Next Match: Scunthorpe United (A) Tuesday 28th September 2010

Sunday, 26 September 2010

Match 8: Reading (A)

I’m a positive person, and I like to look for the plus side of every situation. And the good news is, I found one for that match at Reading; there is no earthly, possible way that we can perform that badly again this season. It cannot get any worse than that.

Reading is such a trek. There’s no way around it. There’s no easy way to get to it. We opted for the club coach, meaning our day started when my alarm buzzed at half 7, with me barely conscious. By the time we’d arrived at Oakwell, got our tickets sorted, and got sat on the bus, I think I was in a coma. I wasn’t even looking forward to the game by this point.

The weather didn’t help. It was one of those days when the sun is out, there’s barely a cloud in the sky, but it’s absolutely bloody freezing. I hate these days, you never know what coat to take, whether to take the gloves or not. It’s crucial stuff; taking the gloves when it isn’t glove weather is a serious breach of masculinity. As it happens, I left the gloves at home, but brought out the big winter coat to try and beat the elements.

I just didn’t know what I was expecting from this one. Our recent record against them is dreadful, our recent away form is dreadful, perhaps the signs were there, but eventually that will have to change.

I slept the first half of the coach journey away, waking up just in time for the stop at the services, where our stop coincided with a load of Donny fans stopping off on their long journey to QPR. It was a real showdown; you could practically hear ‘2 Tribes’ playing in the background as we walked in. 

After our stop off, the rest of the coach journey was spent trying to convince the missus that I was in no way to blame for her missing season ticket. Why do women always do that? Something that is nothing to do with me, in no way connected to me at all, and I’m getting the blame from hundreds of miles away. They’re classic, sometimes.

Anyway, we got to Reading with loads of time to spare. Last time we went to Reading, we also went on the coach, and it took us ages to get from the motorway to the ground, despite being able to actually see the stadium itself, because of traffic. This time, we got straight through and we were stood outside the ground at half one before the turnstiles were even open, gagging for the first pint of the day.

It took a while for the concourse to fill up, but it was a decent following. We caught up with a few familiar faces, and then headed up to the seats.

It’s not a bad ground, the Madejski Stadium, but it’s totally isolated in the middle of a massive industrial estate, meaning there’s very little around it unless you fancy a visit to Costco or B&Q. The ground itself is much like many other new designs, but it’s a tidy little stadium.

The players entered the pitch as the stadium announcer read our team out, and there were a few noticeable changes, such as Andy Gray being dropped for new signing Chris Wood, and Hugo starting for the first time since injury. The first thing we noticed as the players ambled over towards the travelling support was that MR had gone 4-4-2, something which we’ve all been crying out to see. Finally, MR seemed to be going for it away from home, rather than sitting back to snatch a point.

It’s needless to say, it didn’t work out at all.

Right from the off, we were on the back foot. Reading started much faster than us, with way more intent, and could easily have been two ahead in the opening 20 minutes but for some sloppy finishing and desperate defending. It seemed like we were defending a corner every five minutes, which would be bad for anyone, but much worse for a team who look more than a little shaky whenever the opponents have a chance to swing a cross in.

We took a sucker punch early on when Jay McEveley was the victim of a poor tackle, which went unpunished by the useless referee, which ended his afternoon early. The only player on the bench capable of stepping into the left back role was Luke Potter, barely recovered from surgery on his knee. Up against Jimmy Kebe, who was totally unplayable yesterday, it was a nightmare afternoon for the youngster, through no real fault of his own.

By half time, we were robbing a point from the home side.

Not that we hadn’t threatened, there was a moment when Adam Hammill was released down the right wing, with Garry O’Connor and Chris Wood bombing through the middle, unmarked. All that was needed was the right pass from Hammill, but he got it badly wrong, and we lost all the momentum. It would have been incredibly harsh on Reading though.

So 0-0 at half time, and we were very lucky. I would’ve taken that and gone home there and then, given the chance.

The players entered the field, and MR had made his second forced change of the day. Garry O’Connor had picked up a knock, and had to go off, meaning the stage was set for Andy Gray to enter the game. Only, Gray remained frustrated on the bench, with Nathan Doyle being the preferred option, meaning we were now playing with three holding midfielders. By this point, we’d accepted our best result would be to keep Reading out.

The change didn’t work, and the game continued in the same vain, with Reading bombarding us with cross after cross, corner after corner, and chance after chance. We threw everything in front of the ball, bodies were flying everywhere, it was real last ditch stuff, which isn’t what you want to be seeing after only 55 minutes of play.

And then came a moment which could have changed the whole complexion of the game. Reading defender Zurab Khizanishvili pulled Chris Wood back as the striker threatened to burst through, and was given his second yellow card of the day, giving us a man advantage. We wasted the resulting free kick, but this was the best chance we’d had to really get into the game, to put Reading on the back foot, to have our spell of pressure.
It lasted all of about 4 minutes, and then we were back to normal. Reading still dominated play, still murdered us on possession, continued to press for the opening goal. Only one team looked like they’d been reduced to ten men, and it wasn’t them.

The breakthrough always seemed like it was just around the corner, and after 79 minutes, a fantastic cross found the head of Jimmy Kebe, who had run the show all day, and he made no mistake in burying the ball past Steele. And after this, the game was over.

We pushed people forward, in hope rather than expectation, but when Ian Harte found the bottom corner with a free kick, we were dead and buried. To compound our misery, Reading scored a third from our free kick, breaking quickly on us, with most of our defence stranded up field, leaving Steele helpless again.

The Reading fans to our right were enjoying rubbing our noses in it now, and you couldn’t argue with them really. They’d been totally dominant and anything less than a convincing home win would have been totally unfair. But the sad fact is this; if you cannot take AT LEAST a point from a team who are down to 10 men, with only ten minutes on the clock and the score at 0-0, then you deserve very little. It’s a sad situation.

The full time whistle put us out of our misery, and I didn’t wait around to clap the players, which was just as well, since only a couple actually came over to face the away fans. Hammill looked totally gutted, walking off the pitch and one or two others were the same. But very few players take any credit from the game.

Shackell did ok in the circumstances, and Hammill was our most dangerous player by far. Steele made some decent saves, but still flapped at crosses, and his kicking was woeful. Hassell was caught out, unable to match the Reading wingers for pace, Potter was way too unfit to play, and Chris Wood didn’t look up to speed either. O’Connor didn’t get long enough, neither did McEveley, due to injuries. Basically, nobody really stood out. If forced, Hammill would get MOTM, but only due to the lack of competition.

The referee deserves a mention too, awful for both sides, totally inconsistent, and just frustrating in general.

Sitting on the coach was horrible, as we crawled through the masses of Reading fans leaving the ground, holding up three fingers and grinning smugly. Although one young lad made us laugh, doing some sort of crazy shadow boxing as he walked alongside the coach. But mainly, we just couldn’t wait to get away.

The journey home seemed much, much longer, and even the stop off at the services didn’t provide any relief. We actually got the piss took out of us by some meathead in a t-shirt 10 sizes too small, who’d obviously been working on his joke in readiness for seeing us Barnsley fans. It went something like “It’s just like watching Basil… (long pause whilst his group of mates look at each other, confused) Brush” Such wit. If only he put the same effort into his putdowns as he did gurning into the mirror topless, he could be in showbiz.

When we finally got home, I bypassed the Football League Show. I couldn’t face watching it again. It’s a performance that needs consigning to the bin, because it was shocking from start to finish.

Scunny is looking like a real prospect now, but we’ll have to win at some point away from home. Reading should act as a reality check, that perhaps we’re not all we think we are. The playoffs look a million miles off, and mid table obscurity is perhaps the best we’re going to get this season. Unless MR can find a way to get this side playing away from home, because I don’t think he knows himself yet. But he needs to figure it out soon, because we can’t rely only on home form to keep us from being dragged towards the wrong end of the table. Hopefully, we’ll see much better on Tuesday.

Thanks for reading.

Sunday, 19 September 2010

Match 7: Derby County (H)

After the performance on Tuesday night, it was always going to be a big ask hitting those heights again, and it proved so. But at least we got another point on the board. Truth be told, it could have been worse.

It was obvious we weren't gonna win this game. Absolutely nailed on. It isn't what we do; we don't beat the struggling teams at home. They can be rock bottom, not scoring, unable to defend, no chance of survival, and yet they're always guaranteed something when they make the trip to Oakwell. Every time I've thought about this game, all week, I've been feeling more and more like we weren't gonna win.

When I met up with the old man to set off to the game, I could see he was thinking the exact same thing. I blame this alarming lack of faith in our own team on Simon Davey.

