Matty Hayward – @MattyHayward96
Plastic pitches, eh? We’re awful on them at the best of times, right? Let alone when our best striker can barely walk on any surface that isn’t grass without his zimmer frame and our captain violently vomits every time he sees a rubber crumb. This’ll be a nightmare! Hand over the three points to Sutton, let them crack on with ripping up said pitch and we’ll prepare for a play-off humbling.
Nah. Not this time. Not this team. Gary’s men might well have worked out how to play on the 4G: it might be a bit less attractive than usual, you might need to take the surface out of the game sometimes, you might need to toughen up and fight. Whatever the plan was, it worked pretty much to perfection. The Gulls left Gander Green Lane on Tuesday with more than a convincing three points, but a spring in their step, and a much-improved league position.
Getting a Randell on Things
Without wishing to get carried away (we’ll get onto that), last night definitely had an air of Woking (a) about it. A fixture that was rightly billed as a crucial clash against a title rival; a fixture that understandably had butterflies in stomachs (mine at least) throughout the day; a fixture away to a silly little non-league club that we should never be scared of.
Much of it felt scripted; none moreso than the goal. It felt as if it had to be late and sealed by what we’ll now term “A Wynts Moment”, it had to be a header, it had to be Asa. The cross from Randell, too, seemed destined. A combination of our persistent injury crisis forcing him to play in three different positions this season, and the fact that our other midfielders have recognisable hair styles has meant that the Argyle-loanee has crept under the radar this season. But he’s been consistently influential, and when it mattered last night he produced a delivery of excellent quality (with his supposed weaker foot) for his skipper who gobbled up the opportunity.
It’s pretty clear that Randell’s going to be a good footballer. We’ve done well to hold onto him for all of this season, to the extent that even if we’re a League Two club next season you’d expect Plymouth to at least want a look at him in their first team. But he’s ours for now, and is probably set to be the Young Player of The Year regardless of what the run-in has in store.
The Camback is on
Our season has been punctuated by players getting injured and them coming back. There have been games in recent months where two or three of the starting XI are what you’d call “guaranteed starters”. Things are looking slightly better on that front now: Kai Hepworth has finally remembered his medical training and we’ve recently seen the returns of Covolan, Wright, and Moxey. This week, it was Kyle Cameron’s turn to come back into the matchday squad.
At 0-0, with about fifteen minutes to play, Gary Johnson made what can only be described as a sensational tactical decision. (In an alternate universe, I’m writing the words “just before Sutton took the lead, Johson made what can only be described as an absolutely bizarre decision”). The increasingly hot-headed Jake Andrews was replaced by the vice-captain and instead of rejigging the formation, the Geordie Kinkladze* was thrown straight onto the left wing.
This is part of a grander reason for optimism. The whispers are that Ben Whitfield may be next off the treatment table into the squad, but the joy of our current form means neither he nor Cameron need to be rushed. The opposite, in fact: it may well be considered foolish to change a winning team. Kyle is undoubtedly a very good defender at this level, but could you really drop Sherring or Lewis having conceded twice in the last seven games? Similarly, Whitfield’s return should be staggered so as to not interrupt an in-form Jake Andrews and to allow the Bingley Bale to first cause havoc in late, sharp spells and return to fitness at a leisurely (read: not insanely rushed like we’ve seen in the past) pace.
*(ok, nerds, Kinkladze was famously averse to playing on the left of midfield, no need to spoil a fun pun with “facts”)
In a just world, Ben Wynter would’ve been sent off last night. Not because of anything in the rulebook necessarily, but because hacking someone down – someone who is headed for your goal apace, in the final minute – with no attempt to play the ball should be punished in the harshest possible terms. It was a dreadful challenge, and no amount of watching besuited and bewaistcoated TV pundits (or a bejumpered Peter Walton) talking about “taking one for the team” will persuade me otherwise. (The image below makes it look like he was near to getting the ball. He very much was not). Thankfully, the referee applied the rules to the letter (the letter) and issued Wynts with a yellow warning rather than a red. It goes down, therefore, as one of the great cynical tackles of our age.
And so, it was a free kick. How many shots from direct free kicks get scored, do you reckon? In the Premier League (I don’t have stats for the National League, for obvious reasons) the conversion rate is 6%. How many have we scored this season? Little against Yeovil and Andrews against Solihull are the only two I remember. I don’t recall conceding any. It’s completely illogical to be so concerned about an event from which a goal so rarely occurs. And yet, the minute or so their man was spotting the ball up felt like an eternity. Watching the referee spray his little white line as the clock ticked over into its 96th, 97th minute, it was as if the ball had already been struck, was already goal-bound, that Covolan’s wall was built not of towering young men but of sand, that the implementation of a “draft excluder” was merely a pointless accoutrement on a sinking Titanic, that the men in amber were already wheeling away, knowing they’d burgled a crucial point after an evening of dross.
Then you were back in the real world. Names you sort of remember seeing in tweets or hearing on podcasts or said by Jeff Stelling lined up for the strike. “Beautyman, I recognise him!” you think, dreading hearing that accursed name again in your nightmares – the man who made the worst year of your life a little bit worse. 2021: the year torpedoed by Harry Beautyman (and Covid).
He struck the free kick and it was over the bar before you blinked. Just like any rational person would’ve predicted. The whistle would surely go upon the taking of the goal kick. Everything was going to be alright. 2021 was actually – despite what you said earlier – good.
In Spanish football, they have a phrase “¡Hay liga!” which – though this isn’t a perfect translation – essentially means “there is league”, or more loosely, “the title race is wide open (again).” There is now, most certainly, league. You could make a case for any of the top six being likely to take the title, but you could make a pretty compelling case against their chances too. Hartlepool (1st), you’d think, have played too many games to hold onto their lead. Both Sutton (2nd) and Notts County (6th) are in terrible form. Chesterfield (5th) are rallying but have just lost their striker to injury. Stockport (4th) are rallying but are five points behind the Yellows. And then there’s us (3rd).
There’s still a lot of football to be played. Tempting though it is to either get carried away in last night’s euphoria or agonise over the relative ease of each team’s fixture list, neither is useful. It’s important that we don’t get ahead of ourselves. Overconfidence – as Sutton may have shown in their recent games – precedes carelessness. It’s also important that we don’t worry about the others. As this league has shown throughout this season, often teams lose games they shouldn’t. Every team is going to drop points in the run-in, and while our schedule may look tougher than most there’s no reason to suggest that we’d drop more points than anyone else.
Being in these positions is literally why you become a football fan. Obviously it’s less good without being there, without the singing, without the pre-and-mid-and-post-match pints, without the cans on the train on the way, without the cans (bought in a grotty scaled-down supermarket) on the train home, without your mates, without the pasties, without the awful abuse levelled at the officials and the opposition and anyone who says anything bad about Gary Johnson, without the bustle of the terrace and the stink of the toilets. But other than that, the tension, the drama, the expectation, the battle, the irrational fear of the opposition free kick. That’s what it’s all about as a football fan. You don’t get on a rollercoaster to fret about the number of ups and downs; just buckle up and enjoy the ride.
COYY – Matty