Wednesday, 12 December 2012

Another year, another Premier League club...

So we did it.
13 years of hurt expunged at last, and when the big prize was at stake, our boys did not disappoint and delivered when it mattered most.
It was another superb show of character and resilience three days after our comeback at Northampton, and they have the reward and we have the match we all dreamed of, against Everton.
So one year to the day after the Ruby Army went to the Big Smoke to play the aristocrats of Tottenham Hotspur on their own patch, we welcome the might of Everton to our humble abode.
Heady days indeed, and it would be easy to get blase about occasions such as this, coming as it does on the back of games with Newcastle, Sunderland, Fulham, Stoke and that Spurs clash in recent years.
And to think that some of our fans moan that we get no luck with Cup draws...
We knew Hereford would not roll over. We were made to work for it, and to see some of our players gritting their teeth and playing through some hefty knocks, especially Darryl Duffy in extra time, also made light of those who say that on occasions some 'don't play for the shirt'. They certainly did last night.
My feelings after the game were twofold - excitement at the prospect of seeing Everton at our place and relief at finally seeing another win over Hereford after ... well, too bloomin' long.
After a day dominated by glances out of the window of my office to see if there was any fog coming in to scupper chances of the game going ahead, I got to Hereford just after 7pm and wondered what all the fuss had been about.
The pitch looked in excellent nick, there was no fog (yet) and the team sheet once again made interesting reading.
In my last blog, I advocated one change, Marlon Pack for Keith Lowe, and Yatesy made one change, but opted for Jermaine McGlashan instead.
Seemed fair enough to me, as the midfield trio of Russ Penn, Jake Taylor and Darren Carter had done very little wrong at Sixfields and didn't deserve to be broken up, while Keith was always going to be unlucky as his inclusion at the weekend was to play a specific role.
Then came the conjecture over the formation. Would Zebroski be on the left in a 4-2-3-1? Would he play just behind Harrad in a 4-4-1-1? Neither. It was a nice, plain and simple 4-4-2.
I thought our players' attitude throughout the game was spot on.
We started well, positively, and looked to stop Hereford settling, and their players looked nervous early on.
They weren't helped by the loss of Ryan Bowman early on, as he was a threat in the first game and they didn't have the same sort of target up front to play off when he went off.
They were looking to get down the side of us with balls into the channel for Junior Smikle, Phil Marsh or Sam Clucas to get on to, but we dealt with it well for the most part.
Harry Pell was prominent again for them, but the presence of Russ in our midfield made a big difference and it was a good battle between the two.
We have seen in the past that 4-4-2 hasn't always worked for us, but I thought it did last night, because we had balance on the two flanks.
Jermaine on the right was complimented superbly by Jake on the left (and when they swapped flanks...) and I thought Jake was our best player over the 120 minutes.
Like at Sixfields on Saturday, Jake looked a lot happier in a wide position than he had in that central role.
He was direct when he got the ball in a wide position and frequently gave Russ and Darren an option then they looked to spread the play as well as testing his full-back with pace and trickery.
He looks a neat and tidy player and doesn't often waste possession, and over the last two games has, in my opinion, justified Yatesy's decision to bring him in.
As the board went up for three minutes of first-half Fergie time, I thought Martin Foyle would be the happier, as we had shaded the first 45, but no-one had really tested the goalkeepers.
That soon changed before the break, as two incidents in 60 seconds turned the tie our way.
First, a simply fabulous save by Scott Brown from Clucas. Somehow, Junior's cross got through to him at the far post, and from the replays Browny's weight looked to be going to his left but adjusted, got his right hand to it and turned it round for a corner. Stunning stuff.
Then came the penalty. Jermaine put on the afterburners to beat Gallers, then twisted and turned past him, burst into the box and went down.
Was it a penalty? In 'live' time I called it as a definite penalty and to be honest, having seen it lots of times on the highlights and slowed it down as well, I still go with that first opinion.
I think Gallers put his arm across and blocked him, and when that happens any player is going to go down.
The referee was in a good position and the reaction to the decision was interesting - five or six Hereford players complain, but Gallers doesn't move from the spot where the challenge is and stands with hands on hips.
That's a sign on a player who knows he is guilty, and Shaun Harrad kept his cool and smashed it in, and after a tight half we had our noses in front again - and as the cliche has it, the perfect time to score.
We know that Gallers can make rash challenges - remember Burton away when he got a red (later rescinded) and the second penalty we conceded on that horrific day at Crewe.
For his part, Jermaine didn't appeal for it, and spent the rest of the game being called a cheat by all the Hereford fans around our commentary position - led by many of the families of players who used to have their mortgages paid by our club. Disappointing, and unnecessary.
That goal meant the second half was 'contain and destroy' for the Rubies - keep it tight and look to nick another on the break. Well, that was the plan...
It was going OK for most of the half, and Yatesy must have been feeling fairly comfortable as Jermaine and Shaun were replaced by Marlon and Darryl, but then came the leveller.
