In Defence of Ashley Fletcher
Last night our best chances fell to Ashley Fletcher. The on-loan Boro man has yet to open his Sunderland account, but it wasn’t for want of trying against Bolton.
Through one-on-one with former Sunderland keeper, Ben Alnwick, the youngster didn’t quite open his body enough and his right foot shot was too close to the keeper, drawing the save. Later, from a similar angle, he tried to beat Alnwick at the near post with his left, only to hit the side-netting.
Another chance came, after being tee’d up by the industrious George Honeyman. A good first touch to create a little space, he maybe then snatched at it a little and drove it high and wide.
His final effort came from a great cross by McManaman but Fletcher seemed to get under it and only managed to flick it towards the back post.
Now, I’ve seen numerous comments on social media criticising Fletcher.
I accept there were mistakes: perhaps getting his angles wrong, maybe needing a little more composure and slightly adjusting the timing of his runs, but, ha’way, guys, he’s no James Vaughan, and certainly no Jozy Altidore. These were experienced strikers who cost us -relatively speaking - a fair amount of our transfer budgets.
Fletcher comes with promise and potential, having not played too many games for his parent club. Like the other youngsters in our squad, his effort is there and his promise is visible. The whole team is tense and anxious, so it’s no wonder he’s trying a little too hard himself.
Suspect Referee Decisions?
Chris Coleman seemed clearly bemused and upset by the officials last night.
After the referee gave a throw in, the linesman called his attention to a suspected handball by Billy Jones. The linesman claimed Jones picked up the ball before it crossed line, yet replays show Jones standing off the pitch when he picks it up.
Ironically, once the resulting free kick was whipped in, there is a big suspicion that the Bolton striker Zach Clough ‘did a Maradona’. The players around the action all appealed to a man, yet the eagle eyed, hand-ball spotting linesman clearly missed this one.
Having said that, Lee Camp has to do better guarding his near post. Come to think of it, that seems a trait among our keepers as Robbin Ruiter was often beaten at his, too. Camp seemed to be positioned correctly, yet somehow the ball comes off him and bounces into the net. Whether handball or not, this should have been a routine save and perhaps blaming officials is academic.
We all know what happens when we concede the first goal.
It’s been 15 months since we last came from behind to win a game of football.
Plan A Revisited
Yet there were reasons to be hopeful, even after that goal went in.
Chris Coleman had reverted to type after just one game and started with five across the back. Lamine Kone and Bryan Oviedo returned to the side to accompany Jones, O’Shea and Clarke-Salter. Even with Adam Matthews out with a hamstring injury, we looked a lot better than against Brentford.
Kone looked composed upon his return, O’Shea far more comfortable with two centre-halves around him and even Billy Jones improved on his Brentford performance. Cattermole, too, had one of his better games, and I suspect that was aided by the returning McNair who drove us from midfield. McManaman and Maja looked sharp when they came off the bench.
We dominated possession, regained the football much better when Bolton had it, and created chances, both from wide positions and down the middle. Coleman said we deserved something and results will come if we maintain that level of performance.
If this were September, I’d be reasonably happy, but we’re in the back-end of February, four points from safety and games are running out. The abyss that leads to League One is wide open and I don’t see how it can be avoided. Despite it being a better performance, last night didn’t change the narrative. It remains the usual story of individual errors and poor finishing that ultimately costs us.
Too often, our attempts were too close to the keeper - McNair’s drive in the first half or McManaman’s near the end - or blocked by defenders. If we are to pull off a miracle, we need to find a way of turning our dominant periods into goals by making better choices in the final third.