Not that Derby are all as bad as that. They've had a bad start to the season, much like ourselves last time out. But the fact remains; when you're in the bottom three, no matter what time of the season, there's no better ground to travel to than Oakwell, because you're guaranteed we won't turn up.

As we headed to town, the sky was grey and the whole day felt like it was gonna be a let down. There's been so much positivity all week since the events of Tuesday, and many people thought that Derby would turn up simply to lose against us, but the closer we got to kick off, the less I fancied us.

We got to the Gatehouse at half 1, just in time to see Kylie Minogue's Greatest Hits on the telly. We've been going there for ages now, every other week, but the decision to get rid of Sky Sports is a poor one. Saturday afternoon is football time. There's a time and a place for Kylie and it just isn't right. Sadly I think it's time to change pubs on a Saturday afternoon. No Sky Sports = no sale.

Luckily we managed to find some entertainment by attracting the drunkest man in South Yorkshire over to our table. He was a Derby fan, and he had many questions for us; where was the nearest pub with the football on (he ignored our answer), how far the ground was from town (he ignored our answer), who our biggest rivals were (he ignored our answer) and how we felt our season had started (he ignored our answer). It wasn't all one way traffic though, we asked him how he felt about facing Jay McEveley again (he ignored the question), whether he though Nigel Clough was up to the job (he ignored the question), and how he thought the game would go (there was a pattern forming by this point). Sadly, the sizzling conversation had to end when the fella emptied his pint glass, and he left wishing us good luck, not before having a bizarre rant about how much he hates 'npower' and tripping over the step in the Gatehouse behind him. At least it provided an insight into just what I look like when I'm slightly worse for wear in some pub when we're away from home. I might take it steadier in future.

There were plenty of away fans milling around as we headed towards Oakwell but the atmosphere was flat in comparison to Tuesday, which we all expected to be fair. No disrespect to Derby, but it was a hard game to get excited about after such a gripping Yorkshire derby match.

So, the sky was still grey, the day was still miserable, and Oakwell was back to its 11,000 or so die-hards who were hopeful that we could take advantage of a side in poor form, and put ourselves into a playoff position by the end of the day.

The teams entered the field and took their positions for the start of the game. MR had gone with the same side that dismantled Leeds days earlier, whilst Derby made a couple of changes, including dropping Savage, which I was a bit gutted about. Giving Savage some stick when he comes to Oakwell is one of the moments in the season you take for granted, but miss when it's taken away from you. I hope he plays at Pride Park.

The game kicked off and Derby started in a similar way to Leeds, winning an early corner. Luke Steele gave us a brief glimpse of how his day was going to pan out, leaving his line and getting nowhere near the ball. Derby let us off this time, but we would be punished later.

In the opening exchanges, we looked good going forward, full of confidence, but we were giving them plenty of time on the ball and they looked dangerous. The goal, when it came, was soft for so many reasons. A cross hit Hassell in the face and span through to Steele, whose options were A) kick it as hard as he could up field, or B) pick it up, since it clearly wasn't an intentional backpass. Somehow, he managed to let the ball spin under his foot and out for a totally needless corner. To compound his misery, he then flapped spectacularly at the resulting delivery, and Kuqi put the ball back into the danger area, allowing Leacock to float a header over the stranded Steele and into the bottom corner. Steele laid on the floor with his head in his hands, his erratic behaviour costing us yet another goal. He knew what he'd done.

Moments later, Kris Commons had a goal disallowed for offside, but I was fearing the worst already.

As the half wore on, we weren't playing too badly, and as half time arrived we could easily have been level, with only some desperate Derby defending keeping our ArismendiHammill from a Jay McEveley corner. But at half time it was 0-1, and it was starting to feel like it just wasn't going to be our day.

At half time, the place seemed subdued, flat and unimpressed with what we'd seen. But we were still in the game, and only a bit of bad luck had kept us from equalising.

We managed to find the goal we needed after a couple of minutes of the second half, and it was Hammill again who got it, with a superb curling shot from just inside the area. Not long after, a low cross from Butterfield caused confusion in the box, but the ball was eventually blocked as Jim O'Brien lurked with an open goal gaping.

From then on, Derby were probably the better team, but it was the sort of game which really could've gone either way. Both sides had chances, both were wasteful. The vast majority of the second half was spent trying to guess what the referee was gonna do next. For both sides he was inconsistent, and the game became scrappy and untidy as both sides seemed to lose energy. By the end, both gaffers seemed to accept a point, which was probably fair on the whole, although Derby might disagree.

Steele did his best to donate another goal to the Derby cause when he spilled another routine cross, this time onto the post. McEveley eventually managed to get the ball clear, and through some miracle we remained level. I'm beginning to agree with the masses, we need another keeper. Preece is no competition for Luke, and he is constantly allowed to make these mistakes with no fear of punishment. Maybe if he knew his place was up for grabs he'd improve, but I doubt it. Unfortunately, as good a shot stopper as he is, he has cost us goals against QPR, Rochdale, Bristol City and now Derby. We're only two months into the season, and he's making it difficult for us. Yesterday I hated seeing the ball go anywhere near him, and every time Derby had a set piece, we looked nervous. Sorry Luke, but maybe a spell on the bench is the kick up the arse you need.

By the time the whistle had gone, a point had been inevitable for some time, and I was happy enough to take it and go home.

Butterfield was given MOTM and that was a fair decision, because he had a good game in the middle of the park, and will be unlucky not to keep his place ahead of Nathan Doyle or Hugo next week if MR decides to go defensive at Reading. Other than him, everyone else had quiet games, apart from Steele who was dreadful. But it was just one of those days, I never fancied us to win, and we never threatened to really. As my dad rightly pointed out after the game though, we probably would've lost that game last season, so progress is being made.

I don't think the table is being fair to Derby, they looked better than their position suggests. Certainly not the worst team to come to Oakwell this season. But they look shaky, low on confidence and seemed to panic when we got at them, which we just didn't do enough. I don't think they'll go down this season, although reading some of their forums, it would seem they don't agree with that.

Onwards to the Madejski then, home of Michael Parkinson's beloved Reading. It's a tough game to predict. They've not started too quickly this season, but then again, neither have we away from home. They're without Brian Howard after he was sent off yesterday, but have the potential to have a good season. The worry is whether MR will go there to the Madejski with a defensive mindset, with two defensive midfielders, and try to stop them playing rather than concentrate on getting us going. We've proven that we can beat teams if we get at them, I hope MR shows that faith in his players.

One thing is for sure though, we need to pick some points up on the road, because the more games we lose away, the more pressure we put on ourselves to keep winning all our home games. That said, I'd be happy to take 4 points from the next 2 on our travels, and keep pushing up the table.

Thanks for reading.

Wednesday, 15 September 2010

Match 6: Leeds United (H)

There's few fixtures in a football calendar that have such an effect on me as Leeds.

Maybe Sheffield Wednesday. And Sheffield United. Donny too. Alright, there's a few actually, most of them local derbies. But this one is worse than most.

Since the fixtures were announced, I've been cautiously eyeing this one, dreading the day. Even throughout the opening month of the season, whilst we've been steadily improving and picking up points at a rate we could only dream about this time last year, Leeds have always been in the back of my mind, haunting me.

Needless to say then, the long day at work was torturous. It's one thing working with a bunch of Leeds fans, it's quite another being within the shadow of Elland Road. If you look through our double doors and squint hard enough, you can practically see the dodgy paintwork peeling from the John Charles stand (I'm reliably told it's called that). It's fair to say, there were much more than 3 points at stake tonight, certainly for me. Barnsley had to win me this game.

Luckily, I have a very understanding missus, who realises how horrible playing Leeds is, and, knowing how nervy I was, she made the ultimate sacrifice (for her, anyway) and sent me a picture of the young 'un, sitting in his Barnsley home shirt, holding a handwritten sign (written by the missus, not him) saying "We All Hate Leeds Scum". It's remarkable how happy it made me, not least showing it to the lads at work. For a Wednesday fan to take that hit, she showed incredible selflessness.

As the time to set off approached, I was swaying back and forth about how I felt it was gonna go. I didn't fear Leeds as a team; they have a squad no better than ours on paper, and they're still adjusting to this league, even if they appear to be doing so with more ease than anyone had hoped. It's the thought of losing to them, much worse than the actual event itself.

We set off straight from work to try and avoid the rush for parking spaces around Ponty Road, given the massive crowd expected at Oakwell. Especially since these days, they've stopped folk from parking on the main road, which seems pointless. By half six, we were in the Old Hoyle Inn, having already been to the box office and purchased tickets to Glanford Park in a couple of weeks time.

