ONE YEAR ON: The Last Time We Were There

(Courtesy Graham Burrell)

It seems such a long time ago, and it is. 365 days to be precise. That was the last time we were in the ground, the last time we cheered as the ball hit the back of the net. The last time things were normal.

If you want to remember that day for what it was, then here is the full article I wrote for the 3-2 win against Burton back on March 7th, 2020.

One of my earliest pundit memories is from the Saint and Greavsie show, with Jimmy Greaves remarking football was a ‘funny old game’. It’s perhaps the first cliche I ever heard and one which remains as relevant today as ever (even more so one year one I guess!).

Yesterday was, indeed, a funny old game. It was odd for me from the very start; eating breakfast alone in the Corn Dolly because Dad wasn’t there, attending a Supporter’s Board meeting before helping to look after 25 pupils from the Priory Academies who had been generously given tickets by the club to attend. Thank you to everyone who offered them the chance of an interview too, your five minutes might be hugely important in the early development of a brand new writer.

I also found myself in the Bridge McFarland Stand, not the ideal vantage point for someone wanting to offer insight into the game. At times, it was difficult to know how safe we were at the back, or not, as being just three rows up offers little perspective. It made me wonder how much clarity the managers get during a game, given their eye line and it certainly made me thankful for my Upper 5 season ticket which Andy Pearson might need reminding that I’ve renewed.

The big surprise (or not if you listened to the podcast) was Cian Bolger dropping to the bench and Alan Sheehan coming straight into the side. It was one of the calls pre-match I got right, but it doesn’t necessarily mean it was the right call. The fact is Michael Bostwick will always play if he is fit, so we then need to fill the left side of central defence. That’s either going to be Bolger, a right-footed defender, or Sheehan who uses his left foot. Given that both are competent players, but one is classed as a passer from the back and the other known for his aerial dominance perhaps the choice was always fairly obvious. It doesn’t mean it was fair on Bolger who has been a strong performer for us this season, but it was the logical call I’m afraid. Of course, I feel sorry for Cian though.

Courtesy Graham Burrell

I did feel that we went into the game hoping to be more compact, Connor Coventry, Liam Bridcutt and Joe Morrell all getting a start. When you consider the quality Burton had in their midfield, it made perfect sense. Jorge Grant sat on the left, Anthony Scully on the right and Tom Hopper was the focus of everything we put forward. That worried me, I confess, I hadn’t seen Hopper on form. I will state that I have never said Tom Hopper is a bad player, merely that he may have needed time to settle and the evidence that was happening was scant, to say the least. Luckily, he changed all of that with a very good centre forward’s performance.

Despite the relatively full-strength side, despite the newly balanced defence and the extended break, we began the game poorly and that is being generous. Burton zipped the ball around well and we barely got a touch as they dominated the first quarter of an hour. They opened the scoring early, cutting through our defence like a ten-year-old child playing FIFA on ‘beginner’ skill level. I’ve seen Neal Eardley slated for their opener, that was hugely unfair. Neal had a good game yesterday, both going forward and at the back, but suffered by virtue of not having a traditional wide player ahead of him. He got overloaded, certainly for the first goal, with Joe Powell finding space and time to slot past Vickers with ease.

It was a horrible start from us and it didn’t look like getting any better as Nigel Clough’s men asserted their experience quickly. What you must remember is as we were lifting the Checkatrade Trophy, this lot were playing the likes of Leeds, Middlesbrough and Aston Villa every week. They’ve been in the Championship very recently and although they’re ‘just’ Burton, a side we feel are a ‘small’ club, they’re not. They’re well-run, have very good players in key positions and clearly have a well-implemented game plan when things go right.

Courtesy Graham Burrell

Alan Sheehan was in the thick of the action, heading clear Jamie Murphy’s 12th-minute cross, tackling Sarkic on 13 minutes and clearing a cross for a corner on 14 minutes. From where I was sat, the Brewers’ attack seemed relentless and whilst some have criticised Sheehan’s debut, I felt he more than earned his corn.

Once the storm appeared to have been weathered we looked to edge our way back into the game, Jorge Grant in particular looking as lively as ever. I’m so impressed with Grant this season, we’ve watched him grow into a fine footballer after a tough few months after DC left. He created a good chance for Joe Morrell and he fired a free-kick moments later that led to a corner. A couple of half-chances immediately gets the crowd up and from my vantage point, we seemed so loud. It’s hard in Upper 5 to truly appreciate how loud the 617 are, but across the pitch, it’s very obvious. Not long after our first couple of chances, it was 1-1.

Kudos Anthony Scully, another fine find for this football club. He had the foresight to close down Burton as they played out from the back, then hung on to the ball long enough to allow Tom Hopper to peel off to the far post. The ball was then inch-perfect, giving the former Southend man the simplest of tap ins at the back stick. Sure, it still has to be scored and you have to get into the right position, which Hopper got just right.

Courtesy Graham Burrell

I felt we improved after the goal and I’ve got to pay tribute to Hopper. He really put himself about and although he said in his post-match interview he felt he’d been up to speed before the break, I think we saw the Tom Hopper the manager wanted to sign yesterday. He was typically robust and make no mistake, the lad took an absolute battering from some tough defenders. There is history between him and O’Toole after they clashed in the Southend and Burton clash earlier in the season and on more than one occasion the Brewers left a boot in after a challenge. The referee, scott Oldham, managed the game well though I thought, he could have flashed the yellows and made a rod for his own back but he let a bruising game flow. Hopper wasn’t intimidated one bit and gave us a real glimpse of what he can do. I said I couldn’t see him bagging three between this weekend and the end of the season on the evidence he’d provided so far. I absolutely love the fact he’s already two thirds there.

Before he added his second though, a lively Burton made it 2-1. I felt we’d struggle to score, I said if we went behind it would be tough and we’ve often struggled to come from behind. After levelling, the one thing we didn’t want was to conceded again, but that is what happened. Joe Powell, an alleged target for us in the winter window, netted after our defence was opened up like a tin of beans once more. I didn’t think we were woeful at the back, but it looked like a relatively new back four. Remember, Max Melbourne has been out, Sheehan is new, Bozzy hasn’t been back long and Eardley had an unfamiliar player ahead of him. Their lad Hutchinson (good name that) was causing all manner of peril and menace on the flank and even though I felt we looked dangerous when we went forward, I felt they were equally as fearsome.

Courtesy Graham Burrell

I turned to Gary, or Mr Sleight if you’re a pupil of the Priory reading this, and said it could easily be 4-3. That was an improvement on the first 15 minutes though, when he remarked it could be another Oxford thrashing.

Good teams have character and desire and when you’re in the mire you either sink or swim. Tranmere were winning and we’d gone behind twice, something City rarely get back from. In fact, the last time we came from behind twice to win a game was Peterborough in the Checkatrade Trophy in 2018. The last time we did it in the league was Chester in 2016. Luckily, I didn’t have those stats to hand so I wasn’t aware of what a huge task we had facing us.

I’m happy to be corrected here, but I believe the last time we went behind twice at home and came back to win in the Football League was October 1996 against Colchester. I’m sure a statto might be able to come up with something else, but a cursory glance through the fixtures doesn’t throw up any obvious matches to the contrary…..