Football Blog: Tangerine Flavoured

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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Tuesday, March 23, 2021

How good was that? - The Mighty vs Peterborough Utd



Shirtless Jerry in a past life. 

When we were a bit shit (most recently about 2 weeks ago...) I'd told myself this season didn't matter. I'd told myself it was a building process and that any fool could see that putting together a side that would seriously challenge the top of the table would take two years. You can't (so my thought process went) dismantle a reasonably competent team and expect to rebuild it in one go. Perhaps, I was wrong... maybe blind optimism was the way to go because, on the back of some superb football in the last 135 minutes, tonight we can put ourselves right amongst it. We can go into the playoff spots with games still in hand. We can put ourselves in as good position at this time of year as we've been in since the ill fated 95/96 season, in control of our own destiny, with only our own results to worry about. 

There's injuries galore and we'll cover how Critch has dealt with that in a moment - first, lets take a peek at the whiteboard inside the managers coach's office at the modular building* at Squire's Gate

*bigger, newer portakabin than the old portakabin that mustn't be referred to as a portakabin because that wouldn't sound as cool and fancy as 'modular building' 

Fig 1: A tactical masterclass that can't fail as long as Big Gaz remembers the nudey playing cards

You've become accustomed to a higher class of graphic with MCLF and the picture below won't disappoint

Fig 2: The squad, as expressed by grey circles

The squad is stretched so thinly that spinning the selection roulette wheel is pointless.Rumours that Sullay is going round whistling a jazzy show tune of his own composition called 'Everything's Better With Elliot By Your Side' can neither be confirmed nor denied but we do know for a fact that Gabriel comes in at right back whilst Turton plays at centre back. I'm slightly anxious at that. In fact, I'm feeling distinctly queezy at the thought. In midfield, I did wonder if Ethan Robson might get a chance, but it's probably logical that Ward comes inside and Demi returns to the right hand side, a place I really thought he couldn't play, but where he performed really well against Burton. 

I'm hoping that players like him, Sullay, Embleton and Jerry make it unnecessary to defend that much as we're on what must be about the 7th choice centre back pairing against what is one of the most free scoring teams in the division. Attack is defence... 

Fig 3: An on the pitch tactical masterclass that can't fail (provided the pre match masterclass hasn't failed because Big Gaz forgot the nudey playing cards)

What else is their to say? Wish we were there, what a night it would be, weird year, blah, blah, blah. You know the score. This is a big one... 

---

Sullay picks it up, drives down the line, loses it, then challenges hard, wins the ball, heads straight for goal but squares it to Jerry just as a challenge looks about to strike him. If truth be told, it's a very quick thinking pass, but maybe hit a touch hard, Jerry controls though, and from 20 yards, strikes it with the precision of a butcher jointing a piece of meat with a razor sharp cleaver, skimming low into the corner past the despairing dive of the keeper. I'm off the couch, running into the other room, dancing and screaming, met by looks of bemusement from those in the house unaware of the import of what has just happened. That doesn't happen at the ground. 

Then an absolute piece of comedy. We belt it long, Demi chases it and the keeper runs out the box and catches the ball. He just catches it and steps back inside the box as if innocently acting normal will fool everyone. It doesn't. Garbutt drives the free kick low and hard but it's blocked easily enough. 

Posh haven't had much, one long ball that Maxwell cuts out really well and an awkward moment where Demi leaves a clearance to Dougall who leaves the clearance to Demi but fortunately Grant Ward is on hand to belt it away. 

Mitchell tumbles inside the D chasing a ball over the top from Thorniley. Sullay stands over it and I really fancy his chances, he's just exuding purpose in this opening. Mitchell takes it instead and puts it miles over. Then Sullay lays off to Dougall, who sprays a long pass. Yates picks it up, finds the overlapping Garbutt who gives it him back. It's a beautiful move, but despite Jerry wriggling and writhing and working a shooting chance, the finish is ugly and wide. 

We cut Peterborough open again, Thorniley intercepts really well and we work it beautifully, quick first time passing up the pitch, Embleton running hard at the edge of the box, looking for all the world like he's going to fizz a shot in, but instead sliding a pass for Sullay, he's in on goal, but as he goes for the strike, his feet go from under him. Sullay beats the turf. Life isn't fair sometimes. 

Posh have started poorly but there's a lurking feeling that they can't stay this poor for the rest of the game. You also have to wonder if we can keep up the rate of pressing. We're causing them no end of problems, keeping them penned in and causing mistakes. Sullay has his legs taken on the edge of the box leading to a booking. The free kick leads to a long range effort from Demi that somehow goes straight through loads of bodies and is taken comfortably, but a deflection would have caused mayhem. 

Finally, Posh show. A little chipped free kick, a nod down from their massive number 5 and a shot in loads of space on the turn by Szmodics that for a second seems to be heading for the top corner but actually flashes wide. If he'd have realised the space he had, they'd probably have been level by now. A minute later, they come down the left and a low ball isn't cut out, falling eventually to Dembele who hits a crisp effort that's charged down brilliantly by Turton, throwing himself in the way with perfect timing. 

We work a few half openings. Sullay and Dougall work it well out of a tight space and find Yates, Sullay bursts forward beyond him but is eased out of the path of Yates' through ball. There's a nice switch of play by Embleton to start a good move that doesn't quite see the right pass at the end, then an equally nice crossfield ball from Thorniley that the terrier-like Mitchell wins in the air, then races clear from his own header, he ghosts through but his pull back is too cute and the chance is lost. Similar frustration on the other flank as Sullay leaves his man for dead with piece of skill to die for, a little shimmy from the absolute top draw, shifting his weight, slowing then exploding past the defender on the other foot. On into the box he goes but his cross strikes a defender and the moment is gone. 

Posh have a corner that creates all kind of horrors. Maxwell gets blocked as he comes for the ball, Dougall half clears, Embleton picks it up and aims to complete the clearance but instead, stands on the ball and falls over, leaving it to be chipped back in where at last someone (maybe Ward) leathers it clear... 

Then just before half time, it all goes wrong. Thorniley makes a hash of a long ball, seemingly getting caught between heading and kicking and doing neither effectively. The ball just hits him and rolls off him. Posh take possession, working it wide left then finding a cross right across the box where Ward finishes quite superbly, taking it on the bounce, pivoting and slamming it an inch inside of Maxwell's far post. A very good finish, but a sickening goal.  

