Confidence and self belief. Once we rediscovered it, we played like you would expect us to play against a depleted Barrow team.
The first five minutes were like a hangover from the previous two games. A through ball played in the nippy Macreth down the right channel and he outpaced Jake completely, popped in a shot over Tyler and we were one down. Easy as that. We were all shell-shocked, but not entirely surprised. Cue silence – and a few boos. So where do you go from there? It could have been a pivotal moment in the season. You can descend into a nightmare, lose all of your confidence there and then and ship a couple more, or you can regroup and start again. To be fair we did the latter. But the key thing is that we were able to do the latter. Poor Barrow, they were outplayed – ravaged by injuries and suspensions and down the the barest of bare bones. We were able to play, and played our way back into it. And, if you give a sucker an even break, he will take it.
Once we had equalised, we started to have more of the play and from about half and hour through the first half onwards we totally dominated. Further Luton goals seemed inevitable, though half time seemed to come at the wrong time, because by that stage it was all Luton. However, contrary to that belief the break clearly helped to rejuvenate because we came out and Willmott had his second within seconds of the restart. From then onwards we more or less ran the game and got three more goals in the next 20 minutes. We played, well, you know how we play when we are ‘in the zone’, short passing, fast paced, creative attacking football. When sides give us space and room and allow us to play then we generally take the mickey.
And that was the difference – give us a sniff, and, if we get a goal and remove the pressure on ourselves and remove the self-doubt – we go out and play in an unfettered attacking way. Close us down, make it hard for us, get men behind the ball and you throttle us. We become stifled and ponderous, our confidence sapping away. Barrow did the former, Cambridge the latter. Cambridge snuffed us out like a candle in a gale.
So it would appear as if the key is to get the team to continue to play in a confident and world beating way, even when confronted by an opposition who don’t give us any chance to play. And that sums up the frustration we experience as fans. We know the likes of Lawless, Kissock, Willmott, Howells, Fleetwood, AMS and even Dance should be head and shoulders above the vast majority of the dross in this division. Man for man – we are miles better. We should be taking the piss like we did in the second half today fairly regularly at home, whilst showing resilience, patience and our class away from home. Self belief and confidence is the key to this set of players. Shatter it, and the second half against Bath, the performance against York and the second half on Tuesday are the result. Once we have the confidence and space to play then we can tear teams apart. Self-doubt and having our confidence-bubble burst is the enemy: once we remember that we are mortal, once we realise we are flying and then look down to check, we crash down to earth.
And so a little of the game. Given an excuse to play 4-3-3 (or more realistically, 4-1-4-1) by Tuesday’s performance, GB duly obliged. Tyler started in goal, Osano returned at right back, Keane to his favourite role of centre half (and very good he was too) alongside Kovacs. Howells stayed at left back. Antwi dropped to the bench, and there was no place for the returning Beckwith.
In the middle – Hand held (see what I did there?) with Watkins and Dance in front of him and O’Connor wide on the right and Willmott wide on the left. Up top was AMS all on his own, with Big Hips Danny Crow moving to the bench. Fleetwood phoned in a sickie first thing. Strange that, because he seemed fine in the Dog and Duck on Friday night*.
I’ve already described their first goal. The move that led to our equaliser was the first suggestion (other than a promising drive by Howells) that we might be in for a good afternoon after all. Kovacs, surely the much improved twin brother of the bloke who was here two years ago played a glorious ball wide into space for O’Connor to run on to. Now let’s get back to basics. O’Connor’s main virtue thus far has been the fact that once he gets through the gears his top speed is pretty damn sharp. But have we exploited it? No. And I think Kovacs pass was the first time since August that he had had a ball into space in front of him to accelerate on to. Which he duly did, right into the box before he was impeded and the ref after a little think about it, pointed to the spot. Hurrah. But this was a penalty, and this was Luton Town, and recently when the pressure is on, we ain’t been good at them. Today, it was Willmott’s turn to miss. A fairy ordinary spot kick to the keeper’s left was parried out, and fortunately for the third time this year we profited from the rebound, Willmott following up well.
