Friday, 30 December 2022

More Pain, Bring On The Window

I wrote something yesterday about the alternative formations and their pros and cons, plus the difficulties in switching between them during games. Last night we played the first half with a 3-5-2 and, not helped by a lack of cohesion (as changes were made to each area) and rustiness, we were dire, leaking goals, unable to string passes together or to get any joy from lumped balls forward. The switch to 4-3-3 in the second half, to enable the introduction of Blackett-Taylor and Rak-Sakyi, saw a material improvement and a goal back, only for any thoughts of getting something out of the game to disappear with a sucker punch for an Oxford third. Another miserable round, another game without a win, a further slip in the table.

The changes to the team saw Inniss and Sessegnon removed from the defence, with Thomas returning from injury to accompany Lavelle and Ness and Chin operating as one of the wing-backs. The surprise in midfield was a rest for Fraser, with Henry stepping into that spot (no sign of Morgan or Forster-Caskey), while up front Stockley came in to start, Leaburn among the subs, while Kanu was retained.

The less said about the first half the better. We made Oxford look like they were playing their own tribute to Pele. A free-kick crashed against the underside of the bar before a low cross from their right, while well-directed, went past three defenders before reaching their guy unmarked at the far post for a tap-in. A few minutes later a rather hopeful shot was deflected past Maynard-Brewer into the net. Oxford could have filled their boots against a porous, uncoordinated defence, while with the ball we either hit it high for Stockley to try to produce something or gave it away. Nothing material came from the wing-backs and to be frank Kanu, as in the first half against Peterborough (before he laid on our goal), looked raw.

It had to change at the break and at least the changes made sense rather than being halfhearted, asking players to play out of position. Off went Thomas, Lavelle and Kanu, on came Inniss, CBT and Rak-Sakyi. Oxford went off the boil and we at least carried a threat, one demonstrated when Blackett-Taylor got clear down the left and, like Kanu before him, delivered an excellent cross for Leaburn, who had by then come on for Stockley, to head home, having delayed his run to lose his marker. And when Rak-Sakyi played a reverse pass into Leaburn’s path we thought for a moment that somehow we might draw level. That wasn’t to be as their keeper got a touch on it; and with that chance our best hope disappeared. There might still have been a desperate end to the game had Oxford not put it to bed with a third, one coming rather out of the blue as we pressed for an equaliser.

At least we can now, have to now, acknowledge this as a crisis, not some dip in form. We are still light on numbers due to injuries: Wallacott, Egbo, O’Connell, MacGrandles (remember him?), Aneke, with Thomas only returning last night and apparently Sessegnon not fit. We are also a team without a plan, low on confidence, and with the trap door opening beneath us, having failed to get any new manager bounce. Hopefully some of the personnel changes – both outgoings and incomings – will happen quickly. We have five league games in January and simply don’t have the luxury of waiting until the end of the transfer window. The uncertainty over ownership and who might be writing the cheques is a factor for sure. Hopefully all concerned will appreciate the desperate need for both change and clarity as soon as possible.

Thursday, 29 December 2022

Alternative Formations Ahead of January Window

In his first game in charge Dean Holden went for a 3-5-2 set-up, at least at the start. But we can’t be sure yet that this is his preferred option or just a first stab looking at the resources available, ahead of the January transfer window. I’d suggest that his problem as things stand is that in many respects we offer two potential formations, both with pros and cons but with it not easy to switch between the two. What structure he favours will presumably help to guide the comings and goings during the window.

Let’s start with 3-5-2. Now JJ opted to play wing-backs, without having natural players for the positions (Matthews, Gunter, Purrington etc while attempts to bring in players for the spots – Soare, the guy from Birmingham - failed), and Sessegnon and Clare can’t be said to automatically fit the bill, although both had their moments against Peterborough, most obviously Clare breaking forward in the second half. If Clayden returns from loan in January he might offer an alternative/back-up (although I’ve no idea how he's been getting on at Bromley), along with Chin. As for three at the back in the centre, we lost so much sleep last season being reminded of how we were torn apart with ease as to be nervous at the prospect. With O’Connell, Egbo and Thomas all currently unavailable, it has to be Inniss, Lavelle and another, currently Ness (the alternatives being Elerewe, back from loan but apparently not in favour, and Mitchell).

