After several games with few goals and little excitement, Danny Wilson’s men seemed to lose their shackles and played a far more expansive game that resembled some of the performances that punctuated the previous campaign. United were worthy winners and had led thanks to Neil Collins far post header but were pegged back when sloppy defending at a corner led to Mark Roberts equalising for the visitors. In the second half United continued to dictate and went back in front thanks to the poaching skills of Shaun Miller; who then sealed matters with another opportunistic close range finish. A late Chris Porter goal gave the performance and score line further gloss and finally gave the United throng what they had been hoping for in terms of more goals and excitement adding to their already excellent record of results.
United had to make changes with both full backs as expected absent with hamstring injuries. Daryl Westlake came in at right back for Tony McMahon and Marcus Williams moved back to cover for Matt Hill. United also brought in Shaun Miller but opted to play him in his more natural striking role with Nick Blackman perhaps surprisingly moved out to a wide right position. Dave Kitson, who had extended his contract till the end of the season, was still not fit. United named keeper Danny Coyne who had signed a short term deal, on the bench with fellow veterans Richard Cresswell, along with youngsters Ironside, Philliskirk and McFadzean and Cofie.
Stevenage had been thumped at home by former manager Graham Westley and Preston the previous week but had otherwise been enjoying an excellent campaign so far and were repeating last season’s excellent form. They began with just one up front with Justin Haber and whilst they had some of the squad that met the Blades in the playoffs, they of course like United had lost some of their standout performers. They still had the luxury of being able to name the likes of Luke Freeman and Patrick Agyemang on the bench.
United began the game strongly but only after an early head injury to a Stevenage defender following a clash of heads delayed the game for a few minutes. Skipper Doyle had two chances but both his shots were well off target. United were passing the ball crisply with McDonald architect for much of the good play. United were continuing to force the visitors back and Flynn sent over a dangerous cross that was cleared. Porter had a good chance from Westlake’s cross but could not get the power on the header. Despite United dominating the game, Stevenage gave them a warning when Hills cross came over beat everybody except Morais whose close range header was palmed away from Long.
The home side though were back on the attack and deservedly took the lead when after a short corner Doyle picked up the ball and sent over a deep cross. Both Porter and COLLINS were left unmarked and the latter nodded back across goal and into the far corner. The marking was poor but it was an accurate cross and finish to give United their first goal in open play in the League since the Dave Kitson’s goal at Preston.
The delivery from wide had been much better than in recent weeks and with Blackman on corners the set plays had also been noticeably better. Indeed Blackman’s trickery and strong running had given United a new dimension down the flanks.
The referee had tried to let the game flow for the most part and had just had words with offending players but was forced to go to his pocket when Morais scythed down Williams as he went down the left hand side.
After some good work from Doyle, Miller was in on goal and carefully waited for the opening before checking and hitting a strike that the keeper Arnold pushed away. United had been in complete control but Stevenage won a flurry of corners and after a daft free kick as given away they won another. From the delivery ROBERTS seemed to get the better of Porter and headed home despite Williams seemingly being well positioned on the line. Long had no chance but United’s players understandably were frustrated to give such a sloppy goal away when they had controlled the game right up to this moment. The goal had come right on the stroke of half time and once again as in the previous week, they conceded in the closing stages of the half. United’s fans were not happy as just before the whistle they took way too long to put a cross in and as Williams and Flynn exchanged umpteen passed and failed to deliver, the crowds groans were clearly audible.
Neither side many any changes to start the second half but there was a delayed beginning and a bizarre scenario that saw none of the officials appear for some time; thus no football and also the Stevenage keeper Steve Arnold was nowhere to be seen! He finally emerged rather sheepishly before taking his place between the sticks to sarcastic cheers from the Kop behind him.
United had offered one of their better performances so far of this season and despite the equaliser continued to probe and play the more enterprising football. Doyle was controlling midfield and McDonald was also showing his range of passing and some real finesse. Stevenage did win another batch of corners but nothing came of them this time and United had a great chance when a cross from the left saw Porter head straight at the keeper when unmarked. He really should have scored.
