When they come to write the history of this season, the records will show that we secured another victory against a promotion rival. That’s four points from two games against MK Dons, the same return against Sheff Wed, six from two against Sheff Utd, and three from one game against Huddersfield, making it 17 from seven games against our main contenders, with just three goals conceded. The rest, as Shankly apparently once said, is just gossip. Sometimes you have to graft, sometimes you blow the opposition away, and sometimes games are handed to you in a few minutes. There’s no complaints from me, although perhaps we stretched playing out a game seemingly won a little too far in the second half.
It did prove to be a strange night. The team saw the perfectly understandable return of Wright-Phillips up front, after his break, but otherwise no changes, with Stephens retaining the spot in central midfield alongside Hollands. Having gone to the away game against MK Dons, we knew that they could play football; we also had a fair idea that on the basis of the evidence of that night they can struggle to convert possession and chances into goals. With us not firing on all cylinders it was going to be a tough game and an important night, with the top six playing each other.
Both teams settled into a sort of pattern, with them happy to knock it around and us looking to be more incisive when we had the chance. Attempts on goal were few and far between, but a key moment of the night came when they did fashion a chance inside the box, but Hamer reacted sharply and pulled off a superb save. They score then and the night’s different. For all their nice football, MK Dons were not averse to a physical challenge, or to going for balls in the air by wrapping themselves around their opponent, usually Kermorgant. But aside from a deflected effort, which their keeper took somewhere around the goalline and which the linesman was in no place to judge whether it had crossed the line (it almost certainly didn’t, but I appealed along with everyone else), we hadn’t done much to test them. Rather tellingly, when BWP got into a decent position he was crowded out and looked like a guy crying out for a goal.
As the game moved towards half-time there was nothing much in it, aside from the Hamer save and a Jackson free kick which perhaps surprisingly (in view of recent efforts) went wide of the post, although we seemed to be gaining the upper hand in terms of possession. Thoughts turned to us having to play with greater commitment, and better movement, in the second half to get the win. Then it changed, entirely for the good. A ball into the box was cleared and as everyone’s eyes (including mine) followed it out, the referee spotted an obvious case of violent conduct, seemingly involving their centre-back and Kermorgant. Penalty and a sending off. Who could argue? Jackson stepped up and hit it well to their keeper’s right; he got a hand to it but didn’t keep it out. And it just got better. Instead of making a substitution, MK Dons carried on and as we moved into stoppage time Green moved forward and unleashed a terrific shot which came back off the bar. In the scramble that followed Jackson (I think) jinked inside only to be brought down. Penalty number two, again no arguments. This time Jackson put it in the opposite corner and the keeper was nowhere.
Basically a game which was looking like a real contest, one in which we could easily have gone behind, suddenly appeared over at the break. 2-0 up against 10 men. Serves them right for obliging us to attack the Covered End in the first half.
The problem was how to get motivated for a second half when all you really want is the game to be over. The priority was not to give them any encouragement and ideally to get the third to finish it all off. That perhaps understandably converted into players not looking to force the game but instead sucking them forward to catch them on the break. Again, no complaints from me. We just didn’t really do it well enough as a number of half-chances – usually falling to Wright-Phillips – were not converted. As the game progressed, our intent was increasingly to hold what we have and we did get a little sloppy in seeing out the game.
There was one fierce shot from outside the box which Hamer managed to get a touch on and send over the bar. But aside from that it was comfortable, if not riveting. Haynes came on for Jackson, with Green switching to the left, and as against Bury showed menace with the ball. With about five minutes left and the crowd often complaining about balls back, I turned to a friend and said I have no complaints whatsoever – but that now is not the time to let one in. As the words came out their guy on the right took a ball and drilled it past Hamer into the side of the net.
With nothing to lose, MK Dons understandably went for it, to the point of their keeper coming up for corners, and the possibility of blowing two points was very much to the fore, even though Wiggins broke forward and unleashed a decent shot which forced the save. We just wanted the end and eventually, after Pritchard had come on for Wright-Phillips, it came.
This was an important game, our penultimate one against our four closest challengers, and came after a couple of cancellations. That an MK Dons defender set us on the road to victory isn’t our fault. All it provided was further evidence that our team works out ways to win games even when we aren’t as fluid as we’d like to be. It has been seven games since our front two scored. We should have closed the game out better, but I’m still a happy bunny looking at the league table, even if the Rochdale game has been rearranged for the week I’m going to be in Lyon. Given the other results, we’re eight clear at the top, 10 clear of third with two games in hand (OK, nine with two in hand if Huddersfield win their extra one), and our number for points required to gain automatic promotion is down to 101 points, or 34 from 17 games. The rest is just gossip.
Hamer – 9/10. His save in the first half was pivotal to the game. That goes in and it could all have been different. Very good one too in the second and I don’t think he can be blamed for their goal. But still gets edged for man of the match by their muppet defender who cost them big time.
Solly – 8/10. Another good game in which he did nothing wrong defensively and got forward to good effect.
Wiggins – 8/10. His standards mean you notice even the slightest mistake and there were a couple. But nothing of note.
Morrison – 8/10. Assured through the game, some misdirected distribution but that’s about it.
Taylor – 8/10. Didn’t see anything wrong with him either.
Jackson – 7/10. Gets an extra point for two coolly taken penalties, but wasn’t especially influential in open play.
Hollands – 7/10. A driving force – one break forward in the first half won us the free kick which Jackson went close with - and covered effectively.
Stephens – 6/10. Still perhaps feeling his way back; not a bad game, but not especially influential in keeping possession and moving us forward in the second half.
Green – 6/10. Good moments, including the shot which came back off the bar and led to the second penalty.
Kermorgant – 7/10. Perhaps deserves higher mark as whatever he did to upset their centre-half worked. Put in a real shift in the absence of decent service in.
Wright-Phillips – 6/10. The guy clearly needs a goal; one off his backside will do. But didn’t hide and looked to shoot at every opportunity. It will come.
Subs – Haynes (7/10 – once again looked threatening, with pace to burn); Pritchard (not enough time for a mark).