Here’s my column from last week’s Leader. It forms part of the paper’s comprehensive pre-match coverage every Friday, featuring interviews, an in-depth look at the opposition and lots of statistical analysis. All content in the column (c) www.leaderlive.co.uk.
If you want a graphic illustration of the difference Gary Mills has made at The Racecourse, take a look at the last five seconds of last Saturday’s match.
There has been a sense that the changing room has been harmonious ever since Gary Mills arrived at the club, and that spirit found form in the battling draw earned by nine men at The New Lawn. Those closing moments exemplified that courage, as Ryan O’Reilly, on loan and making his debut out of position through necessity, barrelled into a 70-30 tackle fifteen yards into the opposing half to prevent Forest Green hurling a final long ball into our box.
That a young lad with no great affiliation to the club would do that showed what the result meant to the squad; the fact that he was there in the first place illustrated how Mills is an upgrade in the dugout. Cast your mind back to the last time we were down to nine men, at home to Altrincham last season.
We were 2-0 up and collapsed back into a 4-4-0 formation which meant we had no way of releasing the pressure. Even when we were two goals to the good you could see there was no hope of avoiding defeat as we willingly played attack against defence. Inevitably, we lost 3-2.
My abiding memory of that match was Manny Smith trying to take matters into his own hands and setting off on a terrific, uncharacteristic burst through the centre of the pitch in a desperate attempt to drag play away from our penalty area. He might not have intended it to be interpreted in this way, but it felt like a despairing plea to the bench to make a change and offer something – anything – up the pitch to relieve the pressure. He didn’t need to make that gesture last Saturday.
At Forest Green we were up against much stronger opposition, and away from home to boot, but it was very different. Mills didn’t fall into the trap of negativity, left a man up the pitch for as long as he could, and trusted his players. They responded, working in midfield to restrict Forest Green to a series of long balls into the box, and hassled their midfielders so the delivery often wasn’t perfect.
Looked at in isolation, O’Reilly’s challenge at the end was a statement of the squad’s commitment as they battled to the last. Looked at in context, it revealed our tactical maturity. It was preceded by Wes York challenging for a header on the halfway line, and once O’Reilly had created a loose ball, Robbie Evans chased it into Forest Green’s half. Three players committed up the pitch to halt Forest Green’s attacks at source in the ninety fifth minute showed that this is not a side which will withdraw into itself and accept its fate.
The point we won at Forest Green kept our promotion hopes alive. The character and tactical bravery it exemplified showed why we can approach the remainder of the season with confidence.