Already there was a buzz around Oakwell. The place was heaving, cars queueing all the way back, trying to find a space, and the pub was packed out of the door. I can't imagine what being in town was like, but I was a bit gutted we didn't get the chance to find out. It's one thing you miss more than most during the pre-season; the feel of a Yorkshire derby, it really gets the blood boiling.

Since we were in the car, and given the expected atmosphere at the ground, we set off from the pub earlier than normal. We wanted to be there when the players came out of the tunnel, to let them know that despite the large contingent of away fans making the short journey, we were behind them.

The whole ground looked fantastic full, and the crowd was building, as was the noise. The Leeds fans were in good voice, and the home fans were responding. By this time, I was just ready for the kick off. As the players entered the field, all four ends of the ground stood as one, singing, clapping, ready for a blood and thunder match. It's what it should be like, if only we could get Oakwell like this every week, it'd be an incredibly intimidating place for away teams to come and play.

We kicked off, and almost immediately we were behind. A sloppy goal from a routine corner, much like when we played Man Utd in the Carling Cup last season. It was a good finish from the lad Howson, but it killed the atmosphere in the Ponty End, and knocked the wind out of us.

At the other end, the Leeds fans were bouncing, or "going mental" as they put it. What a retro chant that is, I've not heard it in ages. I was beginning to fear the worst.

To our credit, as the first half wore on though, we took control and dominated play. But, worryingly, we didn't look like scoring. Hammill hit a decent shot which flew the wrong side of the post, but it didn't seem to be dropping for us. Even Foster had a shot cleared off the line, and it was really looking like we weren't gonna score. But Hammill was growing into the game, and he dragged us back into it with a superb run and cross for debutant Garry O'Connor to hit home. It was deserved on the balance of play, although Leeds still looked dangerous on the break. It remained 1-1 until half time.

My nerves had just about held up throughout a pulsating first half, but I found myself dreading the second half starting. Is football supposed to feel like this? I thought it was supposed to be enjoyable.

Leeds were quickest out of the blocks again as the second period got underway, and could have gone ahead again after a low ball across the box caused havoc, but we somehow survived and began to look the better side.

And then it happened. The moment when, finally, everything clicked into place. Hammill, who was unplayable last night, raced into the box and squared the ball for Jim O'Brien. It didn't look like the Scottish winger would get to the ball, but it somehow squirmed underneath the keeper and Jimmy was on hand to tap the ball home. The Ponty End went mad, and finally we had the lead we'd deserved on the balance of play.

When Andy Gray missed that golden opportunity to make it 3-1, and dragged his shot wide, you could hear the collective murmur of "Will we regret that miss?". I was terrified they'd hit back and punish our wastefulness.

But they didn't, and when Arismendi showed lightening reactions after the Leeds keeper flapped at a corner and turned the ball in from an acute angle, we were in control. You could feel the relief around the stadium.

And then we turned on the style, big time. We launched wave after wave of attack, and still managed to repel any quick Leeds breaks. They still looked like they had a goal in them, which was worrying, but when Jay McEveley whipped a cross into the box, the Leeds defender could only divert the ball past his own keeper, putting the game beyond Leeds. A minute later, Hammill got the goal his performance had deserved, running at the Leeds defence and hitting a cracking drive past the keeper. By this point, it was brilliant to be in the crowd, singing 'It's Just Like Watching Brazil' at the top of our lungs, such a fantastic moment. It's been so long since we've felt like that, and hearing the whole crowd sing this will stick in the memory for a long time.

Even the late goal Leeds scored couldn't take the gloss off this one.

The full time whistle went after 5 minutes of stoppage time. To give the Leeds fans their credit, more had stayed until the end than I expected would, and they had tried to enjoy their night despite the defeat. It's not like we can't relate, think back to Newcastle away last season and our drubbing at St James Park.

Needless to say, the drive home was bliss. Listening to a clearly overjoyed MR on Radio Sheffield was great, as was hearing about the Blunts totally crumbling at home to Scunny. Add to that sitting in traffic, watching the police escorting the Leeds fans away from Oakwell, whilst a young lad stood and waved a Barnsley flag at every single coach that went by. Given that there were about 20 coaches at least, the lad showed real dedication.

I've quite enjoyed being at work today too. The Leeds fans have been a bit quiet though.

It's no exaggeration to say that every player was outstanding last night. Hammill got MOTM, although O'Connor had a stormer too. He oozes Premiership class, that lad, and even after one game I hope we can keep him for longer than the month we've got him. All the defence stood up to Leeds well, Arismendi dominated in midfield despite taking an early knock on the head. Basically, everyone played well, and they earned that win together.

Leeds didn't look a terrible side, but their defensive performance was poor and they could easily have conceded more than they did. Much like Norwich on Saturday, they look a decent side and I can't see them struggling, but I don't think they'll get promoted either.

So, 7th in the league, best start since our infamous promotion season of 1996/97, hard not to get too carried away isn't it? But Derby is another test, another chance to show how far we've come. They've had a less than impressive start to the season, and sit in the bottom three. Given how we've performed in our three games at Oakwell so far, it's very winnable, especially if we play like we did last night again. For now though, I'm gonna continue enjoying the events of last night. It could be a long time before we all leave Oakwell feeling that good again.

Thanks for reading.

Sunday, 12 September 2010

Match 5: Norwich City (A)

Ah, Carrow Road. Another of the many grounds on our list of places we just cannot get anything from. Usually it's a beating when we travel to Norwich, but yesterday we came agonisingly close to finally getting something. I think that's what stings the most. I'd have preferred the beating.

It's been a few weeks since the last entry on this blog, and plenty has happened. We got a respectable point at Ashton Gate, despite leading 2-0 and 3-1, and then beat McBoro at Oakwell with a fine performance. And of course, on Friday night we confirmed the promising signing of Garry O'Connor from Birmingham, who was ineligible to play against the Canaries. So for the first time ever, we headed to Norfolk in confident mood. I really fancied us to get something yesterday.

And we deserved to. Perhaps not all three points, but certainly something.

We set off at the crack of dawn for the gruelling three and a half hour drive to the ground, only stopping for a full English breakfast half way there, which certainly hit the spot. Sitting in the car for that long is mind-numbingly boring and uncomfortable. A few times I wondered why we were even bothering, since our record at Norwich is so poor. We've not won there since 1937. When I told my dad this, he had a look in his eye which suggested he too was thinking about turning the car around and heading home.

The most annoying part of the journey is all the country roads you have to take to get there. We got stuck behind horse boxes, tractors, rickshaws, you name it, we tailed it. And everywhere you turn, there's a speed camera, hiding behind trees, or road signs, always waiting to catch you out. It's infuriating.

But we stuck with it, and landed in Norwich at about 1, and found some parking just around the corner from the ground, behind the train station. The bloke taking the money in the car park was friendly, stopping us for a chat and directing us to the Compleat Angler, suggesting that most away fans would be heading there too. He also gave us in-depth instructions on how to get from the pub to the ground, and then from the ground to the car park again, which was probably a total waste of time since we'd forgotten what he'd said before we'd even left the car park, but it's the thought that counts.

Norwich is a really nice place. It's a lovely city and was nice to walk around, despite us only seeing a brief glimpse of it. And in terms of a football day out, it's perfect; pubs everywhere you turn, a friendly, relaxed atmosphere with home fans who are always willing to stop and have a chat, and plenty of places to eat in the area too. All on the doorstep of the train station. You really couldn't ask for any more.

On the way, we bumped into a lad and his son heading for a pub just over the road from where we were going, so we tagged along with them and had a chat about the season. He seemed confident enough, but worried that they wouldn't be able to keep hold of Paul Lambert for much longer. To be fair, it could well be a problem we'll face with MR.

Throughout the above conversation, the young lad was waving his Norwich scarf about, singing about how they were gonna "thrash the Tykes" which didn't help my nerves. And he wasn't just waving the scarf about, he was waving it dangerously close to my head. I looked like something out of The Matrix, dodging and weaving, desperately trying to avoid a face full of scarf. Still, we managed to find our way to the pub without almost any help, and got nicely settled underneath the tv with a pint.

The tv was showing footage of the September 11th remembrance service in New York, which was pretty sobering stuff. And the sun, which had been shining brightly all morning, had now vanished and the rain was lashing down. We stayed for a couple of pints, but we weren't there long and soon headed to the ground.

We did our usual trick of being at the furthest point away from the away end when we reached Carrow Road, and walked the whole length of the ground before we finally got through the turnstiles and into the concourse, before heading to our seats.

There's something just universally wrong with not sitting behind the goal when you're away from home. I don't like these grounds that sit the away fans along the side. It's just not the same.

