Date: 11 December 2010
Well, that was all a bit of an anticlimax. Following the hype about the centenary of Dean Court (which is actually still two weeks away), the £5 souvenir programme (I bet visiting Hartlepool fans loved that), and the long queues to get into the East Block (why? It wasn’t that big a crowd anyway- only 6002 home supporters turned up); the match itself was something of a damp squib. Though for delirious Hartlepool supporters the result was a good one, and they’ll have gone home happy.
In this very tight division where a few wins or losses can take you from one end of the table to the other (witness Brentford’s phenomenal rise in recent weeks), we were fortunate that today’s defeat only took us down two places. We didn’t play especially badly, but (1) we haven’t found the best replacement for Pitman/McQuoid yet, (2) we were unlucky in some refereeing decisions, and (3) we just didn’t know what to do about Hartlepool’s tactic of lining up five in midfield behind a single striker. So, despite our 17 goal attempts and 10 shots on target (both figures being more than three times Hartlepool’s total) we ended up losing by a single goal.
Eddie had surprisingly recalled Partington from loan, to take Bartley's place as a centre half, even though Bartley was fit enough for the bench. (I’d noted an irritating tendency for Bartley to pass back to Jon Stewart too often at Orient before Stewart had gained his composure after coming on as sub, but otherwise I don’t know what Marvin has done wrong.) The other player who’d been dramatically recalled before the end of a loan period - Ings - didn’t even make the bench. Eddie had stuck with Arter on the right wing in preference to Feeney, though Arter does have a tendency to drift infield just too often - leaving us with an asymmetric formation. (He was much better at the start of the second half, so Eddie had obviously spoken to him at the break, but within ten minutes unfortunately he’d gone off injured!) And Bignall partnered Fletcher up front. Clearly Fletcher wouldn’t be able to keep going for ninety minutes, and Bignall is unavailable for Tuesday’s cup game, so the overall impression was that the team had been chosen with Tuesday in the back of Howe’s mind.
Partington played decently, getting in some good passes and defending well. At one point I had him in mind for my man of the match but there were two problems. Firstly, he didn’t have ninety minutes in him (I guess this game was faster than what he’d become used to at Eastbourne) and was actually asking Pearce not to pass to him before the end. And secondly, it was sadly him giving away the ball that led directly to the only goal of the match, during the first half - admittedly a truly excellent goal.
Meanwhile, although Arter as previously noted was having difficulty staying wide right, he was getting very involved in the game and getting into good shooting positions. He was clearly irritating Hartlepool’s defenders, and getting fouled again and again. The most memorable incident of the match came only a minute or two after the goal when the Hartlepool goalie quite blatantly put an elbow to Arter’s face and pushed him to the ground - and within the penalty area too. Amazingly what should have been a red card and a penalty resulted in a yellow card for both involved parties, another yellow for Hollands when he protested the decision, and possibly the later sending off of Tindall (from the bench into the stands) - though of course we can’t tell whether that’s what Jason protested to the fourth official about or whether it was one of the other dodgy decisions. This referee completely lost control of the game for a time, failed to respond to a second penalty appeal in the second half when a Pools defender handled the ball, and would go on to book five of our players in addition to the Assistant Manager. Two of the players he booked were Robinson and Taylor, resulting in chants of “Do you work for Pizza Hut?”
But the rest of the match was about lost opportunities. Bignall could have scored several times in the first half, including once in the opening minute. His replacement at half time, Taylor, arguably had even better chances - including a shot over the crossbar on the ninetieth minute that would have spread some much-needed Christmas cheer had it gone in. Robinson had a good shooting chance in the second half too but, though some supporters thought we’d scored, the ball had gone into the side netting. And, in addition to Arter who’s already been mentioned, Pearce had scoring opportunities both sides of half time - off near-perfect crosses from Pugh (which he failed to connect with) and from Feeney (which he misdirected) - respectively. But, although it sounds like a cliché, there were positives in this game - and I’m not just talking about the fact that the scoreboard is working at last! I’m referring to the excellent partnership building between Wiggins and Pugh on the left wing, with exciting overlapping play; and the fact that so many players did get into good scoring positions, which on another day may have borne fruit. Howe won’t want to change much about what we’re doing but it’s just a shame that on this day of all days nothing was going right for us and the “centenary” will be quickly forgotten - unless you support Hartlepool!
The team lined up as follows at the start of the game (I've given the players marks out of ten):
Smith (6), Partington (7), Pearce (7), Wiggins (7);
Arter (5), Hollands (7), Robinson (6), Pugh (7);
Fletcher (6), Bignall (6).