--

It's an absolutely horrible goal to concede, deep in injury time and stemming from a mistake by a player who had had an otherwise excellent game. We've played really well but our fragility is apparent. We can't afford anyone's heads to go as we just don't have the replacements and we certainly can't afford another injury, something that looked worryingly possible when Yates limped about a bit for a minute or so after getting all tangled up with his man. 

Posh haven't so much grown into this game as got a bit less shit as the match went on and the fear is, we'll fade as they get stronger. I watched Yates for a minute or so in the first half. I don't understand how he can run like he does, week after week after week, but still he does. That's been the secret of our recent success - we've put 4 halves together in a row where we've created chances and been the better side (this one definitely included) but it's come from pressing, harrying, energy and non stop fight and with Antwi, Holmes and Apter, plus the Viking and Robson who've barely played in months on the bench, we really lack the sort of like for like injections of energy you'd think we need. 

Fuck it, stop worrying - come on Pool, lets go again. 

--

I'm still feeling sorry for Jordan Thorniley as the half resumes and the first thing we see is him getting drenched by the sprinklers. Pool start well, high pressing, not bringing a clear chance but plenty of Posh mistakes and pressure around the edge of the box. The reward comes when Embleton slides a lovely through ball from halfway inside their half, putting Yates into space. His shot is blocked, looping away for a corner. Garbutt puts it in, the keeper comes but it break, the keeper races out looking to smother it but Thorniley is sharp, getting their first, nicking it away from the now stranded goalie and cracking it at goal where it strikes an arm and elicits a whistle from the ref. Jerry shoves the ball up his shirt and waits for the protests to clear. He puts it down and executes the penalty as calmly as a bloke walking back to the bar to leave his empty pint glass. Low, to the keepers left. The lad is a sniper. 

It's not one way traffic though. We make a few mistakes. Sullay is caught in possession forcing Ward to concede a free kick that we defend well. Dougall dithers on the ball and is robbed but Posh can't work Maxwell, over complicating it instead of taking a chance to get an effort in. 

Then, it gets even better, Embleton and Mitchell combine superbly to create a corner on the right. It's taken short and as Posh don't close down at all, Garbutt has an easy job to work himself into a shooting position. Being in position and taking advantage of it are two different things though and the curling shot from the right is perfect, just glancing off a defenders head before nestling into the top corner, the deflection giving the keeper no chance. Magnificent. 

The game continues as before, Pool putting in an unbelievable shift to contain Peterborough. They knock it about a bit, but are limited to speculative crosses that Maxwell handles beautifully. We keep playing and clearly possession is everything, knocking it about, trying to assert as much control as we can. Still shirtless Jerry hurtles around. He's not human. He's like something from a sci-fi film about a man who gets bionic powers after an encounter with some kind of glowing goo. 

Posh manage a scuffed effort as Clarke-Harris chests down a free kick but can't strike it cleanly. Sullay nearly thread Yates in at the other end, his ball bisecting 3 players but cut out by a 4th. Posh now have 4 subs on and we're still on our starting (and just about only) 11. We're making a few mistakes, we're frankly (and understandably) looking tired, but there's really very little choice about what we do about it. Jerry chases a lost cause. This lad deserves an MBE, the keys to the tower, a place in the hall of fame. I fucking love him. 

Embleton might not quite be at that level yet, but he's done really well again. He's just so key to linking things. He's got the mind of a flair player, but the body of someone who can mix it in league one. He gets a big arm round his shoulder from Critch when replaced by Ethan Robson. 

Then, two shouts for a penalty for Posh, the second one in particular looks a tad suspicious when Turton stops defending to protest his innocence and only resumes playing when he realises the referee hasn't penalised him for either a push or the ball hitting his arm, both of which look possible. I don't know either way, but Turton's reaction did look a bit suspect to me... Garbutt gets clattered then has a massive radge, not at the player who has crunched into him, but at Maxwell for giving him the ball. I suppose if you are as fragile as fragile (but fucking brilliant) Luke is, you don't want to get crunched if you don't need to. Garbutt is soon calm, but Darren Ferguson has been in full on rage mode all half and his mood is not improved by a Posh goal being ruled offside. 

Pool are pushing up, Posh are trying to hit the heart of the box but not really exerting the sort of pressure you'd expect from a side of their apparent quality.  

A flick on from Clarke Harris, puts Isa through, but he shanks it into the stand. A cross from wide, Clarke Harris levers Thorniley out of it and nods down, but it's comfortably wide... Somehow we get 6 minutes of injury time. They boom it up field, we fanny about with it in a way that must annoy the fuck out of the opposition and eventually the whistle goes. 

--- 

Again. What a game. What a performance. To play like that is tremendous, but to play like that on the absolute bones of the arse of the squad is beyond tremendous. Again, it's been such a team effort. Shirtless Jerry will rightly get the plaudits for two goals but no one has played badly. I was terrified of Turton at centre half, especially given the size and ability of their forward line but he's barely put a foot wrong. Grant Ward I thought was outstanding, purring in midfield but getting his foot in when needed and just gliding miles and miles. What else can I say? The lot of them were fantastic. 

I really didn't think we had it in us to be this good. We've put five halves of superb football together in a row now. Inventive, effective, good to watch, full of effort, endeavour and frankly, brave performances from players who are second string squad men or playing out of position. 

Before the game, I was telling myself that if we get done, not to be too harsh, that things aren't easy, that there are excuses, or reasons why we might not be at our best but this team wasn't interested in that all. That was fucking superb.

Again. 

Keep going and who knows where we'll end up. Sunderland to play twice. You never know... 

utmp

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Saturday, March 20, 2021

Best showing of the season? Oxford United vs The Mighty


Fig 1: The anatomy of an injury crisis

In the week, because I have my finger firmly on the pulse of popular modern culture, I watched 'The Plank'  - A 1967 film featuring Tommy Cooper and Eric Sykes as a comical pair of builders. One of the running gags is that every time they close the doors on their car, something falls off it. It's a bit like our squad. This week, Critch closed the door and James Husband fell off, leaving us even more threadbare than we were before. 

