Friday, 10 May 2013

That's that then...

So there we go. No Wembley, no promotion, no Wolves. We must get ready for Accrington and Newport instead.
Over the 180 minutes against Northampton, we got what we deserved, I think. The first leg performance was pretty insipid. In fact the more I think about it the worse it becomes.
The second leg saw us throw everything at them, but after the penalty miss and Mo's header against the bar, coupled with Luke Guttridge's worldie, we may as well have just packed up and gone home - that ball was not going to go in whatever we did, was it?
The team selection was interesting. First we had Michael Hector and the Tale Of The Incredible Healing Ribs, and the return of the invisible man, otherwise known as Darryl Duffy, unfrozen from the cryogenic ice box to play, slightly curiously, on the left wing.
Hector showed no ill effects, and I was surprised that Bayo didn't give him a quick jab in the chest early on to test him out. Darryl was bright for the time he was on the field, but ithe role he was asked to play was a strange one.
Having played 4-4-2 in the first leg in a game we needed to be tight in, then to play 4-5-1 at home with Paul Benson as the 'one' and a striker on the left wing will, I'm afraid, only add fuel to the fire of those detractors of Mark Yates' tactical nous.
We kept Bayo very quiet. Most of the game we kept Chris Hackett quiet. We created great chances for Duffy, Harrad, Deering and Sido, as well as the penalty miss and Mo's header -more chances than we have created in the previous four or five games out together.
But we couldn't take them, while Scott Brown barely had a save to make.
The first goal was always key, and we should have had it. Now, I am not going to criticise anyone for missing a penalty, especially when they have had the bottle to step up and take it.
It's one of those things. Having seen the replay umpteen times, I am going to give Lee Nicholls credit for a good save, but that was no consolation to Marlon Pack after the game.
That was his last game for us. He knows it, we all know it. So for it to end like that was heartbreaking after everything he has given us over three seasons.
Credit to him for fronting up after the game and talking about it, and I just hope that is not people's abiding memory of his time with us. It certainly won't be mine.
I'd rather remember that free-kick at Plainmoor this time last year, or some of the raking 40 or 50 yard passes he has delivered.
I have seen some tweets and posts on the Nest forum calling him 'over-rated' and saying we won't miss him. Ok, each to their own but for my two penneth I think he ranks as one of the best midfield players I have seen in my time watching the club. In my view he is alongside players like Archie Howells, Grant McCann and Steve Brooks. Lofty company.
Yatesy will have to replace him, and I will wager that by about November some of those calling him over-rated from behind a keyboard will wish he was still in ruby.
He is a top bloke as well, and I hope he goes on to have a great career. he deserves it after everything he has given to us.
So a message to those 'fans' who have abused him on Twitter since Sunday is simple. Go away and re-evaluate your lives somehow.
Same goes for those who threw items at Lee Nicholls near the end. I hope the ground's CCTV picks you out and you get a visit soon. I don't want to see Neanderthal behaviour like that at Whaddon, thanks very much.
We gave it a good go and came up short - a mantra which could ring true for the whole season.
Having done so well to maintain a challenge again after the Wembley defeat last season, our failure to create enough chances and to supply a regular, reliable goalscorer has cost us in the end.
It was best summed up on Sunday when our best cross of the season so far was headed against the bar by Mo. It came from Michael Hector. A centre-half.
In Paul Benson, Shaun Harrad, Duffy and Byron Harrison, we have four forwards who should have scored plenty of goals, and have done so elsewhere in their careers.
It can be argued that Harrad and Duffy didn't play enough, Harrad especially in the later weeks of the season. Five of his eight league goals came by September 18, the other three in January and February - then we barely saw him.
His last goal was against Bristol Rovers - then Benson was finally signed and took his mantle, however he only managed four goals in his stay, and rarely looked like the player who faced us for Dagenham and Swindon down the years.
But they have not been played to their strengths. Benson and Harrad spent a lot of time employed as a lone striker. Not their game. Yes, rotate the strikers, but also give them a chance to maximise their potential.
If (say) Benson and Harrad together doesn't work, try Benson and Duffy, and so on. The fixation with the one up front (especially at home) and a seeming reluctance to experiment, both with personnel and systems in attack was a frustration.
Harrad seemed to become a scapegoat for poor performances. Rochdale was a case in point. He and Chris Zebroski were axed after that night, and from then on Harrad's appearances became sporadic.
