Weston’s Super Mare? – Episode 30: Johnstone’s Paint Trophy FINAL

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Ohhhh baby, this is going to be a doozy! We have the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy final, obviously, but possibly even more excitingly I get to share with you the news that Michael Mancienne has been given a spot in the England squad. These are heady days, indeed…

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However, before the fun of the final, we have a few league games to play. I hope the lads can use these games to find some form and give us a good run up to the final, but given our recent results, this seems unlikely. Nevertheless, on we trot.

Matchday 43 – League Two – Yeovil Town v Weston-super-Mare

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Yeovil Town. They spanked us earlier in the season. They don’t concede many, they score a fair amount, and they spanked us earlier in the season. They are on a patchy run of form, but, and I think this bears repeating, they spanked us earlier in the season. We were underdogs and we knew it. Could we overturn the odds?

No. In fact, they spanked us. They had the job done within the first eleven minutes of the game after goals from Sean Murray, Jason Webster and Bondz N’Gala blew us away. Yeovil were like a whirlwind and we could offer pretty much nothing in response.

After the initial Yeovil blitzkrieg, the game settled down a bit. It is crazy, given that there were at least 79 minutes left of the game, but both sides pretty much gave the game up as a contest. Both sides created chances but it was clear that everyone knew that Yeovil had won the game and there was just no heart left in us. Clearly, Yeovil were smarting having lost out to Hartlepool in the JPT semi-final and so took their revenge on us in a very rude way. It is lucky they didn’t get through to the final, otherwise we would have been spanked at Wembley, too. Hartlepool must be a good side if they beat this lot…

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Anyway, that was rubbish. We were rubbish and I just hope that we don’t have to play Yeovil again for a good long while.

Matchday 44 – League Two – Weston-super-Mare v Gateshead

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Thankfully for the lads, we had a nice home tie against struggling Gateshead next. They were one spot above the relegation zone, were in poor form and have conceded a whole hatful of goals this season. We were, frankly, expecting to win this game. We needed to build a platform ahead of the JPT final and this seemed the perfect place to start.

Things started badly (although not as badly as against Yeovil…) as Gateshead took the lead midway through the first half through Lucas Akins. Unlike in our last game, we reacted well to going behind and, instead of shipping two more goals, we scored a well-worked equaliser as Steven Howarth nodded home a Captain Barbosa cross.

After the goal, things were looking up for us. We were playing with the ball, keeping it from Gateshead and creating a number of good chances. Of course, we couldn’t actually score any of these chances because that would be asking too much, but we were looking dangerous. Even after they scored a second – a lovely goal on the counter, finished off well by Sam Wood – we continued to look dangerous and created a few more chances to get ourselves back in the game.

We didn’t, though. We lost.

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Sigh.

Matchday 45 – League Two – Crewe Alexandra v Weston-super-Mare

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Crewe. Top of the table Crewe. Unbeaten in their last five Crewe. Four wins on the spin Crewe. Just what we needed. We were going to get slapped about. Look how many goals they have scored. 68. I dream of Massey and Howarth scoring 68. And to top it all off, we were facing them in their own back yard. They must have already paid the 5p charge because they had this game in the bag.

Well, actually…We won! We knobbled them at Gresty Road, we did a number on them, we sunk their battleship! Quite how we did it is anyone’s guess, and I will briefly moan by saying “why can’t we play like this every week?”, but whatever, I am happy.

We took the lead fairly early on as Massey bundled the ball home after a bit of confusion following a corner. Our second came later in the second half when Steven Howarth was put clean through by Massey before perfectly chipping the ball over the head of the onrushing keeper. Our fans inside the ground went mental and we were having a nice little party. Crewe, on the other hand, must have been fuming. They were awful. I talk about our poor finishing but today theirs was atrocious. They could only manage a single shot on target and didn’t really threaten us at all. Top of the league? You’re having a laugh!

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Well, the high spirits are back, for this weekend at least. Luckily, David Callow the physio always knows how to wipe a smile from my face, and he did so here by telling me that Matty Whichelow’s season was over after he broke his toe in the game against Crewe.

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This was fine because football teams only need eleven players, right?

Matchday 46 – League Two – Weston-super-Mare v Burton Albion

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Ooooh, it is amazing what just one confidence-boosting win can do for your…confidence. The point I am trying to make is now I was very much looking forward to this game against Burton. We had just dethroned the league leaders, so the ninth-placed side should hold no problems for us. We were at home, everything was going to be rosy, we would surely now waltz to a play-off spot and all have a jolly old time of it.

I was so very wrong. We trudged off the Woodspring’s pitch battered and bruised having been brushed aside by the mighty Brewers who played with so much confidence and skill it felt as if we weren’t even on the pitch.

