Saturday, 8 January 2022

Doncaster Rovers 0-1 Fleetwood Town

Doncaster Rovers 0-1 Fleetwood Town
Sky Bet League One
Saturday 8th January 2022

Even with just shy of half-a-season remaining, it seems increasingly unlikely that Doncaster Rovers will escape relegation from League One following yet another abject afternoon at the newly-named Eco-Power Stadium.

Fleetwood Town (who are hardly the strongest of teams in the division) dictated things from start to finish, demonstrated a confidence and assuredness, and were worthy winners. They set the early tempo which a sluggish Rovers never seemed capable of matching, they retained the ball much more cleanly, and eventually scored what turned out to be the only goal of the game just after half-time when debutant Ellis Harrison crept in unnoticed to poke the ball home at the near-post.

Thereafter, between some of the most blatant and prolonged 'time-wasting' antics that I've witnessed during the closing stages, Rovers never appeared as if they'd seize the initiative, put their opponents under intense pressure and build up a head of steam to get an equaliser. A couple of half-decent openings were conjured up - and long-time Fleetwood 'keeper Alex Cairns was required to pull off a decent save from Charlie Seaman in injury-time to protect his clean-sheet (and the lovely jubbly bonus that goes with it!) but on the whole, everything in Donny's final third seemed too forced, too disjointed and, at best, haphazard. Had they got an equaliser, it would have been a case of a point pinched rather than one hard-earned.

It wasn't a good performance. It was woeful at times with not enough creativity or movement in so many attacking areas and, coupled with last weekend's totally shambolic capitulation at Morecambe, the damage means the team are now rooted to the foot of the table, nine points adrift of safety (which is effectively 10 points given the wildly inferior goal difference), and in a grim position.

One bright spark amidst such a poor display was Charlie Seaman who came on for the final quarter-hour following a prolonged spell on the sidelines, seemed 'up for the battle' and posed a threat. If he can continue those traits in the upcoming games, it'll offer at least a slight glimmer of hope.

That aside, you'd be hard pushed to find any DRFC fan who can envisage survival right now because, although the transfer window is open with new signings soon to be made and 66 points left to play for, the simple question is where are those points coming from - on a consistent basis?

There might be the odd impressive result - the win over MK Dons earlier in the season being a prime example, but at some point a string of consistently good results will have to be put together and there's just no evidence to suggest things are about to magically change.

In my opinion, the club's best chance of staying up from this ominous position is to go out and 'spend aggressively' during this transfer window. Even if that happened, the arrivals would have to gel instantaneously and get the rub of the green during the majority of games, in order to bridge the gap. With pretty much every promotion-chasing team to face over the next month (certainly the next 10 fixtures are as hard as you'll get for League One), it feels already as if the gap will only become wider.

There 'blame game' means fingers are being pointed in all sorts of directions and, unsurprisingly, the vibe in the West Stand was absolutely toxic throughout this game with a section of loudmouths behind the home dugout heckling, abusing and seemingly taking great delight in telling Rovers' players and staff how crap they are! What that achieves exactly is mystifying to me - and I'll never understand the logic of those 'fans' who have such a mentality (and then hide behind the predictable 'I've paid my money, I'll say what I want' mentality when they get challenged).

The frustration is easy to understand but perhaps it should be reserved more for those in the boardroom who've contributed a great deal to this predicament with their numerous cost-cutting and poor decision-making in recent seasons. Nothing that's been said from the top has felt sincere up to now and what's undeniable to anyone is the divide between those at the club, the players and fans is as bad as it has ever been. Too many people are pulling in different directions!

One person who certainly isn't to blame for the 'here and now' mess is Gary McSheffrey - despite the fact that, ridiculously, some muppets were shouting for him to 'resign' or 'be sacked' at full-time. The squad he inherited when he took the job less than a fortnight ago isn't his fault, how he improves the team and shapes it in the long-term is his responsibility but it's early days for him right now as a manager.

