A Month of Promise, part two: Reviewing October 2020
Welcome back to part two of the October review, when we left off County were nicely poised, recovering well from the opening day defeat to claim back to back wins.
A new ground for County was next up as we made the trip to north London to face newly-promoted Wealdstone. The weather dictated that this was their first home game and also their first effort at live streaming, One shouldn’t be too harsh given their standing within the division and the game overall, but we should also not patronise them. They had plenty of time to test and implement a suitable streaming service, simply stating they didn’t envisage the viewing numbers to be so high isn’t really good enough. What we were subjected to was a thoroughly amateur service.
The game itself saw County start brightly but the now well-worn phrase “defensive lapse” cropped up to really make the task difficult for the visitors, not once, but twice. Our fellow promotion challengers will not be so forgiving as the Wealdstone defence and it is something County need to work on, and quickly.
Neatly sandwiched in between the hosts’ goals was another John Rooney penalty and County took control of the game after the introduction of substitutes Adam Thomas and Mark Kitching. A win was well within our grasp, but as we have seen at Torquay possession doesn’t always equal goals. Well, the final 15 minutes had been coming for a few games, the determination and tenacity shown by this County team was a joy to watch at times. The hard-working Richie Bennett finally got the goal his efforts deserved. Lois Maynard put County ahead for the first time just 90 seconds later, then Rooney took over to complete his hat trick with three minutes left. Four goals in 11 minutes were just reward for such a resolute performance. Wealdstone were not the most demanding of opponents, but we still had to grind out the three points. In what has become a very welcome hallmark in recent games is the impact and decisiveness of the substitutions, Gannon has made a point of emphasising the need for a strong bench, we have seen the fruits of such a philosophy to devastating effect over the last month, and this was evident again at Chesterfield as County made their 2020 live TV debut.
A potentially tricky game against a team in poor form, but County certainly didn’t let that affect them as they started in much the same way they had done over the previous four games; plenty of attacking possession, threatening play from the wing-backs and controlling the midfield. It wasn’t a surprise when Kitching put County ahead with a thunderbolt of a finish from the edge of the area, like Thomas against Halifax it was scored with his weaker foot. This may have been the catalyst for a resounding win, one which would propel County to the top of the league, but some ridiculously myopic refereeing in both penalty areas (the foul on Hinchliffe moments before the equaliser should have been picked up) meant County entered the second half all square. The deep-rooted mental strength of this County side was in evidence again during the second half, and although County weren’t as dominant Chesterfield didn’t look likely to collect the points. You got the feeling it was just a matter of time, but thoughts cast themselves back to Torquay and how that ended. Time ticked away and the introduction of Alex Reid for Jamie Stott with 20 minutes remaining saw Gannon, once again, not merely settle for the draw, with an attack-minded substitution. The winner, after some penalty area pinball, was nodded in by Reid and County deservedly topped the league. Chesterfield’s manager, John Pemberton bemoaned his side’s lack of luck. It can be argued they were extremely lucky to have 11 players on the pitch at the end and to have only lost by one goal.
It was the kind of game where a huge, boisterous away following would have added a certain raucous chaos to the game and would no doubt have created an atmosphere akin to that at Wrexham last season after Reid’s winner.
It was important not to get carried away. Top of the league after five games doesn’t make you champions, but the momentum wins create is vital to the continued success of the team, plus doesn’t it make you feel a little bit more excited about just what we can achieve with this group of players?
With the optimism at peak levels and no midweek game for the first time this season, County headed into their FA Cup 4th Qualifying Round tie against Chesterfield in high spirits. Surely nothing could go wrong? Well, this is County and once again the game provided a heavy dose of football reality. The sodden, miserable atmosphere was compounded by an extremely lethargic and weary County performance. Sans Mark Kitching or James Jennings we desperately missed the balance and duel attacking threat from both wingback areas. Alex Reid didn’t build upon the league game heroics of the previous week, but it would be churlish to single out any one player for criticism, the entire side seemed to lack the aggression and tenacity which had become an early-season trademark. More worrying was the ease with which Chesterfield mopped up County’s attacks by merely starting man of the match Milan Butterfield in front of their defence. Credit must also be given for the way in which the visitors equipped themselves and they can be pleased with their display, having been so ugly the previous week. Jim Gannon mentioned the lack of on-field leadership during his post-match interview and it was apparent several County players were affected by the ragged and disjointed performance. Sam Minihan’s penalty miss was the icing on a cake made of shit, however, he wasn’t to blame and those pointing the finger should have a long, hard look at themselves. Having said all this, our season will not be defined by a scrappy loss in the FA Cup. If we cast our minds back to last season where we went out at the same stage to York City you get the idea of just where it lies in our priorities.