The ground itself was nice, with four decent stands and a good, enclosed atmosphere. The hotel to the right of the away fans is a bit strange, and probably cheaper than the tickets if you were to get a room and watch the game from the window, but I liked Carrow Road on the whole. The only gripe would be the home fans seeming rather subdued for most of the game yesterday.

As kick off approached, there was a nice tribute to Roy Waller, a broadcaster for BBC Norfolk, which was brilliantly observed by both sets of fans, a nice touch. And then it was time for kick off. Time to end many, many years of agony, and finally take some points back to Oakwell.

That was the plan, and it nearly came off. We more than held our own in the first half, although we didn't create much of note in terms of chances, but that said neither did Norwich. They had a couple of free kicks given in decent areas by the referee, but wasted them with wayward shooting. Overall, aside from a couple of nervy moments, we were good value for a 0-0 half time scoreline.

Apart from, of course, we scored with seconds left of the half, after winning a free kick deep in Norwich territory. The ball was swung in perfectly by Trippier and McEveley thumped home the header, sending the away support delirious. The travelling support had been brilliant all the way through, never stopping singing, and we certainly enjoyed this moment. Not long after, the whistle went and we had a half team lead that we perhaps didn't fully deserve.

At half time Norwich sent out their girls academy to wave to the crowd, and Jim O'Brien won the award for funniest moment of the day by joining in with them, giving a camp wave to the crowd. The most worrying thing was that he didn't look too out of place.

We started the second half well, and could have had a second goal when Gray was bundled to the ground trying to latch onto a ball from McEveley, with Hammill skying the resulting chance. Gavin Ward waved away the protests. He's already a hate figure for Barnsley fans, and this performance won't have done anything to endear him to us anymore, as he gave a string of poor decisions against both sides. There's too many examples of just how shite he actually was, so I won't list them.

Indeed, he played a part in the first goal, by sending Shackell from the pitch for an injury the skipper didn't have. During his time off the field, Norwich took full advantage, with the help of a desperately unlucky Stephen Foster, and levelled the game.

There's a worrying trend developing with us at the moment, and that's us losing our heads whenever we concede a goal. At QPR we totally lost it after going 2-0 down, and Bristol City scored twice in minutes at Ashton Gate. Here it happened again.

After Norwich had equalised, they were the only ones going to score again. Our heads went down, passes started going astray, players looked less confident on the ball, we lost our shape, and ultimately the game. The winner came from a cross that we didn't deal with, and Chris Martin wasn't closed down by Hassell quick enough, giving him ample time to pick his spot. And after they took the lead, the game was over.

More worryingly, a few players seemed to be limping around the pitch, complaining of cramp. For some reason, it seems our fitness levels aren't up to scratch, and this could be something to do with why we've thrown a couple of leads away in the second half.

As I said, we never truly threatened again as the game drew to a close. This was summed up perfectly when Jim O'Brien winning a free kick deep in Norwich territory, which McEveley insisted on taking, and promptly spooned well, well over the bar and out of play. Our performance was ending with a whimper.

At full time, the players surrounded the referee, who'd had a dreadful game, and protested in vain. It's already becoming a depressingly regular sight. But he only takes a portion of the blame, because overall we didn't do enough to win the game. I still think a point would have been a fairer result, but us winning would've been harsh on a decent Norwich side who will probably beat better sides than us at home this season.

We headed away from the ground, trying to ignore the celebrations around us. We'd given the Norwich fans some real stick all the way through the game, so it was obvious we were getting it back now they'd turned the game around and taken maximum points. By the time we got back to the car, the traffic was backed up for miles and it took us ages to get away from the ground. That settled it; next time, assuming both our sides are in the same division next season, it's gonna have to be a train journey rather than a car.

The route home was long and tiring, and seemed to take ages longer than the journey there, even without a stop off. I spent most of the journey home yelling at Robbie Savage on the radio, since he was talking pure crap the entire time. Honestly, how can he seriously have a career in the media? He's the most annoying man in football.

And so we arrived home, tired, miserable, totally fed up and beaten yet again. Our away form hasn't been brilliant so far this season, and this is something which needs to change sooner rather than later.

Some players really didn't impress today. Hassell had a few shaky moments at the back, and wasted a good chance in the second half to play the ball out wide, instead going for a speculative effort from 30-odd yards out which sailed miles over the bar. Lovre was poor too, looking well below the pace of the game, and his partnership with Gray didn't work yesterday. Hammill was frustrating too, trying too hard to recreate his goal against Boro and eventually being crowded out every time. But there were positives too, it's just hard to see them when you've watched your team throw the lead away.

MR has to take some stick too, because his changes came way too late. O'Brien only got a few minutes, which could be down to his fitness, but the game was crying out for changes in the second half. They just didn't come quick enough.

Anyhow, we move on, and the next game should be a very interesting one. Leeds have started well, and come to Oakwell backed by an away support of nearly 7,000 so we're gonna have to up our game. If I'm honest, I can see a couple of changes being made. I think O'Brien will start, and Garry O'Connor too. It would have been nice to look at the table today and see us sitting pretty in the playoffs, instead of Norwich, but it wasn't to be. Lets hope we can put it right on Tuesday night.

Thanks for reading.

Monday, 16 August 2010

Match 2: Crystal Palace (H)

Our season finally started on Saturday with that much-needed win. I knew they wouldn't let me down...

Like many people, I've been finding it hard to get excited since that start. After a summer of hype and expectation, it was such a kick in the teeth to be rock bottom again, and out of the Carling Cup after just one week of the season. But today it feels a little brighter again. There's still work to be done, we're far from firing on all cylinders. But it's all you can ask for; a clean sheet, a home win and our first goal of the season, even if it came from the boot of a Palace player.

We decided to head off early to this one, to get a new home shirt before the game. I don't know how long we expected this would take, but it meant that by half eleven me and my dad were kitted out in the new shirt, ready for the pub. Not before a nice, big bacon, egg and tomato sarnie though. Ooft, it went down a treat. I can see that becoming a tradition. Especially since we won, I'm a sucker for a superstition.

By the time the Spurs game had started, a fair few beers had been sunk. I'd spoken to the missus, who'd set off for Colchester about 3 hours after we began our journey, and yet somehow managed to make it on time. She's also managed to track Odejayi down before the game for a photo, something which she's threatening to have framed and the lot.

It was almost time to set off to the ground, so we downed drinks and joined the masses. We didn't see many Palace fans around, which is strange since they brought quite a few more than they usually do. It's a shame we didn't manage to have a chat with a few away fans. Palace are a funny side to predict, and nobody is quite sure what they're capable of. They've got a good manager in George Burley, and their season started well with a good win over Leicester. I don't think anyone was expecting a comfortable home win.

Walking with the crowd, towards Oakwell, I've missed that feeling. These friendlies and that cup game just can't compete with the real thing, a home league fixture. The closer we got to the ground, the more eager I was for this game to start.

We got into our seats, just in time for the teams being announced. It's fair to say it wasn't a team many folk were expecting, with Foster playing through concussion and Arismendi making his debut in place of Nathan Doyle. And no mention of Iain Hume either, not even on the bench. I've not heard about an injury for him, and after hearing rumours of MR being told to offload him, maybe his time at Oakwell is coming to an end?

The game kicked off, and it was pretty even. Right from the off it was clear this wasn't gonna be a game of chances. Palace looked solid, well organised and tight, and so did we. We had a couple of early chances, but the game took a while to start.

But we got our noses in front just after half an hour, after a good team move. Colace and Arismendi both linked well before the ball found its way to Jay McEveley, whose low cross was fantastic and forced the Palace defender into action. Unluckily for him, his attempted clearance flew past Speroni, and it was 1-0.

After the first goal, we took control and before half time could and should have had a penalty, after Hammill was felled in the area. But we didn't get it, and it remained 1-0 at half time.

Up to this point, the referee had been incredibly fussy and not allowed the game to flow. He got worse as the game went on.

In the second half, Palace brought Danns on and he certainly had an impact on the game. He looked very lively, and gave the visitors a bit more threat. But they still didn't look like scoring. And, aside from a few long range chances, neither did we. The game fizzled out, with another shout for a home penalty waved away by the official, although the second one would have been harsh. As full time approached, the result was looking more and more safe.

Darren Ambrose had wasted a couple of free kicks throughout the game, and in the third minute of stoppage time he launched one straight into the face of Goran Lovre. The force knocked him clean out, and he was receiving treatment for a good five minutes. Whilst he was down, apparently a few chants in bad taste were heard from the away end, and when Lovre had left the field and Doyle was given the chance to play the ball back to Palace, he instead opted to launch the ball deep into their territory and out for a throw in, much to the disgust of the Palace players. It was a nasty end to the game, and apparently Doyle continued the hostilities after the final whistle with the away crowd.

