final. It'll be soothing. 

Onward.

utmp 

So, yeah, basically, I know I've only been here 5 minutes, but I'm off to Blackburn. Getting paid in my body weight in chicken every week and it's better than working for Karl innit, see ya. 

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Monday, April 5, 2021

Yet another masterclass: the Mighty vs Gillingham

Prevailing wisdom would have it that Gillingham are some sort of evil stain on the otherwise beautifully white purity of the game of football. I'm not wholly buying that. Think of Star Wars  If the Empire were pure shite (all shithousery and no quality), then the film wouldn't be much cop as the rebel triumph wouldn't be a particularly great achievement. As it is, they've clearly got some talent on the dark side to have got as far as they have. Death Stars don't just build themselves after all. What I'm trying to say is, Gillingham might use the dark arts, but they're also pretty decent at other stuff as well.

Secondly, and just as importantly, if there were no Empire, then then the film would have no narrative thrust to hold it together. It would just be a load of lads, lasses and aliens mucking about in space. Kind of 'Carry on Astronaut' or something and whilst that would have it's charms, it wouldn't be the same thing at all. 

'Ooh Matron'

People love to moan about teams who play 'the wrong way' but it would be rubbish if football were just played between jolly public school types who said stuff like 'tell you what chaps, it seems we're winning by a few, so hows about we score a few own goals to liven it up and give you one of our boys as well to make it fairer, what ho?' - It's the fact that not everyone sees the game like Cruyff that makes Cruyff interesting. The darkness makes the light more welcome so to speak. 

Not Steve Evans (front row, centre)

I've completely lost track of what I was on about. Something about Star Wars I think. Imagine if Steve Evans takes off his face and says "Neil, I am your father" at the end though. Actually, seen as he gave the shirtless one his professional debut, it might be even better, if he takes off his top and says the same to Jerry. 

Shall we move on? I think we should. 

'Ping it at the big lad and we'll play off him'


(pause) We're well prepared, we'll look to play our own game. Mike, nip out and some plasters, this lot are a bit rough. Sullay, Embo, tie them in knots, Dan, just head it son, you know you love it, Jerry, use the force. Ethan, go and get me a brew, there's a good lad. 

Again Critch has done stuff I wouldn't have done. I was setting up 4-5-1 and trying to football the fuck out of Gillingham but we've got a 4-4-2 with Thorniley and Ballard back in the side for the Viking and Jordan Gabriel. Big Marvin is on the bench. Hurray! Big Gaz is not. Boo! 

We were frankly shite against them at beginning of the year and today is a big test of my recently stated theory that Critch has evolved from a naive gnome of football purity into a streetwise tactical masterclass dispensing imp of wisdom. 

C'mon Pool! 

---

The Gills start well, hitting the corners, getting players high up the pitch and their early pressure yields a crisply hit effort a yard or so over the top from just inside the box. We react with a nice bit of passing and a Grant Ward shot miles over the top. 

Ward is in the action again, climbing and nodding a clearance down in the centre circle, it bounces up to Simms with a defender. The two battle and the ball looks to be flicked on. Yates picks it up in miles of space. The flag doesn't go up. Maybe it wasn't flicked on. Maybe the defender poked it backwards in the challenge. Jerry is one on one. Jerry is the rebirth of a Russian sniper in an embattled Soviet city in 1941 blowing the brains out of the Nazi insurgents if they so much as offer him half a glimpse of their nasty fascist heads. Jerry rolls it home. Jerry is GOD.  

Ballard is wrestling on the goal line, he lets it roll. He shouldn't have as Oliver nicks it, puts it across the face of goal. Somehow it's clipped away by Garbutt with the goal gaping. Maxwell is completely thrown by the moment, but he does brilliantly, chucking himself on the loose ball despite already being on the ground and facing the wrong way. 

There's a series of unlikely events as Thorniley sells a dummy and shimmies away from an oncoming forward, then Sullay booms a massive header forward. 

Pool work it nicely, shuffling it side to side, probing, looking for the cross. When it comes, Embleton delivers a dream ball, Yates has pulled away, his movement is fabulous, but sadly the header isn't, his timing is wrong and the ball comes of him awkwardly past the near post and into the advertising boards. 

Gillingham are not short of spirit and are unbowed by our good start. In their next foray forward, Akinde turns in the box, he pulls it across and Jordan Graham spins and finishes crisply, despite Ballard getting a toe in. Fuck's sake... Back to the flimsy shit against a rough opponent. Fucking hell. 

But what's this? A foul on Yates wide left. Garbutt puts a cross in, it doesn't at first look to be the greatest ball, low and flat to the near post, but here's Yates, darting out the crowd, skipping onto it and tucking it away. So simple! The man is a genius. 

I've barely had time to note anything, so fast paced has the opening been. Elbows have been flailing. Simms catches Dempsey. Ballard earlier took a massive whack. It's one attack after another. Gillingham create trouble from a long throw, they've got real presence up front and they look really well drilled as an attacking unit. Graham on the right looks a silky touch and is giving Garbutt no rest. If anything, the surprising thing, is their defence looks there to be got at. 

Turton and Ward combine brilliantly in a tight spot on the right and free Yates, he skims a low ball that Kaikai meets, but it cannons off a defender and a Pool player. Kaikai gets another go a few moment later, Pool are now playing lovely, lovely football, moving it beautifully, Kaikai has it on the left, tight to the touchline. He give it to Yates and starts moving infield, completely unmarked, Yates, takes a touch, lays it off to Ward, Sullay is still on the move as Ward receives it, Ward has seen him and feeds him with a lovely pass, Sullay takes one touch just to the right hand side of the D, then lashes the ball into the opposite corner. YES!!! That was a fucking beauty! 

We nearly have a repeat of the Yates goal in reverse as there's no flag when a Gills forward seems miles offside, again, maybe it was a Pool foot that stabbed it away. Pool race back and the Gills are crowded out. Embleton though gifts possession to O'Keefe on the edge of the box. The Gills man takes it well and takes a stride or two and drills it low, just inside the near post, Maxwell is equal to it, flinging himself full stretch and tipping it round the post. A terrific stop at an important moment. 

The half ends with Gillingham on top, putting a couple of dangerous balls in, then finally Oliver clipping a half volley wide from just inside the box with Maxwell looking a bit out of position

---

Yes, there's been some shithousery. Of course there has. Ballard getting some rough treatment and a nasty moment were Sullay was victim of a studs up challenge, but Gillingham have shown real intent in an attacking sense as well. It's a mark of our recent improvement that we've weathered that and found a way to play some lovely football. Sullay has been mobile, Embleton doing the same on the other side, Dougall solid and Ward has oozed quality. Simms hasn't done badly as a presence and Yates, well, what can you say about him? A brilliant half. At the back, we've held up well. Thorniley got turned for the goal, but he's played his part in keeping their big lads relatively quiet and the 4 of them have done pretty well against a unit that it looks very hard work playing against as its big, mobile and skillful in equal measure. 

I wonder if 3-1 flatters us slightly. I wonder if the wind has been our friend this half and may turn into a hindrance the second, but mostly, I am purring at the class of the third goal which was a thing of absolutely beauty. This has been a terrific half and again, Gillingham may have a reputation with many but I'd take them 50 times over the boring technical dross served up by MK Dons as they've had a go. 

---

Come on Pool. This is going to be another battle. 

