07 January 2017

2016/17: Shawbury United (Midland Football League Premier Division)

Happy New Year. Today's match is the first Coventry Sphinx fixture of 2017 and we're certainly better off than we were this time last year. The festive period turned out to be something of a mixed bag in terms of both results and performances, but there was no great loss of momentum thanks to one stellar showing that broke up the two games that didn't go our way.

The Boxing Day loss to Coventry United at Sphinx Drive was a scrappy affair, punctuated far too frequently by chippy encounters between the players and the incessant whistling of the referee. The visitors were reduced to ten men thanks to the speed and craft of Ryan Harkin in the second half, but scored immediately; the Sphinx never had a chance to make the extra man pay before being put back in the position of chasing the game.

It was a disappointing result, not least because of the red card and the fact that we were in the ascendancy after the equaliser. For me, it all boiled down to two huge deflections, near enough identical in all but the crucial detail. The Sphinx's squeaked wide. United's curved in. We lost the first meeting between these two sides by the finest of margins, and in circumstances that would test the character of any player.

New Year's Eve was a different kettle of fish. The Sphinx started the first half looking livelier and sharper than Shepshed Dynamo but the visitors ended it stronger and took that superiority into the second period. They got their reward, too. The goal was sloppy from our perspective but it triggered a reaction that earned us the points.

The team fought back really well and deserved the win they worked so hard to take. Brad Jones was back in at right back and equalised with a thudding header from Harkin's cross to cap a move that shows exactly what the Sphinx are capable of when they click in the final third. Harkin scored the winner himself, superbly pulling down a cross from Tom King and burying the finish.

The win over Shepshed saw a patchwork Sphinx side demonstrate some of the depth we have available to us with a fair wind. Jones covered Scott Lower's absence and we also had Rhys Deehan back in at left back, and he put in a great shift for us. Luke Downes was excellent in the middle and Scott Dutton made some vital saves at important junctures in the match.

It was a terrific second half comeback by a team with some familiar faces missing. Lower was joined in absentia by Jamie Towers and suspended midfield duo Reece Blackmore and Callum Woodward, and the four of them will hopefully reap the benefits of a rest.

The less said about Tuesday's visit to Loughborough University the better. Blackmore and Woodward were back in action but it was a makeshift Sphinx side in some regards. Nevertheless, I'm sure the players will be disappointed.

We were robbed of a second goal on the stroke of half time. Although the would-be equaliser came against the flow of the game at that point, you'd argue the Sphinx deserved to go in level on the balance of the 45 minutes.

I was standing directly behind the well-positioned linesman when he flagged for offside and it was a really poor decision. Aron Wint was in an offside position but uninvolved. Harkin was a good three or four yards onside before slotting the ball home for what should have been 2-2. Sometimes the officials would do well to take a breath; if the assistant referee on Tuesday had waited for just a split-second it might have spared him an earful.

We might have deserved parity at the break but we also deserved what we got from the second half, namely a bit of a kicking. Two losses and a win feels like a pretty Sphinxy run of results this season but you won't hear me knocking it after a traumatic 2015/16.

Today we welcome Shawbury United, a team who defeated us twice in eight days on the road in September and October. There weren't too many of us who headed to Wem for those matches and the nature of the losses still feels like something of a turning point for the Sphinx's season.

Had we gone in ahead at half time on our second trip to Shropshire it would have been no more than a reflection of the chances we had. Unfortunately they were squandered, goals were conceded, and the two games share too many painful parallels to list here.

Although there have been negative results, one or two stinking performances and some inconsistencies, the Sphinx have made amends for those two wet autumn afternoons. Today the team have a chance to put them right in a more direct fashion. Up the Sphinx.