Once again, it points to some fans' perception of Yates as manager with no plan B, and fires up those who criticise his timing and choice of substitutions during games.
The one up front is perceived as negative, especially at home. That goes back to when John Ward used it.
I lost count of the number of times while sat on the gantry at Whaddon, people have a moan at me about the 'one up front' policy. Most supporters don't like it - they want two strikers at home.
Late in the season, Harrison arrived and he was the only one seemingly suited to that lone role - yet he rarely looked like scoring a goal because of the service issue and the lack of effective midfield runners which often left him isolated.
His most effective performances came from the bench (Burton and Port Vale especially) and with a partner (Southend away for instance). On Sunday I felt he should have been introduced earlier. I thought with around 15 minutes to go I would have gone for broke and taken a full-back off, probably Sido, gone three at the back and thrown him on. Ah well... hindsight...
Our midfield has been oft debated. Russ Penn was the pick of the bunch over the course of the season, yet missed out a lot due to the Pack-Darren Carter pairing which not many outside the manager's office ever really thought was effective.
Jermaine McGlashan and Mo were very hit and miss, but all too often miss, and the inabilty to get that engine room firing didn't help matters further forward.
Last season, the midfield dynamic of Pack-Penn-Summerfield was key to the system we played. The failure to recreate that this time round was a big factor in why we never found any real consistency.
Carter was an enigma. Like Benson, he came with hype and expectation because of his past career, but never consistently lived up to it.
He scored six goals and showed his quality at times, but not enough times. It is highly doubtful he will be here next year, but, ironically, with Pack gone, could he be just the sort of player we are looking for to take his role in the side...?
Defensively, after the arrival of Hector, we looked more sound. Burton was the only real abberation, plus maybe Port Vale but that was down to the division's stand-out forward, Tom Pope.
By and large, Yates' decision to dispense with Alan Bennett, while still unpopular with many, was vindicated; Hector providing the 'legs' alongside Steve Elliott that the manager decided was needed.
Say one thing for Yates - he never shirks tough decisions. To axe Bennett, his captain and leader, was a big one. He was decisive and ruthless, and I think he has been proved right.
After the heavy losses to Rochdale, Rotherham and Chesterfield, he knew something was wrong. I think some of the goals Everton scored against us merely confirmed it, and in January he had the chance to address it, with Hector's arrival.
Nineteen clean sheets over the season bears out that the defence was not a major problem.
Yes, they had a few bad days, mainly those away games when we went beyond Birmingham - we still haven't won one of those since Macclesfield last season, but by and large we were solid, especially in the latter weeks.
No disrespect to the magnificent seasons Scott Brown and Steve Elliott have had, but for a team in the top five to vote their goalkeeper as player of the season, closely followed by a centre-half suggests where the Achilles heel lies. The fans know it, the board knows it, and the manager knows it.
It's up to him to solve it. He needs to find a way of taking off the shackles without sacrificing anything at the other end.
The paucity of goals has made this season, at times, a tough one to watch. Many of our wins have been ground out - reliant on not conceding rather than being able to dominate and kill sides off.
We finished a place higher than last season, but scored eight less goals, won three less games, got two less points, and conceded one more goal. We did have four less defeats - but also seven more draws.
Football is an entertainment business, but for Yatesy it is about winning games, however he can achieve it. That's his job, not to ride a unicycle across the pitch wearing a comedy red nose.
This season we have seemed to be more direct - whether that is simply because we have not been able to fire consistently down the flanks, so sub-consciously we have become more narrow as we try to make some headway I don't know.
The major plus has been the home record, as we have only lost twice in the regular league season - but again there hasn't been much style, bar the wins over Rotherham, Exeter and Wycombe.
In many of the home games, we have merely 'done enough' or snatched a late win; but some were pretty dour affairs - Rochdale, Chesterfield and York spring to mind here.
While it has been good to be more formidable at home, again the lack of panache would not have appealed to the floating punter.
It is a fine line though - the manager, board and the more 'regular' fan will simply be happy that we have won the majority of home games, but those who pick and choose may be left wanting more.
You can't turn it on like a tap, and you can't guarantee a good performance when a big crowd rolls up though.
Away from home, there has not been much to shout about for the travelling fan. It started off okay with three wins and three draws (and we should have won at Wycombe) until mid October, then it all went downhill.
Only three more wins, some thumping defeats (Rotherham, Rochdale, Chesterfield) and - let's face it - some pretty abject performances... I'm thinking of Dagenham, Accrington, Plymouth, Oxford and Burton here. Makes me cringe to think about them.