Above all, after the Chesterfield defeat, a return to the resolute and tough displays we had almost become used to was the bare minimum required against a very good Solihull Moors side. County would have to do it the hard way though as both Ash Palmer and Lois Maynard joined the growing list of early-season casualties, the continued lack of left-sided balance would also hamper County once again.
Nevertheless, we saw a purposeful and gritty County side turn in an impressive first half, though the most important objective, scoring a goal, wasn’t achieved as the Moors’ goal regularly came under fire. Reid and Bennett were denied by the crossbar and Liam Hogan forced a very good save/block from the visiting custodian. Much, much better. After anonymous starting roles against Wealdstone and Chesterfield, Alex Reid showed the determination and guile to prove he can start games on a regular basis and Ryan Croasdale was easily County’s stand out player, the energetic and alert performance from County’s newest new face was impressive. The number of injuries would have undermined County of old but such is the quality and versatility in the squad that it didn’t really seem to affect us.
The County goal was rarely threatened, despite a couple of heart-in-the-mouth moments in either half, the second of which saw Minihan make a superb, lung-busting run and challenge to deny the visitors a certain goal (the detractors post-Chesterfield were strangely quiet afterwards). It wasn’t all back-slapping and smiles though, we didn’t win and can be a little disappointed that we didn't create too many clear cut chances in the second half. Set pieces, again, were very poor. Rooney had the monopoly on these, with good reason, but some variety and generally better quality is required considering the number of corners we’re winning at the moment. However, a point is a point and importantly, a clean sheet, with the refurbished Railway End on view, the return of County legend, Ken Boxshall to the tannoy and the sound of Fitzy ringing in the players’ ears, it felt like a decent night all round, so long as Weymouth were easily dispatched four days later…
County welcomed back Maynard and Kitching to the starting eleven in what was arguably County’s strongest available line-up and given that fact, with respect to the visitors, these are exactly the games which should be won and won well if promotion is to be easily achieved. After an encouraging display, but only a point, at home to Solihull, it was pleasing to see County starting well, with Rooney, Kitching and Bennett all contributing. It was even more pleasing to see the set pieces rotated and it was from a Kitching set piece that County opened the scoring and sent us into a half time lead for the first time this season. It appeared as though the side had started to click, they got the first goal and a comfortable win was expected from there on out. But that was the problem, a staggering complacency and borderline laziness seeped into the Hatters’ play in the second half and once again a poor defensive show gifted the visitors the points. To merely blame the defence would be short-sighted, several players played poorly, especially the midfield, Weymouth sensed the opportunity and took full advantage of another lethargic County display. It was no exaggeration to say we looked as bad as we did against Chesterfield two weeks previous. Had County put the game out of the visitor’s reach when they were in the ascendency in the first half then we would be celebrating another win, but the team needs to learn quickly that nothing is going to be handed to them, and it’s a little worrying that having brought in players with big reputations and experience of winning this division that we have now failed to register a win in the last three games because of simple ineffectiveness. We have failed to capitalise on our determined and incisive attacking with any kind of killer instinct. Instead, County appear far too content to let the game pass by, presumably because we expect to score at some point, rather than actually going out there and getting the game sewn up as they know they can do.
I won’t blame individuals but it is evident County are playing like such, not as the cohesive, confident unit we have seen regularly so far this season. Performances such as this aren’t the mark of a promotion-winning side and unfortunately, it isn’t a one-off. The break from now until the 11th November may be a blessing in disguise.
Having the Weymouth result at the end of a mostly pleasing month feels like a bit of a sting in the tail, but it can be argued results such as that one will help the team stay focused. There are certain problems which need to be quickly taken care of, not least the inability to kill teams off when we’re playing well, but most of us would have taken a second place position a month ago.
October 2020 has been and gone and on the whole, it has been extremely pleasing to see the core of the team settle down and produce some professional, yet ambitious displays. We may only be one month into the strangest of seasons but we can be quietly confident that this team will go far, just how far depends on their mental and physical limits, that and of course Covid-19.