Anyway, we held out for a vital win. To be fair, we never looked in much danger. The important thing is the 3 points.

The man of the match went to Keiron Trippier, but I think a few others could have staked their claim. McEveley really had his moments, and Arismendi was impressive. And Lovre looked good too, probably the best since he signed for the club. And it's great to hear that Goran is out of hospital and getting better.

We nipped into town for a celebratory beer after the game, and the icing on the cake was the news of Blackwell being sacked at Sheffield United. Such a shame, he's been doing a great job turning them into a laughing stock. Also, Blackpool winning 4-0 was a great scoreline, I really hope the Seasiders can stay up this season.

The missus tried to mess with my head by texting me telling me MR had been linked with the Bramall Lane job. I know now there's no truth in the rumour, but at the time it was a worrying few moments.

Anyway, we move on. Bristol City away is a difficult fixture, and sadly I won't be there to see it, due to family commitments. So for me next, it's Boro at home, hopefully after a fine away win. Given what's gone on at Ashton Gate this last week, we could surprise a few people there and take our first away win of the season. Like I said before, the season starts here.

Thanks for reading.

Wednesday, 11 August 2010

Carling Cup Round One: Rochdale (H)

There was no bad luck to blame tonight, and no poor refereeing. We just didn't play well enough, and deserved everything we got.

It'd be easy to dismiss the match as a nothing game, in a tournament nobody really worries too much about. But the signs were rather grim tonight. That was an almost full strength line-up, and MR clearly sent out a side to win that game. And in truth, we never really came close.

After enduring a thoroughly miserable day yesterday, and with the weekends flattening by QPR still fresh on the mind, I genuinely wasn't looking forward to this game. Which is unlike me, since I ALWAYS look forward to games, whether they're league, cup or even just a friendly. I felt lethargic, uninspired, and basically totally in the wrong frame of mind for football.

And yet I forced myself to go, and now I'm regretting the decision, because I'd have been better fixed keeping that extortionate amount of money I was charged in my pocket, and saving it for another day.

I think everyone else must have felt the same as me, because as we arrived at the ground, it felt like a morgue. We weren't especially late, but nobody seemed to be milling around. Maybe the result at the weekend put a few people off, but it was clear already that it wasn't a fixture that was going to attract a bumper crowd. It was a long time before we saw anyone in a Reds shirt wandering around outside Oakwell.

We made the decision to head for the East stand for a change, so got ourselves set up with a pie and a pint, ready for the game. The place still looked empty, like a ghost town, and it felt like a pre-season friendly really. The closer we got to kick off, the more I was dreading the game.

Rochdale were always going to be a difficult task for us, after earning promotion last season. You got the feeling they'd be well up for knocking us out and taking a Championship scalp. But when the team sheet was read out, my mind was put at rest. MR had clearly chosen a strong starting eleven, so winning this game was obviously the intention.

Sitting in the East stand, I was inevitably caught out by the sun again. You'd think I'd learnt my lesson after the Wednesday friendly, but I totally forgot, and spent the early part of the game covering my eyes. Actually, maybe that wouldn't have been a bad idea for the whole 90 minutes.

The game kicked off and we started ok, seeing a lot of the ball. Butterfield especially was in possession a lot in midfield, but couldn't really dictate play. The most worrying aspect was the lack of the killer instinct, the inability to play the final ball, to create clear cut chances. Whenever we got within 5 yards of the Rochdale box, we panicked, began looking backwards, passing ourselves out of good, strong positions. It was frustrating to watch.

We're crying out for an attacking midfielder, who picks the ball up and drives us forward, who is unafraid to look up and ping a shot at goal if he doesn't have a better option. Brian Howard was probably the last, and Butterfield has only done it in flashes, certainly not enough last night.

We had a couple of sights of goal, such as Hammill hitting one straight at the keeper, but as the half wore on, Rochdale started getting a foothold in the game, and had a couple of decent chances themselves. Their big lad on the left hand side looked dangerous, although Trippier coped admirably well with him in his first appearance since coming back to us on loan. It looked like a total mismatch, but the young lad from City was always on his heels, snapping at him and not letting him settle in the game.

As half time arrived, there was some booing, not much, but enough for the players to hear as they trudged off the pitch. MR needed to give them a kick up the arse in the changing room.

I went into the concourse, since I'd decided in my infinite wisdom to wear only a thin shirt, and it had suddenly become rather cold watching that flat first half. I found myself wishing the sun would come back.

It didn't, and as the sky got darker and darker, so did the performance. Desperation set in, and long balls started pumping forward, without success. Hume and Devaney came on, with the latter making a real impact. Disco was on fire, running at defenders, twisting and turning, something which we sorely missed in the first half. Hume worked hard, as usual, but didn't cope well with the aerial bombardment we were throwing up from the back.

And then the unthinkable happened, right when the crowd were really beginning to get on the players backs; Rochdale scored. And Luke Steele, yet again, was totally at fault, letting a seemingly harmless header squirm through his hands and into the bottom corner. I like Luke, he's a great shot stopper, but if he doesn't cut these silly, costly mistakes out, then he's got to go. It's too frequent, and it's costing us goals. Luckily for him, and unluckily for us, there's no real competition for his place, other than the hapless Preece, so he's safe.

To be honest, after the first went in, Rochdale took over, and for a good 10-15 minute spell after that, they should have doubled their lead at least. That's the second game in a row where we've gone behind and lost our heads, and we should have been punished.

Quite how their lad missed that chance at the back post, with the whole goal gaping, I'll never know. From where I was, it looked a certain goal. But we survived.

As the clocked ticked over 70 minutes, we started putting pressure on Rochdale, albeit without really looking like scoring. Long balls were being pumped towards Hume whilst Liam Dickinson stood behind him. Why do we always do that?

But we looked susceptible to being caught on the break, and Rochdale missed a couple of good chances. It was real end to end stuff.

Dickinson missed our best chance of the night, after a low cross into the area landed at his feet, but he managed to scuff his shot out of play. The jeers were deafening, or as deafening as they can be from a dismal, uninspired 4,000 crowd.

Stoppage time came and went, with us pressuring but never looking like getting the goal that would've taken the tie into extra time. Ironically, the closest we came was when Hassell came on, and headed straight at the keeper from a corner. It's a depressing thought when your right back is the main goal threat. I found myself hoping we didn't score; I was cold, tired, fed up and totally against the thought of sitting through another 30 minutes of what I'd just seen. After a lifetime of added time, the referee blew the whistle and it was over.

Another Carling Cup ending to lower league opposition in the first round.

Not that exiting the cup bothers me. We're not gonna win it, and even if you get a big draw, it's usually a reserve team that you end up playing on some cold Tuesday night anyway. But the manner of the performance causes worry. We just didn't look up to it.

Our opponents deserve credit. At times they played some good stuff, and defended stoutly in the face of some lacklustre Barnsley attacking. Overall, we dominated possession but it could really have gone either way. I certainly won't begrudge them their win. They looked a tidy side, and if they play like that all season, might surprise a few people in League One.

A few came out with some credit last night. Doyle had a good game, which is good to see, since the lad takes a lot of stick. Trippier also looked good, as did Disco when he came on. And Hammill wasn't bad either, and had a few pot shots from distance as we desperately searched for an equaliser. But a few were suspect again; McEveley still hasn't settled into his role, much like Lovre, who looks slow at times. And Steele is becoming more and more at risk, another erratic display from him. Dickinson also hasn't won the crowd over, and a goal last night would've helped his confidence no end, but he fluffed his lines. Even Shackell, who I personally thought looked immense throughout pre-season, has started showing some cracks. We need serious improvement.

The pressure is growing on MR. 12 without win, stretching back to last season, is an intimidating statistic for the gaffer to have hanging over him. But this is a new team. I'm willing to let him off with 10 of those games. The last 2, however, have been poor, and MR will himself be aware of how much we need a morale-boosting win on Saturday against Crystal Palace. Maybe then our season can start properly.

Thanks for reading.

Sunday, 8 August 2010

Match 1: Queens Park Rangers (A)

This is a difficult write-up today. I've had a chance to calm down from yesterday, but the feeling of injustice and anger is still there, still fresh in the memory.

You can only ask for a few things on the opening day of the season; nice weather, a good atmosphere, a buzz surrounding the game, these are the sort of things that make a good away day great.

QPR had all these things yesterday, and yet the game was totally ruined by a referee who had no intention of being consistent for both teams, and only wanted one thing; his name in the headlines, his brief moment of fame. He got that, whilst the rest of us, who spent a lot of money and energy travelling to Loftus Road, were shafted.

