Sunday 23 February 2014

Newport state of mind is good!

"We are going to get hammered"
"I am going for a 4-0 defeat"
"Can't see us scoring, a thrashing is on the cards"
Just three of the pessismistic tweets and Facebook posts I saw ahead of yesterday's game at Rodney Parade - even the old guy we spoke to after parking the car told us to expect a stuffing.
Unfortunately, I was unable to find him later on to get his post-match views on the result, but suffice to say I think the outcome was a pleasant surprise for all of us with a ruby persuasion.
I must confess when I saw the team sheet, even my eternal optimism took a knock - a debut for Mitch Brundle alongside another relatively inexperienced player in Michael Ihiekwe, the selection of Sam Deering and Matt Richards as a holding pair which didn't fill me with confidence either, and the emergence of Ashley Vincent from the ice box after injury and 40 minutes in training on Friday.
It almost seemed to smack of a bit of desperation - but with David Noble and Troy Brown out, I'm not sure Mark Yates really had much choice, given that the players left on the bench, Jason Taylor, Lee Lucas, Jamie Cureton and Sido Jombati, didn't tear up any trees in our last outings, and none of them can really argue that they deserved a place.
The selection also brings Sido's long-term future into sharp focus. Ihiekwe has played recently at right-back, now Yates picked a teenager with no league experience to play there, out of position, ahead of Sido.
His contract is up, so are we seeing the possible death throes in the Cheltenham career of a terrace cult hero (although would he be that if his name was Sid Jones, and he came from Ledbury rather than Lisbon?)
Only time will tell, but more displays like we saw from Brundle yesterday and Sido will not get his place back in a hurry, and won't get the chance to show he deserves a new contract.
Newport's 3-5-2 system has proved awkward for many sides this season. Not many sides at our level play that way and it has been largely effective as their league position suggests.
But like us, their form has stunted of late, apart from the 3-2 home win over Oxford last Tuesday, which was their first win in seven, but the opening 15 minutes looked ominous.
They were attacking down the flanks, hitting our perceived weaknesses in debutant Brundle and Craig Braham-Barrett, but the crosses were eaten up by Ihiekwe and Steve Elliott. In all, they would put in 33 crosses, and our centre-halves must have won 90 per cent of them.
Brundle was not fazed by Andy Sandell's forays, likewise CBB by Robbie Wilmott, while Chris Zebroski and Rene Howe got no change from our centre-backs.
Zebroski was quite lively, but Howe was not. I don't want to hear any of our fans calling for us to sign him again!!
In midfield, Deering and Richards gradually warmed to their task despite occasionally having to drop deeper to help out the back four, while further forward the pace of Vincent and Jermaine McGlashan eventually had a telling effect.
McGlashan, whose crossing (or the lack of it) has been a long-held bugbear of mine and many others, had already out one great ball in which nearly found Terry Gornell, was at least five yards behind Andy Hughes when Matt Richards played a ball down the right-hand channel.
By the time he reached the pass, McGlashan was two or three yards ahead, and sent a ball into Vincent's path and it went in off some part of his anatomy.
The finish won't win any awards for prettiness, but it was priceless. We had weathered the storm, and scored the perfect counter-attack goal, ended our scoring drought and given ourselves something to protect.
And protect it we did, and more easily than I thought we would.
I expected the Alamo. We got crosses, they had territory but our defensive shape and organisation was superb.
We didn't drop deeper than the 18-yard line and compressed the space well, asking them to come through the middle, which they couldn't, or get round behind us, which they couldn't.
Scott Brown had no serious saves to make in the game, testament to the back four in front of him, and the industry of the two holding midfielders in front of them, plus the outlets we had in the perpetual motion of Gornell, McGlashan, who worked hard defensively as ever, the busy Vincent for an hour, then his replacement Sido and Byron Harrison, who ploughed a lone furrow and ran his heart out while harassing their back three all game.
We might had ridden our luck at times with balls flashing across our box and being desperately cleared anywhere at times, but that matters little. When Sam Deering is winning headers on the edge of your penalty area, you know it's going to be your day.
We might not have seriously threatened a second goal, bar the odd breakaway, but even as things got more and more desperate for Newport, we didn't buckle.
Our boys were mentally strong, put bodies on the line, and showed spirit and determination in spades. It was a welcome sight as that is something we haven't done enough this season.
We have folded too often like a pack of cards under the sort of pressure we came under here, but not this time.
Playing for the manager? Definitely. Playing for the shirt? No doubt about it. It is too easy to accuse players of not trying or not caring when they lose a game as limply as we did at Bristol Rovers last time out, so equally we need to give them credit this time round.
This group of players have had a lot of brickbats and negativity thrown at them this season (mostly deservedly) - so they deserve plaudits after this display.
What also pleased me was our 'game management'. We slowed things down, drew Newport into giving away niggly fouls, and frustrated them and their fans more and more as the game went on.
We were a bit clever - something other teams do to us all the time but an area in which we are often naive, but not this time.
Newport got more and more wound up. That was typified by Ryan Burge, another player we have tried to sign twice, but who was lucky to stay on the pitch after first leaving a foot in a late (or maybe even stamping) on Brundle, and having been booked for that then ploughed through Deering seconds later.
After seven without a win, and with confidence fragile in the dressing room and ebbing away rapidly on the terraces, this was a valuable three points.
Put it into perspective - that was the first League game this season in which Newport have failed to score. A top achievement for a back four which has never played together and, Elliott aside, had very little experience.
A check of the results which revealed wins for Bury, Wycombe, Accrington, Mansfield and Northampton, added to Bristol Rovers' victory on Friday, made it an even more important three points.
Defeat would have left us 20th, but as it is we are 15th and right in the middle of a clutch of clubs seperated by eight points from Newport in 8th to Wycombe in 22nd.
It is ridiculously tight. Above Newport is a seven-point gap to the play-off spots, and below Wycombe a five-point advantage over the bottom two, so we could still (realistically) finish anywhere between 8th and 24th.
There will be annoyance over missed opportunities in the games where we have thrown away leads to draw or lose - but we can't do anything about that now.
All we can do it try to play like we did yesterday for the majority of the remaining 15 games and it will be a lot nearer to 8th, but now we need to sort this home form out for the two games coming up with Chesterfield and Bury.
We have taken 17 points at home this season - about half as many as we had at this stage last season (33). Away, we have taken 22, two more than at a comparable stage 12 months ago.
Chesterfield will be tough, as will the trip to Oxford, but we have Bury, Torquay and Wycombe at home, alongside trips to Portsmouth and AFC Wimbledon in the next month - all massive games against teams below us, and four of them in the bottom five.
I would go as far as to say those five games will decide which way we are heading so I'm not under any illusions that one win gets us out of the woods.
But yesterday has given me hope (once again) that we can move back in the right direction. Let's hope it's not a false dawn again.

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