It was not long before United were back in front though as more good work from Blackman saw his deep cross intelligently headed back from Flynn and a combination of Porter and then finally MILLER bundled the ball into the net. Porter had injured himself in his attempts to force the ball home but was able to continue after treatment as Stevenage kicked off after the goal.
The excellent Maguire had been superb and twice stepped in to make interceptions. He had barely given Haber a kick. United then were back on the attack and two good crosses, from firstly Flynn and then Blackman just evaded the united strikers. Blackman then beat his man down the wing and hit a powerful shot that Arnold tipped over. From the corner the ball was scrambled clear. At the other end Long had to push away a cross in a rare Stevenage attack but it had continued to be mostly one way traffic.
The vital third goal came 20 minutes from time. The ball came over and Porter won the initial header and as Roberts failed to clear the ball fell to MILLER who poked home. It was another instinctive close range finish and the former Crewe man was clearly delighted as he celebrated in front of the Kop.
Stevenage made a double change introducing Agyemang and Grant for Dunne and Haber but once again Maguire showed his real class as he held off the experienced substitute and then played a superb ball to set Flynn away. He then had a headed effort saved as he went up for a corner. United were now in cruise control and Stevenage looked a beaten side. More patient football nearly saw Miller in again but the fourth goal came when after some really patient, possession football of at least 15 passes, the ball found its way to Flynn got who got down the wing and sent over a cross that PORTER met to thump a header home, despite Arnold getting a hand to it.
United made two late changes giving the crowd a chance to recognise the efforts of Miller and Porter as they were replaced by Cofie and Cresswell. The final word almost fittingly went to Maguire as the young centre back strode out of defence, kept going and then hit a shot with little back lift from around 30 yards that hit the bar and bounced over with the keeper motionless. The referee adjudged it had deflected off a Stevenage man and a corner was awarded. Soon after though the final whistle came and United could celebrate going back in to the automatic promotion places.
United – Much, much better. We looked like the side from last season at times today. Sure we were missing some of those better players and had a bit of a mish mash of a side with the injuries we currently have but today we bossed the game almost from start to finish. The only negative was the sloppy goal and somehow giving away 8 corners which led to some concerns and possible danger of course as the goal showed. The possession count shows 53% to 47% in favour of Stevenage which I have to say is utter nonsense. In my opinion United had probably 70% of the possession and about the same of the game overall. We had maybe 8 or 9 good chances to probably 1 or 2 of theirs. Indeed outside of the goal, I only remember one save Long had to make, in the first half, and a cross he pushed away. We controlled the ball, made chances, were mostly patient and rightly so and played the right way. It was so much better than it has been and maybe the best performance of the season, certainly that I have seen. The passing was crisper and done at quicker speeds and also we had some of the best deliveries into the box we have had all season with a variety of takers and types of corners and crosses. The crosses were the best they had been all season with some really good deep ones and many diagonal balls that caused all sorts of problems. We created quite a lot of chances and could have had more goals. It was positive football for the most part and we took the game to a team rather than scoring and shutting up shop. It showed even though we have lost some real quality we still have enough to put most teams to the sword. They are one of the so called better sides and they were soundly beaten and other than a 5-10 minute spell before the break were never in the game.
The new line up worked too so praise to Danny Wilson. The full backs both did well, with Westlake in particular playing well and looking much improved at right back to when he played in more unfamiliar positions earlier in the season. Williams also played well and got up and down. It was noticeable that both full backs were more attacking and maybe this influenced our more positive approach. Long was solid again and Maguire was superb; a colossus. Collins had a few ropey moments but in front Doyle played well, particularly in the second half. McDonald showed his class and his range of passing was excellent. The two wingers worked up and down and Blackman gave a surprisingly mature performance (he got back defended and did the dirty work too) on the wing and showed he has played there before. Flynn still frustrated not always going at his man but still put in some good crosses. The front two were a bit disappointing in the first half but got much better after the break and got close together and were able to link well. The goals Miller scored were poacher’s finishes but he plays on the shoulder of the last man and works hard. He is a clever little player and thinks tend to happen. He should stay in the side.
