Friday, 8 March 2013

Swings and roundabouts

A few weeks ago, we all trudged out of Whaddon Road shaking our heads in disbelief after Ollie Norburn's thunderbolt soared past Scott Brown, carrying two precious promotion points with it into the net.
That old footballing adage says that these things even themselves out - and that's what happened on Tuesday when Paul Benson's header glanced past Tommy Lee, and we got those two points back - just like we did when Chris Zebroski scored late on to sink Burton, effectively cancelling out Fleetwood's late leveller earlier in the season.
There is another on that list of pretty annoying sayings surrounding the game, that one about 'finding a way to win' or 'grinding out a result'. No doubting that this was one of those.
As 'precious wins' go, this was right up there, as, let's face it, it was time to think of all those adjectives to describe a bad game, and multiply them by 100. That's how bad it was.
I can't recall Lee or Scott Brown being really stretched to make a save throughout the 90 minutes. I also can't recall either side having a concerted spell of pressure or building up anything vaguely resembling a head of steam.
Ok you get the drift. It was pretty rubbish. But we won, and kept a clean sheet, so we can (sort of) put the memory of the dire fare to one side.
Among the 'highlights' of the opening 91 minutes was the performance of Chesterfield's Mario Balotelli clone Armand Gnanduillet, a rangy striker, and another of these French/Afrcian youngsters who somehow manage to pop up in lower division football, a la Mathieu Manset and others.
He was one of those players so unpredictable that you did not know what he was going to do - and I sensed that he wasn't sure either.
Therefore, he was a handful for Michael Hector and Steve Elliott, who had to be on their guard in case he fell over the ball, which he did a couple of times, or looked capable of pinging in a 35-yard screamer, which, thankfully, he didn't.
I thought we started brightly, with Sam Deering again at the heart of it, and he is now rivalling Jermaine McGlashan as the man who can do no wrong in most supporters' eyes.
He was everywhere in the first 20-25 minutes, but then Chesterfield did a good job of nullifying him, and as the game wore on he struggled to have the same impact.
The same could be said for the rest of our midfield. Marlon Pack had the quietest game since all the Swindon furore died down. Darren Carter was also peripheral, and Russ Penn and Jason Taylor also toiled away to little effect.
That was no help to Benson, who admitted to me after the game here that was pretty rubbish, and if he had been in Mark Yates' shoes would have substituted himself. Good job you are not the gaffer Benno.
As it was, the eventual victory was based on the rock-like displays of Hector and Elliott at the back, and although flavour-of-the-month Deering rather predictably got the man-of-the-match awards I would have chosen one of these two.
As well as Monsieur Gnanduillet, they had our old target and nemesis Marc Richards to look after, then that wily old fox Jack Lester, who had one shot on the turn just wide, and they carried on from where they left off on Saturday, when Gary Alexander was effectively shut out.
They protected Brown superbly, and fully deserved their first clean sheet as a partnership, and let's hope they can keep a few more in the coming crucial weeks.
Overall, I didn't feel was passed it as well as we have in the previous two games with this starting 11 and formation.
Yatesy gave his view as to the reason for that - the worn Whaddon Road pitch, and I hope that doesn't become a convenient excuse if we falter in the coming crucial home games.
Same for both sides, and all that... and, let's face it, we cannot expect to be playing on a carpet in early March after w inter of snow, rain and frost, no matter whether we share the ground these days or not. Terry Roberts is very good at his job, but a miracle worker he is not.
A quick look at the Football League Show on a Saturday would tell you that there are far worse surfaces than ours elsewhere in the League - imagine if we had Blackpool's pitch for instance.
Promotion-chasing sides have to adapt to whatever is put in front of them - and it's not going to get any better between now and late April, so we have to get on with it.
Yatesy did get his substitutions right however, and they were all positive changes which improved our performance.
Benson looked happier with Byron Harrison next to him, and I thought Harrison was a good physical presence, winning some flick-ons and showing a good touch on occasions as well.
I know some have already started to write him off as he hasn't scored yet but he is still bedding into the team and system and deserves more time to prove himself. Whether he will get it, we will have to see.
McGlashan has been disappointing in my view recently, but did give us a spark and occupied the Chesterfield defence a bit more.
One terrific turn of speed got the left-back a booking and at last we looked capable of getting behind them and creating something clear-cut.
But all night our final ball, and especially our crossing was a disappointment - bar the one from Billy in the last minute, when our third sub, Kaid Mohamed, put him in down the left.
The celebrations after Benson's goal were superb, and considering there was little over 2,000 home fans in the ground, everyone made good noise.
It was also fitting for my BBC Gloucestershire colleague Ian Randall to be able to describe the goal in the final minute of his final commentary with the station. A nice moment.
The goal kept the positive runs going - unbeaten in six, one defeat in 12, unbeaten in 16 at home (won 10 drawn 6), and back to back wins for the first time since Barnet and Northampton were beaten before Christmas.
But now it is crunch time.
Burton tomorrow, and Rotherham next Saturday as we start our final nine games, with six against rest of the top seven, and one against Bradford, who aren't out of it yet.
In between those games, we sit out due to the National Hunt festival having played Chesterfield a week early, while the rest of the division plays, so we might slip out of third spot.
Unless Southend and Fleetwood buck their ideas up, and Bradford use their games in hand well, then the top seven is starting to take shape, and it is just a case of what order they will finish in.
Last March, we saw our top-three hopes come unstuck. This time around, we have a chance to make amends, and results-wise we have started well...

