Monday, 7 March 2016


ON the way back from Tranmere a mere 16 days ago, everything in the garden was rosy.
Danny Wright's goal made it six league wins in a row, we were a team looking full of swagger and confidence with expectancy rising that we could take a grip on the title race.
Now, three games later, doubts have crept in, seemingly on and off the pitch as a trio of stuttering performances have suddenly come along.
"Suddenly" is the right word for it. Nobody saw this coming - even though Gary Johnson has warned us all along of potential 'icebergs'. We appear to have just hit one.
It started against Gateshead. The game was moved from a Saturday to a Tuesday due tho their FA Trophy commitments, and everything about it just seemed flat.
I remember getting into the ground around 7pm and thinking that there was just nobody there. It was really strange, especially as pre-match on social media everyone has seemed so 'up for it' and raring to go for the game.
The crowd was small and seemed pretty subdued. Nothing seemed to get going, from the team on the pitch to the fans off it. Gary's words afterwards summed it up - the team was dead, the fans were dead and pitch was dead.
But we didn't lose the game. although we probably should have done as Gateshead hit the post and arguably had the clearer chances.
Then it was on to Eastleigh, and a game which was just a ridiculous lottery on a shambles of a surface that made Whaddon Road's look like the Nou Camp.
It should have finished 0-0 as neither goalkeeper had a save to make, ours only having to pick the ball from his net after a mix-up and then ending the match injured in a massive blow for us.
In some ways, losing Dillon Phillips, potentially for the season, was an even bigger setback than the loss of the 22-match unbeaten run, as he has been simply magnificent.
Before Saturday's game Gary Johnson said he's the best goalkeeper he has ever had - and this is a bloke who has had plenty of them (and some very good ones) in 30-odd years and 1,000 games-plus as a manager. High praise indeed, and fully justified.
Phillips, unfortunately, probably won't be back before the season is over. Calum Kitscha came on at Eastleigh but Johnson turned to Jonathan Flatt for the rest of the term.
Without reserve team football, the life of a number two keeper is a difficult one. Kitscha has only had a few games, just the Trophy really, to show what he can do.
Now he has been loaned to Worcester in the hope he'll get some minutes.
In the past, reserves like Scott Brown and Shane Higgs waited their turn patiently and it came eventually. But we had a reserve side then, while others like Will Puddy, Connor Roberts and Dan Lloyd-Weston have fallen by the wayside.
Kitscha is clearly a capable goalkeeper but Johnson obviously doesn't see him as ready for the pressure of a promotion run-in so, like everything else we have to trust his judgement.
Of course the defeat was also annoying. I feel sorry for Cameron Burgess - but he responded superbly with his display at Welling, his best so far for us.
Interestingly after the defeat Kyle Storer said the end of the unbeaten record was a 'monkey off our back' - suggesting it had been playing on their minds a bit and almost adding to the pressure the longer it went on.
We all knew it wasn't going to last forever and we weren't going to go through the rest of the season without losing a game.
I don't think we deserved to lose this one either - as I said earlier it should have been 0-0 as it was almost exclusively played out between the two penalty areas on a pitch unfit for this level.
That game though was a chance to steal a march at the top as Forest Green weren't playing and had dropped points at Barrow from 2-0 up in their previous game.
Saturday was another opportunity. I sat down on Friday and watched the FGR-Grimsby game and after Craig Disley's winner was full of hope for our trip to Welling.
I thought Rovers looked a bit nervy. They didn't create much and after Grimsby, whose central defenders were magnificent on the night, scored they didn't look like getting back into the game.
So we headed for Welling, without a win in 18 games and no goals in their last five, looking to open up a four-point gap.
Easy then. Just turn up and get the win... and that is how I think a few approached it.
Having seen Welling at WR a few weeks ago turn in the poorest display of any side I've seen this season against us, we maybe expected exactly the same again, and a bit of a stroll.
But Welling scrapped and fought for everything. Rarely for us this season, we were just outfought and outbattled, easily kept and bay, and it really knocked us out of our stride.
We seemed to lack composure, especially in the final third. Shots and crosses were hurried, snatched at, and not struck with any conviction whatsoever.
All that confidence from our winning streak of only a few games ago seemed to have just been sucked out of us. It was a very curious performance.
But we didn't lose the game which is the only consolation after conceding in the 91st minute. Dan Holman's equaliser was actually a very good goal indeed and a point in the circumstances was better than nothing.
