A game which I suspect in advance nobody had a good idea what to expect from. A win and it became a good start to the campaign – and vice versa – while a draw would be, like last Saturday, no disaster but not inspiring either. In the event nobody could have quibbled whatever the outcome had been as Derby played us off the park for the first 40 minutes - and but for imprecise finishing and excellent saves from Wollacott could have been at least a couple of goals to the good, perhaps out of sight – only for us to get stronger as they tired, go ahead, then look more likely to add to our tally than them to equalise. Much like last weekend if we had lost or drawn we could have had no complaints; equally we almost stole all three points at Accrington and can lay claim to deserving the win yesterday as, unlike Derby, we put the ball in the net.
It's easy to talk of it being a game of two halves. But it was really one about chances. Derby had two or three excellent openings in the first half during the time we struggled to keep the ball (and did nothing with it when we had it) only for us almost to take the lead just before the break, when Stockley really should have converted Kirk’s inviting cross. Even then there was time for us to gift Derby a one-against-one, only for their guy to strike the post. In the second half, although it was a different story in terms of possession and chances, Derby had a gilt-edged chance to equalise only for their guy to head wide. So just who deserved what is perhaps irrelevant, especially at this stage of the season.
The team showed a couple of changes, potentially significant ones. Wollacott kept the keeper’s jersey in front of an unchanged back four of Clare, Inniss, O’Connell and Sessegnon, with Lavelle joined by Clayden on the bench, which at least - unlike last weekend - gave us an option in the event of injury to a full-back. To the surprise of many Dobson was dropped to the bench, replaced by McGrandles, to partner Morgan and Fraser in midfield. The suggestion here seemed to be that Garner believes – or rather believed as the first half might have changed his mind – that with a central midfield three you don’t need an outright defensive option. Neither Gilbey nor Forster-Caskey made the squad, let alone the starting X1, which suggested Payne is being viewed as the replacement for Fraser rather than Gilbey, while reinforcing speculation that JFC will indeed be leaving. For the front three Jaiyesimi was replaced by Kirk, with Blackett-Taylor the other side of Stockley and goalscoring machine Leaburn kept in reserve. It all looked like an opportunity for McGrandles and Kirk to grab.
Again, the first 40 minutes were all Derby. Inside the first 10 Wollacott dived to his left to block a sharp effort after a good move down the left, then from the resulting corner he saved a backheel after a scramble. In the second O’Connell tried to turn and was robbed, the resulting shot being blocked, then Inniss was outmuscled after a poor Clare pass, drawing another excellent Wollacott save. After 21 minutes we got a corner! More significant, just before the half-hour McGrandles found himself unable to continue after a clash of heads, with Dobson entering the fray. So he was denied his opportunity to shine – and whether or not the game changed at that moment there is no question that Dobson helped materially in our upturn through the game.
Nothing changed immediately as Wollacott was called on to pluck out of the air a dangerous cross, then from a Derby corner their guy put a free header wide. But in the final minutes of the first half we finally gave some indication that we might be able to score too. First Kirk intercepted a square pass and tried an audacious lob over their keeper from close to the halfway line. It went harmlessly over the bar but was worth a try. And just after Kirk featured again in a more traditional role, delivering a terrific cross which curled perfectly for an onrushing Stockley. A header either side of their keeper would surely have meant us – somehow – taking the lead, but it ended up too close to him and was saved. Seemed like at least we would head into the break in better spirits (albeit with concerns over Inniss, who appeared to be struggling with his back), but there was still time for O’Connell to make a mess of an admittedly awkward high ball. His weak header back was easily intercepted and their guy this time beat Wollacott only for the effort to bounce back off the far post.
The half-time stats showed Derby had 62% possession and managed eight shots, two on target, against four and one for us. A week ago we’d bossed the first half playing away and had a lead; Derby had commanded the play but failed to score.
And just like a week ago the second half was a different story. Early on Blackett-Taylor gave notice of what he could do by making the space for a good cross in, only for Stockley to head straight at their keeper. And with play now much more even, on the hour we took the lead. On the counter-attack with the ball played to Kirk down the left. He immediately played it on into space for Morgan to run on to. Whether he put in a cross or a shot wasn’t clear but their keeper parried the ball, only to leave it for an isolated CBT to stab it into an empty net from a yard or two out. The end may have been a little fortuitous but the build-up was excellent.
Now we were able to play more comfortably on the break as Derby were obliged to chase the game. You’d say that having lost the initiative, never to regain it, Derby’s chance of getting something from the game had gone. But on 67 minutes, after a couple of half-chances for us, they outnumbered us down their left and as defenders went towards the ball it was curled in to the far post, to their guy on his own. He surely had to score – but didn’t, heading wide. Again, all else paled into insignificance compared to missing chances like that.
With hindsight, in the final 25 minutes (including five minutes of stoppage time) we were relatively comfortable. We were able to make more changes to bring on fresh legs – first Leaburn, Payne and Jaiyesimi for CBT, Fraser and Kirk in a triple-substitution, then late in the day Clayden and Lavelle for a tiring (and yellow-carded) Sessignon and Stockley – whereas if the commentators are to be believed Derby were light in that department and ended up looking weaker by the minute. We might have added a second but ended up not needing one.
So a very welcome victory. The final stats indicated we had 12 efforts on goal, seven on target, against 13 and just two for Derby. That last number told the story and why, despite the first 40 minutes, they can have no complaints about going home pointless.
What lessons for us? In addition to his saves, I thought Wollacott was much more in command of his area than previously, which is very positive. A MoM performance was only blotted by one failed attempt to claim a cross in the second half. O’Connell was for me a concern in that he made two howlers either of which could have resulted in a goal. Surely has to cut them out or Lavelle will get a chance. Inniss wasn’t perfect and for a while wasn’t moving easily, but did his job. Up front we know we are short of numbers/options, with really two centre-forwards and three wingers available for the three places. Hopefully Aneke will be available soon, plus a signing. Leaburn has begun the season very well but can’t be expected to play week in-week out. Kirk provided two moments of quality but the drawback is he doesn’t look likely to score himself. Equally if he starts, Blackett-Taylor moves to the right, which breaks up the partnership with Sessignon, which to me looks full of promise.
The real conundrum is the central midfield three. We learnt nothing about McGrandles on Saturday; we did learn that leaving Dobson out of the side comes with risks, at least against decent teams able to dominate possession. Morgan again flourished when not under pressure, but like the other two who started was not to be seen for most of the first half. In Dobson, Gilbey and Forster-Caskey we have players who at certain times and for certain roles can be the best options available to us. The same can be said of Morgan and Fraser, perhaps Payne too. We have seven players competing for three starting spots, probably five squad ones. Getting the right balance and combinations in this area would have been my homework instruction for BG over the weekend – especially as he got rather lucky with Dobson being introduced to the game because of injury.