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

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.