Sunday, 9 August 2015

Great expectations

AS I left Cheltenham at 9.30am on Saturday, I thought to myself that I would be happy to be returning 11 hours later with a draw from the tricky-looking trip to Lincoln.
In the event, I was left a little disappointed getting home after watching a bit of mixed bag display, with some good attacking play and suspect defending, and in the event we could have easily come home with an opening-day win.
But this is very much a work still in progress. We had 11 debutants put together over a hectic summer and only six pre-season weeks into their journey, but still bedding into the club and bonding together.
They faced a side somewhat direct and physical in their approach, and for the most part stood up to it and who knows - down the line this may prove to be a decent point as I can't see many sides going to Sincil Bank and winning. I see them as a top-half side.
But the expectations and pressure on us are great. Personally, I believe too great in some quarters as my feeling is that some supporters are expecting us to just walk the league.
That's unrealistic to me - I would see a play-off place as a great achievement.
There won't be many mugs in this league, and we will come up against tough sides who will be, like Lincoln were, somewhat uncompromising.
We had the better of the first half, no doubt about that. Beside Jack Munns' goal, Billy Waters and Harry Pell had one-on-one chances saved, and Munns looked to have been brought down in the box.
At any level, you have to take your chances - and as the game wore on there was that horrible inevitability in the pit of my stomach that we would be punished for it - and so it proved.
We looked very dangerous in that opening 45 minutes, with Pell, Munns and Waters combining well as they had in pre-season, while Danny Wright and Amari Morgan-Smith worked hard, ran the channels effectively and stretched and troubled the Lincoln back four.
Their midfield holders, Matt Sparrow and Craig Stanley struggled to cope with them and it wasn't a real surprise when Munns scored.
But at the other end we had a few warnings. We knew all about Matt Rhead from his days at Mansfield and every time a long throw or corner came into our box he was a danger.
He put one header just wide and we were finding it difficult from set-plays as we had at times in pre-season - remember the goals conceded against Bristol Rovers and Cardiff.
It is an Achilles heel and something we need to try and stamp out as throughout the season teams will pick up on it, we will get plenty of bombardment and it could prove very costly.
But overall, I suspect Gary Johnson would have been happy at half-time. Even more so as we started the second half in the same vein and Morgan-Smith should have put us two up.
However then the game changed somewhat. Munns, Pell and Waters were well nullified by Lincoln, while I felt Wright and Morgan-Smith's effectiveness dimmed with the ball not sticking when it went up front, and coming straight back too easily.
The passing became a bit sloppy and we were very much on the back foot for the final half-hour or so as, instead of being comfortable as we could have been after the first-half chances, we were left clinging to a 1-0 lead.
Finally we cracked, and it was  a disappointing equaliser to concede. There were three or four players near Liam Hearn when he won the header - but none putting real pressure on him.
"Someone lost their man," said the manager. "We'll deal with it." I hope so Gary, I hope so.
We didn't create much in the second half - after Morgan-Smith's chance I can only remember a scuffed Waters shot in the dying seconds, so after we had the better of the first half, and Lincoln the better of the second and it was credit to Dillon Phillips for a couple of decent saves.
It's hard to complain with a 1-1 draw overall. It's not the win we had hoped for - but it is a start. A small base to try and build from.
Despite the disappointment of letting the lead slip, there were plusses. It was good to see the work-rate and commitment replicated from pre-season and I felt there were some promising individual performances.
Munns took his goal well, and Waters was a real threat in the first half, while Wright worked extremely hard.
On this showing, Kyle Storer showed me that he is going to be a very important cog for us as he did a lot of effective mopping up and I was also impressed with George McLennan at left-back.
Another plus was travelling support. 255 was a decent enough number, around the same levels as last year and it's good to see people sticking with the team on the road. I especially enjoyed watching the celebrations of Munns' goal - fans and players united - let's hope it stays that way through the inevitable ups and downs.
We did seem to tire towards the end, but that will happen given the intensity of the pressing game we are trying to play, and despite all the players we have on our books the squad does look a bit thin at present.
The 16 on duty at Sincil Bank more or less picked itself despite us having 27 players registered. Eight are on loan, two more injured and Eliot Richards hopefully on the road to full health again.
The JJ Hooper saga (handled correctly by Johnson in my view) was unfortunate in its' timing, and I doubt whether Bobbie Dale and Harry Williams would have been loaned out had that happened sooner - especially as Farnborough subsequently had their first three league games called off.
Adequate cover at centre back and centre forward are the main concerns going forward, but it is difficult to know how much room the manager has for manoeuvre in the coming weeks.
But for now, the focus is on two home games in the coming six days.
If we are going to make a push for that play-off place, even at this early stage you have to feel that Aldershot and Southport are the sort of teams you have to take points from on your own patch - four at the very minimum.
The onus will be on us to be on the front foot and to produce a performance like the first half on Saturday over the full 90 in both games as you can be sure these two sides will probably not be very adventurous in their approach.