Sunday, 2 November 2014

The negativity returns?

SO it didn't take long, did it?
The new dawn that this season was supposed to bring, the wave of optimism which was going to take away the clouds of last season seems to have vanished for many, just as we say goodbye to October.
Yes, I saw yesterday's game. Yes, I saw the most inept 45-minute display I have seen from us this season - but I have to admit I would be more worried if that had been the norm, rather than the exception to what I have seen since August.
Let's get the blame out of the way first. I don't blame the manager for that 45 minutes. There. I said it.
In Friday's Echo I wrote a piece about the game, and picked my team. Two changes - Joe Hanks and John Marquis for Omari Sterling-James and Byron Harrison. The manager picked the same side.
On Twitter beforehand, the majority of people on my timeline also picked the same side, and the majority were happy with what the manager had done after they saw the teamsheet.
The same team, same tactics and same formation which most people apparently wanted him to play. The 3-5-2 which some people have been crying out for him to try for the past few seasons, because we can't play 4-4-2, and 4-5-1 is negative.
The same 11 players who performed so superbly at Cambridge only 10 days ago, and pulled off a superb victory.
90 minutes later, Eusebio should have started. So should de Vita. Why was OSJ dropped? Why did he put Hanks back in? Or Marquis? He should have dumped the 3-5-2. Hindsight is a wonderful thing isn't it?.
So it went wrong, and the manager was getting the flak. It's his team. It's his tactics. It's his formation.
But when they cross the white line and fail to follow his game plan, fail to do the basics, fail to show the application, fail to win any of their battles, are completely and utterly out performed, and look a totally different set of players to the ones we saw at the Abbey despite all the work on the training ground on shape, York's threats, defending set-pieces etc, what can he do?
He can only do what he did. He changed it.
Our three in midfield were being dominated by York's two. Our trio of central defenders were looking nervy from the start and conceded too many fouls and failed to go with the movement of the front two.
Our front two were static, low on work-rate and high on outstretched arms and complaining to team-mates and the referee - with John Marquis making it booking number six. Neither had a sniff of goal.
It was one-way traffic, and it was pure good fortune that we had not conceded at least three times before we finally did.
Russ Penn was too streetwise for Joe Hanks, and having got him booked and then on to a final warning ahead of a red, Mark Yates did the right thing in taking him off.
He moved Troy Brown slightly forward, but then he gave the ball away and a little ball down the channel to the side of Jack Deaman and Lee Vaughan (see also Plymouth's third goal last week) finally gave York their goal.
So more changes, this time Eusebio for Deaman, and a change to 4-4-2. Yes, 4-4-2. You know, that system we can't ever seem to get right.
But hey, guess what. It worked. And we dominated the second half, with Eusebio (for half an hour, until York worked out how to stop him getting the ball) a box of tricks and a constant danger.
On the other side, Raffa de Vita was also effective, his best game for us and a far cry from that anonymous display at Shrewsbury, then change number three saw Byron Harrison come on for Marquis.
He added a different dimension as well, winning flick-ons, holding the ball up and using the width, running the channels and showing the work-rate we had been asking for from him.
Gornell should have scored with a header, and scuffed another chance from a rebound. Harrison was denied by two fine saves and there were other balls flashing across the box and loose balls bobbling about which just needed a bit more anticipation and a bit more bravery.
So there was no stubborn sticking to his guns from the manager, as we have been frustrated by in the past. He saw it was wrong, and he changed it as soon as he could, and it nearly worked for him.
But it didn't and the bottom line is that we lost the game, no matter how we dominated the second half, and no matter all the chances we had. The first half display was enough to make sure we got what we deserved from the game.
And so with the result, it seems, has come the return of the glass-half-empty mentality. 
"We are in the bottom half now." Yes. Just. 13th is in the bottom half, but it's very tight.
"We are three points off 18th." Yes, true. But we are also three points off seventh. The play-offs.
"If we lose our next three, we could be 22nd and out of the Cup." Yes, true, depending on other results. But if we win them all, we could be in the second round of the Cup, £18,000 (plus any gate receipts, if there are any) better off and in the top seven.
