Monday 25 January 2016

Comebacks and supersubs

ONE weekend, two late away team comebacks both inspired by supersubs - that's a quick way to sum up my weekend.
It started at 5.24am on Saturday morning, when I left Cheltenham to make my way to the big game at the Crabble... and yes, I know it didn't kick off for another 30-odd hours.
In between, there was a cross-Channel trip and a tour round Lille to find some watering holes before the first game of the weekend, the Ligue I game between Lille and Troyes.
The space-age Stade Pierre Mauroy is an impressive arena. The roof was closed, and the pitch was terrible (and they don't share the ground...) and the seats were half empty.
Lille started the game 14th, while Troyes are bottom, without a win all season, and for the opening 77 minutes of the game you could see why.
It was a pretty terrible 77 minutes. Lille led with a penalty but their fans got ever more frustrated as they couldn't see off the strugglers.
Then it was enter supersub number one. Babacar Gueye lumbered on and totally changed the game.
First, a nod down for Jeremy Cabot to fire in via the post. That increased the home fans' frustration, which reached fever pitch when Gueye crossed for Cabot to volley home brilliantly.
When Jessy Pi (disppointingly not wearing number 3.14 on his shirt) headed a third for Troyes after 85 minutes after Gueye's brilliant run to the near post left him in acres of space, the fun really started.
The home fans cheered the goal, and were giving the Troyes players an 'ole' with every touch and booing their own players.
On the final whistle, any attempt by the home players to applaud the fans was met with loud jeers, so they gave up and trooped off as the Troyes players celebrated with their (very) small pocket of away fans.
Attention then turned to Sunday's game at the Crabble. First, we had to hope the ferries were back to normal after Saturday's problems - then had to hope the fog which obscured our view of the white cliffs as we approached dear old Blighty wouldn't cause an issue.
Both were successfully overcome, as was a lack of headphones and microphones in our radio kit box, thanks to BT Sport for lending us some spare ones, so it was all systems go.
When the teamsheets arrived, there was no surprise at seeing Dan Holman's name in the starting XI but there was more eyebrows raised by Asa Hall's name on there as Daniel Parslow's defensive partner.
Dover play an almost unique 5-2-3 system. Their three central defenders are strong and did a good containing job on Danny Wright and Holman (for 88 minutes anyway... more of which later).
Up front, Ricky Modeste and Ricky Miller were always dangerous and gave Parslow and Hall plenty of problems.
Modeste was especially impressive, and I thought George McLennan had a good battle with him. There has been a lot of talk about Parslow being an unsung hero, but McLennan has also gone under the radar.
Considering he is only 20, I think he has a decent future ahead of him and is on the right tack for a good career.
There is no question however that we were second best. Dover had most of the possession and territory in the game but I can only remember Dillon Phillips having two saves to make - the header from Parkinson in the first half and the one from Modeste in the second.
That second save was superb - and it looked to me like he thought it had gone in as he kicked the post after making it in seeming frustration before realising it was a corner.
It takes something special to beat Dillon, and Nick Deverdics provided it. What a strike it was - but Dillon nealy saved it as he got a hand to it as it went in off the bar.
Deverdics practically ran to Calais in celebration, but what I thought was great was our players' reaction. They got the ball back, put it on the spot and were ready to go as Dover ambled back from their celebrations.
The social media reaction was quick in coming, and predictably hysterical and knee-jerk. A joke, we were a load of c**p, as bad as last season, bunch of bottlers... I can just about understand the frustration but much of it was plain ridiculous. Meanwhile, the Grimsby, Forest Green and Gloucester City fans lapped it all up.
By the time Deverdics scored, we'd made all three substitutions. James Rowe and Ryan Jennings had come on for Jack Munns and Billy Waters, neither of whom could complain at being replaced.
I was surprised at seeing Jennings come on ahead of James Dayton, but he didn't have to wait long as Jennings lasted around four minutes before going off again, injured. It remains to be seen whether we will see him again.
Dayton, as we later found out, was unwell, and looked extremely pale when he was interviewed after the game. But he produced the best impact in the 15 or so minutes he was on that we have seen from him.
There had been justifiable scepticism over the decision by Gary Johnson to extend his contract until the end of the season as he hadn't had the impact we had been looking for.
But on this occasion he certainly came up trumps, and in 17 games' time this 15 minute cameo could prove to be one of the pivotal periods of the season.
Firstly, he nipped in as Aswad Thomas (fresh from checking out the Craig Braham-Barrett manual of how not to play at left back) was dozing and was brought down for one of the most obvious penalties you will see all season.
Up stepped Danny Wright to put the penalty away. Never any doubt...
A point away from home after not playing well would have been satisfactory for me - but 55 seconds later we had nicked it with a good team goal.
Wright laid it off to Holman, who jinked through and was fouled. The ref played a decent advantage and Holman fed Dayton, whose shot-cross was parried out for Wright to tap in.
That's 15 goals now for Danny and he really has been a great focal point for us in this campaign, coming up trumps here after he had barely been given a kick or header all day by Dover's back three.
Dover had gone and we saw out the six added minutes with ease to take (let's face it) a real masks-and-sombreros victory. It did have a bit of a Nene Park 1999 feel about it all, but time will tell whether it all ends the same way.
Predictably, the same fans who minutes before had been slamming the squad and performance suddenly and very predictably exclaimed how they never doubted the spirit in the squad and hailed the players as heroes.
If you say so... oh how I love the fickleness of the modern football fan. At least it silenced the Grimsby, Forest Green and Gloucester fans for a while.
But let's not kid ourselves. It was a smash and grab, and another example of us not playing as well as we can, but still getting the result.
That is down to spirit and determination, and not giving up. That is the mark of a team capable of being champions.
Holman's addition looks a good one. He fed on scraps at Dover and had probably one real sight of goal which was a shot on target which brought out a save, but had a big part in the winner.
He has clearly fitted in well as we saw during the post-match celebrations, where he was joining in the songs and conducting the fans. A decent enough start with the promise of more to come.
At the back, Asa Hall was a bright spot at centre-half but I am sure even he will admit he is not a long-term replacement for Aaron Downes. With a week or so until the deadline we need a more orthodox option.
Hall might be needed a bit further forward next Saturday as Harry Pell picked up his 10th booking and misses the next two games. It's a bit of a bonus that the first is tomorrow's Oxford City game, which he wouldn't have played in anyway.
The second will be the Bromley game next Saturday so that will leave a bit of a hole which Hall would be favourite to fill if he isn't needed at centre back again.
So back to the top we go (until Tuesday at least) and this win sends out another message to everyone that we are not bottlers or a joke at all - we are a real force to be reckoned with and can finish this job off.
I think the title is now a three-horse race and Grimsby and Forest Green will provide a very tough challenge, but all the evidence shows we are more than up for it.

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