Friday, 11 May 2012

Gunning for the Gulls

So here we go then.
After  a season that started in late July with a draw at Cirencester and defeats at Stourbridge and Newport, it all comes down to two - and hopefully three - games to shape our destiny.
What a rollercoaster it has been - a slow start, unbelievable middle bit, big drop then slight recovery to bring us to where we are now.
There is no doubt we deserve to have this play-off chance. 77 points and winning half of our league games is a fantastic return after two seasons of struggle and worry about slipping out of the division at the other end.
I know some will say that we have blown it by not being in the top three, and it is all too easy to go back and think where we might have picked up those extra seven points which were the difference between us and an automatic spot.
We led twice at Torquay and were pegged back; drew at home with AFC Wimbledon and Hereford, and let in that last minute goal at Rotherham. There. Seven points dropped.
But conversely, we scored two late goals at Northampton to win 3-2, and against them at home to save a draw, and had two late strikes at home to Plymouth to thank for a 2-1 win - so it does even itself out.
Torquay also had a slow start, then came with a superb run into the promotion shake-up, their success built on a tight defence and great work ethic - with their main strength, like us, being in midfield.
Of the other three sides, Torquay are the ones I would have picked for us to play.
They come into the shake-up having gone five games without a win, and with the added disappointment of seeing Crawley pick up that third promotion spot.
Having seen what Southend did to us at Roots Hall recently - even though we had 10 men and were totally insipid that night - an away leg in front of 10,000 would not have been a palatable thought.
Crewe have come from nowhere with a superb run, and beat us 1-0 on both meetings this term, so a two-leg encounter with them would also have been a tricky proposition.
But Torquay it is, and in contrast to our last two play-off campaigns, we have the first leg at home first.
That brings a different focus as we are now the side who have to go out there and set the tempo and try to get an advantage to take to Plainmoor.
As they showed when they beat us 1-0 at our place on Valentine's Day, they are very good at hanging on to narrow leads and so we need to be switched on and make sure we do not concede the first goal this time.
It was a poor goal to give away, with Brian Saah winning a header from a corner and Ian Morris tapping in, then they shut up shop superbly as we battered them in the second half, without ever looking like breaching them.
Their likely team on Sunday is Bobby Olejnik, Joe Oastler, Mark Ellis, Brian Saah, Kevin Nicholson, Damon Lathrope, Eunan O’Kane, Lee Mansell, Ian Morris, Rene Howe or Taiwo Atieno, Danny Stevens.
Olejnik is one of the best keepers in the division, while in Nicholson they have a good dead-ball man and he can hit them from long-range as he did for the second equaliser at Plainmoor.
However, I would hope that our wide men - presumably Kaid Mohamed and Jermaine McGlashan - would have some joy against Oastler and Nicholson, and be able to stop them getting forward to much.
But it is midfield where we have to win the battle - Pack, Penn and Summerfield against Lathrope, Mansell and O'Kane.
This will be the dilemma for Mark Yates - does he go 4-4-2 and leave one of the Three Musketeers out (Summerfield the most likely I would think) or does he match Torquay and play all three of them?
Lathrope sits behind the other two and breaks up the play a la Luke Summerfield.
He describes his role like this: "I let the other boys - Lee, Eunan and Ian (Morris) - go and be creative and score goals and I will just try and keep the ball going and stop the goals.
“Obviously the boys give me a bit of banter – teasing me about being the lynchpin – but I like to think I can be a shield to the back four and I like to get on the ball and get things going forward as well, which I think helps Lee and Eunan. It gives them a licence to gamble a bit more if there were just two in there (central midfield). It’s not the most glamorous role in football but I enjoy it and think the boys appreciate it."
Skipper Mansell is their heartbeat and has strong man, like Russ Penn, but unlike Russ he has 13 goals, while O'Kane is the team's playmaker - their Marlon Pack if you like.
Morris and Stevens, a tiny player but one I have always liked and who has irritatingly usually played well against us, provide the width and support for the main striker, who could be Rene Howe or Taiwo Atieno.
Howe is their only doubt and has not trained with his team-mates but been under the care of Gulls physiotherapist Damian Davey.
Ling said: “It’s a groin injury he picked up in the last bit of training on the Friday before the Hereford game.
“He has not trained during the week. He’s been with Damian in the week but we will look to get him training before the game and see how he reacts on Sunday morning.
“It’s an issue. I want him fit rather than not fit but the last time he missed seven games we won all seven games with Taiwo Atieno as a centre forward."
So what of Yates' dilemma - 4-4-2 or 4-2-3-1, bearing in mind Torquay's midfield strength weighed up against the need to make the running in the home leg.
I would like us to go 4-4-2 with this team: Scott Brown, Sido Jombati, Alan Bennett, Steve Elliott, Luke Garbutt, Jermaine McGlashan, Marlon Pack, Russ Penn, Kaid Mohamed, Ben Burgess, Darryl Duffy.
This gives us two up front, which would show a willingness to go out and take the game to Torquay, while in midfield Pack and Penn are the pair who work best together in a 4-4-2 system.
McGlashan has not had many chances but did well at Plymouth last weekend and has, I feel, been more effective as a starter rather than coming off the bench, while Mo's inclusion is a no-brainer after his 11 goals this season.
The alternative is to match Torquay with a team comprising the same back 5, Pack and Summerfield holding in midfield, Mo, Jermaine and Russ Penn as the three across the middle and one striker - probably Jimmy Spencer as he is the proved to be the best bet in that role of the forwards we have - up top.
But we need goals, we need to take a lead to Plainmoor, so it's 4-4-2 for me, but equally importantly we need to stop their midfield playing and we need to keep a clean sheet, so Yatesy has a big decision.