Wednesday, 16 July 2014

Picking up the Gas

AS pre-season goes on, so you look for more improvements and more signs that things are coming together.
So, as we went into pre-season friendly number three, that was what I was hoping to see as Bristol Rovers came to town.
After the Wolves game, in which we didn't have the ball for long periods and concentrated more on shape and organisation, and Evesham, which was an exercise in trying people out on a tricky surface, this game was going to be more of a benchmark for where we are.
Forget the jibes about letting a non-League side play on our pitch, this would be more of an even test - a proper game if you like, and I thought we cam through it pretty well overall.
Hours after David Cameron had taken the knives to his Cabinet, Mark Yates had done the same with his crop of triallists, and I think he got the decisions right.
Everyone, myself included, wanted Duncan Culley to succeed with us. The attitude was right and he tried his best in the two outings he had, but taking out the sentiment there was little evidence to me that he was going to be ready to go into the team straightaway.
We cannot just give contracts out willy-nilly because a player has scored 40-odd goals and comes from a local team and say wouldn't that be a lovely idea to have a player like that. They have to earn it and be worthy of it.
If, for example, Byron Harrison got injured, or was sold, would Culley have been able to come in straight away and stand in for him? I think the answer to that would be no, and that it what we need - oven-ready players.
The same goes for the others - is Kieran Wallace better than Joe Hanks? No, and he is older. Jermaine Hylton better than Zack Kotwica? Probably not, and he is older, while Andre Streete did not look to be of the level required.
So Jack Deaman and Omari Sterling-James were the two who made the cut and in the event probably got a longer than expected chance to show what they have to offer.
Goalkeeper Ben McNamara has also stayed on, but I think that is more to do with us having no permanent back-up for Trevor Carson more than that he has a chance of a long-term stay.
After his game at Evesham, there was no Jamie Cureton. Post-match Mark Yates said that situation was still up in the air, as Curo had not turned up for training with that put down to a communication breakdown.
There is still interest from Dagenham, and he may yet play another game for them this week, but the more I think about it, the more I am totally ambivolent to his return, whether he is taking a pay-cut or not.
When he was freed, were told it was because Yates wanted to go with a younger squad. So what has changed with that mantra between May and mid-July?
Then there is the system. The 4-3-3 would not, in my view, suit him. He cannot play the lone 'Harrison' role, and I feel  he would be lost playing the floating wider roles which Andy Haworth and Terry Gornell filled to start with last night.
So how many games would he start? He scored 11 in 23 starts last season. A season which is 46 games long - so he didn't start the other 23 games. Yes, I know he had the shoulder injury but if he comes back he probably wouldn't start more than 15 games. Is that still value for money?
And would he be happy with that? Yes, he wants to stay in the League, so desperately it seems that the financial wishes have come down a lot. The fact he is now cheap should not make the decision for us. On the field is all that matters.
Yes, he would be a help to Byron, Terry and Bobbie Dale. But are we now giving contracts to players so they can help out others and sit on the bench every week?
Some supporters want him back - but I wonder if that would be the reaction if it wasn't Jamie Cureton, but another 38-year-old striker. How many would want us to sign a 38-year-old midfielder to play the odd game but help Hanks and Adam Powell? Or a 38-year-old defender to help develop Troy Brown further? Not many I would wager.
As a friend of mine said, would you buy something from a shop that you didn't necessarily need just because the price was cut by 70 per cent? Like Duncan Culley above, there is no room for sentiment.
We have to be hard-nosed about this - he was released in the summer for a few reasons and I don't see that these reasons have changed. There are younger players out there who I think could do a better job.
Anyway, on to the game, and we started with the same formation as we did against Wolves - Carson; Vaughan, Brown, Elliott, Black; Taylor, Hall, Richards; Gornell, Harrison, Haworth.
We started slowly, but as the first-half wore on I thought we hit our straps and once again the shape and organisation was evident, and we were playing a pressing game to some effect.
The midfield three were at heart of this again, with Jason Taylor especially having a good game.
