Sunday, 16 November 2014

Heroes to zeroes

Did you hear the one about the team who won 5-0 in a Cup game against a team from a higher level, then got thrashed 5-1 themselves a week later by a team below them in the league? Good joke eh?
Er, Mark, it's not a joke.
That really happened?
Yes.
Oh.
Yes it did happen - and in the same way as those who saw the Swindon game were left rubbing their eyes in disbelief then this nightmare left many of us looking through our fingers at a defensive horror show.
Inconsistency had been a buzzword this week after we followed the York defeat with the Swindon result, and once again it reared its ugly head.
How can 10 of the same players who put it eight or nine out of 10 performances one week then come out and get fours or fives seven days later?
If anyone has the answer to that, they would probably make a great deal of money. The simple answer is these are human beings, not machines.
I am sure that one day in your job you perform really well, then the next is one of those where you can't do anything right. No? Must be just me and our team then...!
It is impossible to comprehend just how bad our defending was, especially for the opening three goals - in fact it just got worse as each goal came along.
We knew there would be one change from last week with Craig Braham-Barrett suspended, and there were raised eyebrows when we saw James Bowen's name on the teamsheet.
I was pleased to see him given a chance as I have been beating the drum for our young players to get an opportunity.
I could see the thinking behind it - Mark Yates wanted there to be the minimum disruption to last week's team,so changed just one position rather than two, which would have happened had he moved Paul Black across to left-back and brought Jack Deaman in as many (me included) thought he would pre-match.
It wasn't Bowen's fault that we lost 5-1. None of the goals were down to him - but I hope he wasn't looking along the back three hoping to learn anything from them.
If he was, in the first seven minutes he would have had a great lesson in how not to defend from set-pieces.
Stevenage's first goal came from the third corner they had won in a row. We had defended the first two badly enough, allowing a free header from both, and didn't learn from it.
Lee Barnard was left free again and his header set up Chris Beardsley for the opening goal - then we did it again and Jason Taylor scraped it away to Charlie Lee and he curled, under no pressure, a lovely shot past Trevor Carson for the second goal.
Seven minutes in, and it was practically game over.
We tried to come back, Bowen got forward well and Byron Harrison had two headers which he couldn't get on target - but Stevenage always looked like adding to their total.
We looked terribly weak in the back three. Black was struggling aerially against Barnard and Beardsley, whose movement had Brown and Elliott at sixes and sevens.
Our midfield was comfortably second best and we were totally unable to get any decent possession in the final third.
Stevenage were always going to score again and they did, and in absolutely farcical circumstances which made some of Swindon's defending last weekend look accomplished.
A long punt downfield saw Lee Vaughan beaten in the air by Lee, and as the ball went into our penalty area the back three stood totally still as Beardsley ran in unopposed and belted it past Carson.
Ridiculous. So 3-0 after 37 minutes definitely finished things off, and now it was a pride thing - damage limitation. We didn't restore very much of it.
Yates made a change after the third goal with Steve Elliott the fall guy for the terrible defending, with Zack Kotwica coming on as we went to a 4-4-2.
Any of those back three could have come off, and if anything I thought Troy Brown was the prime candidate as I thought he was the worst of the trio and has not, in my view, had a good season thus far - but then we would have had two left-footers in central defence, so it kept the left-right balance.
With the game over, Stevenage didn't need to exert themselves after the break, and we did get a goal back, which was one of the very few positives - a good finish from Byron to take him to six for the season and he is now our top scorer.
Stevenage did add two more, both defensive howlers with even the up-to-now blameless Carson getting in on the act and catching the bug from those in front of him.
Were there any other positives bar Byron's very confident finish for his goal? Not really, and you wouldn't expect there to be from a 5-1 loss.
Bowen's performance was one of our better ones, as was Kotwica's cameo. He tried to be positive and have a go but without being able to get many decent crosses in - but at least he had a go.
So that's the first time we have let five in since the FA Cup defeat to Everton, and our biggest league defeat since the 8-1 nadir at Crewe - there have been a few four-goal losses since then, but not a five until now.
I do have some sympathy for Yates as he must be tearing his hair out at how 10 of  the same side which was so determined and passionate one week can then put in such a limp and weak performance seven days later. But he needs to find the answer to that conundrum. That's his job.
After the game, he said we were outfought and bullied. Again. He is having to say that too often - Shrewsbury and Plymouth for instance - and he needs to find a solution to it.
League Two is a physical league, so we need to be more physical and match that. That's not going around kicking everything that moves, but just simply doing the basics of competing. Winning personal battles around the field, winning second balls, getting tight to your man, marking properly, tracking runners.
We did it last week, we did it at Cambridge, we have done it many times this season. Yesterday, we did none of it in key areas.
Unfortunately, our squad is not big enough to simply drop five or six under achievers after a game like this and bring five or six more in. Yates has to work with those he has and find the solutions.
He needs to ask them why they seem unable to carry out a game plan once they cross that white line, as their failure to do so is letting not only him down, but also the board and the supporters who travel up and down the country as well.
