After what has felt like an eternity, Saturday finally saw me return to Blackwell Meadows following the enforced absence due to Covid. While most fans have been back for the first few home games, an ill-timed knee injury left me waiting for my return.
Considering how much the world has changed in the last year and a half, Saturday provided something which felt a lot like normality. Coming through the turnstile, having a pre-match pint, catching up with friends, standing in our usual spot in the Tin Shed. Had anything changed? But for the understandable empty advertising spaces along the pitch-side fence and the teams coming out line astern rather than side-by-side, everything else was just how it was before we’d heard of Chinese wet markets or Barnard Castle eye tests.
My last game at Blackwell Meadows had been the 1-1 draw with Brackley Town in February 2020. If memory serves me right, it was a game we had by far the lion’s share of possession and probably felt a little hard done by for not taking all three points. A year and a half later, the three points were secured against a shot-shy Hereford side. One game back, one win.
As untimely as my knee injury might have been, it probably spared me from the teething problems initially faced by Alun Armstrong’s rebuilt squad. Limited to the excellent Darlo Fans Radio and the match highlights, I’d spent the opening weeks wondering if our league form was a continuation of what we’d seen last season. Losing against sides which we would otherwise expect to beat, it made for a rocky start. It was a bit of a head scratcher as I was fairly convinced we’d put together a slightly stronger squad for this season compared to last. The centre half issue, which every man and his dog has been aware of, was clearly a drag on the side. Fortunately, the tide seems to have turned and we can now look forward to making some progress in the league.
Hereford were a fair bit better than their lowly league position suggested. They looked remarkably well organised and gave us more than enough trouble. Fortunately, we were pretty well organised ourselves. Having only seen the highlights of our first seven games, it’s hard to draw comparisons but from what I saw on Saturday our defence looked a lot more organised than it was during the opening games. It’s obviously a team effort in making the side more solid but I couldn’t help but be impressed with the impact Danny Ellis and Tommy Taylor have made in achieving it. In Ellis, I saw the first centre half in a Darlo kit for a few years who took ownership of situations. There’s no passive waiting around to see what happens. He steps in and deals with a threat. He won everything in the air and covers the ground remarkably well for a 35-year-old.
Meanwhile, Tommy Taylor appeared to be everything we have been missing in a goalkeeper for at least three years. Without wishing to be too disrespectful to the lads we’ve had contracted in that time, it has been a position we have really struggled with. It has impacted on the team as a whole. On Saturday you could see a defensive line which had supreme confidence that their goalkeeper would hold up his end of the bargain and deal with anything that came in to the box. It makes a big difference. Compare and contrast the goalkeeping performance on Saturday to that at Bristol Rovers in the cup last season. What also stood out was his distribution. Taylor’s ability to find the head of Jake Cassidy is nothing short of remarkable. It was a good first impression for me.
Elsewhere on the pitch, I thought we looked bright. The partnership between Cassidy and Luke Charman has the potential to be really productive. Cassidy might not be the guy to score 20 goals per season but his selfless work leading the line will mean Charman can find the pockets of space which we saw him flourish in during our cup runs last season. Is it a coincidence that Cassidy’s arrival has seen the former Newcastle striker start the season like a house of fire?
On the wings, the work rate and impact made by Jarrett Rivers and Kevin Dos Santos was also pleasing. As regular readers of my musings will know, I’m usually more in favour of having an extra body in the middle of the park rather than playing 4-4-2, but Rivers and Dos Santos made it work. At times under Armstrong, 4-4-2 has resembled 4-2-4 leaving us looking a bit bare in the middle of the park and exposed in the full back areas. On Saturday, we looked more organised and able to deal with Hereford when out of possession. A big part of that was Rivers and Dos Santos putting in as big a shift without the ball as with it.
It’s going to be interesting to see if we can turn this mini run of form in to something more substantial over the coming weeks. Our improved credentials are certainly going to be tested to the max with Saturday’s trip to free-scoring Chorley but if we can go to Brackley and win comfortably, there’s no reason why we can’t win on Saturday. With fancied clubs such as York, Gloucester and Chester all struggling early doors, the league has an open look about it. String three or four good results together and we’ll be catapulted right in to the playoff mix.