Cold without the comfort: Accrington (a)

Cod Almighty | Match Report

by Pat Bell

28 December 2008

Accrington Stanley 3 Grimsby Town 1

Accrington is set in the Lancashire hills. A cold clear day promises grand vistas if you leave the car and climb up into the moors. Even before the match, you suspect that is a more worthwhile way to spend the day. By five, it was too dark for the hills to taunt us with the afternoon we had just wasted.

Two sides of the Fraser Eagle 'Stadium' are like the model of a futuristic football ground designed as an accessory for a table football game of 40 years ago - the roofs an arrangement of diagonal girders above stands of limited capacity. The resemblance was increased as the two sides ran out, Accrington all in red and Town all in blue, the basic kits that come with the starter pack. For the other two sides of the ground however, there was just a long bicycle shed down one touchline, with the away support accommodated in an open concrete bank. But the ground is what we deserve, and the home support kept up some kind of noise: let's not blame anyone else for the environment we are in.

Town lined up, kicking towards us in the first half, with a familiar enough spine: Barnes in goal, Bennett and Atkinson in central defence, Kalala and Hunt in midfield and Proudlock and Akpa Akpro up front. In the wide positions though, injuries meant not one player was in their usual position: Bore behind Clarke on the right, Hegarty and Jarman on the left.

First half
Accrington were the more aggressive side from the start, and within a few minutes had forced three corners, at least one owing to Hegarty's absence from the kind of position a left-back might be expected to occupy and the need for Atkinson to come across to cover. The first two corners were harmless enough; the third ended with a header by Charnock which provoked a "wooh" from the home support - to us it seemed to have flopped a yard to the right of the goal, Barnes unflustered. More threatening was the move down our right, after a quickly taken free kick which had Accrington's Clarke shooting for the top corner, Barnes diving to his right to punch clear.

Town were nowhere, with no threat of anything that dignified being called a move. Yet the one time when Town strung some passes together, they created an opportunity. After eight minutes Clarke worked inside, dummied a pass to Akpa Akpro and instead passed to Jarman. Jarman shipped the ball further left, inviting Hegarty to run into the penalty area, but the Accrington right-back beat him to it, Hegarty flying over the defender's still-outstretched boot. Some Town fans affected outrage that no penalty was given, but there had been no contact. Had Hegarty attacked the ball, he'd either have beaten the man and been clear on goal, or been genuinely fouled, but instead he'd dithered and timed his run in the hope of attracting the mistimed challenge.

Two minutes later, King passed Bore as though he wasn't there and passed to their Clarke, loosely marked just inside the Town penalty area. He clipped a first-time shot low to the left, and put Accrington 1-0 up. After ten minutes, we had already seen too much. The mood of vague discontent that had been switching between the referee and Town's inability to control and pass sharpened.

Just as it had begun to feel we were in for a long afternoon, out of almost nothing the Mariners could claim credit for, we were level. There had been some semblance of pressure on the Accrington defence, preventing them clearing, until finally a defender passed back to Dunbavin. The goalkeeper knelt to gather, until it occurred to him that it was a pass back - then he allowed the ball to bounce off his knee into the path of Proudlock, who chipped over Dunbavin into the empty goal.

Town briefly threatened to take control. Akpa Akpro, running down the left, took control of a punt, checked, turned and looped a shot over Dunbavin, across goal, which hit the post a foot below the crossbar before being scrambled clear. This period - lets pretend it's superiority - came to an end with the bizarre booking of Jarman. Once again, an Accrington defender had played a pass back and, naturally considering what had gone before, Jarman chased it, sliding towards Dunbavin but pulling his foot away before contact was made. Dunbavin clung to the ball, with his hands, off what could only be described as a deliberate pass back. The referee gestured towards the edge of the penalty area, but there was no bent arm to indicate an indirect free kick. Instead he awarded Accrington a free kick and booked Jarman for... something.

Accrington tried their luck with three long shots. The first was an easy save, and the second would have been an easy save even if it not been a yard over the bar. The third, by Ryan, twisted in the air and arrowed towards the bottom left corner of the goal. Barnes dived late but managed to tip the ball onto the post, where it rebounded across goal with no Accrington player to turn it in.

For the last quarter of an hour of the half, Town achieved some real superiority. Kalala had started the game quietly, but now he was at the core of everything, snapping up unconsidered balls in midfield, taking possession on the left to cross for Clarke, who nodded down for no-one, almost putting an emphatic end to a goalmouth scramble when he slammed a shot from eight yards out against an Accrington arm.

