Football Blog: Tangerine Flavoured

Sunday, January 31, 2021

What ever happened to doubt?: VAR in a polarised world


I am right, you are wrong. It's either 0 or 1. Forget the infinity in between

I don't care about whatever goal we're talking about today on twitter. I don't care if the eye in the sky got it right or wrong. I don't care 'how it's applied' or whether 'going to the screen more often would help' - Every time I see the word VAR I'm raging. 

It's complete shit. It's not improved the game in any way. It diminishes the spectacle and has fuck all to offer anyone other than TV companies who can get off on the power of their pictures and dribbling sky subscribers who get an armchair treat watching god decree what will be whilst those in the ground just mutter confusedly. 

It's Shit. Shit. Shit. Shit. Shit. 

Imagine. 

Going mental, we've scored against United in the last minute, everyone's going over the seats, people are just screaming and jumping and shaking each other. You can't hear anything for the noise is so complete, so loud, it has taken your whole body over and you are the noise itself... We've fucking done it!!!! WE'VE FUCKING DONE IT!!! YES!!! YEEEEEEEEEEEEEESSSSSS!!!!!! - there's lads climbing the barriers, there's pandemonium, you are turning to the home fans and gesturing... a song is forming from wherever it comes, you can feel it surging through the crowd, that weird, telepathic, ritual moment where no one decides what to sing, but everyone just knows... 

'Limbs'

.... but wait a minute... it's VAR. Oh, Hang on. Stop.... what? Big Gaz's earlobe was offside or the ball grazed Marvin's fingernail in the build up maybe? 

Whistle. Moment gone. Deflation. Hollowness. A numb silence. You don't even get an explanation. It's just taken from you by an invisible hand. It's not even any use berating the referee. Some bastard in Slough, eating doritos and lying on his coach in one of those stupid Zebra print United shirts with crisps all down his front gets more of an explanation than you. He's never even been to Manchester. 

You never celebrate the same again. There's always a doubt thereafter. Always a sense that the event isn't actually the one you're at, but the one being curated on TV.

In fact, why bother going, if that moment of joy and passion is compromised and you can see it on TV in much greater detail?. In fact, why bother having players, referees and physical pitches at all? 

Maybe we could just put FIFA games on Sky cos the computer will get the decision right cos it's a computer. It's better than all that human error that can't be tolerated. Remember, we must get everything perfect cos of money or some shite like that.

Football 2045 

Let Roman Abramovich burn down Stamford Bridge and replace it with a giant computer and a seat for the world's best fifa player with a solid gold joypad plus a team of eastern european beauties fanning them with giant palm leaves. Let the Glaziers do the same and so on, each billionaire investing in an ever more elaborate set up, locked in a battle for processor speed until the opposition fall by the wayside, exhausted and bankrupt. 


Then we'll never have an error again. Then we'll be rid of of awful mistakes and injustices and referees for good. Then no one can complain. Just two people connected to two giant super computers, slugging it out forever in an endless perfect football match in the image of their oligarch owners... Imagine the phone ins about hacking, cyber warfare, malware and the latency of internet connections. To be honest, I don't think they'd sound much different from today's shite... 

Then will you be happy? Then you'll never have anything to moan about again will you? 

It's a fucking curse on the game and if you don't demand it gone now. This minute. This very second, then you are a footsoldier for the above and for good measure, I will throw in that you have the soul of a robot. One that's had its circuitry removed and memory wiped with a magnet so any chance of you developing a human style intelligence has gone. 

You've been told.

*deep breath*

I want to focus for a minute on the broader picture. I'll rein in the rant and adopt a more conciliatory tone, for when you've read what I got to say, you'll have plenty of reasons to charge me with hypocrisy for the above. 

Remember *things*? 

Let's go back a few years to a misty place called 'the past' - I don't remember offside being particularly controversial. It was one of those things it took a bit of time to get your head around but when someone said 'it's to stop goal hanging' it all made sense. In the playground it was a bit crap when some kid just parked himself in front of the goalie and tapped the ball in so it was logical that proper football had a rule to discourage that. 

I basically accepted that linesfolk (how right on am I?) were there to police deliberate and obvious attempts to cheat, to catch out the lazy glory hunter but, as they were people, they'd not get everything right. 

It's not to say there weren't moments when, as a spectator or a player, I didn't say 'c'mon, he's MILES offside ffs!' but I genuinely don't remember thinking too much about it, over and above any other rules in football. 

Similarly (prepare for a leap here) as someone who has been interested in politics for a long time, I don't really remember that many furious political discussions. In fact, I remember politics being a thing that most people didn't give that much attention to in general outside of the odd flash point like the poll tax and even then, it tended to be a hardcore of people. Politics for most people seemed to be something that other people got wound up about, somewhere else, not something to argue into the small hours and lose friends over unless you were a bit of a nutter. 

A picture of the world's greatest football manager as compensation for the digressive nature of this blogpost

If we come back to the future we discover, not that Biff has married our mum, but that the world is polarised. That, seemingly everyone has an opinion and is not only willing to state it, but unwilling to shift it for all the tea in china. There is a *right* and a *wrong* and that's the end of it. It doesn't seem to matter how complex the issue is. The more right you insist you are, the more wrong someone else will insist you are in return and vice versa. 

The other side are bad. The other side are people who disagree and the more your position is threatened, the more you become convinced of the blackness of black and the whiteness of white. The other argument is nazism or marxism. It's wrong and you are right. There's no grey, nothing to be taken from it, nothing to be gained from listening or accepting that sometimes neither of you are right and the truth is complex. 

The worst thing about VAR is it encourages unpicking a chain of connected events and isolating one aspect of them. A goal is scored but ruled out because of something that happened five passes ago. But, what about the incident 8 passes ago? What about the fact that 2 minutes ago, the throw in was taken from five yards further forward than it should have been? 

'It's a tricky one Clive....'

We end up with a litany of 'what about?' injustices that simply make no sense in the light of what football is. It isn't chess or snooker. It isn't a game where you can scrutinise it and ensure that every single touch, every single move conforms to a clearly codified set of behaviours. It's a loose game and the rules are more of a guide. The line between a great challenge and a foul one is indefinable. It's something you sense. Unlike snooker, the conditions of play vary massively and the opposition is always moving. Two identical challenges can yield different results based on the conditions of the pitch, a fractional difference in the bounce of the ball or the movement of the opposition player. 

Getting 'consistency' in refereeing decisions makes no sense. The obsession with ensuring that each and every game follows exactly the same rules, applied in exactly the same way is daft. What matters is consistency within each game. That a referee doesn't favour one team over another. A referee presiding over a mud bath in the pouring rain is right to give a little leniency for sliding tackles or collisions. To do so, is fair for both sides. Someone crying over the fact that 2 weeks ago their right back got a yellow card for a similar challenge in a game refereed by a totally different official, in different weather, featuring two different sides is just whining in an entitled way. Some refs stamp their authority, some refs let the game flow and provided the ref is treating the sides broadly equally then that's just part of the game, along with everything else. 

It's a bit like how we talk about politics. It's a complex world. There are some extremely complex issues at stake in contemporary political debate and yet, it seems we can't do it. We retreat into a binary world of right and wrong, where, even if we're wrong, there's something 3 passes ago we can shout 'yeah, but what about this?' and maintain our sense of moral and spiritual superiority. 

