The (Not Quite) Unstoppable Force and the Immovable Object - Reviewing February 2021, Part Two
Welcome to the second part of February’s review. The intensity and frequency of the games haven’t let up, by the end of this review Simon Rusk will have been in charge for eight games and it’s fair to say it has been an incident-packed few weeks since my last piece.
After the second stalemate in a row away to Maidenhead United, County made another long journey south to Eastleigh, a side hunting a play off place and who recently beat promotion contenders, Hartlepool United at home. Our strength in depth was tested one again as we were still without Mark Kitching, Connor Jennings and Ryan Croasdale, but now Tom Walker was sidelined through injury and a suspended Jordan Keane joined the growing list of absentees. Will Collar, whose performance was one of the few positives taken from Maidenhead, and Harvey Gilmour, injured and nearly forgotten for much of the season, stepped into midfield. Richie Bennett and Sam Minihan also started and loan signing Sam Dalby was a substitute.
Like the Maidenhead game, County started brightly and made several half chances in a fine opening half an hour as John Rooney, Alex Reid and Minihan all went close. It wasn’t just the chances though, County looked much more threatening than the previous two games combined. One can point to the Macauley Southam-Hales/Minihan partnership on the right which appeared to improve County’s attack earlier in the week, and Bennett’s re-introduction gave the County side some much-needed physicality up front. The simple fact was that for the first time since Woking, Rusk’s County looked like the side they were supposed to be and if Alex Reid had buried a free header the game could have been different. However, there were a few incidents, all within a frantic last ten-minute period of the first half which unequivocally changed the course of the game.
County appeared to have two clear penalties turned down, one for a handball and one for a foul on Southam-Hales. Not only that but we were reduced to ten-men after 35 minutes when Gilmour was given a straight red card for a heavy challenge while trying to win a 50/50 ball. It looked worse than it was and the anger of Gilmour and the staff on the County bench was justified. These incidents changed the game, no doubt, it is generally considered a flimsy excuse to blame officials when you’re on a bad run of form, but it cannot be denied with 11 men on the pitch and even just one of the penalties awarded, that County would have been well set for at least a point.
To make matters worse, County failed to even pick up that after more controversy involving the officiating team as Ash Palmer was adjudged to have handballed in the area and Eastleigh took advantage from the spot. For the remainder of the game, County produced a typically industrious display, the corner count was nearer the average age of the squad, and Rooney, for the second game in succession, hit the bar in injury time with a sumptuous strike. Alas, we made the journey home empty-handed and another game passed without troubling the scoreboard operator. To compound the issue, Eastleigh, although well organised, were never too threatening and it’s a game we could easily have won under normal circumstances.
Before the Notts County game at EP we received quite a few pieces of very welcome good news. First up, we found out Gilmour’s red card had been rescinded. The camera angle from the opposite stand was pretty compelling and reinforced the view that his challenge certainly wasn’t worthy of a red card. Again, we shouldn’t lament bad officiating as the sole reason why we’re floundering at the minute, the problems lie much closer to home, but catching a break is something we desperately need right now.
County also announced the loan signings of Chorley duo, Harry Cardwell and Elliot Newby, both have been integral to Chorley’s successes during recent seasons and the shrewdness shown by County to capitalise on the unfortunate conclusion of the step two season is most impressive. Their attacking capabilities will definitely help Rusk and County as we enter the second half of the season.
Finally, we also saw the government announce the roadmap out of the national lockdown, with football fans taking a special interest in the third step of the plan, meaning on 22nd May when County face Woking, we could finally be back at our spiritual home after nearly 15 months away. We all face a nervy few months before then though and we must hope the positive steps taken to get the virus under control since the New Year are continued into the spring months.
Notts County made their second visit of the season at EP, winners of five games out of the last six, it was never going to be an easy game, especially given our recent indifferences. However, though it wasn’t a classic, County were the better side, with Notts offering little in the way of threat and again we were left to agonise over another bad decision from the officials as Gilmour’s follow up to a save by Luke Pilling was ruled out. Further evidence suggested he was clearly onside and that break slips through the fingers of the County players once again.
