AFC BOURNEMOUTH 2-1 NOTTS COUNTY
Another week and yet another away game for Notts, in what is beginning to feel like a nightmare road trip that is destined to end in anguish and despair come 5pm every week, almost as if the time the campervan is due to break down has been set and everyone decides to drink too much and throw up in the shower at the same time. But Bournemouth would be different, since our last calamitous trip away in League One, to Oldham Athletic, a new year has arrived and seen the rarest of doubles - a Notts win and clean sheet on the road. So we arrived at King's Cross at 9am on Saturday in high spirits, with only a two and a half hour train journey winding through the incredibly dull scenery of the south standing between us and a fun filled day out culminating in three vital points to be hauled back to Nottingham via NCM towers. In Essex.
Of course, nothing is ever quite as good as it seems, and since last week's excellent victory at Doncaster we'd lost two full backs in Julian Kelly and Alan Sheehan, to injury and suspension respectively. The two are definitely up there with the most pivotal to Allen's 4-1-3-2 system, so a lot was going to rest on how the once discarded Jon Harley, fresh from a rebirth and a rest in the fine spa town of Rotherham, and new boy Kieron Freeman would cope. Indeed, on this note, Bournemouth proved to be something of a disappointment. Our only trip to the seaside town in the past was in the FA Cup a couple of years ago and that was during the notorious Dorset monsoon season, when the rain was so heavy that we could barely see the pitch, let alone how much of a dump the town is.
As it is, Bournemouth itself is like a throwback to an age that the rest of civilisation has long since consigned to the relics of history. It seems to have pitch itself as something as a half way house between the world's poshest council estate (we saw a ten year old simultaneously smoking a spliff on the beach and doffing his top hat) and a sort of more terrifying alternative to Dignitas. Indeed, the short stroll from Bournemouth Central station to the seafront is interspersed only by the sound of pensioners bemoaning the state their hedge has gotten itself into. We tried to make the best of it though, having fish and chips in a restaurant that had taken its decor straight from 1954 and aimlessly strolling along Boscombe pier, that has to be one of the most pointless pieces of poking-out-into-the-sea architecture that man has ever accomplished. This was having taken to our traditional pre-match transportation, which can be seen below and left NCM's spine with a consistency something akin to chalkdust.
So, the match itself, against a side who have found form recently having struggled horribly, particularly at home, earlier in the season. This new found flourish has mainly been financed by mysterious Russian Maxim Demin, a new investor who will be the subject of Part II in NCM's 'slightly hypocritical criticism of shady Football League owners'. Catchy, huh? Demin is a Russian oil tycoon who recently bought a 50% stake in the club to equal that of chairman Eddie Mitchell, who owns the local Sandbanks area of pointlessly over-the-top housing for rich people, where Demin has a property. Since the Russian's involvement, the Cherries have shelled out relatively exuberant six-figure fees on the likes of Leyton Orient left back Charlie Daniels and Crawley Town striker Wes Thomas, both of whom started the game. Their biggest pilfering may be yet to come though, with a £500,000 bid for Swindon Town man and former Notts occupier of dead ends and master of the greedy long range shot Matt Ritchie having been turned down. But good luck to them, a Russian billionaire teaming up with a local tycoon who drunkenly sauntered on to the pitch and confronted fans earlier in the season sounds like a real recipe for sustainable success. In an act of hypocrisy so staggering though, the locals welcomed him back into the stands with open arms on Saturday.
Dean Court is an odd sort of ground, with the stands ranging from the ultra-modern to the completely non-existant, with our position closest to the open end not helping with sheltering from the icy breeze that was swirling around. As predicted, Notts' back four was completely alien to the one we were putting out at Oldham just two weeks ago, with Freeman and Harley joining Damion Stewart and Liam Chilvers. The game started at breakneck pace, with Bournemouth threatening first when Marc Pugh let fly from the edge of the area with a shot that Stuart Nelson just managed to gather at the second attempt ahead of the lurking Wes Fogden. Despite this early Bournemouth pressure though, Notts soon had their customary opening goal away from home, with Hamza Bencherif blasting home his first for the club. A thirty yard free kick was laid into the path of the Algerian, who hammered an unstoppable shop past Daryl Flahavan that nearly tore the net out.