The Gills have an another aerial attack from a free kick, winning the first two flicks but finding Maxwell very alert to cut it out. We work another lovely move on the edge of the box, Sullay shimmying and playing a through ball that is just half a yard too heavy for the late run of Garbutt. 

There's a 10 minute spell of quality defence. We face long throws and lots of stretching for headers, there's a break on the left, a low ball and a stunning sliding block from Ballard. There's a ball over the top and the same player back peddling, falling but getting the header in anyway and then a lovely moment of pure class, where he goes in with one of their forwards, levers him away, chests the ball back, spins and lays it back to Maxwell. Absolutely brilliant. 

Gillingham start to make changes. They've probably had the balance of play. This isn't over. 

Then the fourth comes and kills the game. Kaikai is fed very well by Simms, strong as an ox as he takes the ball in, spins and slides it forward for the enigmatic genius to race on to, he goes inside his man, then cuts outside, it looks like he might have done too much but then he cuts it back so cleverly, bisecting two on rushing defenders. He finds Embleton on the penalty spot, who hits it low and hard past the keeper who has no chance at all. Exactly what we needed. 

The goalscorer is off for Pool's first change, Gabriel coming on the play wide right. Such is the novelty of being 4-1 up, I can't help but think it's a shame that there aren't any of the kids on the bench this week. 

Pool take the sting out the game with lots of sideways passing and then, the linesman goes down with an injury so we have a good 5 minutes waiting for the 4th official to go and get set up to be a lino. Just give the lad a flag and get on with it! 

Chissy wishes the injured party well of course, and Gillingham launch an up and under ball that takes a sliding tackle from Garbutt to clear from the box. Pool spend a while probing but not really fashioning a chance other than Garbutt having a shot deflected wide. 

Critch brings on Demi and Ethan Robson for Yates and Kaikai, both of whom have had very decent games today.  Ellis Simms spins on the halfway line and charges forward. No one can stop him, he often looks a bit languid, trotting about, but then, when he explodes like this, he looks magic, he cuts inside, drives it hard and somehow it's deflected an inch over the bar. From the second of two corners, he gets his head to at the near post and glances it back across goal, it looks for all the world as if it's heading in the opposite corner, but it sneaks across the face and away. He's done really well at times today. This is exactly the sort of game/opponent I didn't think would suit him, but he's been a key part in the machine. 

Gillingham launch a novel tactic in the final stages of the game of throwing themselves on the ground which only serves us nicely in wasting time with pointless delays and harmless free kicks. 10 minutes of injury time are shown, but there's no real fear of them getting back into it. Even when they get free kick near the box, they can't beat the first man. 

The whistle goes on a stunningly good victory. Critch ambles out. How is he so calm?. There's fist bumps and back pats aplenty but his face doesn't even break into a smile. How is he not screaming YES!? and racing across the turf, arms aloft beating his chest? Because he's Critch, the ice cool grand wizard of the tangerines and he'll already be plotting the next masterclass. Maybe not. Maybe he's just keeping it all in for when he gets back to the dressing room and lets it all out. I hope so. He deserves to feel like I do. 

---

Again, he's done me over. I instinctively didn't like the starting line up but we were utterly brilliant. The difference between the showing of this team and the team at the beginning of the year couldn't have been more stark. We were clinical when we had a chance and went toe to toe with Gillingham. Such was our dominance, that we earned the right to play football after taking them on physically and when we did, we produced two goals of sheer quality. There was possibly a degree of fortune about both of the first two (I'm still not sure if Simms or their defender touched the first on and the second was shocking defending), but the brilliance of the third and the quality of the fourth render any questions about the victory utterly moot. 

To a man, we've been superb. Yates is obviously the star again, Ballard was special at the back, Sullay and Embleton both deserved their goals and I think Ward also deserve picking out for his utter tirelessness and class, as does Ollie Turton. In fact, no one doesn't deserve a mention, even Maxwell, who had little to do made the stop he needed to make when he needed to make it (as he often does) and kicked and handled well throughout (as again, he very often does) 

This is a result we needed. Not simply because Gillingham were potential rivals, but for what it says to us about who else we face and our own self belief.  We've beaten some of the very best in the division convincingly. We've struggled against some of the more physical, more well drilled teams. Gillingham are one of the best of those teams. We knew we could beat, say, Oxford or Peterborough but deep down, we could have feared this game as it's this sort of opponent (and indeed, inferior versions of this sort of opponent) who have been our undoing all year. Now, who, really do we fear? We didn't just beat this lot, we hammered them in the end. 

5th and with a game in hand, it's realistic that we could have a 7 point cushion and a massive advantage in goal difference on the teams outside. In the form we're in, I can't help eye the top 2. It's a big ask, but they'll slip up somewhen and if we can keep going like this... 

Fig 1: The nippy and mobile forward line race away after destroying the myth that we can't take on shithouse sides and beat them. 

What a team this is. Now for a lie down. What a masterclass. What wizardry! 

utmp

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Saturday, April 3, 2021

Are we now properly good?



"He said what? Rigid and unadventurous? Embo, get on lad. Sullay, pull yer finger out, Demi, just do whatever you like. No, not you Ethan, sit down."

We're just over three quarters of the way through the season and I've written a LOT. At times, it feels as if I've written so much that it's all blurring into one long sentence, some sort of seemingly endless linguistic passing move that finally culminates in Sullay falling over. I'm sure it reads that way too. 

Some months ago, I wrote a piece about how we weren't actually very good at some of the things we needed to be good at if we wanted to go up. This wasn't because I wanted to have a go at Critch. He's a lovable little imp and we all want him to succeed. It was just an attempt at objective analysis - I wanted to put my finger on what precisely it was that we weren't doing.

Since the end of October, we've been hard to beat most of the time, but for a lot of that spell we've not been especially good at winning games, especially against sides who set up quite simply and play in a physical, direct manner. The reason was, in my humble opinion (and borne out by the stats I researched,) a lack of ambition in our attacking play, an over emphasis on ball retention above risk taking. This meant that although we saw a lot of the ball and played football in the right places on the pitch, we didn't take the risks to beat a man, play a killer pass or get a shot off, so keen were we to retain possession. In turn, that led to a lack of goals and lots of draws and narrow defeats. 

Something has changed though (we've got +14 goal difference now!) and having written about our shortcomings in considerable depth not that long ago, it seems fair to look again and try and pinpoint what Critch has got right. I'll freely admit, like any football fan, I sail with the winds (those who don't are weird people) and it barely seems a month ago, I was bemoaning our rigidity and wondering, that whilst he seemed to have cracked 'league 1 style percentage football,' if Critchley really could ever deliver the sort of attacking play we craved. Yes, he could coach shape and discipline, but could he coach us to do something with that? 

The answer seems to be a very firm yes.. 

The remarkable thing about our recent play is the way we've lost player after player and kept going.
Had someone said we'd lose both Madine and CJ at the turn of the year and find ourselves not missing them, you'd think they were mad. Had someone said that our centre back options would be decimated to a point where we're playing the SIXTH choice centre half (who isn't a centre half) and that Jordan Thorniley would play more games than he misses in the run in, you'd be calling for them to be taken away in a white van. Add in the rest of the injuries, and you'd be wondering if the conversation was in fact a feverish nightmare. 

In an odd way, the injuries have maybe helped us.