The second half saw County continue the almost one-way traffic of the first as they had an effort cleared off the line and Alex Reid, after seemingly completing the hard part with a sprint from halfway and beating the Notts defenders to the through ball, shot straight into the arms of Pilling. The attacking threat didn’t peter out as the game wore on though as we saw a succession of corners, crosses, half chances, and the players must be praised for their desire and intensity.
I don’t want to labour the ‘catching a break’ point, nor should we claim these incidents are merely bad luck, they happen many times over the course of a season. County need to finish their chances, that’s the bottom line. Successive home games have seen our strikers miss chances that would have been scored by Sunday League players and as the minutes without a goal tick closer to the average length of a Leonard Cohen song, one goal in six games was becoming a bigger and bigger problem.
There were positives though, it’s been just three goals conceded (one of those an own goal and one a penalty) in the last six games (up to and including the Notts game), Gilmour and Ryan Croasdale were excellent, as too was Tom Walker, and Sam Minihan continues to make the step up into professional football at the business end of the league look very simple indeed. We are still within touching distance of the division’s leading teams, despite the lack of goals and wins. Plus, the performances since the flaccid mess against Aldershot have shown steady improvement, arguably a sign that Rusk’s management techniques are becoming more familiar and settling the players after the upheaval of the last month. That elusive win must surely just be around the corner now?
Mark Kitching was again missing from the County lineup, but new loan signings Newby and Cardwell made the bench. Unfortunately, after a bright start from the home side, County were unable to build upon the improved second half just a few days earlier, in fact, the first half against Chesterfield was a drab carbon copy of the first half against Notts County. Ryan Croasdale, yet again, played his midfield general role superbly with Rooney and Walker also contributing towards a lot of County’s positive play and again there was a lot of nice build-up but a very familiar, depressing story played out in the first 45 minutes, neither side could claim to have been the better of the two as a frustrating stop/start game contested in midfield was about the only way to describe it. Furthermore, the goal drought continued, with little sign of it ending soon.
The second half continued in much the same way, both Walker and Rooney had dropped off the pace somewhat and the slight attacking threat we had in the first half had all but disappeared.
Then it happened. County finally caught a break. As Chesterfield contested a debatable throw in decision a superb defence-splitting ball from Rooney found James Jennings and he calmly stroked home. Sweet relief. The game hardly swung massively in County’s favour from that point but an insipid Chesterfield side offered extremely little in return and so the substitutions of both Walker and Rooney for Collar and Jordan Keane with 20 minutes left meant County, who by the game’s end would extend their impressive defensive record to just one goal (a penalty) conceded in six games, could simply sit back and defend the lead. One shouldn’t be an advocate of two defensive substitutions with just a solitary goal lead and 20 minutes remaining against the division's form team, but such is the confidence in County’s defence at the moment that credit should be given to Rusk for trusting his players to hold on to the clean sheet.
The win was sealed with ten minutes left as some poor defending allowed Reid to fire home in emphatic fashion following some good work by man of the match candidate, Jennings.
A win, at last, just as we were beginning to forget what that feeling was like and although being third in the league is something of a false position given the number of games hand the teams around us have, the points gained recently have kept us in touch with the leaders.
Chesterfield can bemoan the decision to award the throw in which led to Jennings’ goal to County, but they had sufficient time to defend it and if we’re being honest, they should try having to appeal to the FA every month to have red cards overturned or having perfectly good goals disallowed if they really want something to complain about.
The main positive to take from the game is the win, but there is the clean sheet, the now regular decent performances from Minihan, Collar and Croasdale, plus another goal for Reid, who as County’s main goal threat, must surely have been frustrated as anyone about the recent goal famine. The win does paper over some cracks; the performance was mostly poor, we still don’t look threatening or clinical often enough, possession is still being lost too cheaply and it is debatable as to whether the 4-4-2 formation is the best for this County squad. However, none of those points matter too much at the moment, the win has given us, as fans, and probably more importantly after a rough month, Simon Rusk, the chance to relax and smile before we do it all over again next week. This County side is as talented as any we’ve had in over a decade, let’s hope this is the turning point and we can recommence the promotion push which looked to be sliding away just a week ago.