If ever there was an indication that the standard of teams in League Two is closer than you think, today was it. You only need to look at the clash with Stevenage to see what fine margins separate the top teams and those on the fringes of the top ten.
This afternoon wasn’t one we’ll be writing home about at the end of the season, it’s not one for a highlights DVD and aside from the 1350 travelling fans, who will I’m sure have it down as a top away day, it will be instantly forgettable if judged on quality alone.
However, if one is to judge the game on effort, character and commitment, this could be the win of the season. It’s not so long ago we drew away at Oldham and were seemingly on our arses, criticised in some quarters for not being good enough. I’m not going over old ground again, the fact is we’re second in the table, we were at the start of play today and we are at the end of it. Things do seem much different after a win though, do they not?
I’m quite happy because a couple of pre-match shouts came to fruition. I did call a penalty for us at some point in the game, and so it proved. I also said much would depend on our central midfield players and Michael O’Connor was named by Steve Thompson as Man of the Match. In truth, there were a lot of brave performances out there today, Bozzy and Shackell were excellent as ever, Neal Eardley looked like the player we saw consistently last season and Harry Toffolo was excellent despite the heavy knock he took. Four defenders all being praised should tell you how tough the win was.
Stevenage are very much like us last season, big and strong with a direct approach and a mix of experience and skill. Cuthbert at the back was Luton captain last season, Ben Nugent was a Gillingham player too, so they’re recruiting a certain quality. They’ve even got Paul Farman on the bench, just like we had for most of the season (sorry Farms). What they lack is a striker, a big and burly man who puts himself about and causes a nuisance. You see, those strikers do not come along all that often and if we’re being honest, the fact we have one was the difference today.
Say what you like about John Akinde, many have, but he’s a handful who proves a wonderful outlet away from home. We needed to hit them on the counter to some extent today and when we had Green and Rhead up top it wasn’t easy. Rhead, for all his qualities, cannot be the target and carry the ball forward, but John can. Games like today are where his ‘two in one’ attributes come in handy and once again, he showed that to a tee.
Aside from McCartan’s struggles this week it was very much business a usual for City. It would have been interesting if Shay had been fit, would Tom Pett have played against his old side? Or would Michael O’Connor, a player suited to the fight in the middle of the park, have been missing? Either way, with Shay not fully fit it saved Danny the only big decision he’d have to make. I know many want to see Kellan Gordon get a start, but one thing Harry gives you is fight. I’m not saying Gordon doesn’t, but he’s not as robust as Harry. Right now, if we’re at full strength, Harry plays for me. Kellan Gordon has had an impact from the bench and in the right circumstances will be worth a starting place, but in a blood and thunder League Two game it has to be Harry.
Nothing is ever straight forward with City and the first few seconds of the game proved that. Grant Smith must have had injury nightmares after his collision with Alex Revell, having only just come back from his loan spell. After the lengthy break he was back on his feet and I thought he put in a strong display considering the early knock. He didn’t have a lot to save, but he has a good command of his area. It’s testament to our recruitment that the keeper deemed as our back up is able to step up so confidently. I have little doubt he’ll be an important player in the coming weeks as Josh Vickers continues to battle his own injury worries.
Tom Pett could have had the goal he was no doubt dreaming about last night with a smart drive on nine minutes, but sixty seconds later the game was effectively decided. It was a goal entirely of John Akinde’s own making, his direct running frightened the experienced Cuthbert into a silly challenge and we got our third penalty in as many visits to Stevenage. In midweek we struggled to put the ball in the net from 12 yards, but if there’s one player who is going to score from the spot it’s John Akinde. I read earlier in the season that his goal record wasn’t as impressive because some were penalties. Well, when you win it and then score it as far as I’m concerned it’s worthy of adding to the tally. 1-0 and although we didn’t know it, that was game over.
I thought after that we controlled prountil the 30 minute mark. The wind was behind us which certainly helped, but Stevenage hadn’t come out of the dressing room, they were playing long balls into the wind and getting no joy at all. One the other hand, we moved the ball around nicely an attacked with a certain zest. Akinde could have had a second on 29 minutes, but after Tom Pett set him up he drilled into the side netting. He was the difference for me though, he chased the scraps and fought for everything, whereas Stevenage didn’t have that up front.
It was as if the hosts suddenly woke up after that and we began to weather the storm a little. The two centre backs were immense, Jason Shackell is a player with no right to be as low as League Two, not only for what he does with the ball, but his overall management of the game and organisation of his peers. He was a real gem we unearthed on Deadline Day. I wouldn’t ever like to play Danny at poker because he’s always hiding an ace up his sleeve when push comes to shove.
Stevenage’s game plan changed, they toughened up no end and started targeting key players. Harry Toffolo took a big knock and like Grant Smith, played on regardless. Bruno was coming in for some heavy treatment too, as was Harry. To be fair, the tackles were strong but I couldn’t say it was a thuggish approach (like, say, Mansfield in the Checkatrade). It was robust, typical League Two reducers full of venom but always on the right side of the law. Just.
Next Page – Second Half