Firstly, they've forced us to play a relatively settled team. This season has been like Claudio Ranieri's career in a nutshell. At Chelsea and many other moneyed clubs that he managed, he gained a reputation for meddling with the line up, week after week. When he turned up at Leicester, he didn't really have that option so stuck with 'same again lads' and it took him to the title. Critchley had a lot to choose from when everyone was fit and his dilemma was writ large by fans on social media as debate raged about who should be brought in or out the team each week. That's arguably over complicating the task. 

Thrilling reading

That being taken away has made the job of keeping the squad happy a lot easier and has forced us to find a way of playing with the (limited) players available. I think it's also taken a bit of pressure off the players from supporters as it's not really practical to call for them to be dropped if there's no one to replace them. 

That seems a bit like I'm damning Critch with faint praise. I'm not. I think he deserves huge credit for a) honing an effective way to play from limited resources and b) having kept the large majority of squad players on side, so that when they have got their call to play (like Thorniley) or been asked to play out of position (like Husband, Turton, Virtue) we've seen committed players, giving their all. 

Kevin Stewart is an interesting figure in all this. He's undoubtedly a very good player, capable of dominating a central midfield. He has aggression and skill and the physical presence of a player from a higher division. I can't help but wonder if his injury has actually worked to our benefit though. The return of Dougall as the first choice seems to have perked us up and I think the reason is simple.

Dougall is a more attacking defensive midfielder (if that makes sense) than Stewart - he plays on the front foot and often puts his first tackle in high up the pitch. Stewart is more of a deep lying defensive shield and with Dougall in the side, the press is more effective. Jerry starts the press and you can often see Dougall in there, not far behind him. Stewart doesn't play that way and whilst he's probably, in terms of raw attributes, a better player than Dougall, that high press is crucial. This is especially so at the moment as the lack of height in our team means we need possession high up the pitch (as we've got to use pace and precision to score goals as a result.) I think the simplest way to express the difference is that Stewart dominates his zone on the pitch, but Kenny D is basically everywhere. Stewart winning possession deeper makes sense if you can then aim for Madine (from that deeper possession), but when you can't, Kenny is king for me. 

Another thing Critchley deserves credit for is the signing of Elliot Embleton. There was a chorus of 'who?' and then another of 'why?' when we made the decision to take one of Sunderland's infrequently used substitutes as the solution to our attacking impotence. 

Embleton has been key in a number of games for several reasons. The first is that he's sort of a reverse Dougall, in that whilst King Kenny is a waspish figure, buzzing about all over the place putting tackles in, Elliot is a kind of butterfly, fluttering around the pitch and showing for the ball all the time. He's comfortable left, right and centre and with both feet and that gives us so much more fluidity as a side. As Embleton drifts into pockets of space, he opens gaps for players like Sullay and Demi to exploit and encourages them to rotate. Once you start getting Kaikai in the middle, you start to see a far more effective player - his overriding ability is his passing and vision, the dribbling is actually his secondary gift. What also happens, is Demi is able to play with more freedom and less consequences as if he goes haring off on a mad run (which is something we really needed to add to our attacking threat) then Embleton is canny enough to just shuffle across and fill in. 

Embo (l) and Dougs (r)

He's also got his own gifts, not least his ability to spot a pass, his willingness to have a shot and crucially his attitude is excellent. He's a curious blend of workhorse physique and flair player skills and he's content (if told to do so) to spend a game just tracking a man as he did against MK or equally, being the fulcrum of the attack as he has in others. What he gives us, in a strange way, is some of what Madine's presence brought to us (bear with me on this!) - He's a player who is comfortable using the ball in the hinterland between midfield and attack. He, like Madine, takes a burden off other players (and Jerry in particular benefits from that as he doesn't need to hunt deep and is thus in the box more.) Whilst, clearly, he's a he's very different player - having a player with a real brain and awareness in and around the edge of the box is key to us unlocking defences, especially as physically, our fit attacking options are all lithe, fairly slight figures.

I'd go so far to argue, outside of Madine, Embleton is the most 'intelligent' attacking footballer we have in our squad. Sullay and Demi (and CJ) are 'instinct' players. They see their chances in quick flashes (Sullay in particular has an astonishing ability to see a pass in a split second) but Embleton is a deeper thinker. He's a pleasure to watch as a lot of his work is quite subtle - his movement in response to the game situation makes it much harder for teams to come and just park a man on Sullay and therefore nullify us as a creative force. Now, you've also got to watch Embleton and the more players you have to mark tightly, the more space opens up in the rest of the pitch as result. 

It's been an easy criticism of Critchley to point to the number of injuries we've had and cite 'a problem' - but the converse could also be true. We've had a run of games like I can't remember, one after the other after the other with no respite and very little rotation possible but aside from the odd 45 minutes here and there, we've overcome that fatigue. We've played with a verve and purpose that suggests these players are fit and hungry and even in those games where the first half was poor, pulled out a second half to put things right, which suggest not only stamina, but also that the manager is having an influence in the dressing room, during the games, which early in his reign wasn't completely apparent. 

What that seeming growth in authority is down to, I don't know. He's made some decisive decision recently, whether in terms of leaving players out or making switches at half time and maybe he's gained respect for that. Recently, he seems to be much more demanding on the touchline and proactive in his instruction. Maybe that's just confidence gained from being around the division and in the presence of other managers. I don't know if it's just taken time for the squad to adjust to him, or he's adjusted his style from working with young players to one more suited to gnarled pros, for all I know, he's taken a different approach, such as giving players voice at half time. I have, frankly, no idea but the bare truth is - he seems a man with much more impact over what goes on on the pitch.

Half time Tangerines (lovingly sliced by Mikey G)

In my previous piece, I gave a lot of credit to him for his defensive organisation and how he's integrated Calderwood's influence into his plan. I'd go so far now to say, this possibly is the best defensive Blackpool side I've ever seen. It is frankly astonishing that it doesn't seem to matter who plays in what position, we just defend well. Yeah, you can pick out the odd goal here and there (and we're always going to concede sometimes), but by and large, we're unbelievably tight (except if we're playing Ipswich.) This is clearly more than just down to individual players. When you've got Ekpiteta, Ballard and/or The Viking there, it makes some degree of sense. These are classy centre backs with superb physical and/or mental attributes to play the role. When you've got Jimmy Husband looking like Baresi and Turton doing a great job against some big lump about half a foot taller than him, it starts to look like some kind of voodoo magic and frankly, I think that's possibly the best explanation for it.

If we had attacked as well as we've defended for the big chunk of the season, (but defended as poorly as we've attacked) I think we'd have been drooling over this side because we're a fan base predisposed to venerate attacking play. Frankly, our defensive work, from Jerry backwards, is simply superb. I said above, I didn't enjoy the MK Dons game, but whilst that is true, the pleasure I took from it (Jerry's goal aside) was the incredibly disciplined positioning, tracking and shape that made the opposition look utterly toothless. That doesn't happen by accident and whilst I'm always naturally in favour of the sort of manager who says 'right lads, just go and play,' the truth is, if we go up, even with Sadler's money, we're not going to be a big fish and we'll need that sort of ability to make to sum of the parts worth more than the whole. 

At the beginning of the year, I like many, wondered about the logic of making Maxwell the captain. Surely we needed someone snarling, pointing and shouting. My doubts seemed to be borne out in the early games. Heads went down when the other team scored and no one seemed to be capable of picking them up. Maxwell would shout from the goal line, but he's a keeper and after all, no one listens to keepers as they often rant and rave all game and are a bit odd. 