Having seen his work up close with the youth team then I believe his philosophies and ideas will be well-received by first team players. He's well-respected both inside and outside the club, he speaks to people in the correct way (very much unlike his predecessor), and he was the right appointment for a long-term project, BUT, he needs proper financial support from the ownership to re-shape the squad to how he wants it - even if it's to build a team that can compete for promotion in League Two next season!

Some people have been critical of McSheffrey's 'lack of experience' but on the flip side, it has to be remembered that 'experience' doesn't always work. Just ask Simon Grayson (a veteran of over 700 games) who was sacked by Fleetwood, coincidentally, who've amazingly since gone from strength since under their 'inexperienced' caretaker-turned-manager Stephen Crainey!

Next up for Rovers is 'Game 25' against a Wigan Athletic team challenging for the title and who've scored in every league game so far this season. It feels ominous but, to end on a bright-yet-irrelevant note, 'Game 25' was where it all changed for a DRFC team rooted-to-the-bottom in 2008/09...

Monday, 3 January 2022

Hearts (U18s) 1-4 Hibernian (U18s)

Hearts (U18s) 1-4 Hibernian (U18s)
CAS Elite Under 18s League
Wednesday 22nd December 2021

Hibernian's youngsters were deserved winners in this 'Edinburgh Derby' game just before Christmas as they recovered from conceding early on to comfortably pick up the three points.

Both teams offered plenty and there was a feisty and competitive edge to things from the outset with Ethan Laidlaw and Luke Rathie colliding in the opening few seconds before exchanging verbals - something which set the tone for a good game.

A thunderous rocket-shot from Hearts' Macauley Tait meant the team wearing maroon took the lead before two similar goals by Laidlaw and Robbie Hamilton within just a minute of one another, tipped things in the visitors' favour by half-time.

Crucially, Hibs then got a third goal through Connor Young to extend their lead to 3-1 just prior to the hour mark (this at a time when Hearts were starting to press for an equaliser), and any doubts about the end outcome were settled once and for all as Josh O'Connor converted a penalty 10 minutes from time after Ewan Simpson was penalised for a foul.

The game was played at Oriam (Heriot-Watt University) on the state-of-the-art outdoor 4G pitch which has great transport links from Edinburgh City Centre - even if the bus journey does seem to take forever!

I saw Hearts wallop East Kilbride in the Scottish Youth Cup in October so it was their players who I was more familiar with going into this game. They named a slightly younger starting xi in comparison to their counterparts who fielded players mainly from the '2004' cohort.

Laidlaw and Rathie's early coming together certainly set the tone and there were a few solid, full-blooded and even some mistimed tackles in a contest which tested the resilience, intelligence and quality of both groups of players. It had a good energy and tempo to it (even if Hibernian were deserved winners) and it was better in quality than almost every Category 3/4 game which I've seen frequently in England over the past couple of seasons.

The first chance of the afternoon came from an early set-piece as Hearts defender Adam Forrester planted his head to a right-sided inswinging corner but his firm connection was matched by a good clearance from a Hibernian defender on the goal-line.

Minutes later, the opener arrived. It was in the hosts favour - although, technically, it was an own goal by Murray Johnson but the Hibs 'keeper definitely won't be wanting to claim it. Had it also been scored in a first team environment infront of a big crowd then it'd have been talked about for years to come!

A definite 'Goal Of The Season' contender, it came about thanks to Macauley Tait who drifted forward in a central position, looked up from around 25-30 yards out and then with a single swing of his foot, unleashed with a rip-roaring, rasping thunderbolt shot which smacked the crossbar, hit the back of the 'keeper's glove, and nestled in the top corner.

It oozed venom and ferociousness and swamped by his delighted team-mates, Tait's celebration seemed to possess as much surprise as pure elation. Players don't score many better goals than these types and it was an absolute belter from another stratosphere!

Unfortunately, that was as good as it got for Hearts though and that's because their city rivals gradually began to dictate play - spending more time in possession during the 15-45 minute period leading up to half-time and using their physical strength and experience to their advantage.

