Satisfied with a Draw

Match report by ALAN ESSEX at the Abbey Stadium

Cambridge United 1 Pools 1  (League 2) Saturday January 23rd 2016

I arrived at the game – a very local one for me, it being about 15 miles from home – with very low expectations. 

The season so far has been a bit of a shambles with the players that came in at the beginning by and large failing miserably and / or being long term injured. Maybe I was hoping for too much when the season started but that’s a supporter’s prerogative isn’t it? Surely the fringes of the play off places was not too much of an ask? I know, last seasons Houdini-like escape act had gone to my head and I thought we’d continue to rise up the table.

Then on Tuesday I heard the game against Accrington and it really did seem that the manager had lost the plot regarding formations and the players, and at this point of the season seemed to be planning their next change of club. So you can see why I arrived as if I’d had a long session listening to Joy Division and contemplating the ceiling-mounted, rope-constructed washing line in the kitchen.

The line up had 3 changes from the Accrington game – I wouldn’t have been surprised if there had been 10. Bates Gray and Hawkins all came into the side. Bates apparently as Harrison had an injury – it was a wise replacement as Bates (amongst the whole team really) had a good game and does bring some organisation to the defence – Scott Harrison has had a few sound games but can, as is to be expected at our level, make costly errors. A bit off the wall but I wonder if (Scott) Harrison could play the lone striker's role, he’s got the physical attributes and would win at least a proportion of headers from long clearances.

Hawkins replaced the newly-acquired Nathan Thomas and Gray replaced Fenwick. The formation was a fluid 4-4-1-1 / 4-5-1 with Ellis Harrison playing the lone striker's role and supported by Gray. So, a team on the ‘fringes’ of the play off places playing a team on the ‘widows peak’ of relegation. There could only be one result surely but as we know it’s a funny old game.

Pools started brightly, a minor miracle in itself and after 4 minutes there was a melee in the Cambridge goalmouth with at least 4 attempts on the goal, Harrison hitting the post being one of them, however the ball was cleared. Pools continued to pressure and won 4 corners in quick succession. Oates was having a good game wide left and was well supported by Jake Carroll who I thought had a very good game. Bates and Jackson were both more than competent and Richards was sound when required although most of the Cambridge attacks came from their right hand side.

Harrison was playing the lone striker role well, holding the ball up and looking for attacking opportunities. However after half an hour he went off injured going for a 50:50 challenge. Both players were injured but Harrison couldn’t continue and was replaced by Rakish Bingham. Now Bingham was one of the players I had high hopes for this season and having scored at Accrington I thought he would be an able sub. Unfortunately he wasn’t a patch on Harrison. He didn’t win one header or get the ball from long clearances, he obviously prefers to play and receive the ball to feet - this was not going to happen with the way Pools were set up to play.

I was impressed with Carson, both his handling but equally his distribution, but whereas Harrison won his fair share, Bingham won none. Still, I find it difficult to criticise Bingham, it wasn’t his type of game and he at least had one or two defenders with him leaving room for others to profit. Now I am not one of those people who wholly condemn the long ball game – a mixture of both short passing and long balls is entertaining for me and Pools were playing that way today – it does rely on a strong striker and it can be a thankless task – Harrison played this role well before his injury and if it is long term I hope Billy Paynter can return or we get a replacement.

At half time both sets of supporters seemed happy and applauded their respective teams off. The game continued in a similar vein during the second half with both teams breaking but few serious efforts on goal. Gray came into the game more as an attacking force and had one shot on target well saved. As the half progressed Cambridge brought on their substitutes – Barry Corr was one of them and I must admit to a feeling of dread as he usually tortured us when playing for Southend. Fortunately Jackson and Bates handled him ably.

Cambridge’s final sub was Ryan Donaldson in the 70th minute. 20 seconds after he came on Pools had scored, something you could never say when he played briefly for us! Woods played through Gray from the centre of the penalty area and Gray slotted home skilfully. tried hard to counter the expected Cambridge onslaught and almost made it. Bingham was man-handled on the Pools right on the half way line – he should clearly have had a free kick but the game progressed – I’m not using this as an excuse as there was half of the pitch for Pools to get their defensive shape, but Cambridge carried on and from Leon Legge’s pass Williamson scored from inside the penalty box on the 90th minute.
"20 seconds after he came on Pools had scored, something you could never say when he played briefly for us!"

Four minutes of extra time saw both teams trying to find a winner but being satisfied with the draw. It was a great game, well officiated and played in a competitive but fair spirit. It’s a big if, but if Pools can carry this form on in a consistent manner they will be on the up. I really believe that Pools should forget about playing pretty one touch triangles and play to their strengths and in this I am thinking long passes, holding the ball up and bringing others into forward positions with a strong central defence. However I don’t advocate long aimless high balls to some imaginary Stevie Howard in his prime (i.e. when he played for Luton Town).

Where this leaves our new permanent signing Thomas I’m not sure, probably competing with Hawkins for a place in the team. Impossible to pick out a man of the match  –  they all played their part well and I said earlier even Bingham who didn’t get much of a look in at least had a marker or two looking after him, releasing others.

For me Leon Legge was the pick of the opposition, solid at the back with very good distribution, however Will Norris the goalkeeper won their official Man of the Match.

Just a final note. When the team were warming up there seemed to be an abundance of coaches on the field: Tony Caig, the goalkeeping coach, Sam Collins overseeing proceedings, Craig Hubbard taking the session and another coach Ian Gallagher or John Hewitson possibly, with Mr. Moore watching from the touchline. Additionally Billy Paynter was helping out with the session. Before the game I thought this was overkill but if it helped with the performance than it must have been worthwhile.

And a final final note. Walking into the ground I reminisced upon the sad demise of the printed Fanzine – yes I know I’m just showing my age and that fans now have an online presence, just like Monkey Business, but it’s not the same for me. I know that some official programmes attempt to fill the gap with humorous banter but they will never succeed as they are just a corporate mouthpiece. So, gone the same way as the flat cap, wooden rattle, brass band and Judas Priest songs over the PA at half time – and they call that progress!