Up Against the Wall(sall)…
It’s only September and already, it seems that Morecambe are in a serious struggle to retain their EFL status. Before the League Two match against Walsall tonight, they had registered only one win in eight League Two games so far. They are out of the League Cup and going nowhere quickly in the EFL Trophy as well. They had played three games so far this month and already conceded ten goals whilst scoring just three. So things already looked grim on paper even before kick-off.
On the grass, things looked even worse. Just three short days ago, Jim Bentley’s team contrived to ship three goals in the first half against a bottom of the table Scunthorpe side who had scored only five in their previous seven League Two matches altogether and previously had only a single point. The display was pathetic – they were second best in almost all departments to a team which was clearly prepared to battle and Jimbo was honest enough to admit afterwards that it was a `sackable performance’.
The question most football fans ask at the beginning of any campaign is: “Do we have a better team than we did last season?” My own answer to this question is: definitely not.
Without veteran goalkeeper and Captain Barry Roche – with no disrespect to understudy Mark Halstead who is a quality stopper in his own right – the team would have conceded even more goals than they already have. In front of him, Steven Old and Sam Lavelle looked really solid just a few weeks ago and there is no doubt that they are good enough to play in at least this division. So is Luke Conlan. Ritchie Sutton seems to be out of favour currently for whatever reason but he was reliable and solid last year. Zak Mills was an excellent footballer but not necessarily a particularly good full-back in my opinion. Is his replacement this term an improvement? On displays so far, probably not – although to be fair to him, Adam Buxton performed reasonably well tonight. In midfield, Aaron Wildig can play; no doubt about that. But with the loss of Andy Fleming and serious injury to Alex Kenyon, we are now reliant on Andrew Tutte and Jordan Cranston to support him. Neither was a regular in the team last season, for good reason in my opinion. Now they are, although Cranston didn’t play tonight. Is this because they have both improved either technically or in terms of their performances? The evidence doesn’t seem to suggest so in my view at least: Tutte’s contribution tonight was really poor again and his tetchy attitude – shoving a couple of opposition players when there was no reason whatsoever to do so for instance – could have been punished by a more fussy referee than James Oldham. Up front, Cole Stockton is struggling to make any real impact as a permanent signing and you have to wonder why Tranmere were clearly determined to get rid of him. Shaun Miller has obvious potential and could still come good: he has the undoubted skill and it’s clear that Dave Artell has one eye on doing a Mr Porter on him (taking him back to Crewe) if his form improves. Leading scorer Lewis Allesandra would have got a place in last term’s team based on his performances so far without any doubt. John O’Sullivan is also inconsistent but there is the hope that he could turn things around as well.
But you are left wondering if the current crop of misfits and rejects from other League Two and non-league clubs is simply good enough to compete at this level. Jim Bentley has shown, time and again, that his ability to coach players who have lost their confidence or their fitness to re-discover themselves – Tom Barkhuizen and Aaron Collins for instance – is second to none. This season, though, he has a steeper hill to climb than ever on current showing: the side as a whole were a shambles on Saturday with a few honourable exceptions; their overall confidence seems to be fragile in the extreme and I think it’s fair to say that they are generally not playing as a team but as a collection of individuals. The reason Scunthorpe won so easily last Saturday was because they were up for it: our lot weren’t. The Manager would have his work cut-out tonight to raise the morale of a team so recently mauled by a theoretically weaker outfit. But if they played again tonight like they did at Glanford Park, they would almost certainly end-up even deeper in the mire.
So now we come to Walsall, tonight’s opponents. The Shrimps have only played this yo-yo club once before. On that occasion, they won 2-0 in the more or less meaningless Johnstone’s Paint Trophy. Yo-yo club? Like Scunthorpe, Walsall have been promoted and relegated so often in recent times that their fans’ heads must be spinning. Twenty years ago, they entered the old First Division ahead of Manchester City to sit right at the apex of Association Football in this country. They were soon relegated again but got back in 2001. Five years later, though, they had fallen right through the divisions once more into League Two. They got back into League One and – with current Aston Villa manager Dean Smith at the helm – looked like they would return to the Championship. That was until Smith left, the campaign stalled and they ended-up losing to Barnsley in the Play-Offs. Last season, they were relegated back to the bottom of the heap again and a drop out of the EFL altogether must be a real fear for many of the club’s long-suffering supporters in the Black Country.
Getting right up to date, though, the Shrimps have won only one game so far in League Two. So have the Saddlers. Darrell Clarke’s side had the same number of points as their hosts before the game tonight and were one position higher in the table only on goal difference. Walsall have not scored a goal for about 350 minutes, according to one of their local rags, and have netted only a paltry three league goals altogether so far this season (five fewer than Morecambe) but have conceded nine instead of fifteen. But if they hit the back of the net tonight, all these statistics would be rendered meaningless. But – statistical relevance or otherwise – tonight’s contest already felt, even at this early stage of the campaign, as if it was more about the Dunce’s Hat than anything else.
Who would be wearing it at the end of the game?
Manager Clarke said before last Saturday’s game at home against Bradford: “I must admit from what I’ve seen in the league so far, I’m not shaking in my boots.” Maybe he should have been: his men lost nil-one to an own goal scored by the unfortunate Liam Kinsella.
