Sunday, 31 August 2014

Top of the league? Well, almost...

How long must we wait before we can start wondering whether this team could really surprise us this season?
Maybe not after five games. But 10? 15? Who knows - but at the moment let's try not to get carried away, but just enjoy a refreshing start to the season which - come on, hand on heart - none of us really expected.
I will happily admit that I didn't and I am enjoying being proved wrong at the moment, and while the editor of Four Four Two magazine might not be sacking his League Two pundit just yet, it's nice to be at least preparing the recipe for some humble pie.
If we were called AFC Cheltenham Town, we could claim to be top of the league, but because Burton Albion come before us alphabetically, they get that pressure. For the moment at least...
Today's win over Hartlepool was, especially in the second half, as one-sided a 1-0 win as you could ever hope to see, and had we won by three or four, there could have been few complaints.
But we found the goal, from our modern-day Ole-Gunnar Solskjaer (or David Fairclough for those of us from an older vintage... kids, look him up on Google) Koby Arthur, and the irony was not lost on me that probably the smallest guy on the pitch scored with a fantastic header to win us the game.
Once again, it was credit to the manager and his staff for making the changes, and timing them in such a way as well to give them time enough to make that impact, but all over the pitch, we have players showing real commitment and work-rate.
They are being used in a system which they seem to understand, and which seems to be a good fit for the personnel we have. Overall, there seems to be a method and pattern to what we are trying to do that didn't seem evident last season.
I don't think I was alone in wondering about whether the loss of players like Scott Brown, Jamie Cureton and Jermaine McGlashan would have a big effect on our prospects, and whether the 'young and hungry' mantra would be a sensible way to go. Seems to be panning out okay so far.
Off the field, the manager seems refreshed and enthused - whether that is down the one-year (almost 'last chance') contract and the necessity for a good start, or whether Shaun North's arrival has helped to lift the standard of coaching and organisation is open to conjecture, Maybe a bit of both - but whatever it is, long may it continue.
There is also a Plan B, and even a Plan C - flexibility and options within the squad which is working so far.
And the feelgood factor is filtering through to the terraces - the crowd was 400 up on the Carlisle game with 100 or so less away fans - and the Wymans' resurrection in the Paddock has been another positive.
The noise in the ground and among the away support has lifted in encouragement and volume and this can only be helping the team.
Our biggest enemy today could have been complacency. This could have been viewed as one of those 'turn-up-and-win' afternoons which we have seen go wrong in the past.
But if a team cannot get confidence from a comeback result like the one last week at Tranmere, it's never going to happen and we were up and at it from the off.
I thought it was good management to start the same 11 which began the Tranmere game - I can understand the terrace clamour for Arthur to start, or for the loanee John Marquis to be thrown straight in, but it's a nice choice for the manager to have and I thought he made the right call.
Terry Gornell would have been the one whose place was seemingly most at risk from Marquis' arrival or Arthur's impact after his long goal drought, but once again, having been given the vote of confidence, his work-rate could not be questioned.
But once again he left the field after his hard-working hour with his famine going on, but again having done everything but score - and I was delighted to hear a really good ovation for him when he came off. He deserved it.
Once again, his shots were blocked or deflected, or he just delayed for that vital split-second. He hit the outside of the goal frame and had one cleared off the line. When it isn't going for you, it really isn't - but you wonder whether that might be his last chance for a while.
That is not only because Arthur is knocking on the door, but also because Marquis made a very good impact as his replacement.
His work ethic is equal to Terry's, with that willingness to run the channels, but he looks a bigger threat aerially, and also more of a 'target' player with more body strength to hold the ball up.
Like Terry, he was really unlucky not to score a couple of times, with the post and then the bar via a good save from Scott Flinders denying him, and there is no doubt that he looks a decent acquisition on this evidence.
Alongside them, until Arthur came on with 12 minutes to go, was Byron Harrison, and he again was a pain in the backside for the Hartlepool defence all afternoon.
He might not have been our most potent goal threat, but his control, touch, movement and hold-up play was excellent, and allowed Gornell and Marquis to flit around him to good effect.
It follows on from last week's display, where he had a direct hand in all three goals and drew praise from Rob Edwards, and any scouts from a club looking for a number nine would not fail to be impressed by him - and we have to hope they don't dip their toes in the water and I really hope the club are actively looking at trying to extend his contract.
