Saturday, 31 December 2011

Grinding down the Millers

IT was perhaps fitting that one of only three players who started our first game of 2011, the 2-1 home defeat by Wycombe, should score the goal which ended it on a winning note.
From the 18 who lined up last New Year's Day, only Marlon Pack, Steve Elliott and Scott Brown started last night's game, while Keith Lowe, Jeff Goulding and Junior Smikle were on the bench.
Danny Andrew, Dave Bird and Andy Gallinagh were in the stand and as for the others - well, they ply their trade anywhere from Stevenage to Solihull Moors, Mansfield to Maidenhead or Grimsby to Greece.
That transformation sums up just what a year it has been (see the previous blog post for a light hearted look back at 2011) but this performance shows why we can look ahead with optimism.
It was probably the third game in a row, after Barnet and Shrewsbury, where we have not hit the flowing heights that we did from early October to the Southend game.
But from those games, we have eked out two draws and a win, five points from nine, and will go into 2012 sitting second in the league.
Yes, I know, Southend have two games in hand and are four points behind, but points on the board and all that... they have to win them...
It was scrappy stuff last night, and we really had to dig in for this one, but the record books will say Cheltenham 1 Rotherham 0, and that will do for me.
The Millers had a lot of territory, they put a lot of crosses into the box, they pressed us back, they forced us into a change of formation in the second half, but how much did they really threaten us?
Not much is the answer - the closest they came was a header in the 77th minute, well saved by Scott Brown, which was their only on-target effort.
Apart from that, a few shots went over, or wide, and a cross spilled by Brown was really the only other major alarm we had over the 90 minutes.
We started slowly, but then scored a fabulous goal, which got us going.
Marlon Pack's strike was low, and true, and arrowed into the corner through a crowd of players from 25 yards, and was worthy of settling any game.
It sparked us into life and Bags Graham, on his debut, could have scored when Josh Low's cross reached him, but he seemed to snatch at the shot and it went across the face of goal.
That summed up Bags' hour or so on the pitch - he showed good first touch, but then seemed a bit nervous to take players on - when he did, the full-back fouled him and got a yellow card for it eventually.
But the teenager looked nervous - understandable as he is till learning, and he will get better, but maybe his role for now will have to be off the bench as an impact player.
We were comfortable until half-time, but Rotherham came out well I felt after the break, and it is a compliment to them that we changed our system to stop their wide men and full-backs having so much space.
That saw Bags come off and Darryl Duffy go on as we went to 4-4-2 with Russ Penn moving wider, but it didn't suit him and negated his use to us going forward.
We did have chances to win by more - Jimmy Spencer hit the outside of the post, Kaid Mohamed's first touch after he came on was to sting Conrad Logan's gloves and Spencer then hit the bar with the rebound.
Also, Jimmy had a header and Luke Summerfield shot wide after good work from Junior Smikle, so it could have been more comfortable.
But as it was, we managed to grind it out and take the win, our 14th in the League this season, which is one more than we managed in the whole of 2010-11, and 46 points from 23 games is a great return.
So now we have played everyone once, and, let's be honest, seen nothing to fear from anyone.
Another half of the season like this one, and it will be party time in May...

Player-by -player
Scott Brown - A few minutes in the second half summed Scotty up perfectly - a spilled cross which nearly put us in trouble, then a superb save from a header to keep our lead intact. But however he does it, it was another clean sheet, which is all that matters.
Sido Jombati - Steady enough game, dealt ok with the his wide man who got a few crosses in but none of any consequence. Got caught out of position a couple of times, but also did some good covering for others.
Luke Garbutt - Not as good as he was on Boxing Day. Like Sido, was caught on his heels a few times and allowed a few too many crosses in from his side for my liking, but also made some important tackles and interceptions.
Alan Bennett - Thought he had a few rocky moments, giving the ball away or not getting enough on his clearances. Lost a lot in the air to Alex Revell, but fellow defenders covered well.
Steve Elliott - Struggled a bit against the pace of Lewis Grabban, who showed him up a few times, but otherwise did his usual steady job and helped us to another shutout.
Russ Penn - Didn't seem to have the same impact as he has in recent games. Spent some time playing further wide when we switched to a 4-4-2 which didn't suit him at all.
Luke Summerfield - Quieter game than recently, and also unable to make much on an impact. Touch and passing seemed to be a bit 'off' to me.
Marlon Pack - Fantastic strike for the goal, but I thought he had a mixed night. Some fantastic passes and touches, but also times when he gave the ball away and looked a bit casual.
Bags Graham - Given his full debut, but struggled to get the better of his full-back, although he did get him booked. First touch was good, but then lacked the nous to know what to do next. But remember - he is 18 and can only improve from here. There is a player in there.
Josh Low - Thought he did OK. Had a couple of promising runs and got space for crosses which nearly came to something. But again looks flaky when asked to defend or in 50-50 situations. Have to say I would like us to look for a right-sided winger in January.
Jimmy Spencer - Frustrating evening for Jimmy, as he was bashed about in the first half, then had some near misses in the second, hitting the post and then clipping the bar.

Substitutes
Darryl Duffy (for Bags Graham, 58) - Shame to see Bags come off early, but he is still learning. Duffy's arrival saw us change system to 4-4-2 and he was his usual lively self and had a half-chance.
Kaid Mohamed (for Josh Low, 68) - Great cameo for Kaid as he did just what we want him to - got the ball and ran at people. His first touch saw him get the ball, beat three men and force Conrad Logan into a save, and he was a pain for Rotherham for that last 20 minutes.
Junior Smikle (for Jimmy Spencer, 82) - Phew. Normality is resumed. Ironic that he was in the programme, saying how proud he was to have played in every game since coming to the club...! Thought he did well when he came on, and nearly set a goal up for Summerfield.