Malcolm Dawson writes…I was tied up until 5.00pm but considered making the trip to South Yorkshire until first hand reports of hold ups on the A19 and A1(M) and the prospect of my Wednesday fix of real ale and pub trivia made my mind up for me. By the sound of it I made a good decision. Yesterday morning I was on the phone to a mate of mine who is a Leicester fan and providing me with free B&B for a few days either side of the game at the King Power stadium. It’s not much consolation but he was even more gloomy about the Foxes’ prospects for the up and coming season than I was about ours. But Pete Sixsmith is made of sterner stuff and he combined a trip to see the Development Squad on Tuesday with the delights of “Open All Hours” Doncaster. Like the weather in the North East this morning he is feeling decidedly gloomy.
DISAPPOINTMENT IN DONCASTER.
In George Orwell’s political fable “Animal Farm”, the easily led sheep constantly chant the mantra “four legs good, two legs bad” whenever things appeared to be going not quite as well as the beasts expected.
Our mantra is “a good pre-season equals a poor start to the real thing” while “a poor pre-season equals a good start to the real thing.” On the evidence of last night at The Keepmoat Stadium, we will be dominating the early minutes of Match of the Day and forcing large numbers of pundits to eat their words.
This did not make pleasant viewing as we played the only worthwhile friendly that most fans could actually get to. The club hierarchy are very sensible in fixing up games as far away from the North East as possible as performances like this will do little or nothing to assuage the concerns that many supporters have regarding season number nine in the Premier League.
Let’s deal with the positives first. Jermaine Lens looked a good player. He has pace, imagination and a desire to run at defenders, something which we have lacked ever since we arrived back in the promised land of milk, honey and huge TV fees. He could act as a catalyst for the rest of the team and, with a reasonably competent centre forward could enable us to make that good start that the mantra suggests. And apart from that, not a great deal to lighten a mood already low after days of continuous rain and a long journey back from South Yorkshire last night due to the Highways Agency closing the A1(M) at Wetherby.
Younes Kaboul moved quickly when he came on in the second half although he was turned very easily by a pacy Rovers side that played some good football. He showed enthusiasm and I imagine that he will be used extensively during the campaign – if he can remain fit.
But all the old weaknesses were there and on display. Fletcher was dominated by a good third level centre half and looked as if he couldn’t wait to get away. He was replaced by Danny Graham at half time and for all his efforts, he is very clearly not a top class player. His anticipation and movement are poor and his control patchy. He might chase balls down, but next door’s Border collie does that.
Johnson played just behind the forwards and showed some decent touches but it looked like a role was being created for him rather than him fitting into a role. Obviously there are serious matters on his mind and maybe he needs to play to take his mind off them.
On the evidence presented here, the idea of a midfield three is struggling. Cattermole did not look comfortable as the central player as one midfield player less meant that he had to use the ball far more creatively – and this is an area of his game which he has always struggled with. He can chase, harry and tackle but he cannot pick out a pass and he cannot push forward. Rodwell is the man who should push forward for us and this he did in the early stages. But he faded away and, by the time Bridcutt replaced him, he was a peripheral figure and had played a major part in giving away the second and decisive goal. It is a huge season for a man who was the heartbeat of David Moyes’ side at Goodison four years ago. Things improved when Larsson arrived in the second half and Lens moved to the left. The Swede gave us a lot more thrust in the central areas and we did begin to create chances – but they were not taken. Giaccherini (underwhelming I’m afraid) missed a couple of good ones and Johnson needed too many touches. The Rovers keeper, Stuckmann, made some good saves but we never convinced at the top end of the pitch.
Defensively, both goals were sloppy and worrying. For the first, the defence was pulled around and both full backs (Jones and Van Aanholt) were culpable, one for allowing the cross, the other for not picking up at the far post. For the second, a poor clearance by Rodwell was despatched past Pantilimon with some aplomb by Forrester, a busy centre forward for the South Yorkshire team. There was little possibility of us coming back from that.
The 2,500 supporters who had made the trip were sanguine but disappointed. There is a growing acceptance that this is going to another difficult season and if we start poorly, it could be even more difficult than is anticipated. It is stating the bleedin’ obvious, but we still need a creative midfield player and a one who can and will fight for the ball and when he gets it, puts it in the net. There did not appear to be anyone there last night who can do that. Defoe was a peripheral figure and Wickham was injured. We can write off Fletcher and Graham as not good enough.
One more game in Hannover and I will be relying on second hand reports for that one. The weekend is taken up by a ground hop in Rutland – The Rutland Weekend Groundhop, with Nasty, Stig, Dirk and Barry. It must be love.