Barnet 1 – Exeter 4: What we learned about the Bees from a dismal defeat

Let’s not be squeamish – it’s time to accept relegation from League Two is a possibility

Defeat means Barnet take the position of the second-bottom team in English league football from Exeter and will feel it is not a title they deserve.

In pieces they have demonstrated they can apply themselves in countless different ways this campaign.

But worryingly for the Hive faithful, they have rarely strung together a full 90 minutes. The comeback against Doncaster (only to lose 3-2) was impressive and today’s showing against the Grecians was excellent for 40 minutes. They played several passing moves which showed their ability with ball at feet and when they identified that the strength of John Akinde was too much for the defence, they exploited it.

“It wasn’t pretty,” Allen said of the first 40 minutes.

“But it was a determined, hard-working, Barnet performance.”

The disintegration that followed Jake Taylor’s thunder-strike was far from it and it was reminiscent of a team for whom the whirlpool of the drop was starting to loom on the horizon.

Barnet CAN pass the ball when they have the right personnel

Ryan Watson’s absence from the team can probably be put down to Martin Allen’s preference for bulldogs in midfield and distaste for the former Leicester man’s often-mercurial stylings.

However, his class on the ball cannot be underestimated. Allen himself is probably unused to shouting ‘pass and move’ but he has recognised that on the surface The Hive provides it is possible to knock the ball around.

But it needs a midfield who is firstly able to do so, and secondly prepared to work extremely hard to cover back if they suddenly give it away while in settled possession.

Sam Togwell faces six weeks on the sidelines after Thursday’s hernia operation meaning Watson will likely find himself as a regular partner to Curtis Weston and he must prove, to his manager at least, he has the grit and determination to go with his composure on the ball.

The youngsters will get the chance to shine

Almost every time a young Bee has been given an opportunity in the first team at Barnet this season, I have been impressed.

Sam Muggleton, Harry Taylor and brother Jack are all players whose ability could establish them as regular first-teamers one day.

And in another post-match huddle where Allen tried desperately not to criticise his senior players, the boss broke.

He remembered how when he first took over at the club he replaced the winless team with players who, in his words, had hunger, desire and commitment. Those players went out and beat top-of-the-league Hereford 1-0.

It was clear Allen felt those in black and amber against Exeter – apart from Michael Nelson and the youngsters – lacked those qualities, that fight. Expect a very different side against Wycombe.

Gash is a huge miss

It was a big day for Alex Nicholls. He faced the side he left in the summer whose fans gave him a kind reception and he did come close to haunting them with a goal.

However, deployed up front with Akinde he found himself out of position countless times. Allen screamed himself hoarse giving the winger instructions, mostly ‘get in the box’, which betrayed the inexperience of the player in the position.

Akinde is one of League Two best strikers in the air and he quite simply needs to play alongside someone who understands the position better than Nicholls and has more athletic ability than Shaun Batt.

Michael Gash has all of these things in spades but his knee will not be right for quite some time. The number of times the manager has mentioned his name since the injury tells you all you need to know about how much he misses his presence.

Is patience in the Barnet hierarchy slowly running out?

As the ground-going fans among you know, Barnet usually (like most clubs) pick a home Man of the Match irrespective of the result.

Today, there was none. Allen told me Michael Nelson was his best player but the club and the chairman declined to name one. It is not a good sign for anyone involved.

Barnet 1-1 Colchester: What we learned about the Bees

Tariq Fosu-Henry gave Colchester a sixth-minute lead as Barnet started poorly but the Bees recovered and Curtis Weston eventually grabbed the equaliser eight minutes from time at The Hive – but what did we learn about the Bees?

Barnet's players warm down after drawing 1-1 with Colchester at home

Barnet’s players warm down after drawing 1-1 with Colchester at home

Campbell-Ryce has still got it

Signing 33-year-old Jamal Campbell-Ryce was something of risk for the Bees. His contract at Sheffield United expired this summer and with a couple of clubs after him, it was Barnet who snapped him up. He did not come cheap.

The Jamaica international has more than 300 league appearances to his name and knows the Football League inside out. His dressing room presence alone is worth plenty.

