Tuesday, 3 March 2015

The feel good factor

MIDFIELD - that is usually where football matches are won and lost, and the axis on which successful teams are forged.
We have seen it down the years, how that 'engine room' can be so crucial.
I think back to Brian Hughes and Steve Brooks in the mid-80s, providing goals and flair, then Lee Howells, Dave Norton and some bloke called Milton in our Conference-winning side.
Also John Finnigan and Grant McCann in John Ward's play-off-winning team, and then the Marlon Pack, Russ Penn, Luke Summerfield triumverate which should have matched that feat.
All of those combinations had different attributes to bring - goals, energy, flair, mobility, tackling, playmaking - but they all dovetailed together and allowed the other parts of the team to function.
Since 2011-12 however, our midfield has been a bit of a mess.
Combinations have been tried, and they have all failed; loanee after loanee has come and gone.
We haven't been able to find that winning formula again, and it isn't a coincidence that we have struggled.
Playing 4-4-2 hasn't been possible, and we have seen the dreaded diamond come and go with 3-5-2 having the odd success, but nothing lasting.
Up at Accrington, Russ Milton opted for a 4-5-1, morphing into a 4-3-3 when we got forward. Matt Richards played as the deeper of the three, with Jordan Wynter and Joe Hanks ahead of him, and we scrapped and battled to a 1-1 draw.
Richards did his job well, but Wynter and Hanks at times showed a bit of naivety, as you would expect of a (then) teenager in Hanks and a player in Wynter still relatively inexperienced in battles like the one at the Crown. Their time will come - they are both highly-promising players with big futures.
Fast forward eight days, and on Saturday Milton was able to field a midfield of Richards (409 league starts) and Matt Sparrow (353), with Pablo Mills (337) as their screen.
All 30-plus, all with more than 1,000 games between them under their belts - and boy, did that experience show.
Right from the off, Sparrow looked different class (and yes, I will overlook the dodgy back pass this time).
There was no hot potato, get rid of the ball anywhere stuff as we have seen too much of in the last two seasons.
He cultivated the ball. Looked after it. And if he came under pressure, there was no panic at all. He would get himself of trouble with a pass almost every time.
Behind him was Mills. Not match fit apparently. Ok, like to see him when he is because the man was an absolute rock.
Nothing fancy here. Just get the ball and make a 10-15 yard pass. Forward to Sparrow or Richards, Right to Lee Vaughan, left to Craig Braham-Barrett, or backwards to Troy Brown, Matt Taylor or Trevor Carson.
It didn't matter where, but it found a red and white (or yellow) shirt, practically every time. No panic, no fuss.
Those two set the tone, and they allowed everyone around them to calm down. Yes there was pressure on the game, we needed the win badly, but the nous they brought transferred itself around the team.
Taylor and Brown were able to concentrate on their job, ie to stop Kayode Odejayi or Jordan Hugill. Vaughan and CBB could do likewise with Rory Donnelly or Jennison Myrie-Williams without feeling under a constant siege.
But the biggest change those two brought was in Matt Richards. I don't think many players have come in for as much flak as he has in recent times - some of it justified - but on Saturday he looked a different player.
He looked like a player who had seen a massive weight lifted off his shoulders.
No longer was it his sole responsibility to bring some calm into the middle of the park.
No longer did he feel he was fighting a sole battle to be the man to get us on the front foot.
He was finally able to take the shackles off and seemed to have some freedom to express himself properly and be the player he has wanted to be for two seasons.
In the second half especially, he was magnificent. As good as he has ever been in a red and white shirt - and he topped it off with a decent set-piece at long last, straight on to Troy Brown's head.
That capped off a better show from him as well. Troy and the skipper barely missed a header all afternoon.
The full backs were also full of confidence. Vaughan is like a man possessed at the moment, seemingly determined to take teams on almost single-handedly.
Some of his tackling on Saturday was ferocious and the way he has formed a partnership down our right-hand side with Wes Burns has been fantastic.
That is where most of our threat came from at Accrington and on Saturday, and they work together well in attack and defence. We haven't quite matched that down the left yet with Braham-Barrett and Eliot Richards, but there are small signs.
We know that CBB is not everyone's favourite, but was better on Saturday and it is to his credit that Myrie-Williams was very quiet and had to swap to Vaughan's side in a bid to get himself in the game.
As for Eliot Richards, he is growing on me. While Burns has taken all the plaudits for his performances - and rightly so - Eliot has also played his part.
He might not have scored yet or really made a game-changing impact, but he was quietly effective on Saturday with little bursts of pace and making himself available with little bits of link-up play - and he nearly got on the end of a goal-kick with a Robin van Persie-style flying header which would have brought the house down.
At the axis of the team was Shaun Harrad - and it is great to have him back. A natural goalscorer - probably one of the most natural we have had in recent years, and a penalty-box poacher who might just turn half-chances into goals.
In the first 20 minutes on Saturday, he was irrepressible as we shot out of the blocks. He was stretching their back line, and forced the own goal (sorry Hazza, you are not having that one!) and showed that he wants to make up for lost time.
Although he didn't carry on that energy, and it would have been some feat of he had done, he put in a real shift and deserved his ovation when he came off.
We looked like a team transformed with the injection of experience on the pitch and enthusiasm off it from the new management team.
But overall we are a club transformed. Saturday's win was only a small step, we have a long way to go still however the atmosphere is just fantastic.
The board have done their bit by sanctioning the new arrivals we desperately needed, and the sponsors weighed in with the free scarves and sticks.
The supporters have bought into it as well, and to have 2,700 of a crowd of just over 3,000 was a significant rise on the turnout for recent games. Long may it continue.
The atmosphere was brilliant. Noise, singing, standing ovations for players as they went off and everyone staying and applauding as one at the final whistle. Togetherness from the board down to the terraces.
Saturday showed just what can be achieved by everyone pulling together. That is what we did in 1999 when we got into the Football League in the first place. We pulled together to achieve a common goal.
Recreating that can get us out of this pickle we find ourselves in now. Disunity and petty infighting won't do us any good - that was sending us only one way.
But this needs to be a permanent mindset. Yes we will lose games, yes the club will do things we don't like or don't agree with, yes we will have players in the side who fans may not necessarily rate.
We can't go back to the old days of moaning and groaning and turning our backs on the team after a defeat or two. It is so counter-productive.
There might still be a rocky road ahead over the next 13 games, and I don't just mean the M6 to Carlisle later this afternoon.
We have to stick with it. Keep up this tide of optimism and passion which has been generated in recent weeks, then look to go into next season with this same mindset from the start. It's the only way our fantastic football club will thrive.