I tend to park in a little side road about 10 minutes from the ground. Apart from the busiest games, there’s always space. Not many people know about it and there’s a small group of us who do know how to make the most out of the space available.
I was looking forward to getting back to normal after three 10,000+ attendances. I left the house at my usual time and arrived at my usual spot. Someone had parked on the wrong side of the road creating a chicane, limiting the space available. There wasn’t space for me, so I had to park in my ‘big-game’ spot instead.
The ticketing strategy for the FA Cup win over Hartlepool undoubtedly worked, but it did create a lot of irregular behaviour. There seemed to be a lot of newbies; kids in brand new merchandise, queues outside the South Stand, which is unheard of. It was a real success.
I happened to be sitting in my regular seat thanks to Brinyhoof, but nobody else was. The unallocated seats seemed to change the dynamic of the crowd, making it a much more passive, expectant experience. At times it felt like we’d turned up to watch a training session or friendly. People were here to be entertained.
The pre-match gathering to recognise mental health and/or John Shuker and/or everyone who died last year was confusing. They were all important things to mark, but all at the same time made the atmosphere even stranger. Thankfully, nothing touched the farce of the Armistice ceremony at Portsmouth. But then, nothing could.
On the pitch, we stroked the ball around reassuringly, Karl Robinson, usually a hyperactive lunatic on the touchline, spent much of the first half rolling his eyes in a professorial way at the incompetence around him. Nobody seemed that bothered about turning it into a competitive, must-win game.
Then, in a moment reminiscent of San Marino’s goal against England in 1993, Rob Dickie scuffed a back pass and they darted in to score. It created an even more peculiar atmosphere; there was an expectation in the stands that this would be put right, like taking back an over-ripe pack of peaches to Waitrose.
But initially there seemed to be no reaction. They didn’t look threatening, but then neither did we. What was needed, and is needed in all games, is someone to grab the game by the scruff of the neck. Usually we rely on Cameron Brannagan or James Henry, but neither were available.
It was possible that we’d simply let the game slip by, compressing the time available to get the equaliser, then a winner. They never looked particularly threatening and they seemed to have vulnerabilities we could exploit. This was no better illustrated by Michael Raynes; a great guy who had a solid game, but let’s not forget he was a second string League 2 central defender for us. Five years ago. They were nothing special. It could have been the strangest giantkilling in history; driven by apathy with the risk staring us in the face.
Shandon Baptiste can cut an insouciant character, he doesn’t dart about finding spaces, driving people on, he’s rarely stretching for balls, he can look like he’s waiting for the game to come to him. Without Henry or Brannagan we needed someone to change the patterns of the match. Their role was to put bodies behind the ball, ours was to find a way through. Baptiste is the one with the tools to do it, but whether he had the will was another question.
Then, suddenly he was finding a breathtaking range of passing with new angles that cut out lines of Hartlepool’s defence and stretched them in ways they didn’t know they could be stretched. One ball out to Sam Long was simply breathtaking. He has such presence of mind, that there was one foul on the half-way line where he fell while staying on his feet until he was sure the referee had given it. He was in complete control.
His goal, of course, was the culmination of it all. Barrelling through players with step-overs, dummy’s and a dropped shoulder. Like an extended remix of his goal against West Ham.
In the end, it was all quite comfortable and hopefully some of the day-trippers enjoyed their time enough to come to games which aren’t determined by the size of the opponents or the price of the tickets. That has to be the aim; with Rotherham, Ipswich, Sunderland and Portsmouth to come, as well as the next round of the Cup, there’s plenty of entertainment on offer in the coming weeks.
We have a number of flight-risks this transfer window – Dickie, Brannagan, Baptiste. But, where Dickie and Brannagan are most likely to be targeted by teams in the Championship, teams we could be playing next year, you sense with Baptiste that he has the potential to go higher. My hope is that whatever path he does take, its developmental and he doesn’t find himself stuck in a Championship squad keeping their head above water, his home should be at the very top of the game.