The real turning point could have been Tyler’s point blank save from Boyes. 2-1 would have confirmed our vulnerability and dissolved the confidence we were gradually building. Chances for O’Connor, AMS, Kovacs and Watkins followed in the run up to half time. O’Connor was looking a threat down the right, linking up well with AMS – whilst deal Willmott on the left looked a bit remote and out of touch. Brabin said afterwards he told him to come inside more in the second half. My beef with Willmott is that he doesn’t push on enough when we have possession, if he is in space I would want him pushing up level with the striker(s) ready to receive the ball in space – but instead comes deep for the ball and poses less of a threat because of it. He certainly posed a threat within a minute of the restart. O’Connor gave their left back a torrid time all afternoon – he took the ball forwards before the move broke down. The Shadow, James Dance picked up the ball in the box, and turned and jinked nicely and got a cross in across the face of the goal for Willmott to stick in for 2-1.
Nine minutes later it was 3-1 after an good move involving O’Connor and AMS – the main tormentors. AMS unselfishly squared the ball to Watkins who made space for himself and foxed the centre half by dragging the ball back and coolly slotted the ball into the far corner.
We weren’t done yet – The Shadow James Dance netted his first goal for the Hatters and earned me a fiver off my best mate when AMS and O’Connor again combined down the right to squirt the ball to Dance who smashed it in.
Barrow had a chance almost immediately at the other end and on another day would have made it 4-2 when James Owen’s shot was cleared off the line by Kovacs. Not their day, but certainly ours.
Time for a couple of subs. O’Connor had pulled up and to use the common parlance ‘felt his hamstring’ and was pulled off, much to his reluctance for Danny Crow – AMS going to the right. A few minutes later Kissock replaced Watkins – who had lost a contact lens and so was wandering about with one eye seeing 2020 and the other one not, most disconcerting.
Kissock, given free reign to roam and do tricks again, did just that. Like a smart Alec in a classroom of Neanderthals he was always likely to get a thump for his trouble. A skilful player at this level will always attract scything challenges like ghosts around pacman.
We weren’t done yet. The last goal was a bit of a rarity, a bit of a collectors item. Willmott, by this stage oozing confidence (and keen for his third) put a lovely ball through over the top of the defence for AMS to stretch his legs and run onto and coolly and calmly took the ball around the keeper (to the keeper’s left) and slotted it home easy as you like. Good lad.
Barrow had another chance when they hit the post from Ferrell’s shot. Despite our dominance, had Barrow taken their clear cut chances, they would have had four. Too many. Mind you – if we had taken all of our chances we would have had about twelve – so that’s fair enough. But what I am saying is, on another day the result could have been quite different if the Cumbrians had had a bit more luck.
Now, I could list all of the chances we had in the second half, but PDW does that infinitely better than I ever could – so I will leave the match description at that. Needless to say, we had plenty more chances to get more. Very entertaining it was too. They were cueing up Crow for a goal by the end, but to no avail try as he might he couldn’t test out the keeper.
Let’s go through the players:
Tyler – looked to roll the ball out where he could, but kicked the ball slightly more often than usual. This tactic is slightly incongruous as all he had to aim for is the heads of O’Connor and AMS, both of whom were towered over by their respective defenders. However, to be fair AMS won more than he should have done in the air. Tyler’s save was a potential game-changer. He earned his money with that alone. Things could have been very different otherwise.
Howells – Tidy enough going forward, but today Jake was shown up a bit by Macreth. Three times he outpaced him down the right flank, and did him like a kipper on the fourth. I know we all prefer Jake to be playing as a winger, but this was a bit of a wake-up call to the boy from the valleys (that’s the Lea valley). Do I think Freddie Murray would have done any better than Jake today? Probably not.
Kovacs – sound as a pound and was bossing them around as if he was skipper, which I am sure no one has a problem with. His clearance off the line was excellent as was his defensive positioning all afternoon. And – it was his pass that played in O’Connor for the penalty. He is an improved player – since we ‘loaned’ him to Hereford…
Keano – a quiet, but defensively excellent game. When Pilks returns who would be for the chop? Another selection nightmare. In a month’s time, presumably we will have the luxury of Pilks, Keano, (I’m presuming Kovacs will have returned to Hereford by then) Beckwith, Blackett and Antwi fighting for two places. Personally of course, I’d like to have Pilks and Keano (and/or a returned Kovacs) with Beckwith as back up. Let’s see where we are this time next year.
