As if the sight of 171 Hartlepool supporters dressed as Smurfs, riding the escalators of the Underground hadn’t provoked enough open mouthed stares from the tourists and a polite aversion of the eyes from the residents of our capital city on Saturday, Pete Sixsmith and a few thousand Mackems descended on the cauldron of excitement that is Craven Cottage, the next day. Whilst a game with so little at stake provided moments of interest was something to be grateful for, it also gave MON and Sixer the chance to further assess the strengths and weaknesses of a squad that is surely in need of an overhaul during the close season.
On a day when the people of France and Greece turned their backs on the excesses of the Old Regime, the ones that had got them into the mess in the first place, Martin O’Neill may well have felt that similar change was needed as we went down to a disappointing defeat at that most bourgeois of settings, Craven Cottage.
The French rejected the bling and the verbosity of Sarcozy for the more thoughtful and classy Hollande, something we appear to have done by replacing Bruce with O’Neill, while in Greece, a more radical left wing grouping has emerged from the shadows, just as James McClean has at The Stadium of Light.
Ok, I may well be stretching the credulity of the readership with these tenuous connections, but I can’t help but feel that, after this latest setback in our cause to finish in the top half of the league, it may well presage major changes in the summer as O’Neill realises that he was not left a great hand by the ancien regime.
Once again, there was little encouragement for the fringe players as the only changes were Gardner for Campbell and Ji for Bendtner, who was nursing an injured ankle. I would imagine that The (sometimes) Great Dane is desperate to put on a shop window display in the Euros, so an appearance at Craven Cottage probably didn’t rank all that highly on his list of possibilities.
When he came on to replace the ineffective Ji, he added a bit of pep to the line and missed a good chance when he attempted to curl the ball round ageing Aussie, Mark Schwarzer.
If that miss was a good opportunity wasted, the one that Fraizer Campbell put wide in the 76th minute came gift wrapped with a silver bow and a bouquet of red and white roses. He was played in by Sess, lined up his shot well and was probably already going through his goalscoring celebration. Instead, he pulled it wide, to the consternation of the away contingent, who were up on their feet, ready to acclaim him. He pounded the ground in frustration. We pounded each others shoulders.
It had turned out to be a decent game, between two middle ranking sides with thoughtful, intelligent managers. There was little animosity between the players and hardly a tackle worthy of its name. In fact, Cattermole went the entire game without even looking like he was going to be booked.
However, this game did show up his limitations. He gave away the free kick from which the admirable Clint Dempsey opened the scoring, and although he scurried around, picking up the ball here, laying it off there, his inability to spot a quick pass and his overall lack of vision meant that we never quite got going.
His counterpart, Danny Murphy, is a different kettle of fish. He is the ultimate playmaker, sitting in the middle of the Fulham midfield like a puppeteer, pulling the strings and sending Duff, Dempsey etc, scampering away after the bell. His legs are tiring, but the alliterative pairing of Dembele and Diarra will do the running for him.
Not only did we miss chances, we also gave goals away. An unnecessary free kick, given away by the skipper, was well despatched by Clint Dempsey although some thought that Mignolet should have done better. Dempsey specialises in this and it would be a major coup if we could persuade him to swap Putney for Pallion in the summer.
The second goal came when we were still mentally celebrating Phil Bardsley’s excellent equaliser. Bardo had finished off a good move with a stunning shot across Schwarzer, but the team had not settled and the old adage that you are vulnerable after scoring was very true here.
We allowed Riise to move forward and then backed off Dembele, allowing him to get a shot in that took a big deflection from Turner on its way in. Sloppy defending again – we have conceded three very poor goals in the last two games and I think that there may be new defenders arriving inthe summer. O’Shea is so much better at centre half than at right back – and Gardnerlooks a decent full back as well.
However, it’s up front where we really fall down. We don’t score enough and we miss too many. In addition to Campbell and Bendtner, Sess missed a good one and our central midfield (Colback and Cattermole) have two goals and not many more shots, between them all season.
Compared with Fulham, who have a 23 goal striker in Dempsey, we are struggling badly. MON knows that this is a priority for next year, but it is a problem that many managers have. How can we attract the 20 goals a year man? Bent didn’t last long, Gyan even less, so where is the magic player? Someclubs can unearth them and retain them – why can’t we?
As for Fulham, they have done very well for a club that I once saw lose at home to Port Vale in front of 4,000 people. They have a good manager and some very good players. The ground is quaint and perfectly adequate for them – no need for buying redundant power stations or desecrating public parks.
But they do irritate me. It is such a bourgeois experience ,with Mum and Dad taking Olly and James to footie, or groups of tourists finding they are the only tickets they can get hold of at a reasonable price. The atmosphere is low key and everyone claps. No full throated roars at the Cottage. The stewards are polite and are hardly needed, with the visitors end reasonably comfortable despite the crush for the toilets and bars at half time.
Maybe it’s the presence of the appalling David Hamilton that does it for me, coupled with the owner – a man who, for a bitter and twisted individual like me, is very easy to dislike.
One game left. Apparently, according to Danny (I’m Even Blander Than Alan Shearer) Mills, there is every chance of QPR taking a point at City, while a United win at our place is regarded as an absolute shoo-in.
What do pundits know about football, eh!! Let’s prove them wrong by thrashing Fergie and his not-so-merry men.