Andrews steals the show
Report by Ian Grant
Happy happy joy joy. I find it extremely difficult to work up any kind of interest in pre-season friendlies at the best of times (football without passion is like Weetabix without milk) but Chesham, Oxford and Cambridge are hardly fixtures to get the pulses racing. The old saying "beggars can't be choosers" springs inexplicably to mind.
This was, I suppose, our game against higher quality opposition. You could've fooled me - on this evidence, Oxford are as cack as cack can be and they're headed for relegation before the season's out. They troubled us for a while at the start of the first half until we rumbled their little plan and put a stop to all that "up-and-under" nonsense. I may be mistaken but their team seems to revolve around Huge Bloke at the back and Huge Bloke at the front with nothing much in between.
Anyway, enough about Oxford. We emerged wearing our new away kit (still not available in the Hornet Shop, incidentally - August 12th at the earliest) with only one new face - Steve Talboys - among the regulars. Wayne Andrews made the starting line-up after David Connolly picked up a minor injury at Chesham; Richard Johnson, absent for so long that I'd completely forgotten what he looked like, was restored to his old defensive midfield position with Steve Palmer playing a sweeper-type role at the back. So, having played 4-4-2 against Chesham, we were experimenting with 3-5-2 this time - good to see that the management is using these games to try things out.
Short of finishing goalless, this was about as tedious as pre-season friendlies get. Which is pretty bloody tedious, believe me. Goalmouth action was a rarity as both sides struggled to get their passing together and achieve any degree of penetration. I can't recall any particularly demanding saves that Kevin Miller had to make during the game but we hardly put the Oxford keeper under much pressure either.
We came closest to scoring in the first half when Craig Ramage hit the bar with a superb long-range free kick. Yes, we all know that he can do it if he's interested - as usual, he provided one moment of blinding skill and then disappeared for the rest of the game. Andrews was unlucky a few minutes later when he diverted a poor backpass past the keeper only to see it miss the target.
So, no goals at half-time and not a lot to get wildly enthusiastic about either. The second half wasn't much better - at least we scored, though. Again, it was Andrews who created the chance, robbing the ball from a defender and then winning the penalty as he advanced towards goal (I say "winning the penalty" because there was no way in a million years it was a foul - young Wayne's obviously been taking lessons from Ramage). Tommy Mooney stepped up to take it and, despite making it absolutely bleedin' obvious which way he was going to put it, found the net.
I don't remember any significant chances falling to either side after that - the game kind of fizzled out as the second half dragged on.
There were positive points - Wayne Andrews, for a start. While he's still very young, it's increasingly clear that he's not that far from being ready for the first team - that doesn't mean that we should plunge him in at the deep end, just that he's likely to be there if we need him. He was obviously eager to impress (hardly surprising, then, that he stood out among the lacklustre performances) and had a lively, aggressive game. His time will come, no doubt about it.
Equally, Richard Johnson made a good case for a recall. There's never been any questions over his ability to tackle - it's his passing that's always been a bit dubious, so he'll have to work on that. He had an industrious evening - nothing spectacular, just doing his job - and certainly eclipsed Talboys. The new signing is much less of a midfield workhorse than expected and was involved in some reasonable link-play but just seemed a little out of sorts. I'll reserve judgement until he's played a few more games.
I do think that the midfield is a potential problem area with this formation, though. For a start, we badly missed Steve Palmer in there - we need someone to look around them, to use their brain a bit. Putting Palmer in defence is all very well but you don't really gain anything from it - he covers defensive lapses from midfield anyway, so you're just losing out on his very considerable influence in the centre of the pitch. With Ramage AWOL for long periods, there was also a lack of creativity up front - it's perhaps unreasonable to expect Andrews to provide the movement that Connolly or Phillips would, but we needed someone to find space and make themselves available. Then we needed someone to find them with that killer pass.
Of the substitutes, Nigel Gibbs' appearance was the one that brought a smile to my face. He never wanted to leave the club and now it seems that he's not going to have to - assuming he can prove his fitness, he'll be a Watford player next season. Bearing in mind that Gibbs is a quality full back (in the old sense - he's not that great going forward) who ought to be able to deal with most Second Division wingers with his eyes closed, it's very good to have him back.
It's virtually impossible to draw any conclusions from this, to be honest. While I'm glad that we're passing the ball around again, we must make sure that the passing leads somewhere. It was that kind of performance - far from disastrous, far from perfect. It is, I guess, the beginning of another new era...we must be patient.