Somehow, quietly and calmly, Maxwell has grown into this role to a point where I can't really imagine anyone else doing it. He's a talker as a keeper and maybe he deserves some credit for the defensive solidity in the way he organises constantly. He seems to be a measured thinker and a serious minded lad when he speaks in public and I think, by making him skipper, Critchley has given him a real license to command his defence which, in retrospect, looks like a genius decision, so well marshalled are they and so comfortably does Maxwell interlink with the rest of the team. I think what Critchley spotted, is that he's a serious professional, who would listen to his ideas with an open mind and now, we're seeing that on the pitch. When he was out for a few games, Sam Walker came in and made some great stops but we lost that easy play around the edge of our box and it was weird to see a goalkeeper booting it into touch. We take Maxwell for granted, but next game, watch the opposing keeper and compare their use of the ball to his. 

Finally, I think the area I've been most impressed with is the one I felt most doubt about - It's well documented that we started the year with a knock off copy of the Liverpool tactics and it didn't, by and large, work very well at all. We then put ourselves straight with a bit of old fashioned 442 and I thought, well 'at least he's got some pragmatism alongside the idealism' but doubts lingered about whether he was tactically astute enough to make the quality of the squad pay on the pitch against cannier, wilier, more experienced heads. 

Several times in recent weeks, I've looked at what he's done, whether in picking the team or making in game subs and thought 'what are you doing Critch?' only to be proven wrong. We've also shown a hitherto unseen flexibility turning out 442, but with the wingers coming inside and full backs getting forward, something a bit like a 4-1-1-3-1 with a rotating 3 and most importantly, a sense that we're setting up, not to stop the opposition, but to get at them and try to win games. I think, as the team has grown in confidence, so has Critchley and watching the shift from ineffective rigidity, to moderately effective solidity, to a team of genuine quality who can play in several different ways has at times, been frustrating, but seen overall, it's been a real slow burning pleasure... (at least in retrospect!) 

What of the rest of the year? We've obviously got to hold our nerve and it helps a lot that Critchley seems the calm type. The biggest challenge is, I think, going to be reintegrating players as they return to fitness. The likes of Madine, Stewart, Marvin are too good to leave out all together, but how they slot in and when will be a test of what we've learned about when to stick and when to twist. I am the biggest Gary Goals fan on earth, but I'm tempted to say his role is, for the moment, (if we ever do see him again) as an impact sub when we need to change a game. That's something I never thought I'd say and I might be blinded by recent success, but we've stumbled on a fluidity and spirit and I'm loathe to see it disrupted to accommodate anyone just because they're fit. Actually, fuck it, get the goal machine up front, he's a football god... 

It's going to be nerve wracking, it's going to be nail biting but our trajectory has been a firmly upward one for some time and there's no logical reason to think it's going to suddenly fall apart. We're clearly a team and that's always what you need. Some sides have better individuals, but we've got a unit and that is down to the twinkly eyed impish man in the massive coat. I can imagine him deciding to go and potter round a garden centre this afternoon. Taking a break from it all, quietly ruminating on his next masterclass. Going for a sunday morning jog, looking like just another unremarkable fella, breath steaming in the cool morning light, cogs turning in his mind as he calmly, inscrutably, thoughtfully plots his next masterclass.  

In Critch we trust. 

utmp

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Friday, April 2, 2021

Floodlight shadow! : Swindon Town vs the Mighty

Imagine if big Gaz makes a comeback today or, even better (on a thematic level) Monday. That would essentially make him the new Jesus. Fans of blasphemy, hymns and bread and wine might object, but c'mon, it's Gary Goals we're on about here. It might not be likely, but what odds did Paddy Power (be gamble aware,when the fun stops stop) give on yer man getting out that cave eh? 

Very similar characters

This game first time around was a piece of piss due to them setting up just like us, but not being as good as us. Even in the dark days of September/October, I can't remember us being simply out footballed by anyone. I think the only time that's happened all year was against Brighton. They're now managed by John Sheridan instead of Richie Wellens, swapping an underrated, slightly controversial play maker from the past for another underrated, slightly controversial play maker from even longer ago.  

Here's a two random facts about Shezza: He signed for Nottingham forest in 1989, played just once in the league cup, then left to sign for Sheffield Wednesday. He has had eleven different managers jobs since 2015. Eleven! 

Clough apparently said "you've had a busy week son, I'm giving you a rest" to Sheridan and never picked him or spoke to him again...

I'm not going to mention any of our current squad in light of that story about ol big'ead. It wouldn't be tactful. Instead, I'm going to treat you to another exclusive insight from inside the coach's quarters in the modular building that is still NOT a Portakabin.

Critchley spoke positively in the week about having worked on a few things... 


Rumours that Steve Banks took the lads for a big game of pitch and putt on the front at Cleveleys and big Gaz got excited and kept whacking it as hard as he could towards the beach trying to get it to land in the sea, then shouting, 'fucking hell, look at that ,someone take photo, mental that, went miles' can neither be confirmed nor denied. 

Critch assures us the squad is getting fitter. Just before we get to the game itself, here's a handy cut out and keep guide to player wellbeing: 


Fig 1: Where footballers should play football expressed by grey (and one green) circles

Well, bless my hat. Demi has been dropped and Ellis Simms is back in the line up. I can only assume it's one of those 'tactical things' beloved of those who give tactical masterclasses as I didn't see that coming at all. He really is a box of tricks is our Critch. I couldn't understand why he didn't give Simms a go last week in the last 15 minutes, now I'm scratching my head about him starting, especially as Mitchell was my standout performer in the previous game. The Viking is back as well in place of Thorniley which makes sense as whilst I like Thorniley, the Viking is fucking class (on grass)

Anyway... Let's do this... 

---

Swindon make the first chance as Garbutt fails to control the ball, then fails to foul the man who robs him of it. They go straight down the right, pull the ball back and Brett 'is he still playing?' Pittman slide in, but puts it wide. That prompts a truly bizarre moment where Chissy seems to ask for Brett Ormerod's opinion but Brett doesn't seem to be there. Did this happen? Did I dream it? 

Poll have started fairly meekly. A few balls into the channels and little else. Chissy goes into a weird stop start phase as if he can't remember the end of the sentence he's started. 'Got to defend Luke [long pause] Garbutt', 'Sullay Kaikai doing [long pause] work'. The pitch is a lovely green, but really quite bouncy. Look closely and the grass is patchy and it looks hard underneath. The stands are leaving high contrast dark shadows and there's a lovely lattice work outline of a floodlight on the pitch, running diagonally from one corner flag to almost the halfway line. Remember floodlights? I'm drifting into aching nostalgia for a forgotten world and we're not 10 minutes in. 

A shadow so reminiscent of days gone by, it could reduce you to tears...

Then Chissy does it again... this time, phrasing a statement with the intonation of a question and aiming it at his absent co commentator... "12 minutes of tentative sparring Brett Ormerod?" Once again, there's no reply from Brett. WHAT THE FUCK IS GOING ON? This really happened. I even wound back ifollow by 30 seconds to check I hadn't accidently ingested something hallucinogenic and started imagining Chissy imagining Brett. Just thinking about that trip is bringing me out in a cold sweat. Mind you, if I was tripping, I could be imagining rewinding ifollow. 

