And then a hero comes along – Knee Jerks
Wednesday, 27th Feb 2019 19:55 by Clive Whittingham
Antti Heinola finally has a win to write about in his six talking points looking back on Tuesdsay night’s home game with Leeds.
Finally, it's over. At last, we are no longer on 39 points. I tried everything. Varying where I ate and drank before games. Different scarves. Wearing my glasses. Not wearing my glasses. Predicting wins. Predicting losses. Half time drink. No half time drink. And none of it worked - it was all stupid superstition that makes no difference to anything. Until last night - then, finally, I got the combination right. I cracked the code. Can't tell you what it is - that would break the code, like telling someone what you wish for when blowing out the candles on your child's birthday cake. Anyway. You're welcome.
Jesus Christ. I mean, everyone's already said how good he was last night and my only argument with any of that would be I think he's reached that level more than once already this season: in short, he's been outstanding and a clearer Player of the Season we can't have had since Adel in 2011. Ahem.
Anyway, last night he was our talisman, his skill on the ball and determination off it giving us belief and hope throughout. As against West Brom, he scored the goal that gave us a platform and reminded us that, actually, we're not a bad side at all. Sure, we can play crap. But, never forget, we can play really well too.
At times, it was like the ball was made of metal and he had magnets in his toes - Leeds players continually looked as if they'd nick the ball off him and suddenly he'd twist, turn, stick his arse out and get away from them. Outstanding. Last night, he started reminding me of Lee Cook in his golden year that mostly came under John Gregory. That may seem an odd comparison because their styles are quite different, but in some ways - beyond their excellent delivery and ability to keep the ball in tight situations - there are similarities. Back then, Cook was our out-ball, our hope, the one we relied on to produce something special when we needed it. I remember Cookie at West Brom one night - they were battering us, and somehow he produced two moments of beauty to conjure goals from Nygaard to help us draw 3-3. Without him, we'd have been nothing.
We're a better side than that QPR side, but Freeman's influence is similar. But it's not just that - it's that he has really kicked on as a player this season. The moaning is still there, but it's been toned down because McClaren has made him a leader on the pitch. You can see that maturity in him now. Less moaning, more working his arse off to win the ball back. Gone are the decorative step overs - he still uses them, but now he looks for the right ball more quickly and more often. His running is more purposeful. And he must spend hours practising dead balls at training.
He doesn't look like a footballer. He has that waddling style Clive mentions; his hair is all blown dry and floaty; he looks slow, but actually can't be, because he can get away from defenders when he needs to. But at the moment, he is fantastic. A gem. Enjoy him until the end of the season and let's hope he gets a good move to a club that'll appreciate him and use him properly - ie, not wasting him on the bench like poor Smithies.
Ignoring social media, which is mainly just people making themselves feel better by being horrible to people they don't know, it's heartening to see that there has been little vitriol aimed at McClaren and no real calls for him to be sacked, beyond the perfectly reasonable, 'well how many games *can* you go without winning before being fired?'
OK, so last night the fans understandably took a while to get going, and there were the usual moaners around me, complaining about Every. Single. Thing. 'Nooo!' 'Too hard!' 'Too low!' 'Don't do that!' 'Chase down absolutely everything ever, even if it means you'll be exhausted by the 55th minute!' The flip-up plastic seat tacticians that know as much about football as the Loftus Road squirrel. One behind me was desperate for us to continually press their last man, even though one of the few times we did do that, we got caught too high, they passed through us and Leeds should have scored. But in the end the place was rocking, helped by a typically noisy following from Leeds.
The reason it hasn't got poisonous (although had we lost last night and against Brentford, I've no doubt it would have done), I think, is because the majority of fans can see that while this bad run included games and periods of games (Wigan, Preston, Boro, half an hour against Birmingham) where we were pretty rank, at the same time, we haven't been that bad in a lot of other games. Irresistible for a half against Birmingham. Very good for an hour against Bristol. Matching Watford and Albion for long periods. So there's been hope and you can at least see what McClaren is trying to achieve. Even when things are going wrong, it's rare that it's appeared the players aren't trying and even when formations have changed, the players have understood their jobs.
He went tried and tested again last night and while there were some hairy moments, particularly first half (and understandably - teams don't come out brimming with confidence after seven straight league defeats) he was rewarded. Now, it's about getting as many points as possible before the end of the season and then, well, see if we can raise a competitive eleven, minus Freeman, come August.
Poor bloke's had some stick lately. Some deserved, some a bit harsh. There's no doubt he's had a bad patch - whether that was down to the -studs-in-face debacle at Villa or not is open to question. It could just as easily be a combination of pressure and mental tiredness after being number one choice at this level for the first time in his life.
Dips in form are common for all young players though - and he is still 'young' in terms of his position and the number of first team games he's had. You have to hope that the players are strong enough to bounce back from those runs of indifferent form. Last night, Lumley showed incredible character I thought. A good save from a header first half was couple with a couple of poor kicks (one particularly weird one to the left missed Bidwell by some distance. But, his clean sheet remained unblemished and as the game wore on you could see him growing calmer. Two or three great punches from dangerous corners; better distribution; determined in his decision-making, and rounded off with that match-saving double-save (triple save?) that really was as good as a goal.
Really impressive and so pleased for him to get a league clean sheet again for the first time in a long while.
While Freeman and Lumley will deservedly get the praise, the truth is there wasn't a bad performance out there. Nervous moments of course, but no bad performances. And mostly that came down to really hard work, exemplified by these two. Luongo was for the most part very good, the tone set early on with two absolute crunching (and fair) tackles that let Leeds know this wasn't going to be a walkover (well, probably not). He then worked like a dog alongside Cousins, while still finding time both to set up with winner with a wonderful run, and also almost score goal ofn the season with his volley. Cousins was his equal. Clearly relaxing a little now he's nailed a starting place down, he's playing really well, his energy, his bite in the tackle, his desire never to give up. All things we desperately need in there. Good teams are often about partnerships and one is starting to develop here.
It seems Hall has now moved ahead of Lynch on merit. Back in the side after a sensible rest at the weekend, Hall still doesn't look quite the player he was - shirt out, he looks more like a tired, injury-battling warrior than the elegant defender he was a couple of years ago - but there are plenty of signs he may just be the player we need after all. We have to hope so - at his best he's good in the air, not slow, strong, and he can pass a ball. Without doubt, a very decent championship defender. I can't really point out any single thing he did last night other than a lovely tackle to deny Bamford in the first half, but surely that's a good thing? Like refs, if you don't notice your centre back too much, does it mean he's doing a good job? Fingers crossed.
Another partnership down the right. Both had their issues last night. Furlong, uncharacteristically jittery and suffering from some not-great form as of late (not exactly surprising, I think he's played every minute of every game since he replaced Rangel, and when he started that run he hadn't played a competitive game for six months), looked terrified of making a mistake. Pav, pounding diligently up and down the touchline, winning the ball, beating the hapless Alioski four times out of five, nevertheless went to pieces every time he crossed the ball. Five times (minimum) in the first half, he had great crossing chances and spunked them all up against the wall (or out of touch by the Ellerslie somewhere).
Yet both continued to fight, continued to work themselves into some kind of form. They worked very well together and by the middle of the second half both were having storming games. But my jerk here, really, is their reaction at the end: amazing. After so many games watching our players curl up into balls after defeats, this time, Pav was on the floor, full length, arms out, exhausted, relieved elated. Furs just behind him doing something similar. Then they got to their feet and hugged it out. Brought a tear to the eye. Well done lads.
Pictures – Action Images
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