Saturday, 14 May 2011

Half time

So that's the first half of the play-off semi-final out of the way. I don't think a single Town fan would describe it as a great performance, but the important thing is that we're level going in to Wednesday's home leg. A 1-1 draw at Bournemouth isn't a bad result by any stretch.

After two 0-0 draws in the Championship, it was left to Town to score the first goal of this year's play-offs. It duly arrived courtesy of the head of Kevin Kilbane, who glanced home Gary Roberts' corner in the 22nd minute. In its way it was an undeserved goal. Bournemouth had made most of the early running, and it had been Town's first corner. But on the other hand, Bournemouth hadn't created a clear-cut opportunity as Town's defence shut them out, and Town had looked the more likely to create something that would lead to a goal.

Not that it stopped Town having a luck escape when Kilbane pushed a Bournemouth player in the back in the box. For me, it was a penalty, being a clear shove. But the referee didn't see it that way and Town escaped - until the ref decided to make a complete hash of another incident in the box, this time involving keeper Ian Bennett, and award a penalty.

There was definite contact, I'm not arguing about that. But what I have an issue with is the context in which it was given. The lad's got a shot away and Bennett's done what every keeper should do, and made himself big by rushing out. He's narrowed the angles and forced the forward's hand, and forward's fluffed his lines. Had the forward tried to take it past him and been brought down, that's a completely different story. As it happens, contact is incidental to the action, accidental in its nature, and doesn't represent any kind of impediment on the player in the context of the game. They had their chance and they blew it.

Not that it mattered. Bennett made a brilliant save (his third in three away games - all of which arose as a result of more than slightly dodgy penalties) and it stayed 1-0. Town should then have doubled the lead, with Kay missing a great chance at the back post from another set-piece.

Town probably shaded the first half, creating better chances and controlling the way Bournemouth played. And this continued for the first 15 minutes of the second half, in which Afobe missed a glorious chance to bury Bournemouth. One on one with the keeper, six yards out, he managed to lose his footing and blast right at the keeper.

But the rest of the second half saw Bournemouth dominate. They levelled on the hour mark through a brilliant effort from McDermott, and pushed Town all the way. But they didn't create any particularly clear-cut chances from open play, and were limited to long-range set-pieces. Ian Bennett was superb in goal for Town, relieving so much pressure. The midfield were naive and should have got a better hold of the game for large periods, but they weren't helped by a referee blowing up for every little contact on someone in a red shirt.

This was incredibly frustrating. Every decision went against Town in this period. At one point Scott Arfield went on a run to alleviate the pressure, and was brought down not once, but twice, both times clear free-kicks. Sportingly, Bournemouth knocked the ball out for him to receive treatment. On another attempt to break out Roberts was cut down by the no.15, who was already on a booking. Town free-kick, clear as day, but the ref managed to find some reason to give it to Bournemouth. On another day, the no.15 could have walked. Moments later Roberts was held back off the ball as he tried to get to a clearance, and when he was released he nudged the Bournemouth player. Fine, the second one's a free-kick, but what are you going to do about the first one, ref? Not notice is the answer.

But Town were naive. Too many silly free-kicks were given away, and for all I can complain about four or five incidents, there were another ten where players went in and conceded cheap free-kicks. The pressure was kept on by a side desperate to win and who will be disappointed not to have created more against a Town side who couldn't get the ball second half.

The back four and keeper were very solid, which was fortunate. The turning point probably came where Peltier went off and Afobe missed his chance. Hunt did OK, but his naivety defensively led to the goal. The two central defenders were excellent and didn't put a foot wrong, and for me Naysmith had his best game for a while. The midfield was good first half, but disappeared in the second. Roberts looked dangerous first half and had his moments second, but still doesn't look at the races for me, looking tired and short of confidence. Ward didn't get into the game, and neither did Afobe.

Obviously, the bonus from the game is that we didn't lose. Going back to the Galpharm level is not a bad position to be in, and being at the Galpharm means the second leg will be a different kettle of fish. It's now a 90-minute season, and Town need to play better than they did. But in front of a big crowd, Town should be able to flex muscles going forward and perform far better than they did today, especially in the second half.

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