So 3/5 at the back leaves us stretched for personnel- the only replacement from the bench against Peterborough was Mitchell, although there was the option to shuffle the pack and change formation - but it is doable. The conundrum, for me, is what the formation means for us going forward. Basically there’s no room for wingers/widish front men, which means that as against Peterborough neither Blackett-Taylor nor Rak-Sakyi (nor for that matter Kirk, Campbell, or Jaiyesimi) get a start. Arguably two of our most potent weapons are frozen out by the formation. You do get to play a front two (Leaburn and Kanu so far with Stockley the other option, assuming Aneke is currently unavailable), but that also has its drawbacks as Payne operating as the most advanced as a midfield three doesn’t get the space coming into the box late which he does if playing in support of a lone main striker. I thought that was apparent in the first half against Peterborough.

In my view Blackett-Taylor and Rak-Sakyi come into their own in a 4-3-3 in which they play either side of a forward, usually Stockley. With Payne a better option than Kirk in the support role (although Kirk did of course bag a couple at Burton in the position), we perhaps play our best football with this formation. Both can torment the opposition by being able to go outside and inside, at pace. But the downsides are apparent too. CBT still doesn’t look able to play a full game, Rak-Sakyi also seems to tire. And when they tire we don’t have direct replacements for them, as Kirk, Campbell and DJ are more outright wingers. They can occupy the position but the play will be different, less potent. The other downside is that if a team sets up against us to sit behind the ball and deny space in their final third, doubling up on the danger men, we struggle to create anything.

There is of course a compromise between the two, ie a basic 4-4-2. That allows for two outright wingers with more of an emphasis on outright wingers getting good deliveries into a pair of strikers. That set-up would allow for five wide men to vie for two positions with replacements from the bench. You lose the Payne/Kirk number 10 role, but it looks a better set-up for Kirk, possibly the best crosser of the ball we have.

That aside, there is the problem of making changes during the game. If you start with a 3-5-2 with Blackett-Taylor and Rak-Sakyi on the bench, how do you get them involved? Either you ask them to play in a position which doesn’t get the best out of them, or at the same time you have (I think) to ditch the wing-backs and move to a back four. So you probably end up taking off a wing-back or central defender and also perhaps dispensing with the third central midfielder. In reverse, if you start with a 4-3-3 and during the game want to get a second forward on the pitch, you might have to take off both CBT and Rak-Sakyi, plus Payne, to switch to outright wingers and the two up top. And whatever the formation, the two essentials are Dobson and Fraser (with Morgan, Henry and Forster-Caskey the back-ups).

I don’t pretend there’s an obvious and easy answer. Neither is there an answer to suit every game, depending on whether the opposition will look to take the game to us or shut up shop. It’s tempting to hark back to what worked in the past, but when we blew away the division under Sir Chris we were good enough not to have to worry about how teams would line up against us, we had the team to beat them whatever. It was less clear-cut under Lee Bowyer, but that side also had reliable characters and weapons. We are a long way short as things stand, but again the shape which Holden sees emerging will presumably influence the January choices.

Some decisions may be taken for him of course. If Palace decide to recall Rak-Sakyi and send him on loan somewhere else, it would probably put an end to the ‘3 up front’ option, unless of course we brought in a similar replacement. As for other possible departures, the state of play off the field suggests nothing can be ruled out. We’d hate for sure to see Leaburn depart at this stage, or Dobson or Claire for that matter. But if good offers come in will they be turned down? I hope for their sakes that MacGillivray and Forster-Caskey get moves to places they will get to play. Both deserve better than they are getting from us at present and sometimes it’s just better to move on, unless Holden gives them a good reason to stay.