It was actually enjoyable today and even apart from the goals, there were instances of clever, intricate football and it was much sharper and more purposeful. We need to repeat that approach and performance every week if possible. If we do, we would win the league but of course we have not done this enough this season, if at all. We now need to ensure it is not a case of after the Lord Mayor’s show on Tuesday and get the win, even if the performance is not as good as today, which will be hard to repeat even if they strive for it. After this we have a few tough away games at Brentford and Crawley on the horizon and the game with Tranmere at home looming too. We need to try and ensure we are in the top 2 at Xmas and then maybe, just maybe McCabe will somehow give us some funds. This may sound controversial but I am not bothered about the rules on the salary cap/new rules really as Swindon and Pompey don’t seem to care – if we sign 2 or 3 quality players and get an embargo then so what if it gives us the extra lift to make sure we get up? Maybe that is a cavalier approach but I don’t think we would need to spend much or bring much in to go up.
Stevenage– They were really poor today but I suppose United made them look poor too. They looked a far cry from the side that gave us 4 really good games last year and matched us in every contest with some bright players and real attacking threat. They too, like us, have lost players with Wilson going to Charlton and Preston taking Mousinho and also Laird. However, they do still have some good players and Ashton (injured?) and Roberts rate up there with Collins and Maguire as one of the stronger centre back partnerships at this level. They missed Ashton today badly. They still managed to sign Morais from Oldham and Akins from Tranmere, so were recruiting some of the better players from fellow clubs in this division despite probably a low budget. Surprised Freeman was on the bench as he gave us fits last season. He also seems to have lost some weight. Like Miller with Crewe, he may be worth a punt on at some point as he had bundles of ability although does seem to think he is better than he is. Agyemang too is a powerful customer at this level and I was glad he was not playing.
Today they went behind and got back in it but even after this there only seemed one winner and they looked relieved when it was all over. The lone striker, Haber was never in the game and they struggled to ever hold the ball up. Akins was lively at times but overall I felt they sat so deep they created problems and they tried to play an offside trap but it never worked. This led to numerous crosses causing problems as a few defenders went out and a few stayed back. The keeper Arnold never looked convincing and his kicking was awful. The right back Gray also had a bit of a ‘mare. Maybe it was just a bad day at the office but they never played much football, never really attacked us and seemed set up for a draw at best but struggled to contain us and it was very one sides for the most part. I like their manager and think he always speaks intelligently and has done a good job continuing efforts of Westley to keep them up there with limited resources (and trying to change style of football from a more direct style to a more passing type of game) but I am unsure if they will be in the top 6 at the end of the season. Certainly they will have to improve massively from today.
Long 7/10 – Had little to do really. Had no chance with the header which was put in the corner. He made one smart reaction save and parried a cross away (not sure that was totally convincing but at least he got something on it and as others around me said, Simonsen would not have even got there). What impressed me most today was his distribution. He was much quicker than he has been to get things going either through throwing it out or kicking it short and this helped us. He wanted to get things moving and get us playing from the back. His kicking from back passes was also much improved today and he got some real distance on his clearances.
Westlake 7.5/10 – I was a little disappointed with him when I saw him earlier in the season but today you could see the promise that probably made us sign him. I thought he was very good. He began a little uncertain and Akins won a few headers but got stronger as the game went on and ended up very confident by the end. He got forward and supported Blackman but more than that he did the basics defensively. He got tight to his man and stopped crosses. I will whisper it but on that performance he looked better than McMahon. Must repeat that type of performance.
Williams 7.5/10 –Thought he did quite well. He is not the most accomplished and often seems to move in stages but he defended well and also got up and down the flank and linked quite well with Flynn. He put some really good crosses over today and he is certainly an upgrade over Hill attacking wise if not so much defensively. He gets a hard time Williams but mostly this season he has done ok and probably does not deserve the flak he often gets.
Maguire 9/10 – Maybe his best game for the club in my opinion. He was superb from start to finish. He made interceptions, broke up play, tackled perfectly, used the ball well and played with a poise and intelligence that you would not expect from a youngster. I almost felt sorry for the striker who could not get a sniff all game. Then Agyemang came on and Maguire just shoved him aside and the veteran striker is not exactly easy to move! The shot at the end almost capped his day. It seemed as if the England u21 call up and debut has given him extra confidence and he looked even better. Worryingly any scouts watching will have noted his showing as he was the outstanding player on view.
