Monday, 17 March 2014

We couldn't... could we?

During the half-time break on Saturday, I walked along the main stand with my son, and down the stairs into the bar.
Along the way, I saw lots of head-scratching and finger-pointing, and was stopped twice to ask how many times I had been tempted to swear during the opening 45 minutes of commentary.
The answer is quite a few, but I had managed to bite my tongue in what was probably the worst halves we have seen this season. And, yes, it has some competition.
It was truly dire. Gutless and passionless, with no desire, will to win any 50-50s, no passing ability or real commitment. I don't think we put together more than three passes in one go, and it was a mirror of the games with Accrington and Mansfield - where we think it is acceptable to just turn up and win.
When they play like this, you can understand why this group of players is so unloved.
Torquay passed around us with ease, and with some more cutting edge up front they could have been ahead, and we would have had no complaints about that.
Mitch Brundle and Ashley Vincent, who was the only player to actually be positive and look confident when he got the ball at his feet, can be excepted from the brickbats, and none of the other outfield players could have had a grievance if they had been hooked off.
The midfield was a mess. Sam Deering, Matt Richards and Terry Gornell were dominated easily, and there was none of the excellent and combative stuff we had seen from them at Portsmouth and Oxford.
I don't know what was said in the dressing room at half-time, but I hope they all got a rocket, as performances like that 45 minutes are exactly why there is so much apathy about, and why the crowds are at the level they are.
Fans are being short-changed by it and although it is a results business ultimately, halves like that will not bring the lost fans and the floating fans back.
After that shambles however, it was to their credit that they put it right after the break, helped in no small part by a quick substitution, with Byron Harrison replacing Gornell.
We all know how frustrating Byron can be. It was no surprise he was benched after two anonymous games at Portsmouth and Oxford, when we saw the languid, at times lazy, at times lethargic Byron.
But this time we saw the effervescent, pain-in-the-backside-for-defenders, holding the ball up, running the channels and working hard Byron - the one we wish we could see all the time.
From the moment he went on, we looked a different side. We had a focal point up front, a pivot to play off, and someone, finally, to pose a concerted threat to a Torquay defence which had been given an easy ride, bar one Jamie Cureton shot which was saved.
It is so frustrating for us - but imagine how Mark Yates must feel, not knowing which Byron is going to turn up, and knowing that, nine times out of 10, he is going to have to make a substitution before the team can look like posing any kind of attacking threat, as he has had to in the last two games.
Chances are Byron will now start tomorrow against Wycombe. Which one will we see...?
After bringing on Byron, Yates then turned to trying to sort our midfield out. David Noble made his second cameo appearance, and the decision who to take off was a flip-of-the-coin job as Richards and Deering had been equally bad.
Heads for Deering, tails for Richards. It was heads, so off came Deering. A good decision as it turned out, with Richards breaking his open-play duck with a nice finish - redeeming himself for an otherwise off-colour display.
The goal was made by a superb piece of skill by Vincent, which forced a defender to give a throw away, and then a long-throw from Vincent (no, I didn't even know he was capable of it either) which fell to Richards' feet after Harrison caused chaos.
It was interesting to see that with Harrison on the field with Cureton, we moved to play a 4-4-2, the formation we never seem to be able to play. We did the same on Tuesday at Oxford - and maybe with Noble back in the side, we can play it.
Besides the goal, Harrison and Troy Brown headed over, and bar one shot which Scott Brown saved near the end, we never looked like relinquishing the lead.
Brundle had an excellent game, and in his three games has looked good twice - the other game being Chesterfield, when he wasn't alone in looking like a rabbit caught in the headlights.
And it was good to see the crowd top 3,000, and I was also pleased to hear some good noise from the LMI stand in the second half - despite all the trials and tribulations, and, frankly, despite some of the rubbish served up at home the crowd has, by and large, stuck by the side.
Yes, there have been boos after poor halves and poor performances and results, that is going to happen, and at times this season has been justified.
This time, we have to just sit back and say a win is a win. It wasn't pretty at all. Sometimes it doesn't matter how you win, as long as you do.
Now, ahead of tomorrow's game with Wycombe, we find ourselves in 11th place, five points off seventh, with this game in hand to play. Madness.
A win tomorrow will be our third in a row at home, after we had previously won three out of 16 at home.
It is bonkers, and further sums the division up that Southend, with six draws and four defeats in their last 10 games, are still in the zone. Above them are Oxford, who looked no great shakes against us, and have two wins in 10.
York are the team on the surge (unbeaten in eight), and Plymouth have climbed up also, but - ridiculous as it may sound - a win tomorrow and we are there as well.
Here's a few stats - in our last 10 games are won three, drawn five, lost two. Away from home we have lost two in 13 (Burton and Bristol Rovers).
In our last eight games, we have four clean sheets, and conceded one goal in three of the others. The eighth game was that mad seven minutes against Chesterfield, which in the grand scheme of things hasn't proved too costly for us.
So we have, that game aside, become more difficult to beat, more solid and resilient - at the right time of the season. Unspectacular and difficult to watch still, but definitely on the whole tougher to break down.
We have some tough games left. Three of the current top seven, Scunthorpe, Southend and Fleetwood, still have to come to us. We still have to go to Rochdale, and the side who sit just above us, Hartlepool.
Yet it really would be the supreme irony, wouldn't it, it this squad, this largely disregarded, derided mish-mash of a group of players, could succeed where the still heralded Pack-Penn-Summerfield-Bennett axis failed, and went all the way.
It is still a huge outside bet, but stranger things have happened. Crewe and Bradford were huge outside bets in the last two seasons, and they came through the pack with late momentum, sneaking into the top seven at the very end of the 46 games, and then went all the way.
What this side has in its' favour is the lack of expectation, eroded by inconsistency and performances like Saturday's first 45 minutes.
For the past two seasons, we were always in the mix, and could (no, should) have finished in the top three.
This time, no one, maybe outside that dressing room, thinks it is going to happen. I certainly don't, but as the table stands ahead of tomorrow's game, it cannot be definitely ruled out.
In public, the manager is targeting eighth. In private, I bet he isn't.
But anyway, that's enough optimism. If we lose tomorrow, we will be looking over our shoulders again, and this talk of the top seven can be canned.
However, if we win...
No, surely not. It couldn't happen. Could it?