"Was that your idea Little?"
That was my cry, and of hundreds of other City fans, as a moment of unparalleled footballing clot-itude saw Ryan Williams and Gary Alexander attempt a "keep it in the opposition corner" routine deep into injury time yesterday. That the corner awarded to City had come from a bold incision that had the listless Fax defence creaking once more, and that the same rickety backline might quite likely yield a second goal from a well taken corner, was one thing. That the corner flag routine was over in two seconds as Alexander, eschewing the normal procedure of putting a foot on the ball and shielding it with his body, instead aimed a wild swing that was perhaps meant to rap the shins of the attendant defender to win another corner but instead missed the target by a foot or more and gifted Fax a goalkick, was another. But the tin lid was put on this episode of "Moronic Footballers From Hell" (coming to a digital channel near you soon) when Halifax quickly whisked the ball deep into our half - City's midfield was left scratching its collective head in the Fax penalty box, wondering where the cross from the corner had disappeared to - and carved out their only genuine opening of the match, which Musselwhite repelled with a top drawer double save. It was quite simply the stupidest passage of football I have ever witnessed, it nearly threw away a comfortable three point haul for the Tigers and I felt entitled to ask whether Ryan and Gary were operating under orders from their manager, or whether Ryan and Gary are that daft on their own.
With that off my chest, let me now recount the tale of an otherwise thoroughly satisfying afternoon's work. Those who may read my postings on this list will know that I strongly believe there is little to panic about in the long run as a result of City's recent shaky form. Furthermore, I believe that the doom and gloom merchants amongst the City support - fanzine editors who should know better amongst them - are actually rather enjoying City's dip in form in a perverse way. What better excuse to highlight in minute detail every little foible with this third division team, ignore all the plusses that come even from defeat, and have a damn good moan on the flimsiest of foundations? Yesterday's was not a perfect performance. Some City players were poor (Matthew Wicks is rapidly ascending my "worst centre backs ever in black and amber" chart, and Holt went missing for the entire second half). Some passes were misplaced. Some good scoring chances were wasted. Some tactical decisions were baffling. But the sums of the plusses and the minuses saw City come out of the game comfortably in credit.
Halifax Town will be playing in the Football Conference next season. The entire surroundings of The New Shay (more aptly "The Half-Finished Shay") reeked of footballing decay. The rabid rallying calls to home supporters prior to kick-off smacked of desperation, especially as (i) hardly any home supporters were there, less than a thousand I would guess and (ii) those supporters remained silent for the full ninety minutes, as though nibbling metaphorical salmon and cucumber sandwiches at a wake. And once the match got going the signs were all there in Halifax's play. Terminal lack of confidence in their footballing ability. Heads dropping at the slightest mishap. Passes played to non-existent team mates, ceding possession far too easily. Unless something spectacular happens very soon down Calderdale way, they are goners.
Breezing past the division's basement boys were:
On the bench sat Roberts, Philpott, Morley, van Blerk and Glennon. So no Dudfield or Whitmore in the sixteen. It is perhaps telling that Little used the OWS this morning to carefully explain Dudfield's absence, but offered no similar comfort to Whitmore. Which alongside other recent events could be interpreted as "that's the contract offer Theo and Ian, take it or naff off to the MSL."
In the early stages, which for once were not largely formless, Williams looked lively down the right as City pressed forward from the off. While we were not entirely dominant we were certainly the better side. The best chance came from a free-kick twenty yards out which Alexander fired past the wall, drawing a decent low stop from Fax keeper Richardson, who since Alan Little's arrival has effected a swap with Donny-bound ex-Tiger Lee Butler. On the quarter hour a Musselwhite free-kick was brought down by the muscular Alexander and Rowe was released into the box, only to fire into the side netting. The referee failed to punish the tug, gouge, pull and gore techniques of the Halifax centre backs - wily Andy Wilson look-a-like Graham Mitchell in particular - and Alexander must have left the field with numerous bruises.
Alas, Rodney Rowe has rather more serious injuries to nurse this morning. Rodders pounced on a through ball and advanced on the keeper from what I believe was an offside position. Rowe and Richardson met the ball simultaneously on the edge of the box and after a tangle of limb, flesh and intestine it was clear that while Richardson had taken a knock, Rowe was rather more seriously injured. A full six minutes were expended by the cautious medical teams as they gingerly manoeuvred Rodders onto the stretcher, so a head injury was assumed. It turned out that he broke his jaw. The half-built East Stand at the Shay houses the changing facilities, and so when Rodney's time came to leave for hospital the ambulance had to reverse up the touchline and park in front of the City bench while the striker was retrieved from a Portakabin. This resulted in the bizarre but thoroughly justified spectacle of an ambulance being applauded by City fans as it left the field of play.
