The mighty Hatters swung back into action yesterday and comprehensively outplayed Oxford, despite half the squad being afflicted by the trots presumably in a show of support of the broken-legged right back.
Despite being down in numbers, the performance was professional from beginning to end, as ever our cause and our confidence being greatly aided by a good early goal from Luke Wilkinson.
And what a good game Wilkinson had. Even without his headed goal he was my man of the match. He was the archetypal rock at the back. Sure-footed and commanding he swept up Oxford’s attacks - when they did occasionally venture into our half - and won header after header. We can now see why John Still was so keen to sign him in close season. Four games without conceding a goal suggests that we are doing something right at the back. Today we defended in such a way that only on two occasions in the whole 90 minutes did Oxford get around the back of us. The first one caused the heart to flutter as McNulty, suffering from nappy syndrome (his mind addled no doubt by sleepless nights and the thought of nipple pads) let the ball go over his head rather than to head it clear. It was like he was pushed forward by an imaginary Micky Quinn. As it happens that moment served to galvanise the defence and they hardly put a foot wrong after that, forcing Oxford to shoot from miles out – they couldn’t get close.
I think Oxford had only two decent shots on target and Tyler had to make a couple of reflex saves, the first was very nearly world class and to be added to his long list of brilliant point blank saves too numerous to tally, where he touched a shot from Barnett round the post – I don’t know how he got down in time. The second was a near point-blank header from Barnett where he got down to save in exactly the right place. A bit like a baseball catcher who knows where the pitch is going. Without those saves the result would have been very different. Earlier in the season I indicated that MT was beginning to show signs that he was starting to show his age. His recent form has dispelled this, in fact you could assert that he has improved. Mark Tyler is a fine wine, improving with age.
Alex Lacey started at right back today and had a pretty tidy game, he was up against their only attacking threat down the left in O’Dowd.
Scott Griffiths battled excellently on the left and had Ruffel in his pocket. He played well all game and largely neutralised Oxford down the right.
Nathan Doyle made his debut, sitting in front of the back four. He had a physical presence about him and was tidy enough I think. Survived the attempt to rearrange his kneecaps by Tyrone Barnett. Bearing in mind many of John Still’s acquisitions often take time to bed in and get up to speed, I look forward to seeing what he is like after ten games...Drury replaced him later on when we changed to a 4-4-2.
In the middle too – but in a more advanced role than I seem to recall was Smudger Smith, who as ever ran and worked hard in the middle, charging people down with impunity.
More or less the most advanced midfielder of a three – but still back and forth in his ‘box to box’ role was PRM who had a slightly strange game compared to his Trojan performances recently. He certainly posed an attacking threat but seemed to have a gear in reserve. Perhaps he didn’t need his top gear such was the underwhelming threat of Oxford. We could have doubled the lead within a minute when Pelly was given a good chance after good play in the box from Cullen and Whalley but he popped it over the bar.
On the right of front three (or the right of a midfield 5 if you prefer) was Shaun Whalley, a slightly revitalised version of the walking shambles we saw at the start of last season. He was a direct threat, and tracked back well when needed. He does get bumped off the ball a bit easily. Didn’t perhaps cut through their lines in the way he would have like but at least was felled for the free kick which led to the goal. His replacement by Layafette re-injected vigour into our performance, so he played a part in that way I guess – he was the facilitator for the final push by being substituted. I wish Shaun well, hopefully by starting yesterday that will give him some of the confidence he was lacking.
On the left up was Jake Howells who had an outstanding game and his alertness was rewarded when he sprung to score from the rebound from his own penalty a la Cullen. He didn’t just whack it back though, but got it under control, dribbled a bit, did a shimmy, checked his emails, before slotting it home. The penalty itself was for handball by Mullins on the edge of the box. The sort of penalty decision you get when things are going your way as the Mr Magoos of the lower leagues invariably fail to spot that sort of thing. For example later on in the second half one of our team (I can’t recall who) played catch with himself and the ref missed that one. It was Howells’ inswinging freekick that gave Wilkinson such a perfect opportunity for the goal.
In the middle was the long suffering Mark Cullen, ploughing a lone furrow, until Lafayette came on. Too often though he was left isolated when, having received the ball, had no one to lay it off to. Such is the nature of the system I guess. Late on he went on a splendid run with a golden opportunity to make it three – but stumbled and shot rather than passing it. Great when they go in and you can’t blame a centre forward for having a go, especially when we were two up already. If it had been 0-0 then he might have been lynched for not passing it.
As I said earlier – the introduction of Lafayette gave us the momentum to finish the job, it levered away the slow momentum Oxford had gained as our high tempo approach was difficult to maintain. When he came on he posed an immediate threat and gave us the edge and gave Oxford something to think about. He might not be the most refined front man yet, but yesterday he brimmed with confidence. Oxford’s centre halves who had been barely coping with just Cullen, suddenly had a big strong bloke to try to manage and they struggled and thereafter were on the back foot. It was a masterstroke, as was shoring up the right hand side by changing to 442 and bringing on Drury.
It was a good game and one which I thoroughly enjoyed. A good competent, professional win. We played at high tempo and pressed Oxford hard, they were toothless up front and mainly had to rely on long shots. We did a job on Oxford, and their only decent chances fell to Tyrone Barnett, who surely nine times out of ten would have been dismissed for the brutal lunge on Doyle. Hats off to John Still’s men for playing well and keeping them at bay. The only worrying note is that our goals are coming from set plays, but good to be still winning whilst that is the case.
Next week we renew our acquaintance with the strange Hertfordshire brand of anti-football when we play the cheats from Stevenage, I can’t wait. I’m interested to see if the Westley leopard has changed its spots, or mellowed over the years. Yesterday when Barnett went over the top on Doyle the whole team led by Macca were enraged and were ready to pile in. We all reacted and stood together a la Paul Colingwood for England against the Aussies in 2005. I suspect there might be more of that needed next week if Stevenage revert to type. Had we not got the early goal today, I suspect Mr Appleton’s team would have given us a dress-rehearsal for the tactics we can expect. Certainly the tackling and the constant whining to the ref were straight out of the Westley text-book.
Come on you Hatters.