29 October 2016

2016/17: Boldmere St Michael's (Midland Football League Premier Division)

They say character breeds success, and character is hewn from adversity. Well, maybe they do. It sounds like something they'd say. Either way, back-to-back Saturday fixtures in Wem can leave one a little ragged around the edges. Losing those fixtures certainly doesn't help.

But supporting a football team is about taking the rough with the smooth. In October we've had both, and the lessons learned in the Midland Football League's outpost in the borders are inseparable from the improvements we've enjoyed since.

Difficult though they were to stomach, consecutive away defeats at Shawbury United might prove the wake-up call that makes Coventry Sphinx's season. Both of those long-distance losses were hard work for players and fans alike, but already they feel like a long time ago. Every step since then has been a stride in a positive direction.

There's no doubt it was important that the team responded well in the games that followed Shawbury and they've given Duts plenty to smile about in the last three matches. There's work to do to get points on the board, but after the win at Walsall Wood I fancy the Sphinx to grab a few more in the coming weeks.

Our little run of form has been about much more than basic character, but it certainly began there. Alvechurch's visit to Sphinx Drive saw the team at an early disadvantage as well as a man light, and their reaction to Luke Downes' dismissal was a credit to them all.

Two days later it was AFC Wulfrunians who benefited from an early sending off for the Sphinx. Reece Blackmore's straight red in the Birmingham Senior Cup posed a question that the team answered emphatically, digging in to win deservedly and advance to the next round. They rarely looked the team with ten men.

At some point, though, guts must become part of a side's natural performance and be overshadowed by ability. The victory against Walsall Wood two weeks ago came about because of exactly that.

Yes, all fourteen players gave everything and shirked nothing. But this win wasn't about simple determination. We were the better side throughout, took our chances when they mattered and perfectly executed the gaffer's approach.

Goals made the difference, of course, but the boys at the back were excellent. Jamie McAteer and Daz Eggleton were dominant at centre half, ably assisted by another majestic display from Liam Cairns in midfield. Scott Dutton's penalty save was phenomenal. He's probably told you about it, and who can blame him?

But it's not really fair to highlight just a few. Everyone, subs included, earned those points. It was a pleasure to watch a team go about its plan with real quality, and with every player pulling his weight. Nobody cruised, nobody had to be carried. And it showed.

You need graft and craft to win matches in this league and if Duts and the team can combine them so effectively on a regular basis, Walsall Wood will be just the beginning. And a good thing, too, because winning away is the best way to spend a Saturday afternoon.

The mood in the bar after those matches is terrific; the afterglow of a job well done and a reward secured is palpable. It does wonders for team spirit and, from our point of view as supporters, it's great to have that post-match opportunity to applaud the players.

It hasn't gone unnoticed that the Sphinx's upturn in fortunes has coincided not only with some changes in playing personnel, but also with Scott Lower's return from injury and accession to the vacant captaincy.

Scott's reliability and composure at right back has been a consistent factor in our better performances of late, and we certainly missed him while he was out. He's had that troublesome corner of the field on lockdown, allowing the centre backs to focus on their own work. He's a cracking game manager too, and contributes to the team's attack.

After an unwanted week off, the Sphinx are now looking forward to a steady turnaround of matches in the run-up to Christmas, and the next few weeks is one of the busier periods. Today's home game against Boldmere St Michaels will be followed by a trip to Stourport Swifts (in the rain; mark my words) and a pair of home games against St Andrews and Loughborough University.

It's clear there are no easy games in this division so the best way to pile up the points is to know how to win, and to pack in plenty of games while you're on form. Let's begin!