A Month of Promise, part one: Reviewing October 2020
Welcome back, missed me? In my last article, I looked back at pre-season and took a little look ahead towards 2020/21. The first month of the season has gone almost as well as we could have expected; second in the league, at the time of writing, and looking mostly determined and focused on the task at hand. But for the moment let’s travel back in time to the beginning of the month, when we actually got within 14 days of being back at EP before the government ‘paused’ the return of fans to ‘elite’ stadiums. A devastating blow for football fans across the country to return to some kind of normality and the subsequent photos of socially-ish distanced theatre performances will have been sickening and frustrating for many a football fan. We must also remember there was also the possibility of the season not starting at all, as the government’s announcement literally came days before the 3rd October kick-off, but a series of meetings secured funding to replace lost gate receipts and the season kicked off as promised.
So, Torquay United away, a date circled by many a County fan to plan a long weekend and it was the first game of the season too. Okay, it was October and not August, and of course, no fans were allowed, meaning it was up to the teams and the Torquay media guys to create some atmosphere and get the season underway.
A windswept and grey Plainmoor provided the backdrop for the latest chapter in this most surreal of seasons and County fans paid £9 for the privilege of watching a County side, packed to the brim with new faces, dominate their hosts. It’s not an exaggeration to suggest County could (should?) have repeated their 5-1 hammering of Torquay back in November 2019. At times it was like an ‘attack versus defence’ training session with the hosts unable to get out of their own half. In what would be a recurring theme during the first month new boys Lois Maynard and Mark Kitching, along with Sam Minihan were the pick of the County players.
Torquay were extremely fortunate to survive the game with their full complement of players on the pitch, a handball on the line from a Richie Bennett effort and a ‘stray’ elbow and kick in the back on Maynard were the stand out talking points, as the saying goes, it could have been a completely different game entering the second half. A second half in which County pressed and pressed and continued to dominate, again and again…..and again. After months of new signings, new kits, and all the shiny new developments taking place, of wishing, hoping, fantasising about the new season and the possibilities it would bring, Torquay’s ugly sucker punch goal in injury time injected some football reality into the collective veins of the Hatters faithful. Had the goal been a result of a decent and deserving home performance it wouldn’t have been so bad, but the mild embarrassment of dishing out a hammering for at least three quarters of the game caused some in white to get overly frustrated. As I said on the podcast, anyone blaming Nyal Bell for the host’s winner is an idiot and Liam Hogan’s reaction to the defeat, as club captain, was undeserved and slightly worrying. I say worrying because as a senior player, he should be able to keep his emotions in check, take the criticism on board and learn from the experience. Some may point to him having great leadership qualities, but leadership isn’t all about shouting loudly when something goes wrong; that, my friends, is the reaction of a child. Leadership is about recognising that people are different and need to be treated in different ways. Some react well to criticism, some don’t. As Jim Gannon said afterward a lot of the subsequent conversations are about “re-education”.
The most pleasing aspect of the defeat was that without scoring, or even drawing, County played very well. They looked like a cohesive unit, a team high in confidence who had benefited from the extended pre-season. Definitely, something to build upon.
The following Tuesday should have been an evening of joy, the night we were finally back next to the hallowed turf to see the visit of FC Halifax Town, as I’ve mentioned it wasn’t to be and we were left to the view of an eerie, ghost-like shell of the ground we know and love. It was such a depressing sight in the evening gloom, about as depressing as the goal County conceded with barely ten minutes played. If Torquay’s goal had been ugly, this was simply grotesque; Ash Palmer and Ben Hinchliffe combined to give a goal away when the ball seemed to be innocuously drifting out of play yards away from goal. Now I’m not too superstitious, but I started to get the feeling that scruffy, fortunate goals would plague County in what should be a glorious year. To make matters worse, County had started quite brightly, not on a par with the Torquay performance, but certainly the better of the sides. Could this also be a trait of 2020 County? Dominating possession and doing little with it? It was a depressing thought.
The County fans watching from the comfort of their living rooms didn’t have to wait too long to find an answer as Richie Bennett, Connor Jennings and the Kitching combined for the new left wing-back to stroke the equaliser home. Much better. Although the goal provoked some anger on social media where a new phenomenon was born; that of the live stream being several seconds behind Flashscore. Thus, many knew about the goal before they had seen it.
Although County were level Halifax were a much better side than Torquay and their push for the second goal in the second half more than proved this. County were chasing shadows at times, seemed overly reliant on the long ball but with little end product and a number of players, Connor Jennings and John Rooney included were struggling to settle. Halifax came close on a couple of occasions, but it was County’s lack of invention and lack of simple passing ability which was most alarming.
County weathered the storm however and the winning goal was a one worthy of being labelled as such; a peach of a strike on his weaker foot by Adam Thomas from well outside the penalty area, if only there had been a crowd at the Cheadle End to appreciate it.
Halifax can probably feel a little disappointed with the outcome of the game, but having seen County put in a commanding performance and come away with nothing just days earlier, it was nice to see these things being evened out. One of the symbols of a title-winning side is the ability to consistently grind out results and I get the feeling we’ll have to follow this path a number of times before the end of May and the first half of the next game versus Dover Athletic at EP highlighted this.
Half time arrived with the worrying notion that Dover, having beaten Notts County in their opening game, could sneak a point, but we were about to witness a trait which had thus far flown under the radar, that of the aggressive way in which Gannon has used his substitutes and the impact they’ve had on the outcome of the game. Against Torquay, the gaffer went after the three points with an attacking substitution (Bell for Bennett), against Halifax (Thomas for Macauley Southam-Hales) and Dover (Alex Reid for Connor Jennings).
Alex Reid’s introduction changed the game and with it the mood with which County sought to win the game. The creativity of Jennings was sacrificed for the direct pace and strength of Reid. County looked much more aggressive and the direct ball, used as a tool for Bennett to bring in his fellow attackers, was now being used much more decisively to unleash Reid. We also saw Rooney become more involved in the game with a large proportion of the game now being focused through the middle. As with the second half against Wealdstone, Rooney thrived in this playmaking role.
The opening goal came via a method not seen in over 12 months, apparently, the free opportunity to strike the ball and score a goal from that little circle in the middle of the area is called a ‘penalty’. Who knew? Nevertheless, Rooney tucked it away and the pressure was lifted. Reid got the goal his play deserved, even with a large hint of a foul in the build-up, and Rooney sealed the three points following a nice move.
In the end, the win was comfortable against a side who are clearly going to struggle this season, but the steely determination and desire have become a very early characteristic of 2020 County, aided by some composed yet ambitious tactics employed by Gannon. It makes such a refreshing change to be pushing for three points rather than settling for one.
So, six points from nine and very unfortunate to not add to that in the first game. Keep your eyes peeled for part two, coming up after Weymouth at home.