Hearts became 'penned in' and forced to work relentlessly hard to maintain their out-of-possession shape and structure - though they did squander a decent chance to pinch a second goal when Callum Sandilands' speedy break down the middle and through-pass put Murray Thomas in the clear, but he was only able to drag his eventual shot wide of the far-post; the visitors unhappy all along that the flag wasn't raised for offside!

Nonetheless, with Hibs gradually getting on top and looking more composed and cuter in possession, the two goals they scored in quick succession (not much more than 60 seconds apart) were well-crafted but also disappointing to concede from a Hearts perspective.

Oscar MacIntyre got the assists on both occasions. The left-wing-back floated a teasing cross towards the back-post in the first instance where some hesitant defending allowed Laidlaw to creep in and finish for 1-1, before a good demonstration of tricky and nifty footwork tight to the byline in the second attack resulted in another pinpoint ball from which Hamilton was this time the beneficiary in pretty much exactly the same position inside the area!

With Hearts shell-shocked, in need of a good half-time discussion and needing something to 'click' in midfield in order to find a route back into the game, things could have got even worse on the stroke of half-time as a Hibs player was denied by the woodwork after a speculative shot from distance.

Whatever did get said at the break provoked a reasonably good response by Hearts early in the second half and, despite not achieving a positive result by full-time, they at least implemented their ideas to better effect, posed Hibernian more problems and retained the ball better than previously. The endeavour, attitude and commitment couldn't be faulted; they were just up against a very good team though at the same time who were organised, efficient and of a high calibre.

It was Sandilands who began to get on the ball and make an impact and he was heavily involved in two moves a few minutes apart before the visitors went 3-1 up. 

The first saw him deliver a deep cross from a high wide-right position which caught a deflection en route into the area with Rathie eventually heading the ball wide. Roughly five minutes later, the attack-minded midfielder cushioned a half-volley out wide from the centre circle and then accelerated at sheer pace to find a good position inside the box, though the eventual near-post ball was bravely claimed by the visiting goalkeeper.

Sandilands needed treatment in the immediate aftermath (presumably as sliding at pace on 4G can leave its mark and hurt a bit!) but the move was a good example of how Hearts were getting the ball down, getting on the front-foot, moving and transitioning quickly and taking charge of things in their search for an equaliser. It was their best bit of football since the initial early exchanges of the match.

The last thing they needed at this point, therefore, was to concede a third goal and that's precisely what happened within the next couple of minutes. In a sweeping move, Laidlaw was afforded a run at the Hearts defence when he ought to have been stopped in his tracks and having glided too easily past a defender and saw his subsequent low drive saved by the legs of Liam McFarlane, the resulting loose ball was tapped home with aplomb by Connor Young from a few yards out to make it 3-1.

The two-goal cushion which Hibs had now opened up resulted in their confidence levels increasing once again and a comeback never really looked as if it would materialise during the final half-hour. Hearts had a couple of half-openings (one of which fell to Sandilands) but sometimes tried 'forcing things' too predictably in their attacks which made things a bit easier for the visitors' strong and organised backline.

Hearts made a few substitutions as Bailey Dall (who didn't perform badly in his half-hour showing) and Rocco Friel both entered the field, whereas the Hibees kept the same 11 which started the game on the pitch right up until the closing minutes by which point they'd extended their lead again.

The fourth and final goal came from the penalty spot as Simpson caught his marker inside the box; the referee showing no hesitancy in making the decision to give a spot-kick, and O'Connor was cool, composed and measured as he placed his shot past McFarlane to round off a good afternoon for the visitors.

Nobody can have any complaints about the outcome. Hibernian were the better team, they performed admirably as a collective unit, did their jobs individually and can take pride in how they overcame the early setback to get the result they deserved.

