Saturday, 8 March 2008

Time for fighting spirit

I'm not sure what the opposite of a summit meeting is, a base camp meeting perhaps, but that's what the Mansfield game was. And I think it's fair to say it didn't exactly turn out as planned.

Still, it certainly isn't the end of the road although, caught up in the emotion of the non-occasion, it felt like it was when we were 1-0 down while Macclesfield were 1-0 up and safety was theoretically nine points away.

Thankfully things changed by the end of the game, although not as much as we might have hoped. There's no point in anyone sticking their heads in the sand. The spectre of the Conference is a looming, disturbing presence right there in the middle of our lives which must be negotiated no matter how agonising and tortuous the journey, like the building site on Island Green. The key thing is for the squad to not get disheartened by that fact but keep plugging away and focus on ourselves and not others.

That's easier said than done, I admit. Brian Little has done exactly the right thing, addressing the crisis of a team which had completely imploded by building from the back and constructing a well-organised side which is hard to beat. Of course that means that scoring goals is sometimes a problem as we focus more on getting our house in order than creating at the other end.

If we weren't in the position we're in I'd see things as looking very rosy; Little has brought in some good players, they're well-drilled and you can see the next step is to turn the corner and start to develop some spontaneity at the other end. The problem is time's hardly on our side.

Maybe having a derby game next is no bad thing. Despite the high stakes, last Saturday's match didn't really have the feel of a do-or-die battle for survival. On Sunday there's no chance of the game petering out as it's bound to be played at a hundred miles an hour. Maybe that's just what the players need to shake the cobwebs out of their systems. There was a clear build-up of nervous tension in the side last week, but this week it'll surely be a case of opening the throttle as the first whistle goes and looking to get at them.

Rafa Benitez said something interesting last week, which was something of a novelty in itself! He suggested he succeeds in Europe but not domestically because in the Champions League there's more scope to influence a game by tactical means, but the Premier League is a different kettle of fish altogether.

I see what he means, and if it's true at the top echelon of the pyramid, it's doubly true at our level. A derby game's a chance to forget about the table and just get stuck in to a good, competitive game of football. Hopefully that's exactly what we need.

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