It’s difficult to know what to make of games like the one we witnessed on Saturday. There’s a part of you, coming away from a game against a League One side, that was disappointed that we only scored one. That probably shows just how spoiled we’ve been in recent years, particularly the last couple, as even in the Premier League we’ve been the subject of several Cup debacles.
A few posters on the various boards have made plain their disappointment at a rather sluggish performance, but then this was always going to be a different type of game to your league fare. Swindon’s big day out meant they would be disciplined and well organised and the sedate tempo of the game contributed to our slower build up.
I was surprised Hodgson kept so many of his likely line-up for Stoke in the starting line-up (Schwarzer, Kelly, Hughes, Konchesky, Dempsey, Zamora) and in the American’s case it’s clear he needs a rest. Apart from a couple of runs up blind alleys, I felt Clint was anonymous, which is understandable given the year of non-stop football he’s had. He might want to think about changing those yellow boots, though – when he’s having a poor game, it makes it that much more obvious.
There was plenty of appreciate from some of the fringe players, despite what you might have read. Stephen Kelly was strong down the right hand side and we’ve already highlighted what a lovely ball he played for the goal. We’ll soon run out of superlatives for the promising Chris Smalling, who continued his fine development with another good display alongside Hughes at the back. On top of a confident showing at Chelsea, Hodgson must be pleased with the England under-21 international – although this performance comes with the obvious rider that facing lone striker Billy Paynter, however threatening he could have been, is a little different to locking horns with Didier Drogba.
The central midfield duo of Jonathan Greening and Kagiso Dikgacoi have come in for a bit of a slating, but I think in harsh. Greening’s a handy acquisition – even if he might not be what we all imagined when we brought him in from West Brom. He’s much more adept at grafting and getting his foot in than a thought and often chooses the sensible ball, rather than an adventurous one, which would probably go down well with an instinctly conservative coach like Hodgson.
I’ve seen our South African described as average in several quarters but you’ve got to bear in mind his lack of match practice and the fact that we were protecting a lead for much of the contest. He didn’t make any glaring mistakes and has shown enough in those recent substitute cameos to suggest that he could be a useful deputy in midfield – and perhaps more given time. There was one absolutely sublime pass out to the right wing that hinted at a range of passing I certainly hadn’t anticipated.
The hard-working Riise offered energy and a bit of pace down the right that’s sometimes lacking. I still think he’s a good prospect and couldn’t believe that someone was criticising his crossing as we walked through Bishop’s Park afterwards. Have they forgotten our European adventure already? Cast aside his two sublime centres in Basle for a second and think about how our goals against Roma and CSKA Sofia at the Cottage came about? I’m quite excited about Bjorn-Helge.
Andy Johnson’s come in for a bit of flak as well, which was inevitable given the way he scuffed his penalty. There’s a school of thought that AJ hasn’t done enough to justify his big transfer fee, but I think that’s a bit harsh. He was bright enough to create several chances on Saturday, crashing a shot just over the bar from an incredibly acute angle, and has just returned from a couple of serious injuries, before which he looked in fine form. There’s no need to decry the guy just yet. It says something that the opprobrium once aimed at his strike partner has disappeared so abruptly.