Men against boys
By Graham Walker
Well, it is relatively "local" (i.e. north of Nottingham), so I ventured out in the January chill to watch a collection of loanees and youngsters wear the yellow shirt in a game nobody wanted to see and even RL de-prioritised, against a side in one of the automatic promotion positions. Lambs to the slaughter!
I imagined the scene: Doyley and Demerit up against Roberts and Ellington, the deadliest striking partnership in the division outside of Bent and Kuqi. One says to the other, "Okay, who's going to be the seasoned professional guiding the other one through the game? Me, 'cause I'm older, or you, 'cause you've played more games?" Ellington and Roberts? Oh, please! This, I don't want to see!
Midfield engine-room: Blizzard and who? Jackson? You serious? Senior midfield professional is...Ashley Young? Against Wigan? I have to pay money to witness this?
Well, Ray's calculated risk paid off and whatever the result on Tuesday, he will have a rested first team take the field against Liverpool. This riff-raff produced a startling performance of skill, vigour and determination that caught Wigan completely by surprise and, indeed, surprised all of us too.
Some of what took place in the first half was stunning. With Demerit and Doyley performing like they had played together at this level for years and with Chambers showing cool timing and positioning, the much-vaunted Wigan front-line were rendered ineffectual. The midfield took control with Chris Eagles showing the kind of skill and aggression that Devlin must have displayed before he got old, irritable and jaded. Some guy wearing Jackson's shirt was playing out of his skin, winning the ball, laying off terrific balls to colleagues, annoying the opposition intensely. Who the hell was this guy?
With the two Ds keeping it tight at the back, the two Ds at the front (Dyer 'n' Danny) looked everything the Wigan front-line were supposed to be: dynamic, dangerous and deadly. Danny took his goal like he had never been away and that Reading thing had never happened.
So, okay, half-time and the joke is surely over. This could not possibly last for ninety minutes, Wigan are going to get angry and whoever is wearing Jackson's shirt is surely to be found out at half-time and sent back to the Premiership (not premier, not a ship) where he belongs and the real Johnnie Jackson be sent out for the second half.
Actually, despite it being pretty much one-way traffic as the indignant home team, having got a half-time rollicking, set about us after the interval, we dug in, played with guts and courage, and kept them at bay. Loannee Jones had no difficult saves to make. Indeed, had the referee spotted either of two offences a few minutes after the interval which should have led to a penalty and a possible 3-1 lead, we could have run out deserved winners. But the ref failed to spot a handball and a trip on Dyer, the one following on instantaneously from the other, and the linesman failed to do a mothering thing about it. Both blatant, both incontrovertible, both missed.
So we won a point! Who would have thought it? Only Mayo, continually skinned by Teale, did not enjoy this. Otherwise, a terrific team performance and all good news: Demerit and Doyley, remarkable. Mature, commanding, impressive! Dyer, a tremendous performance full of strength, mobility and aggression. Danny Webber is back, is fit, is scoring goals. Welcome back Danny, see you on Tuesday? Ashley Young played like a veteran. Mr. Eagles is quick, skilful, combative and very, very good. I am looking forward to seeing him terrorise defences for the rest of this season.
Finally, the bloke in Johnnie Jackson's shirt turns out to be...Johnnie Jackson! Those of you who weren't there will find it difficult to believe that despite eye-catching performances from all the Ds, Jackson was by a mile the very, very impressive "Man of the Match". Go figure! Apparently, if you put him in central midfield rather than shove him out on the flank, he is transformed from an ineffectual waste of space into an aggressive, skilful and impressive all-purpose midfield dynamo. It was a storming, superb performance. Most of you will never believe it. Hopefully he can reproduce this in front of twelve thousand, not just the two hundred or so hardy fools who witnessed it.
The "first-team" who will resume on Tuesday will not just be playing to get to the Carling Cup Final, they will also be playing for their places. This was one of those games that made you feel proud. A point was the least they deserved.