It was nice whilst it lasted / Gently bobbing


Well that’s the cup done for another year – nice that the run finishes in February and not November for a change. We lost 3-0, one goal for every division Millwall are above us.

What of yesterday’s performance? Well I don’t think we were 3-0 worse than Millwall. The difference was, as ever, that the Championship side took the chances we presented them, whilst keeping out the good chances we made. It’s nothing more or less than that. Give them an inch and the better clubs take a mile.

It is a shame, as Buckle said, that we went behind so early, it put the dampeners on the atmosphere and brought us down to earth  as a reminder of our own mortality. Once again, like the Wolves and Norwich games, we didn’t give the opposition any respect which is a positive at least. We did give them a goal though, which isn’t.

Buckle has been going on about Kovacs and individual errors all year, and perhaps he was right all along. Kovacs played like a lion against Norwich and Holt, but a bit of a donkey against Millwall and Hulse. Inconsistency. Yes, that’s why he plays in non-league. If he was much better, he’d not be here would he?

The key to recruitment surely, as I’ve said before, is to intercept players getting better on their upward career curve, not catch them on their way down. Better to aim to have a side full of players who are, or who will one day be at home one or two divisions above (with us or with someone else) than to have a squad containing everyone else’s cast-offs looking for a home.

There’s only so long you can go playing against better opposition before you get found out. It’s like rolling a dice. Roll a one or a two and you stay in the cup, anything else and you are beaten. Well against Millwall our number was up and we rolled a six. On another day, with no cock ups, a fair wind, and a bit of luck we would have ’done a Blackburn’ perhaps. Oh well. It doesn’t matter now.

But, that said, we held our own and I’m proud of the team and the board and the positive image the run has brought to the club and to a lesser extent the town. It was lovely to be the first item on the sports news on radio 5, front page news in the Sunday papers and the various articles about our fall from grace and our proud and sometimes notorious position in the footballing history of the country. Well done boys, you did us proud.

Being stretched by a stronger team does highlight a few things.  Mark Tyler is still an excellent and outstanding shot stopper, but less keen to come off his line than he once was. Jake is a great ball player with good vision, but doesn’t have the pace to close down right wingers and prevent them from getting key crosses in when playing on the left. Henry still seems better at centre half (and had a good game). Taylor looked like a left back playing at right back, though on a few occasions having a left foot was a bonus as he could happily play the ball inside the oncoming player, much to their surprise.

I thought Smudger Smith, was largely anonymous in the first half, but had a better second half, I thought Mendy had a good game all round. Lawless and O’Donnell had a good go, but we didn’t play enough balls for them to exploit the flanks and their pace to our advantage. We went 4-2-4 at the end bringing on Fleetwood and Shaw, in the well-rehearsed ‘fling all the forwards on’ ploy that has worked so successfully all season and we thus surrendered the midfield. Yes it did bring half chances I suppose, and had we snuck one back when it was 2-0 who knows what would have happened?

Lots of high ball went up to Rendell who fought hard, but was outjumped and out muscled by two lads much bigger and better than him. The ploy to release Gray on the break didn’t work quite as well. Millwall had done their homework.

Again, it is not all doom and gloom. We carved out more chances and half chances against Championship opposition that we have done against many a Conference team this year. However in summary, it is the same outcome as it is against Conference sides – chances not taken and silly mistakes leading to goals conceded.

Where does this leave us? Well, about £500k better off which is nice. According to the Daily Mail Paul B is demanding all of that be spent on players to overhaul the squad (what? again?) but it was in an article littered with errors so it should be taken with a pinch of salt big enough to dehydrate a whale.

In a strange way I’m relaxed now and calm. We’re eighth, a long way behind the teams at the top and our league form is dragging us down the table. I don’t think that we will make the play offs and so in a way, in my mind, the pressure’s off. I feel calm, not angry.

We’re a brilliantly supported mid table conference side now, whether we like it or not. The conversion from league side to non-league side has been concluded.  The transmogrification finished, the assimilation complete.

If our current stumbling form persists it means we have no chance of reaching the play offs, so the players have a chance to quietly get on with it, turn things around, and come out feeling comfortable in each other’s company determined to find a way of playing in this competition – and at this level – which is successful.

