In hindsight, it had 0-0 written all over it from the start. The visiting team in the mid-table mire, where only a very impressive run will give them a genuine play-off challenge, travelling to the form team in the league with an imposing home record and a decent degree of separation from a relegation battle.
It was finely balanced from minute one, poised in a crunch of unyielding tension. The game was not only lacking flow, but produced a distinctively gritty and stop-start performance for 90 minutes. This wasn’t so much a case of exceptional defensive solidity from either side, but a masterclass in blunt attacking and uninventive forward play. A badly curated creative exhibition.
In a game of such marginal chances, credit must go to where it deserves. Tranmere came to the Abbey as the team with impetus, with the division’s top goalscorer and nothing to lose except a vague shot at a late play-off push. They were expected to attack and in the opening exchanges they did just that, moving the ball around nicely and trying to find pockets of space where they could. If it wasn’t for a little Irishman bouncing around the middle of the pitch, they would have found a lot more.
This was possibly the first time where I can make an unrequited case for Deegan’s ability and role in the side. At times, his scrappy, unrelenting energy can be a real detriment to his performances; misplacing simple passes, finding himself out of position, or giving away needless fouls just because he’s an angry little Irishman with a terrifying scowl. Sometimes that drive and aggression can take away from the simple parts of his game he must master to run that role suitably – the balancing act between encouraging his natural terrier-like instincts but also easing a sense of responsibility out of him. Like giving a rottweiler a double dose of Xanex, or something.
But here we saw Gary Deegan at his absolute best. Harrying attackers, nibbling at their feet, poking the ball away, screening the centre-halves, always in the perfect position, and then the end product to match. At times he was not just the best defender on the pitch but also the best attacker, spinning away from challenges with a roulette of impeccable precision or flicking the ball around opponents with the outside of his boot. He played the balancing act between holding midfielder and deep-lying playmaker role with perfection, overshadowing Maris’ more workman-like performance next to him.
Overarching all of this was his calm and assurance, both on and off the ball. He seemed at ease with the world and concentrating only on the job at hand. Sweeping up here, tidying up there, moving the ball on thoughtfully and accurately to possible avenues of attack – not preoccupied with just trying to take kneecaps off the opposition.
His role in front of the back four can be an understated game changer. Without his magnificent performance on Saturday, preserving a clean sheet would have been a much tougher ask. It’s arguably the sort of conditioning to his performance that Calderwood can add to his game, taking his best qualities and fine-tuning them. You can imagine what it might have been like before, him and Joe Dunne in the changing room pre-game together, necking Guinness and punching each other in the face in front of a shrine to Conor McGregor. Without taking too much out of his natural game, a calmer Deegan could make for a far superior Deegan.
Aside from a semi-revolutionised centre-midfielder, the game span on a few crucial moments. When James Norwood was played through mid way through the first half, baring down on goal, fists clenched in eager anticipation, ready to swing his left boot at the ball and send it on a goal bound trajectory, it looked like the deadlock was broken. He had done this hundreds of times before, a virtuous second nature for the division’s top goalscorer. But the man-mammoth human statue George Taft decided at this precise second to channel the spirit of Franz Beckenbauer and become the best defender in the world – ever – putting in a tackle of such immaculate perfection that it’s hard to not get overly excited about it.
If Taft had attempted that tackle in September, he would have thrown himself in at hip-height, horizontal, with his eyes closed, and made brutal contact about 10 minutes after Norwood had hit the back of the net. Yesterday, his swipe was timed to the millisecond. It was absolute perfection, the definition of total defending. The crowd responded with a celebration as important as a goal, and at that stage it was.
Barring a Jabo Ibehre one-on-one that he effortlessly managed to put in the one place the keeper could easily save it, and a very decent save from top shithouser Davies from a corner, this was a stalemate all over. For the U’s, a point gained not two dropped. Recently, as a team, we’ve looked a different proposition. Deegan’s performance on Saturday was symptomatic of the change in defensive capabilities under Calderwood, and these are the exact sorts of results we simply wouldn’t have been able to grind out under Dunne.