It’s a game of fine margins. Margins which are exaggerated as each fixture becomes more important. The past week we’ve been thrown around the emotional spectrum like a Richard Keogh ragdoll. Are we staying up? Are we gone? Will we at least manage to poke our heads out of the bottom three before the season’s out?
These are all questions we’ve posed, and all questions we’ve answered positively and negatively in equal measure. At the end of what’s been an inverted few days, we’re still unsure as to what this team of ours is actually capable of doing in the final 14 games. Logic (and every loss) suggests that we’re just not good enough to scramble clear. But then they do their best to offer us a glimmer of hope, the confusing bastards. I suppose this is why the majority are still behind them and are turning up in droves across the country, even given our condemnable away form.
This weekend, a load of fans went to Forest. 2700-ish. We’d beaten Leeds in the final minute in the previous game, all gone mental, and then Portsmouth received a spank for thinking £30,000 a week is a sensible wage for Championship players and were deducted ten points. You can’t really blame us for getting excited. The club said they needed us to get behind them, and after all that’s happened, we’ve been riding on the crest of a relatively small wave. At the risk of sounding American; we were pumped.
This recent upturn has made us feel as though we’re genuinely part of the race again. We leapfrogged the other two clubs in the drop-zone, were level on points with the reprimanded Pompey, and had a terrific chance to put ourselves four points clear of Nottingham Forest if we could go and sort them out too.
Forest are having a deplorable season – even worse than us when you think of the players they have to call upon. Just pick through their squad and it doesn’t really add up. Watching them play sheds clearer light on it though and you soon realise that they sit there quite deservedly. Momentum and confidence are a huge part of this, but when they possess the names they do, losing so frequently suggests there are much more fundamental things going wrong with their approach. They’ve introduced potential football genius Sean O’Driscoll to try and help them out, and while astute in the long run (he’s bound to take over from Coterrill eventually), I haven’t really seen much to suggest that his approach is filtering through to the team yet.
We beat them back at the Ricoh earlier in the season when they were clearly struggling, but months later and there’s been little progression. We’re hardly knocking anyone bandy ourselves, but everyone believed this was our chance to put the rest of the season behind us, get that away win and kick on.
You’d think that a combination of bad opposition form, recent strokes of luck, a morale boosting victory and disproportionately large away following should have seen us make a better fist of it all. Whether you were one of the optimistic spectators at the ground, or found yourself sat at home fiddling about with the adware-ridden Bulgarian TV streams, the performance failed to deliver in every facet. We were once again, clearly, obviously, downright bloody typically, found wanting in an away game.
I can’t quite figure where the bite and pulse had gone in comparison to Leeds. We stroked it around as ever, but it was single-paced and without a purpose in keeping with the expectancy and importance placed on this game by the fans.
Somehow crossness evaded me by the end of the game, and I was left little more than mildly bemused, which is a worrying seeing how joyful the win only four days prior had made me. I know it’s really not right to alter perspective so readily from game-to-game, but that’s the margins we’re dealing in football at this stage of a campaign. If Wolves had beaten West Brom, Mick McCarthy would still be in a job. Instead, they were tonked, and that single game was enough for them to send him packing. Okay – results prior built up to that point, but the difference between him being in the job and not, was that one defeat. We can take the moral high-ground when other teams react so twitchily, but in all truthfulness, it’s ever so hard not to feel the same when you see your team beaten in an avoidable fashion.
I talk of momentum often, but we’re proving to be an exception to that rule, and never give ourselves the opportunity to take advantage of the momentum that victories should offer; why do we constantly emerge so listlessly the very next game?
It’s widely recognised that a lot of our players just aren’t capable of game-to-game consistency. I don’t think that’s necessarily harsh or even a direct criticism. There’s plenty of science and analysis out there to suggest that this is generally the case and the actual definition between those who make it at the highest level – and the Francis Laurents of this world.
Remember him? He had a 10 minute cameo in a pre-season friendly last season, and looked utterly unbeatable in some of the things he did. He would have shown Patrice Evra a thing or two, he was that bloody swooshy. Only problem was, he also fell over his own legs three times and at one point he temporarily assumed the consistency of jelly.
Players such as Baker prove this theory more clearly than others. Against Leeds, he was poor for the most part, but nearer the end, his confidence grew, and he did enough in those late moments to leave a predominately positive impression on the game. As fans, we look back and tend to only remember the key moments. He had a few, whilst not doing anything too disastrous, meaning he was deemed to have had a “good performance”.