Fig 2: Number of players available by position as expressed by the size of a grey circle

The above OPTA standard graphic expresses the absurdity of the situation. Still, we came up with a game plan in the second half against Burton that involved actually attacking quite a lot AND quite a few of the attacking midfielder sorts playing well, so all is not lost.

Jordan Thorniley is essentially the cat who came back. Every time Critch thinks he's got rid of him, he reappears in the defence, today replacing the topknot legend. Grant Ward is the either slightly disappointingly conservative or eminently sensible away from home choice to replace headless exciting Demi. Embleton deservedly gets a start after doing nothing much wrong whenever he's played and on Tuesday, looking capable of knitting together play and most crucially, letting other players do what they do best. 

Fig 3: An exclusive extract from Sullay's diary

Blah, blah, it's a big game etc. You know all this. Oxford are a bit like us, play a bit, probably piss their fans off by not scoring as many as their football merits, started poorly, in better form now, we never win there and all of that stuff. Lets get on with it! 

--- 

My first thought on the game is that I've never been a fan of white trainers. I know some people are, but for me, if your going to dress in dark colours as Karl Robinson is, you'd be best served with a darker trainer. The ghostly crowd noise is weird. It's too tinny and coming from the wrong space. It's like something sampled for a hallucination sequence in an 80s film about someone taking magic mushrooms at a football match. 

The first 5 minutes are energetic, both sides pressing high and looking quite evenly matched. Our first effort is a decent shot from 25 yards from Sullay, theirs a dangerous near post ball that Maxwell plunges on under pressure and holds well. 

Sullay sweeps a lovely ball out to the right, creating a crossing chance for Ward. Kenny Dougall has a wild effort on the volley that bounces wide. The same man is caught in possession, inexplicably slowing down when looking well set to run through at goal and Oxford break at pace. Nothing comes of it other than a view of the (surprisingly active) car park behind the goal that leaves me wondering who is coming and going and how the game sounds to them. 

Virtue delivers a divine pass that sets Ward free. His cross is charged down and we have a series of corners as a result. Sullay swings one high, inswinging and Ballard rises, heads down and it's hacked off the line by an Oxford man stumbling but just getting his leg to it. We get another chance though, Garbutt putting it in, Oxford heading out, Sullay nodding it back in from the edge of the box, then Thorniley with a really clever header knocking it down into the path of Dougall on the edge of the six yard box who can lash it home... 

We escape a quick break when Ward dithers on the ball and is robbed. They escape when Dougall splits the defence with a delicious low diagonal but for all the step overs in the world, Jerry can't beat the last man. This game keeps giving, Ballard has to charge a close range effort down but they can't make the corner count. Minutes later, it's the same route of attack (Barker on the left) and the same result as Ballard again intercepts. Oxford are on top now and they almost equalise when Sykes hits one first time from the right hand side of the 18 yard line, but his shot doesn't quite curl inside Maxwells' far post. 

Sullay suddenly bursts down the middle, picking up on a loose ball after Dougall has brilliantly slid in and robbed an Oxford man, he carries it to the edge of the D and hammers it, it looks in, but somehow isn't. It looks as if it's gone through the net... ending up behind the goal when for all the world I though he'd scored. As close as that moment is, their next attack is alarming as Barker gets behind Turton and slams a ball across goal but no one can get a touch to it. 

The car park is still busy as is the game. Cars coming and going, chances coming and going. (I learn post match it's a vaccination centre) There's a lot of quality, but mixed in with a fair share of mistakes and it's from a really daft loose pass that gifts us a corner that we score. Sullay swings it deliciously in from the left, Ballard charges in and nods it home. Simple, but delicious. 

---

A great first half, the end of which is greeted with surprising enthusiasm by the fake crowd. Maybe we've taken a load?

We've delivered really quality set pieces, we've been tigerish and given them nothing and when we've had it, the movement and quality on the ball has been excellent. Sullay is a totally different player in this formation, pulling strings, trying things, Dougall is playing to his strengths and we look mobile, Sullay popping up central, Ward swapping flanks, Embleton drifting up behind Jerry or across the midfield into pockets of space. 

Oxford have been a bit sloppy, but they also looked quite decent at times - it's testament to how well we've played that it feels as comfortable as it does as they're clearly a side not without their merits. Possibly the best 45 minutes under Critchley. 

Now. Don't. Do. A. Doncaster

---

Two subs for Oxford and sent out early to stand about in shame in front of no one.

We're on it from the off though, great work from Dougall and Yates sees Sullay with the ball on the edge of the box. He's so good to watch when he's playing like this. He takes it in, looks as if he's going to turn inside but then pokes it with his trailing leg and burst after it, going to the byline, pulling it back and creating real chance. He's fizzing today. 

Oxford respond with a shot from distance that Maxwell gathers reasonably comfortably and very good free kick from about 35 yards out, swung in from the right, headed firmly downwards but mercifully, right at Maxwell. This game is superb and we break well, a Dougall interception giving Virtue the chance to jink and run, spreading play to Ward who, fizzes a great ball in, it's cleared and there's a massive convincing sounding shout for a penalty. What the claim is for, I don't know, but there's no time to wonder as Barker is sprinting forward on a fantastic run, pulling defender after defender in, then laying it off to the spare man, who looks in, before an astonishing interception from Ballard saves the day, appearing from nowhere. This is fucking brilliant. 

It's end to end. Embleton has a couple of efforts. We stand up and block a few shots from inside the box. A diagonal ball sees Yates half win it in the air, but he's more aware of where it ends up than the defender and so wins his own flick on, runs at the box, draws a challenge and slips Sullay away as it comes in. Kaikai takes it well, hits it low and hard but the keepers legs deny him. 

Oxford are giving us no rest. They're having a real go and they miss a glorious chance as a cross from the left sees Garbutt fall and therefore Sykes gifted a free shot, he spins and hits it as hard as he can but into the stand behind the goal. It's our turn next and a beautiful back back heel from Yates sees Embleton away but he seems to get caught between shooting and playing a through ball and just rolls it into the keepers hands. 