But against Colchester, while Martin Allen wouldn’t single anyone out for praise, JCR made the difference.

Introduced after just 30 minutes for the blameless Alex Nicholls, he tormented makeshift left-back Ben Dickenson and should have had at least two assists to his name by the full-time whistle.

He injected pace into the game and beat men with a simple drop of the shoulder.

He may not have 90 minutes in his legs but a mere hour turned a lacklustre Barnet into one with real venom.

Barnet can pass – when they want to

There was a five-pass interchange in the first half, initiated by Campbell-Ryce that ripped Colchester’s defence open and reminded the Bees that on such a good surface, not to pass the ball seems foolish.

JCR-Vilhete-JCR-Weston-Akinde in the space of three or four seconds. Pass, and move, pass, and move. It was truly impressive.

The surface at the Hive, as Allen is often keen to point out, is excellent. But he continues to pick to massive centre-forwards which is conducive only to the long ball. But the boss has been heard shouting ‘pass it’ suggesting there is some suggestion that things will get more silky.

Nelson’s experience is invaluable

I spent a few seasons watching Michael Nelson at the heart of the Hibs defence. He was never the most talented footballer but was always exceptionally calm under pressure and strong in the air.

Yesterday he improvised and battled wonderfully, at one point even facing his own goal and turning out of trouble, leaving the harrying Tariq Fosu-Henry for dead.

And never underestimate his touch, whether it be a controlled header to the full-back or a cushioned thigh to Weston in midfield.

Allen is a box of tricks

You could easily spend 90 minutes just watching Martin Allen in the technical area. He is rarely still, jumping between the edge of the pitch, the front row, a seat in row seven and the substitutes’ bench.

He is also rarely silent, although his lack of instruction in the first 10 minutes was telling – the Barnet players didn’t need telling what was wrong because they weren’t executing basic skills.

But the manager’s years of nous almost paid off in the second half when Mauro Vilhete was tripped on the edge of the box. Allen whistled to Ryan Watson, free-kick expert, to dash back to the bench and get stripped ready for action.

Worried he might not get the Scot on in time, he screamed at Vilhete. No response and his team-mates couldn’t understand what their manager wanted. Eventually he pulled his ears out to indicate he was after the Portuguese’s attention, and then immediately told him to sit down.

The right-back (on this occasion…) hit the deck to keep play stopped, allowing Barnet sufficient time to get Watson onto the pitch.

The free-kick was deflected out for a corner, but it is was a piece of canny game management that any aspiring dark artist could learn from.

Chris Rogers: An Ashes hero born in Australia, made in England

Short-sighted and colour-blind, with a technique that was never easy on the eye, Chris Rogers probably though his international career was going to be limited to a solitary Test match at Perth against India, where he had compiled just 19 runs in two innings.

Hayden returned in the next Test to make his third hundred of the series, and Rogers, averaging 40 in first-class cricket that summer, had his national contract terminated.

Even up to that point, his career had been an unusual one for an Aussie. There is comparatively little first-class cricket played in Australia, and yet Rogers has in total amassed 296 FC matches (and 24,417 runs), impossible had he stayed in Oz.

As an 18-year-old, Rogers made the trip around the world, and spent the summer of 1996 playing for North Devon, where ex-Test player David Shepherd had taken to umpiring.

He enjoyed it so much that he returned the next year. He had learnt much from his first spell and he set the league record for runs in a season.

He spent 2002 scoring millions (well maybe not millions) of runs for Exeter, and he was soon recognised on the county scene, one which he rather enjoyed.

Rogers clearly realised the value of batting on English wickets, and it pushed him into the eyeline of the Western Australia selectors.

He made his debut in 1998, against an England XI. At Perth, he made just 14, and managed to nick off to Mark Ramprakash’s box of nonsense spin bowling.

And so there was some serendipity that having made his debut against England at Perth, he should come full circle and make his first and final Test appearance at Perth.

It seemed like this journeyman pro, built on the pitches of Devon, and then Derbyshire, Leicestershire, and Northants, should be given his reward and then allowed to play as much first-class cricket as he could.

