Wednesday 17 February 2016

Breathing space

RIGHT - that's the first objective of the season successfully completed, now that we are safe from relegation and the thought of a wet Tuesday at Gainsborough Trinity.
So now we are free to concentrate on completing the second objective, securing that league title and automatic promotion.
After the late show at Barrow, we had on paper two favourable home games against Welling and Kidderminster, knowing that we would be four points clear at the top if we came through them.
Welling were a bit of an unknown quantity really. No real 'star' players in their side and the only team we hadn't played yet, which seems strange two-thirds of the way into the campaign.
It was one of those games where you felt the win would come, but where an early goal would be needed, otherwise they would be happy to park the bus and frustrate as the game went on.
Danny Wright's header provided it from a terrific Jordan Cranston cross, which hopefully is a good portent of what is to come from our newest recruit.
He had come in for George McLennan, which was harsh on George I thought, but he was back against Kidderminster and the two will be competing now for that left-back berth.
How nice it is to have two decent players to potentially fill that role, with little to seperate them it seems, which hasn't been the case in more recent times. Shame we didn't have either of them a season or two earlier...
After Wright's goal, I thought the floodgates would open as to be honest Welling were as poor as anything we have come across all season.
Their goalkeeper was the main reason we didn't get more than two as he made several fantastic saves, while our defence and Dillon Phillips had as quiet a day as they have enjoyed all season.
Dan Holman got the second, probably the easiest goal he will score, and that was just about that.
The only downer was the injury to Harry Pell, which I must admit seemed pretty innocuous at the time. No-one even appealed for a foul and there was no urgency from anyone to knock the ball out of play.
In real time, it didn't even look a foul to me, and I thought the tackler had won the ball, and only when Pell stayed down and was obviously hurt did doubts appear about that first impression.
Later it became obvious it was a poor tackle, a penalty and arguably a red card, while Pell takes possession of the special ankle boot now Amari Morgan-Smith has vacated it.
So we still sat a point clear going into the Kidderminster game, which, being our game in hand on Forest Green, had a little bit of extra pressure on it.
Despite their league position, they had given us a tough game on Boxing Day and came to Whaddon having won three games in a row, including wins over Eastleigh and Macclesfield.
Add to that the invented 'rivalry' many fans have tried and keep trying to stoke up between the clubs and there were plenty of ingredients for a decent game.
In the first half it wasn't that - it was frenetic, physical and scrappy (not helped by an inadequate refereeing performance), and I have since seen many fans being critical of what they perceived to be an overly direct approach from us, including some sour-grapes comments from the Kidderminster manager.
Yes, we were quite direct, probably more so than usual - but I thought it was a deliberate tactic to get the ball into the channels and to get the Kidderminster defence turned, exposing what may be a lack of pace with Kelvin Langmead and Keith Lowe in the centre.
But to be honest I don't really care how we play. At this stage and in the position we are in, all that matters is results and we all want to end the 46 games with more points than anyone else.
So does it matter how we get them? Not to me it doesn't. If lots of long balls are needed to win games and secure the title, bring them on.
I thought the first half was just two sides being pretty cagey, not wanting to give anything away and almost feeling each other out.
They barely threatened us and we had the better chances, and I felt at half-time that we would go on and win the game.
We did of course with Wright and Holman on target again, a penalty and a header which crept into the corner after great work from James Rowe. Job done, another 2-0 win, and four points clear with 13 games to go.
So a club-record equalling 20 games unbeaten, 15 wins and five draws, five successive wins, nine wins in the last 10, 13 wins in the last 15... however you want to dress them up they are impressive stats.
Even more so when you take into account that the last five wins have been achieved without the skipper Aaron Downes, and several other mainstays haven't been there either, Jack Munns and Billy Waters on the bench, and Pell suspended, then benched and now injured.
To have maintained the run and momentum without those four, such important cogs for the first two-thirds of the season (in fact, with Morgan-Smith and Rob Dickie also out that number rises to six), says much for Gary and Pete Johnson's recruitment and judgement of players and characters, and the attitude and desire of the players who have come in.
Few sides in this league could afford to lose or leave out players of that calibre and barely affect the quality of the team.
At the back, Cameron Burgess has just slotted in like he has always been there. He looks composed and doesn't seem to panic - a mature head on is 20-year-old shoulders.
Alongside him, Daniel Parslow has taken on the mantle of the defensive leader seamlessly and continued in his unfussy, consistent way in Downes' absence. As it stands, he's still my player of the season... the others have 13 games to change my mind.
The two of them, plus Jack Barthram and the two left-backs mentioned earlier have kept chances down to a minimum, especially in the last two games, where Phillips has probably made two difficult saves at most in the 180 minutes.
In midfield, Asa Hall, James Dayton and James Rowe have all justified their selections and seem to be getting better game by game.
Hall was magnificent at centre-half at Dover and then came up trumps at Barrow, while Dayton did the trick at Dover and has looked dangerous at times in all the recent games.
Rowe has provided assists and moments of quality, like his cross for Holman against Kidderminster, and it is testament to all three that no-one has been clamouring for Munns, Waters and (before injury) Pell to come back in.
Gary Johnson's faith in Burgess, Hall, Rowe and Dayton has been repaid by their displays and it shows the depth of the squad - the latter trio's patience and positive attitude has been rewarded.
That brings me to the front two. Like our unbeaten run stats, their run of goals is impressive.
Holman has four in five for us (all at home...) while Wright, since an eight-game drought between scoring at Gateshead in October and at home to Chester in December, has 10 goals in 10 games, and seven in his last six.
He and Holman have 11 goals between them in their five games together, and after 90 minutes getting used to each other at Dover their partnership has blossomed.
It's a bit early to compare them to previous double acts, but the early signs are very promising indeed.
Holman's work rate is phenomenal. He doesn't seem to stop and never gives up on lost causes while always looking to fashion a chance to shoot. No wonder he has had more on-target shots than any other VNL forward.
Combining that with Wright's hold-up strength and willingness to run channels and get on the end of crosses, they seem to complement each other well.
Let's hope there is more to come from the Deadly Dans, starting on Saturday at Tranmere.
The trip to Prenton Park is, I believe one of the toughest games we have left, along with the trip to Wrexham and Grimsby at home - but with our current form we shouldn't be fearing anyone.
We have competition for places in all areas and confident players in form, so why can't we go up there and win, and set another record in this fantastic campaign?

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