So what would his attitude to tonight’s hosts be before the clash? He sounded remarkably positive saying that writing-off forty-five points is no barrier to comfortable survival in League Two (an unusual strategy for any football manager – to say the very least). He claimed that ultimate success is guaranteed by `making sure players don’t lose confidence, making sure that next time we step on the pitch on Tuesday night at Morecambe that we’re ready to go again. We’re in a disappointing position at the minute, but let’s see where we go, you can comfortably lose 15 games in this league and still finish in the top half of the table.’
The Manager’s remarkably laid-back attitude seemed to have percolated into his team. Right from the off, there was little sign that this was a team struggling for form and points. They may have endured three hundred and fifty minutes without a goal – but it only took the visitors a matter of seconds to almost remedy that. Right from kick-off, they played their way quickly and accurately into the left side of Morecambe’s penalty area. If it wasn’t for a painful and brave block from Steven Old, they would already have been ahead. But the Saddlers looked like they had come with a plan. They continued to play some fast, skilful football on the front foot. Only three minutes were on the clock when their goal drought came to an end. The ball was worked forward to Rory Gaffney; Barry Roche did well to parry his initial effort but Stuart Sinclair had time and space to bury the rebound as yet again, the Shrimps’ defence failed to react quickly enough to the loose ball. Two minutes later, Adam Buxton went on a good run on the Morecambe left and unleashed a screamer which went just over Liam Roberts’ bar. There was a brief bit of constructive play by the Shrimps after about seven minutes, undone when Andrew Tutte lobbed the ball forward to precisely nobody: I don’t want to pick on individuals but yet again, you wonder why the Manager persists in putting this man in the side: he was absolutely hopeless again tonight. The visitors had the next chance, however, after ten minutes when Rory Holden had a shot deflected just over Baz’s bar with the big Irishman a mere spectator. Down the other end, Kevin Ellison passed to Shaun Miller whose shot was high and wide to the right of Liam Roberts in the visitors’ goal. As the visitors continued to keep the ball on the deck, Morecambe played it long and usually overhit it although Miller was within a whisker of bringing-down a lobbed pass down the middle after half an hour. With the hosts giving away far too many niggly free-kicks, I though Steven Old was lucky after 31 minutes when he clearly fouled his man in the penalty area. But half time arrived with the visitors in the Box seat – Saddle I suppose – and good value for it. They had played all the football. Morecambe looked slow, disjointed and cumbersome: there was no guile about their play and you felt there was no plan either. Whatever, the brutal truth of the matter is that Roberts had not even a single save to make during the entire 47 minutes. The same cannot be said of his opposite number.
The Shrimps improved a bit at times during the second half. Buxton and others repeatedly tried and usually failed to play-in John O’Sullivan from deep left to the far right usually. Often, the passes were over-hit but John’s control was also poor more often than not as he repeatedly looked to take two touches. Walsall could have scored again after fifty minutes when they got round the back yet again and had a chance from their left when clever interplay between Rory Gaffney and Caolan Lavery ended with a free shot for Rory Holden: he booted the ball over the bar. A minute later and they were in again – this time, Baz managed to deflect a shot from Lavery away to safety with his legs. After 54 minutes, Kev headed the ball cleverly forwards to Miller who belted it into the net but Shaun was clearly offside. Morecambe came as close as they did all evening to equalising with about an hour on the clock when there was a bit of a melee in the Walsall penalty area but the huge Roberts threw his massive bulk on the ball – and that was it. The Saddlers continued to try to play constructively with the ball on the deck; the Shrimps changed their line-up but not their tactics of continually playing the ball long to no real effect.
So Morecambe ended up with the Dunce’s hat tonight. Walsall’s deserved win propelled them into twentieth place in League Two; the Shrimps remain above just Scunny (who drew at home against struggling Oldham 2-2 tonight) and rock bottom Stevenage (who lost at home to Northampton by the only goal of the game).
Jim Bentley must be worried, however brave a face he puts on in front of the cameras and the microphones. But if he takes a leaf out of his opposite number’s book, he can feel an awful lot happier. Morecambe have now dropped twenty-one possible points out of twenty-seven in League Two matches so far. By Darrell Clarke’s own calculation, that gives Jim another twenty-four to squander and still see the Shrimps end-up `comfortably’ twelfth or even higher in the table at the end of the season.
So what’s there to worry about?
Morecambe: 1 Barry Roche (C); 2 Adam Buxton; 5 Steven Old (Y); 6 Andrew Tutte; 7 John O’Sullivan; 8 Lewis Alessandra; 24 Shaun Miller (9 Cole Stockton 73 mins); 11 Kevin Ellison (10 A-Jay Leitch-Smith 73 mins); 15 Aaron Wildig (18 Rhys Oates 83 mins); 16 Sam Lavelle; 27 George Tanner.
Subs not used: 21 Mark Halstead; 12 Ritchie Sutton; 33 Jordan Cranston.
Wallsall: 1 Liam Roberts; 26 Gary Liddle (Y); 6 Dan Scarr; 5 James Clarke (C); 15 Rory Holden (4 Mat Sadler 84 mins); 7 Stuart Sinclair; 8 Liam Kinsella; 33 Zak Jules; 9 Caolan Lavery (10 Josh Gordon 75 mins); 16 Danny Guthrie; 30 Rory Gaffney.
Subs not used: 13 Jack Rose; 17 James Hardy; 20 Alfie Bates; 2 Cameron Norman; 25 Wes McDonald.
Ref: James Oldham
1616 (232 from Walsall).