Embleton slips through Yates, a terrific ball that Anthony Grant clips away from the shirtless one before he can react to having controlled it. Dougall gets booked for a really clumsy challenge in the centre circle. Simms and Sullay run into each other. Dougall puts a simple 10 yard pass out of play. Maybe Kenny is tripping too? Nothing else is saying mind altering experience. no one has a halo around them and I'm not seeing fractals or tracers. 

Finally Chissy explains. Thank fuck. I don't think I'd have made it to the end of the game in one piece if he hadn't. Brett is apparently in the studio in Lancashire but his feed isn't connected to iFollow. That said, Chissy is sounding a bit broken today. His rhythm and timing is all off. It's like listening to a skipping CD. I was genuinely worried for him for a few minutes, imagining him turning up to the ground on his own, making reference to 'Brett' to confused press officers, insisting on extra empty seat next to him for 'the co commentator' and ordering two teas and two twirls for half time to pitying looks. 

Nothing has happened at all, which gives me time to delightedly spot a player who looks like a real person. Swindon's no 2 Paul Caddis is both greying and looks a little portly. Once in the first half, he goes on a run and looks as if he runs out of steam at the end. Good to see. 

We pass for a while and everyone creeps forward, eventually, the Viking plays a nice neat, well timed pass to Embleton who takes it, strides forward and hammers his shot into the advertising boards that line the roof of the stand. 

Pool work it really well, Ward showing nimble footwork to escape his man in the centre, spreading it wide to Sullay, Garbutt overlaps and receives a quick pass from Kaikai, he pulls it back, it's nodded back, but Ward leaps and shoots in a strange, but very effective kung fu style and it bounces just wide. Again Ward is impressing me, looking like the one player who has control of the ball on a surface that looks like more like dried clay than it does a football pitch. 

Simms squares it to Yates on the edge of the box, Jerry shapes to shoot but the shot takes a deflection. The corner from Sullay is OK, but Chissy deems it terrible, then purrs over Garbutt's ball straight into the keeper's arms. Jerry gets it out wide and does so many very pronounced step overs that he looks like a Cossack dancer but his ball from the byline is cut out. Dougall plays another pass straight out of play. I'm thinking this is 45 minutes I'm never going to get back... 

... Gabriel plays it from just inside the Swindon half, A well measured ball over the shoulder of Simms who rolls his man brilliantly, takes it on the bounce, near the right hand corner of the box and smashes it home with what I can only term 'aplomb.' A superb finish. 

---

That was hard work, with a goal for Pool at the end to make it all worth it. We started really slowly, but from about 25-30 mins we had control over the game if no real cutting edge. The big plus point is how comfortable Gretarsson has looked on his return, his distribution, positioning and calmness making him look like nothing like he's just had a few months out. 

The pitch is really having an impact on the quality of the game. No one really looks like they want to play much more than a 10 yard pass as the bounce is horrible and makes it a complete lottery. On many occasions I've sat before kick off at Bloomfield Road and wondered why the sprinklers are on. This is the answer. 

---

Swindon start a bit more busily but the pitch is creating mistakes. Jerry nicks it and Ward almost plays in Simms. Ward then has a heavy pass but Swindon can't get through. It reminds me of playing at school on an ash pitch with an over inflated ball that had lost its shape. It's clear that the weather is also having an impact, the long kicks forward losing impetus like a beach ball dying into the wind in one direction, but going wildly far in the other. 

Yates and Embleton play a brilliant move on the break, playing 1-2s all up the pitch before finally Embleton is squeezed out of it at the near post. Gretarsson has his obligatory moment of pain as he crashes onto the ground behind the goal, landing on what looks like a patch of concrete where someone started making a patio but gave up after they'd had the foundations poured. What is it with football grounds? We've got deadly pitchside metal barriers, they've got this? Have people who manage football grounds not noticed that players sometimes go 'off the island' as well as the ball? 

Embleton does a piece of magic so sublime that no one notices. Pool have worked it on the right, He's got a crossing chance, he shapes to cross, he swings his leg to gross, but fuck me, he doesn't cross, checking the impetus at the split second before his foot goes through the ball and instead, playing a disgracefully clever little flick over the top for Gabriel who has gone round his outside. The only flaw is, not only has everyone else in the ground bought that Embleton has crossed it, but so has Gabriel who just trots along, completely unaware of the ball until he realises too late and Swindon have cleared it be the time he can react. 

Garbutt nearly uses the pitch to great effect with a low, raking free kick from 30+ yards that skips horribly off the turf. 

Gretarsson lifts it over the top, it looks like it's offside as Yates collects on his own. No flag. Mind you, they flag late these days... Yates advance on goal. Still no flag... maybe... He looks like he's gifted it to the keeper but a lovely shimmy has the keeper on the ground and Yates wide of him with the goal at his mercy... There's not going to be a flag... The sniper strokes it home and we're 2-0 up. A simple goal, beautifully executed by shirtless superstar Jerry 

Swindon respond with a Jack Payne effort from a defensive mistake (the Viking? if so, his only foot wrong today) that Maxwell plunges low to his right and saves quite brilliantly. Swindon hit the bar from the corner, a driven effort at the far post. The referee has blown, but I think Maxwell gets an equally good touch to direct it upwards, from really close range. 

Demi replaces Simms. Swindon make four subs. Paul Caddis is off sadly, - he doesn't look too fussed, looking like he's headed directly for the snooker club after this. It looks as if the Robins have gone with 4 players up against our back line. Grettarsson cuts out a ball over the top, beautifully, stretching, controlling, clearing in one fluid move. Absolute class. It comes at a cost though as he ends up stat on the turf getting treatment. The iceman is made of strong stuff though, as he gets a dab of the magic sponge and is up and playing again, making a great sliding challenge barely 45 seconds later. Critch though, decides caution is the best option and hooks him, sending on Thorniley instead. 

Look at it. It's got even more beautiful now!

Elliot Embleton picks up the pieces after a long period of head tennis. He looks to shoot, but drifts left instead, now he'll shot, but this time he shuffles the other way, he's over cooked this... but he hasn't, as he turns inside again and finds a ridiculously subtle little chipped finish that sneaks past the far post. He's got some class this lad. 

Sullay goes down with a knee injury. Ethan Robson gets his obligatory late cameo to replace him. Sullay looks ok when he comes off though. Chissy refers to 'Gordan Jordan Gabriel' which reminds me, that he was even more surreal early, as he responded to an earlier Jerry effort that went over with 'he missed the chance to wrap this one up, with a bunny on top.' There's topical* and there's just downright baffling. 

Swindon are mustering nothing. We muster a lovely move with Embleton, Yates and Robson combining beautifully, crisp passing and beautifully timed run from deep from wor Ethan, that ends in a pull back to no one as Yates had been on the edge of the box pulling strings. 

Swindon can't get out their half and when they finally do something other than hack it away for a throw in, Ollie Turton tidies up as he has all afternoon. In the last seconds, they summon up the faintest shadow of an attacking thread, a wide cross hurled in, a man escapes his marker but his header is high and wide and that is that... 

--- 

A terrific win. It wasn't a great game, but the win is all the more pleasing for that. Swindon weren't the purist side we saw early in the year, they didn't invite us to play at all, but we got stuck in and class told. I wondered about the validity of the selection, but again, Critch has put me firmly back in my box marked 'know nothing blogger' with another masterclass. 