Virtue goes down and instantly signal he needs treatment. FFS. not anther one! Mike Garrity has the notebook open. Steve Banks has his blue folder out. Both of them want to show Critch who seems more interested in what Banksy has to say. The result of the discussion is Jordan Gabriel coming on for a limping Virtue. That's a real shame as I think he's been at his industrious best since half time on Tuesday - he's not the worlds greatest player ever ever ever, but he's a blend of of solid tackling, a good football brain and some attacking intent and he's suited perfectly what he's been asked to do in this formation. 

A one-two with Yates sees Embleton in, he drives it hard at the near post, the keeper flings his hands up and diverts it over. From the corner, Ballard nods back, someone tumbles in the box and it looks not unlike a penalty... Oxford aren't done though... they spring the offside trap, then fiddle a cross over and Maxwell has to tip a loopy header from the far post over the top. A minute later, he plunges low to his left and turns a crisp shot on the turn from Agyei wide. 

We're still playing. There's none of the 'get behind the ball and keep it tight' and when Dougall intecepts on the centre circle (as he has done so often) we stream forward, full backs overlapping, the ball eventually coming to Kaikai who repeats his little dart into the box, fizzes it across and again we somehow don't score. The same statement could apply to Oxford from the next attack as their winger strains every muscle, keeps it in, plays a nice ball across and equally desperate defending saves us. 

Embleton makes way for Ethan Robson - his first move is to receive a simply divine blind pass from Sullay, swing it across to Gabriel whose crisp shot is turned behind. His second is to get absolutely cleaned out as he spreads the play nicely, but fortunately he's ok. If Virtue has a proper knock, this could be his chance in the next few games to get his Pool career back on track. 

We're suddenly taking the sting out the game. Passing it about at walking pace. Oxford are finally looking frustrated and Ward gets chopped down and there's the faintest hint of a fracas. From the free kick, Jordan Gabriel picks up the ball on the edge of the box, goes one way, then the other then what can only be reasonably described as toe bungs it, miles over the bar. 

Somehow the ref pulls out 6 minutes of injury time. From where, I have no idea. The fake crowd shout fake encouragement, their tinny voices scream out from the past, a ghostly memory of some long gone match. Simms and Mitchell come on for Sullay and Yates. The latter having just been booked for a magnificent piece of shithousery in which he stopped the keeper taking a free kick, got the card, then claimed his boot had fallen off so delayed the free kick even further anyway. 

There's time for yet another piece of magnificent defensive work in the air from Ballard, straining every sinew to divert a swirling, horrible to deal with ball from Ford away and then the whistle blows.

---  

Critch marches out and shakes everyone's hand, Karl Robinson heads straight for the ref, looking like a man who wants to remonstrate with another driver who has clipped his Mondeo in a carpark in his casual wear and tippex white trainers. He's walking angrily, but gingerly as if he really doesn't want to get them muddy. 

A magnificent result in a really important game. Who was good? They all were. I though Dougall was at his best, so many times he broke up play. Sullay was the player we know he can be, Embleton again just made the formation work, Virtue was the right piece in the right place, Ward was up and down and particularly committed in the last few minutes, tackling back and fighting. Yates didn't really have sniff but his leading the press from the front was crucial. Defensively, the unit was solid and Ballard outstanding, though as I've said on several occasions, Thorniley is so under rated and I thought several times today he made really clever decisions, not least for the first goal. Maxwell made some good stops, Turton was Turton, Garbutt was excellent and the whole lot of them were Tangerine Wizards. 

This was the most enjoyable game of the season I think. Two teams who went from it from the start and who never let up. I was wondering to myself if 2-1 would have been a fairer result. It might have been, because I thought Oxford just kept playing and deserved a goal but then, we had more than a few chances to add a third so maybe not. 

After some of the drabness of recent weeks, that was fantastic and just as I'd accepted we were essentially a limited, highly coached rigid team of pragmatists, it seems we've reinvented ourselves yet again, this time as a team of expressive and free thinking midfield attackers. Seeing the rotation and intelligence we played with, seeing the communication and awareness, especially with the midfield 5 was a joy and I think you've also got to take this victory with this list in mind: Viking, Marvin, Stewart, CJ, Madine, Husband - 6 players who would probably get in our best 11 and certainly in the best 15 every day of the week. 

I can't think of many games that match this. Maybe the Hull or Pompey game at home at a push, but Charlton away - they offered nothing, Wigan away was against a shite team, maybe WBA in the cup? Who cares anyway. It doesn't matter where it ranks - it was tremendous. 

More of this sort of thing please! 

utmp

Tuesday, March 16, 2021

Half a masterclass: the Mighty vs Burton Albion

The fires of passion... 

Here's what I'm hoping is happening pre match. The lads are in the changing room, when Critch comes in. They glance up to see their normally mild mannered boss speaking to Colin Calderwood quietly. The big man turns to them and says... 

"Right lads, imagine this isn't me, but that it's Critch" 

...before launching his right foot straight into the door of the dressing room, which splinters and falls off its hinges. 

Silence falls. 

"That," says Critch, with impeccable timing "is what I want you to do to Burton's defence tonight

The atmosphere is electric. They're not used to this kind of thing. There's usually a diagram, a talk, a reminder of the importance of fluids and ball retention. Sometime a powerpoint. Perhaps Mike Garrity will clap a bit. This is different. Even Big Gaz is paying attention. He's stopped rolling a fag and is looking at Critch with a raised eyebrow... 

"Boss?" 
"Yes Gary?" 
"I see what yer sayin, like, but, like, why didn't you kick the door? Why did big Col do it?" 
"Cos I'm a little impish fella Gary and I'd just bounce off it" 
"Ah, I get yer now" 
"Is that everything Gary?" 
"Oh aye, I like it Boss. Canny. I like it, Clever like..." 


Critch nods. He's got a look of pure determination. His face is steel. His eyes burning coal. 

"Colin, come here and stand next to me and stare at the lads would you?" 

"Right lads, imagine this isn't me staring at you, but it's Critch" 

Then the little man lets fly... "I want blood, I want guts, I want fucking thunder. I want fucking THOR HIMSELF.... I want those cunts to know they've been in a game after 5 minutes. I want them on their fucking arses after 10, I want them in fucking tears begging for mercy after 15. I want blitzkrieg, I want the fires of fucking hell raining down on their goal line... Do you understand me? DO YOU FUCKING UNDERSTAND ME?... Yes Grant?" 

