Issue A remarkable change is required

As told by Paul Firth

In recent seasons visits to Bournemouth have always brought the welcome sight of a wonderfully green, flat pitch and the less welcome prospect of facing a club in financial turmoil. The Dean Court pitch was as good as ever, although City decided not to make best use of it. You can have the worst pitch in the world and it won’t matter if the ball is in the air all the time.

The Bournemouth players had been paid just 40% of their February wages. Their talisman, Steve Fletcher was not fit to play, we were assured by the stewards. The game and the club had survived only because one would-be investor had stumped up £33,000 last week to stave off a winding up order and a deal had been done to keep the landlord’s bailiffs at bay for a little longer.

Out of adversity came spirit, something City cannot lay claim to in many matches this season. All the spirit was with the home team, as was most of the passing on that excellent surface. Perhaps another set of changes unsettled the visitors; certainly the loss of Peter Thorne to another injury limited the attacking options; and even his most ardent detractors must be wishing we could have Omar Daley back. Whatever the causes, this was a dismal night for the travelling faithful.

The two bad boys from last week were reinstated, with Zesh Rehman moving from central defence to left back to replace Luke O’Brien. Chris Brandon started his first league game and, with Brandon on the left, Steve Jones on the right and the Law-Furman axis reinstated, the midfield looked far more balanced and solid than at Exeter. The image lasted for all of four minutes, the time it took the apparently injured Fletcher to use the space given to him in the penalty area to fire across Rhys Evans and just inside the far post. If only City had ‘injured’ players who worked that hard.

By far the high point of the game for the travelling supporters was a Nicky Law free kick from just to the right of the penalty area. Matt Clarke rose highest in a crowded box and the 1-1 scoreline gave us all hope that the worst was over. That hope lasted almost a quarter of an hour before Fletcher ran on to an excellent through ball into the box to leave Evans helpless once more.

The visiting fans had barely had time to digest that goal when Lee and Clarke tackled each other just inside their own half. The ball broke loose to Goulding, who ran through unchallenged to place the ball yet again beyond the unfortunate Evans. In little over a minute virtually all hope had been extinguished and half time could not come soon enough. The away dressing room must have very little paint left on the walls.

Whatever was said at half time, it failed to prevent an almost immediate repetition. This time Lee needed no assistance from Clarke in placing his soft header straight into Goulding’s path. The rest was a carbon copy of the third goal and the game was over as a contest.

It shouldn’t have been over, of course, because there were still 40 minutes to play, but City showed few signs of getting even one goal back. Bournemouth finally were deprived of the services of Fletcher through injury in the 65th minute and effectively declared in the 79th minute when they took off Goulding. These two, one big and muscular, the other quick and skilful, had plagued the City defence all night. There was no comparison with the ineffectual play at the other end of the pitch, where Conlon won less than his share of headers and Boulding was comfortably contained by bigger and stronger defenders.

Keith Gillespie replaced Brandon in the 63rd minute to make his City debut and his first touch was a cross that flew inches in front of the diving Boulding and out to safety. Gillespie showed his keenness and some quality touches, without getting the opportunity to create a real goal scoring chance.

Jalal in the home goal was kept busy for the last twenty minutes only by his amused responses to the away fans’ chants of ‘Keeper, Keeper, give us a wave’. This by-play at least brought an end to the cries of ‘One Mark Bower’ and the fleeting ‘What a waste of money.’ Ten minutes from the end the team bus could be seen behind the open end of the ground leaving its parking spot. It was irresistible to wonder if the penalty for this inept display was to make the players walk home.

In the last few minutes Matt Clarke lightened up the night by playing left wing. One cross caused some havoc in the home defence and then a run into the box brought a late corner, which, like so much else, produced no real threat. At the final whistle there was a brief, uninspired booing, followed by a rather longer appreciation of the home team’s chances of staying up, which have been much assisted by their 7-2 aggregate wins over a team that now looks as though it doesn’t know where its next victory will come from. The gap to automatic promotion may still be only five points. So many of the other top sides have to play each other in the run in. Third place may yet be achievable with a historically low points total. All is far from lost, but a remarkable change will be required even to make certain of a play off place.