I’m fed up of saying things like ‘a game of two halves’ because it seems to be the case most weeks. Look at Rochdale, we were poor first half and good in the second, At Blackpool it was the same and there have been other games where I’ve used that saying, one I can’t immediately recall. It was the same yesterday, but I think I can pinpoint why.
Jorge Grant came off at half-time injured and for me, that affected the balance of our side. Jack Payne, arguably the Man of the Match up to that point, went out on the left wing and Jake Hesketh dropped into the ten role. In my opinion, that completely upset the balance of our attack and led to a relatively quiet second period in terms of chances.
I’m not the manager and I don’t see the players every week, but with green space behind the wing backs my personal preference would have been Harry Anderson on for Grant, with Andrade switching to the left and Jack Payne staying exactly where he was in the middle of the three. I’m not sure what Harry has done to fall so desperately out of favour and I know he’s struggled against a 3-5-2 in the past, but this was an attacking 3-5-2, with space to exploit. We know how rapid he is and surely that would have kept us in similar shape to the first half.
Jake Hesketh is a lovely lad I’m sure, but when he dropped into the ten the link-up play wasn’t as clean. Jack Payne isn’t a winger for me, he likes to drift inside and make the attack very narrow, which suited the opposition with their three centre backs.
Within minutes of the restart, Marcus Forss drew a huge save from Josh and that set the pattern of the half. We began to retreat, started to look very nervy and the home side sensed blood. This wasn’t a big stadium with some angry home fans on the players backs like at Fratton Park; the Cherry Red Records Stadium (there’s a mouthful) is tight and compact, 4,000 feeling like eight or nine. The rain had stopped too making conditions a little easier for the Wimbledon approach and from the restart they were the better side.
Joe Pigott, anonymous in the first half, drew a huge save from Josh but the kept launching corner after corner, attack after attack. Remember, this is a side with four wins from five of late, a team with a real double-threat up top. Yes, they’re below us in the league but for those fans who bang on about form, this should have been a home banker anyway. That’s not an excuse, had we gone 2-0 up in the first half this pressure might not have been quite as frightening, but with such a slender lead the worry was always there.
They had the options to put fresh legs in key roles. Right now, that’s not the case in our attack
We did get a chance in the second period, Bruno taking an effort on 80-minutes when maybe another touch would have opened up the opportunity. He was the only player in the second period who looked like scoring for us and this was a symptom of the half time change. When Payne came off for big John late on I felt we’d again made an odd choice; Harry’s pace would have given us a real counter-attacking opportunity. Still, I’m not the manager and we were leading 1-0 so perhaps a big man up top for the ball to stick to made sense.
John put in a decent shift too, he lost the ball and then tracked back a good 80-yards to retrieve it, which is what we want to see from him. In these dying stages, a big handful like him should be a threat for us and I hope Michael Appleton’s coaching brings that out of him a little more.
What I would say is Wimbledon were able to bring on Kwasi Appiah, a well-known forward at this level, despite having had two other quality strikers in Pigott and Forss on for the majority of the encounter. It’s like the six months we had Matt Green and could throw him on in the final stages; having knocked on the door for 75 minutes they had the options to put fresh legs in key roles. Right now, that’s not the case in our attack.
The game began to be played primarily in front of our box and with two minutes of injury time remaining, a couple of sideways balls ended up with a cross being nodded past Josh Vickers. It was a largely unopposed header too, very disappointing from a defensive point of view. I wouldn’t want to apportion blame and I felt that Callum Connolly had been superb all afternoon, but it wasn’t a great header for the striker to get. Who should have been marking him? Pass, but whoever was, wasn’t.
That was that, a punch to the gut. I felt physically sick at that moment, not something I’ve been used to with football. Maybe it was a realisation that for all our positive play, things are not quite running for us at the minute. Perhaps it was the loss of three points, or knowing that I’d have to endure a lot of negativity of which some is justified and well-founded. It might even have been a bit of anger that we hadn’t made it 2-0 and gone on to win the game comfortably. Whatever it was, it wasn’t helped by an overdone gammon at the Durham Ox in Thimbleby later in the evening.
I still feel a bit sick now
It’s upsetting to see the lads put in such a good first half, defend stoically for 47 minutes of the second half and still only come away with a point. I suppose I’m concerned because this was a game you’d mark as three points on the calendar before the season started, which is meant as no disrespect to Wimbledon. It’s simply an indication of where we are; 17th or 18th in a division some thought we’d be fifth or sixth in.
Am I worried? A little. The absence of home matches over the coming weeks makes the task we face much harder, although Gillingham away is a game we’d certainly hope to go and win. I can’t help but feel once we get a couple of goals and three points the mood will lift a little, maybe away matches are the best route to that ‘success’ right now. If we faced Gillingham at home, they’d have a chance to sit tight and defend, frustrating us and knocking that confidence a little more. They won’t do that at home, as Wimbledon didn’t yesterday, so it’s over to us to be clinical and finish some of the quality chances we’re carving out.
I thought there were some big performances yesterday; Payne and Grant were superb in the first half, Connolly, Vickers, Morrell and O’Connor looked solid all game. I really like Callum at the back, I like the injection of pace he’s given us and he’s got a neat pass to play us out of danger as well. When the backs were against the wall in the second period he didn’t look overawed as he did against Oxford and I liked to see that.
I just fear that one of our attacking options, Harry Anderson, has been discarded to a degree and in my humble opinion, he might have been the choice to keep things constant at half time. If we’d come out with some attacking intent, even for the first ten minutes of that period, I’d be sat here writing about three points and 14th place, not a draw that feels like a defeat and a dark cloud of gloom hanging over us for the next fortnight.
All I will say, to finish off, is that we’ve only won one game fewer than Coventry City in sixth; the difference between us and them is their ability to earn a draw from games whereas we lose them. Last season, drawing was something we saw as a curse but I feel that not being beaten is the key here and that’s a positive to take away from yesterday. We weren’t beaten we did get a point against a side in a good place in the dreaded form table and if we keep doing that, as well as grinding out wins when we can, then we’ll have enough to keep the bottom three at arm’s length.