Osano – had a good game at right back and linked up really well with O’Connor and AMS. Put in two good crosses. A very different player from the stumble-bum who played against Stockport.
Hand – solid enough, won the ball and found his own team mates with his passing. He closed the Barrow players down more effectively than we had been in previous weeks.
Watkins – another good game once he got into it. He is a good player – determined and skilful.
Dance – I’d venture his best game for us. Interestingly in the second half with the wingers tucked in a little more Dance managed to overlap on both sides and get crosses in. He seemed to revel in the creative role he was given and did well.
Willmott – two goals can’t be sniffed at. Strangely enough I thought in the first half he was lost and remote with his crossing a bit hit and miss. Much more in the thick of things after the restart.
AMS – My man of the match. An absolute terrier today. Linked up really well with O’Connor. Gave Barrow’s defence a torrid time. He threatened with the ball, and when they were in possession he chased down, tackled back and harried and parried. Well taken goal. Eight goals in ten starts this year. That record would suggest he’s on fire and he certainly was today.
O’Connor – now that’s more like it. The real Aaron O’Connor turned up today, and GB must have been delighted. He kept faith in him whilst all week we have been asking what he add to the club. Remember the turning point was him accelerating onto Kovacs direct ball into space ahead of him for the penalty. Looked good in partnership with AMS down the right.
So it was a good performance – similar to Southport in as much as we went behind early on, but got back on level terms and then really hit our straps in the second half. Barrow are a better side than Southport were though. Where does it leave us? Well it rather vindicates the 4-3-3 approach again. And it leaves GB with a headache. You’d rather want to capitalise on O’Connor’s blistering performance and link up with AMS by playing him out there again, but what of Stuart Fleetwood? Three games with him in the side and we get 1 goal in 270 minutes. With him out of the team, and a different formation we bang in five. If we revert to 4-4-2 to accommodate Fleetwood you could have AMS and Fleetwood up front, but who on the right wing? Dance’s performance doesn’t merit being dropped and neither does O’Connor’s. If we stick to 4-3-3 then if we accommodate Fleetwood then AMS would presumably go down the right. Who’d be a manager?
So – it was a great and very entertaining performance, on a beautiful afternoon. However:
1) We always say – well, I always say – we should be putting sides like Barrow to the sword in this way anyway – so this should be the standard we aim for each home game. It’s non-league for goodness sake, and we weren’t relegated from the league because we were rubbish. I know we have been remodelling the finances behind the scenes, but being sustainable doesn’t mean being non-league. We are still a bigger club (in terms of fan base, history, income and achievements) than all of the division above us, most of the division above that, and one or two of the division above that. So let’s remember this a bit more – it all adds to the self-confidence I have been banging on about.
2) Beating Barrow at home is to be hoped for. But if we want to be serious about winning the league we need victories away from home too. That’s why we have to carry the confidence and self belief with us. The difference between this game and the last was that Cambridge didn’t let us play. We must learn to assert our attacking agenda on even the most efficient defensive units at home and away.
3) In the next month we play four of the five teams above us. This will be a true test of how realistic our ambitions to finish top is. By fireworks night, we should have a good idea if our season is going to sky rocket or fizzle out like a damp sparkler from the corner shop.
The team still need to do more to convince me that we are on the road to something big – as I said on Tuesday night, the bad memories of Bath, York and Cambridge will linger for a long time, like an unsuccessful UCCA form. And, alas it will take more than one thrashing of Barrow to convert those embarrassing performances from the recent trend, into a distant ‘blip’. In this topsy turvy division, where no one is truly asserting themselves we have never, and probably will never, get a better chance to put a country mile between us and the also-rans.
On to next week. A welcome and rare Tuesday night free of football. It gives the team the chance to recharge the batteries and gets players like George Pilkington a week nearer to a comeback. Then we have the test of Kidderminster away on Saturday. We should have nothing to fear from them, and if we put the fixture in context it is they who should be doing the worrying. Let’s keep the confidence engendered by a good home win and inject it into our away performance to give us a convincing away win.
Come on you Hatters!
*only joking of course.