Collins 7/10 – The big lad up front barely had a kick against Maguire but did get past Collins twice. He scored a good header but maybe looked a little uncertain at times especially in the first half. He improved after the break but was probably the least sure of the back line.
Flynn 7/10 – An odd performance where he dithered and took too long in the first half to get crosses over or go at his man and sometimes frustrated but in the second he became more direct and got some lovely balls in. Worked better with Williams and one overlapped and they swapped over when attacking which did not happen in the first half as they were too stagnant making it easy to defend. He does work really hard for the team and is the sort who will cover and never stop running. Just wish he went at his man a bit more as his crossing from open play (not corners so much as he was taken off these today) is normally very good.
Doyle 8/10 – He did what he does best; broke up play, tackled, passed it simple and got us moving. He has been a bit up and down this season but today he looked like the Doyle of last season when we went on the impressive run. When he plays like that and McDonald is on his game; we are a good side. His shooting was shocking though!
McDonald 8/10 – He flitted in and out in the first half but still played some good passes then second half he became more and more influential and short and long he started to play balls that caused problems. Think the full backs being more attacking and us having more width with the pace of Blackman helped him as he had more options to pass to. Miller also sometimes can come short and collect offering variety to the balls McDonald plays. His touch and overall vision is excellent and he needs to be more like he was today every week as there are not many players of his ilk at this level.
Blackman 7.5/10 – I was surprised he played out wide but pleased as we are crying out for some pace and also Miller has deserved a chance. I was a little concerned as his work rate is not always there and defensively you need to protect your full back. Well he surprised me and was excellent for the most part. He did try and overplay once or twice but his link up play, crosses (and corners!) were normally very good. He did not hold onto the ball too much and just did a good job but also was a threat. Odd to see two wingers playing on the wrong sides so to speak in terms of them being left/right footed and playing on opposite sides. He may not be that happy that he is not up top but he has been a bit off in recent games and today the move worked so will probably stay there for the foreseeable future.
Miller 8/10 – Thought his touch was off a bit in the first half but he did have one good chance when he took his time and maybe would have been disappointed he did not finish especially as they scored not long after. He was too far off Porter and the link up play was not always there but second half they got closer together and suddenly we created more chances and they did look like a proper partnership. His goals were scrappy efforts but he was there and we need a player to do that. After he scored his first you could see his confidence visibly lift and he suddenly looked even better. Hiss touch improved and he was always on the shoulders of the last defender.
Porter 7.5/10 – First half he had a few flicked headers but the ball did not always stick. He then missed a decent chance and then an even better one early in the second half. Undeterred he kept plugging away and won a lot of headers and brought others into play. He assisted on the 2nd goal and then scored a good header at the end. He is another that gets a lot of stick and is not everyone cup of tea but he actually normally does not do a bad job. He is painfully slow but he is fairly strong and does win more headers than most at the club.
Cresswell / Cofie – Both came on right at the death when the game was entering stoppage time.
Officials –Referee Michael Jones was good. He was a bit picky early on with where free kicks were taken but then he got better and let the game flow (sometimes ball was moving when kicks were taken or Maguire took ball from Long when it had not gone out of the box) but he did not want to book people which was good (he booked one rightly). I cannot remember many really poor decisions and he refereed it pretty well. His two officials were quite slow to make decisions and did not give him much help.
Crowd – A good crowd to say it was a very cold November day and Stevenage only brought maybe 200 or so. They got behind their team and were a credit to them despite the result. They were good last season too and seem to be very loyal supporters who don’t stop singing. Our crowd was quiet for the most part but did get louder as we got in front in the second half and more goals came. Today the team did well and maybe the crowd could have been a bit more vocal in the first half. They seemed a bit impatient at times which I did not agree with as the team were mostly playing well and passing the football. Still as I say to get the crowds we are is still very impressive. Hopefully we can get them over 20,000+ if we are still up there and push on after Xmas.