"You're either offside or onside" 

Let's go back to the past again. I was thinking the other day how the concept of being 'level' has disappeared from the lexicon of the game. Even in the blanket coverage TV era of the early and middle Premier League, it wasn't uncommon for pundits to conclude that 'he's level' and that as such, the lines individual can't be expected to make a judgement. The notion of 'level' acknowledges there's a grey area. It acknowledges that wrong and right are sometimes difficult concepts and thus, we can suspend judgement. It acknowledges a world where not everything is certain. 

That's an interesting concept in the modern political landscape. It's quite possible that political issues can have multiple causes. That say, Brexit, can be both a cynical elitist plot to strip regulation from Britain in the name of duplicitous individuals who are not above evoking a dangerous degree of nationalist fervour and inciting an othering of foreigners in order to get their free market disaster capitalist kicks AND a perfectly sensible reaction, driven by a long decaying sense of identity and purpose in which the economic power of an entire cohort of society has been sold out by liberal, centrist politicians, preaching diversity, whilst really meaning 'cheap labour' that has the potential to improve the country (for everyone, including future migrants) by removing it from the rules and regulations of an institution that is a slavish adherent to the economics of managed decline. 

It is tempting, I'm sure to jump in at this point and tell me which of the above takes you prefer. Take a breath. Between us, we could probably come up with at least 4 or 5 other explanations. In fact, 4 or 5 is probably a gross underestimate. I'd say, Brexit could turn out to be a disaster, or it could turn out to be a turning point. There's potential for both depending on what happens next. If people stick to whiningly demanding their perfect vision and failing to listen to each other about anything, referring endlessly to an infinite regress of 'rightness' just as people seem to do over every single Premier League game ever then we're probably not going to do so well.

"I just think we should train more british doctors instead of importing them because it's not good for either our own society or those that lose them"
FUCK OFF YOU NAZI LITTLE ENGLANDER CUNT!!!
"To be honest, I'm a bit worried about the future of the NHS in all this" 
FUCK YOU, MARXIST TRAITOR WHY DON'T YOU MOVE TO RUSSIA?

To rebuild a country after a pandemic and in the face of a significant economic change, you need thinking, discussion, compromise and ideas born of reflection, born of listening to different views. You need to, in short, get on with it and act like grown ups and treat people with respect, acknowledge that different perspectives exist other than your own and not everything you don't like is an 'outrage!' just as not every borderline call that goes against your team in a football match should require an inquest as if it's some kind of global event. 

There are real villains out there, just as there are really obvious offside calls, terrible fouls and genuine cheating but when we heighten our anger to include *everything we don't agree with* it's actually difficult to distinguish the real issues or the real villainy as we're clouded by the anger that comes from seeing everything that doesn't go our way as being somehow proof of the essential corruption of the one true path.

That seems slightly analogous to the manner in which our collective inability to accept human calls in football matches has birthed some weird, stop/start endlessly dissected boring game. As much time is spent talking about how some faceless person in Stockley Park interprets an individual frame of grainy video as anything to do with the game itself. It's a joyless way to watch football, just as to treat everyone who doesn't think *exactly* like you as your sworn enemy is a joyless way to engage with others. You lose out as much as anyone else in the end. 

A quality of debate requires an acknowledgement that grey areas exist. That sometimes, no matter how hard you look at an issue, right or wrong doesn't leap out. That seems to me to be as true of refereeing a football match as it is in politics and society. Nothing is perfect. Not everything is resolvable in an instant. Sometimes things go the other way. Sometimes, it really is 50/50. Such is life. Doubt is ok. Pick yourself up and change the next moment and try to make the right decision instead of living in the past. 

And with that irritatingly pious sentiment, I shall once again state confidently that VAR is a curse on the game. I am 100% right. Unquestionably so. Anyone who disagree is my enemy. They're probably subhuman or something. Traitors to football etc, probably in the pay of Iran or Putin or something. They're probably not even people but bots... 

Go well. 

utmp


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Saturday, January 30, 2021

Read yourself back to sanity...



It's Saturday and we've no game. I've cleaned the kitchen, done the hoovering and the lad is occupied. There is literally no point in my existence. It's grey and the wind is doing a good impression of a thin faced knife carrying youth dosed up on amphetamines and with a grudge against the rest of humanity so I've no real urge to go outside. Listening to other teams play on the radio has little appeal in a crowdless world and my better half is so fed up of me after the months of lockdown and tier based house arrest that I think she'd probably rather have a conversation with Harold Shipman, Peter Sutcliffe and Jimmy Saville than me

So, what better thing to do than read a book? 

Books are grand. Presumably, if you're reading this blog, you like football AND you like reading so perhaps some books recommendations would hit the sweet spot?

Firstly, let me point you in the direction of the ever inventive, ever engaging Jane Stuart whose has been writing about Blackpool in a passionate, observant and amusing way in various formats for many a year. Her book reviews series has put me on to some superb books, not least Paul Ferris's stunning 'The Boy on The Shed' - I'll let Jane's review do the talking, aside from saying, it's one of the most unusual, well written and essentially human biographies I've ever read. 

If the idea of 'footballers with something to say other than "At the end of the guy, the gaffer's word was final and that was that. I didn't like it but what could I do?"' floats your boat then I'd really recommend Richie Sadlier's 'Recovering' - I'm no great fan of the 'misery memoir' but Sadlier offer his soul up for a complete dissection and reading the account of his struggle with his own habits and mind is fascinating. Cricket has been shaken by books by the like of Marcus Trescothick and Sadlier's honest exploration of the footballer's ego, lifestyle and the precariousness of the career has the potential to open the door for more exploration of the pressures of football and maybe the young male psyche as a whole. It's not so much 'enjoyable' as a 'fascinating and slightly disturbing read'


Another player whose career was ruined by injury is Paul Lake. A classy footballer who would likely earn a place in the 'Duncan Edwards What Could Have Been England XI,' he tells a very powerful tale in an understated way. There's no great histrionics, no huge ego, just the story of his rise, fall and then the heartbreaking efforts he made to regain his place on the pitch. What emerges is a picture of a really down to earth, 'normal' bloke struggling to cope with having his dreams taken from him. It's also an interesting picture of football in transition from one era to another and Lake explores the changes at Manchester City alongside his own demons. I think the best way to explain why I like this book is ultimately, Lake comes across as a thoughtful, philosophical and human bloke. 

If Lake seems normal, Brian Clough's image was anything but. I've read a fair amount about Clough, but the ultimate insight into his gloriously contradictory and at times tragically self destructive character can be found in Duncan Hamilton's brilliantly titled 'Provided you don't kiss me.' This is a story you've read before perhaps, but told from a perspective that offers new insight and depth. It's brilliantly written, Hamilton balances poetry and pragmatism and creates the rare feat of a factual book with depth that reads with the flair of a great novel but doesn't have you cursing the writer's pretensions. It's just sublime and the conclusion of Clough's career is rendered so movingly, I defy you not to have a bit of grit in your eye. 


Patrick Barclay's book on Herbert Chapman doesn't hit the literary heights of the above, but without direct access to his subject, he charts a different path, putting Chapman's achievements in the context of football and society as a whole. This means, as well as learning about Chapman's methods and personality, we also discover much about the mining village he grows up in and the big social changes that take place between his birth and death. It's not perfect - Barclay ascribes broader events in football to slightly the wrong point in history from time to time and once or twice, it feels a bit clunky the way he cuts to the wider world of politics, but it's a well written and impressively ambitious take on a familiar genre.  

