Sunday, 11 March 2012

Small margins....

I arrived at Swindon not really knowing what to expect from the team after recent results - our performances having just tailed off slightly, maybe at the wrong time, and I will admit to some misgivings that we could raise ourselves again for this one.
A win would have been a massive bonus, let's face it. Swindon are on a roll, 13 unbeaten at home, top of the league, in a Wembley final and with resources that have enabled them to discard players willy-nilly after four or five games and bring in replacements.
I counted in the programme that they have used 40 players - and the majority of them have not made it to 10 games.
On the other hand, we have got by really on the same 19 or 20 players all season, yet still find ourselves able to go toe to toe with these clubs and compete equally with them.
The teamsheet was interesting. Luke Garbutt dropped; Keith Lowe at right back, Sido switched, presumably to counter Matt Ritchie, Steve Elliott back, and, most amazingly of all, no Junior on the bench... what? has Hell frozen over?
The main thing I was hoping for was that we would have a go at them. No sitting back, no giving them respect or space and time to dictate things - just get at them, and that's what we did all game.
We more than matched them, created some good chances, had them on the back foot for the majority of the game and more than deserved at least a draw.
But we came away with nothing, and so it's back to back league defeats for the first time this season - but there is one consolation in that we are safe from relegation.
Plymouth can only get to 62 points, while Dagenham can match us but need to win all 11 games while we lose our last 10 and there is also a 48-goal swing against us.
So with that worry out of the way in March, we can finally concentrate on looking upwards after probably our best away performance since those heady days of the wins at Oxford, Bristol Rovers and Bradford.
We seemed to feed off those games and this was a similar scenario - big crowd, intimidating atmosphere - and we seem to relish games like this rather than trips to places like Morecambe and Barnet in front of two men and his faithful dog.
I know, we should be able to raise ourselves for everything, but our remaining games are all going to be like this one, so let's hope we can take this momentum on.
I felt the early part of the game was even, then Jack Butland made a superb one on one save from Billy Bodin and Steve Elliott blocked the rebound.
Then came the five minutes which decided the game. Darryl Duffy went down under Oliver Risser's pull-back and the referee gave a penalty.
Slightly dubious maybe, and I would have backed Darryl to put it away as he has been so confident from the spot this season.
But it was a poor penalty - too low, and too close to the goalkeeper, compared to the one he thumped in against Northampton - but I have to say he can't have been helped by the faffing from the referee before the kick. Why can't these officials just let the kicker get on with it...?
I'm not going to slaughter Darryl for missing a penalty - any player could do it. He says he wants to take the next one unless anyone else wants a go - and after the game Marlon Pack said he would put his hand up if the chance comes, so we will wait and see if we get another one who steps up.
Then to compound the misery Swindon went up the other end and scored. It was a good ball in from Cibocchi but we allowed Paul Benson a free run to put the ball in - another goal from a cross, another runner not tracked properly...
That ramped up the atmosphere with the home fans for the first (and only) time in the game and it was now all about our reaction to going behind, which has, in some games this season, been brittle.
There was nothing wrong with it here though, as we dominated the second half, from Jermaine McGlashan's run and shot in the first minute to the frantic injury time defending which saw Risser and Joe Devera smash heads trying to keep us out in injury time.
Yes, Jack had some saves to make, a good one from Benson and a tip-over from Luke Rooney, but we reduced Swindon to play on the counter attack, like an away side.
The two best chances fell to Darryl - a header from Luke Summerfield's cross, and an acrobatic volley after a long throw made its way through to him.
That chance was very similar to the goal I saw Marlon King score for Birmingham on the Football League Show last night at Coventry - unfortunately Darryl couldn't repeat that finish.
But again, I am not going to blame Darryl. Everyone misses chances and this wasn't his day. Last Saturday against Northampton he was our hero, missing some chances does not suddenly make him a villain.
The other feature of the second half was the substitutions, the first of which saw Bagasan Graham come on for Kaid Mohamed.
Once again, I felt Kaid was very quiet, and deserved to come off, but to bring on an 18-year-old with very little experience into a big game like this was always going to be a big ask.
Josh Low was on the bench, but Mark opted against that. He had Luke Garbutt there and could have played him out wide ion the left - but Yatesy opted to go with Bags, and put his trust in him.
Mark Yates works with him every day, he sees him in training and in reserve games, so obviously thought he was ready - but this was a gamble which did not pay off as Bags looked like a rabbit in the headlights.
I am still convinced there is a player in there somewhere, but maybe Bags needs games somewhere to get some confidence up before being thrown into this sort of scenario.
Jimmy Spencer and Jeff Goulding came on later, and I was pleased to see Darryl stay on, and even with the change of shape we did not lose our impetus and threw all we could at Swindon, but could not find that breakthrough.
The goalkeeper Wes Foderingham got their man of the match award - and it that doesn't sum it up then nothing will, and Mr Di Canio's ridiculous histrionics at the end summed up his own relief at getting away with a 1-0 win.
So our run of scoring in every away game since August is over.
Yes, Swindon will go up. Yes, they will win the title but they will also know they have had two very tough games with us this season and once again we have proved we can compete with the best.
Results elsewhere were topsy-turvy. Southend, one down, 2-1 up, conceded a last-minute leveller to Accy Stan; Crawley, 2 up at free-falling Macc, are pegged back, also in the 90th minute, then Mr Evans refuses interviews; Gillingham, 3-1 down to Crewe, back to 3-3, concede a last minute winner; Shrewsbury nudge past Burton, who can't buy a point let alone a win; Torquay, two down to the Gas, grab a last-minute point.
There is twitchiness everywhere - teams losing and nicking points at every turn.
So now, we have to do it again four more times this month, with Gillingham, Shrewsbury, Southend and Oxford coming up. Eight points minimum? I think that's what we have to be going for.
It will be tight - but after this performance we know we have a team who will be fighting all the way.