But his appetite for runs was by no means sated, and his hunger for the game was merely exacerbated by the one chance to wear the baggy green.

The following English and Australian seasons to his Test debut, Rogers, unceremoniously dropped by his country and having moved to Victoria, made 2,567 runs at an average of 64, including carrying his bat for 248* against Warwickshire – the rest of the side made just 229.

‘Bucky’, as he is often known after sci-fi hero with whom he shares a surname, was just going to keep scoring runs.

He came to England every summer, and every summer bar one (a rare blip where he averaged just 38) he scored well over a thousand runs and averaged over 50. ‘If I keep scoring runs, they can’t ignore me forever,’ he must have thought.

And eventually, at long last, Bucky got his second bite, selected for the 2013 Ashes series, and as he had ever since that Perth Test, he chowed down on cricket.

When it came to playing at Lord’s, the ground of his latest county, there can hardly have been a dry eye in the house, English or Australian, when he put his name on the honours board.

In a period where Australian batsmen have struggling to knuckle down, resist the big drive, and battle against the moving ball, Rogers has stood alone as a fighter, reminiscent of Simon Katich or Paul Collingwood in his belligerence and power of will.

His Test average in England before the Oval Test is a shade over 50. It puts him above people like Ponting, Clarke, and Gilchrist, and within touching distance of Border and Langer. He is an Australian at home in England.

Featured image courtesy of Rhondda via Flickr

“Soldiers should get footballers wages”

Supporters Not Customers

In recent months, I have increasingly noticed a social media trend to demand that soldiers be paid footballers wages:

soldiers footballers

Nobody is quite sure why, but it’s definitely something to do with #respect. I decided to examine what would happen if this became a reality and soldiers really did get footballers wages.  What follows is an alternative vision of the future…

Please note, I am a big supporter of those people brave enough to put their lives on the line in the armed forces. They do a fantastic job that I certainly could not do myself, and certainly deserve a great deal of praise and admiration. Just don’t be a tit about it, eh?

1st September 2013

Gareth Bale completes an £85 million transfer from Tottenham Hotspur to Real Madrid. He will earn £300,000 a week, working out at around £15.6 million a year. 26-year-old Shannon Smith from Grimsby writes on…

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Hometown favourites: Taylor’s conquered demons means Black Caps are the World Cup’s dark horses

It’s difficult for me to remember a time in my life when the words ‘New Zealand’ and ‘cricketing force’ have been appropriately used on the same sentence. There have been some truly wonderful players, and on occasion, instances of mediocre England sides getting rolled over by the brilliance of Stephen Fleming, Chris Cairns, or even Dion Nash.

However, not since before I was born have they genuinely struck fear into the hearts of world class opponents. They have won just one Test series against England since 1987, beating Nasser Hussain’s side 2-1 thanks to 19 wickets from Cairns and no England batsman making a century (Alex Tudor came closest, stranded on 99*).

Now the six-time semi-finalists (and zero-time finalists) have a World Cup partially on home soil, and they have a side brimming with talent and hope.

This didn’t happen overnight though, nor is simply a white-ball revolution. This New Zealand is so much more.

Go back a little more than a year. New Zealand are preparing for the visit of the West Indies, against whom they will play three Tests, 5 ODIs, and 2 T20Is.

Ross Taylor, perhaps the most talented batsman the country has seen since Fleming, is battling with demons inside and out: sacked as captain in a storm of controversy, isolated within his own team, and over a year without a Test match hundred. He couldn’t socialise, he couldn’t sleep, and he couldn’t buy a run.

He rang his long-time mentor and former NZ cricketer Martin Crowe, desperate for some advice about how to wind down, and more simply how to sleep.

“I asked him to slowly explain a typical night before an important match,” Crowe writes. “I repeated it back to him. He realised he had stopped living a normal life.

“While away overseas on tour, he was living a cricketing nightmare. In other words, his nights were spent fretting on what he thought he was the only thing he had left in the game – his batting. He had forgotten about himself.”

