Tuesday, 16 April 2013

One Hec of a header...

I enjoyed Saturday's win. A lot. I am not ashamed to admit it, but I broke the protocol.
As soon as the whistle went, off came the headphones, down went the mic, and I allowed myself three or four fistpumps. Not very professional, but there you go.
It wasn't just because of the bloke in the away dugout and how he took my football club to the brink - it was also about the bloke in our dugout and his players showing they were not the pushovers some of us thought they were seven days before.
It was also about the fans, who came out in good numbers and yes, gave you-know-who some verbals but more importantly, also raised the noise for their team and made for a cracking atmosphere. So, can we hear you every week??
But anyway, back to him - let's get this out of the way and then talk about what really matters, our team, our players and our prospects for the next two games.


Martin Allen and I having
our post-match chat
We had a brief chat after the game, and as it turns out it seems this blog might have been read a few times down there in Kent over the course of this season...
Mr Allen was coming out of the away dugout where he had been conducting his post-match interview, and Jon Palmer, Peter Matthews and myself were waiting to talk to Michael Hector, Scott Brown and Russ Penn about our win.
He spotted us, and (grinning from ear to ear I hasten to add) he said: "Mark Halliwell - you've been writing some things about me, haven't you, you naughty boy...."
"You've read them then Martin," I replied. "Yes," he said.
"What did you think?"
He thought for a second, and said: "Some of it was correct. Some of it was unfair I thought, and some I wish you'd rung and had a conversation about."
Not really the idea when you are writing a blog, I thought, and I said: "Would you have told me about it all?"
"Not really as I signed a piece of paper when I left so I can't talk about it, but it will all be in my book," to which I replied "I look forward to reading it." He offered his hand, so I shook it.
My next thought was firstly that if he signed a confidentiality agreement what would the point have been in me phoning him, and also how he could conceivably write a book about it... but there you go.
He then went on to say he had a 's..t team' when he was with us. No s..t Sherlock. It's taken us the past three years to recover from it, and Saturday's win was cathartic as it got over the obstacle of him coming back here and also showed in spades what a better club we are now.
Mr Allen's record in the away dugout at Whaddon is now played two, lost two, scored nought, conceded six, and he finished by saying "Your team played bloody well today though." For once, how right he was.
Whether it was all another of his PR stunts, or a series soundbites to try and appease our fans into giving him an easier ride, his pre-match admission that he made mistakes and did not do a good job when he was here was also good to hear.
It was never going to stop the abuse he got, and, let's face it, he deserved it. But I was glad that it did not go on and on throughout the match, and that the fans listened to Mark Yates' call to channel the noise towards those in ruby.
But Saturday was not all about him. It was our last chance to stay in the top-three chase. Lose, and we could forget it, draw and it was probably the end of the line, but win and it was still very much on.
Our 18-match home record on the line against a promoted side, beaten once away from home, and hoping to be crowned champions, backed by 1400 fans and with our supporters having a pantomime villain to hiss and boo at. It all added up to a cracker, and that's what we got.
I thought it was the best game I have seen all season, and it was definitely our best 90 minutes.
After the Home Park shambles, we looked like a team on a mission. Our players were fired up, as if they knew how much this meant to the fans, and that they knew this was the last-chance saloon.
Four changes... The grit of Russ Penn and Jason Taylor, the steadiness of the boyhood Gillingham fan Billy Jones, and the directness of Kaid Mohamed all thrown back in.
You could see why Gillingham have been hard to beat away. The imposing figure of Nelson in goal, two decent full-backs in Martin and Fish; Barrett's experience at the back. Then, on the counter, Whelpdale and Lee supporting the target man in Kedwell and the elusive Burton.
The first half was pretty nip and tuck. We struggled to get behind them as Martin was coping with McGlashan and Fish doing the same with Mo.
Only once did it happen, when Pack put a fantastic pass - probably the ball of the season - between Barrett and Martin, McGlashan got on to it and sent a ball across the six-yard box which no one could convert.
Most of our efforts were from long-range, Taylor having the best, forcing Nelson to push it away, while at the other end a Kedwell overhead kick was tipped over by Brown.