Against Forest, he did what he usually does, which is little more than provide poor delivery are poor delivery into the box. I don’t want it to seem like I’m picking on him – he’s not the only one. Clive Platt was another who was lacking a spark of intent against Forest, yet he had his best ever game for us against Leeds. You’d think this impossible, but when these sorts of players start struggling with the basics, they tend to exert most of their attention into trying to get those right – and once you start thinking and letting that overcome your instincts, you begin to look very vulnerable.
The comment I heard on Saturday was that they “can produce Championship quality, but they’re not Championship players”, and that’s exactly right. It’s that consistency that sets the better Championship players apart from those who’ll never be able to cut it in the Premiership. For years, we’ve been used to that. We’ve been a top-ish level club, so there’s an inherent expectancy that players will play to a certain level. For a variety of reasons we don’t have that luxury this year – I still think the fundamentals of control, passing and decision-making are things that any team can work on to ensure they become more comfortable – but generally, that ability and confidence to produce solid and influential performances on a regular basis eludes far too many of our players.
I don’t think we were necessarily awful at the City Ground, or at least as awful as has been intimated – although I certainly see how the drop in performance level from Tuesday night’s win could lead people to make that conclusion. Such a shift is always going to accentuate the problems.
We had chances without ever looking truly purposeful, with Deegan slicing just wide with a good strike, and Nimely having an attempt blocked on the line. But the goals conceded are the sort of goals that drive you barmy. We’ve rarely conceded “good” goals this season, and Forest was no exception. The first will probably get a mention in goal of the month terms for the sheer distance McCleary travelled with the ball. But he was unopposed from 70 yards out until the edge of the penalty area. You’d expect that from a counter-attack, but the majority of our team was in front of him and seemed to leave it to each other to close him down. Nobody volunteered, and he duly slotted home, with everyone going mad at McSheffrey. Was it his fault if he physically isn’t quick enough to catch him up? Maybe he could have been quicker to recover, but there has to be some cover too.
While I’m remembering stuff, I suppose I should also pick up an observation I have about Joe Murphy. He made a save against Leeds which meant that everyone felt he was brilliant again. Well done to him; it was an important save and one he needed to make. There was also a save against Forest which at first glance looked outstanding, but I think it’s worth being a little more restrained about our assessment of “outstanding” before we go too wild. The ball hit him sort of underneath his chin, and avoiding it would have been a feat for even than lad from The Matrix. Yes – he was there, he got in the way, stopped the goal and we spoke about him lovingly at the time for doing so.
But let’s keep our heads a little bit – if he hadn’t have saved it and instead ducked away from the ball, we’d have been furious. Those close-range ones always look tremendous seeing as they’re so close to going in, but the rule I always apply is: “What would I think if he didn’t save it?”
That’s after seeing a replay of course. At the time, I understand pride kicks in and every save a keeper makes seems better than one of Banks’. He had to save it, but he should have saved it, and he did save it. That’s his job. The main issue I’ve got is that he’s let slip too many of the simple ones this year, and he’s simply not making any saves that you wouldn’t expect a keeper to. Maybe we’ve been spoilt with Keiren, but we’ve a proud tradition when it comes to keepers (by that, I mean Oggy and Westwood), and have become accustomed to them pulling saves out of the bag that don’t seem possible. My concern is that Joe Murphy – as opposed to a lot of the other keepers in our league – just doesn’t have these sorts of saves in him at all.
Might go some way to explaining why he conceded over 70 goals last year.
That’s actually quite a minor point to focus such attention on, but one I feel it’s worth making.
The game as a whole was a damp squib. Too much fleeting in and out of the match, by too many players. It wasn’t the worst performance of the season, but there was no oomph. And we need the oomph right now.
We missed the oomph.
So looking forward – how do we put this behind us? I mean, I think it was right to get behind the boys with such gusto after Leeds. It was still a massive result, and given the circumstances and the context around it all, it was the perfect opportunity to push them on. It didn’t work, but there’s no real time for moping any more. It’s Barnsley next, and what kept me from losing my rag after Forest was the thought that we’re back at home on Saturday, with an opportunity to make it five wins out of six home league games.
Lord knows we’re putting a hell of a lot of pressure on ourselves with this inept away form, but we’ve proved over the last month or two that we can handle it at home (well, kind of). It’s a nuisance, but having been so upbeat following Leeds, I can’t bring myself to lose all that hope again after just one game.
In the words of Andy Thorn: we will go forth and attempt to rectify the performance in the previous match by applying ourselves better in the upcoming fixture.
Or something like that.