Wednesday, 15 April 2015

Rising to the occasion

AS I walked down Whaddon Road at around 6.45pm last night, I had that horrible sick feeling in the pit of my stomach.
This was it. The point of no return. Basically, it was win this, or we are off to Woking.
One hour and about 80 seconds later, and we were on our way, and boy, does it feel good.
As I sat down to start the commentary, I made a list of names. It said Packwood. Burns. Wynter. Hanks. Ferdinand. Hall. E Richards.
Seven players injured, ill or unavailable - and at least three of those would definitely have been in the starting line-up, with one or two others having an outside squeak.
We were down to the bare bones, the final 17 left standing, and looking at the side I had my concerns about it - notably the pairing in centre midfield of the two Matts, Richards and Sparrow, where my worry was mobility and also numbers - we can never make a 4-4-2 work... can we?
How would Shaun Harrad and Mathieu Manset link up? Would Danny Haynes be a bit lost on the right wing? Could Matt Taylor and Troy Brown deal with their two big centre-forwards? All of those questions ended up being answered positively.
We got off to a flyer. Haynes fed Harrad and he finished superbly. That was the Shaun Harrad of old, almost without thinking he drilled it into the net.
Haynes should have added a second, and then I started wondering where this had been for the past few barren months.
But there were lingering doubts. We had seen this before. A false dawn shot down in flames, and after seeing only four wins in 38 games it was hardly surprising if there were a few nerves about.
Zack Kotwica's run and cross-shot which hit the post was put in by Mathieu Manset. Offside. Well, the assistant thought so, but Craig Cope's charge to show the referee the footage at half-time would assume the opposite.
Should we have had a penalty for handball? Gary Johnson's touchline exclamations would suggest so - and with the luck we have been getting recently you could be excused for sitting back and waiting for the bite on the backside to arrive.
It duly did, courtesy of Ryan Bird's equaliser. Trevor Carson probably won't be too proud about it, and unfortunately the assistant was up with play this time, unlike his mate at Wycombe on Saturday, and flagged for the goal.
Now usually that is the sign for the tide to turn, maybe a few heads to drop and for another goal to follow quickly afterwards. But not this time.
We stayed pretty resolute until half-time. Not exactly comfortable, but resolute enough - and with Hartlepool and Tranmere losing, there was a chance to be had. Probably the last one.
It was now or never - and we delivered.
The second half performance was the best 45 minutes I have seen from us in a league game since way back in August. I'd have to go back to Bury on the opening day, or the comeback at Tranmere, or the second half when we won at Cambridge to find anything close to matching it.
Having shown flashes in the first half of having the beating of his full-back, Danny Haynes led the way.
The tactic was simple from us - get the ball, and give it to Danny. He responded with pace on the flank and some decent deliveries. We knew there was a player in there and it was great to finally see it.
Having got his goal, Harrad looked to have a weight lifted off him and he and Manset were a constant threat.
This was the Manset I have wanted to see. He was winning flick-ons, holding the ball up and seeing defenders bump off him due to his strength. Agonisingly for him, as well as the offside decision he was inches from converting a cross on more than one occasion. He deserved a goal.
So did Haynes, and he got the crucial second one. After (shock, horror) a decent corner delivery from Sparrow and head across the box from Taylor he snapped up the chance to allay fears that our strong second-half start would not bear fruit.
At this point, with Pools and Tranmere still behind, we were out of the bottom two! Quick, end the season now...!
We were dominating, and Cambridge were by now much less of a threat as Richards and Sparrow had a grip of the midfield, Harrad and Manset were bullying the centre-backs and Haynes was running amok while Taylor and Brown had the front two under control.
But (yes, I know. There is always one of those) we needed that third goal.
Hang on. This is Cheltenham. We just don't score three goals in a game. Oh. Wait a minute, maybe we do as Sparrow rifled it in via a deflection.
3-1 was about right though given our second-half domination, and Cambridge were a beaten team. For once I wasn't sat there panicking we were going to chuck it away in the latter stages. It was a good feeling and very nice to hear Happiness again at the final whistle.
On Saturday, I saw a Cheltenham side at Wycombe who were going down with a whimper. There seemed to be no heart, no will, no desire to make a fight of it, as if they had accepted their fate.
This was the polar opposite. I saw players at the end - notably Taylor, Manset, Harrad and Haynes - who looked like they could barely stand, such was the effort they had put in over the 90 minutes.
That's all we ask for. That sort of effort - and you see what you can get from it. Finally we saw a Cheltenham side who looked like they wanted to be out there, who seemed to actually be enjoying themselves.
They deserved the ovation at the end, and it was great to see the Bristol Street Motors Stand rocking at the end, and all three sides of the ground on their feet.
But (yep, here we go again) it's not done of course, by any means. No laurels can yet be rested on. This will count for nothing if we return to the passive, flat displays at Northampton on Saturday.
Only three more displays with this intensity, this determination, this desire will do now. Standards have been set.
Hartlepool's equaliser which dropped us back below the line was only a minor setback as now, for once, maybe we are the side with the momentum.
This needs to be the catalyst now to go to Northampton with confidence and have a real go. The supporters who acclaimed last night's win deserve that, and they will expect it.
Maybe, just maybe, we can still do this...