Thursday 6 March 2014

Confidence holds the key

Confidence is a much-used word in football - and in the last two home games we have seen just what an effect it can have on results and performances.
Against Chesterfield, we displayed a distinct lack of it at both ends of the pitch, and carried that on against Bury - until the final 10 minutes after Byron Harrison's winner, when it looked as though a massive weight had come off our collective shoulders.
Going into that Chesterfield game off the back of that fine, and unexpected win at Newport, we should have been exuding confidence.
As we have said so often this season, it was no surprise that we went out with the same side - after all they deserved that after the clean sheet and battling qualities we had seen at Rodney Parade.
For the first 20 minutes, we gave as good as we got again, had a half-chance or two, and could have gone in front, but then we were blown away in a mad seven minutes.
Three of the four goals we superb finishes, but could all have been prevented. The first saw Tommy Lee's clearance bounce over Sam Deering for Gary Roberts to cross and Dan Gardner to smash it in.
The second and third were our errors, giving the ball away and being punished, while the fourth was poor marking from a corner.
Aside from that, it wasn't our worst performance of the season and didn't really deserve all the criticism it got over social media, with maybe a few looking at the result rather than the overall performance.
We have played a lot worse at home - Accrington, Mansfield, Plymouth to name three games - but this brought the low confidence strikingly back into view. Terry Gornell could have had a hat-trick, Jermaine McGlashan had a decent chance or two - yet that tentativeness in replicating the ruthless finishing we saw at the other end and in the decision-making of picking the right pass at the right time to set up a better-placed team-mate made all the difference.
Defensively, the same back four looked a shadow of what we saw at Newport, but it was a different approach from Chesterfield.
At Newport, they had 33 crosses to deal with. Meat and drink for Michael Ihiekwe and Steve Elliott, and easier for Mitch Brundle and Craig Braham-Barrett to support them and tidy up when needed.
Chesterfield were different. They looked to play through us, using excellent movement, especially with Ollie Banks, Roberts, Gardner and Eoin Doyle, to pull us out of shape and exploit the space.
I felt sorry for Brundle - he is not the first player this season to have been given the runaround by Roberts, and he won't be the last, but was a rabbit caught in the headlights on occasions.
Braham-Barrett had a tough time against Gardner, and also had Tendayi Darikwa joining in from right-back.
They were not helped by our midfield two, especially in the first half, sitting deep and not pushing out to put pressure on the ball.
I am not sure if that was the game plan for Deering and Matt Richards to give Sam Morsy and Jimmy Ryan that space to dictate the tempo of the game and switch the ball to left and right, but that is what they were allowed to do.
They got a but closer to them in the second half, and hey presto the Chesterfield pair's influence was diminished and we were able to come into the game more.
The cynics will say that Chesterfield sat back with a four-goal lead and the game in the bag - that is true to an extent but we did show a bit of spine and pride and I am sure the pan was not for us to get a goal back, and for Lee to have to make saves from McGlashan and Ashley Vincent which, had those chances gone in, could have made the last few minutes more interesting.
But the damage had been done, and it was interesting to see Portsmouth's approach in their Sky game with Chesterfield on Monday.
They got in their faces, with Toumani Diagouraga especially prominent in this, and their 4-1-4-1 system worked well to nullify the midfield two who got free rein at our place, and also the threats out wide from Roberts and Gardner.
Hindsight is a wonderful thing, but if we had taken that approach from the start... I am not saying we would have won the game but we might have made it a bit more competitive.
That result led to a 'clear the air' meeting on Wednesday and it seems some home truths were said from both sides. That is a good thing, and I hope it goes some way to dispelling these claims of players not caring.
We had Troy Brown in our commentary box for the Chesterfield game, and he was literally kicking and heading every ball. My arm is still sore as he grabbed it every time we went near the Chesterfield penalty area! He certainly cares.
Thankfully for my arm he was back in the side for the Bury game, and it was clear to see where Mark Yates felt the problems were from the Chesterfield loss - the full-back positions, with Ihiekwe and Sido coming in for Brundle and CBB.
