Thursday, 10 January 2013

Looking beyond the scoreline...

We may not have pulled off the upset we all half-believed was possible, but it was a night many of us will not forget for a while.
Like most of the 6,000 or so Cheltenham fans who crammed into the ground, I arrived thinking there was that little hope, that small possibility that we could make the headlines, and claim Everton's scalp.
I got there just after 5pm, and much of that pre-match wait was spent star-watching.
In some ways it was cathartic - I got to tell Graeme Sharp that Andy Gray's 1984 FA Cup final goal against Watford was a foul. He smiled, and agreed it might have been. Result. I have waited 29 years for that.
But that was countered by his refusal to agree that his goal in the final was offside, so I can't claim a 0-0 draw.
I got to shake John Barnes' hand - the greatest player I ever saw at Vicarage Road - and Motty was wearing his sheepskin coat. All was well with the world.
Then, at around 7pm, the team sheets arrived, and with that, my little inkling of a possible upset vanished immediately. Ah well, I'll just sit back and enjoy the game then.
Mr Moyes was not mucking around.
Heitinga and Pienaar were out injured, so he just put Coleman and Oviedo in the side. Naismith was swapped for Anichebe - basically, the strongest side he could have chosen.
Four England internationals. 252 international caps. So much for squad rotation then Dave.
We made two changes from the defeat at Oxford, Darryl Duffy and Jake Taylor out, Marlon Pack and Kaid Mohamed in. Seemed fair enough to me, and we were down to the bare 18.
I have to admit I got a shiver down my spine when the teams came out. It was fabulous to see the ground so full and there was great noise when the teams came out.
Our boys clearly responded to the atmosphere in those early minutes, and we came out of the traps like a pack of hunting dogs marauding all over the pitch, closing down and snapping into tackles.
My early thought was that there was no way we were going to be able to keep up this intensity for the whole 90 minutes - but if we did, then maybe we had a chance of doing something.
But we were up against a quality side. Their first attack brought their first goal - an instinctive finish from Nikica Jelavic as he hooked the ball back into the net after Fellaini hit the post.
I looked at the linesman to see if there was an offside, but when I saw the replay, he was level when Fellaini shot. It was a great finish, and showed the awareness of a top player to gamble, and he knew where the ball would come back to him.
Then came the penalty. Alan Bennett was furious, and hadn't calmed down much when I stuck a microphone under his nose half an hour after the final whistle, and justifiably so I think.
I don't think, if Benno makes the same challenge against York on Saturday, that the referee would give a penalty. I feel it was a 'big club' penalty. I also doubt that it would have been given had Jagielka made the same challenge on Jeff Goulding at the other end.
But Kevin Friend gave it, and Baines' spot-kick was powerful and precise. Even though Scott Brown went the right way it couldn't have been better placed.
So after not doing much wrong in my view, we found ourselves 2-0 down, and suddenly the next goal in the game became important.
If we got it, that little dream was maybe still there - if Everton got it, then it was all over.
We didn't give up, and got to half-time two down, but the second half started badly with the third Everton goal.
Baines made it with an overlap and Osman - who was quality throughout in my eyes - skipped past Benno's challenge and finished with some aplomb.
So what now? Three down with a half to go, and all I was asking for now was a goal, and for us to keep up the effort and not allow heads to drop.
The goal came a few minutes later. It was a great pass from Mo and it was fitting that Russ Penn, our best player on the night, ran on to it and rammed it in at the near post.
A few minutes later, Jermaine McGlashan slung a cross over, and Jeff's header hit the back of Distin. If he hadn't been there, it would have been 3-2. Then what? Who knows...
Well we won't ever know, unfortunately.
That's because of the fourth goal, which was just superb. It was  swift counter-attack, and Coleman ran through and produced a deft finish over Browny's fingertips for the fourth goal.
Moyes decided to bring his subs on (another 71 full international caps worth...) and we made our changes as well, with Sam Deering being the pick of them for me, producing some decent passes (and winning a header!).
The fifth goal, for Fellaini after a good run from Anichebe past some tired challenges, put an unfair gloss on the scoreline in mine, and most other people's view.
Most fans I spoke to after the game, and since, felt that our lads were harshly done by with the scoreline, and that they had done all they could given what they were up against. In my view, 4-2 or 3-1 would have been about right.
Some fans have gone the other way, and would disagree with my assessment. I have seen some views from fans saying that we were poor, embarrassed, did not turn up, did not do ourselves justice etc. Each to their own.
Russ was by far the pick, but I thought Darren Carter and Marlon Pack did well too, Jeff worked hard all night and I also felt Mo and Jermaine had a decent game, as did our back four. Ok all of them...
They all stuck to their task admirably, and I think it is harsh to criticise any individual players - Everton were ruthless.
Browny made two saves - from a Baines free-kick just before the penalty award and from Naismith in the last minute. The other five shots on target went in - and Browny had a chance with none of them.
So that was that. No upset, but let's face it, it was massive outside chance, and the main purpose of the game was a money-making exercise to help stabilise the club and aid our main priority, a promotion push.
Yatesy can now go out and get a loan signing or two to boost our numbers and give us a bit more quality in some areas.
Players like Paul Benson, Aden Flint and Luke Rooney from Swindon, and Charlie McDonald from MK Dons have been linked on various rumour mills. Yatesy has said nothing, so we will wait and see.
So back down to earth we come, and York at home on Saturday.
The ground won't be as full as it was on Monday, but hopefully the players will channel the intensity and use the adrenaline and experience of that 90 minutes into the first of our 21-game mini season.
Time to get back on that rollercoaster!