You can put rose-tinted glasses or dark-tinted shades on the situation, but my reality is that where we are is where we deserve to be.
We are an average, middle-of-the-table League Two side. The players we have in our squad are of the quality we can afford, and they play in League Two for a reason.
Some weeks they will play well, like they have more often than not this season, but they will also play badly. We have to accept that, and yes, it is just as frustrating for me as it is for you. 
As long as they put the effort and commitment in as they did at Cambridge, then I would hope most would be happy with that. For 45 minutes yesterday they didn't do that, and they deserve to be criticised for it.
That inconsistency is why they are this level - if they were consistently able to produce their best performances week in week out, they wouldn't be here. Or if they did, other clubs higher up would soon be sniffing around.
From being hailed as heroes at Cambridge, they have gone back to zeroes and are now "a poor squad of non-league players" apparently. Guess it is true that you are are only as good as your last game.
Yet our budget and crowds are such that we have the team the club can afford. That team is probably destined to finish in mid-table, or just below that. We have beaten two sides currently above us, Bury and Accrington, and yesterday's defeat was the first against a team sitting below us.
So that suggests 13th is about right for us at the moment, and that many of the teams above us will finish above us, and the many of the ones below us will finish below us.
That is my view of reality. I know some won't like it. Some will say I am being unambitious and showing a 'little old Cheltenham' mentality, and fine, that is your opinion, but I think this is our level, and we will have to accept that, and people will have to decide if they want to sign up for it or not. 
I'd love us to be top of the league, or fight for the play-offs every season, of course I would. I want to see the club progress. But, and again some will say I am being boring and unambitious, but for now I will settle for keeping League football here. 
We waited long enough for it, so I certainly don't want to see us lose it. Doing that is only going to become more and more difficult in the coming years given the club's finances and the crowds. 
At present, I feel anything else is a bonus unless there is someone out there with some spare cash they want to throw into the black hole that is League Two football. If that doesn't happen, sorry to say I fear that we will eventually seriously struggle more and more to keep our league status.
Hence why the board have to run a tight financial ship, and keep us within our means, ever-shrinking as those means are.
What I struggle to understand is when I hear people who have been watching the club as long as I have saying they are turning their backs on it, regretting their decision to buy a season ticket.
It is their decision of course - but having seen some really terrible stuff in front of one man and his dog in some pretty ropey places in the Southern League for a long time, I don't get how a few mid-table seasons in League Two are now a step too far, and how this squad can be "the worst I have seen in xxx years" after some of the seasons and teams they have endured, at various levels.
If we are all so bored of being mid-table in League Two, other clubs will swap places with us in a heartbeat. Bristol Rovers, Grimsby, Wrexham, Hereford, Stockport County to name a few. But we lose this status, we won't get it back, and the club could easily spiral downwards, as a couple of those names above have done.
I know some will cite the cost. I fully get that. My last blog made clear my feelings on the cost of football in general and especially next week's FA Cup tie. Football everywhere, not just here, is too expensive.
Others cite entertainment, or the lack of it. But this is League Two, and it is a slog. There are not many teams in this league who are going to try to play expansive, passing, flowing football. They are going to try to be organised and functional, as York were.
Every game is a battle, and I'm afraid that to expect thrilling football every week is unrealistic. The Conference would be worse.
I fully accept that home fans have been short-changed of late, especially last season - but sometimes I think you just have to ride the rollercoaster that this division is. I do not think you can just expect the team to come out and turn on a sparkling display every week. It's not going to happen with League Two players. They are often going to annoy and frustrate. It goes with the territory.
Others say they are disillusioned as they feel the manager has had his day, has taken us as far as he can, has hit a ceiling, has gone stale, should have gone at the end of last season... however you want to put it. 
Yes we could change the manager, but would it alter anything long-term, and would we attract anyone better? 
There might be a short-term lift as there often is, but long-term it wouldn't be a magic wand to make the budget bigger, it wouldn't suddenly transform the squad, or make them all better players, and I doubt if it would attract hordes more fans. Would we suddenly play an expansive, entertaining style with a new manager? No. This is League Two.
