I contemplated all three PL games with a degree of apprehension, thinking that each of them would provide the acid test needed to assess the progress that WW had made since last season. For different reasons the Blackburn and Fulham games did not resolve the issue. This afternoon`s game did, though the result can be read in both positive and negative ways.
I prepared for the match by paying my dues, doing the shopping, hanging out the washing (and taking it in when it started to rain) and offering to make dinner this evening. In the local supermarket I talked to the Arsenal and Fulham fans, neither of whom was very happy … especially the latter.
As the game was on Sky, I did not have to fiddle with dodgy free view sites or curse my ongoing problems with accessing the Beacon broadcast. So, at noon I moved the settee closer to the T.V., opened a can of bitter and settled down to watch the match.
I enjoyed the first half, though I had to turn up the sound because my wife insisted on stripping the wallpaper in the spare bedroom and using the sander. I tried to interest her in the match but she said that she preferred decorating to football. I`ll remember that and offer her the choice at a later date (though it could backfire on me).
… where was I? Ah yes, the opening session of the game. AV probably shaded it but WW were competing well and both sides had opportunities to score. If only Hunt had headed home Ward`s perfect cross, it could have changed the pattern of the game. We might have won all three points.
Whatever was said over the tea break, it galvanised AV, who swarmed all over WW from the kick-off. We were lucky to survive, though AV fumbled a number of chances … and WH was on top form. We did not staunch the flow until MM made his tactical substitutions at 66 minutes, replacing Jarvis by Foley and Hunt by Elokobi. It did the trick, tightening up the defence and even allowing us to venture into AV`s half.
Indeed, we could have won the game at the death. On 87 minutes Herd bashed into Ward in the box and elbowed him to the ground. A minute later we won a free kick just outside the box. Henry bounced the ball and I sensed a repeat of JOH`s goal at The Hawthorns. JOH retreated in readiness … but there was a delay and the moment passed.
Oh well! AV did not deserve to lose but I would not have worried about that, had we scored. In fact, a draw flattered us and that, I suppose, is a mark of how far we have progressed since last season. Last year, we would have shipped a goal or two. If we have learnt how to hang on in spite of being outplayed, we will pick up bonus points.
Overall, only WH and Johnson emerged with their reputations intact. AV`s wingers gave our full backs the run-around and on a different day (and against a worse goalkeeper than WH) they would have set up several goals. Ward looked much better when coming forward and more comfortable in midfield. Berra and Stearman had to resort to their customary tactics of holding on. Elokobi was no better and in his rashness could have cost us a goal in the 68th. minute. On the other hand, Foley, brought on to help Stearman, strengthened our defence. He has to start next time out.
In midfield the Henry/JOH axis spluttered. Uncharacteristically, JOH was guilty of numerous sloppy passes, though, to be fair, that was a general feature of the team`s play. Neither Hunt nor Jarvis sparkled, with young Herd, in particular, bottling up MJ. As a result, Fletcher and Doyle did not receive adequate service from the wings and never looked like scoring. I don`t think Fletcher even headed a ball goalwards!
If this game more accurately reflects our progress this season, we still have some way to go. Ward is OK at LB but we do need cover: Big George is not good enough. It`s the same story in CD, though Berra is improving. Zubar might be an option but it`s a risk, and we would lose his attacking play from RB. Moreover, when Fletcher had to go off for a few minutes I realized with a jolt our lack of alternatives. We only had Vokes on the bench and, as the game against Northampton in the week proved, he still misses opportunities which PL strikers have to score. Teams do not get many chances in the PL as Hunt`s miss proved.
On the other hand, we won a point against the odds and we top the league as I write. I`d have settled for that at the opening of the season.