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MANAGER: Two very evenly matched teams

Paul Simpson's thoughts on tonight's game

14 May 2023

Two very evenly matched teams come together in front of the cameras at Valley Parade on Sunday night for the first of two play-off ties that will decide who goes forward to the showcase final at Wembley at the end of the month.

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With the teams having met relatively recently on the same stage, with a 0-0 draw the outcome, we wondered if that would give the coaching staff useful pointers to take into this round of fixtures.

“It would be a bit foolish for me to say that you can’t take anything from it because we’re bound to,” manager Paul Simpson said. “They’ll have seen things happen in the games where they’ll think they can do things differently, because that’s exactly what we’ve done.

“I’m confident that we’ve got the players who can go and do themselves justice in this game. The players have had a really good week of training, we’ve prepared right, we’re ready for it, and hopefully we can go out and show that.

“It’s about just going and performing. We know they’ve got threats, good players right through the side, starting with a keeper who has played at Premier League level. Andy Cook has probably been, if not the best, then one of the best players in this league this season.

“That’s not just in terms of his goals but his assists as well. We’ve done well against him in the two games we’ve had so far, and we have to make sure we do well in the next two to come.

“It’s not just about him, they’ve got Banks, Walker, Gilliead, Smallwood, Clayton, and these are all good players. There’s a team full of them.

“I also think we have as well, and I’m quite sure that if we get our players playing to the level that I believe they’re capable of, in fact we know they’re capable of it because they’ve shown it, then I think we’ve got enough to cause them problems and make sure we stay with the game.

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“Cook is in good form and it’s a great challenge. I thought we handled him really well at their place. Probably it’s fair to say he didn’t have his shooting boots on, so I hope he puts the same ones on this weekend.

“He’s had a fantastic season. A proper, old-fashioned number 9 in terms of backing into players, causing problems, winning free-kicks through having a bit of nouse, creating chances, scoring chances.

“He’s had a great season. Just like we’ve had players who’ve had good seasons. The challenge is to nullify all the threats, make sure we nullify anything they’ve got.” 

The other great thing about the play-offs is that it really does come down to who handles it better.

“Form doesn’t come into it because I always think form can change good or bad at the drop of a hat,” he told us. “You’ve just got to try and get the momentum in that particular game. If we start the game well and can get the first goal, that will give us a huge leg up and they will be saying the same.

“I can’t really say form goes out of the window, it doesn’t really, if you’re playing with confidence, chances are you’re going to start with confidence. But even if you’re not, if you do the first bits really positively and get yourself into a lead, suddenly confidence can come back.

“We did a lot of work on trying to understand how you can stop momentum of opposition and keep it for yourselves in games when it’s happening, and we could never come up with the answer.

“If we can get the momentum in a game that will stand us in good stead, and if they get it we’ve got to do everything we can to try and stop it, stop their flow and make sure we get a firm grip back on it.”

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A firm grip already demonstrated this season has been on goals conceded, with just three from the last six away trips finding their way over the line.

“We haven’t deliberately gone about it that way, it’s just how it’s gone for us,” the gaffer said. “We’ve had to defend at times, we’ve caused problems on the transitions, but we maybe haven’t been as clinical as we would like to be.

“To be successful you have to build it on having a good defence but also having good forwards. I think it’s a combination of both, and what we have to do is make sure we do it properly on Sunday evening, and make sure we’re still involved in the tie and then we can look forward to a really good day back at Brunton Park.”

And as a manager, of course, he’s already experienced the extremes of emotions associated with successful and unsuccessful play-off campaigns.

“I don’t really think you can bring your experiences into this,” he commented. “I’m not sure players want to know about past experiences. The only thing I can say is, all I’ve tried to do is try and be a little bit calmer this week.

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“I always remember coming towards the end of the season when I was at Derby County, as a player, and Jim Smith got really excitable and in a way probably got angry and made everybody nervous as well.

“I’ve tried to be nice and calm this week, quite level headed about it and get them out working. It’s not really about what’s happened in the past, because these players are different to who I’ve worked with in the past, there’s different personalities, different ways they deal with things.

“I also think over the last however many years, it’s a long time since I had a promotion here, but mentality of footballers has changed altogether. Most players, you have to take a softly-softly approach, you can’t, if we use the analogy of the stick and the carrot, we can’t use the stick now, it has to be more about the carrot.

“I think it’s just been a case of me trying to keep calm with them and hoping they’re relaxed and going into the game in the right frame of mind. 

“When we get towards kick off, I think that’s their time to finish off their last bits. My final thing is always telling them to go and enjoy it, and you always enjoy things more when you’re successful and you’re winning.

“I don’t want it to be a defeat and a learning experience, I want it to be a successful one where we’re all coming off enjoying ourselves.

“We want to thank our fans for making the trip over there, and we want to see smiling faces, which is the picture we have to get in our mind. It’ll be about going and giving the best version of yourself and hopefully enjoying ourselves.”

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