Trust. A word you hear frequently mentioned with new players coming into a team. Many will know how difficult it is for a young player breaking through into the first team from at a big club. It can be doubly difficult doing it at a club that is competing for the title where no-one is going to give up their shirt easily and there is no room for mistake or error. Some would say it can be an unnecessary pressure that a manager does not need to put on himself, and plenty as we know simply don’t.
All this was in was in my head as I chose midfielder Stephen Fallon for his first home Boxing Day ‘Big Two’ match. Keeping his place ahead of the likes of Andy Mitchell and Daniel Kearns in the fury of a Glens-Blues game clearly indicated he had something about him. He had a very quiet start to the game. Whilst the early stages of the game were pockmarked by stoppages it is fair to say the game passed him by and it looked as if nerves were getting the better of him.
Indeed, one could over read into this as sometimes it looked as if his colleagues sensed this nervousness and were giving him the time and space to let himself and his confidence get up to speed. That says something about their respect for him and the talent they know he has. His first touch was five minutes in with a nothing lofted ball forward and then he lost out in a tackle with Dylan Davidson when a bit more meat was required and then was slow to close down the same player on a throw-in.
His first offensive play of note was a cross from just outside the penalty area that he bent around the edge of the Glens’ defence but was too close to goalkeeper Morris. Progress however soon began to show as he slowly hauled himself into the game. Still, it was a slow burn as he gave away a bad free-kick after getting out-muscled by Davidson and he will surely learn to put himself about a bit more in the midfield hurly-burly. All that aside, it was clear he was putting a huge effort into concentrating on his positioning as both he and Mulgrew were the defensive midfield extensions with Millar, Waterworth, Stewart and Cooper being the offensive thrust.
However, blue sky started to shine through these tentative moments. He had a good five-minute spell breaking up a Glentoran attack through harassment, and then one of the best passes of the match involved a lovely angled 45-degree slider into space for Niall Quinn to send a good cross into the box. This was the first I’d seen of his passing and I was keen to see if there was more. His game continued with another stymie to protect his right-back and then again lost out physically to Gordon in a midfield aerial duel. His anxiety not to make any errors was perhaps inhibiting him a bit.
The next great pass I witnessed was a perfect angled ball along the ground to Jordan Stewart on the right moving at pace towards the Glens’ penalty box. It was the sort of pass that not everyone can do but this pass more than the other showed his confidence in his ability to find people. It was not to let him down in this game. As we moved into the second half, he again did not stretch himself, giving simple passes to playmaker Mulgrew or his defence. He had no problem giving away a free-kick to stop a Glens’ break subtly when a more overt foul could have earned a card.
As Linfield established goal and field superiority the game opened up a bit but he maintained his own tempo rather than the game’s though this is easier to do when you are ahead. He always managed to wriggle out of trouble and his next great pass was out wide to Cooper. This became an interesting feature of his game insofar as any pass forward he made firstly found his man, and secondly took out an opposing player. This doesn’t always happen in the Irish League. More often than not at this stage of the game, he was happy to move the ball along, not lose it and prevent Glentoran moves starting. All simple stuff which helped his team maintain their grip on the game.
If there had been doubts about his confidence earlier in the game a drag back in the middle of the pitch followed by sucking in two opposition players before safe deposition of the ball showed maturity, self-belief and technical ability. He could have been a natural substitution but I think his manager recognised the benefit he was getting from staying out on the pitch. In a league where the ball spends a lot of time in the air due to a lack of confidence to take the ball down, he calmly took a goal-kick from Elliott Morris on his instep and moved the ball on to a teammate. By the end of the game, he was the central midfield lynchpin moving play around and for me, it had been an interesting journey watching this young man find his feet in a Belfast derby. I imagine his manager should be very pleased with him following this game.