Monday, 4 February 2013

A new dawn

After a week full of surprises, there seemed to be a mix of enthusiasm and slight trepidation around Whaddon Road as we all waited to see how our new-look side would mix together.
The squad list on the back of the programme made for interesting reading as it summed up the hectic ins and outs of the previous 72 hours perfectly.
Alan Bennett and Jeff Goulding had been removed, as had Marlon Pack - even though he remains our player and could be back in training later today.
We had a number 28 in Luke Rooney, who has been training with us, but isn't quite our player, but there was no Byron Harrison - testament to how late his deal was completed. He had not trained with his new team-mates before taking his seat on the bench.
The build-up to the game has a first day of the season feel about it - three debutants in the starting line-up meant it could have been August all over again, and it does feel like a new dawn.
Mark Yates brought in three of his new faces, giving the team a new-look spine with Michael Hector alongside Steve Elliott, Jason Taylor in central midfield and Paul Benson up front.
Hector's arrival would have meant a harsh axe for Keith Lowe, but the Bilston Beckenbauer was reprieved by Billy Jones dropping out with a slight injury - the first league game he has missed since he came to the club.
Benson nearly got off to a dream start with a goal in the first three minutes, but was denied by an offside flag as Shaun Harrad tapped the ball over the line.
You could see almost straight away though what Benson is going to bring to us in the coming 17 games.
He linked up well with Harrad almost straight away. His flick-ons had some direction to them, and when the ball went into his feet, chest or head, it stuck.
More often than not, the first touch was cushioned well, or found another ruby shirt, although both he and Harrad didn't get much change out of Aaron Downes and Brian Saah when we took a more aerial route.
The decision to pair Jason Taylor with Russ Penn in midfield was an interesting one. However, with Darren Carter not quite fit, and Marlon Pack in his state of cryogenic limbo, there wasn't much option.
The fear was that there were two grafters in there and no ball-players, and over the 90 minutes it seemed to work.
There were a few times when I feared Torquay's three men in the middle were getting the upper hand, then Taylor and Penn would win a couple of second balls, or one of them would snap in and win a 30-70 tackle, and any worries were dispelled.
I thought Taylor really came into his own in the second half, as he grew into the game, and nothing I saw on Saturday changed my view that he will be a big player for us.
So with Benson giving us a focal point up front, and Taylor shoring things up in midfield, the final debutant Hector arguably had the biggest shoes to fill, those of Alan Bennett, alongside Steve Elliott.
He seemed a bit (understandably) nervous to start with, but I can't recall him missing too many (if any) headers, he nearly scored a goal and was only beaten once by Rene Howe, who was denied by Scott Brown's only real save of the whole game, so I don't think we could have asked for any more from him.
The Chris Banks-style chest down and 30-yard surge to the halfway line in the first half was a particular highlight, so it was a solid start for him.
With Jones out, Sido Jombati switched to the left with Keith Lowe on the right, and it gave us a solid-looking back-line with all four good in the air andable to cover well when necessary.
The other big question to answer was, with Jones or Pack in the squad, who was going to take the set-pieces. Kaid Mohamed got the nod, and overall I thought he did a good job with them.
In fact, I thought Mo was our top performer in the first half, hopefully fired up by the possibility that Rooney could arrive and challenge him for a place in the side.
He outshone Jermaine McGlashan in the opening 45 minutes, with McGlashan's erratic crossing to the fore again on a day when, with Benson in the side, I was praying for him the get that part of his game right.
Mo's free-kick should have been headed in by Lowe, who grazed it wide, then his corner was thumped in by the goalscoring secret weapon for his fifth of the season.
We deserved the half-time lead, and we doubled it pretty quickly with a smart finish from Harrad, as he turned his defender and fired across Michael Poke into the far corner.
Harrad was booked for lifting his shirt to reveal a message to his auntie who has been diagnosed with cancer. Referee Carl Berry booked him - correct by the letter of the law but still a ridiculous rule.
It was also an answer to one of his critics sat just behind our commentary gantry in the main stand who had berated him only a few seconds earlier... ah the fickle football fan...
That was the signal for us to move up a notch. Taylor and Penn took a grip of things, backed up by Mohamed and the more effective McGlashan, and we should have moved out of sight.
At 2-0, that next goal is always the important one, and with Howe in their side, the threat was always there of a goal from a rare attack.
Mohamed missed a golden chance, heading wide from a Harrad cross. He fired a free-kick just wide, then Penn was denied a rare goal from a long-range shot after Poke pushed the ball on to the bar.
After Benson and Harrad had been replaced by Byron Harrison and Darryl Duffy, the latter had a golden chance from a poor back-pass but put it wide.
We created more chances and openings in that second half than in the previous four league games put together - yet despite our domination there was just that nagging fear...
Torquay could not have complained if we had been been four or five up - but we spent the last two minutes and the five minutes of stoppage time living on our nerves after Howe got a goal back.
It was down to something that has become a rarity this season - a Scott Brown mistake. The shot seemed tame enough but it seemed to spin away from his grasp and roll over the line.
It was, therefore, credit to Browny that he then made a superb catch from a corner deep into stoppage time, and happily we managed to close out the game.
But that goal and the slightly nervy end to the game should not be allowed to take the gloss off the performance, which was one of the best for a long time.
Several players raised their game in the knowledge that there are players behind them eyeing their place in the side - which is just what we are looking for.
Lowe and Mohamed were top of that list, and they were the stand-outs for me, although fans' favourite McGlashan got the two man-of-the-match awards... hmm...
Harrad looked a lot happier with Benson alongside him and that is a partnership worth persevering with. I can see Duffy being more effective alongside Benson, and Harrison too when he finds his feet.
I have seen some criticism of Harrison's performance - but that takes 'knee jerk' to a new level given that he had not trained with anyone before the game and only met the rest of the squad an hour or so before kick-off.
Penn and Taylor were a solid-looking double act, and we have a lot of options across the midfield with Darren Carter and Sam Deering also in the mix.
We could still add Marlon Pack to that as Mark Yates said afterwards that he remains our player and could yet be involved on Tuesday against Bristol Rovers... and Luke Rooney might be our player by next weekend when the loan window re-opens.
This week has seen a real evolution of our squad and seems to have given us a bit more steel all over the pitch. That is what we will need over the last 17 games, starting on Tuesday against John Ward's resurgent Gas.
This was a hugely encouraging start to our mini-season, and a first step towards vindicating some of the ruthless decisions Mark Yates has made over recent days and weeks.
We are back up in third, and we have ended that run of no wins in four games, and stopped the winless run in 2013 - another win on Tuesday could get some momentum going.