It is time to get tough with them. Ultimately it is the players who hold the key to whether he keeps his job or not.
It cannot all be down to the manager all the time. The 'it's his team, he signed the players, he motivates them, he coaches them' mantra cannot always wash. The players cannot simply be absolved of responsibility for playing superbly one week, then terribly the next.
I am afraid though that you have to put last week's Cup result to one side. Yes it was great. It was very important financially for the club, but it didn't get us any league points, and a look at the league form since the end of August makes very grim reading.
Since the 1-0 win over Hartlepool, which saw us move to 13 points from the first 15, we have taken nine points from the last 36 available - two wins, three draws and seven defeats.
That is simply not good enough - and many teams this season with similar records have already changed their managers. So it is no surprise to see my Twitter timeline filled with doubts over Yates' future, many of those simply saying enough is enough.
I would be very surprised if that concern was not being mirrored at board level. Surely they must have debated it informally at least.
So what can the manager do with his squad?
One thing he will surely have to look at is changing the 3-5-2 system, which, having made us more solid early on in the season, is now not having the same effect.
He hasn't been helped by the injury to Matt Taylor, the defensive lynchpin and his skipper. But the loss of one player should not have such a detrimental effect on a team or formation. We should be able to cope.
The 3-5-2, however, is a system which suits our full-backs. Lee Vaughan, most of the time, and Craig Braham-Barrett undoubtedly look happier in it. A flat back four would expose them defensively.
Conversely, I don't feel Troy Brown looks suited to the 3-5-2, yet would be happier in a back four.
If he changed to a four, Yates would then have make a decision to leave one of Elliott, Brown and Taylor out when they are all fit. On form at present, that would be Brown.
Then we go into midfield. For whatever reason, we seem to have always struggled to play with a two-man central midfield under Yates. Most sides play with a three, and the third man brings more stability, and should (I repeat should) make us more solid, and harder to beat. But that hasn't been the case recently.
The plan in pre-season was to have the enforcer Taylor, the passer Richards and the box-to-box man Asa Hall as the three - an attempt to mirror the jobs (if not the ability) of the successful Penn, Pack, Summerfield trio.
Yet Hall's injury four minutes in at Bury has scuppered that. Joe Hanks, Omari Sterling-James and Raffa de Vita plus the on-loan Jordan Wynter have all been tried in there with varied success, but the formula has never been quite right.
Like Taylor's absence, Hall's injury has been keenly felt - and it will probably be Christmas by the time he comes back in. But again, we should be able to cope with it.
Another issue with the 3-5-2 is that we don't use wingers. But we have a few of those on the books - Andy Haworth, OSJ, de Vita and Kotwica are all happiest in that role - but they need 4-4-2 or 4-3-3 to get a real look-in and to be really effective.
So what does he do? 4-4-2 suits a few players, but causes problems elsewhere. 3-5-2 does the same and effectively freezes players out of the squad. A Catch-22 wherever you look.
The only consistent part is the '2' up front - and despite the difficulties further back, Byron Harrison has four goals in two game, and Terry Gornell four in the last six, so their form has improved after long barren spells for both.
That is timely as well as John Marquis has one match left of his loan, and that gives Yates another dilemma... does he look for another forward, or instead push Bobbie Dale up the pecking order and decide to prioritise a shake-up for his leaky defence or try to freshen up his midfield?
Alternatively, he could play 4-5-1 - but that is perceived as negative, and then the question is which one of Harrison or Gornell is more effective as the '1'?
That's his dilemma - but what about the board, and their conundrum over the manager's long-term future?
This season was his last-chance saloon. After the two play-off seasons, last year was a write-off and instead of a two-year deal, he was given another 12 months.
The chairman made the 'last chance' scenario very clear. He even said this would be his last contract. Then, at the fan's forum recently he was asked where he wanted the club to be in five years. League One was the reply. That seems a long way off, as this run of form suggests a play-off push is a long way away for another season, maybe even written off already.
We are only six points off seventh, but current form does not lend itself to optimism of that gap being breached.
The board have been very loyal. Many club boards, I would suggest, would not have given the manager another year after a campaign like the last one. I suspect Yates' status as a former captain and those two play-off campaigns are all that saved him last summer.
Now let me make this quite clear - I am not calling for a change right now. However, the next three games could tip the balance one way or another. I cannot believe a change would be made before the Cup tie whatever happens in the two league games.
We have Wycombe and Oxford at home in the League, then the Cup tie with Dover - a game which could map out our season one way or the other from a financial point of view.
Four points or more from the two league games, and a win over Dover will buy him some time - then the third round draw will decide our financial destiny - and the board would then have to decide if they think Yates is the man they want to make the best of any financial windfall they want to put the manager's way for January.
Less than four points and a win over Dover makes it very rocky for him despite the Cup win, but defeat to Dover is unimaginable. He would find it hard to survive that I think.
But as I said above, some on my Twitter timeline say his time is up, while others continue to maintain that he is still the right man for the job.
Here are some of the arguments put forward on Twitter since Saturday, and my views on them:

