Saturday 25 February 2012

Another Stride Forward

Another game against a top six side, another win. If only we could play them every week. And when you have to surface at 04.30 French time to make your way back home in time for the game, all you really want is a problem-free journey and three points. Mission accomplished, even though it was a bad start. When you get a train that early you’re inclined to think that no-one else will be daft enough to do so. Only to be reminded that the train from Lyon to Lille for the Eurostar connection goes through Marne La Vallee, ie Disneyworld. With a passable hangover after a few hours’ kip, it’s not what you need. The day got better after that.

We all knew that a win today was important to remain on track, so we would have taken one however it came. In the end it came with a performance that got better as the afternoon progressed, largely because the pressure lifted once we went ahead and as a second gave some comfort. The sub-plot was Wright-Phillips’ afternoon, as just about every passable opportunity fell to him. By the time he departed the scene I made it one out of seven, but the important thing is the one. Everything else can be forgiven, especially as the fact that the chances came his way was no accident.

After the enforced shuffling against Rochdale, the team was pretty much Plan A, with Solly and Jackson returning from injury. Stevenage were to have the better of the early exchanges, without looking particularly threatening, except for an iffy back pass. But we were to discover that if we could play the game in their half we’d get chances and a spell of sustained pressure almost provided the breakthrough. Kermorgant was to win the first of a series of effective headers to leave BWP juggling with the ball going through and ultimately unable to get the shot away. Green, who’d fluffed a cross from a good position, then curled in a peach crying out to be buried, only for Wright-Phillips to put it over the bar. After that Sevenage proved adept at breaking up the play and a few injury breaks worked against any momentum, although we should have been awarded a penalty for a clear shove from behind; the referee might not have been well place, but the linesman had the same view we had and it was blatent.

The third BWP chance of the first half was the best of the lot, but having been played through and the ball sitting up the attempted lob also went too high. That was a bad miss and at that stage the world seemed against him – except for the crowd, which kept doing all they could to keep the spirits high. Stevenage did have a shout for a penalty of their own, as a set piece move saw their guy move on to a flick at the far post and seemed to be claiming a pull back. I certainly didn’t see one. They also had an opportunity at the death, but left in the clear at the far post from a cross their guy mishit the shot into the ground.

At the break we were clearly ahead on chances, but no cigar. The feeling was that the midfield hadn’t worked as well as it might, with Hollands and Stephens, and Jackson, a little subdued and clearly controlling the game, but the defence was holding firm, with Solly winning balls he had no right to and getting forward to good effect. It seemed to be a case of whether Wright-Phillips would actually bury one.

His next chance came so early in the second half it almost went unnoticed. But it was a good one. The shot seemed to lack conviction and sailed wide. That only served to galvanise Morrison to show the forwards how it’s done. When the ball broke to him around the edge of the box he fairly hammered it home, with their keeper getting a hand to it but really standing no chance. The goal lifted everyone and it was apparent that Hollands and Stephens were getting more of a grip. Stevenage would have to be more aggressive and that promised more opportunities. The next one came, of course, to BWP and this time the shot was dispatched, probably with a deflection or two, but who cares?

Drought over, you felt that the next one that came his way he would bury without a second thought. But their keeper had other ideas as two more gilt-edged chances to finish off the game were blocked. It didn’t seem to matter much, but Stevenage were throwing on forwards with abandon, with nothing to lose, and the key moment came when they fluffed their best chance of the afternoon. Another set piece was flicked on and their guy running onto the ball towards the far post only had to put it between the sticks. A goal then and the ending could have been tough, but he put it wide. Haynes had by then come on for Jackson, to try to take advantage of the greater space going forward (once chance did come his way as he made the most of an opening to fire in a good shot which brought a smart save), and Wright-Phillips departed for Pritchard to keep things sealed up. Stevenage had had their chance, hadn’t taken it, and the final minutes were negotiated without alarm.

There were some fine performances this afternoon – not least from Solly, Morrison and Kermorgant, while for me Hollands and Stephens got to grip with things after the break – and we were worthy winners. There was palpable relief at the finish; two goals from open play, and one for BWP, and another major step towards the end-goal. Today was another tough test and a pressure game, given some recent home draws, and overall they deserve another pat on the back. If the text lacks inspiration today, that’s because I’m fading fast through a combination of fatigue and red wine. But there’s a smile on my face.

Player Ratings:

Hamer – 8/10. Not much to report in terms of saves, but he was assured with the high ball against a team noted for its aerial threat and exuded confidence.

Solly – 8/10. Splendid, not least for his ability to read situations (in defence and attack) and to regain and retain possession.

Wiggins – 8/10. Some hesitation at times, but only by his very high standards. Also made important interceptions and got forward to good effect.

Morrison – 9/10. Strong at the back against a team which likes it in the air and scored a goal out of almost nothing which was to prove decisive.

Taylor – 8/10. Nothing outstanding, but when the opposition have two chances all afternoon things are working very well.

Jackson – 6/10. Perhaps feeling his way back but not as influential as we’re used to in a first half in which we didn’t dominate in midfield.

Hollands – 7/10. Would have been a lower mark at the break, but the midfield all round operated better in the second half.

Stephens – 7/10. With him too the second-half performance seemed to me to go up a notch and it had the desired effect.

Green – 7/10. Something of a mixed bag, with a naff cross here and there but also one beauty which deserved to produce a goal.

Kermorgant – 8/10. Truly good performance in leading the line and creating chances. Won headers with regularity and seldom were the flick ons aimless.

Wright-Phillips – 6/10. What mark do you give a guy who has broken his drought but could easily have had four (or more)? Has to be marked down for not converting some of them, but never hid and played his part outside the box. On that basis could have been a much higher mark.

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