Defensively we did very well. I never really worried about the outcome after the first 10 minutes and the centre backs were remarkable considering one of them is in his comeback game and the other one was Ollie Turton. Simms took his goal beautifully and if I could grab back a shred of credibility, it was an effort on the turn, running away from his man, which is absolutely his strength, not playing as a target man. Gabriel deserves the assist, for few players strive as hard as him and his attacking qualities have gone unrewarded for quite some time. 

Again, we worked really hard. I thought Embleton was excellent, he really is due a goal, due that moment where his quality gets properly noticed and he seems to combine hard work with a bit of a free spirit, which is a rare thing. 

I look up the table and see we're still 6th. It feels like someone has done some cheating here. It feels like we should be 5th and have more games in hand... I've no science to base that on. It just does! Anyway, who cares  - We're wizards... 

We're on a march. We really are. 

utmp

*Eagle eyed readers may be feeling that i'm being a tad hypocritical accusing Chissy of shoehorning in topical references, having earlier compared the Goal Machine to Jesus but in what world do you wrap things up with rabbits, either using the rabbit as the medium of wrapping or placing them on top of stuff? If anyone has ever received a gift with a rabbit on top of it, fine, I'll withdraw my questioning of Chissy's metaphoric topical prowess. 

**Note - if the gift IS a rabbit (real life, stuffed or chocolate), that doesn't count. The rabbit has to be on top of the gift, used in the style of a bow

Sunday, March 28, 2021

The Matty Virtue appreciation post


If every player had Matty Virtue's attitude, we'd be Premier League in no time


I often write stuff that can be described as *a bit daft* about players  but I'm genuinely a bit shaken by the news that our Matty has suffered a nasty injury and so this post isn't at all daft. 

When I first saw him play, I didn't think he was up to much. He seemed off the pace and attempting to play a different game than the one that was unfolding in front of him. This was a very similar reaction to the first time I saw Richie Wellens play - something, maybe about a lower league chip on my shoulder, rejecting someone who had been groomed for Premier League stardom, rather than schooled in the 'ghetto' of the real game in the lower leagues.

Gradually though, Virtue won me over. There was the brace at Bradford for starters, which included a lovely drive from distance but also the realisation that he'd put his foot in where it hurts, he'd never stop running, that he possessed a canny football brain, a sense of timing and beneath his rather cherubic face and ungainly running style, lurked a determination as steely as anyones.

He ghosts in at the far post, he makes lung busting charges into the box, he snarls into challenges. He throws himself at things in the air. He, in short, has a go. There's the equaliser in the dying seconds at Accy, the wonderful, wonderful goal away at Sunderland, and a lovely long range effort away at Charlton as prime examples of Virtue's willingness to chance his arm.

He's not prolific, but there's a real sense that, of all our midfielders, he's the one who could turn into that player who adds the extra goals, who tidies up when the strikers don't hit the target. In one recent game, I watched him dart across the box and try to back heel it home, I saw him spread play, from halfway in side their half, then charge desperately to the near post to offer more weight in the box for the cross. I saw him stretch every sinew for a cut back, sliding with no thought at all other than 'goal'

He didn't make contact with the ball on any of the occasions. That's not the point. He just kept putting himself there, then picking himself up and running to resume his other role as a breaker up of play. Virtue seems harder this year. He looks horrible to go into a tackle with. Players bounce off him, he's all bony elbows and shoulders. He's not a dirty player, it's rare to see his foot left in or an elbow raised, he just gives no quarter, never concedes ground.

There's a real leader in Matty. When Jordan Gabriel got a bit of rough stuff in Charlton, the first player on the scene, shoving a bigger lad in the chest, remonstrating with him, red faced and raging, looking to protect his team mate, was our Matty. He leads by example. He's not the best player in the team at anything, but he's the one that tries to get better at everything. He's the one who runs and runs and runs. He's cut from the same cloth as Jerry Yates in that respect.

He's not universally lauded by everyone, but I thought in the last few games in midfield, he looked the perfect fit. Sometimes, it's not about the raw skill of a player. Virtue will never have the pace to quite be the player his head wants him to be, but with Dougall doing the mopping up and Kaikai, Embleton and Mitchell the flair stuff, Virtue seemed to excel in knitting things together, in knowing his role was to variously, carry the ball, give it simply, to show for a pass or get into the box and occasionally, to mix it up by providing himself.

It's a role that needed a jack of all trades. A player the opposition mightn't be terrified of in and of himself, but know that they can't ignore, because he might do any of the options available. A player with a real sense of what the team needs in any one situation. In short, he looked like the right piece in the jigsaw.

With his lurching running style, he'll never make an aesthetes XI but that functional energy is matched with a decent football brain, a desire and an attitude that is second to none. He was ropey on the right wing, but did he ever stop? Did he sulk? Did his head go down? Did he let anyone down? Did he hell... It's not in his nature to do so. He's a former Liverpool captain. He could have been precocious, aloof, arrogant. He's literally the opposite.

You need your stars to get promotion, but you need players like Virtue just as much. He's gone from being a player I couldn't see the point of, to being one of my favourites because he makes more of himself than his raw talent on paper. You can see in his play, that he trains hard, you can see that it matters and you can see that others respond to him. He doesn't stroll, he charges about and when one is doing that, it makes others react. 

Those type of players are as good to watch as any. I love Sullay but he's born to play. I loved Wes, but he had superhuman gifts... Matty Virtue has the air of a lad who just played, all the time, constantly. Who practised endlessly, kicking a ball against the wall, controlling it, heading it. Running, jumping, each time, trying to make himself better, gradually doing so, gradually improving. I see myself on the pitch in Matty. I see a lad who wanted so much to be a footballer, that he made it happen. It didn't just come to him like it has for others and in his play, he appreciates that and plays every second with total commitment. I could never, ever have been Charlie or DJ, but maybe, if I'd worked endlessly, I could have been Matty V.

Because of that, because he seems to care, to fight for everything, to put himself on the line, to run through fatigue, to push himself on and play right on the limits of himself, it makes him suffering a horrible injury even nastier. 

You never want any of your players to suffer that, but especially not someone so likable, unassuming and wholehearted as Matty Virtue. There's not an ounce of 'showiness' in him. The game starts and he's lost in it. It's his whole world, for better or worse until the whistle blows. What more can you ask of any player than that? 

Get better soon Matty. We're with you. You're one of us. This shite blog wishes you well, but so does every single one of us, cos you give a shit. 

Utmp

Saturday, March 27, 2021

Heavy legged near heroics: The Mighty vs Plymouth Argyle

Makes sense later...

I know the top notch graphics and highly skilled illustrations have been popular, but this weeks, lads, lasses and gender non binary folk, google search bots and anyone else who may read, I've stumbled across something so explosive, I can't not print it.  Don't ask me how I got this, I'm sworn to absolute secrecy, just enjoy this peek inside the mind of one of Britain's leading impish football enigmas. 

I give you. Neil Critchley's diary for Tuesday night/Wednesday morning. 

What a night! The win was great, couldn't have asked for more. So much so, that 5 minutes before full time, I turned to Mike and said "Mike, nip out to tesco metro and get 4 litre of sugar free Shandy Bass and some plastic cups - lads have earned a little party" 

Took Wednesday off for a bit of R+R and so on Tuesday night, after doing some excellent pausing thoughtfully (if I say so myself) before answering questions, I hit the road in my sensibly mid range saloon car, listening to my favourite driving music compilation and did some very satisfied light finger drumming on the steering wheel. Hit 72mph at one point. I must be on a high! Usually stick around the 63 zone to get that fuel economy sweet spot.

