In 1996 we went six games without scoring, I remember the sense of growing desperation. We’d just enjoyed a thrilling, but narrow promotion the previous season and the fear was we’d been found out. The 10-hour barren run consisted of five away games, including a demoralising 1-0 defeat at Swindon. Catastrophising was rife as we advanced towards a point where we wondered if we’d ever score again; the path to goal seemed unnavigable.
We faced Stoke City, seventh in the table, at the Manor on a Tuesday night. In the first-half Martin Gray, a much maligned grafter in midfield, pounced on a Nigel Jemson knock back to score his first goal for the club. In Jemson, Martin Aldridge, Paul Moody and Joey Beauchamp, we had many more refined attacking options, but while their talents and magic had deserted them, Gray simply put in the work to find a way to break the duck. Nobody could predict that Gray would be the one to break the hoodoo. The goal opened the floodgates, we won 4-1 and followed up with another four wins in a sequence including 13 goals – most of which were from more refined talents than Gray.
Football is full of stories of hoodoos, luck and talent; a magical pantomime surrounding the realities of organisation, process and effort that really makes a team successful. I often wonder how genuine the pantomime is. When we say we hate another team, is we really hate the actual people who support that team, even though they’re likely to be just like you or I? It’s the same with players; do we genuinely believe they don’t care or don’t try when they make a mistake or lose a game?
I feel schizophrenic about it; on one level, I buy into the whole thing – football much is less fun if you’re fair, equitable and empathetic of players or opponents. However, I feel bad about the criticisms, and how I exact my frustrations at people who, in all likelihood, are just doing their best.
Last night’s win over Rochdale was a case in point. I’ve questioned Simon Eastwood’s form this season, but have no problem with his ability or commitment. He made a number of brilliant saves last night; each one made my heart sing because it signalled another step towards him being the player we know he can be. I desperately want to see him succeed, far more than wanting him dropped or punished when things don’t go well.
Likewise along the backline; there’s little doubt we have a deeper systemic issue at centre-back. It’s not a commentary on the individuals – Mousinho, Atkinson and Moore – it’s how we’ve struggled to plan effective succession in the wake of Rob Dickie and Curtis Nelson’s departures.
At risk of an overstatement; Elliot Moore’s performance last night felt like a coming of age, it wasn’t just his goals – though his touch for the first and the domination in the air for the second was almost Matt Elliot-like. He was also commanding at the back and while we ended up defending more than we’d have liked, it was good to see the reward for his determination to keep Rochdale at bay. I hope, like Rob Dickie last season, this sort of success sees his confidence grow.
Likewise, our wobbliness at centre-back and the lack of protection in midfield without Gorrin or Brannagan – has put more pressure on Sean Clare to defend. As a result he’s been maligned in the opening weeks of the season, just at a time when you want him to settle into a rhythm. Last night he was able to show why he was brought to the club; he’s less of a Joe Skarz or Scott McNiven, more a Damian Batt; an attacking threat.
The only blot in the copybook was the penalty, which was again more about the pantomime of football than the realities. I hate these technical offences; like the offside law aiming to combat goalhanging but becoming a technical offence about putting your toe in the wrong place. The new handball rule is a departure from its original intentions – to stop a player gaining an advantage using their hands. The new interpretation means it’s in the interest of the attacker to direct the ball towards the midriff of the defender in the hope of it ricocheting off the hand.
So, in reality, this was as close to a clean sheet as you can get without actually having one, which is a massive step in the right direction. It was beginning to feel like conceding a couple of goals a game was embedding itself within our DNA.
Like the Martin Gray goal against Stoke, the product of effort over talent; this was the perfect way to win given the predicament we had find ourselves in. A timely reminder that with the application of a bit of graft we can achieve almost anything.