Wednesday, 23 February 2011

Port Vale 1 Stevenage 3

I rarely watch football on the television, and it’s rarer still that I watch a live match; until yesterday, the last one was at least two years ago.  However, last night, as a result of my wife winning a prize draw, I went to see my local team, Port Vale play at home against Stevenage in a league fixture postponed from early December, when the pitch was frozen.

If you’re looking for a well-informed analysis of the game, I’d suggest looking elsewhere – I stopped watching football when it moved from terrestrial television to Sky, several years ago.  However, I can still make some comment on how the game developed, and what happened – call this an eyewitness account rather than a detailed commentary.

Stevenage started the game playing something like a 4-5-1 formation, with their number 10 playing pretty much as a lone striker against the Vale defence, and defended deep against Vale.  For the first 20 minutes or so, Vale had most of the possession, but were unable to do anything constructive with it; one long-range shot from outside the box, which went wide, was about the best they could muster.  It appeared that Stevenage were going to play for a goal-less draw, and it certainly looked as if they were going to hold Vale without much difficulty.  Vale lacked any sense of urgency or attacking strength, while Stevenage’s lone striker was having very little success against the Vale back line.

After half an hour, Vale seemed to have settled in possession, until one of the midfield players, possibly realising he had no clear way forwards, played a back pass from just outside the centre circle to the goalkeeper.  His pass was well weighted, but one of the Stevenage strikers fancied a look at it and started chasing it down, accompanied by his Vale marker.  In the end, however, they both gave up as the ball continued back to the keeper.  However, on its way back, it hit a divot about 10 yards from the goal line which took it slightly off course and straight past the unbalanced Vale goalkeeper into the net.

In almost all football matches I’ve watched, the moment the ball hits the back of the net is accompanied by a huge roar from the crowd and widespread celebration among the fans and players.  This goal was met by a stunned silence – from all the players and the crowd.  Stevenage brought around 100 fans, who were at the far end of the ground, and I don’t think they could quite believe what they’d just seen.  The Vale fans certainly couldn’t.

I was surprised that Vale didn't immediately start attacking with more enthusiasm, and seemed to settle back to their prior pattern of passing it around with no real sense of direction.  As the game progressed, however, they started to build an attack... much to their own downfall.  The ball broke along the Stevenage right wing, and their right back, number 2, chased it down, sending the Vale left back, number 15 Collins, back to cover.  However, the Stevenage defender beat his man and went charging down the right wing, delivering a good cross across the middle of the penalty area, until it went to the far post, and the resulting shot beat the advancing goal keeper.  The Stevenage players were very pleased with their first 'genuine' goal, and celebrated with some gusto.

The players were booed off the pitch at the end of the first half, and the highlight of the half-time break was an appearance by an ambulance who had to take one of the Vale fans off to hospital.  It was during the break that I started to understand the depth of feeling against the new manager, Jim Gannon.  The ambulance turned up; "Taxi for Gannon!" came the shout.  "Gannon should go," was another shout, and so on.

I should comment at this point on the referee and his interesting decisions.  Referees get some serious stick, it's true, especially from home fans whose team are losing (in my limited experience).  However, in my mostly impartial view, he didn't have a good match.  To quote another fan, "The referee's having a worse match than us!"  He didn't give any yellow cards in the first half, despite some hefty challenges, and eventually found his card in the second half.  He did miss some bookable offences for both sides (at one point, it was a good job he wasn't watching the slightly aggravated Vale defender who took a physical dislike to one of the strikers).

Vale started the second half with much more promise, substituting their number 7, Loft, who'd had a poor performance in the first half (he didn't make his passes well, didn't find much space and got beaten off the ball quite frequently) and bringing on somebody else (I wasn't paying attention, sorry).  However, they switched to a three-man attack with number 16, Haldane, moving onto the right wing.  The Vale midfielders and defenders gave him plenty of decent ball to run onto, and after a number of great runs against the Stevenage left back, he produced a cross from which Vale scored, via a rather fortuitous deflection (although the Vale fans would probably not have agreed).  Much roaring and clapping and chanting followed, and it looked as if Vale might retrieve the situation.

The game entered a lull shortly after Vale's goal, and Vale's players seemed to lose their energy, instead of repeating the process which had brought them their goal.  The Stevenage players suffered a number of minor injuries, much to the ire of the Vale fans, and some of the players too.  "Get him off;" "Get the stretcher on," and so on, were suggested for whichever Stevenage player had hurt his leg, or got a bit of cramp, or something.  I think the funniest was, "Can we get the ambulance back?"

During this lull, Stevenage got their third goal.  It followed a very delayed throw-in on the Stevenage right (the furthest corner from where I was sitting), and after a couple of quick passes across the Vale area, the Stevenage attackers managed to scramble the ball over the line in front of their travelling fans.

Haldane, who was Vale's brightest and most promising player, appeared to have taken a knock to his right foot shortly after creating Vale's goal, and despite trying to run it off, had to be substituted after about 70 minutes. To be honest, at that point, and after Stevenage's third goal, Vale's chances deteriorated.  There was plenty of stoppage time, due to the delays from the Stevenage injuries, but I didn't stop to watch it; the match was pretty much done after 80 minutes.  The most entertaining moment of the match came when one of the Stevenage players was substituted, and made a half-hearted attempt to shake the referee's hand - the referee in reply made a similarly half-hearted gesture.  "Hey up," came the shout, "Money's just changed hands there!"  And to be honest, the controversial bookings and non-bookings continued; the Vale defender Collins got a booking for a tackle which looked safe (after the referee had missed a worse challenge), and eventually the ref booked a total of three Stevenage players.

The funniest moment was the result of the fans' text-in competition to nominate the man of the match:  the goalkeeper won it; I think the Stevenage fans had been voting, because my vote would have been either Haldane, or Geoghan who had a pretty good game at the back.

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