Got home around 11:30 and went straight to bed, but not before touching my framed UEFA Pro coaching licence and doing a few rounds of Lee Trevino's putting challenge on the computer to calm myself down after all the excitement. Switched the phone off and went to sleep as soon as my head hit the pillow. 

What happened next, I'm still disturbed by. I dreamt it was Wednesday morning and I had a risen early, enjoyed some tasty but sensibly priced fibre rich muesli, swapped the club polo shirt and monogrammed tracksuit bottoms for my own polo shirt and monogrammed tracksuit bottoms, had a little morning walk around my sensibly priced mid range housing estate and then my phone started ringing... 

"Boss, it's me, Jerry" went the jabbering breathless voice... "I know you said to take it easy, but I went and bought a multipack of monster energy drink on the way home and stayed up all night running round with my top off and now I've got weird heart palpitations, been to the A+E, they say I've got to stay in for observation, but I can't stop running round the ward and closing down the porters and the nurses

No sooner had I taken that call, the phone goes again... "Gaffer, it's me, Jordan Thorniley, I know you didn't give me your number, but I got it off Ollie. Look, I'm really sorry but, I was watching some old Russ Abbot videos last night and I was laughing so hard, I've gone and done my stomach muscles. Don't think I can play Saturday, I'm in agony" - then, would you believe it...? it went again, this time, Sullay, he'd apparently been practising tackling things (like I'd told him too) and had tripped over the cat. Then Kenny Dougall's girlfriend, he's got hair bleach in his eyes, Grant Ward's mum, saying Grant had got really bad razor burn from trying to get his beard really neat. Garbs rang and just said 'Gaffer, you know the score, pulled something, just went 'ping' and then rang off without waiting for my answer. Even Stuart Moore rung, saying he'd had a breakdown as even he didn't know who he was or why I'd signed him... 

The dream got weirder though. First I was watching Demi Mitchell just walking down a street, then suddenly a huge tsunami swelled up behind him "DEMI!!!" I screamed, but he had his big headphones on, listening to 50 Cent and I couldn't do anything as he was swept away. Then I was a lifeguard but my loudhailer was malfunctioning as I spotted Ellis swimming and a giant shark circling behind him. "Get ashore" I shouted, but my voice was carried away on the wind... Most disturbingly of all, just I was thinking, 'well, at least there's Ollie', I was on a space ship, with a space suit on, clinging to a boot as the void pulled Ollie out into the infinite blackness. I couldn't hold on. I tried, but my grip slipped and he shot away, circling, spinning endlessly and soundlessly into nothingness. 

Still I didn't wake. 

What could I possibly do about this disaster. Everyone injured? I could play Bez I suppose... Nah. 

I tried to ring Mike, but he didn't answer. Probably doing his favourite thing - bellowing 'Sweet Caroline' on Sing Star over and over again. He never improves his score, but it keeps him happy I guess. I thought about ringing Big Colin, but last time I called out of hours, he'd said something about not liking being disturbed when he's in bat form and feasting on the blood of the weak. Don't know what that was about? Probably a Scottish thing. 

I unrolled my portable wipe clean tactics mat and smoothed it down on my sensibly priced mid range laminate finish dining table. What was I going to do? I hit on a plan. Some would say, 'a backs to the wall masterclass'... It involved Madine, so I gave him a call... 

"Gary, I know you're not 100%, but could you turn out on Saturday anyway? Got a bit of a crisis and I think if I play the kids and get them to ping it at you, it might be the best way to go

"Aw, look boss, I'd love to, but I've got a big Call of Duty online mission planned and I've been to Macro and got a crate of tinnies and a rayt load of Lambert and Butler. Got some of the lads from back home online, gonna be a rayt laugh like.

Then finally, I woke up in a cold sweat. I had to do my side parting three times I was in such a state. Checked my phone. Nothing. Just a message from Paul Clement about whether I fancied a zoom meeting to talk about the best kind of cones. Later Paul. I'm in no fit state! Calmed myself down by looking at random heatmaps and reading an article in 'Sensible Coaching Monthly' on the optimum blend of anaerobic exercise in interval training then I drove to Ikea Warrington and sat in the carpark for bit and wrote this. 

Actually, on reflection, I'm not sure if the chat with Big Gaz mightn't have been real... 

I know that's a LOT OF WORDS and we've not even got to the game, but I'm sure you'll agree, it's solid gold sensational soaraway soccer special scoop stuff. Don't worry though. I've got some graphics below, that break down how we need to approach the rest of the season and offer some real additional value to the reader. 

Fig 1: Things that worry me slightly about the rest of the season...
Fig 2: Things not to worry about for the rest of the season

It seems the roulette wheel has only been given the tiniest of nudges and the only change is Brad Holmes being replaced by Ewan Bange on the bench. That gives me little to say, other than I hope the lads who have played so well and with such intensity in the last two and a half games have done little other than sit down, watching Homes under the Hammer, having long baths and early nights since Tuesday at 9pm and that, I also hope Mike has nipped out and stocked up on Lucozade sport to fill the giant vending machine, that since seeing the masterclass in advertising and acting at the start of the piece, I presume all dressing rooms have in the corner.   

COME ON YOU POOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOL! 

---

Ryan Hardie runs wide, carrying the menace of the former player, but the danger is tidied up. Chopper Sullay slams both himself and one of their players into the empty hoardings but they both recover. Thorniley strokes the ball out of play. Ward breaks well, but his intention to split the defence is well read. 

Plymouth have early pressure and though Pool stick close to their men, a short pass from wide, finds Ennis just inside the area, who turns in the smallest space and hits the base of the post. At the other end, Mitchell nips in winning a second ball and stabs it to Kaikai, he sees glory, going for a glorious half volley from 25 yards out, but his standing leg is clattered into. From the free kick, Garbutt hits the wall and the chance is gone. 

Then Hardie does the business. A long ball over the top, he races with Thorniley, beats him, chips Maxwell, who flails maybe gets a finger tip touch... it's going wide, but in nips Ennis who again hits the post from about 2 yards. A let off? No. It bounces out to Hardie, who takes a touch, makes the angle and sweeps it home with confidence. 

We respond with some frantic energy but it's clear as Demi runs it out of play, that we're shaken. We indulge in some calming square passing and hold the ball, up and down the pitch. back to Maxwell twice, up to their box, side ways, both flanks, but no real attack until Garbutt lifts about the 45th pass into the box and Yates is penalised for pushing. Not long has gone, but this feels like the Home Park game repeated so far...

If Thoniley was the man in focus for the goal, he's the source of the next attack, stepping out perfectly, beating his man and spreading play fantastically, the width of the pitch to Demi who controls it, the ball hits his knee and as gamely as he chases it, he can't catch it as it rolls out of play. Come on POOL! 

Sullay get cleaned out for the third time and they work it quickly to Hardie who puts a good ball over, Garbutt does a curious diving chested clearance. There's a shout for a penalty, but it's a corner. It's one that causes all sorts of horrors, one of those where the ball vanishes into a crowd and then rolls out again, going mercifully just wide. 

Plymouth are looking very good. They're giving Sullay and Embleton no space at all and pressuring the makeshift defence very high. Kaikai is drifting to try and find space but that's affecting our shape and we're not looking crisp at all. The passing is ponderous or hurried, never the lovely purposeful stuff we've seen in the last few weeks. We look heavy legged. 

