This was a game that we knew would be tough but the general feeling throughout the squad was that of quiet confidence, and rightly so as we had been playing some good stuff recently. Rob came in to replace Fred who was working, with the rest of the starting XI the same as our last game.
From kick off it was clear we were up against a challenge and were on the back foot immediately. Hove Park looked set up well and seemed to be outnumbering us all over the pitch, especially in the middle of the pitch when going forward. They had an early chance with a shot from the edge of the box which took a deflection, Aiden got down very well to tip round the post. One of the things I mentioned before the game where we needed to improve was the marking and organisation when defending corners. I was pleased that this had been taken on board and the resulting corner was dealt with comfortably, as would all subsequent corners throughout the game. This turned out to be one of the few positives to take away from this game.
The other thing I highlighted was that we needed to be able to play out from Aiden's hands if his kicking wasn't working out. We managed this pretty well and generally didn't put ourselves under any pressure by playing out from the back. So that's another positive.
One thing that was apparent when receiving the ball at the back was that there was not many, if any, options for a simple pass at times. That pitch feels massive when you're on it and therefore we should have been able to find lots of spaces to receive passes in, unfortunately sometimes the forward players seemed a bit lethargic and slow to move into space to receive the pass, and there was a real lack of anyone demanding the ball from the back line in order to move us up the pitch. There were one or two exceptions to this and we did manage to put together our move of the game with about 15 minutes gone after we seemed to have settled down a bit. Some patient build-up play with numerous short, sharp and incisive passed resulted Karl finding space in an advanced position on the right flank, and he delivered a nice cross to Tom who unfortunately couldn't apply the finish required, with the ball drifting agonisingly wide.
Sadly, it was all downhill from there and that was to be our one real highlight of the entire game. Too many times when we had the ball in their half and looking to attack the goal we wasted it. Lee seemed desperate to try and score a wonder goal nearly every time he got it, with a couple of long range strikes that were nowhere near the target. Karl played a couple of passes that seemed to be going to no one, and Will didn't seem to be having the kind of game he has delivered recently, with a few misplaced passes going straight to the opposition or into a space that no one was occupying.
I can only really put this down to nerves and the occasion, as these players have shown over the season how dangerous they can be. We didn't seem to have the right mindset or motivation that this game so badly needed us to have. Everything felt rushed and decisions when we had the ball were generally poor. The few times that we didn't try and force an opening and instead played the shorter passes around the pitch into feet we looked like we were going to cause them serious problems, but alas we never managed to keep that momentum going.
Poor decision making would ultimately be what defined this game, and the man in black was to be the biggest culprit of this. Moments after our best chance of the game where we looked like we might start taking control, the stuffing was knocked out of us by a scandalous penalty decision. Hove Park had the ball just inside our box and their lad hit the ball at George from a couple of yards, it hit his hand which was only very slightly raised and the red had absolutely no hesitation in pointing to the spot. I've honestly never seen a harsher penalty decision in my whole life of playing football and we were absolutely incensed by it. They despatched the penalty and took the lead.
Our heads were going at this point, with all of us feeling very hard done by. I tried my best to rally the troops and get everyone to leave it, we all know that getting on a ref's back and having a victim mentality is never going to yield a positive outcome, and in fairness we did shut up about it quickly.
Unfortunately I then put us in an even worse position by misplacing a pass from the back that went straight to their player, who found his teammate unmarked and under no pressure, he then managed to lob Aiden who was perhaps a little too far off his line to get a decent hand on it and we were 2 down in the space of a few minutes. I hold my hands up for this one, it was a poor pass. Sorry lads ?? I've gone over it in my head so many times since and it feels truly awful.
The rest of the half didn't bring much quality football, Hove Park were on the ascendancy and we were completely rattled. It did seem like every decision the ref made was in their favour and one-by-one our players were giving him and earful, which most likely contributed even more to our panicky play and the refs apparent bias towards our opponents. Tom had a penalty shout denied, it looked like he was tripped from where I was, and that seemed to incense us even further.
Halt time came and my talk revolved around the need for us all to step up and turn this game around. We were 2-0 down and it wasn't an impossibility that we could come back and win this game, but it wasn't going to happen unless our big players put in a big performance. We needed people demanding the ball and making things happen instead of waiting for others to do it.
In fairness to the lads higher up the pitch, Hove Park seemed a very well organised unit without the ball and their defensive line seemed able to deal with any threat comfortably. Tom had hardly had a sniff up there, he wasn't finding the spaces to run into that he has exploited so well this season. Our movement to make life hard for them was again seemingly lacking when we needed it.
The second half saw a shift in the balance of the game, with our opponents happy to drop a bit deeper and let us have the ball a bit more, with the counter-attack their main threat. We really struggled to break them down with any incisive passing, and when they won possession back they always seemed to find a man in space in the middle who could then put a wide man through in the channels, meaning we were getting turned around and chasing back to cover.
I decided to bring Tom off and inject a bit more movement up top with Johnny playing that role and Barnesy coming into the middle where I asked him to try and sure it up a bit, with Rich, who had put in a huge shift so far, being allowed to move forward a bit more.
Johnny began to find the pockets of space and did get the ball into feet a fair amount and manage to hang onto it, but their defenders did an excellent job in not allowing him the space to work his magic. He linked up well with Will a few times and they carved out an opportunity that saw Johnny put a shot wide from just inside the box. That was perhaps our best chance of the second half and we were unable to forge anything else of note.
The ref soon made his mark on the game again by awarding another controversial penalty, with Rob playing the ball before the man inside the box and the ref deciding it was a foul. They scored it and that was that, there was no way we were going to come back from 3 down at that stage of the game.
Time slipped away, I made a couple of token subs with 30 seconds to go (sorry lads, that was silly of me, but I thought you both had great games) and then the wanker blew for full time to cement our place in the quarter-final of the Losers Cup.
I haven't felt this sore after a match for a long time, both mentally and physically. Hove Park were a good side and deserved to go through based on the performances of the two teams. Yes, we were royally stitched up by the ref and it absolutely had a massive impact on the final result, if he hadn't given that first penalty when we were on top then things could have turned out completely differently. With that being said, we just weren't good enough to win it and we have to accept that, move on and try to learn from it, I know I will.
I have to confess that I hadn't considered a 'Plan B' in case things were obviously not working for us and I apologise for that. I made the mistake of assuming that we had clicked in the formation we have been using so well recently, but it was apparent that in this game something was clearly lacking and it wasn't working. I played 3-5-2 against them last time and it was very effective, I was thinking about using it again in this game but as we haven't played it for so long I thought it was too risky. When it came to it during the game I was a bit stuck when it came to thinking how we could change our setup to try and gain some advantage.
We haven't played against a good team for quite a while so perhaps we had become complacent and over-confident in our ability as a team to pull together and become hard to play against. I think back to how we played in the first game of the season against Club De Hill where we were a solid unit defensively with everyone compacting together, making us very hard to break down, and then expanding at speed with incisive play when we attacked and hit them on the counter. It actually reminds me of how Hove Park played against us in this game.
There's definitely things for me to think about going forward and I hope that you all take something positive from this game. If I've named you as doing things 'wrong' then please don't take it to heart, collectively no one was outstanding in this game and we all know we can be much, much better. Let's kick on from here and keep that winning run in the league going, like I said before kick off, we are the best team in this league when we are at our best and I genuinely believe that, now it's time to reach that level again.
No man of the match this week.