We know these days that players have all the power and can bide their time over these things to take advantage of all the options, as we have seen from Brown and McGlashan amongst others in recent years, offered contracts and opting to exercise their right to go - but I do hope the club will start early with the attempts to keep Byron for longer.
Much of the service for that front pair came from Lee Vaughan and Craig Braham-Barrett, and there is no doubt that the latter has been the revelation of the season.
After being roundly castigated last term, he once again turned in an excellent performance backing up last week's 'Roberto Carlos' display at Tranmere, being a huge threat going forward and - possibly more importantly - rock-solid defensively when he had to be.
His delivery from the left-hand side was as good as it has been, some wicked balls crying out for a touch, and he was always available as an outlet - as was Vaughan on the other side.
I felt at times Vaughan's passing was disappointing, but that's a small grumble - he too was a threat and looked to be positive, getting into the final third whenever he could.
For Craig Braham-Barrett, also read Jason Taylor. Another player who wasn't flavour of the month with the fans, and seemingly the manager as well, but is answering any critics he might have in spades at the moment.
In the first half, he was right at the hub of everything, almost the heartbeat of the side as everything was going through him. Three or four times, he broke up the play with strong tackles, and then kept it simple - looking for either of the wing-backs, or one of his midfield colleagues, not wasting many passes.
Also, for a player who doesn't seem to be the greatest natural athlete, he wasn't shy to close down any Pool player in possession, and even though he wasn't as prominent after the break, his influence was still important.
Much is made of the much-vaunted 2011-12 midfield trio of Pack, Penn and Summerfield, and how well they knitted together. Now, I am not actively comparing them to what we have now -  but we do have a decent little mix in there with Taylor, Matt Richards and Jordan Wynter.
There is the scrapper Taylor, the calming influence of Richards, who had another quietly effective game and has started the season very well, and the energy and box-to-box athleticism of Wynter.
Promising beginnings for those three, and with Joe Hanks' youthful enthusiasm and new-boy Asa Hall also keen to make an impact when he recovers from injury, we seem to have lots of options in there.
That leaves the back three, and they too, like the midfield, are knitting into a decent unit.
We know all about Steve Elliott's desire to run through brick walls, which shows little sign of abating.
Troy Brown looks a lot happier in a back three, and I thought today he was the pick of the trio, barely missing a header or a tackle all afternoon.
Matt Taylor definitely seems a top acquisition. No frills or fuss to his game, we know what we are going to get from him and he has done very little wrong in the five league games so far.
Today, the trio gave excellent protection to Trevor Carson, who had his quietest afternoon so far from the point of view of making saves, but was there when he had to be, patrolling his box with confidence once more and doing what he had to with the minimum of bother.
Marlon Harewood and Charlie Wyke were marshalled with little trouble, and that feeling that Hartlepool could pinch something as teams often do when being under the cosh so much was a really tiny worry.
Overall, our attitude was spot on. There was no complacency, and even when we got to those final stages, no panic, as the manager made the changes to personnel and system which deservedly paid off with Arthur's winner.
As it stands, we fully deserve to be unbeaten, and fully deserve to be where we are, and hopefully we can carry it on for as long as possible. Who would have thought that next Saturday's game at Morecambe would be a top-of-the-table clash...!
But, difficult as it is, I just feel we mustn't get carried away. We will lose eventually, and then we must not immediately go the other way and lose  all the positivity which has been built up.
Marquis seems to be the last piece of the outfield jigsaw, with Bobby Gould's grandson Matt likely to win a contract as our back-up keeper.
As long as teams stay away from Byron in the next 48 hours, I don't see any other business before the end of the deadline - unless we try to turn the loans for Wynter and Marquis into longer-term, window-to-window agreements.
If I understand things correctly, the pair are on monthly deals which can only last a maximum of 93 days.
Therefore, these would end in late October/early November - another drawback of the short-term loan agreement.
We could yet find ourselves short again unless we get other loans in after that time until January, or extend these two before Monday night, while our new super-sub Arthur and Omari Sterling-James, whose impact today was not as great as last Saturday, are here until January at least.
But let's leave those worries about whether they will stay or go back for another day, and just try to enjoy it for a while.
After a season of disappointment and disharmony, it's nice to see smiles back on faces and a positive air about the place again. Feet on the ground yes, but there's no harm in also having some optimistic thoughts, is there...?