There is no point in changing the manager, who could do a better job?
You never know who is going to apply for a job until there is a vacancy.
It is likely that we would get a raft of applicants (Burton had more than 60 for their job) and once you have sifted out the Football Manager experts, there might be some surprise names in there, and someone you think would do a decent job, but hadn't expected to be interested.
Then it would depend what sort of manager you want, and there are several categories.
The experienced manager - one who might have failed elsewhere more than once, or unluckily got the push after a dodgy spell (also known as 'the serial failure').
The young buck  - those looking to make their way in the game, someone who has recently retired from playing and wants to get on the ladder or who has had already had one shot at it.
The lieutenant - someone who works in a club's academy or is a coach/assistant elsewhere and might have potential to handle the top job.
The ladder-climber - A manager who has done well at a lower level and has earned the chance to make the move up to the Football League, as Yates was when we appointed him.
The internal promotion - Someone from within the club who the board feel would be able to turn things around (otherwise known by many fans as 'the cheap option'). Can work in some cases - Gary Rowett at Burton made this move, and Gary Bowyer at Blackburn is also having a decent shot at it.
The club hero - An ex-player of ours who has taken or is taking coaching badges and is up for a shot at the hotseat.

Be careful what you wish for/Better the devil you know
When the manager is changed, then you have to trust the board to pick the right successor - and remember many of the current board helped to appoint Martin Allen and Bobby Gould.
This decision however would be more crucial if it occurs as when Allen and Gould were appointed we were in League One, so had that added safety net. That is not there this time - a wrong appointment could be a real disaster for the club.

It's gone stale/He has run out of ideas/He has taken us as far as he can/he's a non-league manager out of his depth
I think these four can be grouped together and some of it smacks to me of the thought of change for change's sake, ie he has had his go at it and it's time for someone else to try - we've had enough of having the same manager for five years, give someone else a go - I don't know or mind who, just someone else.
What has gone stale? The club? The team? Or is that just people are bored of us being a mid-table club in League Two, who wins a few and loses a few every season?
Maybe that is what we are. A mid-table club in League Two. The budget, attendances and overall club finances would suggest that, so under current circumstances it is going to be tough for anyone to take us any further than that without any significant input of funds.
A change of manager is not a magic wand. Same players, same budget, same restrictions would apply to anyone else coming in. All they would bring is their own ideas and motivation, which some feel Yates has run out of.
The 'non-league manager out of his depth' one is interesting and very unfair in my view, considering he is now the third longest-serving manager of the 92 and has taken us to two play-off campaigns...

The football we play is boring - there is no entertainment
The old 'results v entertainment' debate - and it all depends what people want more - the team to win, or the team to win well.
Is it not enough just to win any more? It is for me. I'd take 46 1-0s every time, bit I know some wouldn't.
I appreciate we haven't been doing enough winning by any scoreline by the way.
Do we have to win with a swagger? If so, this is League Two, and I haven't seen any team this season who have played with a swagger against us - organisation and taking chances either when they come along or are gifted to them by our mistakes has usually been enough.
We have won with a swagger under Yates at times, especially in the Wembley play-off season, but he has never been able to re-create that formula.

Results have not been good enough
No argument here. They haven't been. Not over the last three months and for last season too.
Nine points from 36, and a fall from 2nd to 16th in the table is not pleasant reading and, as we are always told, football is a results business. Yates needs to get some results.
Our fans are, by their very nature, a patient bunch and our board is fiercely loyal.
Not many managers have been turned on by our fans and I hope that doesn't happen to Yates, who is a decent bloke who has done his best for the club as a player and a manager, giving us some good memories in both roles.
I would hate it to turn sour, to see people abusing him and for things to get nasty. I really hope that doesn't happen.
I hope people get behind the team in these next three crucial home games.
Whatever happens, we all support the same club and we all want the best for it.