As for whether or not Sandgaard is in the process of selling up, I can only follow the rumours. What I find especially sad about the current state of play is that he has effectively gone into hiding. Not appearing at games, not engaging seriously with the Trust and others. It’s as if as soon as he wasn’t being treated as the messiah it was no longer fun for him and time to withdraw. If that’s the case it is to be regretted all round. I thought his enjoying his tenure was a very welcome contrast to the Duchatelet years. And it’s worrying as the further he is distanced from the club the less concerned he is likely to be to ensure it ends up in safe hands if he ‘sells’ (that being an odd term for disposing of an asset which in itself is worth nothing).

Me? I’m looking forward to the game tonight, to us finally breaking the winless spell, then heading off to Nimes for a few days to welcome in the new year (which means missing the Portsmouth game, unless there’s a bar …) So let us hope 2023 brings us the things we want. As we sang at half-time the last time we played a cup tie at Old Trafford, ‘things can only get better’.

Monday, 26 December 2022

All Too Familiar, But Take The Point

There were some pretty obvious reasons for this afternoon’s game to be of considerable interest. How would Holden set up the team? Would the players deliver the hoped-for new manager lift? Would they be able to repeat the concentration and determination they had shown in seeing off Brighton? And could we finally end our winless streak in the league at seven? No doubt the afternoon would throw up some more. Almost as interesting after all, just who might be spotted in the West Stand with their chequebooks hanging out of their pockets?

What we got was a decidedly mixed bag in terms of performance. There was no shortage of effort, but that hadn’t really been the problem under Garner. In reality we had a reminder of why we are where we are in the league as once again we failed to win, for the second home league game running despite taking the lead. We conceded another goal from a set-piece, defending it poorly, and we gave the ball away in positions which might have produced other goals, all of which was familiar. Hardly surprising really as its only been a few days under Holden, no chance for him yet to shape the team – although we did focus less than before on retaining possession at the back for its own sake. I suspect overall we just wanted a last-minute winner off someone’s backside, to show that Holden is lucky. And we didn’t get that in a game which in the final stages could easily have gone either way.

The team did show some notable choices. Maynard-Brewer, as against Brighton, kept the keeper’s jersey despite the availability of MacGillivray. In what looked like a 3-5-2 we had Lavelle and Ness either side of Inniss, with Clare and Sessegnon seemingly being asked to play wing-backs. Dobson, Fraser and Payne all kept their places, while up front Leaburn kept his too and was joined by Kanu, with Stockley on the bench. The set-up meant no starting place for either Blackett-Taylor or Rak-Sakyi, who were among the subs, along with Kirk, with Mitchell and Henry the only alternatives in midfield and defence (unless we switched formation), with Morgan apparently ill and Forster-Caskey not included.

The first half was, from our point of view, disappointing. The formation didn’t seem to be working as we weren’t getting much down the flanks from the wing-backs, while Payne operating behind a front two seemed to deny him space. And during this period Leaburn and Kanu looked like a couple of kids learning their trade against experienced opposition. The only time we came close to scoring was a free-kick outside the box which Fraser curled over the wall but just wide. That really was it.

At the other end, Peterborough didn’t pull us to pieces but they had moments. They had joy down their right/our left, and had the half-chances to take the lead. A corner routine worked well first time with a low ball in met by a guy in plenty of space. His shot was blocked and the follow-up put into the side-netting. And their main chance, on 35 minutes, saw us caught on the break as a poor ball from Ness was intercepted and their guy was played in. Maynard-Brewer blocked the first effort and was on his feet quickly to get in the way of the second, getting a bloody nose for his heroics.

At the break it was still all square, but Peterborough will have been reasonably content, being clearly ahead on points and looking the more likely. You felt that the game might end up turning on whether we could keep it level before some changes were made. But hey, this is football. Whether it was something Holden said we almost scored three goals in the first 10 minutes.

A few minutes into the half and we had the lead. A ball forward was just nicked by Kanu, who managed to loop the ball up before the defender reached it, effectively playing himself in down the left. He looked up and sent in a peach of a cross, which saw Leaburn get across his marker and guide a deft header into the far side of the net. A splendid goal completely at odds with what had gone before. A couple of minutes later and it was nearly two, this time all Leaburn’s own work. He wriggled through in the box, going past a couple of challenges which might have yielded a spot kick had he gone to ground. Instead he agonizingly just failed to get a clean shot away at the end of the run. Two more minutes and we were an inch away from making it three as we broke from their corner and Clare was able to pick it up in our half, with nobody between him and the keeper. He did almost everything right, managing to move it quickly enough to avoid a defender getting back, lifting it over the advancing keeper, only for the ball to come back off the inside of the post.