I just feel all it would be is a new name on the office door. He would have the same players and the same resources to deal with. It would be changing the manager for the sake of it, and I don't feel (at the moment) that it is worth it. Only if the results take a serious downturn in the next two months will the board even consider it.
And even then if we did it, and it went wrong - then what? Do we turn into Leeds and change it again and again until we get it right? 
Despite their win yesterday, York haven't exactly shot up the league having changed manager. Ditto Hartlepool, Carlisle and Tranmere. I will be interested to see how Burton fare when they appoint a full-time successor to Gary Rowett.
On the other hand, Wycombe are paying the dividend at present for sticking by a manager after the narrowest of narrow escapes last season.
I actually think tactically Yates has been better this season. He has made substitutions and tactical changes which have won us points or gone very close to doing so. Most of our wins have been down to switches he has made.
His interviews are better as well, with yesterdays being one of the best. Honesty, and no excuses. No defending the performance, no defending the players, as they didn't deserve it. No excusing the first-half display just because of the improved second period. I thought it was refreshing.
The bottom line is we all want a winning team. But is that the only thing which might ultimately will bring the crowds back? 
Is winning enough any more, as after the Northampton win, "three points, but it was a crap game" was one reaction I saw post-match - so maybe even merely winning isn't satisfactory. The modern fan is only happy to win in style it seems?
One thing that is certainly not going to win the fans back is the pricing for next weekend's Cup tie - in fact all it is likely to do is alienate more of them, and yesterday's result won't tempt too many who were dithering about paying the price to dig into their pockets, unfortunately.
But it's that old vicious circle again. Less crowds means less money coming in, means less for the manager's budget, means less quality in the squad, means less chance of success on the field, means less crowds... and so on. Hence why the pricing decision for next week is, in my view, not right.
That decision is why the attendance figure next week will make just as interesting reading as the manager's team sheet - and he has some big decisions to make, in system and personnel.
The 3-5-2, we have been told, has made us more solid defensively - yet we have now conceded at least once in our last 10 league games so it seems that he will have to at least consider dumping it, at least until Matt Taylor is fit again. But going back to a flat four would bring its own headaches.
I assume that Troy Brown and Steve Elliott would be paired together. Brown has not been at his best recently, and it also brings into focus the defensive capabilities of Lee Vaughan and Craig Braham-Barrett.
CBB has been a plus of the season, thanks largely to the 3-5-2 and the way it has allowed him to use the attacking side to his game. 
Vaughan has looked suspect defensively (I thought Saturday was his poorest game for us) and we saw CBB struggle at times so are we going to risk that again by going to a four?
We also know that we have struggled with 4-4-2. It has just never worked, mainly due to the lack of a midfield two we can rely on. I cannot believe Yates will play 4-4-2 against Swindon, as I think we would get over-run in there.
More likely is 4-5-1 or a variation of it. I wonder if he might play more of a 4-2-3-1 with Richards and Taylor as the deeper two, with one man ahead of them, two wide men and one forward.
The three could be OSJ or Hanks centrally, with de Vita and Andy Haworth wide - assuming that if Eusebio's loan is extended, Wolves will not want him to be cup-tied. If he can play, he should.
I think that Eusebio would have been sent back to Wolves but for the cameo yesterday. He does not fit into the 3-5-2 and if that is the system we were going to carry on playing, then why keep him?
But the first-half nightmare and subsequent change of formation and his display might have changed the manager's mind. Had 3-5-2 worked, and had we won the game with it, it could have been curtains.
He is not alone in not fitting into the 3-5-2. Add de Vita, Haworth, OSJ and Zack Kotwica to that list. If the formation does change, their fortunes might change for the better as well.
The choice to be the '1' is Harrison or Gornell as Marquis will not be able to play as his loan ends in late November, so Millwall will not want him cup-tied as they might want to use him themselves in round three or loan him to someone between then and January who might want him for round two.
Neither of them are exactly suited to that role, but Harrison would be the best bet, especially if we are going to play two wide men to provide crosses for him. De Vita put some good balls in yesterday and we'll need some more of them to have any chance.
He faces big decisions for a big game.