If football history is your thing, then I can't speak highly enough of Jon Henderson's magnificent 'When Footballers were Skint' - which works as a sort of oral history of a bygone era, focusing on life before the maximum wage was lifted. Henderson does more than just print the memories of the players he interviews though. For each of his subjects, he paints a picture of them in their heyday, and their characters in old age when he interviews them. It's a remarkable work, full to the brim with brilliant obscure facts. It leaves you feeling as if you have not only learned about players from another era, but have actually been in their presence. It really hasn't had the critical acclaim it deserves and as well as being very entertaining, it stands as an important effort in documenting football history. 


If you really want to get your teeth into something then David Godblatt is your man. Firstly, 'The Ball is Round' charts the history of football from origins to early 21st century. It may be dense (actually, there's no 'may' about it - you want to know about football in Scandanavia in the 1910s? Goldblatt's your man!) but it contains one of the most interesting and thoughtful versions of British footballs origin story you are ever likely to read. When you've finished, you can pick up the state of the game today in his eye opening 'The Age of Football'  which is ultimately (not due to his writing, but what he reveals) a troubling exploration of finance, politics, corruption within the global game. 

There's few things more troubling in recent football history than Hillsborough, a tragedy with which has spurned documentaries, docudramas, alongside many books. It may not feel as if there's anything new to say about something which has been poured over in infinite, heartbreaking detail but 'And The Sun Shines Now" penned by survivor Adrian Tempany achieves this, laying bare not just the failings on the day, or the establishment cover up in the aftermath, but exploring with tremendous objectivity, the legacy of the tragedy and how it was used as a lever to create seismic changes in the game itself. It's a really interesting book that leaves you thinking as much about the modern era as it does the gross injustices stemming from the disaster itself. Chapters comparing German fan culture with the UK equivalent and exploring football's potential for community work are particularly insightful and really, quite unexpected.


 
You might be forgiven for feeling a bit down after the last couple of books and the themes therein. That's where the final book comes in. If any book has inspired me in the last couple of years on any subject, it's John Nicholson's 'Can we have our Football Back?' - it's a breathless race through 'the state of the football nation' written in an informal, but highly informed and witty style. It makes deep, serious points about the financial model of the game but offers hope for change alongside thought provoking ideas. It's accessible and easy to digest but devilishly subversive at the same time. As some gobby butter salesman once sang 'Anger is an Energy' and Nicholson avoids the trap of nostalgia, offering a path towards an alternative fueled by a bracing righteousness that never feels cloying or preachy

Free stuff! 

Whilst the authors above definitely deserve to make a living from their trade, writing for the love of it is alive and well on that there internet and not all of it is shite. Below are some of my favourite bits of writing that have kept me sane over the last year or so written by people doing it essentially for the craic. 

SAFC Blog: At its best this blog reaches the status of dadaist cultural collage. Weird photos, surreal humour and pop culture surround the business of following Sunderland through thick and thin. I love this blog, I read it every week. It's like the Fall. It's always different, yet always the same and dead good. Sometimes even 7/10. 
 
This Is Not Football: Mark O'Brien is a name from fanzine glory days, once the editor of When Skies are Grey, an Everton fanzine of legend. His blogging is a thing of wonder, pithy, sharp, sarcastic but never indulgent. He takes wild flights of fantasy but always remains anchored to the game. I regard him as possibly the best football writer (not) in the business. 

Beyond the Last Man: Articles on great games and heroes, mostly from days gone by. An absolute treasure trove of stuff ranging from the well known, to the niche history of East German Football and beyond. 

The Itinerant Football Supporter: A simple concept, brilliantly done. Peter Miles goes to football grounds here, there and everywhere. He writes about it. He does so, very well. A brilliantly executed version of something a lot of people do, but sometimes not quite as well! 

Finally... 

Aside from absurdly long match reports, the very publication has produced some longer form writing over the last few months which might help you pass the time. I'm particularly proud of the interview with John Robb which let me live out a dream of being an NME writer. You can read my rambling and occasionally researched thoughts on a variety of things generally 'football related' by clicking here or if you're up for more over written Blackpool FC related nonsense than is probably healthy, then just head to the home page and knock yerself out. 

Recommendations for decent blogs (any team) and books (especially ones that are slightly different or really well written) would be much appreciated, either in the comments or on twitter. 

If nothing else, it would keep me from subjecting you from so much shite as I can't read and write at the same time. 

Go well. 

You can follow MCLF on Twitter and Facebook or subscribe directly by email on the homepage 

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Tuesday, January 26, 2021

Five on a farmers field: Wigan Athletic vs the Mighty

It's a pie. It's been smashed. Do you see? 

I wrote a preview to the game, so I'll keep it short. Basically it said - we've got a decent side still, so lets attack, attack, attack. Then we got the team sheet and Garbutt was out and it all suddenly looks imbalanced. Bez or Sullay (he's gone Bez) is really the only choice facing Critch and it looks worryingly like he might have reverted to 433 which isn't a problem in and of itself but is something we've shown little sign of being able to master, let alone with the side we've got out tonight. 

The pitch looks like it's been laid about 10 minutes before. You can literally see the lines between the strips of turf. It has an air of an agricultural field in winter, muddy grooves, stubbly grass like the remnants of last summer's crops. The Wigan summariser make the outrageously inaccurate observation that the neon pink of Maxwell's keeper's kit and our legendary tangerine outfield strip are similar colours. I think to myself 'At least our kit doesn't resemble a tesco bag and we don't keep changing our colours every other season you daft apeth' 

We're going to need someone to show tonight. I decide at kick off, Ethan Robson is going to be that man, based on literally nothing other than a mad hunch and wild hope. 

--- 

The pitch has unpredictable bounce, which is not unsurprising given in looks like a tractor has been over it. The opening minutes are cagy, both teams probing, more in the hope of an opposition mistake than any great expectation of crafting anything. Bez manages 2 mad shots in the 3 minutes, but neither of them come anywhere near constituting a threat. We're actually playing 442 with Matty V as surprising winger and everyone else where you'd expect. 

Bez does some lovely work deep and nearly threads shirtless Jerry away. Seconds later, our tireless striking hero tries to bring the ball down in the box and ends up firing well wide when he's juggled it and turned. Virtue pulls a cross back, but too deep, Gabriel stuns a lovely ball to the near post but no one can get in front of the corner. We've not really made a clear chance but it's been an ok little spell. 

Wigan break that with a corner and a couple of searching long balls. We respond with a nice bit of passing and possession and then a good bit of purpose, Virtue winning a header, nodding it forward to Yates, then showing for the return. It looks as if he might shoot, but he puts it in to Madine, back to goal, he flicks it and goes for an overhead kick, connecting with the defender's head as much as he does the ball and the ambition is rewarded with a whistle rather than the pearl of a goal that Madine had envisaged. 

Wigan have another corner and another little bit of control then comes an odd moment where Thorniley comes forward, then keeps coming, and coming and it seems he might as well just walk through and have a go, but he decides against it and chips into the box, a bit too heavy for Virtue who chases gamely but is never going to reach it. 

