Fight or die
After tonight’s result and the resulting meltdown I’ve witnessed, I feel like I have to get a few thoughts down. Not in the form of an article – just some incoherent thoughts in bullet-point form. You may have heard some of these thoughts before but I need to get them out:
– OK, firstly, I hate to be smug and I take no pleasure out of it, but I’ve seen this coming all season. It all first started to slide out of control in April. Ling refused to rotate the side so by the time they got to the promotion push, all the players were knackered and our form bombed. We then sold 3 key players – we replaced 2 well (I’ll stand by Poke because I believe him to be a good goalkeeper) but never adequately replaced O’Kane. Craig might have but he has not been allowed to because he has continually been played out of position.
After the summer, we were left with a thin squad with few options and already carrying injuries. When you sell players for a lot of money, the wise thing is not only to just replace them, but to spread the money out to create depth too – e.g. if you sell 3 players for a lot of money, bring in 4 or 5. We didn’t even bring in 3. Not only that but we started the season with 3 centre-backs, one less with which we had ended the season. I pointed this out vociferously on the TFF, especially taking into account Downes’ injury history, but it was poo-pooed; Downes promptly got suspended and we were forced to play teenagers MacKenzie against the team that will probably win League Two this season. He did well, but that’s not the point. It wasn’t until December that we actually brought in a fourth centre-back, and even then it was only on loan.
It wasn’t much better in attack. When Morris and Macklin were ruled out long-term, we did nothing. We were left having to start and over-use 18-year old Thompson, ruining his confidence. We were playing 3 defensive midfielders in the middle and wondered why there was no creativity. After the stupefyingly awful performance against Southend, a superficial change of formation was introduced that worked for 2 matches. But what actually changed was only skin deep – in fact, adding an extra attacker behind Howe when Howe comes deep anyway means Jarvis in the AMC spot just gets bypassed; we might as well be playing with 10 men.
This bad run doesn’t go back to a particular point – we have been playing like this for the majority of the season. The flashes of brilliance against the likes of Rochdale, Cheltenham and Gillingham were the anomalies – very few teams don’t have an occasional good match, so it was/is totally wrong to feel entitled to be doing well based on a couple of strong performances (as some have suggested during the season – “we’re just in a bad run of form; we’ll get better because we have been good this year”). We might have had a great run at home but this was mostly down to our defence. Going forward we have not looked strong all year. Form is temporary, class is permanent – we are nearer the bottom than the top, which suggests that it isn’t bad form.
– Picking out individuals, those who have underperformed have mostly been around for a while: Nicholson, Oastler, Mansell, Bodin, Stevens and, more recently, Lathrope. And yet Stevens is pretty much the only one of these to have been dropped – Nicholson aside, the rest have been out of the side due to other reasons, but have quickly regained their place (though maybe Leadbitter has finally wrested the right-back slot off Oastler this time). Where is the motivation to put the effort in if you’re unlikely to be dropped? I’ve said this since the summer – not enough options, not enough competition. Fatigue will set in. Players age faster when they are over-worked. Playing the same team week in week out, especially one that’s not playing particularly well, does not work any more – this is not the 1970s. Pretty much every other team is doing this.
– So we have to look at the management team and the board. I think Ling has made mistakes with signings (“Cruise can play centre-back”; “we thought Artemi was a centre-back”) and tactics, and there are some players he has steadfastly refused to drop as already emphasised – essentially there are players theoretically in the squad that are taking up a portion of the wage budget that will almost certainly not be selected. So what’s the point of having them there? Use them or lose them. But ultimately he is not responsible – he is a good manager in the right situation; he just seems unable to change things when they are sliding out of control, which is a criticism you could level at most managers at this level.
The answer lies with the board. We made £500k from transfers and haven’t spent it on players. Instead, it has gone into the infrastructure, and investing in the infrastructure ahead of the playing squad is always a bad idea. Granted, the Bench was necessary, but I thought that had already been covered. It’s the training facilities investment, and particularly why it was seen as necessary to do this concurrent with the Bench, that’s baffling. If the facilities were so bad, how come we got to the play-offs 4 times in 5 years with them or an equivalent? We sure as hell won’t if you don’t invest in the squad – again, this is not the 1960s: stability is not the answer any more, because you have to keep progressing.
– It would be wrong to speculate on the reasons why Ling has gone AWOL over the last 4 games – it may be a serious issue that hasn’t yet been revealed. We desperately need clarity, though. It’s all rather bizarre – I can’t remember this ever happening here or elsewhere in recent years. We need clarity because we need to know what’s going on
– This is part of a wider issue I’ve had with the club this year. I’ve heard the argument that the board are within their rights to be opaque and there are some things we ought not to know, which is true to a certain extent. But regardless of that, the club have handled PR very badly this year: the talk of the play-offs during bad runs; the mixed messages from the manager; a lack of communication from the board at key times. When questions have been asked, they have invariably not been answered, or if they have, it’s been by some vague generic statement that gives little away. If people think you can get away with this in the 21st century Football League, you’re stuck in the past, because it leads to situations like tonight – 1,778, our lowest home attendance for nearly 2 years. People will walk away. You have to keep people interested when you’re charging them a lot of money to go to a football match. Communication is a massive part of running a football club – you can’t just neglect it.
