A dry but cloudy afternoon, in the almost-full away corner of a stadium similar to Donnie, the Liberty, & the King Power, but one of the older of this batch. Some patches of empty seats, but the decent crowd honoured well the minute’s applause to celebrate the life of the recently-deceased Nelson Mandela.
The away team lined up seemingly 4-1-4-1, with – intriguingly – O’Kane sitting and Grabban up top. Surman started alongside Arter, and Royals k.o. towards us. Cherries started with some good moves, but Royals merely waited to pick them off. Cook conceded a corner, and Surman headed off the line. In the next few minutes the rest of the back 4 (Elphick twice) and Grabban all conceded corners as Royals showed better movement of both bodies and thought. Generally, Div.2 teams have been a good half-yard quicker moving, thinking, anticipating, looking for the advantage and opportunity; generally, more alert. It’s this quality that Cherries had not yet developed fully. But Camp was solid; just as well, with Royals not having to work too hard to find the space the away team couldn’t.
Arter was fouled at inside-left, but the free was caught easily. Surman went into the area but didn’t shoot as he seemed to be impeded, but no pen. He then tried again from the side, as Cherries came a little more into the game. Grabban was in, but no shot; it was evident that Cherries needed not only to win ugly, but also to play ugly to progress this season. Ritchie’s shot was blocked, with Royals having to work harder. Grabban turned & shot over.
The away display was so far the story of 2 triangles. At the back, Camp, Cook and Elphick were rock-solid, with nary a close opportunity for the home attack. Then there were the 3 midfielders, with O’Kane rarely going beyond either Arter or Surman, let alone both of them, but he did so and was fouled at inside-right. The free swung over, Elphick headed back, the keeper managed to push it away with some fingers only for Grabban to snap up the pieces and thump the ball in the net. 0-1, 37! The second successive Saturday the team had taken the lead!
Both sets of fans were a little shocked by this turn of events, at which point Ritchie received from Grabban on the left, shuffled to his right into the “D”, and threaded a right-footer to the right of the keeper’s despairing dive. 0-2, 41!! Oh Yeah!! Evidently the earlier passages of play had lulled Royals into a false sense of security… “Score when we want”; “We’re winning away” rang out around me. I recalled the saying of British boxers fighting in Italy – you’d need a k.o. to end up with a draw. But this would do for now, and away fans trooped away happily for half-time refreshments. HT: 0-2.
A home replacement – the tall Pog(rebnyak) came on to try to bully Elphick & Cook. Another change – before the interval, Ritchie hardly went up his wing, preferring to cut inside. This half, that was his main move. Then, set up by Pugh & Surman, he shaped a shot over. Stout away defence nevertheless kept returning the ball to the home side. Surman (otherwise undoubtedly his best game so far) was yellowed for a late challenge; there were too many free kicks given to the home side. Grabban won a rare corner, then the ball ran along the Cherries goal line. Camp scrambled to retrieve it. Grabban released Pugh for a shot. Royals were still on top but without a 6-yard box cutting edge, so they brought on the unpredictable Royston Drenthe. I don’t recall a significant contribution by the former Everton forward.
Ritchie hit a 25-yard free at the keeper; Grabban broke away to win a corner. Cherries started to come back into it with Ritchie turning his marker inside-out. Grabban hit it across, just beyond Ritchie; this was as good as anything the opponents had produced. But Ritchie was feeling it and Fraser replaced him on 76, going on to look busy. A further 2 corners to Royals preceded Grabban taking a well-earned rest, Pitman taking his place on 80 and running about a lot. Both forwards had put in a tremendous shift and deserved their ovations. Royals won a corner, then Pitman won one; fast & furious. Pugh moved it forward only for Arter to hit over with time & space to have done better. Pitman was speculative; Royals had been held at bay all half.
4 minutes were added, during which your correspondent was so engrossed in gnawing away at what remained of his fingernails he didn’t spot MacDonald replacing O’Kane. Also not noted were yellows for Camp & Cook. However, a Cook clearance took an unfortunate ricochet off Elphick’s back, allowing Le Fondre to nip in & score what thankfully turned out to be a consolation; 1-2, 90+1, and more nerves displayed by the away fans. Then the final whistle! F-T: 1-2!!! And massive celebrations. The stands & pitch emptied quickly except for the away fans, team and management, who indulged in an appropriate session of mutual admiration and respect.
This observer has thought for some time that Howe always felt the squad was not good enough for the higher level, but had to give it a chance – and to prove to itself improvements were necessary. On this showing, perhaps the team is growing into the division. This battling, committed, display was the one for which we’d all been waiting. Evidently a bunch of phalangists; they all collectively pulled their fingers out, even Francis and Daniels being a little tighter defensively. Performances like this should see sufficient points gained to stay above the drop zone (especially with a possible 9 from the next 3 fixtures), but reinforcements – especially a dominant midfielder & a big mobile centre-forward – may be difficult given the wage cap. Perhaps if the team does stay up, he’ll be put forward for beatification; St. Edward of Howe, to go alongside St. Matthew of Holland.
Real toughie this as all worked very hard and contributed massively to the result. But perhaps for the leadership angle as well as the pitch performance, this goes to Elphick.
AFCB: Camp, Francis, Cook, Elphick, Daniels, Ritchie, Arter, Surman, O'Kane, Pugh, Grabban
Subs: Flahavan, Harte, Rantie, Yennaris, Fraser (for Ritchie, 76 mins), Pitman (for Grabban, 80 mins), MacDonald (for O'Kane, 92 mins)