Paul Buckle is staying put, whatever happens in the league for the remainder this year and continuity is a good thing – whether we like it or not we might as well get our heads down and get on with it. Shout all you like, he’s here to stay, rightly or wrongly, whether we finish 15th or 3rd. Giving the manager two or more seasons to get it right might be the right thing to do. Rome wasn’t built in a day/season. Pressure’s off – no more booing please, we need the pause and reflection that mid-table obscurity affords.

You never know – when the Greeks get back to work and sign Thomas’ work permit (or whatever international clearance means) he and McLumpy might just form the bedrock at the back we need. Gray, Fleets, Rendell or Shaw might spark up a run of goalscoring form, ably supported by some goals chipped in by the midfield.  If they think that the pressure is off too and with no cup-based distractions and fun, suddenly it might all click. We might be unbeaten for the rest of the year. It could happen, stranger things have.

Think back four years. The pressure on Big Mick to get us straight back was so huge at the start of our non-league journey and the assumption that it should be so easy that we should walk non-league  that a (admittedly fairly clueless) first home defeat of the season to the eventual champions was enough for him to go. Think about that for a second. That was our first home defeat in non-league and it was considered enough for the pressure to be such that Mick (to his eternal credit) fell on his sword and walked off without being paid his contract.

How our expectations and standards have been dragged down from the lofty place they were in September 2009. Now, home draws against village teams are shrugged off, and a home and away defeat by a bunch of cockney part-timers is “just not our day”.  Our expectations have been lowered, our high standards bloodied and bowed.

You could successfully argue that we had a stronger team four years ago and the second place at the end of that season to cheating Stevenage was no disgrace. With ‘better’ managers than MH and RM we could have gone one better? We’ll never know.

But that’s not the point I’m coming to – what I wanted to suggest that if you wound the clock back four years, and say that we got a manager in then and had told him “right, you have three seasons to get us back up, we know we won’t go up in seasons one or two, so there is no pressure on you, don’t worry about them, no pressure now, but build a team get us up by season three” then there would have been a riot at the time, we would have been suicidal to even contemplate three years in non league.

But if you’d have been offered that, knowing what we do now, four years on, we would have bitten the proverbial hand off.

Instead, each season we’ve hit the reset button and had to start again from scratch each time.

Each new manager has brought his own players in, attracted by our reputation and relatively large finances, and this fact alone has meant that we were there or thereabouts each year. We’ve been to two play-off finals in spite of the managerial changes, not because of them. But hitting the reset button each time has meant that, without being rude to the players who have come in, the standard of players coming in has gradually diminished over time. The poll I ran last week bore this out – wouldn’t it be wonderful if our strongest non-league XI was the current XI? Instead, we hark back at better players who have come and gone – but the quality over four years has gently declined. Whether this is because our wage bill is more realistic and our league reputation further and further away, less or poorer scouting/recruitment, or mangled management ideas I’m not sure. Perhaps it is a combination. Perhaps our position in the football world has been re-balanced by our circumstances. Reality has kicked in.

Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m not being a hypocrite here. Poor Mick’s league record is poor, wherever he has managed, Richard Money lost the dressing room, seemed to have terrible man management  and alienated the fans. Gary Brabin was just hopelessly out of his depth. Both Money and Brabin were  at the point of no return when they left and had to go. So, I’m not saying we should have stuck to one of them come-what-may.  It’s an impossible conundrum.

I’m sure the board regrets some of the things they’ve done – but don’t we all? Hindsight is a wonderful thing – and if Gary et al had their time again they might have done things differently – we will never know. But you have to go on what you know at the time. I thought Richard Money was a great choice of manager at the time, so what do I know? What could we have done differently? Chosen different managers? Chosen more brutal managers? Kept Mick on in charge of recruitment and as head coach, but working with a brash, direct front man as manager – who knows? That probably wasn’t even an option for a second by the way…

As I say, hindsight is a wonderful thing – we are where we are. But I type this in the sort of peaceful serenity and calmness of someone who is cast adrift in the middle of the ocean in a rowing boat without any oars, knowing there is no chance of rescue and nothing they can do to change things. Anger and frustration has given way to acceptance and peace.

Gently bobbing in an ocean of calm.

Try it. You’ll see our league status from a completely different point of view….

Come on you Hatters….on to Macclesfield…the rest of our history starts here.