By Nathan BeesI don't know about you, but the whole 'going for promotion' thing seems a lot more real now.
We are up there competing for the coveted top spot and with 9 games left we are in a great position to make reality the dream we all had before the opening weekend back in August.
I loved the 1-0 win at Gateshead last Saturday for a couple of reasons. Firstly, we won. Victories are always good, but it tastes even sweeter when you achieve it away from home at a club battling for a play-off place. We have completed the double over the best side I have seen us play this season and that bodes well for the weeks ahead.
The second reason, however, is that I loved the way we ground out the result off the back of a solid, organised and hard-working performance. We did not play Gateshead off the park (you could justifiably argue that they passed the ball better than us), nor did we blow them away on the counter attack. What we did, though, was restrict their creative players and even though we were once again not at our flowing best, we found the crucial goal needed to win the game.
For my money, that indicates we have the attitude, mental strength and quality to win this league.
Ellis Harrison's goal was not a stroke of fortune against the run of play, as we have inflicted similar defeats on both Altrincham and Braintree Town recently. Converting the odd goal required to win a game when we aren't on top form is simply a characteristic of this team. It is what separates us from the rest at the moment.
In theory any team can pull off workmanlike victories over the course of a season, but we are making a habit of it during the run-in when it really matters. That is a sign that we are capable of winning the title and are not just 'possible play-off candidates' like we have been billed for the majority of the last seven months.
Things were not going well in an attacking sense up at the Gateshead International Stadium and the game looked destined to end goalless. We restricted our hosts to just the one effort on goal during the 90 minutes, but we were not creating anything ourselves and there was very little for either goalkeeper to do. Our more direct balls forward were being snuffed out by their centre halves and when we got the ball down we just weren't incisive enough to carve through their two banks of four.
What Darrell Clarke did an hour into proceedings to address the situation, however, was a stroke of genius.
Neither of our starting strike pairing looked particularly menacing, but few of the 667 Gasheads at the game would have chosen to take off Matty Taylor for Ellis Harrison. Taylor has the intelligence and the movement to exploit a defensive lapse and everyone thought, myself included, that keeping him on was our best bet in the circumstances.
Clarke didn't, though, and he had the nous to take off our number 10 and partner Harrison with Nathan Blissett as we sought the all-important winning goal. As with most of our manager's in-play decision-making this year, it worked absolutely perfectly.
All of a sudden we began putting their defence under more pressure, forcing mistakes and causing moments of panic when we had the ball in and around their penalty area.
We looked a lot more threatening all over the park in all honesty, and then, from one long Steve Mildenhall kick forward that Tom Lockyer flicked on, Harrison found himself through on goal with just the goalkeeper to beat. Using his pace to keep up with the bouncing ball, the super sub lobbed the on-rushing Adam Bartlett with aplomb and found the back of the net.
Gasheads went mad, scarcely able to believe we had potentially scored the goal to keep us top of the table, and watched on as Harrison received the adulation of his team-mates on the athletics track that separated us from the pitch. It was some moment, not least because the young Welshman is starting to make a name for himself with the impact he is having on games as a second half substitute.
The trip home somehow seemed longer and was definitely more uncomfortable than the journey up, but it was worth it knowing we had 3 points in the bag.
It was bitterly disappointing to think of how long poor Stuart Sinclair would be out of action for, though, as his injury did put a dampener on the day. I have to say I feared the worst at the time, as the way he was stretchered off suggested some serious damage had been done to his knee. I was therefore pleased to read earlier this week that it is not as serious as first feared and he only faces a couple of months out of action.
It seems unlikely he will be fit to feature again this season - rushing him could do more harm than good - but knowing he will be fully fit in time for pre-season training is the most important thing.
Keep your head up, Stuart. You have played a huge part in our season so far and nobody will forget that, regardless of what happens in the weeks ahead. I am sure I speak for all Gasheads when I wish you a speedy recovery.
Tomorrow's game with Eastleigh is just as big as any fixture we have played so far and we cannot afford to underestimate them. They have a squad littered with ex-Football League players and last weekend defeated Macclesfield Town 4-0, so they will arrive at The Mem full of confidence.
They will remember the way we out-battled them in the reverse meeting at their place back in September, though. Steve Mildenhall got sent off in the first half and we conceded the opening goal just before half time, but Ollie Clarke went on to equalise with an absolute worldie before being dismissed himself in second half stoppage time.
Despite the two red cards, we created enough chances to go on and net an unlikely winner that night, but it just wasn't to be. The point was thoroughly deserved and in the circumstances it was gratefully received.
Hopefully we won't have a numerical disadvantage at any stage tomorrow afternoon and can go on to plunder another crucial 3 points.
Come on Rovers, come on you blues!