After that Payne shot over from a decent position and Clare had another storming run down the right. Peterborough seemed shell-shocked at the turn of events, but just after the hour we left them back in. Fraser lost the ball badly and Lavelle did well to cover the eventual effort, blocking it for a corner. But a familiar weakness resurfaced as one to the far post found two Peterborough players with the opportunity for a free header. The one back hit Ness and bounced through Maynard-Brewer’s legs and over the line before it could be hooked out.

Then Peterborough did a passable impression of us, coming within a whisker of scoring again. Another low corner was prodded goalwards only to come back off the bar, with their guy failing to convert what looked like a tap-in from the rebound. Another couple of corners followed, ending with their guy advancing onto a loose ball inside the area only to blaze over.

As we drew breath with 20 minutes or so left on the clock the abiding thought was surely there was another goals in the game, but for who? Both sides made changes, with a triple substitution from us. On came Stockley, Rak-Sakyi and Henry, for Kanu, Payne and Fraser. Unfortunately Rak-Sakyi had no time to get into the game before he was offered the chance to put us ahead again. He was in plenty of space when Leaburn’s ball square found him, but rather tamely hit the shot wide. And our final decent chance of the game also fell to him, with a few minutes of normal time left he was found in the box. He was being forced onto his right and ended up running out of space and unable to get a shot away. And for good measure after that the Peterborough guy broke clear down the left, only for his fierce shot to cannon back off the bar.

There was to be no deciding goal and the points were shared, with both sides ruing their inability to take very good chances and neither coming away with the win they both badly needed. Nobody will disagree that a draw was a fair result, just that it should have been 2-2 or 3-3 rather than 1-1. Ultimately we didn’t learn anything we didn’t already know and move on. No choice, we have to, to wait for some changes in January to set the tone for the remainder of the campaign.

Tuesday, 20 December 2022

Time For Some Positives, Welcome Dean Holden

I’m not a fan of Shakespeare. For sure he could pen a decent line, and when performed his plays can offer decent entertainment; but really it’s just a case of taking a few well-trodden human dilemmas and creating a narrative around them. Heard someone on the radio recently comment gushingly how ‘remarkable’ it was that even after 400 years he is ‘still relevant’. Well, the Greek tragedies are around seven thousand years old but just as relevant. Fact is the subject matter is the human condition and that doesn’t change. But the relevance to our current situation is that it is usually acknowledged that Shakespeare is so ambiguous when it comes answers to the questions he poses that any critique of his work says more about the person doing the critique than the work itself. And I think we’re seeing a fair reflection of that in the initial reactions to the news of the appointment of Dean Holden to succeed Ben Garner (along with three other ‘experience professionals’).

I’d venture that very few of us, certainly not me, have a good handle on Holden’s pros and cons, what style of football he wants us to play, how he views the game in general – and based around that whether or not he is likely to succeed. And let’s not kid ourselves, success this season would now amount to staying clear of the relegation zone and steady improvement on the pitch, to turn an underperforming group of players into a coherent team, sufficient to give us some hope that next season will be different (and better). Yesterday people were commenting gloomily that no decent manager would want to take the job, today people seem underwhelmed when we haven't brought in Guardiola.

Go back to June and the appointment of Garner. Thomas Sandgaard had, quite possibly unnecessarily, dispensed of the services of JJ in a clumsy fashion and brought in a young replacement, who had just had one good season with Swindon (but failed to get them promoted) after six months without a job after being sacked by Bristol Rovers. For sure there were a lot of positives flying around, the common goal to play attractive, attacking football and the possibility that TS had selected a real gem in the making. It’s not Holden’s fault that six months later those dreams have fallen away, that some consider the sacking of Garner to have been unfair, and that we find ourselves, in the Trust’s words, at our lowest ebb. The real difference between then and now is the change in perceptions towards the owner. The universal goodwill of September 2020 had by June 2022 been eroded but was still basically intact. The feeling now is much more grudging, with some openly calling for him to sell up asap, even though we have no idea what might follow, and the Trust, not unreasonably, looking for reassurances from Sandgaard about his plans before deciding on a position.

