15 April 2017

2016/17: Walsall Wood (Midland Football League Premier Division)

It's with a great deal of pride that I can use my final programme column of the 2016/17 season to cast an eye over a continuation of Coventry Sphinx's fine run of spring form. The end of March and beginning of April have shown just how far the team has come since the turn of the year. Pleasingly, the results have reflected it too.

The most recent dropped points came here at Sphinx Drive against Lye Town, a side who'd ably demonstrated how clinical they can be when they faced a ten-man Sphinx team earlier in the season. The return fixture was a different matter. We had to settle for a creditable 1-1 draw, with our goal arriving in the form of a beauty from in-form Liam Cairns.

Conceding immediately from a corner, just as we had at Heanor Town, was a disappointing way to be pegged back, but that result isn't to be sniffed at. Recent matches against Alvechurch and Lye showed that there's nobody in this division we should fear. The two wins that followed suggest the team know it.

The last home game wasn't so much a win as a demolition. Long Eaton United were beaten 4-1 and, for the first 45 minutes and the last 25, couldn't get near us. Striker Ryan Harkin took the congratulations for a terrific hat-trick and a smart assist for Jamie Towers.

He superbly lobbed the goalkeeper for his first and showed off his poacher's instinct for his third, but the middle goal was the one that stood out. Harkin's clever touch finished it off after a sensational run and brilliant delivery by Nathan McGarrity. For my money, McGarrity's performances over the last month have been as good as anyone's.

But the highlight of the last couple of weeks, both for Harkin and for the rest of us who were able to make the trip, was Saturday's 4-3 win over Coleshill Town at Pack Meadow. Our hosts began the day very much in the title race and ended it ruing a missed opportunity to capitalise on Alvechurch's draw.

The win summed up the team the Sphinx have become. In the first half the boys played Coleshill off the park and could have scored four or five, but had to make do with a couple of deft finishes from the man who can't stop scoring.

Pierce Kiembi and McGarrity played big roles in the creation of the first. The second captured the essence of the first half in one pass. Callum Woodward took a quick free kick to release Harks, who had all the time in the world to finish. Coleshill were asleep and there was no excuse; Woodward and Harkin had done the very same thing just moments before, and should have punished the home side on that occasion too.

Kiembi had to withdraw at half time and the second half was a different challenge. A couple of changes of shape were forced as a result of the substitution, and Coleshill's first goal made sure the Sphinx had to dig deep to hold on to the three points.

They did just that. Coleshill scored, Harkin scored a third straight away. Coleshill scored a second, he scored a fourth. It was a difficult half and 4-3 was a closer outcome than was comfortable, but we saw both sides of the Sphinx's game on Saturday, and the attitude is every bit as satisfying as the kind of quality that got us in front in the first place.

This is a team that can, for long periods, out-play even the best opposition in the Midland Premier. We've got pace all over the park, graft and craft in midfield, and a goalkeeper and defenders who've given the players in front of them to platform to start regularly winning games.

We've got a striker who's now scored 22 goals this season, including seven in his last two matches. The balance of youth and experience is spot on at the moment, and the characters out there on the pitch are giving us plenty to shout about while other teams are already in their sandals. Not, however, the teams we've been beating.

This Sphinx team has equal quantities of quality and resilience. When they're allowed to play, they play. When they need to fight, they'll go into battle with anyone. That's not a few of them. It's all of them. The way they've pulled together since Boxing Day has been fantastic.

When your team gives you that every single time they take to the field, it's easy to support them. It's easy to follow them up and down the motorway. And it's easy to wonder what the hell you're going to do all summer without them.