I'm just about to write that Grant Ward is the one player finding space, when he feasts on a mistake, carries the ball right up the middle and unleashes a drive from 25+ yards that is stopped only by the keeper flinging himself low to his left. From the corner, Garbutt goes short, Mitchell steps over it, Sullay appears from nowhere and hits a low daisy cutter from just inside the box that is blocked on the line. Better. 

It's a tense game and we need a great stop from Maxwell, doing really well to hold the ball low to his left after a 60 second spell of pressure that starts with a loose Dougall pass and ends with a sharp effort from in the D. In other news, I've noticed the Terry's Carpets board in front of the north is at an odd angle, but when the camera sweeps back it's straight. Don't lose sight of the important details... 

It's not getting better as the half is drawing to a close. We look confused as Hardie runs through the heart of the defence. Garbutt and Thorniley both get turned by him and fortunately his shot is at a well positioned Maxwell. We look in trouble, every time they go down the right and we're sliced open one more time, but grateful for some hesitant finishing and a side foot that goes well wide from the edge of the box. 

---

It's not been very good. We've not been able to press, we don't seem to have any width and on the rare occasion we've worked a moment, we've either fluffed it or the referee has blown up. Embleton, so vital and enterprising recently has barely touched the ball and Yates is looking frustrated. 

It seems as simple as fatigue to me. Heavy touches, troubled by the other side moving the ball quickly and running at us. There's not a lot on the bench. I'm not sure bringing the viking on has any impact on what we need to do (attack better) and that leaves a keeper, 3 kids and Robson. I'd be tempted to give Robson a run out as he can't be tired and then, I'd also be tempted to gamble on kids. We've got no option but to try and pass and at 6.5 Bange might change that. Ok, he might not be ready, but we've got attacking players who are having no impact anyway, so what's to lose?

Mitchell is also looking wrong footed and Apter is right sided naturally, so that could be an option and Antwi is the embodiment of energy. Ok, he's never going to bring them all on at one at half time, but the point is, what other choice do we have and what else are we going to do. Plymouth have dominated but without seeming to hit the heights of energy that say, Crewe did. They've looked quite good, but I don't feel like they're 'special' or are going to run out of steam. They've just played to a plan and we've looked tired. 

C'mon lads! 

---

What the fuck do I know? Critch of course brings the Viking on and the Viking brings a goal! (sort of) - We start with more energy, and it's Demi who harries and chases on the right, inside the box, causing a mistake, playing it hard across goal, it squirts through to Sullay who doesn't hit it cleanly but it rolls over the line none the less. Much better.  

The Viking is in the wars as Hardie puts him on the floor, it looks worrying, but he gets up and carries on. Sullay and Fragile Luke fluff a one two and Plymouth race away, we get a foot on the ball three times, but can't stop them until Gretarsson gets clattered again. Plymouth launch it long from a free kick, the Viking climbs well and completes a headed clearance without coming to undue harm, but a lashed, low shot comes from distance, goes through everyone and creeps just past the post. 

We've started the half more brightly brightly, but I still feel we need some energy. We're pressing better, but it's still not the snapping, threat we're capable off. Again though, I know nothing as we put together a spell of patient passing, before the much more involved Embleton switches play well to the right. Gabriel dinks it forward, Demi, who've I've taken off at half time, runs hard into the box and gets chopped down. Here comes the sniper. One step, two step, three steps and BANG! The keeper goes left, the ball goes right and nestles into the side netting with delightful certainty. 

It's a good job I'm not Blackpool manager eh? Maybe Apter would have bagged a hat trick... 

Our press is energised by the goal and now Plymouth are stuck in their half. We force two errors, can't punish the first, but pounce on the second and work it well, clever interplay and a lovely Sullay flick presents the chance for for Embleton to shoot from distance. The only problem with the move is he misses the north stand, let alone the goal, but it's good intent. 

Grettarson is in another collision on the left hand touchline. Michael Jackson on commentary describes him as 'a crash test dummy' and I don't think I can improve on that. Plymouth have a few crosses, but Maxwell is commanding, taking one well, screaming for another to be left and diving at his near post to save Ward's blushes after a lose pass in midfield gave the Pilgrims a chance to go forward. 

Embleton slides Jerry in twice. The first time he can't keep his shot down, the second he can't spin away from his man. I love Jordan Gabriel, but the one thing he can't do is finish. Mitchell sets him free with a lovely, lovely weighted pass. Gabriel charges inside his man, into the box and as he always does at this point, panics... Ward weighs in well next, doing a similar run, but finding a well hit shot that is parried away by an outstretched hand, Sullay tries to slam the rebound home, but kicks air and then Yates has a go, but the ball eludes him too. 

Yates is looking knackered. Surely Ellis Simms would be the right sort of energy now? A sub is being readied, but it's Ethan Robson for Embleton who gets an affectionate clout around the back of the head from Critch. Mitchell and Gabriel, (who sound like a firm of solicitors) combine brilliantly on the right again and only the sprawling keeper prevents Mitchell from adding what would have been a stunning goal as he touches it down the line to Gabriel then hurtles into the box to nearly connect with the full back's cross. 

We have lovely spell, passing it with ease, Sullay almost goes through as a finish to the move, but Plymouth sweep up the pitch and it takes a great slide from Turton to put it out for a corner. The corner then takes a punch from Maxwell to clear, which leaves him with a sore hand and in need of treatment. 

Then for fucks sake, just as injury time starts there's a loopy cross from the left and a late run met by a crisp finish, Maxwell hurls himself unhesitatingly despite his gammy hand but he's got no chance at all as Edwards arrows it first time into the bottom corner from 12 yards. Kaikai falls to his knees and Chissy is delighted as he always is when Kaikai falls below perfect, to suggest he might be to blame. 

There's some long up and unders and some shoulder charging. Plymouth have a bit more territory, but nothing really happens and the whistle blows. 

---

I was going to write about how I can't believe the spirit of this team, I don't know how they dragged up a win out of that but then Plymouth spoiled it. It's probably what they deserved as the balance of play first half was entirely theirs and though we were much, much better second half it's probably even overall. 

I do think we missed a chance to freshen up front around 75 minutes when were on top and creating chances that I think a fully fresh Yates would have made something of and I don't really know what the point of Simms is, if he doesn't come on and run about on 75 minutes in such a situation. I can't be too critical though as my panic subs at halftime were rendered ridiculous by the steel nerve of Critch sticking to what he does. 

It was a weird game, the last two have been wonderful spectacles, but this was definitely quite open, but also really quite bitty. It's the sort of game I'm left not sure who played especially well or badly. Mitchell was terrific second half and everyone sort of did what they do but whilst looking a bit tired at times. Thorniley clearly struggled with Hardie's pace, getting close to him, but not being able to stop him turning and being beaten several times. I thought Maxwell was very important today, making several stops and keeping things calm when they might have fallen apart first half. Ward could have had a goal with 2 well struck efforts and didn't do much wrong. 

I still don't fear anyone else (Aiden McGeady aside) but I do fear fatigue. C'mon Pool... C'mon physio! 

Onward! 

utmp  

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Yet another bad owner. Where do they breed them?

This is Brooks Mileson. He owned Gretna FC. If you don't know who he is or what the score is with Gretna, it might be worth giving it ...