And what a journey! Proud, as ever, of the club and its fans. 1088 fans drove up to Carlisle in the middle of the holiday season a level of commitment that would flatter some premiership clubs. At least the cricket was on the radio for some of the journey.
It was sort of fitting that the league would see to it that our first game was Carlisle away, it was like a final test of our resolve, the final paroxysm of spitefulness from the FL, like a scally having been outmuscled and outnumbered flicking a V sign as he retreats down the street, tail between his legs it’s all they had left to throw at us, an empty gesture a 600 mile round trip to welcome us back. But as many have said this week, better this fixture was on a sunny Saturday in August than a cold Tuesday in February.
Though a great relief to be away from our friends in non-league, we (like Portsmouth) are still punching below our weight in this division, and whilst we can proudly hold our heads up to be part of the ’72’ again (where did that branding come from?) I want us to be out of league two asap. It’s still an embarrassing division to be in for a club our size and with our support and history. Our average equivalent league position in the seventeen football league seasons since we dropped out of the top tier in 91/92 is 9th in League One. League One is bad enough, but at least it is like the resting room for those keen to get back into the Championship. The proverbial wardrobe to lean on to get your breath back before you go back for some more. The good news is that the fans, the management and most importantly the board share the ambition to be out of League Two as soon as we can.
So what of Saturday? Other than being grim up north, I thought it was a splendid performance showing the determination and resilience that characterised last season. Whilst we dominated the first half aided by Carlisle’s determination to play a formation that had both me and their players dumbfounded, the second half, or at least the first half of the second half was a different matter with them coming out as if their manager Kavanagh (ex Middlesbrough I think, good fantasy league player in his day) had rebooted them and recharged them at half time. Presumably Carlisle started with three centre halves because they thought they would up against a narrow front three as it happens it was just Benson causing them bother with Cullen and Howells swapping flanks in support. In any case Kavanagh got it wrong.
The goal was a snappy interplay between our attacking players that would grace any era of the team. Started by Benson, the ball went to Robinson and Howells who played Benson in (who had sprinted into the box) down the right hand channel behind the left back. He approached the byline and crossed across the face of the goal and Cullen popped up at the far post to tuck it in. If you blinked you would have missed it. The Carlisle defenders stood and blinked in the sunlight, patting their pockets to see if their wallets were still there.
It was the type of performance of which John Still is typically proud a tough away game after a long journey against a decent side. The sort of game you’d otherwise think of as getting a point being a reasonable result. I seem to recall that last season Still described the 2-1 win at Macclesfield as the most battling/pleasing performance of the season, and this was from the same mould. We dominated when we could and dug in when we needed to.
Benson impressed, old war dog that he is. Didn’t win too much in the air seemingly but fought for everything. Started the move and got the all important assist for the goal, and worked his socks off.
Wilkinson played well in the heart of defence, as did Cap’n Steve, the scouse wall. Connolly, having taken one for the team with the booking was then sensible enough not to sell himself short for the rest of the game though was put under the most pressure as Carlisle’s main tactic was seemingly to punt it ahead of Amoo on the left. Griffiths was characteristically tenacious and occasionally a threat down the left. Determined to turn up to each new season with a shocking haircut. Tyler, unusual bizarre dalliance where he messed around and didn’t clear the ball aside, didn’t need to do that much, but made an outstanding save to keep out Meppen-Walter.
I thought Robinson was our best midfielder and boy has he got a good work ethic and an old head on young shoulders. Drury was good, and excellent in places not the sort of game for him to impose himself perhaps or rather less opportunity to do so in the second half. He still showed elements of brilliance and certainly in the first half pulled all the strings. Alex Lacey played the anchor role ahead of the defence a new role for him (trialled in pre-season) and good to see him starting. Jake played an intelligent game and seemed very alert. Lovely for him to be back in the football league, though of course he made his debut whilst we were in league One. Nice to see that he has bowed to the inevitable hair-wise.
Cullen got the goal an spurned a other good chance .Andre who? Mark has a natural eye for goal a talent and a hungerthat will get us plenty he doesn’t have Andre’s pace (who does?) and so I guess we will be less of a force on the counter, but we will see. If we continue to create the chances we did last year he will have the opportunity for a hatful. I’m chuffed for him to get what was the winner.
So a good win, good to get the first one under the belt. Swindon on Tuesday in the cup (the one that Watford are never bothered about) and then Wimbledon on Saturday. I shall miss the Swindon one because of my new business but wild horses would struggle to hold me back next Saturday. For the record, Swindon beat Scunny 3-1 and Wimbledon drew 2-2 at home to Shrewsbury at the weekend.
It’s lovely to be back in the league. I don’t know what the fuss was all about it’s like we’ve never been away .
Come on you Hatters