The games are coming thick and fast for new Town manager Simon Grayson and his backroom team, and after a solid 2-0 home win against Exeter, we travelled down to Stevenage for a Tuesday night match against a team just one place below us in the table. Stevenage have a solid home record but lost their two previous league games, and I reckoned this was the perfect time to play them and hopefully pick up all three points.
I booked the afternoon off work and met Liam at The Old Post Office pub at Bretton, and we set off for Stevenage just after 3pm. It was a pretty easy drive down there, we only hit a little traffic when heading through Stevenage, then once we were parked up (for free!), we wandered to Burger King and then for a pint at a Harvester pub (rock ‘n’ roll).
Discussing the possible line-up has become a bit of a pointless exercise in recent weeks, so I won’t go into the donzes of different combinations we thought up! Plenty of time for a quick photo in front of the stand before we went in. Now, the following picture is testament to how crap the camera is on iPhones. You will notice the difference compared to those later on, taken on my awesome Samsung. That blurry figure is definitely me, honest!
So, into the ground, and we got word about the Town line-up. A bit of chopping and changing both in the starting eleven and the subs bench saw Town line up as follows…
Town: Smithies, Hunt, McCombe, Morrison, Naysmith, Cadamarteri, Gobern, Gudjonsson, Ward, Novak, Lee.
Joey’s cameo appearance against Exeter had earned himself a starting spot, but anyone in place of Robinson is an improvement (except one player – more on that later). Novak for Rhodes was the obvious swap up front, with Town’s top scorer being on international duty for Scotland Under 21′s. Finally Cadamarteri came in for Roberts on the wing.
I also had my eye out for the long-lost Random Seat feature, until I realised that half the ground was terraced. So, instead of going for a Random Slab Of Concrete feature, I clocked the seats to the left of us that still had ‘Boro’ painted on them. Despite Stevenage dropping the ‘Borough’ from their name in 2010. They also Tweet with the hashtag #sbfc, so aren’t doing the best job of dropping it. Now I obviously felt bloody hilarious for noticing all this, until I realised that their club nickname is still The Boro. But this is the only one I’ve got, so enjoy it.
Right! Enough about that, let’s get on with the game (though no-one told our midfielders this). I thought Town started the brighter of the two sides and were showing a lot of urgency in getting the ball forward, but lacked creativity in the final third. Less than ten minutes in, a Danny Cadamarteri cross was nodded back across goal by Alan Lee, and Danny Ward fired in an effort which was excellently saved by Chris Day in the Boro goal. A couple of corners followed but came to nothing. Stevenage were also playing the game at a high tempo, and knocking the ball around very impressively. A lot of their play seemed very direct, with constant forward runs putting the Town midfield under pressure, and we weren’t dealing too well with it. It was a powerful display by Stevenage, but far from the reputation that they gained under Westley. A number of balls into the flanks put Jack Hunt and his centre-back Jamie McCombe under pressure, but thankfully they did what was necessary to avert any threat.
But as the half went on, Stevenage were getting a lot more joy down the Town right, with Hunt and Ward struggling against the quick passing of the Stevenage left-sided players. A lot of balls were being put into the Town box, but the centre-backs and Alex Smithies were dealing with them quite comfortably. I’d have moved Cadamarteri over to the right provide a bit more stability, and lo and behold Grayson made this switch a couple of minutes later.
Danny Ward had the best chance of the half from either side on the half hour mark when he gained a bit of space outside the box and fired in a low effort towards goal. Day got down well though, and pushed the ball round the post for a corner. Day looked to have picked up a knock whilst making the save, and had to receive a bit of treatment. This would eventually lead to him being substituted at half-time.
Stevenage finished the half with a good spell of possession, but again without really creating anything of note. Town were limiting them to long-range efforts and crosses into the box, both of which were being handled well by Smithies. The half ended 0-0, probably fair on the balance of play. I thought Stevenage had had the better of possession and played some very nice football at times, but Town defended well. At the other end, Town lacked that bit of creativity and clinicalness (is that a word?) in the final third, and might have to change their gameplan a little to get control of the game in the second half. Few Town players stood out for me in the first half, except for maybe the centre-backs and Alex Smithies, who had neutralised any potential Stevenage threat. I thought Town needed to play with a bit higher tempo and more fluidity, as we hadn’t really gained any consistent periods of possession, unlike Stevenage.
Half time entertainment: Shocking. Basically an out-of-work wedding DJ who kept telling people to try and warm up, despite it being a fairly reasonable temperature for February. And his beige suit left a lot to be desired.
I bet this helpline got plenty of calls during the Westley era.
The second half started at a pretty high tempo, and the opening goal came within five minute, during Town’s first real bit of possession. A misplaced pass in the midfield saw Lee Novak bomb forward towards the Stevenage box, and instead of shooting, he fed in Danny Ward, who managed to squeeze the ball past sub ‘keeper Julian with his right foot. It looked like Ward had knocked the ball too far wide with his first touch, so did really well with the finish. Though to be fair, Julian should have done better. Chant One: “One-nil up and it’s Julian’s fault!”