Tuesday, 5 March 2013

Serving up a win

Sorry Benno - it was great to see you back at Whaddon, but we needed the win.
It didn't matter to me how it happened, the most important thing was to get the three points.
As it turned out, we played well for about an hour, before our Achilles heel of conceding poor goals made the last third of the game very jittery, but we got there.
Over the past few weeks, the run of frustrating, contrasting draws seemed to lead to a lot of faith in the team's promotion chances ebbing away bit by bit amongst many supporters.
Anything but a win here could have made that drip-drip effect into a torrent, and - with other sides having a lot of games in hand - it might have spelt the death knell for top three chances.
However, such is the ridiculously inconsistent nature of the division that the win was combined with some slip-ups for many of the teams around us, and we now find ourselves back to within a point of third place, and seven points clear of eighth.
This game was even more important as we have still got to play all of the other teams in the top seven, along with Bradford, who I am not ruling out, so this was one of the few games against 'lower' clubs.
After the game at Fleetwood, I mused about possible changes, and whether Mark Yates would go for a second striker. I wanted him to keep the same side, and he did.
But as I walked on to the gantry before the game, a fan stopped me and asked "why are we playing one striker at home." I argued that this team had played well on Tuesday, and looked much more dangerous than in recent weeks, but he wasn't having it... and it is a debate which is sure to rumble on and on.
We needed the early goal, and got it - Billy Jones finding his range and Steve Elliott's unmarked head from about six yards for a goal.
After that, we settled down and started to dominate passing and territory, but never really threatened Neil Sullivan's goal.
Once again, as he had been on Tuesday, Sam Deering was at the heart of it, buzzing around, finding space and looking to be the link between Paul Benson and the midfield.
Given the insurance of Jason Taylor behind him, Marlon Pack was finding his range, with one exquisite half-volley pass a particular highlight.
Taylor, Russ Penn and Darren Carter were also prominent, and it seemed that we were looking comfortable - but still not finding that real threat on goal.
Such is the dilemma of the one-up-front-or-two conundrum. Benson was working hard as usual, but not getting much change out of the defenders, or many real sights of goal.
Most of our chances were coming from midfielders, or defenders getting on the end of set-pieces. While we won the game this time, against 'better' opposition you feel we need to find a solution.
The threat from Wimbledon in the first half was negligible. I expected more from Gary Alexander, but Elliott and Michael Hector did a good job to keep him quiet.
Jack Midson was, for some reason, playing out wide, and although Jesse Darko started brightly, I thought he faded pretty quickly, while Luke Moore was not in the game much.
Most of my first-half frustration was on the referee - he should have booked Harry Pell for clattering Deering, and gave Sammy Moore about three warnings, while Penn was also lucky to escape a yellow.
But he kept his cards in his pocket - then after the break for about 15 minutes, decided to book everything that moved - most ridiculously of all Carter, for colliding with Pim Balkestein, and none of the yellows were as bad - in my view - as Pell's challenge on Deering.
It is this inconsistency which maddens supporters, and I haven't even started on the penalty we should have had when Penn was tripped.
The priority for me after the break was a second goal - and it took 11 minutes to arrive, after a great ball from Hector (a long ball...) to Penn. He burrowed sideways along the 18-yard line before finding Carter, who produced a superb finish. It also kept him on the pitch as Yatesy had Kaid Mohamed ready to replace him.
That should have been that, but come on, you didn't expect it to be that easy did you?
Credit to Neil Ardley for his substitutions, but I was left wondering why Kevin Saint-Luce (in particular) and Brennan Dickenson hadn't started the game.
Dickenson scored with his first touch after Deering allowed Chris Hussey to get possession too easily and he burst forward. His cross was allowed to find the incoming Dickenson, and to be fair to him it was an excellent finish.
Not surprisingly, they had their tails up, and we faced a battle, with Saint-Luce giving Jones problems, and but for a horrendous miss from the usually lethal Midson we could have lost two points.
But this time, the fortune went with us, and, but for some better passing and decisions on the counter-attack, we could have had a third.
Two such examples saw Taylor guilty when he and Mohamed broke away, but the pass was poor, then Deering shot from an impossible angle with Byron Harrison waiting for a tap-in.
A couple of crosses went begging with no one in the box, and a bit more thought is needed from some players in those positions. Such openings cannot be squandered against the likes of Rotherham, Gillingham and Northampton in the coming weeks.
It was nervy stuff, and it should not have been, but we held out and got the win, Alan Bennett got the ovation he deserved from the fans, and now we go on to Chesterfield tonight.
Five games at home, no wins and no goals is hardly the best omen, but another win tonight and we really will have something to play for in the coming games.
Paul Cook's Accrington and Chesterfield teams have had a bit of an Indian sign over us, but these sorts of records have to be forgotten about and broken.
From now on in, it's all about the wins, and another one tonight would be priceless.