My prediction nearly comes true as Pool make a beautiful move, their best bit of play for weeks, started by a classic little bit of total Gaz (that's my new term for when Gary Madine achieves his total football best) with a beautiful dummy and flick to set Pool away. The move reaches its peak as MJ Williams spots and then executes the perfect slide rule pass, Gabriel is away on the overlap, pulling it back and Robson coming from deep looks set to bury it, but true to our less than lethal form, he just dribbles it into the advertising hoadings instead. Hmmm. 

I'm encouraged. There's been signs of some desire to take the game to Wigan and that we can threaten them as we do, but as ever, you feel whilst we're on top, we've not really looked like making it count. How short of starters we are we are is evident at the site of Jimmy Husband on free kicks. How unfamiliar the  central defenders are to each other is evident when Wigan finally find a man with a swinging diagonal early cross (a move they've repeated from the left several times) because Thorniley and Ekpiteta both mark the same runner and leave a limping Kyle Joseph a free header, that he puts mercifully well over. 

Then my prediction nearly blows up in my face as Robson wanders forward and lazy in possession, gets tackled and Will Keane, with Maxwell out of his goal, has a go from 45 yards, but it falls well wide, despite it seeming a bit dicey as it shaped alarmingly well from his foot. Latics have come into it. Pool are looking a bit more ragged, passes are falling short, fouls being conceded and Madine and Yates are isolated. 

Bez achieves the remarkable achievement of conceding free kick by trying an attacking run, an event caused by him poking the ball into nowhere then launching himself at the player who takes it off him. He's not short of effort isn't our Bez.  

Then Madine's awareness creates a moment, shielding a seemingly harmless ball then letting it go for Bez who runs free, reaches the touchline, cuts inside, drives it across goal and gets a corner for his work. The corner swings to around the penalty spot, Madine, is on patrol, drifting and every ready. He sees it early, timing his leap well and a great header creates a good clawing save, Virtue reacts and pokes it across the box and it's MARVIN EKPITETA sliding in and scoring his first Pool goal. A player that deserves that if ever there was one. 

We're going down the right, then we're coming infield... Is this one of those moves where we go forward and then just go back again? No. it isn't! Williams lofts it to the far post from just about the absolute centre point of the Wigan half, Madine cruises towards it, but it seems to be the Wigan defender who gets a head to it, his intervention though, is a knock down worthy of big Gaz himself, straight to Yates on the edge of the six yard box who cannot miss and doesn't, wacking it high into the roof of the net. 

There's still time for a few more forays, and a bit more Madine magic putting Virtue in for a chance he and then Jerry can't make the most of. 

--- 

Have we played better today than in some recent games? Yes. Have we played better than this this season? Yes. Have we been as clinical? Rarely. Are we doing well? Given the circumstances, definitely.

Williams has been a presence and played a few lovely balls. Virtue isn't a winger but he's been game and tried to link with Gabriel who isn't a winger either but the two of them have really tried to make it work with Virtue tucking in and Gabriel overlapping sometimes. Sometimes attitude matters as much as quality. Keep going, keep fighting, keep trying to do your job. Bez hasn't exactly excelled, but he's put himself about and kept making Latics work, he's been something to think about at worst. Jerry deserved his goal for the work he's put in (as ever) and aside from the moment I pointed out, big Marv and Thorniley look to be talking, tracking, heading and timing things well and the two full backs have really limited Latics to hitting it early most of the time. They've both been impeccable. Madine though, just gets better. He's so fucking good at football. He understands play so well. We lack creativity, but we've got this lad, a big unit yes, but a complete bag of tricks and 360 degree vision at the same time. 

Get 10 Red Bulls into MJ so he doesn't conk out after 60 minutes this week and just scream 'remember Doncaster! REMEMBER FUCKING DONCASTER! for the entire half term talk please Neil. 

---

Pool start well, a couple of moves on the left cause pressure and Latics can't get out for a good five minutes. We even get treated to a bit of wing play and a frankly hilarious (but oddly dangerous) cross from Marvin as he up and unders it from near the corner flag after a couple of touches so careful you can practically see his tongue poking out in concentration. I love Marvin in unlikely situations. He looks so much like a kid. 

Pool though, nearly pay for a slack bit of play as Latics maraude down the left, Tom Pearce crossing right across the face of goal where three Pool players hack at it but kick fresh air, Joseph has sneaked round the back but his finish is poor and we get away with it 

Pool come back though, Virtue crosses first time, Madine climbs, but it falls the wrong side of Bez. He's alive and alert though and wriggles and twists to keep it alive, holding it up and then laying it off to Husband, we rebuild... Husband feed Bez, Bez gives it back and the moment culminates in neat pull back and a beautiful finish from Virtue, doing what he does very well, ghosting in and crashing it home. 

Pool look confident for 5 or so minutes, but then Latics get a grip and start pressuring. A vicious free kick skims the turf and skids just wide. A brilliant run from Laing, all through the middle, no Pool man able to stop it is only halted by a stunning save from Maxwell. Pool are sitting off and Latics coming forward with worrying ease. Ok, it's 3-0 but even a tiny thought we could let this go is worrying me. We need to do this. We need to crush someone. The team needs this.  

The tireless Jordan Gabriel though relieves the pressure, streaking forward and getting on to a diagonal, cutting inside and crashing at the near post, drawing a good stop. We bring on fresh legs. Simms this time will have the luxury of playing with big Gaz instead of on his own. It's not big Gaz though but Jordan Thoniley who nearly provides his first ever goal. The leper of the defence collecting it, moving forward calmly and then playing a it forward with the technique of (and I don't exaggerate) Franco Baresi, a beautiful, calm ball, timed and weighted to perfection for Simms to run onto, hit low and be foiled by a good stop. 

Here I have to stop and wonder why we've literally played 3 full backs at centre half instead of this lad at various points in the year. Why has been kept in the cellar in a box marked 'junk' - he does really well tonight as he did against Brighton. He's calm, he's actually much better on the ball than you'd expect from the fact Critch doesn't seem to rate him and he talks to Marvin, he points, he works with him and he looks at very least a competent centre half. Ok, we've got Ballard and the Viking but we didn't always have them and he never got a look in when our defence was a 4 car clown car pile up on calamity highway. That's churlish I guess at 3-0 but I can't help observing it. (reader mutters 'nice 20/20 hindsight there...')

Pool sweep forward several more times. Simms looks to use the space he has well and to have a decent awareness of what's around him, Bez, in search of glory tries a curler but it won't stay down. How he needs a goal.. Sullay comes on for him and has a snapshot charged down after a lovely pull back from Simms and nearly gets on the end of a clever floated ball from Gabriel, a little skip of frustration as he can't quite reach it. How he also needs a goal...

Latics are done. You can tell. They've just got that trudging step and are clearly resenting the time left but Pool aren't. They're relishing it and want more. 

A long throw from Gabriel. Madine again creates, it's just a classic flick on but he's just a classic player. Simms goes in with the keeper and a defender, wins it with his head, then completes the moment by just nodding the ball over the line as it comes down from the initial challenge, the keeper and the defender landing in a heap on the floor as he's calmly finishing for a debut goal on his league debut. 

There's time for Rob Apter to make a league debut and Ollie Sarkic to trundle on as well to do whatever it is he does, that you suspect he might be quite good at but no one really knows what it is. Big Gaz sets Apter free. He stutters, he shapes, he shoots, but into a defender. Apter himself takes the corner. It's inswinging and exactly onto the angled forehead of Simms. He doesn't even leave the ground, just glances it home, reaching it with a single step forward. It's a lovely delivery and a neat finish, but you really have to observe that they didn't even try to get a man goal side. 