Ross Taylor World Cup Pre

And in some ways so had the whole team. They had won just one of the last 13 Test, the one win coming when Taylor scored a hundred in Colombo. It wasn’t confined to red-ball cricket either; they had suffered the ignominy of a 3-0 whitewash at the hands of Bangladesh, culminating in failing to defend 307 in Dhaka. That time a Taylor hundred was in vain, and felt worthless.

Crowe offered the stricken Taylor some advice, encouraging him to avoid cricket at all costs once the team left the ground, recharging between days of play, with a glass of red wine, or good food, letting the stresses of Test cricket ebb away into the evening.

He texted Crowe the night before that first Test match of the 2013/14 summer saying he was having dinner and a glass of wine with some friends. Crowe smiled, and wondered if he was on the verge of something special.

Taylor was, as were New Zealand. He made 217 unbeaten runs, and although they would draw that Test in Dunedin, they won the next two, and Taylor scored a hundred in each.

It triggered a run in which they have lost only two of their last Test matches, and the form has translated directly into ODIs.

They drew 2-2 with the West Indies after the Test series, before beating the World Champions India 4-0 (back-to-back hundreds from Taylor). Since that night when Taylor rang Crowe, NZ have a 17-6 record in ODIs.

They don’t rely on Taylor either. His best friend Martin Guptill has proved to be a more than capable opening partner for Brendan McCullum, who has finally accepted that a man of his ability has to open the batting in the short form. Kane Williamson at three now averages over 45 in ODIs and Test matches, and Grant Elliott and former Australian Luke Ronchi recently produced a ODI record 267-run stand for the sixth wicket.

With the ball, it must be said, NZ look at times vulnerable. The recall of Daniel Vettori tells of their inability to find a suitable spinner (Adam Milne doesn’t look ready), but a mixture of Mitchell McClenaghan, the effervescent Trent Boult, and some overs from Elliott and Corey Anderson may be enough to defend some of the scoreboard pressure created by their explosive batting lineup.

On Valentine’s Day, they will open the World Cup at the Hagley Oval in Christchurch. If NZ fans want to help out on Friday 13, I recommend finding Ross Taylor and making sure he’s having the nicest evening possible. If he sleeps easy, then you might just find that the hosts make that elusive final at last.

[Featured image courtesy of Michael McGimpsey via Flickr. In-text image courtesy of Getty Images. Infographic made by me. Yes indeed ladies and gentlemen.]

Goodbye Scotland – sometimes you’re too hard to love

The declaration: I am half-Scottish, by virtue my father being born-and-bred here, and my grandfather having lived in Scotland his whole life and having served the people of Scotland both as a soldier and an MP. I have lived here for more of my life than I haven’t, and proudly identify as both British and Scottish. So now you know.

Goodbye Scotland, you’ve made leaving fucking easy.

I really love Scotland as a country: the mountains, the food, the people, the buildings, I’m even learning to love whiskey. I feel a great affinity with Scotland, and it’s the country where I became a man, fell in love, had my heart broken, and discovered binge drinking. However, the referendum has reminded of exactly what’s wrong with the country: its endless defensiveness.

I got on with my job at the Grange today, commentating on yet another humiliating defeat for Scotland’s cricketers. For a side who were being royally thrashed, with little vigour or fight, everyone around me was desperate to defend them, without any care for the facts, figures, and attitudes displayed before them. It was not the plucky young Scotland side they portrayed it as; this was a mediocre group of professionals being taught a lesson by a New Zealand second eleven.

A little earlier in the day, a couple of journalists had staggered in late, having been stuck in traffic, and one proclaimed to the rest of the shed, “We come from civilisation!” rather amusingly. I riposted: “Do you mean Glasgow?”, engaging in the usual Edinburgh-Glasgow rivalry, rather enjoying a fiesty presence in an often empty press box.

“I mean Scotland,” he spat down at me, caring nothing for who I was or for that matter, was.

It reminded of the number of occasions in my life when people had assumed things about me on account of my accent, and how those occasions had become more frequent as the date of Bannockburn drew closer. “What do you know about Scotland?” “Why do you care about Scotland?” “What part of England are you from?” Invariably my answers to these questions have become more and more sarcastic, to the point of rudeness, but I won’t apologise for it. If Scotland finds themselves independent, they will require more friends than enemies, and as the latest polls in England demonstrated, once they’re out, they’re on their own.