Hearts' performance wasn't dreadful by any means though. Granted, the first three goals were preventable (and equally, the mistakes were ruthlessly pounced upon by Hibs), players at development age always learn more from defeats anyway and given how competitive this game was with its good energy, tempo and needle, it was a worthwhile game for everyone to benefit from in the long-term.

During the first 45 minutes, Hearts just weren't able to retain the ball for long enough when they had it, bar a handful of instances. That changed in the early stages of the second half when Callum Sandilands dropped a bit deeper at times and began to influence things (to a degree) for a 10-15 minute period which, frustratingly, culminated in Hibs bagging a third on the counter-attack to put the game to bed. That was the 'killer' goal because had it not been scored then it'd have been interesting to see whether Hearts could have maintained the momentum they'd started to build up. 

Sandilands is a decent enough player and although he could have found little pockets of space better to try and impact things more during the first 45 minutes (when the ball was mainly up in the air and not suiting his style whatsoever), one contribution that didn't go unnoticed - occurring around the half-hour mark, was when he tracked back and won possession after losing possession following a poor first touch. That kind of work goes a long way to making an impression!

Ewan Simpson has talent too and certain characteristics which may help him in the long-term. There was a rawness about his play (and in the game against East Kilbride too) but with nurturing, exposure in terms of game-time and good coaching, he'll only get better, improve and earn recognition.

Luke Rathie has a physique and competitiveness (demonstrated a couple of times in this encounter) which will make him an attractive proposition to some managers of mens teams. He certainly won't get bullied or be intimidated and those characteristics are 100% needed when trying to carve out a decent career. 

When disappointment over the result subsides, Macauley Tait ought to raise a smile with the rip-roaring 'banger' he scored - it was some strike and a shame more people weren't there to see it because it had all the hallmarks and ferociousness of the goal which Thomas Christensen smacked in for Denmark against Russia at Euro 2020.

Overall, an enjoyable game, and I'm looking forward to another one when I'm back in Edinburgh at some point in the New Year.

Wednesday, 22 December 2021

East Kilbride 0-3 Celtic B

East Kilbride 0-3 Celtic B
Lowland League
Tuesday 21st December 2021

This was actually a much closer game than the scoreline suggests between two teams who've been doing alright in the Lowland League this term.

East Kilbride certainly gave a decent account of themselves. They threatened often but were just unable to convert any of the multiple chances which fell their way - and if they'd breached the Celtic defence on just one occasion it may have changed momentum and paved the way for a different outcome.

Ultimately, the finishing of the two teams was the key difference as Celtic were ruthless and clinical in comparison - partly thanks to Joey Dawson who has developed plenty since I last watched him when he was playing for Scunthorpe United's Under 18s.

Tall, troublesome and a serious threat inside the box, twice Dawson converted before half-time with instinctive first-time finishes on the back of some good build-up play. After plenty of missed chances, Ben Doak then put the result beyond doubt when he made it 3-0 midway through the second period - thus inflicting East Kilbride's first defeat in 15 outings.

It's always a pleasure to visit Scotland and, having completed all 42 SPFL grounds when I paid a visit to Kelty Hearts a few months ago, then it's a natural progression to move onto visiting some places in the Lowland League. That, plus the fact 'youth football' is more my forte nowadays anyway, is why I didn't give a second thought to a 500-mile round trip to watch this game.

The game was nearly put in doubt thanks to Nicola Sturgeon who waited until 2.00pm before announcing the latest bullsh*t Covid-19 restrictions (where attendances at Scottish games will be capped at a maximum of 500 people) won't take effect into Boxing Day! Thank God!

Following a steady start to the season, Celtic's youngsters have been in good, progressive form in the Lowland League in recent weeks - narrowing the gap on Old Firm rivals Rangers who began the campaign well but whose results have tailed off to some extent. The Hoops went into this game having conceded the fewest goals in the division (and knowing a win would put them joint-second behind runaway leaders Bonnyrigg Rose) but they knew they'd be in for a decent test with East Kilbride unbeaten in their previous 15 matches.