Player by player
Jack Butland - Three fine saves on his 19th birthday, but no chance with the goal.
Keith Lowe - Looked much happier at right back. A tricky afternoon against Luke Rooney, but came out honours even I thought.
Sido Jombati - Nullified the threat of Matt Ritchie, but could have done better in tracking Paul Benson for the goal.
Alan Bennett - One mistake nearly let Billy Bodin in, but otherwise very good, and happier with Steve Elliott back.
Steve Elliott - Very good game, and settled straight back in. Slight question mark for goal but no one tracked Benson. Even took a free-kick at one point!
Russ Penn - Usual Russ Penn game - set the tempo, made some good runs, blocks and tackles...
Marlon Pack - Quietish first half but was superb in the second. Intelligent passing was key to us keeping Swindon pressed back.
Luke Summerfield - Erratic start to the game but also grew into it and was a good ally to Marlon as we pushed for that non-existent equaliser.
Jermaine McGlashan - Constant threat down the right hand side. Has impressed me with his work rate and does not shirk a challenge - just comes back for more.
Kaid Mohamed - Seems to have gone off the boil recently. Whether teams have worked him out, I don't know, but not as effective as before Christmas.
Darryl Duffy - I could have been interviewing him afterwards with the match ball tucked under his arm. As it was I had to ask him about a penalty miss and two other opportunities. That's the game... But he was a constant menace to Devera and Risser.

Substitutes
Bagasan Graham (for Kaid Mohamed 58 mins) - Big surprise to see him a) on the bench and b) the first one used. Looked tentative from the off however and the gamble from Yatesy didn't work. I hope the kid comes back and succeeds as he has some talent. I also hope the fans don't give up on him and write him off, as he is only 18 and I also hope this won't dent his confidence.
Jimmy Spencer (for Russ Penn 64 mins) - Sent on to support Darryl and had two or three long-range efforts  before ending the game wide right.
Jeff Goulding (for Jermaine McGlashan 84 mins) - A few neat touches as ever but no clear-cut goal chances.