I’ve been writing regularly in this column that you can’t make progress as a team if you keep conceding too many goals, so to have two clean sheets, against Bournemouth in the Premier League and then Gillingham in the FA Cup, was really welcome.
Against Bournemouth we played 4-4-2 and that was arguably one of our best performances of this season. Not only did we score four goals, but we limited them to one chance.
That was followed by the Cup tie, where the manager switched to a back five — and that worked equally well.
I had a metatarsal injury so didn’t play, but I was at Priestfield and I can assure you it was a proper test. They bombarded our penalty area and it was a case of our three big central defenders, Angelo Ogbonna, Fabian Balbuena and Issa Diop, dealing with everything Gillingham could throw at us.
The manager asked me to be in the dugout with him and I recall sitting there and thinking, “If this was my team, I would be really proud”.
I was only too willing to give the manager any help I could. He was probably thinking that, after just one game in charge, I knew some of our players better than him, in terms of substitutes Albian Ajeti, Carlos Sanchez and Nathan Holland. Nathan has since gone out on loan to Oxford which, I am sure, will help his career.
Being in the dugout was a fantastic experience for me, invaluable really, and honest of a vastly experienced manager to say, “I could do with your input tonight”. The tactics worked a treat, we managed a clean sheet and scored two goals. It was never going to be pretty, but with those games you just have to win.
The fact we defended so resolutely in the first half meant that we could — and did — dominate after half-time. I’ve played in loads of similar games,
but never had one where you could
just turn up, play pretty football and cruise to victory. It’s just not like that in real life, not on a pitch like Gillingham’s anyway.
Yes, we’re going to lose games, but as a start for the manager, to come in and get two wins, especially away in a difficult Cup tie, the sort of game where we’ve been rolled over in the past, it couldn’t have gone any better.
The team we put out at Gillingham was the strongest available and, for me, it has been a hugely encouraging week. I’m hoping to be available for tonight’s game at Sheffield United and that will be a test of a different sort.
I thought we deserved to win our home game against them, but it ended in a draw. We’ll be ready tonight and it will be a good challenge for us.
They are flying high, have a certain way of playing which is serving them well and I think their manager, Chris Wilder, is terrific. He’s honest and his mantra is similar to our gaffer’s: you win your battles and everything else will follow.
There has been a bit of a renaissance of British managers this season. Clubs, responding to pressure from outside, have tried to play in the Manchester City way and amazing as Pep Guardiola has been for our game, it only works if you have the best players in the world.
Teams who have tried to play that way, with players who are not quite as good, can go horribly wrong and an example is Watford. I have known their manager Nigel Pearson since I was playing for England Under-17s and he was the coach. As soon as he got the job at Watford, I knew what he was going to do. They have some fantastic players, but needed a structure and he has given them that.
When David Moyes was manager at Everton, they finished consistently in the top seven and when you went there, you knew you were in for a game. They had talented players, but would be trying to win battles all over the pitch as well.
I am sure Slaven Bilic will get a great reception when he brings his West Brom team to the London Stadium for the next round of the FA Cup. They are doing well and it will be good to see Slav again.
I had a great relationship with him and we still speak on the phone. Football apart, he is a great person and my kids still love him, the way he treated them. He’s just an all-round good guy.
The Cup tie comes in a hectic period of four home games in two weeks, plus an away Premier League game at Leicester. What I see as a plus is that a lot of our remaining fixtures are at home against teams around us in the table and who we’ve already played away.
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