Just when you think you’re done with this football club, a night like Tuesday night happens just at the right time to rekindle your faith in the club. A ramshackle and patched-up side containing a mix of too-young youngsters, too-old veterans and one or two hand-me-downs put their bodies on the line for this football club and now we have a day at Wembley to distract us from this car-crash of a season.
It’s official, we’ve won more games and scored more goals in cup competitions than we have in the league, the exact reason for such a situation feels almost inscrutable. You could point to there being less pressure, or the fact that only two of ten teams we’ve played in the cups have not been from a lower level, or youth teams. However, there’s also been a greater level of identity, work-rate and commitment from the team, that seems to have come from resting senior players to play academy players on the fringes of the first-team.
In that regard, this run in the Checkatrade Trophy hasn’t been as pointless as you would assume from the competition’s diminshed status. Not only have the likes of Ryan Haynes, Dion Kelly-Evans and George Thomas been given valuable minutes on the pitch against, albeit lower-league, first-teams, but they’ve had the experience of winning increasingly high pressure games that helps form groups together.
It’s why it makes more sense to stick with Tuesday night’s thrown-together line-up for this big game against Oldham than it does to revert to a team closer to the one used against Millwall. It’s a case of sticking with a winning team, but it’s also sticking with a team with a sense of identity versus one that is, at best, still learning how to function. Although, given the paucity of options in midfield and attack, the main decisions for Slade to make our sticking or twisting in defence.
Personally, I think Reice Charles-Cook and Dion Kelly-Evans deserve to start this game having demonstrated to me that they’re our best options in their respective positions. I wouldn’t be entirely convinced by a centre-back pairing of Harries and Turnbull, despite Tuesday night’s performances, so would be able to sympathise with Slade for sticking with the respective physicality and experience of Rawson and Clarke. My overall instinct though is that the team will be closer to last Saturday’s against Millwall than Tuesday night’s against Wycombe.
Last Time We Met
Our last meeting against Oldham was one of the duller 0-0 draws in recent Ricoh Arena history, and that’s up against some competition. An otherwise forgettable game in the final days of Tony Mowbray’s reign that was only enlivened by our former manager’s decision to play a 4-1-5 formation for the start of the second-half, that would have cost us the game if Oldham had been able to take advantage of the momentum Mowbray handed to them.
How Are They Doing?
Oldham not only looked dead and buried for much of the first-half of the season, they actively seemed to be embracing the drop into League Two. Stephen Robinson had effectively been given a hospital pass in his first managerial role this summer and had to scramble a squad together from cast-offs, and the Latics unsurprisingly failed to start the season with any momentum and were quickly moored to the bottom of the division.
Robinson was eventually sacked last month, at the very instant that John Sheridan had been sacked for sweary antics at struggling Notts County in the division below. It had been a shock when Sheridan left Boundary Park in the summer for perennial crisis club Notts County, but he seems not to have lost any of the goodwill he’d built up during two previous stints as manager and Oldham seem to have discovered a sense of identity and momentum over the past few weeks.
John Sheridan also brought two key players from last season’s survival push, Aaron Holloway and Anthony Gerrard, which seems to have given a rudderless side a presence in both boxes. Gerrard is an archetypal dominant, leader centre-back that you need when battling at the wrong end of the division, he forms a grizzled defensive pairing with the equally experienced and dominant Peter Clarke. Holloway is at the other end of his career and had struggled to assert himself anywhere before an impressive loan spell at Oldham last season. A move to Fleetwood didn’t work out, but Holloway has shown signs of being the hard-working and mobile target-man that he was this time last year.
Connor Ripley in goal has emerged as a real star player at this level this season, the Middlesbrough loanee has earned a reputation as one of the best shot-stoppers in the league whose heroics have kept the club within striking distance of safety for much of the campaign. While former Liverpool youngster Ryan McLaughlin has been converted from a right-back into a forward player in recent weeks under Sheridan, with his pace and energy making him a real threat to opposing defences.
Two other Sheridan signings in January could prove decisive in the relegation scrap. Winger Chris Taylor has returned the club where he made his name on loan from Bolton and his experience and work-rate out wide could be a real asset. Burnley youngster Aiden O’Neill could also prove to be an inspired addition, the young Australian midfielder carries the ball really well from midfield and has a great eye for a pass, having assisted Peter Clarke on his debut for a final minute winner last weekend.
After the high of Tuesday night, we face what is an even bigger game in this away trip to Oldham. While the prize on offer is nowhere near as big as a trip to Wembley, the pressure in this game is that failing to win makes a difficult situation to survive nigh-on impossible. This isn’t a game we can use as the first step on a journey towards survival, this is a game where everything has to go our way and any error could be season-ending.
I’m not sure how the thoughts of a trip to Wembley will affect the players, but surely they must understand just how dire our situation is right now, we probably need to win more than half our remaining games. My pessimistic side is calling to me and I can see this being an annoying 0-0 draw.