09:20PM, Thursday 30 September 2021
Jon Underwood and Neil Baker were left 'questioning everything' after the Rebels crashed out of the FA Cup against Whitehawk earlier this month, but there could be no questioning the player's robust response to that criticism in Saturday's 1-1 draw with Hungerford Town.
The Rebels management team said that they'd felt 'let down' by the players after their shock exit from the FA Cup, a competition in which they've excelled in recent seasons.
But the attitude, spirit, resilience and competitiveness that has come to embody the club in recent seasons was back on show at Bulpit Lane, where only an injury time goal from George Smith prevented them from taking all three points.
Summer signing, Tom Derry, had fired the Rebels ahead, slightly against the run of play, in the 68th minute.
A slight change of shape and system yielded benefits too with Slough looking more resilient in defence but also effective in attack, the management team finally finding the balance that's so far eluded them this season.
The result does little for their standing in National League South, they remain 18th with only five points from their six matches so far, however, the performance will have done a great deal for the players' confidence and repaired much of the damage from the previous weekend's result against Whitehawk. Had they held out for a couple more minutes and won the game they'd have been three points off the play-off places with a game in hand, but for the time being, Baker isn't concerned about anything other than performances.
“We just have to be competitive,” he said. “Are we going to be up at the top this season? Probably not. Does it mean that we can't challenge? Of course, it doesn't.
“If we'd won the game on Saturday, we'd have been three points off the play-offs with a game in hand, so it's tight. I'm not going to worry about that for the moment. It's just about being competitive.
“Saturday was a lot better, but I don't think we could have played any worse than we did against Whitehawk. I don't know what it was in that game, you can't put your finger on it. You occasionally get a performance like that in football, and we seemed to have one of those performances where we couldn't get ourselves going.
“It was very different on Saturday. We had to be robust and hard to beat and work hard and that's exactly what everyone did. We only took 13 senior players there, so we were up against it, but we worked hard, and we’ve got some great young players coming through.”
The management team opted for a more experienced and defensively minded line up at Hungerford, with Scott Davies deployed just in front of the back four, offering them more protection. Baker also felt the blood and thunder nature of the clash, on a difficult 'bobbly' surface, wouldn't suit some of the younger players who've been brought through from the Academy this season, but the performance of the Rebels suggests they got those calls on selection and system just right.
“It's difficult, everyone wants experience, but we can't compete against some of these clubs and the budgets they've got,” said Baker. “So, we're giving some of the younger players an opportunity and we will continue to do that.
“Will they play every week? Probably not, but we'll pick them for certain games that they're more suited to than this one. I saw one or two comments saying we should have started some of the younger lads, but we just thought, away at Hungerford on a bobbly pitch, it's probably not the most suitable game for them.
“We were really pleased with the work rate from everyone, and we played in a slightly different formation which seemed to work, and we'll look to continue playing it because it does make us more solid, but we still had an attacking threat. We've also got the players to play this formation.
“It's not going to be perfect for every game, that's for sure, but Hungerford found us hard to break down on Saturday.
“They put lots of balls in the box, but we defended well which is important because we haven't defended well at times this season. Freddie (Grant), Nis (Mark Nisbet), Togs (Lee Togwell) and Josh (Jackman) were outstanding and Michael (Edegbe - who replaced Jonathan North in goal) and Scott, who was sitting in front of the back four, both played very well.
“We could have won it, for sure, and conceding in the last minute was disappointing, however, I can't say that they didn't deserve it. We had some good chances but so did they.
“We scored slightly against the run of play but had other chances and a penalty turned down which I felt we should have got.”
The Rebels now have a couple of weeks, and two friendly matches, to prepare for the visit of Ebbsfleet United on Saturday, October 9.
Baker believes Fleet, currently sixth in the table, operate 'in a different league' to the Rebels with regards to their financial clout.
“We next play an Ebbsfleet team who pay three of their players more than the whole of our squad,” he said. “They're in a different league to us with a huge budget and fantastic players. But it's one of those games you look forward to. Are we going to win the game, let's hope so, but I don't think there's any pressure on us to do that? Let’s try to compete and get something from the game.
“We’ve got a couple of friendlies lined up this week, just to work on a few things and look at a few players, a couple more coming through from the u23s.
“We’re looking at a couple of triallists as well, but there’s nothing concrete.
“It’s clear that we need a centre half but they’re few and far between when you’re looking for the right one.”
Of their long-term injuries, Ryan Bird is expected to miss the remainder of the campaign, however, Warren Harris returned to light training this week and Baker says there's an 'outside chance' he'll return to competitive action in the coming weeks.
He added: “There’s an outside chance that if he doesn’t have a reaction (to the injury) he might come back into the fold in the next few weeks, which will be a positive for us.
“We’d have preferred to have been playing in the FA Cup this weekend, but we’re not and we’ve got to get on and use the next nine days accordingly before we play Ebbsfleet.
There will be displays at Windsor Racecourse and Legoland, local fireworks in Burnham and Twyford and smaller displays at schools in the Royal Borough.