This seemed to give Notts the confidence to begin pouring forward and they twice had the chance to double their lead. Firstly Lee Hughes decided to cut inside and shoot instead of squaring for the better placed Jeff Hughes, whilst Neal Bishop sliced over the bar when brilliantly placed from the resulting corner. As tends to happen after we've scored though, Notts soon retrated into their spell and stopped pressing the home side, allowing the inevitable to happen soon after. Marc Pugh's tame shot from the edge of the area was inexplicably spilled by Nelson at the feet of Wes Thomas, who really couldn't miss.
This really got Bournemouth's tails up and they began to dominate, with Pugh terrorising debutant full back Freeman, who picked up a yellow card after hauling down the former Hereford man. Meanwhile, Notts appeared to be playing with ten men as Karl Hawley seemed to be occupying a free role in an attempt to keep him as far away from the action of possible. Against the run of play Notts nearly got themselves back infront though, when Judge's cross was gathered by Jeff Hughes, who brilliantly worked the ball onto his right foot but crashed the ball against the underside of the bar from six yards.
It was proving to be an incredibly open and entertaining game, with this down to the fact both sides appeared to be very disjointed as much as anything. Stephen Purches for the hosts and Jeff Hughes for Notts both had chances to put their sides infront, before Nelson had to be at full stretch to beat away a piledriver from Daniels. This brought the first half to a close, at which point Martin Allen took the opportunity to withdraw the painfully anonymous Hawley, to be replaced by Ishmel Demontagnac on his return from the world's most pointless three match suspension.
A slower start to the second half ensued, before Lee Hughes raced clear before appearing to be hauled over by Stephane Zubar, but Bournemouth's Frenchman got away with a challenge that can only be described as agricultural. Ishmel Demontagnac was then sent racing clear by a fine Bencherif pass, but he seemed to delay what appeared to be a simple finish for millenia, allowing Zubar to deny him with a last ditch challenge. Chilvers then blocked away a Wes Thomas effort before Bencherif lashed another beast of a long range effort narrowly wide of the far post.
Notts then decided, for some inexplicable reason, that it was a good idea to stop pressing the ball completely and sit somewhere around the edge of their own area. Thomas was nearly the first to take advantages, but Nelson was equal to his downward header, but the inevitability of a Bournemouth winner was both palpable and painful. It came when substitute Shaun MacDonald picked up the ball out wide and sauntered into the box, with Neal Bishop, Jon Harley and Liam Chilvers all refusing to even attempt to tackle the Welshman. MacDonald then teed up Wes Fogden, who slotted home to seal the points for the hosts. It was a goal of such stupidity for a defensive point of view that, had we not done it in nearly every single game for three months, NCM would barely have believed it possible.
In truth, Saturday was the first time this season I have felt genuinely let down by both Martin Allen and his players. I understand that they are "committed" and that they "care", as Allen keeps telling us, but that can't keep being used as an excuse for the sort of amateurish defending that we saw yet again at Dean Court. The lack of pace going forward is Notts' most aesthetically obvious problem (if we sign a target man this month then we're actually going to give up), but the sheer moronic defending is just as frustrating. This goes far deeper than individual errors - we have now played Mike Edwards, Krystian Pearce, Damion Stewart, Liam Chilvers, Haydn Hollis and Sam Sodje at centre half at one point or another this season. Stewart and perhaps Hollis are the only ones who cannot be directly blamed for the concession of a goal and they have played just two league games between them. Notts do not press the ball enough when teams have it just outside our own box and we sit far too deep at the beginning of halves, when we have just scored and late on in games and it is costing us again and again. We find it extremely difficult to believe this is a problem that is as difficult to sort out as Allen and his players seem to be making it.