Date: 7 March 2009
Expectations were high, and optimism filled the air, as the crowd gathered for this match. Four days earlier we’d climbed out of the drop zone for the first time this season and, to celebrate, 5924 fans had turned up. (They must have been mostly home fans; I could only count about 60 - one of the lowest numbers ever - in the away end.) As a result I suppose I should have anticipated the outcome: a drab goalless draw to discourage said fans from returning in a hurry!
The matchday programme was full of comments (from the chief executive, coach, captain, Uncle Tom Cobley and all) about how - having escaped from the relegation zone - we must not rest on our laurels, but must continue to climb the table. These words will have left a bitter aftertaste in a number of mouths by the end of this afternoon’s match, by which time we were well and truly back in 23rd place! Nonetheless time would probably tell that this draw represented one point gained (in relation to Chester) rather than two points lost (in relation to Grimsby, who demonstrated that they are a force to be reckoned with by winning 5-1 today).
Was it a dull match? Yes - both teams spent most of the time either passing the ball around in circles, or hoofing it forward to no-one in particular. What positives can we take out of it? Well the defence was pretty solid, once again. Garry played probably his best match since switching to centre-back. Pearce, who has had to work with at least five different team-mates in central defence this season (Garry, Cooper, Partington, Guyett and Ward) steadily got on with his job. Meanwhile, midfielders and forwards did get into shooting positions: I counted one shot each from Pitman and Hollands; and four from Molesley, who impressed once again.
Hollands’ shot was arguably the best scoring opportunity of the match and, coming right on the stroke of half time, could have made all the difference. Bartley had put on an extra spurt and broken free of the pack, taking the ball with him. The Vale defence (who were as impressive on the day as ours) were immediately on to him. Two of them impeded Bartley’s route to the goal, but he still won us a free kick. And this was in a good position: just left of the box. Cummings took the free kick well, and passed to Hollands, whose shot was only fractionally wide of the goalpost.
But some negatives need to be mentioned too. Firstly, while it would be difficult to justify dropping any of today’s four starting midfielders, the inclusion of all of them resulted in a somewhat narrow formation. (This weakness appeared to have been, at least partially, anticipated. So Cooper had been instructed to overtake Molesley whenever the latter had possession, and similarly Cummings had been instructed to overtake Robinson.) Secondly, our corner kicks (of which there were many in this match) left a lot to be desired. We seem to have returned to the irritating practice of the O’Driscoll era: elaborate gestures from Pitman every time he took a corner kick (frantic waving of the hands, multiple bouncing of the ball, etc.), an inability of the other players to understand what the code meant, and meanwhile a wasted player (Cummings) whose task seemed to be simply to stand alongside the corner-taker but play no part in the manoeuvre. And thirdly, our goal kicks were all too predictable too. Every single time, Jalal aimed for Fletcher; Fletcher won the ball and nodded it into the path of Molesley; Cooper overlapped Molesley on the right flank and signalled for the ball; but Molesley passed it infield to Bartley or Hollands, who promptly lost possession.
Some of these weaknesses were addressed, at least in part, as the game progressed. Robinson was replaced by Feeney who gave more width on the left and looked impressive. (We were bemused before the match that one of the mascots had picked Feeney as his favourite player. He’s hardly had time to create an impression at Dean Court, has he? But I later read in the programme that this mascot was from Salisbury - which of course explains everything.) Then when Bartley got injured, and was unable to continue, instead of making the ‘obvious’ one-for-one substitution and bringing Partington on, Howe instead opted to introduce Connell. Although Connell achieved nothing at all (Goulding was suspended for this match, so Howe’s hands were somewhat tied), this did enable Pitman to move into a wide position on the left flank while Feeney took up the corresponding position on the right - where once again he managed to get forward a lot. Now we had two ‘wingers’. Meanwhile, Molesley moved officially infield into the slot he’d effectively been occupying already - until the ninetieth minute when he was substituted (by now he’d been announced as Man of the Match, so this enabled him to receive a deserved ovation) and Partington belatedly got his chance.
The team lined up as follows at the start of the game (I've given the players marks out of ten):
Cooper (7), Garry (7), Pearce (7), Cummings (7);
Molesley (8), Bartley (7), Hollands (7), Robinson (6);
Fletcher (6), Pitman (6).