It was a brilliant day all the way up to the game. We arrived in Shepherds Bush in plenty of time somehow (I'm not fantastic with those bloody Tube lines), and were sat in O'Neills for 1:00. And the atmosphere built and built as the afternoon went on. The pub was full of Barnsley fans, singing and enjoying the occasion. It began to feel like maybe we could do something this time around, that it could be our year.

It was the first time I'd been to QPR and I've got to say, as far as away games go, I enjoyed the whole pre-match build up. I had been gutted when we got these away on the opening day, I was hoping for an away game a bit closer to home. But in all honesty, after experiencing the day out, I'd be glad to come back, and if our two sides are competing in the same division next year, I'll definitely be making this one in again.

By the time we set off for the ground, I was beginning to believe we were gonna do it. We never win at Loftus Road, we all know this by now, but eventually that record will have to change, and why not this time? Optimism is high, there's a feeling around this team that we're ready to make a step up in this division and show a few people up. Pundits have written us of, as have opposition fans, but why should that bother us? Maybe it was just the beer talking, but I was convinced we were gonna win this game.

We arrived at the ground with plenty of time to spare. It's a strange ground, looking a bit like a shoebox, the stands are almost exactly the same height all the way around. And it's steep too, with little leg room. But I liked it, it is a nice ground, traditional and with a low roof meaning a real atmosphere can be created by the away fans. It certainly was yesterday, we sang right from the start and only stopped when it became clear we were witnessing something bizarre unfold before our eyes.

The game kicked off, us lining up with Gray alone up front as expected, and it became obvious early on that we had a bit of a clown in charge of the game. The early signs were there; whistling for every little niggling challenge, not allowing the game to flow at all. He gave a free kick inside the QPR half after a stunning tackle by Doyle, the midfielder clearly playing the ball, and Doyle was rightly furious with the decision, spending a good five minutes harassing the referee, way after play had continued. They were the warning signs, and sure enough the referee got his moment just before half time.

I missed the first penalty incident. I had nipped into the concourse and was replying to a message from the missus asking how it was going. I texted her back saying 'Still 0-0, referee is useless though'. The moment I pressed send, a cheer went up from the home crowd, not the sort of cheer a goal would bring, but a cheer nonetheless. It was obviously a penalty, and sure enough, as I rushed back up to my seat, Helguson was stood over the ball on the spot, and calmly rolled it into the net for 1-0. The folk around me insisted it wasn't a penalty, but I've still not seen it so won't pass judgement just yet. What I would say is, the referee was always gonna give them a decision like that. I'm told he couldn't get to his whistle quick enough.

What a kick in the teeth. We were playing ok, not our best, not the brilliant passing football we'd seen in pre-season, but we were growing into the game. But goals can change that, and it was now a case of how we'd react to being behind.

We could have nicked ourselves level right before the half time whistle, when new QPR keeper Kenny made a hash of a clearance and Colace hit a screamer from a long way out. Sitting behind this as it happened, it looked like it was sailing into the top corner, with Kenny nowhere in sight, before swerving onto the woodwork and away. At this point, it was already feeling like it wasn't gonna go in for us.

At half time, the players surrounded the referee to protest, but obviously it was in vain. The crowd seemed a bit subdued now, like we knew that going in at half time could have been the moment which changed the game.

But we came out after half time with renewed vigour, and could have levelled after some good work from Lovre and half time sub Hume teed up Hammill, who saw his shot hit the post. It looked for all the world like it was going into the back of the net, but again, luck deserted us at the crucial time.

Barnsley fans. The ref, who was already the pantomime villain, became much more than that with his failure to award us a clear penalty of our own, when Fitz Hall threw his hand high into the air and punched a Steve Foster header. Loftus Road fell silent, and the home fans knew. Colin knew on the touchline. And we all knew behind the goal. The only two people who didn't know were the referee and his linesman, who didn't give the protest a second glance.

The feeling high in the Loftus Road stand was one of disbelief. People shouted, screamed, jumped up and down like mad men. But the referee turned his back and jogged away, leaving the wrath behind him. It was the big moment in the game, and he'd blatantly ignored it had even happened.

Of course, minutes later QPR went up the other end and scored the second, to rub salt into a very raw wound. Paddy Kenny, who had been getting abuse from the away crowd (as usual) turned and leapt into the air, clenching his fists with delight. This was all it took to further antagonize an already tense away crowd, and objects began to shower out of the sky towards the keeper. Bottles of Carlsberg, lighters and coins littered the pitch. It's disappointing to see, and something which could well land us in trouble. Anyone who has stood and sung about his wife (I did it) should be able to take a bit of stick back when it comes your way, that's part of the game.

Anyway, it was 2-0, and the game was over as a contest, the referee had made sure of that. At this point, our heads went down, and QPR took control. From this moment on, there was only gonna be more goals for the home side.

And so it proved, although the referee continued his bizarre afternoon for the third goal, another penalty, although this time he disallowed a QPR goal to bring play back. It didn't matter, since they scored anyway, but it kept in tone with the rest of his performance.

By the end, QPR had scored again to make it 4-0, and it could have been 6 or 7. But it was harsh on the players because up until the second goal, they'd been more than in the game, and it's such a shame to see all their hard work from pre-season, and all their confidence, gone in the space of ninety minutes.

As the full time whistle approached, the away end was looking more and more empty, but we stayed until the end just to see what would happen next. Those who stayed seemed to have saved most of their anger and frustration for the referee, rather than the players, which is fair enough since we didn't perform as badly as the scoreline suggests.

Neil Warnock and his players were immediately over to the officials on full time, shaking hands and putting arms around each other, congratulatory arms round for a job well done. Paddy Kenny continued to pick up objects which were still being thrown at him by the crowd. It had descended into chaos by this point, so we made our move back to O'Neills to drown our sorrows.

Walking through the throngs of home fans was difficult, listening to their analysis of the game. It's hard to remember sometimes that they, like us, have no control over what will happen in the match. They don't know if the ref will treat them kindly, or simply pretend they aren't on the pitch. Next week, they could be feeling just like we do now. We ended up talking to a couple in the pub who were really nice, and offered us some sympathy for what we'd just seen. It was a good end to the day, which had been spoiled by what had happened on the pitch.

We got the train home and fell straight to sleep, the stress of the day finally catching up with us. My voice was going last night, and has all but gone today from the shouting and screaming. And the feeling of injustice is still there, although writing this has been somewhat therapeutic.

Up next is Rochdale, but nobody really cares about the Carling Cup. We're looking to another London club next week, Crystal Palace, knowing that the pressure to get the first win is really on. It's horrible to look at the table and see us bottom again, knowing that those who've predicted our demise without so much as doing any research into who we've signed or how we've performed over the summer are sitting, looking smugly at the table and saying 'told you so'. But it's early days, it means nothing at this stage. Look at Norwich last season, or Burnley the year before. Lots can change. Sadly, in terms of the standard of refereeing in our games, some things never do.

Thanks for reading.

Sunday, 1 August 2010

Pre-season: Chesterfield (A)

That's it then. The fun stuff is over. This time next week, we'll have a much better idea of just how far we've come.

It's the end of a pre-season in which we've looked a much better unit, although still not quite the finished article. We've been solid at the back and willing to knock the ball around more. Our new signings, for the most part, seem to have slotted expertly into their new roles. Basically, as far as preparations go, it's been plain sailing.

I just hope we can carry all this into the new season.

Of course, there's no better way to sign off the close season, and prepare for Loftus Road, than with a win. With the added bonus of seeing a new ground for the first time, before it gets its inaugural taste of competitive football when Barnet visit the b2net stadium in a weeks time.

I hope Barnet find the place easier than we did. Having visited the Chesterfield website and been given a postcode which was specifically for those of us who were obediently following the directions of our sat-navs, we made the mistake of assuming the ground would be easy to find. It proved not to be the case, as the sat-nav left us stranded in the middle of a roundabout, somewhere in Chesterfield town centre.

Luckily, after all but abandoning the car in a multistory car park and deciding to simply walk roughly in the direction the sat-nav had been heading, we passed a couple of Chesterfield fans waiting at a bus stop, who flagged us over and informed us of a free bus service directly to the ground. We didn't need a second invitation, and hopped on the first bus with them.

The ground was only a 5 minute journey away, so we had a quick chat about the upcoming season. These Spireite fans didn't seem too positive, looking to the new season in hope rather than expectation. They also seemed unhappy with their gaffer, John Sheridan, believing him to rely too heavily on loan signings, particularly towards the back end of last season. They blame him for unsettling their squad, therefore ruining their chances of making the playoffs. I didn't sense much excitement for the new season, but we wished them well, and as the bus approached the retail park outside the ground, we jumped off and headed to the nearest boozer.