K:Park, where this game was played, is a very modest venue located some two miles from the town's railway station from which it was a solid 35-40 minute walk. The 4G playing surface ensures only severe weather conditions will put games in doubt and the two stands on offer are certainly better than the home grounds of some of East Kilbride's counterparts in the Lowland League - notably Caledonian Braves, Civil Service Strollers and Edinburgh University.

Celtic were their traditional green and white hoops and were backed by a small but noisy contingent of a couple of hundred travelling fans who were located behind the goal.

After a sluggish first few minutes where East Kilbride put a couple of efforts over the upright, the visitors began to get a foothold and their pattern play, movement in possession, speed of their transitions from defence to attack and willingness to switch the ball out wide and then deliver into the box to pose problems, was both quite obvious and of a high standard.

A couple of early Celtic corners came to nothing before one such move which had good build-up play led to the opener just past the quarter-hour mark - the ball being well-worked by the visiting youngsters inside East Kilbride's half before a right-sided ball was put into the feet of Joey Dawson who'd took up a clever central-position inside the box. His first-time shot from about eight yards was actually towards the 'keeper but the power of the effort ensured the ball still ended up in the net. 1-0.

In response to the setback, East Kilbride went close with a curling free-kick which was just off-target and they had other good chances to grab a quick equaliser too but a combination of poor finishing, not enough movement from the front players and 'bad luck' in certain scenarios meant they remained behind.

Some of Celtic's play was aggressive and good and Dylan Corr almost netted what would have been a spectacular effort with a zippy, slalom-type run from deep which culminated with a powerful drive that the home 'keeper did well to palm away.

It was a great example of the pace, energy and fluidity in the transition and more pressure just beyond the half-hour mark culminated in a second goal for Celtic (and Dawson). Having won a corner - which actually came from one of his shot's being deflected wide - the ball was delivered into the box, then recycled towards the tall striker at the near-post who delivered a deft back-heel finish to bamboozle the 'keeper and make it 2-0.

Matty Anderson saw an effort kept out as Celtic searched for a third goal before half-time and by the interval, it was clear that it would take something bordering on an extraordinary effort for East Kilbride to pick up anything from the game.

In fairness, the hosts give it a damn good go after the re-start as they forced a plethora of openings (some from aggressive play of their own and some from individual defensive errors) but the goal, which their play deserved, alluded them right up until the end.

Celtic also created more opportunities and Rocco Vata looked odds on to score when he was left in acres of space out wide and afforded a free run into the box on 49 minutes but, again, the East Kilby 'keeper made a miraculous save at the expense of a corner to keep his team in with a fighting chance.

A sustained spell of pressure followed by the senior outfit with Jack Stainrod just about being the hosts' best player - although he was always closely attended to by the Hoops' defenders. Plenty of chances came to pass without a breakthrough goal to halve the deficit as Ryan Mullen tipped a shot wide from Neil McLaughlin, Cammy Elliott was off-target in a separate move, the woodwork was struck and Celtic's clean-sheet lived something of a charmed existence as they were caught playing out dangerously from the back on more than one occasion.

The Hoops could have still put the game to bed at the other end though as Dawson (not long before going down for treatment) selflessly put an inviting ball across the six-yard box on a silver plateau but nobody was there to make a telling connection with the goal absolutely gaping.

Substitutions were made by the visitors during the 55-65 minute period when East Kilbride were pressing menacingly and it was one of the new faces - namely Ben Doak - who made a positive impression by making it 3-0 with a ruthless drive into the far corner, on the back of a clever interception, within only minutes of his introduction.

Thereafter, there were a few more changes as both benches sought to get minutes into players' legs and, in return, there was plenty of energy and endeavour shown. Doak looked dangerous and made a good impression as Celtic pressed in search of a fourth goal, whilst East Kilbride couldn't get a goal which, on the balance of chances, they deserved.