So let’s try some positives. First, at least Sandgaard must have realised after the Fans Forum and Saturday’s result that he needed to act sooner rather than later in getting a new manager in. Of course this could mean that he’s been panicked into a decision, but let’s wait and see. Also, the other appointments announced – a new technical director (whatever that means), new chief operating officer, and a new finance director – can’t have been plucked out of thin air and do suggest that he realised more changes were required than just another manager. I have no idea what the appointments might mean in terms of new investment/new owners and where things really stand on that that front; here too we have to wait and see. And this isn’t to gloss over the real concerns arising from the Fans Forum, including a TS account of transfer dealings in the summer over a new forward which is just not, in itself, credible. If Sandgaard was becoming more embroiled in the detail of club activities and keeping his head in the sand with regard to the bigger picture – ie how we are doing on the pitch – at least we have change.

On investment/ownership I’m not – at least not yet - in the corner calling for Sandgaard to sell up asap and move on. I commented after Garner’s dismissal that perhaps there were only two ways forward, first a mea culpa from TS and second new owners. The news today may perhaps come to be seen as a version of the former. He has appointed people who will for sure answer to him but will not be there simply at his beck and call. Saandgard may or may not have saved our club, but at the least he took it away from the vultures and has kept them at bay. He may not have the money to buy The Valley from Duchatelet, but quite frankly nobody in their right mind would pay the sum he seems to be asking for (it is possible that the value is determined by the figure for the asset on the balance sheet, which may have been used as collateral, causing problems if sold for a lower amount). Can’t help thinking this is still a serious stumbling block for serious new owners.

So for me, unless and until we know the identity of any prospective new owner(s) and their plans, we should hope Saandgard stays. If he comes through the current period a little wiser having learnt from mistakes, that would be so much the better. As for Holden, he deserves our full support as of now. We are in a bad place and we have made our feelings known. Some action has followed. Hopefully now we can play our part in the great turnaround on the pitch. I was perhaps less enamoured with Garner than others (but very much hoped he would be the new messiah and wish him well for the future) and have to say I’m quite looking forward to seeing how a new broom deals with the bunch of collective underachievers we currently have and how he will turn them into worldbeaters. I’m actually looking forward to it.

Sunday, 18 December 2022

Bright Start Makes End-Result Even More Painful

Another miserable game made worse by the fact that for the first 30 minutes or so we were in total control, creating chances and not allowing Bristol Rovers to get into the game. With hindsight it all started to go wrong when we scored as progressively we seemed to go back into a shell. Rovers were at least in the game towards the end of the first half, improved after the break with a change, made more, enabling Marquis to be on hand to take advantage of Inniss’ howlers, while we became progressively more disorganised and seemingly disheartened. For me, while for sure the mistakes changed the game, what really disappointed was our reaction to going behind. There were still 20+ minutes to go but there was no strong reaction, no fresh drive to turn the tables. We sank to defeat rather tamely.

It had all started so well. I liked the look of the team, with Hayes opting for a formation which looked like parts in their right place, helped for sure by the return from suspension of Stockley. With MacGillivray apparently unwell, Maynard-Brewer was between the sticks. In front of him, in a 4-3-3 which also doubled as a 4-4-2, Inniss and Lavelle in central defence with Sessignon and Clare either side. Dobson and Fraser, then Payne (finally) given the role of getting into the box in support of Stockley, with Rak-Sakyi and Blackett-Taylor in the wide positions (although unusually the former was on the left, the latter on the right). With Aneke joined on the bench by the returning Leaburn, we looked likely to create chances, but as was stressed on Charlton TV could we eradicate the mistakes at the back?