We have used eight different centre-halves this season, and have also had five right-backs (Sido, Lowe, Ihiekwe, Brundle and unforgettably CBB at Tamworth) while CBB, Sido and Matt Richards have played at left-back. Is it any wonder we haven't kept 20 clean sheets this time round?
Sido's up-and-down form has caused a problem at right-back, while we have barely had a solid left-back since Jamie Victory retired (with a nod to Alan Wright and Billy Jones as the closest we have come).
The midfield five stayed the same against Bury, but again I didn't feel Deering and Richards did a good enough pressing job on their opposite numbers, with Andrew Tutte and especially Danny Mayor able to find some space and get on the front foot.
I am sure I was not the only one fearing the worst when they went in front - Danny Nardiello did very well, but the simplicity with which he skipped round Elliott was worrying, and only served as more evidence that Father Time may be catching up with Steve and this will unfortunately be the last season for a great servant to this club.
But the response was heartening. A quick equaliser, and a good finish from Ash for a second in three games. Like a new signing... and asking questions about what he could have done had he been used more earlier in the season, but that is water under the bridge now.
His presence in the side on that left side has finally given us the balance we have been crying out for all season, and gives us a threat from both sides of the pitch at last.
I am not convinced at all by Deering and Richards as a midfield two, and hopefully the sight of David Noble warming up before the Bury game means we will see him on Saturday at some point.
I like Gornell in that attacking midfielder role. I am sure he would rather be right up top with Jamie Cureton or Harrison, but he has the work rate to get up in support when needed (as he showed against Chesterfield with a hat-trick of great chances) and also to help out the others.
McGlashan set the winner up again, and it was almost a carbon copy of the Newport winner - Jermaine skinning his full-back, knocking a decent ball over, and Harrison going in where it hurts to score.
Byron made a difference when he came on. Jamie Cureton had, again, been pretty anonymous I am afraid. He links the play well occasionally, but does not provide a real focal point up front as that lone striker. The ball does not stick, and he does not provide that outlet we need.
There is no question in my mind that the signing has been a disappointment.
Whether that is because we haven't played to his strengths at all times is open for debate, and I see that view to an extent, but he cannot expect it all on a plate - I think his work-rate has been wanting at times, and although he has scored some well-taken and opprtunist goals, he has definitely missed some chances that should have been taken given his record and reputation.
After Byron's goal, we looked a different team immediately. The confidence shift was remarkable.
Gone were the slumped shoulders and bowed heads I had seen for the previous 80 minutes. Players were suddenly standing tall, with chests pumped out.
Gone was the listless lack of movement and urgency and it was replaced by quick tempo, passing and everyone suddenly wanting the ball rather than hiding away or treating it like a hot potato.
Bury never looked like getting an equaliser. They were pressed back and we could have had another goal or two in those last 10 minutes.
It was a fleeting glimpse of what we might have expected to see this season from this squad of players, and only served to provide more frustration at the way this campaign has turned out.
Byron's goal was a crucial one too in the bigger picture. As the only team to win in the bottom half of the table, we went up four places, and broke through that psychological 40-point barrier.
We can't be complacent yet, but it gives us some little breathing space as we go on to Portsmouth, a much-awaited game all season, and a big test against a side in decent form and coming off the back of that useful point at Chesterfield.
It was another sign of the ridiculous nature of League Two that their point at the Proact moved them up four places in the table.
They looked a very decent side when they drew 2-2 here earlier in the season, and we are expecting to face a 15,000 crowd at Fratton, so hopefully that confidence we showed in the closing stages on Saturday can be carried forward.
We cannot afford to be tentative like we were against Chesterfield. We need to take a leaf from Pompey's own book from Monday night and get in their faces on Saturday and try to silence that crowd early, that represents our best chance.

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