COLUMNIST KEN BUCKLEY
On a freezing cold night down Goodison way, the few that gathered must have wondered as I did just what the hell draws us to such no-mark matches. Well, for me, it’s a habit... and added to that, I wondered how we would fare against the Belarus Champions with the reserve/youth team representing us. Having read Tom Owen’s excellent reserve team reports, I was more than interested to see how they would cope in such circumstances as tonight.
The team presented included the captain Hibbert achieving the record for Euro appearances and the left back Bidwell being our youngest ever Euro debutant. Osman made his return from injury and Yak and Rodwell made up the quartet of senior players to help the fledglings along. A glance at the programme and some of our players tonight were not even listed.
The game started and within minutes we just knew we were in for a long cold one as both teams seemed to just know nothing was on it and, for the Blues lads at least, all they needed to do was impress the manager and that seemed more of a trial than dealing with BATE.
There was some sporadic action and most of the attacking came from BATE, thus giving the defenders the best chance to impress the manager whose selection seemed to protect the stars from injury with Birmingham in mind for Sunday. Even with this strategy, such is our injury luck at the moment that, with less than six minutes gone Rodwell went down clutching the back of his thigh and that was the end of him.
Another youngster was introduced in his place in the shape of Hope Akpan. In that first half, it was mostly turgid stuff with BATE looking the more likely but we did see Duffy do well with clearing headers and a couple of timely blocks. At the other end, Agard snatched at chances and one went high when he was well placed. Half-time came none too soon.
The second half resembled the first with little going on in midfield or attack for either team. The kids seemed well organised and knew their jobs but none of their final balls caused any problems. It seemed to get colder, the manager made a couple of changes, bringing off Hibbert then Osman and Yak taking the armband... but that is all he did – take the armband and carry on being persona non grata.
It was becoming a trial to carry on watching but at least Duffy was aware on a couple of occasions, first when he blocked a goal-bound effort and the when a BATE forward rounded the charging Nash he slid in to divert the ball from being goal-bound for a corner.
Then on 75 mins BATE put in a cross that their forward totally missed his kick, everyone laughed, but our tame clearance went to another player who fired goalwards and Duffy again got in the way but only to get a slight deflection that beat Nash and the ball ended up the corner of our net.
We did try a rescue act but too many passes were wayward and when we did get one right, Agard missed the target when well placed. The Turkish ref was the only person present that thought this was a proper game and, as well as being over officious, was downright cruel when he awarded 4 mins of overtime... although after the goal about half of the measly attendance left, the diehards stuck it and although 1-0 down just couldn’t wait for his whistle.
Overall I thought Yak and Osman did no more than get 95 mins under their belts and the fact that Hibbert looked world class told a tale as far as both sides were concerned. The youngsters did well to a point but I have to say not one of them caught my eye in terms of progression to Premier League standard with us.
The last thing I would do is demean any of their performances tonight and I would wish them well with their progression and, as I am not qualified to really rate their performances in terms of progressing, I will not pick any of them out in a marking sense but I will eagerly await the release list at the end of the season to see if my private thoughts concur with the manager's.
Birmingham Sunday – snow permitting... I hope for a performance and three points that will keep us on the up and warm no matter the temperature. After watching their 2-1 win over Blackburn on television, it may not be easy but I am sure we have the quality to get a much needed three points if all play to their ability.
UP THE BLUES
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