Pool are lovely to watch in the last few minutes. Confident, swaggering and swarming. Sarkic spreads play. Apter runs about and links up with things. Madine just dictates and if Wigan think about a consolation Thorniley or Husband who has been superb tonight show total commitment to the clean sheet, timing their tackles but pulling no punches physically. 

--- 

It's been a joy. 5-0 feels terrific. Especially as when we played someone like Bolton last year, we fannied about and wasted the chance to hammer them. Wigan are better than they were but we at last put someone to the sword. The confidence this will give some players is immeasurable. Again as I said at half time, I enjoyed the attitude as much as the skill. We did play some lovely stuff but it wasn't one of those hammerings where Wigan couldn't put a hand on us. We put our chances away and in all honesty 5 might be a bit harsh on them. We just wanted it. Not everyone is a champions league player but look at Virtue. He leaves the pitch with a goal and an assist but also a load of sloppy passes. The point is, he kept trying, he kept chucking himself in there. Sometimes this year, we've seen players come of the pitch having NOT made a mistake but not having taken a risk either. We've not won those games 5-0. 

Well done Critch. Necessity is the mother of invention and he put out a well motivated side that worked much better than I thought it would. Well done Jordan Thorniley for showing up despite being shunned for the best part of a year by multiple managers for reasons no one knows and for playing for the shirt and playing really well. Well done Jimmy Husband for getting forward and then getting back equally well. Gabriel exactly the same. The midfield were tigerish, the strikers worked really hard. Madine was almost a playmaker of the strangest kind. That's how you take it to another League One side. With a bit of blood and guts, a bit of skill and a lot of attitude. 

To batter Wigan like that gives me pleasure I can't possibly turn into words. Let's hope something comes of a takeover, and they resolve the situation properly cos I'd like to this again next year, but this time I want to be there. 

Champions? Probably not, but a lot of positives and a lot of players who took their chance. My prediction wasn't accurate but who cares, cos we can actually beat someone other than the top 6 or Swindon after all and that's a lesson we needed to teach ourselves. 

Just enjoy tonight. Doesn't matter what it means overall. It's all about the journey. We'll get to where we do and then we'll go again wherever that is. We're fucking Tangerine Wizards! 

utmp

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Match preview: Wigan Athletic vs The Mighty


Culture

I dunno if other people did this, but one of the highlights of my youth was when me and my mates used to put together scratch teams to play unofficial but highly anticipated games of football against another group of lads. Where I grew up there were two field. The park, which contained a war memorial, a few trees and kids play area and the rec, which had the advantage of goal posts but less places to sit around. 

We were the park, they were the rec. We'd meet in advance and settle on how many players were going to be allowed to play (usually the number of the smaller group) and then from then on, we'd spend a few days working out where everyone should play. With us being the smaller group, we basically had to shuffle the same people round, trying to hide the shit players and highlight the good ones. We'd talk different formation and have complex ideas like 'what if Kev plays just behind John so he can stop Griff cos he's fast as fuck' and 'If we play Banxy up front then he'll create a pocket of space that midfield can exploit.' like we were managing at a high level with a squad of elite players, not a ragtag bunch of lads and a few of their younger brothers.

When it came down to it though, all that happened was 30 of us (games were usually about 15 a side) legged it round after the ball, two people on either side got bored and wandered off to have a fag and talk to girls and generally, we lost cos the other side were better than than us. 

I think that's a long winded way of saying, that's a bit like where we are now. Critch has got enough players to put out a side, but he's not got many choices. I kind of like that. There's something quite old fashioned about it, it harks back to the days when squads were much smaller, you might get through a season with 15 or 16 players and no one talked about 'the art of squad rotation' or 'tactical flexibility.' Football seemed a bit simpler. You got the best players you could, usually played them in a 4-4-2 and either passed your way to the front or launched it there as quickly as you could. You worked with what you had. I quite like the idea that necessity might be the mother of invention for our Neil. 

Should we even play this match?

I think on the surface, yes we should. The issue of whether we're harshly dealt with in terms of other clubs or could call it off to our advantage is a relevant one, but to me, if the league has designs on finishing, then a club in our state, who can put out more or less and 18 of fully signed up professional footballers (albeit including some young and out of favour ones) should be playing. Would we better waiting till everyone was fit? Maybe - but if everyone thinks like that, then we'll end up with a stupid backlog of fixtures all across the division that means we'll end up tired and unfit anyway. If we all put our own needs first, then there'll be no league to question the integrity of or we'll be playing a game a day in July instead. 

The question of whether it's right or wrong morally to play or whether the EFL are again letting us down with their laissez faire approach to governance and protocol. Lets just not go there. Just close your eyes and think of...er... Wigan.

A skyline of dreams

Now, as I've written before, this fixture is complex for me. I grew up in Wigan and yet, I want to beat them more than almost anyone. That's easy enough but I'm equally concerned at the moment that the club keeps going. Ideally in a lower division so I don't have to think about them cos when we lose badly to them (like when we lost 5-1 the year we went down under Worthington and Macca or at some time I can't recall when they did us 3-0 and it was freezing and I had to go home on the local bus surrounded by Latics fans with my shirt hidden or any of the other times they ever win against us to be honest...) 

Losing to them is grim to me cos they're a non league club in a rugby town who got lucky and gained a load of hangers on as a result. That said, the current state of affairs in terms of their takeover (does anyone on earth actually know what is going on?) illustrates how fucking lucky we are in the grand scheme of things with buyers, administrators and our rare luck of landing on our feet after all we've been through. I think it also shows dangerous it can be for a club who loses their benefactor. The good times always seem to cost the clubs from towns, whilst there's a city elite who just seem to be able to borrow, lend and squander till the debt becomes meaningless and there's no consequences. Maybe one day Chelsea (the greatest loss makers in English football) will go 'pop' when Roman pops his clogs, but somehow you feel that they'll survive whereas Wigan are in more of a perilous position. When all is said and done, I'll always be more for the Wigan's than Chelsea's* even if battering them tonight is my main desire for the week. 

(*note, I fucking hate the use of teams and players as plurals so I'm going to beat myself to a pulp when I've finished writing this, cos if I ever write 'the Lampards and the Gerrards and the Rooneys of this world might one to think about starting out at one of the smaller clubs, y'know the Grimsby Towns or Rochdales of this world cos the Chelsea's and the Arsenals are a big challenge for anyone then that is literally it for me. No desire to continue breathing if I'm going to talk like that) 

Anyway... Wigan. They're clearly on their uppers but they're in ok-ish form. It's about the same as ours. Not great, not completely awful but with our relative ambitions being somewhat divergent, you'd have to think they weren't too unhappy at only losing 1 in 6. They've only won 1 either mind... 

Last time out, Joe Garner was their key man and apple of Chissy's eye. There'll be no Chissy tonight (boo!) thanks to Covid travel restrictions but no Joe Garner he can miss either thanks to him now playing in Cyprus. There's something strange about how BBC Radio Lancashire aren't allowed to go to Wigan (which actually IS Lancashire by the real maps) but Joe Garner can go all the way to Apoel in Nicosia. The world is strange though at the moment so it pays not to think too much on anything. 

