Friday, 28 December 2012

Zeroes to heroes

As we ran out on Wednesday to face Wycombe, the big question on everyone's lips was how would we react to Friday's debacle at Rochdale.
The answer was in emphatic style with our biggest win and most dominant performance of the season so far.
We had drawn at Adams Park earlier in the season in a game which saw us dominate almost as much as we did on Boxing Day, but without that cutting edge - a similar problem which had afflicted us against Port Vale in our last home game.
After the Spotland shambles, and Mark Yates' post-match rant, the number of changes to the side was going to be interesting, and Yatesy opted to make only three.
He had taken Marlon Pack and Shaun Harrad off at half-time, so it was not a surprise to see those two handed a seat in the dugout.
The other casualty was Chris Zebroski, slightly surprisingly in my opinion, as I thought he was one of the outfield players to have put in a decent(ish) shift.
Jermaine McGlashan and the front two of Jeff Goulding and Darryl Duffy came in, and I thought that was rough on Lawson D'Ath and Sam Deering - whose whereabouts were a mystery as he didn't even make the 18.
The luckiest man to be out there in my view was Jake Taylor, who, after a decent display at Northampton and an even better one at Hereford, had been utterly anonymous at Rochdale.
We started tentatively, but gradually got on top of the game, and from about the 15th minute I felt it was a matter of time before we took control of the game.
We had a couple of close calls and were denied a couple of times by the offside flag, and I must admit I was getting a bit anxious that we needed to get that goal quickly, then two came.
The first was smashed in first time by Taylor, a couple of minutes after he and Jermaine had switched wings, and came after a flowing move, with the Reading loanee hitting it first time inside the keeper's near post.
Sido made the second with a good cross, and Jeff watched it all the way on to his head and was able to direct it perfectly into the corner.
As far as I was concerned, that was just about that for the points.
Wycombe had barely threatened outside the first five minutes, and were as poor a side as we have played this season - but I would prefer to give our lads the credit for an excellent performance than allowing Wycombe's failings to detract from it.
They had three players banned and nine players injured, with another going off at half-time, but we were ruthless and didn't let up in the second half.
Jake made a goal for Darryl with a perfect cross stood up nicely for a far-post header, then Darren Carter picked out Jermaine for a close-range finish.
Darren nearly scored the goal of the season with a volley which the Wycombe keeper Jordan Archer pushed  aside and we had other chances to put more gloss on the scoreline.
We were even able to give Lawson a 20-minute run-out, with Kaid Mohamed came back from injury.
The team had the redemption they needed after Friday's letdown, Yatesy's changes were vindicated and it was almost the perfect afternoon.
Gillingham's defeat allowed us to close within three points of top spot, and also took us past that significant 40-point barrier to start the second half of the season in decent style.
All in all, it was four days to sum up the inconsistency of our side - a team which can lose six games with a combined goal difference of minus 15, conceding 22 goals, yet also have the most clean sheets in the division.
For the manager, he would have been especially pleased to see Jeff and Darryl both score after giving them a rare chance to start the game.
Jeff has started three league games, and now has three league goals, and Darryl has two goals in two starts, and the pair of them worked well together after being given a chance to start, having spent most of the time this season making cameos from the bench.
Jeff was an effective target and used his intelligent touches to good effect, while Darryl worked the channels well. They were backed up by Jake and Darren, and the team's driving force, Russ Penn.
In one move, Russ won three sliding tackles in a row without getting back to his feet, and that typifies his importance to the team, and why he has to be the first name on the teamsheet every week when he is fit.
We don't have another player like him and it would be nice if the FA Cup money was partly used on someone who can give him some support in that role.
So Jeff, Darryl and Jake especially put their hands up when it was needed and have given the manager more headaches ahead of Bristol Rovers' visit tomorrow, another game which, on paper, we should be looking to win.
We know the back five will be the same, as we have no real options there bar the Bilston Beckenbauer himself, Keith Lowe, and this again may be somewhere to strengthen after next Tuesday.
And surely Jeff and Darryl will get another chance - although Zebs may get a chance as we know he likes to play well and score against his former club, especially one with fans who will give him a warm welcome...!
So once again, the focus will fall on to the midfield, and I wonder if we will again play a 4-4-2 tomorrow. I hope so, as we have to set the tempo.
Much of that focus will fall on Marlon Pack, who, having been the hub of the side for so long, now finds himself maybe not a first-choice.
It seems to be becoming more evident that he and Darren are not suited to playing together, and if we are to play 4-4-2, it had to be one of them and Russ - with Darren the man in possession.
Marlon has not found his best form consistently this season after the highs of the previous campaign - yet we must remember he is only 21 years old.
Of our contracted players (excluding loans) only Harry Hooman, Sam Deering and Bagasan Graham are younger - and he has nearly racked up 100 starts for us during his loan and permanent stay.
He is still learning. It is a bit much, I feel, to expect a 21-year-old to consistently run the game - if he could do that he would not have been let go by Portsmouth and would be playing at a higher level than this.
Some have suggested that, as his contract ends this summer, we should try and cash in this January - but I would venture that, given his form this season, there would not be many takers.
I would not be pleased to see us sell any of our players this January - I would rather we tried to secure some of them on new deals, including Marlon, who, if he signed for two more years, would still only be 23 at the end of that deal, and we would still retain his sell-on value.
I would also suggest that two years down the line we would have a more valuable player on our hands, with two more years experience and maybe, by that time, he would have played around 200 games for us.
In the second half of the season, Yatesy needs to find a way to get the best out of Marlon, and also has two other big riddles to solve.
The first is to find a consistent goalscorer. Of our current squad, 13 players have found the net in League games, with Darren, Shaun and Zeb all on five goals apiece as the leading scorers. Jeff, Keith, Jermaine and Mo all have three.
While it is great to have players all around the team chipping in, and we have scored in all but three of our 24 league games - but most other sides at the top of the table have one consistent, reliable goalscorer.
The second is to rediscover the formula away from home which served us well at the start of the season, but has deserted us recently.
I feel if Mark can answer those three questions, find some consistency and maybe bolster our numbers in January with another player or two, I feel we can be real candidates for the top three.
We have seen everyone now, and I have not seen any side to strike any real fear into us.
Rochdale, Chesterfield, Bradford and Rotherham were impressive on their own patch - partly down to our own failings - and the same can be said for Southend at Whaddon, and we have had to dig deep against some other sides to get the right results.
But we could easily have beaten the top two, Gillingham and Port Vale, and have (mostly) done the business when needed against those sides in the bottom half - our record against them is the best in the division.
At home, our record is the joint best in the division (with Bradford). We have lost once in 12 league and cup games on our own patch, and that was to Oxford with a second-string side out in the JPT.
This is the sort of record which can go a long way to keeping us in the promotion picture, and if we can get the away form back to how it was until mid-October, we could have a good 2013 ahead.