The highlight of the closing stages was free Scotch Pies, fresh out the oven, being given out (which is always a delight during trips up north) but overall it was a good game of a surprisingly decent standard and quite a few players performed very well.

There was lots of good team-play from Celtic on things I've touched on already such as speed of transitions, energy, movement and willingness to get the ball out wide and drive forward with it when the opportunity allowed but players who deserve a special mention are Joey Dawson who showed a menacing presence up top, was a constant threat, had predatory instincts infront of goal but was also involved in quite a fair bit of selfless build-up play to the benefit of others. His subsequent appearance on the subs bench for Celtic's first team against St Johnstone on Boxing Day (irrespective of the fact he later got on due to Kyogo Furuhashi's injury) was probably in no small part down to how he performed in this game.

Ben Doak made a good impression as well from the bench; two centre-backs - Dane Murphy and Joseph Murray (though difficult to distinguish who was who because of the numbering on the backs of the shirts) showed quite a bit of aggression and Brody Paterson, the skipper, though not heavily involved at times demonstrated a really measured and calming approach and looks a decent player.

Tuesday, 21 December 2021

Rossington Main 1-1 Hallam

Rossington Main 1-1 Hallam
Northern Counties East League (Division One)
Saturday 18th December 2021

A game of two contrasting styles ended in delight for Rossington Main as Xxxxxx Xxxxxxx forced home an equaliser deep into injury-time - and with practically the last kick of the game - to earn them a point from a fog-effected clash with Hallam at Oxford Street.

Rozzo certainly deserved something as they played the better football throughout and with better finishing could have put their counterparts out of sight quite early on.

Hallam, to their credit, aren't the sort of team who'll just lie down and be steam-rollered. They're challenging for promotion for a reason and having already lost twice (and quite heavily) to Rozzo already this season they were definitely up for a fight and unwilling to let the same thing happen again.

Their style might not have suited the football purists given they took a combative approach from a very early point - notably wanting to prevent Bailey Conway from getting on the ball and influencing things in the middle of the park and, in fairness, their tactics worked.

After a goalless first 45 minutes they took the lead just after half-time through Xxxxxxx Xxxxxxxx and Rossington looked flustered as horrible low-lying fog made conditions tricky for vast swathes of the second half.

Just when it looked as if it might be one of those days, however, Xxxxxxx popped up to tap the ball home in the third-minute of injury-time to rescue a point which might prove valuable come the end of the campaign given that Rozzo are very much challenging for a play-off place themselves.

Since going top of the league a handful of weeks ago, Ben Hunter's team have endured more than a few stutters which has seen them drift away from pole position. Jack Watson, without doubt one of the most prolific strikers at this level, is expected to be sidelined for the rest of the season and his replacement, Myron Gibbons, has also endured a few knocks and niggles after his blistering start to life at Oxford Street when he couldn't stop scoring. With Niall Doran missing too, and Cameron Barnett a long-term absentee, losing such influencial players capable of turning a game in a single moment has certainly impacted results and probably put paid to any title hopes.

Points 'here and there' has kept Rozzo just about in touch with their fellow Play-Off rivals, however, and a big performance was needed in this game after something of a drubbing at mid-table Ollerton Town in their previous encounter the week before.

The Blues started very positively and brightly, set the tempo, and properly got at their counterparts in the early exchanges with Danny Deakin flashing a free-kick narrowly wide of the left-hand post, Gibbons (available for selection after his recent niggles) involved in a gilt-edged chance just afterwards, before Sam Kitchen then stung the 'keepers gloves with a drive on the quarter-hour mark.

Hallam were quite physical and although they were initially ran ragged to some extent as the first period wore on, they began to execute their own game-plan to good effect, impose themselves physically and put in a few tackles which the referee from the same fixture last season (who remains one of the worst I've seen anywhere in recent times) would probably have shown red to.

Opportunities came to pass at both ends in the freezing cold weather before half-time as the game became stretched to some extent; Hallam perhaps now shading it, but it remained goalless at the interval.