So, following the strange and as yet unexplained interregnum between the strong rumour (from a reliable ITK source) and confirmation of appointment, we can indeed now move on to the preparations for next season under a new gaffer, the said Ben Garner. Not everything’s settled yet as there’s no news on whether any of his team at Swindon will be coming with him, but it’s quite possible that talks are ongoing. Pointedly, there was no question on the subject put to either Garner, Thomas Sandgaard or Steve Gallen in the interviews posted on the club site, which suggests this remains a sensitive issue, but with the manager role settled this should not be any barrier to transfer activity.
What comes across strongly (to me) in the three interviews is the real depth of the ‘singing from the same hymnsheet’ mantra, beyond what might reasonably be predicted. While TS and SG talked about the selection process, what comes across as the key factor is the style of football he wants to play. That obviously struck a chord with TS, while SG talked in terms of it having become clear early on that BG was the first-choice candidate (from a ‘serious shortlist’ of around six, a shortlist of perhaps 10, perhaps 40 seriously considered applicants, and according to BG hundreds of actual applicants). So all three talked in terms of a style of play to be adopted at all levels, one followed by Swindon last season (which resulted in them topping the table on a number of measures – although those stats do tend to overlook that they conceded the most number of goals in the top 10).
So whatever the rights and wrongs, we do have an agreed starting point, one which will extend to the targeting of new players (and it was welcome on that front that SG in particular emphasised that the final word on a player would always be with the manager). If it all goes pear-shaped there can be no pointing of fingers, although success or failure in this respect does for sure depend on who is brought in to bolster the team.
This all leaves open the questions of what constitutes success (or failure) as regards next season, what playing ‘attacking football’ will mean in practise, what will be BG’s preferred formation, what are the key areas we need to strengthen, and who will be brought in.
TS was not surprisingly more circumspect than he has been in the past when it comes to objectives and success/failure. There is still the implied bottom line from what he said regarding wanting automatic promotion, while viewing a top-six finish as probably acceptable. But ‘progress’ and playing attractive football were also cited as objectives, which are rather less tangible.
On this front personally I have no hesitation in saying every season in this division which ends without promotion is a failure. Not because we have some divine right, not because of any harking back to a past era, but because of some facts. First, however it is tweaked the revenue base in the third flight is not going to be sufficient – unless supplemented by regular, significant player sales. This does of course beg the question whether we could be financially sound in the Championship, but the stadium would be full. Second, whatever style of football we play we will still face opposition which cares nothing for such niceties – and it is far easier on the pitch to drag an opponent down to a level than to raise one up. In this division we will still end up watching lousy football.
There are probably personal interests/prejudices involved here. I grew up with us playing through the Sixties in the Second Division. It’s where we belonged. Relegation changed all that, but first time around I could see it as a blip, second time I was away from London for most of that season etc. Promotion to the top flight was wonderful under Lennie and we enjoyed it all, but in our heart of hearts we didn’t expect it to last. Next time around under Curbs it was different again as we did establish ourselves – but we were still only ever one bad season away from that era ending. More recently we’ve been pulled more in the opposite direction and I loathe the idea that we might become accustomed to being a third-flight outfit.
So for me, in this division, attractive football is very much secondary to succeeding, which means promotion. If all goes well, there is no dichotomy. TS when questioned about the style of football (pressing, attacking) justified it by saying that in his opinion it gives the best chance of winning. I hope that proves to be the case. But drawing some supposed line between ‘old-fashioned’ and ‘modern’ football – the former involving hoofing it forward to a big lump, the latter passing from the back, keeping possession, and pressing hard as soon as the ball is lost – is simplistic. Fads in football come and go. The beauty of the game is that there is no optimum formation, no style of play which guarantees success. Every game is a contest and, whether you like it or not, the other side has its own agenda and plans, including one framed around how to beat us. The best strategy is knowing your team’s strengths and playing to them. One downside of our ‘new approach’ is that every other team in our division will know perfectly well our style of play.
After all, when Barcelona has a genius in the form of Messi they adopted a style which suited him. It was wonderful to watch, because the guy could just do what seemed impossible. When Spain played in a similar style but had nobody to truly weave the magic in the final third, it was very, very boring to watch (even if it produced results).
Try another case. I remember watching Scottish Ladies play Hong Kong Ladies in a Commonwealth Games bowls match. The former, all middle-aged in prime, knitted outfits, spent ages setting up ends with considered precision. And then having been outplayed to a point the latter would launch a rocket down the middle and smash the end to pieces. Hong Kong Ladies won the game.
Don’t get me wrong, of course I’d rather see us win 4-2 than a ground-out 1-0. And much of what we saw last season was indeed painful. But I can’t remember the last time I went home depressed after a win – or vice versa. I suspect that back in the Championship I would be more inclined to be less focused on the result but can we please first get there, by whatever means.
As for players to suit the system, whether or not management likes it our main attacking threats right now are a guy who will score the bulk of his goals with his head and one whose main asset is power. In Stockley and Aneka we have players which, if fit, would get into any team in this division. And if Blackett-Taylor is freed from defensive duties (ie 3-5-2 is ditched) to just terrorise opposition defences we have potency in attack, especially if another forward is brought in (I hope I’m surprised by Davison and perhaps Kanu will progress quickly enough). But will these three work best if told to chase around and close down?
Behind them I’d say we currently have Forster-Caskey and Fraser, plus Dobson (Gilbey, Morgan, Jaiyesimi and Kirk may have roles to play but don’t appear to me at least to be core to the team). We’ve not seen enough of Fraser yet to draw any conclusions, but hope that he doesn’t prove to be a player liked by JJ but unable to fit into a new mode of play.
Let’s just not forget that, while Swindon had an impressive season, especially considering where they started from, they didn’t get into an automatic promotion spot, and lost in the play-offs, because they conceded too many goals. We obviously need to bring in new defenders (try telling Inniss his job is to press high and chase hard). Unless we get this area of the pitch functioning well, which means having players who are good at stopping the other team scoring goals, we are not going to win anything.
So let’s welcome BG, give him the support he deserves, and hope none of these differences in emphasis ends up mattering a damn as we storm our way to the title.