I usually start the second page at half time, but in this instance, I want to start it just before we rallied. I’ll mention Morrell first of all because he’s taken a battering so far in this write-up and I don’t think he had a bad game. His forward ball was cut out but Bruno, looking every inch as good as he did last season, won it back. Is it me, or has he added a physical element to his game over the summer? He hasn’t ballooned in size, but he does look more robust.
He muscled the defender off the ball, threaded it back through the player’s legs and then delivered a teasing cross that wound up at the feet of Jack Payne, who lashed home. That’s resilience, the heads didn’t drop and the player’s character showed through.
I have a feeling we’re going to see Payne thrive under the new manager. He didn’t seem to be as stuck in the one role, he got ahead of Walker at times and gave us more of a ‘4-4-2’ feel. He’s still our key man in my eyes and it sounds very much as if he’s happy with the difference in his role. That was really the only subtle change we’d made to how we lined up.
After the goal the lads clearly got their heads back into gear. There were some big performances from our players, not least Payne and Bruno. I have to mention Callum Connolly as well, he was roundly condemned for his outing at the weekend but I felt he put in a good shift this time out. Dropping him could have destroyed his confidence and as we can’t bring new players in until January we have to keep those we do have in the right frame of mind. If he missed out against Sunderland, it wouldn’t be such a sucker punch.
I recall going to Blackpool in the early nineties and losing 5-0, then going down 3-0 the year after. It’s not an easy place to fight back, especially not for a side like us who have taken a bit of a battering in recent weeks. I felt that after we scored, we showed some real grit in the way we played our football. It was patient, probing but we seemed to have a certain solidity ahead of the back four. My worry, as it has been for a week or three, is that defence. It’s not so much the full backs, but I just feel we don’t have the pace in the middle two. With a keeper low on confidence, that’s a bad mix.
Luckily Josh, who is a top keeper at this level, pulled off a second-half stop from Gnanduillett which will have given him a massive boost. It might have been straight at him but he was strong to keep it out.
We dominate possession, created more chances and overall looked more like the side that won those early matches. I thought we played better than we did away at Rotherham, we controlled much of the possession and forced them back rather than letting them come on to us. That’s probably a credit to the midfield three of Morrell, Connolly and Payne; Jay Spearing struggled to be effective and Matty Virtue, a player I called out in the pod as a real threat, was anonymous. We had our moments, whenever they strode forward I got the worry in my gut, but when we got on the ball we were more assured than at any time since the upheaval began.
From around 60 minutes onwards I felt there was only one winner. Jason Shackell missed a couple of good chances to draw us level and Tyler Walker, another player I felt looked energised by the slight tweak in formation, should have netted at the end. I think it’s a testament to our quality that a team who finished top ten last year, a team with players such as Ben Heneghan and Curtis Tilt at the back, shrank and defended for their lives.
I felt, once again, that if we had another fifteen minutes of play we would have won the game. I felt the same about the Rochdale match as well and perhaps MK Dons, and Doncaster in the league. That’s suggesting that we’re not a million miles away and the level of continuity that we saw last night in terms of possession and performance tells me that the squad we were all relatively happy with in early September is still a good squad.
But (and it’s a big ‘but’) we’ve won one in ten, we’ll probably be in the bottom half of the table by the time today’s games have finished and with Sunderland and Peterborough to face I can’t see points piling up over the coming weeks. This is a tough spell; it would have been tough if we’d kept the management in place but with all the changes it’s not going to be a walk in the park. In terms of results, it’s going to get worse before it gets better and we have to deal with that as a fanbase. We have to stay on board even if we begin to slide into a bottom six, albeit for a short while, until the big guns move on and we’re back to playing the likes of Gillingham, Tranmere and Wimbledon.
We can’t saddle the current boss with ‘one win in ten’. He’ll do it himself, but that’s giving him the burden of the recent issues, piling as much pressure on him as saying ‘three trophies in three years’. I saw enough last night to convince me that the club are in a decent place, just as much as we are in a dark one. 58% possession, 11 shots and 3 on target matched the home side in every aspect. That’s not one of the relegation candidates, not a side expected to be in the bottom half. That’s against a team who should be top six, who boast the likes of Joe Nuttall on the bench, a player who would walk into our side if we went 4-4-2. We shouldn’t be proud of the result, a defeat is a defeat whether you lose 6-0 or 2-1, but we should be proud of the performance.
The key here is sticking together, believing that Michael Appleton, David Kerslake and the team of men around them are capable of putting us on the right track, even if we take a few detours on the way. This is the real test of our fanbase, new fans, old fans and those who pop by every so often. If we stick together and do our job, it gives the players a much bigger platform on which to do theirs.