Issue It is not plain which plan is being followed

As told by Paul Firth

Note: The following is Paul Firth’s report in the game with Exeter that was mailed on Saturday night but took some time to arrive leaving events to pass it with the news of the reason for Conlon and Clarke’s exclusion. The report makes interesting reading so is included.

Many words have been written on BfB earlier this season on the concept of ‘Plan B’ and, in particular, on whether Stuart McCall has one. At Exeter it was not plain which Plan or, indeed, if anything that might be dignified by the use of a term such as ‘plan’ had been put into action.

The obvious response to the Rochdale defeat was a reshuffling of the team. At kick off it wasn’t easy to work out what the team, as opposed to the eleven players, would be. Maybe this was the plan, to confuse the opponents. It certainly confused me for long enough. The Thorne/Boulding/Conlon debate took another twist with only the middle one of the three surviving. But what looked like a 4-5-1, with Boulding on his own, became a 4-4-1-1, with Nicky Law ‘in the hole’.

Zesh Rehman replaced Matt Clarke, who had been no worse than a few other defenders at Rochdale. But the midfield saw the biggest changes. Out went Joe Colbeck and back came both Lee Bullock and Paul McLaren. About the only description to be given to this section of the team was disjointed.

We all know how effective Law and Furman have been together and that there can be a problem if the opposition have a few more tall players. Disrupting that partnership can be justified, but not so easily. This was not so much a disruption as an earthquake. Furman looked lost. Not only was he without his partner, but he was no longer sure who his partner was. McLaren rarely crossed the half way line. Bullock’s function seemed to be to get on the end of any high ball from the back – and there were far too many of those again – and only Jones, in his spot on the right wing, seemed truly at home.

The bench contained no fewer than two more right wingers in Colbeck and the newly signed Gillespie, together with Brandon, Thorne and Ainge. The absence of a keeper should no longer be a surprise, perhaps, but do we really need two right wingers on the bench? Messrs Conlon and Clarke, sitting in the row behind me in the stand, looked in danger of tripping over their faces so long were they. I don’t think they liked not being in the sixteen.

The Cowshed roof at St James Park (the Exeter version) has an overhang that reminded me of the old Valley Parade stand. The football in 2009 also reminded me of the pre-1985 style. I lost sight of the ball for about a third of the game because either a stanchion obstructed my view or the ball was once more coming out of the sky above. The pitch appeared to be in very fine condition, but perhaps the groundsman had threatened both sides about wearing out his grass.

City without doubt are at their best when they pass the ball at pace along the ground and use the obvious skills of the front six. Instead they competed with the home team in a game of hoof-ball that was unedifying and rarely entertaining. It summed up the quality of the match that the only goal was a complete fluke. Dean Moxey advanced up the left wing, going past Arnison with some ease, despite the attempted hand-off. As Arnison returned for a second attempt Moxey crossed from near the corner. The ball was deflected up in the air over the head of the hapless (and capless) Evans and into the net. Whether the sun shining straight into his face made any difference only Evans will know. The Exeter keeper in the second half was not bare headed.

At half time there had been plenty of good work down City’s right, but the home keeper had had just the one shot to save, a half volley from outside the box hit well enough by Steve Jones, but requiring only a routine stop.

As the teams came out for the second half I couldn’t help thinking of the symbolism in McLaren’s change of shirt. His new top had neither number nor name. In every sense he would now be anonymous, any identity being revealed only when the number 4 came up on the fourth official’s board twenty minutes into the half. Enter Peter Thorne and another change of formation, with Law, Furman and Bullock vying with each other for the midfield area not covered by Jones.

As the second half progressed City had more and more possession in their opponents’ defensive third. Corners and free kicks were apparently endless, but the home keeper had very few saves to make, the best being with his feet following a Jones run and shot. In front of him Taylor and the wonderfully named Troy Archibald-Henville hardly put a foot wrong and dealt so comfortably with the string of high balls that they must have wondered if City’s defenders had been told that Barry Conlon was in the stand.

For a brief moment our saviour looked to be on hand. A long ball from Luke O’Brien found Peter Thorne between the central defenders and he was through into the area. Memories of that goal at Port Vale flashed through the mind, only to be wiped out in the next flash. Perhaps we should just say that there was a difference in pace, Thorne was put under pressure before being able to hit a shot and the move came to nothing.

Dean Furman’s confused day came to a slightly premature end when Joe Colbeck replaced him with five minutes remaining. There was still enough time for the entire team save for Luke O’Brien to go up for a corner and for Zesh Rehman to be yellow carded for an offence that might have brought a red – especially if it had really been an offence.

There had been much huffing and puffing, not to mention too large a portion of high balls. The effort was undeniable, but in truth neither team showed the skill level that would suggest they were capable of promotion. A disappointing result took City out of the play-off places n a day when a win would have done so much more. Messrs Conlon and Clarke were stony faced. Perhaps they shared my thought that, if we have to play so many high balls, it might be best to have someone their size to get under them.