Despite a flurry of Stevenage possession, Town managed to get their second just five minutes later. This time, Lee Novak was the goalscorer. After some neat passing down the right hand side, the ball fell to Novak on the corner of the penalty box, and he fired a shot just under the crossbar. An even bigger error from Julian this time, who flapped at the shot and didn’t make any kind of contact. Chant Two: “Two-nil up and it’s Julian’s fault!”; Chant Three: “Let’s all wave at Julian!” – followed by everyone in the away end waving at the Stevenage ‘keeper! Liam did comment on how this all might come back to haunt us, but surely that wouldn’t happen, right? Right??
Wrong. This second goal gave Stevenage the impetus they needed to really push on and force Town deeper and deeper into their half. The fast tempo returned to their play, and the passing was back to the high standards of the first half. Fortunately, their efforts on goal were once again limited to long-range shots, most of which sailed over the bar or went straight at Smithies. Chant Four: “That’s how you stop a ball!”
Town made their first sub on the seventy minute mark, with CENTRAL DEFENDER Antony Kay coming on in CENTRE MIDFIELD. It took Lee Clark two years to realise the error of his ways, but clearly no-one told Simon Grayson when he joined. Hopefully it won’t take him the same length of time. Stevenage were back in the came less than a minute later. An unecessary corner was given away by Jamie McCombe, and it was powered in at the near post by Michael Bostwick. This was all-too familiar now, and with twenty minutes left, it was suddenly panic-stations for Town. We lost our shape completely, and Grayson attempted to rectify this by bringing on Higginbotham for Lee. Alan Lee had not had a bad game, but had run himself into the ground and was clearly wrecked. However, I could have told Grayson at the time that Higgo was not the player to bring on in these circumstances, I’d rather have seen him go 4-5-1 with a flat midfield three.
Just a few minutes after this change, Stevenage had the perfect chance to equalise, from the penalty spot. Morrison was adjudged to have fouled Lawrie Wilson, and up stepped Scott Laird to take the spot kick. He hit it well, to his right, but Alex Smithies pulled off a fantastic one-handed save to keep the score at 2-1. Could we really hold on this time? Is it possible?
No. Stevenage continued to pile the pressure on Town, and at times we could barely get out of own half. And when we did, instead of playing a very simple ball-retention strategy, we gave it away too many times and just invited the pressure back on. Grayson made his third and final inspirational substitution of the night by taking off Joey Gudjonsson and bringing on Anton Robinson. So in the centre of midfield we’ve got a centre-back, and a truly awful footballer. The gaps that were already appearing were just getting bigger and bigger, with rash challenges flying in and more passes being misplaced.
The inevitable equaliser came in the dying minutes of the ninety, through Robin Shroot. Myrie-Williams was released down the left hand side of the box, and his low cross/shot across goal found Shroot at the back post, completely unmarked (no idea where Naysmith was), and he finished nicely into the roof of the net. The home fans went crazy, and the Town fans were stunned into silence.
So that’s yet another two points thrown away from a leading position, taking the total to 24 for the season. Those points would see us top of the league. I thought Grayson got his subs completely wrong last night. Kay should never have come on in the centre of midfield, and Robinson shouldn’t have even been near the subs bench, when we’ve got Arfield and Johnson waiting in the wings. For the majority of the game Town did not look like conceding (coincidentally, up until I pointed this out. Jinx much?) and if we could have just shown a bit more professionalism, we would have been able to see out the game at 2-1 or even 2-0. But, as has happened so often this season, we’ve fallen to pieces when having taken a lead, and it is surely becoming a psychological thing with the players. We have enough experience in the team to get the younger players to calm down and put a foot on the ball, sometimes the simplest pass is the easiest one. I feel like I’m repeating myself now, and you could probably pick out my post-match thoughts from any number of games this season, but this result makes Saturday’s game away at Bury a must-win. We have to start picking up wins on a more consistent basis, and breed the kind of confidence that will allow us to stay in touch with the rest of the promotion contenders. I have no worries about us securing a play-off place, but I’m not sure I can handle the tension and heartache of that again!
Man Of The Match: Lee Novak. I don’t think we really had any stand-out players but Novak put in a really good shift up front and showed a lot of energy. He set up the first goal and scored the second, so was definitely our most influential attacking player. I’d still like to see the Rhovak partnership given more time together. It worked very well in their first full season together, and last season was interrupted by Novak’s injuries and Rhodes’ fatigue.
Unsung Hero: Alex Smithies. Goalkeepers don’t tend to get the praise they deserve, especially when they don’t keep a clean sheet, but I thought that Alex saved a point for us last night. On top of the excellent penalty save, he looked very confident in collecting crosses and dealing with Boro’s long-range efforts. His distrubtion has always been his strong-point, which was again very good, and it also looks like he has been fine-tuning the other aspects of his game.