I decided to go to my second Newport County match of the season yesterday when they entertained Southport and so only received the sketchiest of info about City’s match at Palace while it was being played. Therefore, what I say about our game will largely be comments based on what I saw and heard in the hours after our 3-2 defeat.
Starting with the County match though, I must admit I enjoyed it as they recovered from a very poor start to take the lead for the first time in the second minute of added time at the end of the game to maintain their position at the top of the Blue Square Bet Conference. You would have got long odds against a Newport win after an opening twenty minutes completely dominated by the visitors mind. To their credit, mid table Southport took the game to County from the first whistle and were claiming a penalty within the opening minute – shortly after that home keeper Lenny Pidgeley did well to claw out a close range header amid claims from the visitors that the ball had already crossed the line and he saved his side again when the offside trap failed and a Southport attacker was through on goal.
Just when it began to look as if County would survive their rocky opening unscathed, tricky Southport winger Whalley was brought down in the penalty area by Sandell and defender Chris Lever put away the resultant penalty in the seventeenth minute. Once they were ahead, Southport’s ambitious approach was replaced by a caution which lasted for the rest of the match – they still threatened once or twice before half time, but, frankly, it was one way traffic in the second half and I’d say that the 72 – 28 per cent possession advantage to County shown in the on line BBC match report was about right.
County also enjoyed a huge territorial advantage for the last three quarters of the match, but for much of that time (including what remained of the first half) they didn’t fashion that many chances – having seen their last two home matches, there hasn’t been a great deal of creativity in the middle of the park and most of the danger to Southport tended to come about from long balls and dead ball situations. County did have three shouts for a penalty in the first half though, two of which I thought the ref got right and the other he got totally and utterly wrong when the visitor’s keeper McMillan hauled down a County forward after he had fumbled the ball for one of the most obvious penalties I’ve seen. It should have been a red card for the keeper as well as the chance for County to equalise, but instead the ref waved play on.
Probably fuelled by a sense of injustice, County completely dominated the second half, but, with McMillan making some fine saves, his defensive colleagues blocking shots galore and other efforts flying just off target, it looked like being one of those days for the home side until top scorer Aaron O’Connor lobbed an equaliser with around a quarter of an hour to go. Within seconds, McMillan had to turn a close range effort from substitute Louis around the post and, suddenly, it appeared to be a question of not if, but when County would go ahead, but Southport were able to survive the rest of regular time with relatively few alarms and must have been starting to congratulate themselves on a very hard earned point when another substitute, Ben Swallow, arrowed in a superb left foot shot from twenty five yards in the ninety second minute to win the game.
All the while, City were in the process of throwing away a 2-0 lead Selhurst Park. When I heard the starting line up about ten minutes before kick off I remarked that it sounded too much like last season’s team (or to be more accurate, the one which laboured to an undeserved win over Huddersfield in the first game of the season), but I was wrong in one regard because, whatever you may say about about how we lacked fluency and creativity in the second half of last season especially, we could rely on the team to be solid and hard to break down away from home. Apart from the crazy game at Peterborough where all of the major decisions on the night went in their favour, we played the nine months of 11/12 without losing when we scored twice in an away match. This time around, the season is barely a month old and we’ve done it twice – I find that pretty concerning.
I’m not going to criticise Malky Mackay for making changes because he has enough choices in midfield and attack to move players out from time to time in an effort to avoid the sort of exhaustion in the closing weeks of the campaign which cost us dearly last time. Also, Aron Gunnarsson and Don Cowie both scored and so it can be argued that they both did their bit in an attacking sense (although, as the goals were the only efforts we had on target all afternoon, the old theory about a lack of creativity in midfields which contain those players was hardly disproved). However, these are the men Malky Mackay has been bringing on to shore things up in recent home matches and, self evidently, they didn’t shore things up yesterday.
Although I’ll come to Gunnarsson’s part in one of the Palace goals later, it wouldn’t be right to pin the blame solely on him and Cowie for what went wrong, For a start, I’m uneasy about the number of serious defensive candidates we have for a first team place because just having five players (and an untried kid) to pick from can lead to complacency and players losing their edge (especially when one of the five has been missing games through injury) – surely things like concentration levels can fall if you know that you are certain of your place next week because there’s really only one player in the squad who might replace you?
Again, not knowing a great deal about how the game panned out, I’ve no evidence that any of the back four made mistakes yesterday that had a bearing on the outcome, but we have already conceded a three and a four on our travels this season which offers the clue that we aren’t defending as efficiently in away games as we were. Mind you, our defensive record is not going to be improved while midfielders and attackers make the sort of calamitous decisions our two Icelanders did in conceding those penalties. What on earth possessed Gunnarsson to jump in the defensive wall with his hand up like that I don’t know and, although I know strikers have a reputation to live down to when it comes to tackling, a player with Heidar Helguson’s experience should have known better than to launch into a challenge in such a manner – whether the actual contact with the Palace player was fractionally outside the area, as some have argued, or not is immaterial as far as I’m concerned, it was a brainless challenge which got what it deserved.
One last thing about the Palace match, if I wouldn’t be too critical of our manager for making changes to a winning team, I have to say that, going purely by what would be expected when a team loses a two goal half time lead within around a quarter of an hour of the restart, it does seem very strange that Malky Mackay didn’t make any substitutions until a quarter of an hour later (by which time we had fallen behind). The chronic under use so far of Joe Mason, who was a realistic Player of the Year candidate last season, is hard to explain and we have two players in Kim Bo-Kyung and Etien Velikonja who cost us £3 million in transfer fees and have so far managed less than a full half of competitive football (all in away games) between them. It’s too early to come to any firm conclusions yet, but there is evidence at the moment to suggest that Malky Mackay’s willingness to rotate his squad only extends to a few members of his first team group and not all of it – I hope I’m wrong there, because, if I’m not, it would appear that some of the mistakes of last season (where players with experience of playing at the top levels of the Championship were given little or no game time as others tired) could be repeated.
At half time yesterday Newport County found their position at the top of the table under serious threat and reacted like a promotion side would. On the other hand, Cardiff City knew they would be top of the table if they could protect their half time lead for a further forty five minutes and reacted like a relegation team. Even at Conference level, football at is as much about attitude as it is about ability and for a side with serious promotion aspirations, Cardiff City have too often been lacking in the former in recent seasons – the manner of our two league defeats this season makes me worry that it might be a case of more of the same with the current side.
* picture courtesy of http://www.walesonline.co.uk/