“Let’s see the Stacey West put a positive spin on that,” is something I hear often.
Usually, I can find positives in a game and it’ll surprise you to know I found one or two this evening, in the same way that you can find a positive when your house gets burgled (at least they didn’t take the kettle), or when you’re mugged (they let me keep my trainers). That’s how I feel tonight. I feel empty because even looking hard for positives, I find few. At least when they beat us 2-0 a few years ago, we felt like we competed a bit. When we lost 3-1 last season they were loads better than us. Let me tell you now, that Portsmouth side are not better than the Lincoln City I know we can be, but they were miles ahead of us tonight simply because they turned up and wanted it.
I was going to come home and write a few words to the effect of ‘I’m going to put as much effort into this report as our midfield did into the first half’, but I won’t let people who read my work down like that. I know my role, I know that I have patrons who give me money monthly to read what I have to say. I wouldn’t do them a disservice and not put the right effort in. Sadly, in my opinion, too many of our players did not bother this evening. I’ve never felt truly let down by Michael Appleton’s team’s but tonight I do. Sure, I argued positives with my dad on the way back to the car, but I know, deep down, there were so few that all I was doing was kidding myself.
Football is fundamentally about doing two things; scoring goals at one end and stopping them at the other. It is my belief that to do that effectively, your midfield has to be right first; you can’t create if you don’t deliver the ball into the right areas, and you’ll always concede if you don’t offer your back four some protection. In the first half of this evening’s game, our midfield was as bad as any combination of players I have seen since before the opposition managers were in our dugout. I feel let down by their approach, and I bet behind closed doors, Michael Appleton is too. I won’t say ‘such and such isn’t good enough’, because I believe all of those players are better than they showed tonight, but I will happily give my opinion on them.
Conor McGrandles is the player we’re looking to for leadership in the middle, and too often in the first half he either played needlessly backwards or gave the ball away. I’d almost be tempted to ask if there’s something wrong with him at the moment;’ is his contract up in the summer? Have his personal circumstances changed? Because the player I watched give the ball away needlessly when those around him needed clarity and direction is not the same one I lauded as one of our best players last season. Was he captain tonight? I don’t recall, but I saw no direction, no leadership, I just saw a lost footballer, a shadow of someone who once played for us. Lasse Sorensen, in my opinion, was willing to run and put challenges in, which is one positive, but I’m pretty sure any fit Sunday League midfielder would do the same. Mind you, most fit Sunday League midfielders would give the ball away when they had it at this level as well. Lasse didn’t have a good game. As for Lewis Fiorini, I get he’s a young lad and I can see his quality on the ball, but I cannot fathom how he gets a start over Max Sanders at the moment. He wasted possession more times than anyone, and I felt he backed out of tackles and headers too regularly for comfort. If we’d replaced all of them at half time, it would have been justified.
I don’t want to be too harsh on Ted Bishop because he’s being asked to play out of position, but he was as effective as the three I’ve just mentioned. I think there’s a certain degree of excusing that, given he’s an attacking midfielder playing on the left-wing, but he is still a footballer and we should see more from him. Those four were (and I’m sorry to put it bluntly) terrible in the first half, which basically meant only two players outside of the back four came away with any dignity; Chris Maguire and Freddie Draper.
One classic moment was when we got a free-kick just inside our own half. Instead of playing a forward ball, or even a positive ball, we tapped it to one side, went backwards, and immediately conceded possession. This came from a free kick in the attacking half. That’s just bad decisions being poorly executed and for once, I shared the fan’s groans. I’m not a ‘get it forward’ merchant, I don’t think our appraoch is the problem; it’s how we execute it and throughout this evening, we executed badly.
Do you know why that winds me up more than normal? Because despite the complete lack of midfield, we could still have been 0-0 at half time. Hell, with better decision making in on or two moments, we could have been 1-0 up. I know they were the better side, but genuinely I didn’t think they deserved to be 1-0 up at the break, but at the same time, we probably didn’t deserve to be level. It was a nothing game, one littered with our mistakes and inadequacies and probably only notable for a few fierce tackles, and the battle between Draper and Raggett. In fairness to Freddie, he might only be seventeen, but he certainly gave as good as he got. In fact, for my entrance money, I’d have preferred to just watch them in a series of one-on-ones, like in basketball. For most of our attacking intent, that was what we watched.
So, the midfield didn’t protect the back four and they didn’t help the front three, but let’s not kid ourselves into thinking those areas are without issues after this evening. We know the whole Groundhog Day aspect, the ghosts of last season that stalk the corridors of the EPC, but even the transfer let downs over the summer does not excuse players simply not doing the basics. We didn’t win headers at the back, we didn’t win tackles and runners sliced us apart with the sort of ease you’d expect from a Premier League team coming here in the cup. With the greatest of respect to Pompey, they might have decent players, but they’re genuinely nothing special. Tonight, They didn’t have to be.