After a couple of drinks we headed to the ground. You half know what to expect when you're approaching one of these new stadiums, and Chesterfield was no exception. The 'b2net stadium' was nicely built, in a convenient area, surrounded by useful commodities. The ground itself had the same feel as the Keepmoat Stadium about it, although less claustrophobic due to the corners being open plan. Overall, it was a nice little ground and I'm sure they're happy with how it has turned out. It'll be one of the better grounds to visit in League Two next season.

We got sat down after having a quick walk around the away concourse. Not to sound too disrespectful to our hosts, but who knows how long it'll be before we're back here again?

The game kicked off, but we didn't really start with the same vigour we have our last couple of friendlies, and we were on the back foot from the start. But we were always in the game, and had a couple of half chances. To be honest, the first half was a damp squib and 0-0 was about right when the referee blew his whistle. In fact, the most eventful moment of the first half was Foster slipping on the slope which surrounded the pitch, hitting the concrete track running around the grass with a real thud. For some reason, Foster seemed to be shouting at the stewards, who I'm not entirely sure had much to do with the planning process, but he did have a point. Both sides had a few hairy moments with players slipping around, and it may well cause problems at some point in the future.

At half time, it was difficult to get excited about what we'd seen. Whilst Chesterfield hadn't totally dominated, we'd given them plenty of time on the ball, and looked sloppy in possession ourselves. It was no surprise to see MR make 2 half time changes, swapping Disco and the ineffective Butterfield for Hugo and new signing, Jeronimo Neumann. It was the first time my dad had seen our new "Stevie Bennett" wannabe in action, and I'd bigged him up a little from the few flashes of talent we've seen in his two appearances on trial, so I was hoping he would come on and impress.

He did more than impress, he totally changed the game. His pace and movement were just too much for the Chesterfield defence, and he never wasted possession, always playing the right pass and making the right decision. It's still early days with him, but we could have a real gem on our hands with this lad.

The whole team improved when Neumann came on, and we began to take control of the game. We created chances, and it looked like only a matter of time before we opened the scoring. And we did so with an hour of the game gone; a brilliant cross from the ever-improving Goran Lovre found the head of Andy Gray, and his header was superbly saved by the Chesterfield keeper. The rebound fell to Jeronimo, who could hardly miss from yards out, but somehow he managed to hit the crossbar with the goal gaping. Luckily, the ball fell back to Andy Gray, who finally put the ball over the line. It was a lead we deserved.

We were in control by this point, and Hammill wasted a couple of great opportunities from good positions with some wild shooting. In his defence though, his confidence is clearly sky high at the moment, and it's nice to see someone in the Barnsley team who isn't afraid to have a pop at goal from distance.

As the full time whistle approached, MR made a couple more changes, bringing on Hume and Dickinson. Hume looked a little trimmer than before, and was his usual lively self, moving out onto the right wing and immediately whipping a fantastic cross in which landed plum on the head of Andy Gray, who couldn't direct his header on target. It was a great chance and really should have been 2-0.

With minutes remaining, it was, as Dickinson raced onto a poor back pass and rounded the keeper, then rounded the defender, and at one point rounded himself, before finally slotting the ball into the empty net. It was a deserved scoreline, and shortly after this goal referee blew his whistle for the final time.

There were some positives to take from the match, such as another clean sheet for our defensive unit, and another goal for Andy Gray, but it was far from our best performance. I think maybe the players are ready for the competitive stuff to begin now, like us fans.

Once we were outside the ground, we opted against getting the bus back into town, preferring to have a steady walk back up the hill. I'm glad we decided to walk; if we'd got the bus, we might have missed that derelict house on the roadside which someone had helpfully grafitti'd with the words "No lead, no copper, all gone" or words to that effect. Genius.

By the time we'd got back to the car, I was already thinking about next week. I don't know what to expect from Loftus Road. We ALWAYS get beaten there. And not usually just beaten, totally walloped too. But this time, I'm feeling cautiously optimistic. Surely our luck has to change there some day? We've already been written off by the bookies, for both the game and the whole season, so the pressure is off. I just hope we go there, play as well as we have been, and show this division that we're a new, hungry side, no longer aiming to simply survive, but to see how much we can achieve. I don't know about you guys, but I can't wait any longer. Bring it on.

Thanks for reading.

Wednesday, 28 July 2010

Pre-season: Sheffield Wednesday (H)

I've missed this feeling. The feeling of beating the old enemy, and further crushing their already-weakened spirit. It's such a shame we won't get to do it in the league this season.

In the build up to this game, I toyed with the idea of not going. I was facing the journey and the match alone, since my dad couldn't make it again. And the missus had no intention of sitting in the home end for this one. Not that I could understand why, since I've been convinced for a while that we'd lose this game. If anything, I thought she'd be eager to join me, sit right in the heart of the Ponty End, smirking all evening.

I wish she'd come now. It would have been very enjoyable.

I've been yearning for a change before the season begins. Not a massive change, just a cheeky game in another side of the ground. The plan was to head for the West stand for one of the pre-season friendlies, but I hadn't reckoned on it being closed, so that's on hold now until the Rochdale Carling Cup tie. Instead I decided to take a nostalgia trip and sit in the upper tier of the East stand. Back in 2000, I had a season ticket up there and watched Hignett and co. come agonisingly close to guiding us to the Premiership for the second time. That season still stands out as one of my favourite of all time, and I'd not sat up there since then, so it seemed like a great idea.

Walking around the old places I used to stand, where we used to get a burger and a drink, it was strange. It's hard to believe it's been a whole decade since those days.

Of course, I remembered why we don't sit there anymore when I headed to the seats; the sun being in my direct eye line. I could barely make out the shadowy figure of Toby Tyke bombing from the halfway line and smashing the ball home in front of the away end. Why doesn't he do this anymore? He used to do it every home game, and it never got old. Maybe yesterday was a signal of him bringing it back?

Without wanting to pay the Deedars too many compliments, they brought a decent crowd for a friendly, especially one they knew was going to be as close to torture as possible. A newly relegated side, low on money and confidence, playing a local rival away from home? Someone at Wednesday must have a sense of humour.

This is more than can be said for Don Rowing. I'm not sure why Wednesday idolise that fat topless bloke, but banning him seems a bit over the top. I can't see how he poses a threat to safety. In fact, our lass and her dad know him and see him at most away games, and insist he's usually the one attempting to defuse tense situations, rather than initiating them. Besides, a ban for removing a shirt? How did Newcastle keep all their fans in Oakwell last season? Most of them had their shirts swinging above their heads right from the start, but I'd be willing to bet that if we drew them in the FA Cup this season, we'd still be flogging them 7,500 tickets again. Madness.

With the atmosphere building (as much as it can for a friendly game), the crowd singing back and forth, and the sun still gleaming, the players entered the pitch ready to start the game. I expected Liam Dickinson to start yesterday, but he was on the bench again, with Andy Gray starting. He's had a good run in the first team so far has Gray, and is beginning to look better. For the first time in a long time, nobody around me booed or jeered him, which made a pleasant change too.

The game kicked off, and we were rampant. The slick passing which we'd displayed so far in pre-season was back on show, and at times Wednesday were left chasing shadows. Neat little triangles, one touch passing, it was superb to watch, and effective too. It yielded a goal just 6 minutes into the game, Goran Lovre supplying a fantastic low cross after some good play in midfield, which Devaney swept home. We deserved it too, and as the half wore on, we really should have made our dominance count for more.

Last season, Rotherham fans mocked us when we gave MR the job, dismissing Robins as a long ball merchant, who preferred to grind out ugly wins rather than concern himself with playing good football. And I was worried, because at times last season, their assessment looked accurate. But Robins is building and developing his own team here. And I know it's difficult to judge on a couple of meaningless friendlies against League One opposition such as Wednesday (that feels good to say) but it's hard not to be excited.

At half time, you could practically hear the collective sigh of relief from the visiting fans. There team had been totally outplayed, failing to muster a single shot on target, and 2 or 3 nil wouldn't have been harsh.

But it was always inevitable that the away team would start the second half with more impetus, and they certainly did so. They began to get a foothold in the game, and a came close on a couple of occasions to managing to force Steele into a save. Sadly for them, our defence stood firm, blocking anything that came their way, and when Goran Lovre headed in our second goal with 20 minutes left, the game was all but over.

