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Wadley's Verdict: Cherries 1 Colchester Utd 0
7:17pm Sunday 16th December 2012 in Sport
AS Shaun MacDonald was carried off on a stretcher, the standing ovation said it all.
Cherries supporters rose to their feet and sung the midfielder’s name as he left the field.
Clearly recognising his importance to the team, MacDonald was afforded a reception worthy of his efforts.
For the sake of the club’s promotion push, Cherries fans will want to see him again sooner rather than later.
Boss Eddie Howe will now assess the resources within his squad as he looks to select MacDonald’s replacement, with the 24-year-old facing a possible minimum of two months out.
But it will take something special to fill the sizeable void in Cherries’ all-important engine room.
MacDonald arrived at Dean Court with a good pedigree as a full Welsh international and talented footballer.
Nicknamed ‘Zidane’ at former club Swansea City, it was his attacking qualities that initially took top billing.
Yet it has been MacDonald’s ability to show discipline and curb his enthusiasm to storm forward which has provided a vital platform for Cherries’ creative players to flourish.
Shielding the back four and starting Cherries’ attacks from deep, MacDonald has simply gone about his business while others have claimed the headlines.
Terms such as ‘unsung hero’, ‘leader’ and ‘calming influence’ have rarely been more richly deserved.
That is exactly why the sight of him disappearing down the tunnel with an ankle injury would have resonated with the Cherries faithful. It certainly did with Howe.
“He is a massive player to lose and someone who is not only a great player but a great character as well,” said the Cherries manager.
Howe was spot on. A mild mannered and likeable guy off the field, MacDonald’s performances have earned him terrace favourite status at Dean Court.
Howe’s task now will be to maintain the perfect central-midfield balance which the defensive-minded MacDonald had provided during every game since his appointment, with Eunan O’Kane, Harry Arter, Richard Hughes, Joe Partington, Lorenzo Davids and Steven Gregory among his options.
The early prediction was that MacDonald was facing a minimum of two months out after sustaining possible ankle ligament damage towards the end of the first half in Saturday’s clash with Colchester.
If Cherries are to continue their merry march towards the play-off zone during the festive period, much will depend on their ability to cover adequately his absence.
Against Colchester, the signs were largely positive as Eunan O’Kane again staked his claim.
With the energetic O’Kane particularly bright alongside MacDonald in central midfield, Cherries dominated the first half.
The lively Wes Fogden and impressive Steve Cook both headed over and Brett Pitman was denied by acrobatic U’s keeper Mark Cousins before Grabban lashed home his ninth of the season for a deserved lead.
Latching on to a perfectly weighted pass from O’Kane, Grabban left Cousins with no chance as he thumped home from 15 yards with his left foot.
It was not difficult to see why Colchester had arrived in Dorset with six defeats in seven as they offered precious little going forward with Jabo Ibehre left up front on his own.
But after MacDonald’s exit, Colchester improved with the introduction of experienced striker Clinton Morrison.
Portsmouth loan defender Josh Thompson saw a close-range header blocked before Cook bravely threw himself in front of an Ibehre effort.
Pitman came close on no fewer than three occasions before Cherries saw out time in controversial fashion.
Visiting boss Joe Dunne was left furious – and Howe a little relieved – after referee Brendan Malone had opted not to award a spot kick following Fogden’s lunging challenge on substitute Drey Wright.
Dunne said: “He was fouled in the box and it should have been a penalty.”
Howe admitted: “I have to be honest, I was worried when I saw Wes going in for the tackle. My initial reaction was ‘oh dear, we could be in trouble’.”
Given his superstitious nature, it was little surprise to see a hint of a grin creep across Howe’s face as he gave his post-match verdict.
If ever there had been a time for a slightly relieved expression, 5.15pm on Saturday was probably the moment.
Colchester arrived in Dorset in dreadful form and low of numbers – but with omens stacked in their favour.
The Essex outfit had not lost at Dean Court for 13 years, it was Howe’s 13th match at the helm and the so-called manager of the month hoodoo hovered menacingly in the grey south coast skies.
Howe said: “I wouldn’t say things like that play on your mind but you are extra guarded.
“They are a useful side and they have got good footballers and we were thankful to get the win.”
It is clear it will take far more than the small matter of a so-called curse and chance statistics to halt Cherries’ remarkable rise.
And should somebody successfully fill MacDonald’s boots, there is no reason for that to change any time soon.
Match facts and Echo merit marks
Cherries: (4-4-2) James 7.5; Francis 7, Elphick 7, Cook 7.5, Daniels 7; Fogden 7.5 (Partington, 90), MacDonald 7 (Arter, 45, 7), O’Kane 7.5*, Pugh 7; Grabban 7.5, Pitman 7 (McQuoid, 86).
Unused subs: Fletcher, McDermott, Tubbs, Buchel (g/k).
Colchester: (4-5-1) Cousins; White, Eastman, Thompson, Potts (Wright, h-t); Sears, O’Toole (Morrison, h-t), Izzet (Bond, 68), Wordsworth, Rose; Ibehre.
Unused subs: Duguid, Olufemi, Henderson, Pentney (g/k).
Booked: Wordsworth, Ibehre Referee: Brendan Malone (Wiltshire) Attendance: 6,145 (including 155 supporters).
Echo Star Man - Eunan O’Kane
Energetic, inventive and confident on the ball, O’Kane stood out in a hard-working Cherries display.
Combining thrusting runs with incisive passing, particularly in the first half, the former Torquay man looked the part in central midfield.
Given his chance during Harry Arter’s suspension, the 22-year-old summer signing seems determined to take it.
With Shaun MacDonald set for at least two months out, O’Kane’s contributions could become increasingly valuable in Cherries’ promotion bid.
Goal hero Lewis Grabban, defender Steve Cook and goalkeeper David James all caught the eye, while Wes Fogden produced a typically lively performance.