Danny Cowley’s teams get better after Christmas apparently. I believed him, but I didn’t think it would be so soon after Christmas that we were going to look so utterly rampant.
Firstly, we weren’t playing a relegation threatened side today. Stevenage are a really well-organised and effective unit, their players were strong and they all knew their roles. I thought for the first fifteen minutes or so they looked on top in truth. Their front two are class, both Newton and Godden would grace the squad of any side and early doors I wondered if we might be lamenting their endeavour as they probed for a way through. We weren’t being outplayed but I thought they edged the opening exchanges.
They certainly had the best chance in the first quarter of an hour, Josh Vickers demonstrating once again how he managed to usurp Paul Farman as the number one with a wonderful save from Newton. Not long after it was Godden causing him to make a stop, albeit a tame effort. With that the Imps looked to move through the gear quickly.
I’m not sure how Joe Fryer stopped us taking a 30th minute lead though, it was perhaps the best save I’ve ever seen with my own eyes. Matt Green, who I’ll wax lyrical about shortly, set up Raggs for a point-blank volley. Raggs, eight yards out at most, smashed the ball towards goal but from nowhere Fryer appeared to make the save. It was super hero stuff, in the stands I wondered if maybe that was our chance. As things went, it was only our first knock at the door. Four minutes later, we got let in.
Rhead and Green combined wonderfully to set up Harry Anderson, but to at the merely combined doesn’t do justice to either player’s role. Rhead executed a wonderful ball for Green to charge on to, much as he did for the goal at Yeovil. Green gleefully strode away and got a shot off, Fryer once again the hero. He parried but only into the path of Harry Anderson who nodded into an empty net. Once we’d got the foot in the door, we never really looked like throwing the game away.
All over the park we looked assured and organised. Michael Bostwick was again excellent in midfield, not allowing their players time to create a thing. Neal Eardley was outstanding too, but I barely need to type that anymore do I? When did you see Eardley have a bad game? I’ll answer for you: never. He’s mobile, he thinks one step ahead of his opponent and he’s strong in the air. I lost count of the number of times he watched a ball come towards him, took a step back from his opponent and won a header without leaving the floor. Both him and Bostwick have brought experience to our ranks. Along with Matt Green of course.
We went in 1-0 up at half time and the general consensus around me in Upper Three was that we were good value for the lead. Stevenage were no mugs, they came to have a go with three up front and they hadn’t look fazed by us taking the lead. This wasn’t about having a go though, it was simply a good side being beaten by a better one. All over the park we refused to give an inch, Harry Anderson and Nathan Arnold were having good games on either flank. They’re such different wingers too, Nathan is all about speed and guile whereas Harry is a bull (a bloody swift one) in a china shop. In the middle of the first period their full back tried to bump into the back of Harry, usually a soft winger would go down but Harry remained steadfast and cemented to the spot. Their player went down in a heap, no foul, but minutes later play was brought back for fear of a head injury. It was typical Harry, quick as a Ferrari but as brutish and strong as a monster truck.
After the break we looked like running riot as Stevenage showed their first fifteen minutes was as good as it was going to get. Nathan had a header saved when, had he realised he’d got more time, he might have chosen to volley it at goal. I was pleased for him though, he worked tremendously hard all game and as it wore on he became more influential. Everyone reading this knows I’ve got a soft spot for Nathan, but I’m also a ‘pundit’ of sorts and I wouldn’t pull punches if they were warranted. However, Nathan is our first choice on the left flank at present and today he showed why. Again.
Isn’t it funny, just six weeks ago some were calling for Green to be dropped, claiming he didn’t look like a centre forward. Now, everyone is singing his name.
Just after the hour we killed the game off. Up until Matt Green grabbed his seventh of the season the game was in the balance, a quick break could have seen them get a foothold in the game. Sometimes they say 2-0 is a dangerous score, sure in matches against Chesterfield and Barnet maybe, but today the second goal merely inflicted another mortal wound on the dying carcass of Stevenage’s Boxing Day hopes. Another wonderful Neal Eardley cross was finished in style by Matt Green. His volley gave Fryer no chance and it came from a player oozing confidence and class. Isn’t it funny, just six weeks ago some were calling for Green to be dropped, claiming he didn’t look like a centre forward. Now, everyone is singing his name, and rightly so.
I don’t think his resurgence has been by accident, I think it has been through perseverance and through the return of Matt Rhead. Those two just work so well together and we’ve found a pattern that allows for the Big Un’s lack of mobility. He might not have bene involved in the goal, but he was involved in everything else we did going forward. More often than not it wasn’t even a flick on either, he held the ball up on the ground, sprayed passes all over like Matt Le Tissier used to do and generally conducted the play from just behind Matt Green. That left Green free to work the channels and Stevenage’s desire to attack us meant the space was there for Green to exploit. That said, his strike to put us 2-0 up was one that you can’t train, it was a finish that you’re either born with the ability to do, or not.
