Monday 2nd March
I wasn’t feeling particularly optimistic about today’s match given Millwall’s long unbeaten run and our recent poor form, but football is always capable of surprising and I think myself and many others left Portman Road with a smile on my face. This was a game fitting of the cliché ‘a game of two halves’ – a tight first half followed by a very open and free-flowing second half.
McCarthy started with a 5-2-3/3-4-3 (take your pick), with Carayol and Celina starting either side of Waghorn up top. We were able to keep Millwall at arm’s length for the first quarter of an hour and had the better of the early chances, but once Jake Cooper headed home for the visitors the momentum was lost. The remainder of the half was turgid and uninspiring, with the ball mostly stuck in midfield. Millwall set up in their usual 4-4-2 and were happy to play on the counter, regularly knocking long balls forward towards Gregory and Morison. They were also excellent at picking up the second ball, so while they didn’t have much possession they still had a strong goal threat. There was a feeling of deja vu at half-time with the goalless home record now extended to five and a half matches.
Ben Folami was handed his league debut and the team switched to 4-4-2 for the second half with instant results. Waghorn forced home the most village goal I’ve ever seen live, and then just a couple of minutes later intercepted an underhit back pass and suddenly we were ahead. You could tell from the reaction of the players how much it meant to them to have the lead in a home match, but the double strike sparked Millwall into life and they quickly equalised through George Saville. The rest of the game was frantic and end-to-end, a complete contrast to the last few months and both sets of fans were loving the contest. Credit should also go to the 2,000 travelling away fans who helped to make for a great atmosphere after the break in particular.
Both teams were creating chances but in the last quarter of an hour Millwall took control and it was only the brilliance of Bialkowski that kept the scores level, making two outstanding saves to add to his ever-lengthening list of points-winning performances. The game finished as a draw but the entertainment and attacking play in the second half was enough to earn a standing ovation from the fans. This was the most excitement they had seen all year and if anything added to the frustration that some felt towards McCarthy. He might not have enjoyed how open the second half was but everyone else was delighted to see some attacking intent, even if it left the defence more exposed. Folami had a strong debut but the improvement was more due to the shape of the team. Playing two attacking wide men in a 4-4-2 gave the team a much stronger attacking outlet and put less emphasis on Spence and Knudsen to provide a threat from the wide areas, allowing them to play in their more familiar full-back positions. Carayol showed flashes of skill but faded and was substituted after an hour.
Millwall might consider themselves a little unlucky not to take all three points with the chances they created in the second half. This draw brought an end to their run of six consecutive away wins but this was still a positive result for them and they have a great chance of making the top six. Their performances in 2018 show that you don’t need to splash the cash to challenge for promotion in the Championship – if you have a clear game plan, a strong team spirit and a little bit of quality, as we did in 2014/15, you can compete at the top end of the league.
It may have been another home match without a win but nobody minded too much, because we actually went for the win and didn’t simply go out to contain the opposition. Would it be too much to ask for the same approach for the rest of the season?
Tuesday 3rd March
It was announced yesterday that Alan Pardew had finally parted company with West Brom after a disastrous spell in charge that has left the Baggies doomed to relegation. Somewhat disturbingly, a few Ipswich fans on the post-match phone in last night were suggesting that he would be a good choice to take over from Mick McCarthy, but I could think of few worse appointments myself. His record since the start of 2016 in the Premier League is disastrous – just seven wins and 53 games, and even when he was relatively successful at Newcastle and Palace, the following slide under his management left them in a worse position than when he arrived. The taxi incident a few weeks ago suggest a lack of respect for him from the dressing room at West Brom, and there’s plenty of anecdotal evidence to suggest he is neither the right man nor right manager for our club.
I suspect the rumour mill will continue to turn for some time to come, especially if we are targeting managers currently employed elsewhere. I believe it’s in the interests of everyone to get this sorted fairly soon, but equally we must not rush into an appointment. We have the luxury of not having to worry about the rest of the season so there’s no pressure to bring anyone in, but if it was possible to bring in a replacement before the end of the season that would at least lift the mood of those who are fed up with McCarthy. There were a few rumours floating around online during the day that he had resigned but this was either fake news or wishful thinking. West Brom themselves have been linked to McCarthy, a suggestion which probably won’t excite their fans but it would be a logical appointment, and with their squad it’s nor hard to imagine him taking them straight back up to the Premier League.
Friday 6th March
Coming up on Saturday is a trip to Griffin Park. Brentford’s ageing ground with its pub on each corner is a fans’ favourite but the club are hoping to open the new stadium next December, so this could be our penultimate trip before the move. We’ve sold out our allocation so they’ll be 1800 Tractor Boys and Girls down there tomorrow, a great turnout considering how little is riding on the game. The Bees still have a slim chance of challenging for the top six but their recent form seems to have put them out of the running. With so little to play for we can only hope the game won’t be played with the tempo of a pre-season friendly, and with any luck so of the feel-good factor from the Millwall game will have carried over.
Sunday 8th March
Well that was disappointing. After a brief interlude of attacking, exciting football, we returned to the regular schedule of risk-free tedium and slumped to another defeat, extending the winless run to six matches.
This match is yet another example of why the relationship between manager and fans has broken down. In a match which has no wider consequences and was essentially a free hit, McCarthy was once again overly cautious and as a consequence we barely threatened the Brentford goal, registering just two shots on target. The penalty was contentious, much like the one at Birmingham, but if you spend most of the match defending you’re much more likely to be in a position to concede a penalty. With all due to respect to Brentford they are not world-beaters, but as we’ve seen so many times over the last two years the approach was pragmatic at best and defeatist at worst. The club is doing little more than existing.
The team started in a 5-3-2 formation with a midfield trio of Hyam, Connolly and Nydam, and Waghorn was partnered by the non-scoring striker Sears. Annoyingly whenever Sears starts we forget about playing the ball to feet and instead lump it into channels for him to chase, a tactic which very rarely pays off and is painful to watch. The game followed a familiar pattern – sit deep, play on the counter, concede and lose. This was the fourth defeat without scoring in the last five games and the 18th league defeat of the season, which is already more than in the whole of last season’s miserable campaign.
The football was frustrating but that does not excuse some of the abuse directed from the stands towards the manager, the players and even fellow supporters. London away games seem to attract a certain type of fan – the sort that have a couple of Carlings on the train done and then think it’s acceptable to spend the rest of the day calling everyone a c*nt. Mick is already going, so why would you shower him with abuse, and why would you get on the backs of your own players? I don’t understand the mentality of those who travel with seemingly the sole intention of acting like a bellend all afternoon. It reflects poorly on these people that some fans felt threatened for suggesting that they should be a little less abusive, and I’m sure the players would have noticed too. I can’t imagine why anyone would hate a football manager or player, but some people appear to genuinely feel that way about McCarthy. You can see why he described this group of people as ‘numbskulls’, though that comment in itself probably just fanned the flames.
This all adds more weight to the argument that Mick should leave immediately, his presence is not helping anyone and serves no real purpose now that we’re guaranteed Championship football again next season. It’s sad that the mood is deteriorated further after a brief lift on Monday, and it’s very difficult to feel any optimism about the remaining games. The last month of the season represents a good opportunity to get some more game time for the likes of Folami but Mick has gone into the managerial equivalent of the fetal position, looking only to avoid defeat and hopefully nick a goal from somewhere, seemingly convinced that we cannot go toe-to-toe with even the worst teams in the division. It would be good for everyone if he was placed on gardening leave but if Evans was so inclined he would have done it by now, so unless West Brom take him away we’re probably stuck with him for the last five games. Bring on the summer…