Nelson went into the game with 18 clean sheets to Brown's 16, so it was never going to be a 4-4 draw - a one-goal game was always likely.
The loss of Martin before half-time was a plus for us as he was not only looking after McGlashan, but also getting forward well to back up Whelpdale and Lee on our right-hand side.
Frampton dropped into left-back and was nowhere near as effective, allowing McGlashan, Jombati and, at times, Penn to get more joy down that side.
We were the better side in the second half. Our midfield, with Penn a lionheart and Taylor (in his best game for us so far) a more than able lieutenant, was on top, and in Harrison we had a willing worker up front.
Nothing against Paul Benson, but Harrison is much more suited to that 'lone frontrunner' role.
He chased lost causes, won flick-ons, kept the centre-backs busy, was a target and outlet when we need one, and brought others into play. I can see why Yates was so keen to get him here and I am sure he will become a real asset to us.
I know he has only got one goal, and I know the jury is still out for those who judge strikers solely by how many goals they score whilst ignoring how hard they work, how they run the channels, how they bring others into the game, create space for runners, how they occupy defenders and all the other traits a good striker has, but I am convinced the goals will come for him.
There was another key figure in the game though. The referee. The Gills fans were not impressed, and their chant suggesting he was the man of the match, soon after Michael Hector was announced as the sponsors' choice, was good, sharp banter - and I have some sympathy.
Mr Allen was irate at a tackle by Mo on Charlie Lee, which left the Gills man down, and eventually forced him off. I thought it was a bit late, and Mo was lucky to get away with it, as was Penn for a challenge on Burton as he went through.
Also, Pack fired a free-kick into touch but was given another chance for an apparent rolling ball (how often are those brought back??), and when Brown made a hash of a clearance, he was let off the hook by an alleged foul by Burton.
No doubt in my mind that we did get the rub of the green from Mr Ward in that second half - but we've earned it over the course of the season...
The goal which decided it for us was a great header after Penn won a corner. Billy Jones did what he does best - fired the ball in to the near post, and Michael Hector did the rest, rising to find the postage stamp in the top corner. Unstoppable.
There were one or two little scares, notably Fish's cross-cum-shot which Brown tipped over, but otherwise Gillingham, even after going to 4-3-3, did not really threaten an equaliser, and but for Nelson's great block from Penn, we would have had a second.
I am going to give Nelson the credit for a good save rather than blame Russ for not scoring - and Mo deserves praise for a great run, and then looking up to see Russ and playing him in with a great pass.
Our win, and Port Vale's draw means we also stopped them taking the title, for now. So it prevented any worries about Mr Allen and his team celebrating on our pitch.
They will win the title, and good luck to them - over the course of the season they have been the best team, as the table shows - but we have taken four points from them, and kept two clean sheets.
That's more points than we took from York, or Accrington, or Dagenham, or Plymouth.
It just goes to highlight the inconsistency. No other team in League Two has lost less home games than our two, yet the away record is 11 points from 48.
One week we surrender meekly to a Plymouth team which could play Welling United next season, the next we play with pride, passion and drive against a Gillingham team, which might be facing Wolves.
That's why we are still sitting here chewing fingernails and pulling out what little hair we have left.
You cannot put your finger on it. Yates has been accused of picking the wrong team sometimes (but don't ask him about it in radio interviews...!!) but surely it has to be also down to the mindset of the players on occasions. The manager can only do so much.
Once they cross the white line and all that...
Whatever it is, we got it right on Saturday, and need to bottle it for Exeter next weekend, and then Bradford. Six points from those games and we might see Mr Allen back here again next season...
I won't be at Exeter, and am gutted to miss my first game of the season, but it's my Mum's 80th birthday, so that has to come first.
Instead of sitting next to Pete in the St James' Park commentary box, I will be talking with family members I haven't seen for years with the radio commentary in my ears, hoping that we keep the dream alive for that Bradford game, which, if results fall right, could end up being a top-three shoot-out. Now that would be special.
I've already booked May 2 off work for the play-off final first leg, but that is one day that I wouldn't mind making the trip up the M5 to Worcester for a day sat at my desk.
Oh - and Martin, hope you enjoyed reading this...!