How will they play without him? I have no idea. They've got Kyle Joseph who is that good we're kidding ourselves that we could get him, Zach Clough who was good ages ago but doesn't seem to be any more, Will Keane similarly and in the ex Pool corner, Viv Saloman Otobar who must be the only player to have played for Blackpool and CSKA Sofia with just one season in between. Curtis Tilt has gone back to the Merry Millers and even a full strength Wigan looks a bit cobbled together. Even their choices of manager seems to have been borrowed from about 2009 cos really, who expected Shezza to turn up at this level again? Leam Richardson replaced him in the long run and It'd expect a high energy, hard work no frills terrier like style if he's like he was as a player. 

I'm more concerned with what we do. We did ok against Brighton. Some huffed a bit about the lack of attacking intent, but I think we tried both twatting it at Gaz from miles away and trying to pass out and neither really worked cos Brighton are quite good really, even if we like to say 'them, they were nothing!' to make ourselves feel better. They were fit, pressed very well, handled everyone but Madine with a professional quality that spoke of their level and got better as they brought better players on from their luxurious Premier League bench. 

I think this is a different matter. Yes, you make noises about respecting the opposition and there being no easy games, but even with a depleted side, Critch should be looking to get at them cos they can be got at. I watched the Wigan/Chorley game and Chorley didn't defer to them, so why should we? Brighton might have held us at arms length but Wigan aren't them and we need to learn to get at sides. Why not tonight? 

I think our first Xl could actually be decent. Yates/Madine is no problem. Then you could put Sullay behind them with Virtue and Robson sitting (who are both competent if not in the 'world beating' category.) Wide, you'd struggle to find better wing backs than Garbutt and Gabriel. Husband, Thorniley and Marvin is an adequate defence with some clear pedigree in there. Ok, it's not how we usually play but all the inverting in the world hasn't brought us many goals. Wigan have scored more. Only Northampton have scored less in the division. 

That should be a solid enough side, with pace, a bit of guile and a bit of balance. It should be able to mix it up a bit. Short into Sullay, or Jerry and Sullay swapping to play off Madine, crosses from the flanks, Madine in the mix, Virtue coming late etc. It's a side where the intent is obvious. It might not work, but it's the only side I can come up with where I feel it looks set up to win first and foremost.  

Why would I drop MJ? Not cos he's done owt wrong other than be knackered after 50 mins last weekend, but because I just want to get in Kaikai for all the reasons Brighton was frustrating. He may flatter to decieve, he may drift out of games but there's an off chance he might light up the pitch. Playing MJ alongside Robson and Virtue is kind of setting up to first not lose and I think we should be looking to win before anything tonight. Alternatively, you could play MJ in the backline and therefore give us the option to flex to 4-4-2 but I'd not bother. Again, why defer to sides? Death or Glory. Not a useless point from a tepid 1-1 draw and praise for 'keeping the shape' and 'executing the plan' 

We need to score more and win more. Draws won't get us where we want to be, so fuck it, have a go. Plans are only so useful. Instinct needs to take over sometimes... 

I leave you with one of them wacky Wiganers singing a tune about Wigan. It's not a patch on the Nolan Sisters mind... 


utmp

Saturday, January 23, 2021

Always next year... Brighton and Hove Albion vs the Mighty



Here we go. Fourth round day. Another stop on the road to Wembley. Cos we are going to Wembley and we're winning the thing. Fucking hell, if a tinpot team like Wigan Athletic can win an FA Cup, we can win it twice. Don't stop believing. Don't wake up. It's a tangerine dream. 

Can we really do this today? Yes we can. We play far better on the break against sides who make the running and play nice football. We're really actually very good at that. We're not higher in the league because our strengths don't match those required to play against half the teams in our division, not because we can't play well on the right day. 

Losing Tuesday night was a loss in terms of having anything happen of any interest in the week, but it's a gain in terms of preparation for this match. We should in theory be stretched a little less thinly, we'll be a bit less fatigued and after all, running around on a sodden swamp of a pitch trying to knock down a solid wall of immobile League One players would have been like practising snooker to prepare for an archery tournament. Brighton on their billiard table are a different matter altogether to Northampton on a quagmire.  

When I look at the team sheet though, I'm in for a surprise. To be fair, Critch's approach to picking a side is such that to not be surprised would be more of a surprise than to be surprised. That seems a mouthful so I wonder if there's a German word for that feeling and decide to make one up in case there isn't. 'Kritchchoisse': a sense of the predictable seeming more unlikely than that which is expected'

He's brought in Garbutt and Gabriel which seem fair enough choices, even to me as a resolute defender of Sullay and Ollie, I can see the talent and class those two bring. We've got the surprising midfield of Robson and Virtue, who are not Dougall and Ward, but ok, they're on the fringes. Then I see he's also bringing in MJ Williams (hands up who predicted that?) and Jordan Thorniley (hands up whose jaw hasn't hit the floor?) and I'm flabbergasted. Add to this the naming of Teddy Howe and Ollie Sarkic (remember them?) in the 20 and it's a teamsheet I need to read three times to absorb. There's also the trio of kids, Apter, Marriette and Holmes alongside Sullay and Bez. It's certainly not a dull bench. Needs must I guess. 

How we gonna go? Fuck knows after that shock! 
---

Nothing says 'Community' like American Express is my first thought as the teams burst from the sponsored tunnel. As the players take their positions, I note Thorniley looks a bit giddy just to be there and Graham Potter looks like I imagine the bloke from Ocean Colour Scene to look now. 

Our expert summariser refers to Nigel Critchley and I think things are rough indeed if Critch has had to get his cousin to come and manage us for the day. 

The Seagulls start well. They are very patient but ready to switch gears quickly. They create a corner which they head just over the top. We respond by not playing out from the back at all, Marvin getting all tangled up and Maxwell slamming it away but only as far as a Brighton shirt and the pressure stays on. 

Not surprisingly, our attempts to get out seem very much contingent upon Madine getting onto stuff and it's the goal machine who has the first effort for us, a shot from distance that is charged down on the edge of the box. 

Williams, Garbutt and Husband are confusing me, all having the same hair and all being left footed. The game is settling down a bit. Pool understandably, given the changes seemed to take a few minutes to find their shape, but now they have, Brighton are taking longer to form attacks. We're being very direct in response. When we play a bit, oddly it's Luke Garbutt who looks rustiest, twice in the opening minutes poor touches end Pool moves, which is out of character for him. 

Brighton have another chance from a corner, a worryingly free header again. Pool responding by winning a free kick in a decent place. There's no confusing Garbutt for anyone else as he whips an effort from thirty yards and forces a diving save. Sadly his corner that follows isn't as classy and the pressure dissipates. 

Graham Potter really is a model of sartorial elegance, he gives off a vibe that can best be described as 'tailored'. I can only hope he one day gets manage Sunderland for the sake of SAFCblog. There's an odd interlude where the camera weirdly stays on Maxwell for a full thirty seconds. It's interesting to see how he kicks every ball, swaying, moving with the rhythm of play, his eyes following everything, his face betraying his pain at our inability to move the ball smoothly enough to escape the Brighton press. 

We have a little move, Madine of all people running with the ball, finding space and working it to Virtue who loses it on the half turn as he looks to ghost through on goal. At least we've made them work. Maybe we can do this! That thought doesn't longer long as Bissouma picks it up, looks as if he'll thread it. Our defence covers the angles but unfortunately the Brighton man has more direct intentions and smashes an absolute beauty into the corner from way out, Maxwell beaten from the moment it leaves his foot. 

