My favourite date of the season is Boxing Day; I’m ambivalent to the opening fixture and the significance of end of the season games only becomes clear nearer the time. There’s a warm fuzzy glow around Boxing Day and the anticipation of some wholesome Christmas joy. Despite the expectation, on average, the happy coincidence of a home tie that goes ahead which we win only happens every three years.
New Year’s Day is Boxing Day’s slightly disappointing cousin, families have returned home, so we don’t get the new horrified Japanese girlfriend who expected an English Christmas to be something from a Dickens novel and thought she was going to Old Trafford. There are fewer Quality Streets being handed around during lulls in the game. We don’t get the non-conformist behaviour, like the couple near me a few years ago who happily drank pints in the stand while watching the game, then left half-an-hour early.
By comparison, New Year’s Day is rubbish, it feels like being spat out of hyper space. Prior to New Year’s Eve, everything feels far away; but suddenly it’s the new year and you’re confronted by all its horrors. You spend the whole day shaking off the grogginess from the night before then, as your head clears, the great return to work suddenly comes at you like a steam train. You’re Penelope Pitstop tied to a railway track as the juggernaut approaches.
As a result, there’s a lot of transposition in a New Year game; the team are often perceived to be sluggish, but that’s because the fans feel sluggish. There’s often a lot of talk about players training on Christmas Day, but much less talk about what they do for New Year; I doubt they’re up at 2am playing Pie Face for shots.
The slow start against Cheltenham was unlikely to be because of a hangover; they were just well prepared. They started quickly in an attempt to nullify our own fast starts. Feeling their way into the game would invite trouble and they weren’t going to do that. Their plan seemed to be to flood forward to prevent us from setting up base camp from which we could launch an attack. We didn’t concede, thankfully, but it meant we then had first to survive, then to rebuild our game plan.
We eventually got hold of the ball and started to move it around like it was a training drill, it was the sensible thing to do to reset ourselves, but it gave them a chance to build their defence. The second part of their plan seemed to be that they were going to defend – they were in no rush to touch the ball, let alone go for goals; they were ready to sit it out. The question was how long could they maintain their shape and discipline.
I’d assumed we’d just keep working them until they started to fall apart but their great wall of five at the back meant there was no way around. Of our last twenty-odd goals, only one has come from outside the box and that was Mark Sykes’ winner at MK Dons which was an open goal from a goalkeeping error. Getting balls into the box, and particularly to the back post from the wing, is our thing; their great impenetrable wall needed to be dismantled if we were going to follow a similar pattern.
I wasn’t particularly concerned with Matty Taylor’s missed penalty. We seem to miss quite a lot of penalties, and it doesn’t do us a lot of harm. The award was a bit of a bonus, it would have been hard for the ref not to have given it, given the clear contact the keeper made with Taylor, but he was going away from goal and didn’t seem to be fully in control of the ball. A penalty always seems a disproportionate punishment in those situations. It also made the more obvious penalty claim, for the foul on Sykes, harder to give.
There was always a chance they’d make a breakthrough; but scoring didn’t seem to be their primary objective. It’s a good plan against us this season, you have to be very good to play through us but we will tend to lapse at least once in a game. For their goal, Mark Sykes seemed to forget where he was with his little trademark flick which often gives him a couple of yards on a defender when he’s on the attack, as a defensive manoeuvre it simply put the ball in the path of Callum Wright to prod home.
There was plenty of time to respond, although there were a few panicky catcalls from the stands. We still needed to take down their wall to thread through Sykes or Williams to create a chance. But, perhaps unexpectedly, they held firm deep into the game. The midfield three of Kane, Brannagan and McGuane are a strong unit, but they’re all erosional, their constant pressure wears defences down. If that doesn’t work, you need something else. That’s where we miss someone like James Henry, who has the ability to change the shape of the play, to disrupt the game and find a new way through their defence, maybe not through the wall, but perhaps over it. Without him, we’re reliant on plan A and that wasn’t having the desired effect.
The wall held. Only the introduction of Gavin Whyte – apparently not fit enough to last a whole game – started to have an impact. Whyte is like a ballbearing fired from a catapult, he’s so fast and precise he can get through a defensive wall almost without leaving any mark, once he was clear, it was down to him to thread the ball across the six yard box for Mark Sykes to slide home for the equaliser.
It’s been said before, in the past in these situations we might have become frustrated and lost our discipline, or panicked and conceded late on. But we’re not like that now; we may have wanted to go for the win, but we weren’t going to sacrifice everything for it. Of course, the idea is to send everyone home happy and complete the narrative. But this season, the story isn’t about what happens on any given day, it’s about where we are in May. In a sense, it takes confidence to do that – to avoid snatching for short-term glory, particularly on days like Boxing Day or New Year’s Day when things are supposed to be different. It’s been a problem for these games in the past – the record breaking crowd against Woking in 2006, the Americanised razzmatazz of the game against Plymouth in 2013, the kangaroo court designed to humiliate Chris Wilder in 2016 – all pre-designed to create a moment – a glorious victory – which ultimately fell on its face. It’s a long season, and we’re going to need all of it if we’re going to be successful.
After the highs of the Wimbledon game, the draw felt like one of those game; full of anticipation and expectation that fell a bit flat. As Michael Appleton might have once said ‘It was one of them’.