For the first 30 minutes worries about the defence just didn’t come into play. Rak-Sakyi was able to take advantage of the Rovers set-up (a back three or five) to find space, while Blackett-Taylor showed that as usual his pace was going to produce openings. And with Payne ready to support Stockley all looked well. Indeed, in the first few minutes we might have scored as two balls into the box were not far off being converted. Stockley’s shot from distance had their keeper worried and led to him colliding with the post, Payne shot wide from a Fraser cross. In the first 10 minutes the stats showed we had four shots, two on target (to zero on both fronts for Rovers). Another spate of chances came in the following 10, with a Rak-Sakyi shot caved by their keeper’s legs, then he saved again from Payne. However, from the resulting corner Inniss was able to get in a firm header and Stockley’s presence was enough to put off their defender on the line and it went in the far corner.

With hindsight that was as good as it got. In the final period of the first half Rovers were allowed into the game, had a couple of shots from distance (one palmed away by Maynard-Brewer, the other curled over), and we seemed to take our foot off the gas. At the break the stats still showed seven attempts on goal and four on target for us, against two and one. We had been by a distance the better team, but had just the one goal to show for it.

The second half began well enough. A CBT cross was met by Fraser in a good position but he completely missed his shot. But on the hour the disaster story started to unfold. Clare played a ball across the line to Inniss, who clearly didn’t welcome it. He took a touch, looked up to see what was on, and Marquis, who had been introduced to the fray five minutes earlier, came in from the side to take it off him, advanced, and curled it in beyond Maynard-Brewer.

All the good work of the first half now undone. But you thought OK, so be it, let’s get going again and win the game. Hayes reacted by introducing Aneke and Leaburn, for Stockley and Rak-Sakyi. With Leaburn seemingly in the centre alongside Aneke, we switched to a back three/five, with Clare making up the three and CBT and Payne operating as wing-backs. We almost went behind shortly after as a Rovers attack down their left led to a cross to the far post, where Marquis had only to put the ball into an empty net, which he failed to do. Just after Inniss almost scored again from a corner, but his hero to villain afternoon was to continue.

Inniss was given another pass and, seemingly intent not to dwell on the ball, he stroked it forward – and crucially kept moving forward, while Lavelle stayed rooted to the spot. When a Rovers player simply headed it back beyond Inniss, Marquis was through on goal. He scored again.

After that we did have moments, with a shot driven in blocked possibly with a hand and a CBT cross almost fell to Payne. Equally Rovers might easily have made it three. Further changes saw Morgan and Chin introduced for Blackett-Taylor and Sessegnon, which meant a switch to 4-4-2, while late on Kirk was introduced for Fraser. But in the final 10 minutes and five minutes of stoppage time we failed to create anything worthwhile, or look like scoring again.

What can usefully be said? Once again we showed that we can for periods of a game be pretty good, but also once again that if the opposition is patient and stays in the game we are likely to fall apart. More specifically, I think Hayes – or whoever comes next – needs to look at how we play when changes are made. In Rak-Sakyi and CBT we have potent weapons. But their replacements (Kirk, Jaiyesimi) are not like-for-like, so when/if the time comes to make changes the gameplan has to be revisited. If we switch to playing two up front, does it make sense to bring on two new at the same time? Fact is neither Aneke nor Leaburn had an impact on the game. For me, what was clear in the final 20 minutes or so was that Fraser and Payne were tired and we had lost control of midfield. I thought the situation was crying out, not for the first time, for Forster-Caskey to provide some control and direction, but he was not in the squad.

Equally, there’s no substitute for character and we came up short on that front. Sure confidence is low, we need a win from somewhere. For a while it looked like that would come yesterday. The fact that it didn’t, the nature of the goals which led to defeat, plus the apparent change of approach to become more cautious and negative once we'd taken the lead, rather than driving on to extend it, leave us all looking for answers. No reflection on Hayes, but perhaps the first issue is to get the new manager in and let him provide fresh ideas. Otherwise our drift is taking us into dangerous territory.

