Sunday, 22 September 2013

One step forward, two steps back

I left the ground formerly known as Fortress Whaddon eight days ago with a bit more spring in my step, optimistic after we should have beaten Oxford, and definitely deserved a draw.
Yes, we gave one stupid goal away, but all over the pitch there were decent performances - the front two both scored, James Wilson had a decent debut at the back, the midfield looked solid and worked hard.
So, after a testing week off the field, I travelled to Plainmoor in good heart, thinking the corner had been turned and that things were going to start on an upward curve.
To be fair, the vast majority of what I saw for the opening 46 and a half minutes did nothing to shake that optimism - we should have been 4-1 up by that point. Should have, but weren't.
Byron Harrison and Terry Gornell were giving the centre-halves the run-around; they were scared stiff of Jermaine McGlashan and I lost count of how many times he was fouled; David Noble was probing and passing through their back four.
But that nagging feeling would not go away. That nagging feeling that just around the corner was another howler, another calamity just waiting to happen.
Matt Richards had set the tone with, well, I am still trying to work out what on earth he was trying to do inside the first two minutes.
Was it a pass back to Scott Brown? Having seen it twice through my fingers on the Football League Show, that is my best bet. There are countless other options he could have taken, but he chose that one.
It just sums it up. A vastly-experienced player who should know better in a situation like that, making a poor decision. And such is the way of things at the moment, every poor decision is being punished.
But we responded well. Byron headed us level, making a good decision to play to the whistle while Torquay wanted an offside flag. Five goals now for him, one of the few positives we can glean so far.
Gornell had a goalbound shot superbly blocked, Elliott's header was brilliantly saved, Lowe's effort from the rebound hit the bar, then Byron diverted a shot wide after Noble's brilliant pass sent McGlashan to the byline.
It surely had to come. They were wobbling, like a boxer on the ropes.
Half-time was coming, and at 1-1 but on top, I thought 'ok, we can regroup, come out and carry on where we left off, three points, thanks very much'.
Then it happened.
The last seconds of the half, an innocuous cross, Karl Hawley not closed down, after we had countless chances to relieve the pressure, but again, made the wrong decisions.
In came the cross, Callum Ball stuck a leg out, it span off Steve Elliott and, almost in slow motion, ended up in the net. I couldn't believe it.
But still there was hope, given the way we had played for the 44 minutes between the two Torquay goals. Not for long though.
Within a minute of the re-start, Hawley was somehow allowed to twist and turn past three so-called challenges to fire into the net past an unsighted Brown. It was unbelievable.
From being in a position of superiority despite being level, to 3-1 down and out of the game in the blink of an eye. A microcosm of the season so far - good in patches, let down by goals conceded in patches. See also Bury and Plymouth.
After that knock-out blow, we never hit the heights of the first half. Gornell got a goal back, but we never looked like making it 3-3 and getting something out of the game.
Yates' substitutions didn't work. Ashley Vincent never got into the game after replacing Richards, whose display was the poorest we have seen from him so far.
I don't disagree with the change. Vincent did - finally - balance the midfield on the left had side, but we never gave him or McGlashan enough sight of the ball for them to have any effect on the scoreline.
McGlashan, especially, was a peripheral figure after the break - not his fault but baffling after had caused so many first-half headaches. Some credit to Torquay I guess for stopping the supply.
Cureton for Gornell was fair enough - Gornell had worked hard, but equally you have wonder why, at that stage, there was not the thought of going 3-4-3 maybe - with possibly Jombati or Lowe going off, and putting Elliott, Wilson and either of the full-backs as a back three. May as well go for it.
The Taylor for Noble change is the one which seems to be the most contentious for the Yates dissenters. Defensive midfielder for an attacking one.
I can see the point - Sam Deering was on the bench, and could have been an alternative there.
But we didn't do enough from 3-1 down, whoever was on the pitch.
I will exonerate the front two, who scored again, but are being asked to climb Everest blindfolded every week by the ineptitude of some of those around them.
I also excuse Scott Brown. He has seen 27 goals go past him in 11 games (10, as none went in at Accrington) as has, in my view, been blameless for all of them. I cannot make a case for any of them, the closest maybe being Dave Kitson's last week - did he give Elliott a shout to leave the ball?
Yesterday, Jermaine McGlashan also escapes blame. But the rest of them need to look in the mirror and have a good, long think about their performances.
They are well paid, they carry the hopes and dreams of the fans, who pay good money. The manager has put his trust in them, the chairman has invested in them. All of them are being let down.
They are not kids. Not inexperienced players being asked to step up to a new level. Many of them have won promotion before, won trophies, played at a higher level. It's time for them to show it.
The back four yesterday - Keith Lowe (200+ games), James Wilson (50+ games), Steve Elliott (500+ games), Sido Jombati (100+_ games). All experienced players.
We all deserve better from all of these players.
So what of the manager? The Yates out cries were there again as soon as the first goal went in, and they were louder by the end. I disagree with them (for now...) but I can understand them.
