Having won all three pre-season games so far I welcomed the opportunity to get straight back into the action a few days later with a short trip up to Butlin Road to play Rugby Town.
The quality of opposition to date had – at best – been questionable. However with the team becoming more familiar with my high pressing/short passing tactic, and with a clean sheet in our last game, I’d convinced myself we were already fast becoming invincible. If I could take this pre-season form into the full season we’d surely walk it, wouldn’t we?
I wonder if any one has ever gone a whole season undefeated in the Vanarama North?
The game against Rugby Town smacked me soberingly back to reality. Within minutes of kick-off they were swarming all over us, my players gasping for space and any opportunity to play the sexy brand of football our handful of fans were becoming accustomed to. AA, who I’d bought in for his first game looked horrifically out of his depth and it wasn’t long before I saw the 18-year-old looking desperately for his dad in the crowd for sympathetic support.
I may as well have saved Lee Hughes’s appearance fee and left him at the building site for all the good it was having him on the pitch. He touched the ball just once in the first half, crowded out by two meathead centre halves and starved of any meaningful supply.
Thankfully, young loanee Ethan Ross between the sticks earned his (WBA-sponsored) wage, pulling off a number of glorious saves to somehow keep the game level at halftime. And I was grateful for the woodwork’s intervention on a number of occasions too.
Egged on by Brede towering menacingly behind me I gave the team both barrells at the break. The players just sat there, saying nothing, staring at the floor. I don’t know if they were equally as frustrated by their performance, shocked by my first display of anger or simply choosing to ignore me. Either way I sent them back out for the second half expecting an impressive response.
That didn’t quite happen. The second half resumed where the first had left, with the Rugby players continuing to dominate possession and camping themselves in our weathered half.
I need to work on my team talks.
I cast a glance at Brede and cursed him for encouraging me to take such an aggressive approach.
But then the unimaginable happened. A stray loose ball into their box was collected by Lee Hughes, who – quite unashamedly – was scythed down in a needless act of aggression by their full back. Penalty.
Set piece specialist Danny Jackman picked up the ball but I had other plans and screamed at him to hand it to Nelson-Abby, such had been his prolific pre-season form to date. The in-form midfielder duly hammered home the spot kick, putting us 1-0 up with our first shot of the game and registering his fourth goal in as many games.
The Rugby players – and their 43 fans – couldn’t believe it. When play resumed they completely lost the plot, throwing everyone forward in desperate attempt to get the goal(s) they deserved and to make the scoreline more reflective of their performance. However in doing so they failed to keep tabs on young Murphy who I’d thrown on for the ineffective AA. Murphy sat lurking on the halfway line, and when the ball broke to Steele on the edge of our box a simple launch over the top was all that was needed to allow him to nip in and complete the ultimate 2-0 smash and grab. The final whistle blew.
On reflection the long ball was not in keeping with the short passing style I had spent the last few weeks drilling into the team, and I made a mental note to give Steele a stern dressing down. I couldn’t have anyone breaking ranks and thinking they could impress such a direct approach upon the team. What if others followed suit? No, this wouldn’t do at all.
That could wait though. We’d just somehow managed to win our fourth pre-season game in a row, and secured a second successive clean sheet.
Invincibles. Yes, that had a good ring to it.