"What about the stuff we normally do about recycling the ball and filling in behind each other"

"Good question Grant.... Fuck that shit. I want all out warfare. I want Dresden 1944 to seem like a fucking picnic in the park compared to what we unleash on them. Ollie, if I see you run forward then check back, you'll be checking into the Vic, do you understand? (Colin, stare harder at him) Garbutt, if I see you pissing about with your alice band, I'll shave your fucking head, Sullay, fuck that tracking back and shadowing shite you normally do, just run at them, fucking do whatever you want as long as it's good. Dougs? For fucks sake, would it hurt to have shot sometime? Simmsy?" 

"Yes boss?" 

"Say I'm a fucking man

"Er, I'm a man" 

"No, say it properly" 

"I'm a man" 


"No, I'm a FUCKING man, fucking shout it lad...Shout it! Colin, stare at him until he does it properly" 

Then Critch goes round the dressing room, head butting each player and screaming "GET UGLY YOU FUCKING CUNTS, DO THEM, DO THEM, DO THEM" He's got blood running down his forehead by the time he's finished, which he smears down his face and uses to fashion his hair into crimson horns before walking the team out to their new run out music (below) - Bloomfield is lit, not by floodlights but by flaming torches and the game is all but won, before we've kicked off. 



What of the selection roulette wheel? CJ, Stewart out, Demi and Matty V in. On the bench though, there's great excitement as Ethan has been found! Even better, there's Brad Holmes amongst the sub, something that makes me very happy. A goal is a goal, but it's worth just a little bit more if it's a debut goal by local boy. 

Burton jog out, and it seems they've borrowed Fleetwood's shit grey kit. Sadly, we come out to Ten Pole Tudor, not Aphex Twin and worryingly there's no sign of Mike Garrity sacrificing a goat on the touchline... C'mon Pool, get into them for fucks sake! 

---

Chissy is into moaning about late flags after just 70 seconds. Shortly afterwards he mistakes Sullay for Ollie Turton. No, me neither. The real Sullay is then scolded for not making a tackle, that had he made, Chissy would no doubt have described as 'silly' or 'unnecessary' in chiding tone. 

Burton are all long throws and driving the ball at our box at every opportunity, aiming for the channels and running hard on the shoulders of our backline. 

I've got to be honest, whilst others seem to see long throws as some sort of filthy low art, akin to some kind of tuneless peasant voice spoiling the glorious classical symphony of passing football, I'm always envious when a team employs them. 

Kaikai is described as 'careless', then gets a roasting for changing his boots. 

Burton have an early injury and have to replace a player. Demi wriggles and writhes on the right, he always seems a bit out of control, like a stick caught in a the swirling vortex of water, bobbing and spinning  then suddenly, with barely an inch of back lift lashes an effort from the right of the box that looks to be heading in but is headed away at the last moment. 

Burton respond with a neat snapshot at the near post then shortly after, a long throw that's flicked on twice before being nodded down but wide of of the far post. It's a let off and so is a moment later where Pool fail to complete a clearance and see it knocked it back in, their striker is beyond our defence (that has stepped up) but only his lack of control saves the day. 

They work another moment, a curling shot that looks to be going wide but is tipped behind anyway by Maxwell. The corner isn't immediately dangerous but again we can't complete the clearance and a deep ball is swung in from wide left, Carter gets in front of Garbutt and nods it in. Fucking hell Pool.

We offer little in response other than Garbutt corner swung right under the bar that causes the keeper to flap but no one pressures him. Burton continue to press, continue to give us no time and it's evident again that our creativity is too deep and we're trying to play football but just getting nowhere, then banging it long and losing it. 

Finally we see a bit of play. Sullay is inside, receives and turns, spreads it quickly to Yates who spots and feeds Garbutt outside of him. The ball is driven low to the near post, it looks like a clearance but Simms keeps it alive, blocking, hacking and eventually causing it to deflect to Virtue who lines up a screamer but connects only with air. It's something at least even if it was never really very close. 

We manage a gorgeous first time pass from Dougall leading to a crossing chance that Sullay makes a mess of. We then put together a nice passing move that ends with Virtue making a good connection but a block then sends it looping and spinning away for a corner. We work it short, it seems a great chance for a cross from the corner of the box but Sullay, again, makes a mess of it. 

--- 

Seasoned readers will know I will not have anything said against Kaikai. Tonight is not his best game. That's I think a polite description. This is Sullay as other see him. It's like he's trying to be the player people claim he is. Again, Simms is not a target man. This is going to sound daft, but if we had another right sided centre half fit, I'd be tempted to chuck Dan Ballard up front to win the ball and cause a few problems. That's how week we've been up front. 

Maybe the master plan was to save the door kicking and head butting till half time? Let Burton tire themselves out and then unleash hell in the second half? I hope so because when Ollie Turton had been the most consistent attacking threat, you can tell the first half hasn't gone to plan. Demi's had the odd moment, Dougall has tried to pass it but nothing has worked and they've been way better than us

---

So, Embleton comes on and Simms makes way. What does that mean? 5 in midfield? A calypso football festival of 20 pass moves finished off by lone star Jerry? To be honest I don't care as long as it's better than that showing. 

We do manage a better start. A bold move with a landmark for the game as Sullay completes two passes in a row including spreading the play well and then being the nearest to getting onto the end of a Mitchell cross-come-shot. 

It doesn't last at Burton force Ballard to head just over his own bar from another stupidly good cross, then cause all sorts of panic from the resulting corner, the ball flashing across goal... 

We're higher up the pitch and looking better but the converse is that they're cutting through us with even more ease at times. Embleton has made a difference, working across the midfield, exchanging with Sullay. Mitchell plays a glorious little chip and Virtue races on to it. He hits hard,straight into the head of a defender who goes down as if he's been shot but Virtue just stalks past him. There's intent in the players where there was only apathy or helplessness. From the corner, it comes out to Mitchell who drives it hard and Virtue is inches away from making contact with a fancy back heel that would have been a lovely moment. This is better. 

And then we score. Sullay suddenly explodes on a run, the ball is lifted over the top, he controls in the area but he's squeezed out and the ball is cleared. Garbutt slides in though to win it back on the corner of the box, the ball pops up, hits Embleton, falls nicely for Garbutt who has got to his feet, takes a stride and hammers it from the left hand side of the box into the bottom corner. A lovely finish. 