This is his team. He has built it, he chose the players, he brought them all in.
After four years, he cannot talk about what he inherited. It is down to him to motivate them, to organise them and to turn the results around. If he can't do that, then at some point the change will come. It will be inevitable, but I feel that day is still a fair distance away.
Along the way, he has made ruthless decisions, two of which still haunt him in the eyes of some fans, especially with our goals against tally - the departures of Alan Bennett and Billy Jones.
Bennett was a fabulous leader for us in the Wembley season, but in the second season we leaked a lot of goals - remember Bradford, Chesterfield, Rotherham, those games up North where threes and fours were going in all too often, just as they are now.
The decision to allow Benno to go to Wimbledon and the arrival of Michael Hector to replace him nearly paid dividends, but is now being used as a stick to beat the manager with - more so as Wimbledon sit third in the table going into next week's game here.
The same goes for the Jones decision - even more so as he scored after two minutes in a Newport shirt and they kept a clean sheet at Exeter yesterday.
Only time will tell if this was a wise decision or not. At the moment, I have to say it isn't, but it may pan out differently in the long run.
One of his set-pieces yesterday could have made a difference, as since he has gone that same threat has not been there.
Defensively, it is a bit naïve to say that with him at left-back we would not be conceding so many goals, as CBB or Sido have not been directly culpable for all 27 of them.
The defensive injuries have not helped the manager. We have used six centre-halves so far in 11 games - Elliott, Lowe, Wilson, Brown, Inniss and Taylor. We desperately need some stability back there.
But we cannot use that as an excuse. As a team, we have not been good enough. It cannot just be thrown on to the back four.
The midfield, like the back four, has not been settled, and has not had the right balance and solid feel to it at any point this season.
McGlashan has been the bright spot. I have been critical of him in the past and come in for a lot of flak as a result, but this season I think he has been much more hit than miss.
A lot of the time, he has found himself on the left hand side, and he has been effective there. yesterday, he and Sido linked well in both attack and defence.
We have tried a number of combinations centrally, and none of them seem to have worked, all having flaws which have only served to put more pressure on our low-in-confidence defenders.
Yesterday, after it worked against Oxford, we had Noble and Richards. Both like to pass the ball, but neither is exactly razor-sharp in the tackle. It left Russ Penn on the right-hand side, largely out of the game.
Richards had a stinker and deservedly went off, so we had Penn and Noble after that, and it was Penn's pass which set up Gornell's goal. I have to say I think this is probably the best pair if we are playing 4-4-2.
The manager has to bite the bullet and leave one of them out. Against Pompey it was Penn, but now it seems he wants to keep them all happy by shoe-horning them into the side, leaving one out of his best position.
In my view, Penn and Noble is the way to go -  one tackler, one playmaker.
Having done that, he has to balance it up. If he doesn't want to start Kotwica, then he needs to start Vincent. He bought him back to the club, many fans are sceptical, some feeling it was a panic move after the Ashley Grimes move failed. Until we see him start, nothing will change that perception.
After last season's woes, it is a strange irony that the area with fewest problems is up front.
Perhaps hurt by the flak he got after the poor way he used the likes of Harrad, Benson, Duffy, Goulding and Harrison at points last season, the manager has gone for a less is more policy.
Three forwards, play two - and it is paying off. For the second successive game, Harrison and Gornell both scored, linked up very well and were a danger all game. Cureton has to wait, but not a bad guy to have up your sleeve.
The fear I have is that in the need to stiffen things up at the back, we lose some of that threat up front. We have scored 19 goals this season, six more than at the same stage last year.
I don't want us to go back to one isolated forward up front, having to forage alone on hopeful balls around his midriff. None of the three forwards we have can play that game.
They are just about the only confident players we have in the squad right now, and we have to feed off that.
After the game, the manager talked about 'wheeling and dealing'. I cannot see what he can possibly do.
The board have backed him superbly, on and off the field, with loan signings on the majority of occasions he has requested them, and the arrival of Dave Kevan to spruce up the coaching team.
They have given him the tools, he can have no complaints about that, now it is down to him to use them in the right way.
I cannot see he has much scope for change. We cannot keep going on paying off players almost on a whim to try to bring someone else in. He has to stick by these players and get them performing as we know they can, and as they have done for other clubs.
After the run of games at the start of the season, ending with Oxford game, which were all (bar the one we won at Accrington) against teams I fancied to be in the top half, things - I thought - would get a bit easier.
I expected us to win yesterday, but the result has left me with a sobering reality (about time, I hear some of you cry...).
Next up is AFC Wimbledon. They are third, we are 21st - and I cannot be alone in thinking those positions would be the other way around, given recent history. After that, we have two tough away games at Scunthorpe and Dagenham. It doesn't get any easier.
These may be hollow words, but I hope fans stick with it. It's easy to follow a club when they are winning, but times like this are the true test.
We have to trust the manager and the players to turn it round, and get it right. But that trust will not last forever.
The time for talking is over. It's time to deliver.