We respond by passing it about for ages. This finally reaches a crescendo as Gabriel makes the most optimistic shout for a penalty ever  - without the ball he runs into the keeper and falls over, bouncing to his feet full of outrage, arms wide in hopeless appeal. 

Brighton carve out some more half chances. I can see both why they're in the Premier League and why they're 16th or so. They look very good but not quite clinical as they could be. There's an air of us about them at times...

We win a free kick wide of the penalty area on the right. We work it well but for once Super Gaz can't find the pile driver, placing an effort that needed belting. He's a god in human form though, a Greek or possibly Roman god of target men and for all their powers, the ancient gods *are* fallible. That's what makes them much more lovable than the arrogant modern God with all their perfection. He shows the one of reasons I deify him seconds later, coming deep into a pocket of space, spotting Yates over his shoulder using on his radar and then slipping a lovely ball that deserves better than to hit shirtless Jerry on the heels and bounce away harmlessly. 

If I loved our Gaz for that, the next moment, is beyond love. It's pure worship. We're coming forward, Madine again in possession. He spreads it to Yates, who hares after it and back heels to Garbutt who crosses, low, swerving, dangerous. Madine has carried on, a defender with him but he leaps, he twists,he stretches, almost sitting down as he reaches it and he FUCKING SCORES! 

All 'Pool goals are the best goals but Goal Machine goals are the best of the best goals. 

---

It's been a mammoth effort from us so far today. Brighton looked well in control for periods and we're playing with half a team. We struggled to get out from under their press, we looked as if we lacked the player to make something out of our passing moves but we've stuck at it, tracked, kept shape, put a foot in, rode our luck a tiny bit and taken the chance when it came. It's hard to look beyond Madine as the man of the half but I've liked Virtues efforts (mostly fruitless) to get forward and get beyond the deep lying forwards and Gabriel's lovable efforts to try to make something happen by just running really quickly, I've also liked Thorniley's stubborn resistance in some moments when they've had it in the box. OK, he's not Bobby Moore, but he's not played a game forever and he's done ok. Garbutt has shaken off a rusty start and contributed to both chances we've had, Williams and Robson have done their bit. Everyone has. We've worked hard. 

How's this going to go from here? I don't know. If we can do the same again, Brighton will feel the pressure more than us and we've got a chance. The concern is we've got very little on the bench in the middle of the pitch where players like Williams, Robson and even Virtue will surely begin to feel the lack of recent games. It's also hard to see how the more match fit starters could shuffle round and fill in there either. The positive is that if we can keep it tight, then the energy and unpredictability of Bez, Sullay or one of the kids could just prove useful if we have more chances to counter. 

---

I lose the stream for a bit, and when I rejoin it seems there's been some sort of clash at a corner. When play resumes, Marvin soon gives it away playing a daft square pass to Thorniley. We survive a horrible bit of pinball as a result and smuggle it away at about the fifth time of asking. Shortly after, Jimmy Husband surprises everyone (probably including himself) by striding down the left and playing a lovely near post ball the Goal Machine can't quite get to. 

Brighton have period of menace as first a sloppy bit of play by Williams grants them a run on goal, then a drive from edge of the box forces a save and a series of corners. The menace pays off as Mac Allistor lines up a shot and drives it at Maxwell right hand post, it smacks Alzate and loops just inside the other post. A lucky goal but one that felt like it was due sooner or later. 

Brighton make 3 changes bringing on *some players I've heard of* - the worrying thing is, we've got some players on the bench who I wouldn't recognise if I bumped into them in the street. 

One of them comes on. Ellis Simms replacing Yates. Marvin nearly puts the ball in his own net which disrupts me trying to work out how to describe Simms. As I regather from the shock, I decide Simms looks mobile, reasonably tall, skinny but with just a little bit of stockiness at the same time even though that makes no sense at all for someone to be stocky and skinny. 

Pool look worn out. Maxwell takes the ball, but we're on our heels and he has to wait for us to take a breath before we fan out and quick breaking from the back is therefore difficult. Robson plays a tired ball. Marvin makes a really good challenge. Williams makes a ragged one. We have a bit of play but William's passing is as twice as ragged as his tackling was earlier. 

Sarkic, Sullay and Bez come on, Madine, Virtue and Thorniley come off. Odd subs by my book. Big Gaz is the one player we can just knock it too in the entire squad, Virtue has been the most likely of the midfielders which isn't saying a lot, but I wouldn't have taken him off from the three.  

Bez wins us a free kick. It only yields another always fun moment of Marvin looking confused in an attacking situation. Bez then beats a man and puts a cross in. It's a bit of danger moment, but Brighton defend well, break quickly and Maxwell has to make a stunning point blank stop. 

The commentary starts blathering about game management. What is game management but a fancy way of saying 'time wasting?' - Brighton to be fair to them, don't seem interested in such cynical pragmatism and line up chances they keep missing. I look at us and I can see what Critch has tried to do getting a different sort of threat on the pitch, more skill and technique than Jerry/Gary's power but with the very raw Simms as the fulcrum instead of the Goal Machine's nouse it seems unlikely we're going to get Sullay, Sarkic and co into the game. As I muse Maxwell make another lovely save. He really is a good keeper. 

There's a tiny glimmer as Sarkic threads a pass but Simms is just eased away by experienced centre halves and his path to the ball disappears. We then have a free kick in our own half. Everyone heads forward as Maxwell takes. It soars through the night sky and Marvin can be seen underneath it, watching, hoping, tracking it like a stargazer watching the passage of Jupiter. It seems to take forever to fall towards him and when it does, a big burly Brighton head appears and nods it away, unchallenged. 

There's time enough for Maupay to have an outrageous run where he beats about half of our players then passes it to no one. If I'm honest, they should be more in front by now but they just don't seem to have that last pass or shot in them. 

The whistle goes and we're out. 

---

Sadly, it was the 'Pool run out of steam' option I offered at half time that came true as opposed to 'fairytale winner'. I was dreaming of a Bred Holmes goal winning it in the dying seconds but it wasn't to be. I didn't really understand the subs but to be honest, there's probably a degree of pragmatism involved in the decision to remove Virtue and Madine. It's also a fact that there weren't the players on the bench to freshen up in the positions that really needed it. 

It's a frustrating outcome as we've got a scoreline that will earn us the obligatory pat on the head on Match of the Day, but it's been a game where had we had a full strength side out, you could actually see us taking something from it. 

I think some credit must go to the players who came in with so little game time, especially the one who was publicly told he could leave on Thursday only to start on Saturday and had a decent enough performance. There's no grand learning to take from this match. Nobody disgraced themselves but we lacked the heroic or magical moments that we needed. There's no shame in this performance or result. There's just a sense of disappointment that one of the little sparks of light for the season has now gone out. The FA Cup is magic until it isn't.  

It doesn't matter. We'll win it next year instead. 

utmp
 



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Monday, January 18, 2021

We need to talk about Sullay: Northampton Town match preview

A picture of some trickery and magic. Which players would you say this applies to in our squad? 

I don't normally do a match preview on the basis I've got nothing to say and others do them way better than I ever could. I am bored though and perhaps if I do a preview, the match blog won't run to the length of a short book which will probably to everyone's benefit to avoid. I do try every week to write a shorter one but the opposite happens. It's happening again already. Get on with it! (reader, I'm talking to myself)  

After the last match the conclusion was that it was all Sullay's fault we'd only gone and got a point at Hull. Seasoned readers will be aware I love Sullay and can see no wrong in anything he does. Despite that, even I can see he's not playing well at the moment, though I personally think he's done ok in his last two games (his cameo against WBA was fairly lively and despite the general consensus, I thought he wasn't that bad on Saturday.) 