Tuesday, 6 December 2022

Consistency Of Failure

So what can we say of the end of the Ben Garner era, all six months of it? First off, good luck to the guy, wherever he resurfaces (assuming of course it isn’t a places just down the road). Nobody questions his commitment and the fact that he’s failed is at least as much down to others (the transfer window) and bad luck (injuries) as what might be seen as his shortcomings. Whether or not sacking him proves to be the right move will only become clear in time – and I haven’t got the faintest idea who might replace him. But no question his departure involves a massive loss of face for Thomas Sandgaard; and it does pretty much sum up our current plight when the owner talks about ‘salvaging something’ from the current campaign, one which was heralded as a new dawn under a bright, developing young manager.

It is possible to recap on what was side when Garner was appointed. I noted then that what came across strongly in the related interviews was the depth of the ‘singing from the same hymnsheet’ mantra, beyond what might reasonably be predicted. While TS and Steve Gallen talked about the selection process, what came across as the key factor was the style of football Garner planned to play, which 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 apparently hundreds of actual applicants). 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 but failing to get promoted).

I wrote at the time that “if it all goes pear-shaped there can be no pointing of fingers”, ie the buck truly stopped with TS. He could be excused for going for Nigel Adkins and that not working out, but having dispensed with JJ and choosing Garner only to sack him six months later is, in itself (ie unless it transpires that the decision is linked to any other development), a failure on his part. Just how he is going to be able to select a replacement and present him as the new ‘best thing’ is beyond me. And just what sort of tenure can the next manager expect? He will be looking over his shoulder from the start.

This isn’t to say I think sacking Garner is the wrong decision. I found his statements inconsistent, sometimes counter-productive, sometimes annoying. He moved quickly from praising the commitment and effort of the players to warning of some being on a ‘last chance’, talked of needing a couple more transfer windows and the need to bring in better players, which can hardly have helped the morale of some, suggesting that we were not competitive in this division when some results demonstrated clearly that in fact we are, when at our best. The biggest indictment (for me) of his time was the conclusion of my previous post: that we are effectively halfway through the season with no settled side or formation, no established partnerships in key areas, and quite frankly no idea what team will turn out from week to week. Garner has not got the best out of the players we have and it has to be speculated that he ended up losing the dressing room (and if that's the case the players had best take a long look in the mirror).

All that said, the guy is 42 years old and has been a manager since 2019. Like JJ before him, mistakes along the way are hardly going to be surprising; just ask Curbs about learning on the job. If TS accuses Garner of inconsistency you have to ask who was there to help him develop in the job. And the only consistency involved in having four managers in two seasons is consistency of failure.

Again, I’ve no idea who comes next. Looking at the betting we have apparently former Spanner Marc Bircham, sacked by Waterford, at 5/4, Dean Holden at 2/1, Kenny Jackett (another with a dubious past) at 10/1, alongside Lee Bowyer, then basically a collection of anyone else currently not in employment. And there are some decent names in there: Lambert, Wilder, Ferguson. Personally, if there’s no return/involvement for Sir Chris or Curbs, I quite like the notion of Scott Parker (25/1). It is after all time for the embarrassing treatment of a club legend to stop, whatever the manner of his departure.

Whoever it proves to be, we are undoubtedly at a very low ebb, facing for the first time in my life a fourth consecutive season in the third flight and with no ongoing progress towards a return to the Championship. That risks an already apparent viscous circle intensifying, whereby TS resents funding the club’s losses and tries to make further savings, and/or sells players, while the fans become increasingly apathetic and attendances fall even further.

As for a way out, there are always options, albeit not many. First, TS issues a mea culpa, clarifies his intentions (ie the balance between cutting losses and spending on the team), and calls for a renewal of the relationship with supporters. There is still considerable goodwill there, we all want the club to succeed. Second, new owners/investors.

Saturday, 3 December 2022

Brilliant? Please

Merde. Here we go again. Beaten once more by a poor team sticking to a simple gameplan, one which has clearly worked for others of late. And to make matters worse our manager seems to have moved permanently to cloud cuckoo land. To suggest that in the second half we were “brilliant” is deluded. We were fortunate not to be behind at the break, having gifted Cheltenham the opportunity they were waiting for but somehow failed to convert, and in the second half seldom looked like scoring (although we may have been unfortunate that VAR was not available for Kirk’s ‘goal’). How is it ‘brilliant’ to dominate possession when the other team doesn’t care about having the ball? I’m curious to know what word BG would have used to describe our performance if we had actually managed to do what is necessary to have a chance of winning a game, ie score.

