Bugga, I wasn’t expecting that. This was an object lesson in how easy it is to lose a football match, regardless of who you are playing.
We were surprised from the start by Mick Mac’s team selection. You’re often not going to agree with a manager’s choice but Mick does seem to spring surprises. On Saturday it was Macateer straight in for the in-form Oster. Last night it was the young Craig James in at left back, with Julio pushed forward and Butler dropped. Why? We all agree Julio has been a revelation at left back so why put him back into the position in which he has not been comfortable for some time. Butler may not have torn up any trees on Saturday but he was OK. I really don’t understand this. While James was hardly to blame for our demise, the tinkering around with a winning shape was certainly not helpful. Unfortunately, neither Dazza not Wright were fit and so Healy was right back as he had been for the latter period on Saturday. I like the look of Healy but, on this performance, he is no right back. He played right in front of me in the first half and so I watched a lot of him – I don’t want to see him back in this position.
We started OK – looking like we were there to win, rather than just draw. However, with no more than moderate Stoke pressure, our two central midfielders, Thirlwell and Thornton, both misplaced passes resulting in handing over possession. We seemed to manage to rattle ourselves. It may have been just my impression but the Britannia pitch seemed relatively wide – and Stoke were using that width better than we were coping with it –particularly with a non-RB RB in Healy with a non-defensive Oster in front of him and then on the left, the inexperienced James with Arca, worried about making the transition back from his favoured LB to his unfavoured LW. Sure enough the goal game. The ball came out of our box and Stewart chested it down to Healy who was down by the deep right side of our box. He had a ton of time and I suspect if the same ball had come to him in central midfield he would have dealt with it no problem. Instead he thought “I’m a right back, I must clear” and did a fairly pointless slice not very far up the pitch and into the path of one of their players who crossed for Noel-Williams to turn in the box (McCartney, I think it was, shouldn’t really have let him do that) and score a good goal.
We just couldn’t get hold of the game, although de Goey did well to save a Kyle header, and the second goal came by them again getting down our right and getting in a cross that reached a man in space coming in from the inside right into the box. The third came almost immediately from the same man in the same position – this time it hit the unlucky James and a shot that Poom had well covered turned into a goal. That’s what happens on these sorts of nights. 3-0 is a score line that few teams recover from.
Breen didn’t come out for the second half – Bjork replaced him. Apparently Breen had a groin strain, which can’t have helped in the first. We looked a lot better in the second but of course Stoke were content to sit deep so it is hard to benchmark our performance. Kyle scored a good headed goal – reacting well after de Goey saved his first attempt. We had some decent hope then but we just couldn’t break through for a second – de Goey made a couple of good saves and the ball, having deflected cruelly for us for the third, refused to do similar things against them. Butler came on for James and Arca at last got to go to left back but the impetus from Kyle’s goal faded as the half wore on and it looked like a second wasn’t going to come. We seemed to increasingly boot the ball to the big man – a sure sign that things are not working. Both Oster and arca were looking very fluid trying to stir things up by making runs across the pitch but it wasn’t having the desired effect. Thornton had been booked for a fairly rash tackle in the first and the Stoke players had been feigning injury every time they were involved with him after that. It was no surprise that the referee, who had been handing out yellow cards, particularly to us, all night, was persuaded to give Thornton a second yellow and so he’s now going to be suspended for one game. Having been so pleased with their performance with Thornton, Stoke then proceeded to do exactly the same thing with Butler – reacting with well-staged fury to a Butler tackle and successfully getting him booked. As several of their players had taken pot-shots at Butler in full view of the linesman you might have expected more cards but no – retaliation seemed only to be an offence if committed by Julio, who had been kicked to hell all night. The player Butler had tackled had open heart surgery on the pitch and was eventually lead to the touchline. Stoke then made a substitution and the 90 minute mark passed and the fourth official held up the board for two minutes stoppage time – pretty amusing given that the game had actually been stopped for over two minutes at this point. Ah well, we weren’t going to score two goals in any case.
I feel cheesed off by this result but not too depressed. The reasons for the defeat were all things that can be fixed rather than being incurable problems. We need to learn to stay calm – if a pass goes astray, take a few deep breaths and next one, stroke it rather than snatch at it. However, I do feel a little worried about two things. First our squad is fairly thin after the summer clearout. While I think our best 11 is one of the best in Div 1, we can’t afford too many injuries. Last night we had two players in the wrong position – Healy and Arca (McCartney at CB doesn’t count as being in the “wrong” position) and one player who is not suited to the role he had in this sort of game- Thornton is good in CM when we are controlling a game but a Thirlwell/Healy combination would have been better to get a grip of CM with Thornton giving licence to roam from LW. Second, we are bliddy slow all round the park. That is something you can adjust your game to but it was really noticeable last night – it would be nice to have Piper back to bring a bit of variety into the speed at which we play the game.
That’s all for now. One hopes we will learn our lesson and go on to tonk Derby on Saturday