Akpa Akpro grew into the game, his pace and unexpected, slightly ungainly but nevertheless effective ball control causing Accrington problems. Taking the ball tight on the touchline in the Town half, he somehow turned and twisted past his challenger, then knocked the ball into the gaping spaces behind the Accrington left-back. The left-back body-checked him and the referee blew for a foul but never so much as gestured towards his book. Twice Akpa Akpro made half chances out of nothing, shots from wide on Town's right being saved and clearing the angle of post and bar.

As more play was concentrated in the Accrington half, Bore stopped looking like a defensive liability and gave a brief but good impression of an overlapping full-back. Unlike Clarke, he had the beating of the Accrington left-back and got into good positions for two low crosses - one should have won a corner and the other Dunbavin had to dive to gather in.

Town pressed, sometimes with a semblance of craft, often just hustling Accrington into errors. A Clarke free kick looped over the wall, but a yard wide. A Proudlock shot from just outside the penalty area was blocked. Atkinson headed a corner into the arms of Dunbavin. Half time came and in the battle of the two bald men, the Mariners looked more likely to come away with the comb.

Second half
Superficially, the second half began as the first had ended, with Town dominating, but now it was a one-man show. Kalala won possession and sprayed passes to the right, where Clarke stood as the ball sailed by, or forward where Akpa Akpro and Proudlock were caught unawares. No-one wanted the ball, all of them looking the other way, getting rid of it as quickly as possible if it came their way. Hegarty, with time and space to measure a pass, floated a punt which he was lucky to get back to allow him to stab some kind of cross to Clarke, who hoisted a ball wastefully back to the left touchline. Proudlock scampered to keep the bouncing ball in, and hooked the ball back, onto his own face and out, after all, for the throw-in.

Town still pressed, but now hoping that Accrington would make a mistake was the summit of our aspirations. Still, it was effort, and the Town support was roused. The drum came out, tinny and thin, but enough to spur a round or two of chanting. It was a brittle mood, but it could grow into something stronger with some encouragement from events on the pitch.

Then Accrington regained the lead, and the game died. In the 59th minute, Edwards punted downfield and a Town player stretched but failed to cut it out. Their Jamie Clarke found the ball at his feet on the left corner of the penalty area with nothing between him and Barnes. He advanced and shot along the ground across goal, and although Barnes got a wrist to it, the ball was scarcely deflected from its path to just inside the post. The Accrington striker celebrated with a rather unnecessary gesture at the Town support - perhaps he'd heard people muttering how badly Clarke was playing and thought we meant him.

A minute later, Accrington had the ball in the net again, allowed without challenge to work the ball to our right, where Bore wasn't, to get a cross into the near post, where Bennett wasn't and for Mullins to side-foot into the top left corner of the goal. Mullins maybe already knew he was offside - his celebration was remarkably nonchalant otherwise.

It was a life, but Town showed no sign of having the width or wit to take advantage. Just once, Bore stormed up the right touchline, played a one-two with Clarke and delivered a low cross, only half cleared for Kalala to shoot badly wide. Otherwise it was huff and puff and hit the ball into areas where Accrington might be forced to concede a throw-in.

With 17 minutes to play, Till and Boshell replaced Clarke and Hunt, but it changed nothing. Once, Till found himself in space, accelerated past the Accrington left-back and sent a cross to the far post where Jarman's shot was met by Dunbavin. It was a hint of what we might have achieved with a real winger.

Such adroit play as Town managed - cool covering clearances by Bennett and Clarke and a slightly fortunate Barnes save low to his right after Mullins had turned in the penalty area and not quite connected with his shot - delayed Accrington increasing their lead. Finally, however, Town failed to cut out a ball to the left side of the penalty area, where Bennett allowed himself to be turned by Clarke, who completed his hat-trick from almost the same spot where he got his second; this time Barnes didn't even get a touch on it.

With that, we were all out of alibis. The full-time whistle blew to a few boos and a faint smattering of applause from maybe two people, on autopilot. The players had to troop off into the corner next to the away support and were met with a mixture of catcalls and sarcasm. Kalala had marched off before anyone could gather next to the entrance to the dressing room, and Bennett applauded, sheepishly. The rest of the Town players did not know where to look.

A Christmas programme which had offered the prospect of climbing some places and putting space between Town and the relegation places had left us grateful that Bournemouth lost to the side we had hoped to overtake. We had been watching a side that has come to resemble what the league table, stripped of points deductions, tells us that it is - the worst, by a distance, in the Football League.