Sunday, 29 January 2012

Heroes And Villains

So was that good for you?

It certainly was for me. We didn't quite Mackem Weep after all, and we had no Andy Halliday to work with (It just so happened he was cup-tied!) but we certainly made 'em work, and very hard at that. Nobody in defence and midfield (well, almost nobody) seriously put a foot wrong as we battled and scrapped our way to a hard earned replay. And with a squad as injury and confidence ravaged as ours, this was no mean feat.

Matthew Bates was clearly up for this one. His forward forays of last season were almost nowhere to be seen, but in every other way he seemed back to his best, showing excellent positional sense and a real willingness to battle for the cause. The same can be said of Tony McMahon, who arguably had an even better game. One of his second half tackles was worthy of Bobby Moore.

The confidence of the right hand side of defence spread to the left, with Seb Hines and an out-of-position Justin Hoyte playing better than they had any right to. (As an aside: I'll never understand the logic of playing Hoyte on the left, whether Bennett is in bad form or not. Where's Andy Taylor when you need him?) Then there was Danny Coyne, looking like the inspiration he was when we first signed him - calm under pressure, good at shot stopping and comfortable with crosses. Alas, his calf problem flared up again, leaving us with a bit of a 'keeper crisis once more. In fairness to Connor Ripley, he did okay barring a couple of uncertain kicks. But he's still too young to shoulder the responsibility of being the first-choice (something Manchester United should have realised with David De Gea). I wouldn't be surprised if Mogga goes hunting for the next Carl Ikeme or Paul Smith in the next few days.

Heroes abound in midfield too, with Rolls Rhys putting in a good shift and Haroun having possibly his best game yet for us. At this point, I would normally have been ready to wax lyrical about Barry Robson...half way through the match, I was praising his commitment, his intelligence on the pitch, his evergreen nature (he's 34 this year, but doesn't look it!) and, of course, his goal. What a goal. I'd hinted before the match that it was exactly what we needed, an early strike to stop the clear favourites for the tie getting into their stride, and so it did. Inspired by the extra knowledge that we've never lost when Robson has scored (thank you, Peter Drury), not to mention the unfortunate absence of Lee Cattermole in Sunderland's midfield (now they know what it's like to play without a key anchorman), we seemed set to nick a victory, despite a few disappointing misses.

But then... oh dear. Robson transformed from hero to villain in a matter of minutes when his loose pass was picked up by James McClean. To be fair to Robbo, he didn't spot McClean breathing down his neck, but I reckon he should have. For the minute the Derry man got the ball, I knew we were doomed. I saw the unforgivable gap between two of our defenders, waiting to be exploited... and that's exactly what McClean did, laying it on a plate for Frazier Campbell to score a shockingly easy equaliser.

Thankfully, Robbo was only the villain for that brief moment - like most of the team, he picked himself up and got on with the game.* Others, like poor Marvin Emnes, were not so fortunate. The once indispensible Dutchman and former golden boy of Boro has suddenly become the whipping boy of Teesside, and not without reason, alas. As hard as he worked, his final ball and finishing were wretched - and it was his poor pass that led to the Sunderland breakaway for the Campbell goal. Campbell, of course, had replaced Connor Wickham, who I'd identified as a possible weak link in the Sunderland team. (Indeed he was - but for his poor positional sense, Craig Gardner's illegal "goal" could easily have stood.)

It was this game that convinced me to stop using Nicky Bailey's absence as an excuse for our poor form. It was this game that renewed confidence in our defence and midfield. (They've clearly seen my alternative badge.) But it was also this game that made me realise that our real problem area was up front. At one point "The Juke" looked more like "The Joke" with a horrific miss summing up a difficult first half for our new front man. To his credit, though, he kept plugging away and became an important presence up front. Though like Emnes, he needs to work on that final ball. Think how much more we would achieve if only we were more clinical with our chances.

Still, a lucrative replay awaits. And an even more lucrative home tie against Arsenal does too, if we win it. I know cup runs can be double edged swords, but imagine how much good this run could do for our confidence and momentum, if we're able to prolong it.

Now on to Wednesday and the King Power stadium...

* * * * *

*I've since heard from Anthony Vickers that Robbo "threw his Man Of The Match champagne in the bin in protest and in self-disgust"... legendary!!

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