The contrast in the celebrations told the story however. Welling's goal was marked with wild exuberance - ours by a fist pump from Holman and very little else.
The final whistle saw the players applaud the fans and troop, heads down, purposely off the field. They know it wasn't good enough.
The sight of the players in a huddle before the second half with Storer laying down the law and the injured Aaron Downes having his say too says it all.
They want to do better. They want to turn it round and after what they have done this season they have earned the expectation for us as supporters to trust them to strive all they can to do so.
They have given their all, but some of them look exhausted.
Wright for instance, after his superb scoring run of eight goals in six games, has suddenly looked shot in the last three games, losing his battles against central defenders he was bullying a few games ago.
He has started every game, and given everything for the cause with non-stop effort and workrate, so these last three displays have been very out of character.
Asa Hall too - having played something like 10 games in a row after being out of the game for year it is bound to take its' toll, and he also seems to be jaded now.
James Rowe was the fall guy in Johnson's eyes, hauled off after 34 minutes - again that previous lack of regular games before this run in the team maybe catching up with him.
In trying to explain this little stutter, some have pointed to the injuries we have suffered, and over the course of the season we have been stripped of the spine of our team.
Phillips' loss has been added to that of Downes, Harry Pell, Rob Dickie and Amari Morgan-Smith - all massive players in the first half of the campaign.
But remember that after Downes was injured at Boreham Wood we went on to win six in a row.
However, we have lost his leadership and mere presence. There is no doubt that since him and Dickie have been out we have not been as threatening at set-pieces.
Pell's midfield drive has been a miss, and like Downes he is a big presence. His reappearance at Welling was a welcome sight as was that of Morgan-Smith, who after four months out gave a lively little cameo and will be a welcome option as he gets fitter.
Dickie will, I believe, be back at the club imminently and has been training at Reading already so it won't be long before he is an option too. People are coming back slowly but surely.
In their absence, players like Burgess, Hall, Rowe and James Dayton have played their part, and I felt the latter's injury left us a little unbalanced.
When he got his contract extension, I was surprised along with many others but he has vindicated it and that natural width and outlet he gives us was missed on Saturday - he has that ability to get us up the pitch quickly.
So much did we lack that, it forced Johnson had to withdraw Rowe and ask McLennan to try and reproduce it as the one thing we also lost was pace. Welling had lots of it and caused us some problems with it, we had very little. If Johnson does bring a loan in, someone with pace is a must.
I felt we also looked unbalanced, with Rowe and Jack Munns trying to provide us with some width until McLennan came on.
He was on the bench as part of Johnson's left-back conundrum - his Cranston pickle (copyright James Young)
I have seen some criticism of Jordan Cranston's performances so far and it's true to say he hasn't maybe settled in yet.
Johnson has elected to almost rotate the left-backs - his rationale being that he needs to get Cranston up to speed, which makes sense. If George McLennan got injured he wouldn't want a totally rusty Cranston being thrown in.
But the reverse of that is that McLennan has been in very good form and got himself into a rhythm, only then to be coming in and dropping out of the side again. It's a tough dilemma.
However I feel he needs to settle on one, and that would have to be McLennan - especially if, when Dickie returns, he wants to play 3-5-2 and use wing backs.
That would seem to be a big possibility, with Dickie and Burgess either side of Daniel Parslow, with McLennan and Jack Barthram as the wing-backs they were signed to be, Storer, Munns and Pell in the middle with Holman and Wright up front.
Then you have Cranston, Billy Waters, Hall, Rowe, Morgan-Smith and Dayton also available to you to change it if necessary - and that is before a possible last-ditch dabble in the loan market.
These players have done superbly to get us to where we are, and we must be careful not to throw the baby out with the bathwater.
It's not the time for negativity, and it's not necessary to rip everything up and start again as I don't believe there really isn't a great deal wrong. As manager and skipper said after Saturday's game, it's down to mental strength over these last nine games.
We are a bit fortunate that our little run of two draws and a defeat has come at the same time as Forest Green have taken one point from six, but we can't keep relying on that.
Grimsby were the real weekend winners. They have three games in hand, starting with Southport at home tomorrow, and if they win them all and beat us at our place they'll be three points behind us, so maybe they aren't quite out of it.
We need to do our bit as well. It's time to raise the noise on Saturday - show the players and manager we are with them and bring that away atmosphere like we saw at Tranmere and Eastleigh to WR and help get things back on track.