Scotland’s attractiveness is one of the few things that make independence viable: its natural and human resources draw people to it, tempt people to appropriate its ways and culture. We should be looking to welcome those who wish to march under our flag, be it a Union or a Saltire, not reject them for fear. 

I shan’t live in Scotland, independent or not, for much longer, or perhaps ever more, and I was sad about that 12 months ago, but christ, you’re making it easier to go.

England vs Sri Lanka: Day 1 Verdict

A glorious day, and a green pitch. Crowds flooding in from all parts of the city, and indeed the world. The heat is intense, the pressure on the home side even more so, the captain walks out to do his country proud. I am talking of course about Alistair Cook doing this morning on cricket’s greatest stage what Thiago Silva will do later this evening on football’s.

The England captain was inserted by his opposite number, in conditions that look summery above, but distinctly spring-like below, and the Sri Lanka attack of steady seamers exploited the early conditions ideally, before England fought back with all the grit which their winter performances lacked, as Root and then Prior put Sri Lanka to the sword in style.

The Debutants

Three men made their bow in international cricket, but none will have felt out of place. Chris Jordan and Moeen Ali were both part of England’s World T20 squad in Bangladesh, while Sam Robson, the captain’s new opening partner, is a Middlesex player familiar with the surroundings of Lords. It was the local man whose day started the earliest, and he spent more time on camera sitting on the balcony, discussing the quality of his coffee; his day will come. Ali had the most successful day, looking serene batting at 6, despite coming in with England precariously poised at 120-4. He played with total confidence, leaving well and playing better, even biffing his first ball against spin in Test cricket for 6 over mid-wicket. It was spin that was his undoing though, and he hung his well-bearded head for a while when he nicked a big loopy half-volley to the jubilant Mahela Jayawardene at slip of the same spinner, Rangana Herath. Chris Jordan we will see in earnest with the ball tomorrow.

The Unsackable Cook

While Cook hasn’t scored a hundred in 21 innings, and in that time averages just 25, he will probably not have felt under much pressure. The changes made to the team mean that he is now totally unmovable, barring injury or illness. Paul Downton, the new England managing director, said in his tea-time interview with Sky Sports that this was Cook’s opporutnity to create “his team”. His chop on to his stumps with 17 to his name was a lazy, self-inflicted delivery, when England needed him to navigate the difficult first session. Before he can build his team, he will need to reconsider his own game. He will need a hundred before the series is over if he doesn’t want to face questions about his own role.

Prior’s Redemption?

Who’d be Matt Prior? He had as bad a winter as any England batsman, made the decision to have an operation on a long-standing Achilles problem, and while still in recovery, a week before the Test squad announcement, the young pretender to his gloves scores a truly magnificent international hundred at the home of cricket. There could not have been a louder siren sounded to the England selectors that Jos Buttler wanted more, and that he was the man in form. However, almost before the hype had started, Chairman Cook deflated it, telling the press that Buttler “isn’t ready” for Test cricket. Is that what he means? Or is it that his old lieutenant Prior is more dangerous as an enemy? Had Prior’s second-ball LBW decision been a millimetre straighter, Cook’s decision-making would have been further questioned. But Prior survived, albeit he continued to look nervy and shaken, as though relearning the game, attempting to run himself out at least once, but he did make 50, and should turn it into a hundred tomorrow.

Our Joe Root

There was one overwhelming positive from the day: the return of Joe Root. He smashed Australia to all parts at Lords last year, but that will have felt many years ago when he came in a 3 down for not many this morning, with ball nibbling around. He seemed, like Prior, to be working on his technique in the middle – the worst place to do so – with conscious efforts to put his foot down the pitch and get forward. There was still a classic back foot punch or two, and he was almost trapped on the crease by Matthews’ gentle medium pacers once or twice. However, he also manoeuvred the ball expertly around, and played some genuinely fluent shots when England were under serious pressure.