Someone, somewhere must have made a fortune gambling on Peterborough United matches this season.
Especially against the top League One sides. Posh will look a class above for large periods of the game, but won’t translate that domination into goals before dozy defending enables more ruthless opponents to claim the spoils.
For the second half at Walsall over Christmas, read the first half at the Priestfield Stadium against Gillingham yesterday (January 23). Posh ran rings round giddy, shadow-chasing opponents for half an hour and yet lost. They took opposition respect, and impressive possession and goal-attempt statistics, with them from the game, but nothing of any real value.
The three spectacular goals at Sheffield United in the first match of 2016 are the exception that proves the rule for Posh form against high-flying opposition which is particularly frustrating given the promotion favourites this season are far inferior to those who dominated League One in 2014-15.
Gillingham, a hard-working, athletic outfit, went top after this win, but apart from their outstanding midfielder Bradley Dack and on-loan striker Dominic Samuel, you wouldn’t necessarily pick one of their players ahead of one of Graham Westley’s, not once Michael Bostwick is back to play in the centre of defence at least.
This latest reverse cost Posh their hard-earned place in the play-off positions. It was another thrilling roller-coaster ride full of fine football, strong challenges, woodwork-rattling strikes at goal and quite possibly a world record number of penalty appeals in one match, but winning the entertainment battle alone is a scant consolation at the business end of the season.
For the first time since he arrived Posh boss Westley (admittedly when handed a gift-wrapped invitation by the media) grumbled at a referee, but only after pointing out Posh had double the attempts at goal as Gillingham from 60 per cent of the possession.
He had a point about referee James Adcock whose expert positioning and terrific fitness didn’t enable him to make sound judgements in penalty areas. Posh midfielder Martin Samuelsen was thrown to the ground by home full-back Ryan Jackson on the stroke of half-time and substitute Lee Angol was blatantly barged over as he waited to control a superb strike from debutant Adil Naba that had smashed into the crossbar just before the hour mark with the match evenly poised at 1-1. Such was the emphatic nature of Adcock’s denials it made him look rather silly when TV replays showed him to be wrong in both cases.
Adcock may have blundered, along with Posh centre-back Jack Baldwin and midfielder Chris Forrester, when Dack won the game for the home side with a deflected shot in the 65th minute. Forrester, following a rare errant pass from Baldwin, initially took the ball off Dack, but stumbled, possibly with the help of a slight ankle tap, enabling Gilingham’s top scorer to win the match.
That was harsh on Posh whose excellence in the opening half an hour was worthy of more than a one-goal lead. Westley started with two of his new recruits, left-back Harry Toffolo and striker Shaquile Coulthirst, and both were outstanding in the opening 45 minutes. Toffolo restored the attacking enterprise and left-sided balance that had departed with Callum Elder, while Coulthirst’s energy and speed were a problem for two lumbering central defenders before the break.
Coulthirst delivered three fine strikes at goal in the opening 30 minutes, but only a deflected effort in the third minute required attention from home goalkeeper Stuart Nelson. Toffolo’s chance of a dream debut was snuffed out by a decent block by Dack as Posh danced their way around Gillingham’s midfield.
But a failure to convert more than one of 20 goal attempts in the game was to prove costly. Erhun Oztumer’s brilliant finish of a very inventive free kick involving Jon Taylor and Coulthirst after 25 minutes seemed certain to lead to more goals, but instead Gillingham woke up, battled their way through the first-half, even hitting the post with a powerful hit from centre-back John Egan, and then making changes to their line-up which had the desired effect of throwing Posh off their game.
It will concern Westley that as soon as his side’s preferred route of playing out from the back is shut off, and their play-makers are closed down quickly, Posh struggle to gain possession or retain it. They still had their moments in the second-half with substitute Nabi’s first touch of the ball careereing into the crossbar and Forrester’s audacious 35-yard attempt cracking the outside of a post, but those two splendid efforts, like many others, were taken from a distance that makes a goal unlikely.
Taylor’s free far post header from Toffolo’s cross in the final 10 minutes should have delivered an equaliser, but once that effort had flown wide Gillingham saw out the game quite comfortably. They’d equalised within four minutes of the second-half when a quick break involving two excellent passes by Dack and Samuel enabled stand-in forward Luke Norris to convert expertly from 12 yards.
Norris wouldn’t have played if in-form forward Rory Donnelly hadn’t pulled up in the warm-up, but then Donnelly would probably have done better than blaze a volley over the crossbar from six yards and make a hash of other reasonable scoring opportunities that fell the replacement’s way. Baldwin had deflected another Egan shot onto the crossbar just prior to the worst Norris miss.
Quite obviously this result wasn’t what Posh wanted or needed at the end of a week when they sold their top scorer. The knives in the homes of those who believe a team with average gates of under 6,000 has a divine right to be playing Championship football will be sharpened over the weekend.
Posh do have the perfect opportunity to prove they do belong alongside the frontrunners when second-placed Burton Albion visit the ABAX Stadium on Tuesday (January 26). It now appears to be an even bigger game.
Posh: Ben Alnwick, Michael Smith, Harry Toffolo, Ricardo Santos, Jack Baldwin, Chris Forrester, Martin Samuelsen, Erhun Oztumer (sub Adil Nabi, 57 mins), Jon Taylor, Shaquile Coulthirst (sub Marcus Maddison, 74 mins), Souleymane Coulibaly (sub Lee Angol, 57 mins). Unused substitutes: Dion-Curtis Henry, Lawrie Wilson, Harry Beautyman, Shaun Brisley.
Gillingham: Stuart Nelson, Ryan Jackson, Bradley Garmston (sub Brennan Dickinson, 46 mins), John Egan, Max Ehmer, Jake Hessenthaler (sub Doug Loft, 46 mins), Aaron Morris, Josh Wright, Bradley Dack, Dominic Samuel, Luke Norris (sub Elliott List, 87 mins). Unused substitutes: Jermaine McGlashan, Glenn Morris, Emmanuel Osadebe, Darren Oldaker.
Goals: Posh - Oztumer (25 mins).
Gillingham - Norris (49 mins), Dack (65 mins).
Cautions: Posh - Smith (foul).
Gillingham - Egan (foul), Norris (foul).
Referee: James Adcock 5
Attendance: 6,449 (549 Posh).