Aside from the wins, there were very good displays at Fleetwood and Gillingham - but both games were drawn, and for 20 minutes at Port Vale when we took the lead before throwing it away - but the bad far outweighed the good on the road.
We actually lost one less away game than we did last season (nine compared to 10) but won four less... teams who win six away games do not get promoted, as we have now found out.
Sorry if a lot of this seems to be negative, but it goes to show what a curious season it has been.
We have stayed in the top seven constantly since September, and in a tight league it is a disappointment that we have not managed to get out of it.
However, it has to go down as another good season. We have punched above our weight again against teams with bigger squads, bigger resources and bigger crowds (Burton aside...).
Off the field we remain in decent shape, and on it Yatesy deserves credit for assembling a decent squad, choosing his loan players well and maintaining another challenge for promotion having picked his players (and himself) up from the Crewe loss last May.
It was a small squad. We used 27 players - only Torquay (26) used fewer, and every programme listing the squads sees ours finish halfway down the page while most of the others stretch much further.
Our disciplinary record was good again - one red card (only York with none had fewer) - and no major injuries to speak of. Bennett missed a few games at the start and Benson at the end, and Hooman was the only real long-term absentee but he was not a first-team regular.
Credit to Ian Weston and Jason Murphy for their fitness work and the way they manage the workloads of the squad outside games - At 34, Steve Elliott played all 46 league games for the first time in his career.
Now Yatesy has to lift everyone once more, and try to do it all again. He faces a tough summer where he will have to pull more rabbits from hats and perform some pretty major surgery on his squad.
Pack will go, he will most likely be joined on the way out by Duffy and Carter. I cannot see Hooman or Bags Graham being kept on. Loanees Benson, Harrad, Hector and Jack Deaman have gone home, with, I suspect, only the latter two being realistic possibilities for a return.
Elliott has been signed up again thankfully, Penn and Mohamed, I hope, will join them but will have admirers. Who knows if any clubs will be sniffing around Brown, Jombati or McGlashan?
If everyone that I expect to sign stays on (big if...) the squad looks like this:
Goalkeepers: Roberts, Brown
Defenders: Lowe, Elliott, Jones, Jombati
Midfielders: Mohamed, Penn, Taylor, McGlashan, Deering, Hanks, Williams
Forwards: Harrison
So with 11 under contract and another three to come hopefully, my list of 'wants' is three stikers, two central defenders, two midfielders (creators - as in Taylor and Penn we have the bulldogs), and, if there is anything left in the pot, a left-footed winger and maybe some left-back cover.
Off you go Yatesy!
That's a big shopping list, and already the silly season of rumours has started with a list of names, 99 per cent of whom will come nowhere near Whaddon, already doing the rounds, from Rene Howe to Rommy Boco via Joe Devera, Joe Anyinsah and Danny Hylton.
The madness will continue, no doubt, until the end of July, so best get used to it...!
The good news for Yatesy is that his budget is expected to be about the same when Paul Baker and the board discuss it on Monday - and is believed to be around the £1million mark.
That's a lot less than many clubs at this level (and below this level...) have at their disposal so once again it shows we are doing a good job to challenge for a place in League One.
Finally, here are a few awards...
Player of the season: Scott Brown. I voted for him in the club award ahead of Steve Elliott. After losing his place last season, he has been brilliant this time round.
Match of the season: the 1-0 home win v Gillingham wins this, mainly because of the guy in the other dugout. It was my Keegan 'I would love it if we beat them... day.
Goal of the season: A tricky one as not many goals instantly come to mind. I have narrowed it down to three - Lawson D'Ath v Exeter, Jake Taylor v Wycombe and the one I have chosen. The player who scored it is no longer here, but I think, as piece of skill, it took some beating, and it was an important goal as it won us the match. I am picking Jeff Goulding's chip against Barnet.
Moment of the season: Because of the importance of it to the club financially and because we simply never win there, I have to say Kaid Mohamed's header hitting the net at Hereford wins this one.
Villain of the season: Could be Martin Allen, or Steve Evans... but I'm going to pick Fleetwood's Jamie McGuire for his pathetic gloating which got Alan Bennett sent off at Whaddon. I know Benno shouldn't have retaliated, but McGuire's childish actions were totally unnecessary.

The blog will re-appear in the summer, when there is something to talk about... in the meantime, thanks for reading and see you all in July at the first friendly!