Their Brazilian striker, Gustavo, gave us a horrible reminder of the Yeovil game as he scored twice in the first 14 minutes to hit us back on our heels. I tried to sign Gustavo in the summer (he is a Championship quality striker at least) but, despite my well-known habit of…stretching…the wage budget, he still wanted more than we could offer. Burton, having taken out a second mortgage on their stadium in order to afford his wages, snapped him up instead. Our loss is Burton’s gain (although they will be making massive losses if he is on as much as I think he is) and he completed an excellent first half hat trick by slotting home a penalty to prove the point rather emphatically.

We were a little bit shellshocked and the lads all had thousand-yard stares when they got back to the changing room at half-time. I tried to gee them up a bit, and they went out to the second half in a condition approaching normality, but it wasn’t enough. Burton scored twice more before essentially downing tools and cracking out the tea and biscuits, at which point Steven Howarth sneakily put the ball in their net to at least drag one back for us. Shockingly, that wasn’t enough to spark a late comeback, and we lost 1-5.

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That was bloody embarrassing. We were taken to the cleaners by Burton and I hope everyone learns a good lesson from today. I certainly did; we need better players.

Speaking of, Olli Sara returned from his broken ankle after this game, just in time to be fit for the JPT final. He will at least give us the option of changing up our attack, which may help but probably won’t.

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Also returning was Luke McCullough who would be jumping into the centre of defence as soon as he was fit enough after the horror show the other defenders put in against Burton.

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Matchday 47 – League Two – Bradford City v Weston-super-Mare

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Next up was a trip to Bradford City. They were doing well and looked in decent shape. Really though, they could have been Dog and Duck FC Youth 2nds and still have fancied their chances against us, given how shoddy our form has been. I wasn’t confident, but I did all I could to raise the spirits of the lads. The last thing I wanted was another heavy defeat now that we were so close to the JPT final. I wanted some smiles on their faces and for them to at least be enjoying themselves.

Well, I don’t know if they enjoyed themselves but I certainly didn’t. We didn’t really create much and came away with a result to match, falling to a 3-1 defeat against a Bradford side that didn’t really have to try all that hard to put us down. Will Atkinson scored a fairly average goal to begin proceedings, but we continued to match them at this point and things weren’t looking too bad.

However, after half time things took a turn for the worse as ex-England defender and oldest man in the stadium, Sol Campbell, headed home from a corner to double Bradford’s lead. This sparked us into the briefest of revivals as we then got our only shot on target as Alex Diabate rifled home a good effort from the edge of the area to give us hope of an unlikely comeback. Unfortunately, we were missing the creativity that David Hruby offers and we were therefore unable to fashion any proper chances after that. Tom Barkhuizen then rounded off the game for the Bantams by planting a late free kick into the back of our net.

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Eight goals conceded in two games. That, my friends, is poor. I didn’t want to yell and scream at the lads though, as their confidence was already looking shaky and I couldn’t afford to lose the dressing room now. We are always being praised in the media for the strong togetherness of our squad, and I wasn’t about to ruin that now by having a tantrum. They knew what they had done, you could see it in their little eyes. Hopefully, this tactic would pay off…

Matchday 48 – League Two – Weston-super-Mare v Oldham Athletic

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So, one game before Wembley. We have been dire this month. We have almost certainly thrown away any lingering chances of a play-off spot, so all that was left to do was to play for pride. To start off this new run of surely magnificent form, we welcomed Oldham to the Woodspring. They are a decent side and are in decent if uninspiring form. It would be a tough ask, considering we have just shipped eight goals against the two sides in 9th and 12th, so I tried to calm the lads before kick-off. I told them I believe in them, which was sort of true. I also gambled and told the lads I expected a performance from them. If they went on to slump to another defeat, their confidence would be in tatters. If they won, they would hail me as a football genius.

Guess what I am? Ben Wheatland’s a football genius, that’s what. My psychological warfare worked as the lads played an absolute blinder! Gavin Massey scored the only goal of the game after 27 minutes, tapping in a George Moncur pass, and we never looked like giving up our lead. With McCullough back in the side we restricted them to two off-target shots, and with Olli Sara coming off the bench late on we were able to keep hold of the ball well and keep it as far from our goal as possible.

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Ok, so we only won 1-0, but given how bad recent results have been, coupled with the good performance of every man on the pitch, I was delighted. They boys were happy too and I took us out for a nice meal afterwards to reward them. I was going all out on the psychology, here, but there was a reason…

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We had a big, big game coming up…

Matchday 49 – Johnstone’s Paint Trophy – Hartlepool United v Weston-super-Mare

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This is it. The big one. Win this and we turn a frustrating season into a fantastic one. We could win the first cup of my managerial reign here today, going one better than our near miss in the FA Trophy last season.