We're alive. At last. Embleton sweeps it wide. Sullay kills it, steps inside and crashes it inches past the post. So close. We work it again across the pitch, patient but sharp. Yates peels off his man, coming from the penalty spot to the near post to find space, Virtue spots him and Jerry crashes it into the near side netting. Just a minute later, Virtue finds him again with a really impressive long ball but Jerry stumbles as he takes it. 

Chopper Kaikai intercepts, we ping it about until Turton has it on the by-line and only a desperate challenge can divert it behind. Two corners follow, both cause problems and much scrambling and hacking but not even a Kenny Dougall acrobatic sideways aerial karate style leap and kick can force it home. 

The minutes tick by... Burton come back into it slowly. A long ball over the top is turned towards goal, it looks fairly harmless but Maxwell fumbles and Turton has to hack it clear. The passing had lost it's crispness. Fouls are being exchanged. Pool need an injection but the bench is light and it's difficult to see who would bring a cutting edge if not Brad Holmes.

Then Sullay spins and spreads it beautifully, he's been reborn this half, he's looked everything he wasn't in the first... and again we work it to the byline via Turton and an excellent overlap from Virtue and again a drilled ball across is close but not enough... 

The game ends with Burton in the corner and us belting it long and chasing it down but neither side can really put the pressure on. 

--- 

In some ways, the second half was the most encouraging bit of football at home in ages. It was as if Critch actually did what I suggested in the intro, albeit probably in a more mild mannered way of asking pointed questions in a slightly huffy voice.

We had a go, we sustained pressure for a period of time which is what we haven't been doing. Whether Sullay had a cuddle with Critch, a good hard stare from Col, Mike G offered to by him a wham bar if he played better or they threated to ring his mum if he didn't sort it out, I have no idea, but the difference in his play when invited to roam by the presence of Embleton was marked. This was shackles off Sullay and he's way better than stood on the touchline looking lost Sullay. 

Embleton himself made a big difference, he didn't stand out for any one moment of sublime skill but he ran hard, moved well, exchanging places with Kaikai. He was physical, his ball use was intelligent and his intent was always forward, creative, probing. This made space for Virtue who also used the ball really well at times and started appearing in the box. The full backs bombed on. Risks were taken and risk paid off. Demi ran without a care, he created, he harried, he tried things out. He played well. 

I thought Jerry was unlucky and showed some really clever movement tonight. Sometimes I'm critical of him not moving as he could, but several times he created lovely space, invited the ball and just couldn't quite take it in or quite find the shot. 

It's probably shows we're trying to convince ourselves that we are top 6 material that I'm talking up a good second half display that rescued a point after a dire first half performance. That said, we were without CJ, Madine, Ekpiteta, the Viking and Stewart who are probably 5 of our most 'top 6 players' and whilst that's not a valid excuse for how dismal we were first half, it's reason to not abandon all hope just yet as that isn't our best 11 by some measure and there was little on the bench to inject the last bit of energy needed to win the game. 

Had we played like we did in the second half from the outset, we'd have won it. That's a pointless observation, because we didn't, but we've been starved of a convincing performance at home and that was half a convincing one, even if the first half was completely unconvincing and we let a shithouse team with a long throw and a bit of huff and puff piss all over us. 

Critch got it wrong and then he got it right. I don't mind a manager getting it wrong and it's encouraging to see him getting it right and getting a response from the team at half time as that's not been uniform to date. Again, none of that really smacks of 'the Pool are going up' but maybe it gives us a way of playing without Madine that isn't so cursed by failing to retain the ball in forward positions and maybe Embleton has a purpose after all. If we are going to get into the playoffs, we need to play like that second half at home more often and we need to grasp at the creativity offered as we've really lacked it.  

Onward...

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Saturday, March 13, 2021

No mass brawl: The Mighty vs Fleetwood Town


Which is the best tourist attraction?

Here's a thing - earlier this season Simon 'Larry' Grayson managed Kendal Town for a single game because their usual manager had to self isolate. It sounds like it was a cracker. Kendal went 2 goals down, Then there was 2 brawls featuring the whole of both sides. 3 players were sent off in total and Kendal came back to take a point with an 89th minute equaliser. 

I don't know why I've shared that, it's just something I didn't know about a man we know a lot about and it made me think about this season and the fact we've not really seen any high quality on pitch scrapping let alone the delight of mass brawls. Matty Virtue getting in that Charlton lad's face is probably the best we've experienced and that wasn't all that exciting. When people talk about crowds missing, they tend to focus on the sterility of the atmosphere or the ability of a team to find that last bit of energy to push for a win and I think they're missing a key point about why football behind closed doors is less fun. There were fans at the Kendal game - there were two mass brawls. It sounds like one of the best games of the season. 

I've recently come round to accept we are what we are. I've spent about the last 30 games imploring Critch to let loose and attack but I've maybe come to realise that with us actually having a realistic prospect of going up, that we're good at what we're good at and what we're good at is well structured football, closing teams down, everyone doing their job defensively and punishing mistakes by the other side or catching teams on the break... I don't know about you, but Critchball mk2 sounds a bit like the plan behind Larryball to me. 

As you've come to expect high quality graphics from the blog, I've put together (at no expense spared) a detailed and thorough analysis of the key similarities and key differences between our old manager and our current one. 

Fig 1: Potential for wearing a body warmer + satisfaction taken from a good clean sheet (quite close)

Fig 2: Likelihood of making an oblique reference to 'quality in key moments' after the match + possibility of saying the exact same thing they always say in the pre match interview (again, close) 


So far it looks as if Larry and Critch are neck and neck. Surely that can't be? We can't have wasted all this effort just to end up with the same results we'd have had if we'd kept Larry can we? We need to look still further into this... 


Fig 3: Hair + twinkliness (as applied to eyes) - A clear Critch win. 