A further injury to Holt meant that it was nearly five to four before the first half ended, and City's result must've been mopped up at the end on that "Late Scores" screen on Grandstand. Roberts came on for Rowe and looked a lively handful, harrying the Fax defence and generally making a nuisance of himself. Special mention should go to Sneekes here as well. After a series of performances that suggested he may be incapable of tackling a fish supper, the wily lank-haired Dutchman adopted a pleasing clenched-fist policy to this match and perpetrated a goodly number of tackles in midfield that broke down the Fax play. That his passing was also up to usual scratch meant that Sneekes was right up there in the MVP chart. His tackling was most evident on the half hour when a Fax advance was halted by three (count 'em) full blooded challenges thirty yards out from Mussy's goal. Sneekes then picked himself up and threaded a tasty through ball that set the mercurial Beresford haring down the wing. His low cross found Roberts whose shot was well saved by the keeper.
Halifax also had the occasional moment of threat, the greatest danger being a Bushell shot after some inept defending down the City left which may have trickled just inside the far post had Edwards not arrived and hacked clear. This moment provided a cameo of the City defensive performance yesterday. Holt and Wicks on the left were poor. Greaves and Edwards on the right were class. That van Blerk was not brought on in the second half after Holt wandered lonely as a cloud for 20 minutes was surely a powerful indication of exactly how unfit the Aussie must be.
On 38 minutes the key moment of the match. A corner was won on the City right and Beresford swung a high looping cross into the six yard box. Marking seems to be out of fashion in Halifax these days, and Johnsson rose unimpeded above the diminutive Richardson to nod home. There was perhaps the suggestion of a foul on the keeper, but in reality I think it was a case of the keeper reacting understandably late and arriving in second place as he realised that this six foot whale muncher was advancing on him unchallenged. Trevor Holmes, at ninety four years young City's longest serving supporter, commented to me and his child bride Jan, 28, that the last City goal headed direct from a corner was converted by Peter Swan around 1990. I confess that I could think of no intervening goal that would discredit this notion. Perhaps the combined minds of of vistors could arrive at a definitive answer.
As the half came to an extended close (seven minutes of injury time) Roberts showed strength and skill to carve a left footed shooting chance for Williams who fired tamely at Richardson's ample midriff. Moments later a Beresford corner was cleared to Sneekes who fired a first-time rip-snorting drive a foot or so over the crossbar. Like Teddy Sheringham. Only worse. The second half came and went with few noteworthy events. City adopted the "two banks of four" that Little favours away from home and neither side created many chances. It is a tactic that I support Little in using on the proviso that the players show the aptitude and application to make it work. On this occasions they did, and Halifax were repelled with relative ease, only the stocky Harsley showing any sign of unlocking the firmly barred door. I would like to see us sign Harsley, he is commonly touted as Halifax's best player, he is employed by our manager's brother and he has the look of a Garreth Roberts for the new millennium about him.
City's best moments in the second half stemmed from Beresford, as Williams started cutting inside too much and losing the plot. A whipped-in Bez cross narrowly evaded Roberts' bonce on the hour, while a repeat performance ten minutes later was met by the Alexander nut, only for the big hearted cockney to head wastefully wide when unchallenged eight yards out. A third Beresford raid saw him swivel at the byeline and cut back inside, his low cross reaching the far post only for the sprawling Alexander to hook his toe-ender back across the face of an unattended gaping goal. Immediately after Beresford was free a fourth time, this time Roberts shot at the keeper for the second time in the match.
The only genuine scare in between times was when a series of feeble challenges down our left side allowed a low cross to be fired across the six yard box, only for the lumbering Kerrigan at the back post to miss an easy conversion as he slid in. Other than that, the only real scoring chance Fax had was after the corner-flag stupidity at the end, and then the hitherto inactive Musselwhite responded with two fine spread-eagle style saves.
So that's three points in the bag then, what of the performance. I have already said that I think Wicks is appalling, he executed few tackles and won no headers at all, and should be dropped for Whittle on Tuesday. Holt had a good first half but disappeared in the second, so perhaps he should stay in the first eleven with van Blerk ready to replace him after an hour or so. I shed no tears for Little's abandonment of Whitmore and I feel he has hit on the right combination of grit and guile with Johnsson and Sneekes. Up front Roberts and Alexander combined well and I guess they will start on Tuesday with Dudfield being the most capable substitute in the Third Division by some distance. We are still a good side, we still have more than enough to get automatic promotion, the teams around us continue to struggle and we will go up in late April. And if you disagree with me - you're wrong.
Report by: Mike Scott