Then the substitutes came. Sweeping changes for both sides. For us, on lumbered Liam Dickinson, who really failed to whet the appetite in his brief cameo. Our mystery trialist, who definitely ISN'T Steven Bennett, and is actually Jeronimo something-or-other, came on and showed a few glimpses of talent, but looked rather off the pace. Surely MR will give this lad a start at Chesterfield on Saturday? Potter was also on the pitch, having come on at half time for Jay McEveley after a slight injury scare, but failed to impress with some erratic passing and even more erratic defending. But am I right in thinking this was his first appearance of the pre-season? Maybe that sharpness will come. We all know he can pass and defend well enough, we saw it last season.

As the match petered out, the Wednesday fans filtered away, no doubt concerned about their teams poor pre-season. They've failed to beat anyone of note, and aren't scoring many goals. On yesterday’s evidence, they don't look the title challengers they're no doubt going to be tipped as. But things can change quickly, especially when the games become more serious.

The final whistle went after a minute of injury time, and I filtered out into the car park and off on my way home, satisfied with everything. The performance levels were good, the play was (at times) excellent to witness, and everyone who had started played well. Shackell again looked formidable in the heart of the defence, and his cool, collected style when he's in possession is clearly working wonders for Steven Foster too. They're looking pretty solid at the moment. McEveley is slowly getting better, as is Goran Lovre, and even Nathan Doyle looked good last night, if not a little hit and miss with his passing. Andy Gray held the ball up well, and Adam Hammill is playing with confidence, something he hasn't done since Home Park in May 2009. It's hard to criticise anyone. Some might argue that Sheffield Wednesday weren't all full strength, and maybe that's true, but you can only beat what's in front of you. And we did so, convincingly.

All the way home, I was thinking about our performance. I couldn't wait to get in and brag. I'm playing poker with the father-in-law on Saturday night, and there's gonna be some serious ribbing going on.

In truth, I just can't wait for this season to begin. But first we've got the small matter of Chesterfield to attend to. A new ground to see, and hopefully another good performance. And a last chance for the players to stake their place in that first eleven that'll walk out at Loftus Road, in just over a weeks time.

Thanks for reading.

Sunday, 25 July 2010

Pre-season: Huddersfield Town (H)

After Tuesday nights relatively stress-free victory against York City, the signs looked good. Today, they're looking a little bit better still.

Not that I'd been holding out much hope for this one. I'm not entirely sure why, but I fancied Huddersfield to beat us. Maybe revenge for that wonderful night in 2006 when we sent them packing out of the playoffs, on our march back into Championship football? Whatever the reason, I felt sure I'd be writing about our first pre-season defeat tonight.

It was gonna be an interesting experience for me, because my dad wasn't coming with me, but the missus was, and as I've mentioned before, she's a Wendy fan. She wasn't especially happy about coming, and she spent the morning making sly digs whenever she got the opportunity. I let it go though. After all, it's nothing compared to the stick I'm gonna be giving her and her dad in a couple of days when League One's most bankrupt newcomers arrive at Oakwell, ready for their 90 minutes of pure, uninterrupted piss-taking.

The first job of the day, once we'd arrived at Oakwell, was to go and get some tickets for Chesterfield bought. I also contemplated getting the new home shirt, but I've decided to delay the inevitable. Especially since I'll be back at Oakwell tomorrow, paying £400 or so on those Q.P.R tickets.

It was nice to be walking around the place, with the sun beaming down, taking it all in again. The last time I came to Oakwell, to pick up the season tickets, it was a grey, miserable day, and the new season seemed like decades away. Today, all the usual feelings came flooding back. Seeing away fans milling around, looking lost as they try and find the away end, watching the programme sellers setting their stalls around the car park, hearing the familiar, soothing sound of someone bellowing "HALF TIME DRAW" in your lughole as you walk by; aye, I'm just about ready for the real stuff to begin.

Not that I don't enjoy the pre-season. It's nice to be able to sit through a Yorkshire derby without constantly biting the nails, staring forlornly at the scoreboard and wrestling with that sick feeling I always get in my stomach. In a few weeks, we'll be welcoming Leeds to Oakwell, and I'm nervous about that already, so it's just nice to be able to watch with the pressure off.

Anyway, we got our Chesterfield tickets, had a sneaky look at the new home shirt up close, and had a steady walk to the Gatehouse for a cheeky pint before the game. It went down a treat in the summer sun, and only served to put me in the mood for the match. Before long, it was time to make the short walk from town, up and over the hill and towards Oakwell. You wouldn't believe how much I've missed that walk.

We got to the ground, grabbed a quick bite to eat and had a read of the match day programme, before sitting down. I'd been planning on sitting in the West stand for this game, just as a change from the norm, so I was gutted when I found out it was closed. So I decided to stick with what I know, and got sat down in the Ponty End, ready to watch the warm up.

Well, that was the plan, only there didn't seem to be any players warming up anywhere. God knows why, but they were training on the academy pitches. I suppose they were trying to keep the pitch as pristine as possible for as long as possible. To be fair, it looked great. It won't last.

When the players came out, I got the usual butterflies that I always get when I'm at Oakwell. It was the perfect day to be back.

The game itself was a decent encounter. For the opening 20 minutes or so, we were fantastic. We knocked the ball around, created chances, and saw Adam Hammill score 2 absolute wonder goals. Usually it's hard to celebrate goals in a friendly match, but not when they're as fantastic as those two. We'll probably not see a better goal this season at Oakwell than his second, it certainly had shades of Brian Howard vs. Cardiff.

I've been impressed with the way we seem more comfortable on the ball in these last two games. Suddenly, players are looking to pass and move, playing with patience and waiting for the chance to advance. It's a much better tactic than lumping the ball forward, and so far it's been successful. It's good to see MR is trying to get us playing the right way, and even better to see his labour bear fruit on the pitch.

Not that the game was one-sided. As the first half wore on, Huddersfield began to come into the game,creating some good chances along the way, and could easily have been back in the game before half time. But they were wasteful in front of goal, and by the time Hammill had scored his 3rd, from a great team move, the game looked to be over.

Mystery Trialist/Steven Bennett
At half time, Hugo took to the pitch for the first time since his very public return to the club, and it was nice to see him get a good welcome, if not a bit disappointing to see him acting like a little girl when the sprinklers got him. He was warming up alongside "Steven Bennett", who apparently wasn't "Steven Bennett" at all, but the "mystery trialist" we were taking a look at. I'm not entirely sure who he was, but it was all rather confusing, and I'm still not entirely sure what's going on.

Also, there was a young lad sitting in the West stand with what looked like his agent, which could be a sign that MR is about to do some more business for the club. Couple this with the rumours that Shotton was at the game too yesterday, and it might be a good week for us.

The second half was a bit of a non-event, with Huddersfield getting the goal their play deserved. By this time, MR had made plenty of changes and the team was unrecognisable from the one that had started the game. It was pretty even, with both teams having spells of possession. Their goal was a weak header from one-time Reds target Theo Robinson, although quite why Preece was on his arse in the goalmouth is a mystery. But it didn't really take the gloss off a good performance.

The new boys impressed again. I can't speak highly enough of Shackell, he's class. Every touch is brilliant, he's always calm and collected on the ball. And he brings the ball forward nicely, always looking to pass rather than smash it long. O'Brien too had a much better game, looking menacing on either wing. Lovre is still catching up with the pace of the games, but again showed flashes of what we can expect. And McEveley was solid and steady again.

In fact, nobody stood out as having a poor game. Even Dickinson came on and showed a few decent touches. I'd like to see him start a game now, see what he can do.

Micky Boulding, back in a Reds shirt
Micky Boulding also got on the pitch and put himself about a bit. In fact, he almost bundled that late corner in but it was cleared from the goalmouth by some desperate defending. I don't think he'll secure the contract he's after, but I'd love to see him get a goal in pre-season, just for old times sake.

The full time whistle came and went, and we filtered out into the street. All the talk around us seemed positive and most could appreciate that we'd seen a good performance. Say what you like about friendlies, but when they're going well, they create a real buzz. With every passing game, I'm more and more eager to get the campaign underway.

And as an added bonus, on the way home we found out Wendy had lost at Scunny, which is always nice to hear. I kept the gloating down to a minimum with our lass. They'll be plenty of time for that on Tuesday night anyway.

I've a sneaking suspicion Wednesday might beat us, but I had that same feeling about Huddersfield and I was proven wrong. Even so, what we've seen so far has filled me with a lot of confidence. We're playing the right way, looking to do the right things and so far it's working. And for the first time in a long time, we seem to have players who want to be in posession, who are capable of remaining calm and finding a team mate. Maybe I'm reading too much into a couple of meaningless games, but it's hard not to feel positive at the moment. It's scary feeling this optimistic in the build up to a new season. I just hope Wendesday don't go and ruin it all on Tuesday.

Thanks for reading.