– …which leads to another point: ambition. The club claim to be aiming to become a stable mid-table League One club. They have on occasions talked the talk, and on occasions they have walked the walk (new stand etc). But if their ambition is genuinely to get promoted, why didn’t they build on that successful side of last year? Do they not understand how football works? Not all players are equally good – it’s not like you can just swap 3 sold players for 3 others and the team will still be great. You have to keep the squad ticking over. Even Mike Bateson understood this, for all his flaws during his tenure as owner. It’s worth remembering that but for a donation from a fan, we’d never have signed Bodin – and what then? Would we have just gone in with one less player? We didn’t have enough options as it was. Or would we have just picked someone up on the cheap? Bodin might not have been success but it was the closest we actually came to a statement of intent in the summer.
– Also, Elliot Benyon is a waste of time. Some people might be fed up of hearing this from me, but I never rated the guy, and I believe his record since leaving us vindicates that. He is a crude goal-poacher on a 17 (now 18) match run without a goal. Why bother when Ryan Jarvis has shown he can do tap-ins as well? Yes, we needed another option up front, but something different – or at least an equivalent to Howe, someone big and powerful to hold the ball up. Tonight, reading match reports, when we did bring Benyon on, we just hoofed the ball up to him – baffling considering he’s not tall or physical. He doesn’t fit the way we are playing or the way we’re meant to be playing. Unless we play Howe behind him, it’s pointless having him here – and given that this hasn’t been tried already, why expect it to be tried again?
– Playing style: you cannot say we are playing the same way as last year. Some have concluded that “we were boring last year and we’re boring this year, therefore there is a continuity and it’s the same thing.” Last year we played attractive passing football with O’Kane threading through-balls to the forwards. I still think we’re meant to be doing that, but too often we’ve just been hoofing it. It has degenerated from tiki-taka to Stoke-esque grinding efficiency. Contrary to what some are saying, we were enjoyable to watch last year, but not this year. We seem to be playing more on the counter too, which is worrying because we don’t have much pace in the side at all.
– Rene Howe’s contract is up in the summer. What must he be thinking right now?
– What’s the plan if Ling can’t carry on? I would hope they would bring an experience manager in. But judging by recent board policy, my feeling is they’d just let Taylor carry on (bad move – he is not a manager) or they would bring in a cheap/desperate option. Either way, we’d be fucked. That said, our form was spiralling out of control even before Ling disappeared. It all has an intangible feeling of inevitable decline about it, and has done for a while. It’s worrying, because this is how Macclesfield were relegated last year, and Lincoln the year before – in fact, we’ve pretty much mirrored Macclesfield’s first half of the season, and are only marginally better off in recent matches. And no one seems able to do anything about it. Heads need to be banged together – there needs to be a genuine threat of failure for these players, because some are clearly too cosy. That said, with the way the owners run the club, you can see where they get it from…
– We might have a 7 point cushion now but recent years have shown how struggling teams can pull rabbits out of hats where we need to. Barnet in particular are great at it, as if they pull out fighting spirit from under their sofas when they need it – they are League Two’s Wigan. Aldershot might sack their manager if it gets desperate but it ain’t looking good for them. I am concerned for the inexperienced managers of Wimbledon and Accrington. Like Aston Villa last year, we might be saved by the fact that there are worse teams than us, but the Villa example shows that survival is just the starting point…
– My overriding feelings: we were far too complacent with the squad, particularly regarding injuries and not taking into account that some players might not be as good as last year. The board (and some of the fans) lack drive and are happy to tread water instead of wanting to push on; when most of the clubs in this league twisted, we stuck, and we’ve been left behind. When people were pointing out the first signs of trouble, they were ignored because they weren’t prepared to be proactive.
There is now a complete lack of leadership from all areas: the board, the management team, and on the pitch. We are now trapped in this staid conservatism until someone has the balls to do something, or we get relegated and they lose all the money they saved from not putting their money into the squad. The worry I have is someone/people may go too far and panic, chucking the baby out with the bathwater – it would be spineless of the board at this point to sack Ling and blame him for the disappointing season.
There needs to be some serious soul-searching on the board. I think they need help from someone who has experience of running a successful club, something the consortium has either lacked since Colin Lee left or never had, depending on your perspective; until this year they were able to ride on the bank of good signings by the manager, but when you don’t give the manager money, he can’t bring in many good players. And now, from the outside it seems like they’re all just staring at each other waiting for someone to make a decision.
– But if the worst comes to the worst, the Conference isn’t a dreadful place to be. As I’ve said before, we’d probably be better off there as a “big club”, visiting lots of interesting places, and exploring all that is good about non-league – size-wise, we fit in there. Having said that, I do worry that the level of expectation would be too high initially, considering how most of the relegated clubs in recent years have initially struggled down there. But providing we don’t go straight through to Conference South (hey, I’m not ruling it out), it’s not too much of an issue
What hurts about this is not the prospect of relegation itself – it’s the way we’ve sleepwalked into it. Again, I hate to go on about the fact that I called it, but I called it – but the point isn’t that I’m a genius (honestly I’d rather be wrong and us be in the top 10 right now); it’s that a 21 year old student and fan with no knowledge of the inner workings of the football club and no experience of being a manager saw it coming, so why didn’t the people actually running the club?