Yes, we know the team is badly hit by injuries and suspension. But the worrying thing is from what Garner says we have to assume that he is happy with how we played and would be content overall with a repeat performance. The reality is that watching the first half last night was worse than watching paint dry and the second half was only marginally better. It was an awful game rounded off by a dreadful error to hand Cheltenham the winner and the points. Last season teams knew that we were easy to run through and score; this season they know that if they defend patiently, with discipline and in numbers, we are pretty toothless and will, sooner or later, give them the chance to score.

To go over the details, the team was a surprise, with it seemed a 3-4-3 set-up, or a 5-3-2, with Inniss flanked by Mitchell and Ness (with Lavelle consigned to the bench and Elerewe not in the squad) and Clare and Sessegnon operating as either wing-backs or wide midfielders, take your pick. Dobson and Fraser were sort of joined by Morgan, with Rak-Sakyi and the returning Jaiyesimi operating centrally up front. With Forster-Caskey, Payne, Kirk and Aneke among the subs, it looked as though we would be relying on changes through the game (although there was no Blackett-Taylor, don’t know if he was injured or dropped).

We did start the game reasonably well, moving the ball about, before Cheltenham settled into their gameplan. And before long Inniss had a mad five minutes. His first mistake saw them chip MacGillivray but the ball coming back off the bar and the follow-up effort was blocked on the line (quite possibly by Inniss in a form of atonement). Shortly after Inniss gave it away again, which led to more chaos, but somehow we survived. A few minutes later Sessegnon did well to find DJ in space, but he shot badly wide.

And that was the first half. In between it was football but not as most of us know – or like – it. The second half was more of the same. Rak-Sakyi had the ball in the net but seemed clearly offside (along with a few others), Clare was doing his best to make something happen, and we did have some shots blocked and a series of corners. The first changes came just after the hour, with Kirk and Aneke on for Rak-Sakyi and Jaiyesimi. Later Campbell and Payne replaced Sessegnon and Morgan and with a little over 10 minutes left we did have our moment of possible breakthrough. Payne intercepted and fed Fraser, whose Crossfield ball found Kirk in space. He shot into the net but everybody had stopped with the flag raised for offside. Replays suggested he may not have been.

A goal then for us (or at any time previously) and the game is very different. Instead the goal went to them. A long punt forward saw MacGillivray advance out of his area to clear, only to feel pressured into an indecisive header forward, which their guy latched onto and chipped back into an empty net. We were unable to fashion a decent opening in the remaining minutes and everyone trudged off dejectedly.

The way we lost was unfortunate but not “cruel” as Garner suggested. Cheltenham would have been content with 0-0 but accepted the gift offered second time around. What do we do about it? It would be reasonable to assume that if the owner was fully engaged with matters on the pitch and harboured expectations of us getting promoted Garner’s position would be in jeopardy. But that’s not really the case. Sacking him would be a massive loss of face for Sandgaard, given the fanfare around his appointment, while the injuries have been devastating for a modest squad. On that front Garner has been unlucky. He brought four of his players from Swindon and at the moment three of them are sidelined. He was let down by our failure to sign another forward before the transfer window closed.

All that’s too bad, we have to make the best of what we have – and on that front Garner has work to do. We can’t just wait for players to return. There may appear to be a cushion between us and the bottom four, but if one of them puts together a run (MK Dons for example have games in hand) we will be in trouble, if we continue to lose to bad teams. For sure the two brought in at the back were the plus points, although just what Lavelle (and Elerewe) are thinking about it all remains to be seen.

Fact is we have in Fraser, Dobson, Payne, Kirk, Blackett-Taylor, Jaiyesimi, Rak-Sakyi, Stockley and Aneke the weapons to be challenging at the top of this division. That we are not is down to not getting the best out of them (and others), individually or collectively. That isn’t bad luck. We are effectively halfway through the season with no settled side or formation, no established partnerships in key areas, and quite frankly no idea what team will turn out from week to week. It is not a recipe for success.

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