Fig 4: Not doing the same thing every week/tactical masterclass + not blaming players - (again, advantage Critch)

Fig 5: Impishness/charm + not being perennially haunted for being sacked on Netflix after about 8 games
 
I think these graphs can firmly put to bed any notions that Critch is 'like Larry' - he's a football manager and obviously, there's an overlap, but an owl, a robin and a seagull have similarities, but you wouldn't say they are the same. (For Fleetwood fans, think a cod, a cuttlefish and a plaice - I'm hoping to pick an diversity award for my inclusivity there. )  

I thought about including a long anecdote about the little one room shop near the Knott End ferry at Fleetwood, where my gran used to buy me model trams from, being the essence of Fleetwood and how it was good, but ultimately it was a totally different kettle of cod to Batesons in Blackpool which was a multi level emporium of wonder (and also home of my last really strong memory of my Grandad being healthy, when he took me to buy a scalectrix car,) but that would have been both self indulgent and a crude, simplistic metaphor for the relative nature of the two sides and who needs that, when everyone can see it for themselves? Why make a cheap dig over the obvious eh?

It would be like pointing out Fleetwood didn't even have a supermarket when I lived there unless you count Heron Foods, Iceland and the other little one on Freeport I forget what it was and then using that as an illustration of the absurdity of them being rivals to us with our metropolitan swagger, towers, historic status in the game and plethora of large retail centres. I wouldn't do that as I actually like Fleetwood (the place) a lot and to stoop to such cheap shots would be low. 

I'm now thinking about my Grandad - He died 33 years ago and he once carved me a model yacht and created all the sails and rigging himself with string and little eyelets and everything. We used to sail it on the boating ponds in Fleetwood. I wonder if I've ever put that much effort into anything for anyone. I can't recall if he liked football. I don't remember him ever talking about it. Doesn't time fly?

Anyway... You were here for football I presume? Sorry. 

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I'm thinking of creating a crime noir drama based about a big lumbering centre forward who has more in his locker than first meets the eye that goes missing in mysterious circumstance. Every week an gnomish little grey haired man with a hard to place accent with  tells us the big lad is fine and it's nothing to worry about cos he'll be back next week, but no one ever sees him again. Where the fuck is Gary? I'm starting to worry that someone is going to look at those shots of him in the background of training and spot that they're from 4 months ago... 


Fig 6: A new graphical feature... 

Anyway, the team. It makes sense mostly but not playing Jordan Gabriel doesn't. Nowt against Turton, just that Gabriel is fucking ace and he's really good at defending now so I can't see why you don't start him. Lets get on with it for fucks sake... 

Frankly. I'm nervous. This is why I'm talking too much.  

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Right, get into them for fucks sake. I'd prefer it if we could score at least 4 in the first 10 minutes. They're wearing a terrible grey kit that looks more like the corporate dress polo shirts of a team of engineers than a football kit. We're attacking and Stewart finds Simms, he finds Hamilton wide, CJ has a promising amount of space, pulls it back finding Sullay who is squeezed out of it at the last and can't make a decisive contact. A promising start. 

The Cods work a corner with Vassell holding up well and some clever wing play. There's a shout for a handball against Ballard from the corner. Don't be daft... Lets move on... We do and almost put CJ free from a goal kick but he can't quite control a lively bouncing ball. We then have shout for a penalty. This one was nailed on obviously. 

The ball finds itself with Sullay wide left in the penalty area, he wriggles, steps over and looks for a way through. Just as it appears there isn't one, he rolls it back to the edge of the D where fragile Luke hits it, it's curling wide but Yates darts as if shot from a blowpipe and dives at it, almost turning it home from point blank range but for some good keeping as Cairns reacts equally sharply

There's already more happened than Tuesday and it looks full blooded, not cagey. We've had some joy on either flank. The left wing brings us another chance from a free kick near the corner flag, but it's cleared easily and Vassell charges the length of the pitch, only to be denied by a very well timed sliding challenge in the box from Turton. I told you it was right to start him

Sullay is gaining a burgeoning reputation as a midfield hard man. Charging down the defender on Tuesday and this week, kicking Garner in the face. He's practically Gary Brabin. Sullay's kick is completely accidental but he gets a yellow, whereas Fleetwood clatter two within the next 60 seconds and there's no card.

I was hoping to be 8-0 up by now. The game goes through a stodgy spell, lots of head tennis and crunching challenges. Wes Burns flickers without catching fire. The Cods seem to have shut down the width they were allowing us and have the better play, putting us under pressure several times, the most heart stopping of which is a free kick that Maxwell comes to claim, but gets nowhere near. The keeper finds himself on the wrong side of the ball and it looks very dicey but someone lashes it away... 

The Cods look very 'Larry' - very physical but with a sprinkling of skill and a big man causing the defence problems. They're more comfortable than us now. We look to struggling to get through midfield and several passes go badly wrong. 

There's a nasty moment went Kevin Stewart goes down in mid play. I don't see the challenge or him falling, just the camera scrolling past Stewart punching the turf, curled up in a foetal position. Larry is having a tantrum about something or other but Stewart looks bad. Eventually, he is coaxed to his feet but he can't continue and Matty Virtue comes on. Worrying that we're outnumbered in midfield and now we've lost the player who might be able to be the 'extra man' and have sub and a slightly out of sorts looking Kenny Dougall. 

We muster a bit of play though, working it through midfield for the first time then wide to Garbutt, he crosses deep, but it's Ollie Turton who has the chance on the volley and whilst he shapes up to the ball very nicely, it flies comfortably over the top. Fleetwood respond with another spell of pressure, Garner, Vassell and Burn all causing problems and a decisive punch from Maxwell is needed to calm the nerves after they've gone across the box a few times. 

We find a great passing move on the left from nowhere, but are offside at the end of. Shortly after Simms slides Yates through, but Hill makes a really good challenge in the box. We have a corner, then another corner. Vassell practically puts Husband in straightjacket and hits him with a cosh for good measure as we wait for it to be delivered. He stops just short of grabbing by the topknot, but his arms are everywhere else. The ref is happy with that though and we manage a snapshot from Jerry that is never dangerous.. 

We win another corner, they smash it clear - a long up and under and Vassell charges through. It's as direct as it's possible to be and it looks dangerous, but Maxwell gambles and gets there first. His clearance isn't as long as it could be and there's a flicker of danger, but Virtue is in, then spreading it to CJ, for the first time today, CJ does his thing, poking it past Burns then exploding away, leaving a wake behind him that swamps anyone trying to come and challenge. He goes into the box, he slips it to Jerry, but he can't get a convincing effort away, it hits a Fleetwood defender, it falls to Jerry again, but he's off balance and the second effort is as unconvincing as the first. 