Here's the thing though. He's really not a left winger. He's played ok on a few occasions there but just as if you put Dan Ballard at right back, Turton in midfield or Jerry Yates in goal, sooner or later, the returns are going to be diminishing. Sullay plays best behind a front man and he's really good at it on form. Really good. He drifts about, finds pockets of space and asks constant questions. He's got vision, can see a pass and execute it, ability to beat people like few players in the league and a decent shot. He'll at worst, occupy a defender or drag a midfielder back to track him. On the left, he just occupies a full back who is there anyway. 

I didn't really understand why he got picked in a game where we were going to require the wide players to track back as we were away from home. Now, don't get me wrong, I'd always pick Sullay but I'm a naive romantic who would try to win every game 10-0 and probably lose it by the opposite score. I'd be Ardiles at Tottenham, fervently believing if we can just attack enough, defence won't be needed. What I don't understand is why if you weren't me, with Mitchell, Garbutt and Gabriel all kicking their heels and potentially better suited to playing a cautious role on the left, you'd pick an out of form, out of position player who as good as he is, definitely has fragile confidence to play instead and ask him to a job he isn't especially good at as he really isn't very good at defending. I don't think he doesn't try. He's just a bit shit at it.  

Critchley seems simultaneously to really like Sullay's skill and also to have doubts about him. He benched him when Lubala arrived, only for it to be immediately obvious that Bez wasn't Sullay yet. He quite often takes off Sullay before others as he did on Saturday but he keeps coming back to him. It's as if he looks around at others and thinks 'yeah, but they can't do what he can do' and yet, despite his obvious if possibly grudging acknowledgement of his quality, he won't play him where he's best. 

Which brings me to Northampton. I don't usually do a preview largely because I don't like bluffing my way through pretending to know anything about the opposition. I don't know anything about Northampton this year either other than they're not doing great and Keith Curle is their manager. I could look some stuff up but until you start sending me money in the post to do so, fuck that for a laugh. 

The basic facts alone are enough to suggest this is a test. We've built up games against big sides as 'markers of where we are' and we've come through most of them with tremendous credit and yet, despite beating a good few sides at the top, we're not at the top. That's because it's sides that 'we should be beating' that cause us trouble. Sides with wiley pragmatic managers, who may well be happy with a point. We can't break them down. We're like a bull running at a wall, again and again until it falls over with a sore head. 

We've got a squad with very few 'useless' players. There's no Scott Dartons. You can argue about their merits, but there really aren't many if any of them. There's plenty of competent professional footballers and I'd argue, with the right players complimenting them, most of them could. as individuals. play a part in a successful side in League 1. You don't need 11 match winners to get promoted. It's fine to have some players who just do the simple stuff. 

You do need one or two though. 

You need players to create chances. You can do that in a simple way. We could play Garbutt and Gabriel on the left and right respectively, get crosses in early and get players around Madine. They can both cross and will make us nice and solid. It's about as far from the vision of Critchball we imagined in August as it's possible to imagine without thinking long and hard about John Beck's Cambridge having some kind of weird orgy with Dave Bassett's Wimbledon and producing a strange twisted offspring that gets raised by Bobby Gould who reads them all Charles Hughes coaching manuals every night at bedtime till finally they're big enough to go and play against Northampton.  

We could alternatively play Sullay somewhere on the pitch other than the left wing. Perhaps behind the front two? This would require a formation change and that's also quite hard to imagine. Critch likes to change players around but he's definitely never moved away from 4 at the back. It's quite possible to envisage Husband, Ballard and Marvin with Gabriel and Garbutt on the flanks, Dougall and Ward in midfield and Sullay in front of them, behind the Jerry/Gary dream team. 

That would be a prettier watch for sure. It would be an attacking side, balanced, full of intent. A confident looking selection that seems designed to push the other team back and ask a variety of questions. We can still cross it to big Gaz OR we can go short to the little tricky player who is hard to mark. Jerry likes to move about a lot too so those two could be a bit of a nightmare for a defence planning on just playing a tight line and heading it away a lot. 

Or we could just not play Sullay. 

That leaves me a bit worried though. With no CJ, who creates? Again, this isn't a criticism of the individual players but they lack, as a collective, the spark of the creator. Yates and Madine both rely on others. Neither of them is a tricky, twisting little striker who can run through a defence or a whippet whose pace makes every through ball dangerous whether it's any good or not. They both rely firmly on getting on the end of things, working hard or physical strength. They're both grand, but they're not going to make their own goals very often. 

In midfield, Dougall and Ward are both 'a bit' creative. Ward will knock a goal in from time to time, Dougall will play a nice pass quite often but they're first and foremost about energy, breaking up the play, keeping it simple. Garbutt can cross but he's not a flying winger. If he plays, you'd expect to see a lot of early crosses. It might work, but so far Critchley hasn't played a left midfielder on the left so it also might not even cross his mind. Mitchell is very fast but was bought as a left back. Gabriel is a real favourite of mine but he's a right back so it's a bit much to expect him to be the creative force on the flank. Bez is as yet unproven and Matty Virtue is another primarily functional player. He's got a shot, he likes to get forward but he's hardly spraying defence splitting passes every 10 minutes. Ethan Robson looks like he should be creative but doesn't actually create anything... Is there anyone else? 

Who offers a bit of mystery? Who could occupy a defence whilst the strikers find space? Who can thread a pass or change direction in a shuffle that sends the opposition one way whilst he goes the other? What player in the squad would you like to have picking it up 25 yards out and running into the box? What player in the squad thinks really quickly or acts instinctively when getting the ball in and around the edge of the area? What play can come deep and take possession of the hard working Ward and Dougall and turn it into threat? I can only think of one now Kemp (who also never played in the middle) has gone. 

Again - I'm not having a go at the squad. They're all good players but 21 goals is a low total and the evidence is there in the results. We've only beaten Swindon comfortably. No one else. We don't score enough goals and to be frank, we don't have striker who misses sitter after sitter. All strikers miss chances, but it's not like we're bemoaning Madine and Yates week after week for not hitting a barn door. We're simply not pressurising teams which is fine if they're any good and take the game to us (or not very good and do it as Swindon did) but if they don't, what do we do then? 

My love for Sullay isn't all emotional. I do like the lad cos I like players who are a bit different. I simply don't see his supposed 'bad attitude.' I see a player who isn't especially good at some things and very good at others being asked to play a role that doesn't suit him and whose shoulders go as a result. My love for him is also pragmatic. He's like no one else in the squad. 

Tomorrow, I see a game that we should be trying to win. We can try to win it by getting it wide and knocking it to big Gaz. That's fine by me, I'm no purist. It could very well be very successful. I just don't see in the squad another option other than Sullay to try and win it any other way if that's not working without a pacy forward or goals from elsewhere on the pitch. 

I could be wrong. I could be right. 

That's a preview. Don't expect one every week. You can (as I'm sure you're delighted about) expect another instalment of 'The FA Cup of Songs that contain team names but don't appear to be actually about the team itself though' the final rule of which which precludes this little nugget sadly.



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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 ...