It is strange to think that this is the club’s debut season in the competition. Considering that we were only expected to enjoy the first round (by the board, at least) we have absolutely smashed expectations. To win today would be a great achievement for this grand old club.

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Our opponents, Hartlepool United, were also in their first final of the competition, although they have been involved in the JPT since it was founded so it has taken them a while to get this far, in comparison. They have had an underwhelming season in League One and, whilst they do not score very many goals, they do not concede many either. It was hard to say how this game would go. So far this season we have won and lost to sides in League One, so that didn’t really tell us much either. It really was a mystery as to how this game would pan out…

The game started out as a tetchy affair, with both sides seemingly a bit overawed by our fancy surroundings. The pitch at the Woodspring, as well as resembling a waterlogged section of marshland, is deliberately made as small as the Football League will allow. This is to prevent teams from hogging the ball and to allow us to get the ball into the opposition’s goal as quickly as possible (beautiful football). Wembley’s pitch, by contrast, is a huge, flat carpet, and isn’t really suited to how we play. Luckily, we weren’t playing Barcelona (we knocked them out in the first round, right, Stevenage?!) and it looked like Hartlepool were also struggling to know what to do with all the extra room.

Over 20,000 fans (enough so that everyone in the stands could have had a spare seat for their bag) had flocked to see the game, and they were not disappointed as there were plenty of chances. They were enjoying the better of the opening encounters and Pedro Guedes pulled off at least two good saves to keep them at bay. From one of these, Guedes played the ball quickly out wide to Lee Nasir, who lifted the ball down the right flank for Captain Barbosa to latch on to. Barbosa hurtled down the wing to the edge of the box before lofting a ball towards the penalty spot where Big Gavin Massey met it with a perfectly timed header. The ball flew past the stranded Hartlepool keeper and nestled happily into the back of the net. We had taken the lead! The sounds of our fan’s celebrations echoed around the mostly-empty home of football and I think I even did a bit of a knee slide. Everyone was very excited.

Once the celebrations were over, we had to endure a brief spell of Hartlepool pressure. We held firm, though, and we restricted them to a series of long range efforts as we saw out the first half fairly comfortably.

At half-time, I told the lads to do it for the fans who had made the journey to Wembley and had supported them on their journey to the final. The boys were bright-eyed and seemed inspired but, given our dodgy record this season, I was still expecting there to be a sting in the tail of this game.

The second half was tense. We started brightly and had one or two half-chances to double our lead, but as the game wore on we started to drop deeper and deeper towards the edge of our own box. In the final moments of the game, Pedro Guedes in goal pulled off two fantastic saves to keep the Hartlepool strikers at bay, including tipping an astounding effort from long range just barely around the post.

It was looking like we had done just, just enough. We held our collective breath as Guedes took one final goal kick. The referee put his whistle to his lips and blew.

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Cue wild celebrations. We had won the bleedin’ cup! Pedro Guedes was the man of the match. He had an outstanding game for us and it felt a number of times like he was keeping Hartlepool out single-handedly (although he did use both hands). Gavin Massey will forever be remembered as the player who scored the winning goal in the JPT triumph of 2014, so mark that down in your trivia books.

They may have had more chances and possession, but that was to be expected from a side that was in the division above. We did well, for once we took the crucial chances, and – for perhaps the first time this month – our defence was proper good like.

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Obviously, the fans were ecstatic…

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…and the board were far from disappointed…

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…particularly when they read this news (although £40k seems like a derisory amount).

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So, to sum up:

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Also, note that the squad gets a £26k bonus between them, so the prize money for winning the whole competition really isn’t all that much.

Just a quick note on the attendance. Obviously, for us, a crowd of 20,000+ is massive and it was a great experience for the players. I suspect, however, that the Football League will be hoping that next year’s final attracts a little more interest than this year’s, as the final attendance figures were 49,000 less than the previous year’s.

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Ugh, wow. Breathe. That was an excellent way to round off a troubling month. March wasn’t great fun, really, but we topped it off with a first ever Johnstone’s Paint Trophy win so it can’t be all that bad. Whatever happens this season in the league, we have had a successful season. Which is lucky, as we are now 14th, eight points off the play-offs. Our four league defeats this month have pretty much put to bed talk of promotion, although it isn’t yet impossible.

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Next month we take on Paul Ince’s Exeter side, we get to play Plymouth again (assuming the game isn’t called off) and we can put a dent in Wrexham’s promotion chances (they came up with us last season, they cannot be allowed to go one better this time around). Plus we get to play Northampton who have shipped 87 goals and, despite having scored 64 times, are now in danger of being relegated. Surely we can get something from that?

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So, ladies and gents, come back next time to see the penultimate month of our first ever Football League season. Will we be able to do the unlikely and sneak into the play-offs? Perhaps more likely, will be able to finish with a bit of a flourish and finish in the top ten? Come back next time to find out. Cheers!

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