Thursday, January 13, 2022

Match preview - Hereford FC vs Gateshead FC

It looks like Hereford FC will finally be returning to action at Edgar Street on Saturday as they host high-flying Gateshead in an attractive-looking National League North encounter between two teams who try to play football on the grass and not in the sky, to borrow from a certain footballing ledge born just down the road from Gateshead.

It’s been quite a gap since the last home game, an entertaining 2-2 draw with Curzon Ashton, with the Christmas programme wiped out courtesy of Covid in the Bulls camp, but this one should proceed, with just a few players still suffering symptoms (Maz Kouhyar, Toby Raison and Pa Sulay Njie by all accounts).

Following a glorious late autumn, with five straight wins putting an end to any immediate concerns about a relegation battle this season, and in fact propelling the club to the edge of the play-offs, winter has, so far, been underwhelming in terms of good news stories.

Levi Andoh, at times unplayable in the first half against Curzon, has now departed. Krystian Pearce, frequently by far the best player on the pitch several times this season, is suspended for three games following his red card at Brackley last week, and Dan Smith, just starting to get into his stride in a wider role, has, like Andoh, returned to his parent club. Harry Pinchard is still a couple of weeks away from a return to action, and Luke Haines is out for six weeks. Oh, finally, the postponement of the two Christmas home games has set the club back financially, which could partially explain the recent exodus of the loanees. To cap all that, the Bulls’ return to league action last Saturday ended in defeat at Brackley.

It’s been a gloomy month.

One silver lining to that loss last weekend is that the Bulls were going toe-to-toe with the league leaders for an hour, and (familiar story) could have been in control of the match by then but for the lack of a centre forward with a six-yard-box poaching instinct.

Another positive is the arrival of right back Dinesh Gillela at the club, as cover for injured captain Jared Hodgkiss, but on the evidence shown so far he’s seemingly capable of being a good deal more than just cover. OK, a new full-back isn’t traditionally the most exciting news, but he’s another who demonstrates the good judgement and useful contacts of Josh Gowling. Zeli Ismael’s return to fitness would be a blessing, if it can be arranged by either the fitness gods or the physio.

The boss has hinted at bringing a few new faces in ahead of Saturday, with an experienced and preferably massive central defender looking to be a priority. It does mean that squad continuity has been disrupted and players will once more be learning about their new teammates’ strengths and weaknesses during a game, but that seems unavoidable. It is, at least, always nice for fans to run the rule over debutants, expertly dismissing them as Druceless after five minutes, or thinking they’re the new Paul Parry, usually to be proved wrong on all counts.

So, what about Gateshead, I hear you ask. Well, for those of a nervous disposition, it may be best to look away now. The Heed have won eight of their last ten games. Last time out they eased past Bradford PA 4-2 in West Yorkshire, but they have lost the other two of their last three, losing to Blyth (surprising) and Chorley (not so surprising).

Macauley Langstaff (11), Cedwyn Scott (11) and Paul Blackett (8) have all scored freely so far this season, and their goals mean that three of the top 11 scorers in the NLN so far this season are Gateshead players, which focuses the mind a bit. Hereford have none in the top 20, unless you count Ollie Hulbert, which would really be clutching at straws and back up that trope about lies, damned lies and statistics, given that almost all his goals have been scored for Gloucester.

Josh Gowling watched that game against Bradford, and came away feeling that Saturday’s visitors are the best team he’s seen this season.

With Brackley, Gateshead, Chorley and Kidderminster looking intimidatingly good, the NLN is shaping up to be a very tough division this season. With Southport having the advantage of playing home games on something that isn’t a football pitch, and therefore using local knowledge and expertise to ensure that no opponent can win there, the play-off picture is looking very competitive. That said, the Bulls are still clinging on, six points behind Boston in seventh place with two games in hand on the Pilgrims.

If the current stormy waters can be safely navigated, there’s still the chance of pushing on into the play-offs in the coming months, and a win here against genuinely tricky opponents would give everyone a much-needed lift ahead of an intensive block of games in the coming weeks, starting with Kidderminster on Tuesday.