A physical, somewhat fractious and ill-tempered game saw the Sharks lose again in this mini mid-season slump, to a radically improved AC Fulham Colts side. But there was still plenty to be positive about and the boys showed great spirit to get themselves back into the match.
Perhaps we should have had a clue to the bad luck we’d experience when Gabriel was taken ill on Saturday night and had to pull out, only for his replacement, Nile, to be taken ill in the warm up and forced to withdraw. Alejandro was rushed in as an emergency replacement replacement!
The match started well. The first half was all Sharks and we should have had the game sewn up by half time. We created chance after chance with great flowing football, but the boys just couldn’t find the finishing touch. At times we seemed to be trying to pass the ball into the net.
Ben came close with a volley early on which the Colts’ keeper just tipped over. Jakub and Francis both had chances, but were denied – blocked by last ditch tackles from a determined Colts defence. And on another day Wiktor would have had a hat trick inside 15 minutes – he shot narrowly wide, saw another bounce off a defender and roll agonisingly past the post, and finally he hit the post with a great effort after a fine attacking move involving Francis, Ben and Jakub.
Martin was firing in great corners, but somehow the ball always seemed to fall to a Colts defender. They were big and solid and were hard to dominate, so we just couldn’t take advantage of our pressure. Jakub fired a couple of great crosses across the face of goal – and a simple tap in would have resulted in a goal – but no one was on the end of it. As the minutes ticked by, it looked like it might not be our day. That feeling seemed to be confirmed when Fulham Colts took the lead against the run of play with a slightly fortunate deflected shot that deceived Rory.
Despite a new formation with only 2 at the back, the Sharks looked pretty comfortable – and they continued to press throughout the rest of the first half. It only seemed a matter of time before they scored and went on to win the game.
The Colts were a very physical side and there were a lot a niggling tackles and fouls. To be fair, the Sharks were fouling too, but there was a lot of off the ball infringement that I missed and went unpunished. Francis was badly fouled in the box after he’d laid the ball back to Wiktor on the edge of the box. I’m afraid I missed it, in following the ball and seeing Wiktor up-ended by another foul. Had I given the penalty then, at 1-0, it might have changed the course of the game. Apologies to Francis for missing it; it was a tough game to referee as there was so much going on all over the place – on and off the ball.
Some have asked me if red and yellow cards are used at this age. Yes, they can be, but you really try not to use them. In fairness, I would have had to book a few Sharks along with a few Colts – so it wasn’t all one-way traffic. I think the Sharks let their frustrations get the better of them at times – and a few got drawn into fouling and retaliation.
Having said that, I though the Colts were the bigger offenders overall, with persistent bad infringements on Ben, Wiktor, Francis and Jakub. It disrupted our flow, allowed them to get back and regroup and could be seen as cynical. Yellow cards might have calmed things down a little. So perhaps I will start using them in future.
For the second half, we looked to pick up where we left off, but the Colts were employing a new strategy to hold onto their lead. They had a couple of very tricky players, who could hold the ball up well. They packed the defence and used their big defenders to hoof the ball to their front men: unattractive, but effective when we were pushing for an equalizer.
The caught us out time and again and eventually scored another after a great save from Rory and a block from Alejandro. Another quickly followed as the Sharks struggled to get their passing game going effectively. One of the Colts’ star men waltzed impressively through our defence and slotted the ball home comfortably. A good goal and 3-0 to the Colts.
The Sharks were understandably getting a bit despondent by now; a game they had dominated in the early period was suddenly slipping away from them. Alejandro had come on in the midfield role and brought a little calmness and solidity on the ball. But he couldn’t stop the Colts going 4-0 up when they got a corner. The Sharks often look vulnerable from high corners and a well-taken kick floated to the far post where an unmarked Colt headed home from a few yards out. 4-0 seemed an unbelievably harsh scoreline – certainly a travesty given the Sharks’ first-half performance.
Just when heads might have dropped completely, the Sharks came right back into it. After a cooling off period, Jakub came back on and played superbly and in exactly the right spirit – letting his football do the talking and not reacting to the fouls and provocation.
One great run saw him beat three Colts before being fouled on the right wing. He picked himself up, and the resulting free kick caused panic in the Colts’ box. A couple of shots were blocked and eventually the ball fell to Phin a few yards out. He smashed it high into the roof of the net, and the Sharks finally had a goal.
They were pushing for more now, as the Colts looked vulnerable. But they kept hoofing the ball to their front men and catching us short at the back. Rory played brilliantly second half and between him and the post (on one occasion), the Colts were kept out for the rest of the game.
The Sharks got their second when a corner fell to Phin on the edge of the box. Phin played the ball and a Colt followed through after the ball had gone and up-ended him. I felt I had to award a penalty – the ball was gone and the tackle was reckless.
The rejuvenated Jakub stepped up to take it, and although the Colts’ keeper saved the first shot, Jakub followed up quickly and slipped in the rebound. 4-2 and the Sharks were right back in it.
There was still a minute and a half left on the clock, plus two and half minutes of stoppage time, which annoyed the Colts’ supporters and coach. They were worried that the Sharks would get an unlikely draw – but most of the stoppage time was being added on because of injuries to Sharks after bad fouls from the Colts.
As it happens, the Sharks couldn’t push for any further goals and the clock ran down, with the Colts a little relieved to hear the final whistle.
It was a frustrating day for everyone in many ways – but we should look to the positives. Despite the scoreline, the Sharks played by far the better football, with great passing, on the floor, throughout. Had they taken their early chances, the game would have been won by half time.
As it was, they showed great character to come back into the game when things were not going their way. They stood up to the physical nature of the opposition better than they have in previous encounters with tough sides, and they tried to cope with an unfamiliar formation.
With Alejandro down to rest and Gabriel out sick, Craig wanted to try two at the back with three in midfield. The system relies on the midfielders getting back to help out, which is a new discipline for many of our more attack-minded players.
As Craig reminded the boys on Sunday, winning is not always the most important thing at this stage – although it’s nice of course. But they have the rest of their lives to win Premier League and World Cup Winners’ medals! Right now, it’s just as important they appreciate the different roles on the pitch and the different tactical requirements of different formations. It will make them better, more adaptable, more intelligent players in the future. I know Ben, for instance, got a lot out of Sunday in terms of the responsibility of a central midfield role – he was tracking back and aware of defensive duties more than he has been before.
There’s no doubt we’ll be back to winning ways soon enough anyway; the football they play is too good not to reap rewards in the long run.
Thanks to Kasia for the excellent photos. I think the expressions on all our boys’ faces show how tough this game was. And there are a lot of hands holding people back on display!