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We started well and we ended well. In between I thought they were more dangerous. Guess what. We're struggling to hold it up front and frankly, it does feel as if Vassell is the latest player to make us pine for big Gaz. Simms has done ok and turned his man several times, but he's not got that vibe that makes it feel as if every time the ball goes near him, the defender with him is going to have the battle of his life. Good strikers of that mould play exactly on the line between GBH and 'a tustle' and we're lacking that. 

Virtue has done ok and possibly given us a bit better use of the ball in midfield and for as much as I've felt on edge in the game, the Cods haven't really had a chance yet. 

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We start the first half with a string of blocked shots from several moves, then a really clever little nod  down by Yates, that finds Simms with a great chance about 3 yards out, but whether it's a great challenge by the keeper or a scuff from Simms, the ball doesn't get much closer to goal as a result of his efforts and they clear. Burns picks it up in midfield, steps inside and blasts it from about 25 yards. Maxwell doesn't look comfortable but parries it out, scrambles after it where both he and Vassell try to dive on the ball and Maxwell takes a crack on the face. 

We escape shortly after, a ball wide from the left, that Vassell stretches for but can't reach. I notice how when Turton goes on a run, CJ doesn't overlap with him and just sits in behind him. Then Garbutt and Sullay go down the other side and I think 'that's better' but Sullay is offside. CJ has a little chance to run, but Burns clips his heels. CJ just rolls over and gets up. It's that sort of game.

There's a lot of heading in our box for a while. 

C'mon Pool! We try some passing, but we spoon it out of play. Simms tries falling over instead of trying to win the ball but has the same effect in that Fleetwood can clear without much fuss. Then we seem to be getting a grip for a few minutes, passing it quite nicely but also having a 'who can get their final ball intercepted most often' competition. I count 5 moments where we make a good position but can't create danger.

Then Sullay drives forward, coming inside from the left he strokes the ball across the face of the box. CJ is in acres of space, it seems almost as if he's offside but he's not, and he strolls forward, he takes it just a bit wider than looks ideal and his smashed effort hits the outside of the post... 

We get a lull, first another spell of hard tackling then a genuine low ebb, as if the players are taking a breather. CJ's last act is to exchange passes with Yates but fail to control it as he tries to burst through. Demi replaces him. 

Demi has the most Demi run ever, completely doing his man, charging into the box, forgetting the ball, checking back to get it when he remembers you need the ball in football and it's not actually just a race or a game of tag, then laying off to Turton who gets scythed down. Garbutt curls a shot from almost the touchline and Cairns has to tip it over. The corner is cleared easily and again, Fleetwood go right down the middle and again, it's only a piece of great timing that prevents Vassell from taking the ball through on goal. 

I envy their muscle up front. It's like all they have to is boot it towards our box but they work it rather more acutely for the next chance, Burns with a low ball in and for once Husband has lost Vassell and from 12 yards out, he looks set to sweep it home but sweeps it over the bar to general relief. 

There's several runs where Demi is obviously on the wrong side of the pitch. As Sullay is right footed, why don't we swap them? Is that too simplistic? Would putting one of the lads from the youth team who can play up front on to run about like a madhead up front not be useful now? Am I naive? 

I miss an incident which appears to be another case of Chepper Kaikai reeking havoc on his enemies. There really is nothing doing for us now. The game is dying...

...but then it's Turton of all people charging onto a lay off from Simms, he's belting forward, there's no support, where are the fucking strikers, the midfielders, anyone? We don't need them though, because Turton goes it alone, checks back inside, and shoots, the shot is blocked but rebounds to Virtue who hits it from the edge of the box, it looks like it might be heading in, it takes a deflection and it now looks like it might be heading in even more, but it sneaks past the post. 

There's still time for Sullay to hit a lovely sand wedge pass to spread the play, for Turton to put in one of the nicest balls of the game, Demi darts between two players but heads it over the top because he's Demi. 

Fucking hell. 

At least we didn't lose. 

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Pfffffffffffffffffffft. 

It feels like the same points from several recent games. We've limited Fleetwood to one real chance and again, Husband has done a good job on a very difficult opponent and indeed our general defensive play was effective. We've created a few chances and their keeper has made a couple of saves but it still smacked of a game in which we firstly didn't want to lose and then any attacking was a bonus on top of that. 

Maybe that's harsh, but it's three home draws in a row and we just don't seem capable of making the running. On a number of occasions, I didn't see us commiting forward, didn't see a risk taken when it seemed like we could have taken one and I guess that's because the shape is all important to us and it's drilled into us not to lose it. 

I do think, and yes, it's a well worn opinion, that we are seriously missing Madine. Simms is a prospect but he's a season or two short of being the player he needs to be. Playing a 442 the way we do, the target man is the most important player. He needs to hold it up, he needs to buy the seconds that let our player run on, he needs to cause constant concern to the defence and give them a relentlessly hard time and Simms doesn't do that. He's 19, coming from a technical background at a Premier League academy and players like Madine or Vassell have hundred of games in their mind, they've seen it all and done it all in return. We don't have a great deal of creativity and thus a player like Madine, who comes deep, who holds up, who plays little chipped passes over the top for runners from deep, or just waits and waits, denying the ball then releases someone when they finally go is worth so much. Simms can't be that player - it's just not fair to expect it. 

We were crying out for an injection of energy up front at the end - we did muster a little burst but that little renewed threat, different problem, new question for their defence just isn't there. Going through the game, we definitely had a bit more than them, but we don't create sustained pressure. It feel like we produce a few chances, but we can't put teams under pressure for long. Again, it's as if we fall back into the structure, we don't go for the jugular, we don't target a weakness that might emerge, because the structure is all. 

We don't concede goals either but it's frustrating. It's like an un-iced cake. It's a very good cake, but it's quite plain. 

It is what it is. We'll just beat everyone else. Big Gaz WILL be back. He is the icing. (ok, it's a stretch, but what or who else is going to be the icing in this tortured metaphor for our functionality without cutting edge?) 

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 ...