You know when you go to games and after ten minutes you start to get very worried that the players might go and do a Coventry… then out of nowhere they wake up and go goal mental?
Well, that. That’s what happened on Saturday.
It’s becoming a brilliant habit of ours, all this winning. Journey back a couple of weeks, and the message as we entered this run of four home games was to make sure we took advantage. They’ve found it difficult at times at the Ricoh, but after narrowly failing to see out the victory against Portsmouth, the players have grown more and more. Following this flurry of fixtures, I’d happily play anyone round our gaff – the line up is settled, the players are desperate to get involved and most importantly, the results are starting to fall our way.
It was strange then that the opening period against Walsall was the most sluggish we’ve been during these games. There was little intensity, and a wide range of ways of losing the ball on show. Was over-confidence and expectation getting to them?
Probably, but they also seemed a bit taken aback by the Walsall attacking unit. Brandy was nippy, and Will Grigg was providing the back two with a quite a physical challenge.
From our side, Cyrus Christie’s anonymity for the opening 25 minutes was incredible, and Carl Baker was playing like a right wally. Thoughts ran through my head about whether we’d been the victim of some kind of elaborate body-swap over the past month.
The own goal was a result of all that wasn’t going our way, and even though the Walsall defence lacked any semblance of organisation, we all know how these games are supposed to go; we lose them don’t we? As unfortunate as it was, with Adams flicking out a leg to divert the ball home, when you’ve not won from behind in almost 4 years, that opening goal packs quite a punch. It takes something special to rectify it.
But we rectified the shit out of it.
As I’ve hinted, the Walsall back line was asking for a tonking. Prior to going behind, Franck Moussa had shown the defence the slipper-speed a couple of times, and I really feel like that gave him a psychological edge. You always hear about the importance of winning the early battles with your opponent, and making your intentions known. That’s such a valid notion; you’ll know if you’ve played in matches yourself the boost you get when you realise you’re much faster than the guy who’s marking you. Or he’s just plain useless.
While I don’t think Moussa grabbed quite the advantage I expected him to, I noticed the impact of these moments on Walsall’s shape as they came up with an unnaturally staggered defensive line, with a right back drifting in and out, scared rigid of being caught by Franck again.
Baker was not doing very well at all, and yet he got the goal that kicked us into life. It all stemmed from a short corner routine which looked doomed to fail (as they do), but as the ball dropped to Baker he wiggled around a bit before drilling a shot unexpectedly into the far left corner. The celebrations were tinted with a heavy dose of relief, as we did the sensible thing and didn’t allow the lead to remain in Walsall’s hands for much more than 10 minutes.
Then the main man McGoldrick – who’d already come close – stepped up with a quick-fire double. His first was a delight, created again from the vision and execution of James Bailey who this time slotted a reverse pass straight through the Walsall back line for McGoldrick to calmly dink over the keeper. It was a gorgeous finish to an supremely sexy move.
A minute later, and he was at it again, this time doing a Don Hutchinson as he brought the ball down with his chest before prodding one over the line, despite the manic attempts of the Walsall back boys. There were some complaints about a perceived shove by DMac, but given some of the cheeky behaviour they were getting up to in the aerial challenge, there’s no surprise the ref ignored something as innocuous as a nudge.
Taking a 3-1 lead into half-time was huge, and we looked set to score even more thanks to a threatening edge which I haven’t seen in years. Remember the Eric Black era where we looked like scoring on every attack? Well, it started to get pretty close to that.
The problem with scoring lots of goals is that it often leads to poor decisions, as every player fancies themselves to grab one. One player who was working tremendously hard to do this was Gary McSheffrey, who had one of his best games of the season, showing exactly why he can still be a threat in this league. He wanted goals, and was prepared to work to get them. It’s also a sign of his improved fitness and the realisation that he’s still got something to offer.
While everyone had their eye on McGoldrick grabbing his hat trick, the fourth came from an unusual source as Christie scored his first league goal. The finish was a swirling left-foot effort from the right side, but it was the Roberto Carlos jabby change of direction which had me cooing. More of the same please, Cyrus.
By this point, things were getting a little bit fruity. It all seemed pointless hoopla to me, with the frustration of the Walsall players clearly overcoming them. I forget who got sent off, but he was gobbing off and getting involved in plenty of needless argy bargy, it was only a matter of time before the ref got fed up of his insolence.
Baker wrapped it up with a fairly tame left-footed shot which somehow bounced past the Walsall keeper. Being the annoying sod I am, I like to predict the result of things before they actually happen. As he struck the ball my immediate reaction was to utter “argh, crap”.
What a tit.
We’re really cracking on now. The next step is to develop this run.
It’s the closest we’ve been so far to a concerted period of good form, but we need to consolidate it. Sloppy defeats at this point can really derail a movement before it’s had a chance to set in.
We all want to be patient and understanding, but once you’ve had a taste of just how bad teams in the league can be, it makes you hungry. I heard Baker today speaking about how he thinks we can get promoted. While we’re still quite a long way off all that, it’s actually not the wildest idea in the world. When you think about it, that is.
Last week (before all that nonsense with the Stadium) I was getting a bit carried away and started thinking about what’s required in order for us to achieve anything in the league this year. Yes – it’ll take an almighty effort to push on, but you can’t expect to get into the play-offs any other way. You’re not going to bumble your way to promotion. If you want to go up, you’ve got to produce the sort of form that teams like Tranmere have done, for that period of time.
So what does that mean in footballing terms? Well, if we can get to half-way (23 games) with 30 points, that leaves us 43 points off last season’s play-off total. It requires an improvement of 4 or 5 wins more than our first half of the campaign.
Remember the first two months, or the amount of games we’re tossed away having taken the lead? Exactly.
Generally, we’ve been average this season but if we hit the levels we’re now showing we’re capable of, the gap is not as insurmountable as we may think. Before you worry about jinxing anything or being let down again, all you have to ask yourself if you expect from this point onwards for us to improve, decline, or plateau.
I know what I’m expecting. We’re going to lose players, but you’d hope this is a challenge this mammoth squad we’ve acquired will be able to stand up to more than the rest. A slightly improved second half, and let’s just see where that takes us.
I see no harm in raising the level of expectation. What’s the worst that can happen? The players fall away a bit, and we’re right back where we started? I’m still going to feel as bad as if I predicted them to naff it all up, so it makes no odds to me whether I’m confident or not.
I don’t know about you, but I’ve never been worried about hoping for the best, especially if the signs are there that it might be achievable. There’s still plenty of time to go this year, and whether the improvement comes or not, I’m certainly happy to aim for the stars.
Or 8th place as I predicted. Either way’s fine.