It was a soft goal, no getting away from that.
Clucas had a lot of space on the right hand side, and arced the ball in. Think Steve Guinan in the 2006 play-off final - but Clucas' ball was not as powerful as that.
It dribbled into the box, and I was waiting for a big size nine from Benno or Steve Elliott to smash it away. It didn't come and the ball crept in.
Game on... The volume went up, and I really expected Hereford to try to press on.
They had brought on Marley Watkins to play up alongside Marsh, but those last 15 minutes showed their lack of a Plan B as they failed to build on their goal and seemed to settle for another half-hour. They got their wish.
Then, having played for extra time, Hereford were happy to settle for the penalty lottery, while to Yatesy's credit he told his players to go and win it.
We pushed forward in the first period, but Hereford were sat deep, on their 18-yard line, and we could not find a way through, but we carried that on in the last 15 minutes.
That effort was led by Zebs, who carried the fight to them, driving us on, backed up by Jake, who was still full of energy. Our fitness levels looked superior and we found that £200,000 goal.
It was a great cross from our assist machine Billy Jones, and a great header from sub Mo, making it five goals out of six with his head this season.
Mo had come on when Russ limped off eight minutes of the 90 to go, and I was a bit surprised. I had expected either Sam Deering or Lawson D'Ath to come on, more like for like, but Mo's introduction showed Yatesy wanted to go and win it and he was rewarded for that boldness.
It was a fabulous moment. Mo was engulfed by the fans at the Blackfriars End (who were brilliant and very loud all night by the way) and that goal is another to go down in club folklore - think Eaton at Wembley, Grayson at Rushden, Duff against Yeovil, Kay at Chester, Guinan at Cardiff, Connor v Doncaster, and so on...
Finally, Hereford showed some urgency, but we closed the game out, and now we can look forward to another fabulous occasion at Whaddon, and a financial shot in the arm.
I spoke to the chairman after the game, and he said Yatesy can come and knock on his door and expect a more favourable response - but I hope fans don't expect a massive spending spree.
I am sure the Cup cash will allow Yatesy some room to move in January and strengthen his squad, but I am sure the board will also use some of the money to stash away for a rainy day - things are rosy at the moment, but you never what is lurking round the corner.
But that is for the future. Now we can look forward to Everton at home. That's the sort of game which as recently as 20 years ago was a potential massive pre-season friendly or (as it once was) a testimonial match.
We will have a full ground once again, and the chance to showcase our club on national TV, and, closer to home, get the chance to show the town and the county what a fabulous club and a good team we have got.
It will almost be a 'free' 90 minutes for us. No pressure, no expectation, with the hope that we go out and do ourselves justice on the big stage, and give them a decent game.
I am not saying we should be in awe of them and just limply roll over, but realistically nine times out of 10 Everton should win the game, whatever team David Moyes puts out.
All I want our players to do is to show people what we are capable of and walk off with no regrets and our heads held high, whatever the outcome.
Remember, in the grand scheme of things, promotion has to be the priority, and the cash from games like this can only help us.
The ticket policy has been announced, and I think the club have got it spot on, rewarding first the 'active loyalty' of season ticket holders, Travel Club, Robins Trust, club, 500 club, Ruby and Platinum members, while also giving the more occasional watchers a chance with the stubs from the Barnet and Hereford games, and Vale this weekend.
The prices are right as well, set at the same level as Newcastle six years ago, so the club deserve credit for resisting the temptation to raise a quick buck with higher prices.
For the players, it gives them the incentive to end the year on a high and book their place in the side on January 7, and with the competition in the squad as it is now, there aren't many certain of their places outside the goalkeeper and back four, although I am sure Connor Roberts would love the chance to play his old club...
Marlon's situation sums up that statement - before Northampton, he was an automatic choice, but after two games on the bench, like the others, he will have to fight for his place thanks to the form of those who came in over the last 210 minutes.
We have five games between now and Everton, starting with Port Vale on Saturday, a straight shoot-out for second in the table, and we seemed to come away from Edgar Street with some walking wounded.
Jermaine got a knock from Gallers' naughty-looking off-the-ball challenge soon after the penalty, while Russ limped off after a tackle Yatesy wasn't happy with, and Darryl was poleaxed just before our winner (Gallers again) and tweeted a picture of a pretty swollen and gashed ankle.
Far from ideal before an important game like this one, but with that Cup carrot in the back of their minds, there will be no shortage of players wanting to get in on the act if those three don't make it.
Post-match, Yatesy said he wants 15 points between now and Everton, with Vale, Rochdale, Wycombe, Bristol Rovers and Oxford on the agenda.
Fighting talk, and the timing was ideal. It is just the sort of call to keep the players on their toes.
They know there won't be any dreaming about the Cup allowed around Seasons over Christmas - but there will be plenty of that for us fans as the countdown to January 7 gathers pace.