At that point I thought we might score five, we genuinely looked that commanding. Green got free again and squared for Harry Anderson who scuffed his shot badly, but he’d run fifty yards to offer green an out. I’ve heard it described as one of the misses of the season and that wouldn’t be an unfair assessment, but Danny judges players on being in positions to miss. Harry had no right to be stood six yards from goal with the ball at his feet, but his tireless running allowed him to miss badly. Besides, we don’t want ‘Anderson (2)’ or even ‘Anderson (3)’ appearing in newspapers this close to January.
After the goals came the game management, Elliott came on and did really well in my opinion. I’ve been critical of Elliott, never his work rate but often where he fits in to the set up, but his introduction added some steel to the middle of the park at the expense of width. Then we brought on Josh, adding width in place of the steel brought by Rhead. It was game management of the highest order and both of them did well after coming on. Ollie Palmer also had a role to play and, despite still not winning a header, he also did well. Stevenage looked out of ideas, never out of desire and belief, but there was no clear route to goal. Our centre-halves both had good games, Raggett in particular was immense. I’m afraid to say if Norwich were watching today, he ain’t coming back because they’re going to want to keep him, whether they won 2-0 against Birmingham or not. He gave a master class in the art of central defending, one I’m sure Steve Thompson was watching in admiration.
Two subs, both subject of criticism from some, were able to wrap things up with ten minutes left. Ollie Palmer broke free and had his effort saved, but Josh Ginnelly finished smartly from the rebound. It’s nice that these players are able to come on when the game is in hand and express themselves, Josh in particular impressed me. He got a lot of grief for that goal against Port Vale, mostly undeserved and his delight at scoring was plain to see. He made for Block Seven and gave a one man celebration right in front of the ‘signing section’. It means a lot to Josh, he’s a nice lad and someone whom I believe will go far in the game as he develops.
Winning 3-0 at home against Stevenage is a good result, finding yourselves third in the table on the way out of the ground is even better. There’s a long way to go, but my Dad always said to me that where you are around Christmas is a good indication of where you’ll be at the end of the season. Well, we’re in the automatic promotion spots and if we apply ourselves correctly on Saturday against Cooperman and his deflated troops, we’ll be welcoming in 2018 as a top three League Two side.
Can you imagine having to choose a Man of the Match today? You could ask eight people and get eight different answers. Both centre halves were excellent, Sam and Neal worked the flanks brilliantly, Neal perhaps edged it but Sam was definitely more than a steady seven. The midfield functioned well, out wide were offered lots of threat and the top two carried out their job descriptions to a tee. If pushed I would have said Matt Green as my choice, I just know you’ll have someone different in mind.
Crowd: brilliant. Over 9,000 home fans came along today which was great, although on the radio it was suggested Boxing Day wasn’t a popular fixture. I always thought Boxing Day saw slightly larger crowds as people come back from Uni or visit family and get down to see the team. That said, 9,000 home fans? Wow. That’s almost as many as we took to Arsenal, before you know it all of those day trippers will have been converted! Seriously though, I hope this support is here to stay because if it is we can comfortably hold our own financially at this level and maybe the one above.
Finally, a word about referee Carl Boyeson. I just had to look his name up because I’d forgotten who was in charge, mainly because the game was about the two teams and not him. Sure, he punished Bostwick for a hard challenge when it looked harsh but if that is all we have to gripe about, the odd harsh booking, then I’m happy. If all of our officials were as competent as Boyeson we wouldn’t have any problems at all.
Let me just remind you, we’re now third in the table, ahead of Wycombe on goal difference courtesy of today’s triple and we host the bottom side on Saturday. We’re looking organised, tough to break down and a threat going forwards. We’ve got bodies to come in over the next thirty-five days, bodies that will only improve the overall output of the team. If Danny had any question marks over player’s heads, everybody answered him positively today.
I’m not saying we’ll be top three come May, but I am saying that Danny’s sides rarely rise and then fall again. We started in the middle of the pack, we hung on to the edge of the play off race and now we’ve not only cracked the top seven, but we’ve rose to the top of the hopefuls. Catching County and Luton won’t be easy, but with both sides to play in the next couple of weeks I would rule it out.
There’s not one team in the League who won’t be looking at our rise and hoping we’re not up next for them. We’re improving every week just through hard work and having a clear game plan. Stevenage couldn’t cope with us when we found our rhythm and I’m not sure any team in this division can, on our day. The key is to remain focused, not get downhearted if we do fall back into the chasing pack and to keep believing in the possibilities.
I’m loving supporting my club at the moment, I can’t wait to see what we conjure up next.