Imagine the scene; a primary school in a working class area of Paisley around 1973. The nun in charge of the class asks a question. ‘Please Sister, please Sister’; a slight, dark haired boy on the front row is thrusting his hand forward and almost bursting his braces to provide an answer. The nun points at him, the boy answers; the nun responds ‘No Owen, that isn’t the right answer, it wasn’t the right answer yesterday, or the day before.
Will you ever learn?’ The scene is repeated day after day; young Owen is always boiling over with an answer and, at last, the nun’s response is different. ‘Holy Mother of God, he’s got it right. My prayers have been answered. Well done Owen, well done indeed’ she rejoices. But alas it didn’t last. A week later, we were back to Act One Scene One. ‘No Owen, no, no, no. I thought you had it but you are wrong again. I fear you will never learn’. And though young Owen grew to be a man, he didn’t get any better; he still found it difficult to recognise the right answer even when it was staring him in the face.
You would think our manager would recognise that we had some good results in the last few games, with Reo-Coker and Muamba playing behind Mark Davies in central midfield, and that when he changed this, with half an hour to go in last week’s match against Norwich, we conceded two goals and lost the game. What ever possessed him to start this game with Bogdan; Steinsson, Wheater, Knight, Ricketts; Eagles, Mark Davies, Reo-Coker, Petrov; Kevin Davies, N’Gog? At least he wouldn’t be taking Muamba off; he hadn’t picked him to start. When I heard the team, I felt like heading straight for home.
I’ve always been ready to concede that those that have played the game professionally know far more about it than I do but it isn’t just me that thinks like this. The message boards, the phone-ins, the statistics, all point to the same conclusion. It isn’t that I think that Muamba is a fabulous player, though I do think he is the best ball winner we have available. The point is that without him on the field we not only lose the benefit he provides but we also lose Mark Davies’s creative influence in the more forward role. In addition, with Muamba in the team, our fullbacks, who as a breed are better going forward than defending, are given some cover. It doesn’t really matter too much who the other players are, so long as they don’t include Robinson and Pratley but, if we are to retain our Premier League status, we must have the fulcrum of Reo-Coker, Muamba and Davies in midfield.
If I had any doubts about my case before the kick-off, the first half provided ample evidence for the prosecution. For long periods, against a team that appears doomed to relegation, we couldn’t get a kick. Wigan passed the ball around with a confident air while we huffed and puffed trying to win possession. It wasn’t that the visitors looked all that good, it was just that they looked a whole lot better than us. The first goal, when it came, was only surprising because, up to then, their attack had looked impotent and we had looked pretty solid at corners. Not for the first time, Bogdan made a good save down to his right at the expense of a corner. When the cross came over, the young goalie set off to take it, stopped and stayed on his line. When Caldwell rose above an ineffective challenge from Wheater and directed his header into the bottom corner, Bogdan had no chance of saving. It was just before half time and no more than Wigan deserved. We had not had a meaningful attempt on goal and only Petrov had occasionally looked vaguely dangerous.
Surprise, surprise, when the game restarted, the young loanee from Arsenal, Ryo Miyaichi, took the place of … you’ve guessed it, Petrov. The change made little difference to the pattern of play and as the half progressed, Coyle made further substitutions; Tuncay replaced Eagles and Klasnic came on for Kevin Davies. The captain was lucky to still be on the field following a horrendous challenge on Figueroa. For the first time in the game we looked a threat; it wasn’t particularly pretty but it was do or die football sufficient to reveal the shakiness of the Wigan defence. We still found it difficult to create anything but there was a newfound energy about the team and sure enough, it produced a goal. And what a goal it was. A long punt from Bogdan struck N’Gog on the back and bounced into the path of Mark Davies. The little guy struck it with tremendous power into the top corner leaving Al Habsi with no chance of stopping it … and he did it with his weaker left foot. Even the Bolton supporters were momentarily stunned to silence.
Suddenly, and in all truth undeservedly, it appeared that we might win. We continued to press with Tuncay buzzing around on the right and Miyaichi coming more into the game on the other wing. Indeed, but for a bizarre decision by the officials, Tuncay might have won the game for us. He charged down a clearance leaving himself with a clear path to goal but Howard Webb penalised him for something; only the ref knew what it was.
Inevitably, however, despite our temporary dominance Wigan scored the deciding goal; it was that kind of afternoon. In a breakaway, the always dangerous Moses bamboozled Ricketts, partly by using a dangerously raised boot, and delivered a fierce shot. Bogdan made the save but couldn’t hold the ball and, despite the presence of a host of white shirts, McArthur was first to the rebound and the game was effectively over.
There was still time for Miyaichi to bring a first class save from Al Habsi after N’Gog sent him clear but by then the stadium was half-empty. Three minutes of added time only prolonged the agony and my last view of the pitch saw Steinsson trudging slowly towards the tunnel after futilely applauding the massed ranks of empty seats. It was a fitting end to a depressing afternoon.
It isn’t worth commenting on individual displays for no-one played with distinction. However, it’s worth a few lines on the substitutes. The debutante, Miyaichi, did ok. He showed his unfamiliarity with English football when, as a post half time substitute, he wandered onto the pitch without the foregoing introductory ritual, another example of cockeyed management. He has tremendous pace and playing on the left, he preferred to cut inside. Why he wasn’t brought on in place of Eagles and whizzing round the outside of the full back I’ve no idea. His introduction was a reviving influence on a jaded first half performance. Tuncay also made an impression. He hasn’t had a happy time since joining the Wanderers but, he too, has pace and a significant work rate. If we must play 4-4-2, I’d like to see him in tandem with N’Gog (but I hope that we don’t see any more 4-4-2). Klasnic didn’t seen all that interested.
The result leaves us in a mess and it’s a mess we shouldn’t be in. Some people on the Radio Manchester phone-in thought the players weren’t good enough but these were the same players that beat Everton and Liverpool and held Arsenal. They aren’t good enough to win the league but they are good enough to stay in it. However, this is only relevant if we use the right tactics to make best use of the resources at our disposal.
Earlier in the week I emailed some statistics that showed we had lost one game out of eight when Muamba played for ninety minutes, lost six games out of seven (now seven out of eight) when he didn’t play, and that taking him off usually meant our situation in a game became worse. Owen Coyle has the same information as whoever it was that posted the information on the internet.
As Basil Fawlty might have said, ‘Can’t he see the bleeding obvious?’, My heart hopes he does but my head tells me he’s still as stubborn and myopic as the boy in the opening paragraph.