Yates was asked about him after the game, and he said that his attitude had been excellent in pre-season - and with no clubs beating down the door to take him, he will have a part to play.
It may be that the deeper role in the midfield three will suit him. He doesn't have much running to do and he can break the play up in there and give the ball to Hall or Richards, or the wide men, as he did on a number of occasions to good effect against Rovers.
Added to that is the fact that Yates does not have another midfielder on his shopping list. So in that central area, we have Hall, Richards, Taylor, Hanks, Harry Williams and Adam Powell. If it was August 9 now, Taylor would be on the teamsheet at Bury on merit.
The first-half was marred by injuries to Steve Elliott and Terry Gornell - Elliott with a tight hamstring and Gornell got a kick on his ankle, both seemingly precautionary, but gave Deaman and Sterling-James another opportunity.
I thought Deaman did okay without really standing out. He has a decent attitude we are told, but I thought he looked a bit suspect in the air at times, and lost concentration on a couple of occasions on the floor.
He can pass a ball as the crossfield effort he pinged out to Kotwica late on showed but I cannot see him being a first-choice player here. He can also play right-back and has played as a holding midfielder as well, so that versatility might work in his favour.
Sterling-James was lively at times, he nearly scored and showed he has some pace about him, but I would worry about end product and decision-making. He is very raw and I would doubt whether he is 'oven-ready' and would be very much a big punt if he was to get a deal.
It may be that he is one to keep an eye on along with his mate Jermaine Hylton, and for now he might be better off getting some regular games at Redditch or elsewhere in a high standard of non-League and see how he develops.
We also lost Paul Black in the second half after a meaty 50-50 challenge which he wasn't going to pull out of - pre-season or not pre-season - and despite the injury that was a good sign. Again we are told it is not serious.
But the loss of Black, Elliott and Gornell showed, if we didn't know it already, how thin the squad is at the moment, and how we need these five hoped-for reinforcements ASAP.
Yates is playing the long game however. Three of his premier targets we are told are training at their clubs, so hopefully no repeat of a player coming in and being off the pace.
One is a central defender, who might also be captaincy material, which is encouraging. We are told that player is at a League One club, and has a year left on his contract there. Over to you Mr Google.
Back-up keeper, centre-half, right back/centre-half, winger, attacker - that remains the wanted list - but what of the others who are definitely ours?
Trevor Carson did what he had to with no fuss and wasn't really tested last night.
Lee Vaughan is going to be favourite - he might be small in height but there is a big appetite in there I think. He turned in another good performance.
Troy Brown was his usual self, a steady performance alongside both Elliott and Deaman, while Black looked solid enough, defending well and getting forward as well - same going for Braham-Barrett when he came on, although CBB did have one or two positional issues again I felt.
The midfield three of Taylor, Hall and Richards have the early makings of a decent little unit. They hunted in packs and looked to pass the ball quickly with good tempo and movement. Joe Hanks carried that on when he came on for Hall and came close to a goal at the end.
If they carry on like this, you can see why Yates isn't targetting a midfielder at present - that would of course change if Taylor was to move on.
Up front, I thought Andy Haworth had his best run-out so far. He looked to have an appetite for taking people on, and wasn't scared to have a shot when it was on, so there is some hope there.
Gornell was on for about 40 minutes before his injury, and I thought at times he looked a little lost. I am a fan of Terry.
I like 'clever' footballers like him, but my concerns about where he fits into the team and system are growing - more so if we are bringing in another winger.
Last but not least is Byron Harrison - and he was outstanding, with his terrific finish for the only goal capping his display.
Yates wanted to take him off after 70 minutes, but he wanted to stay on - that's a good attitude and shows a happy player enjoying his football and it shows.
What I really liked about Byron last night was his strength. He was holding the ball up, back to goal, laying it off and making some good, willing runs into channels and through the middle.
That is a dimension of his game we didn't see so much last year, and bodes well for the season to come. He knows he will be the focal point of the team in this system and seems to be buying into that role.
Hanks and Kotwica came off the bench, Kotwica's pass setting Harrison's goal up at the start of a big season for the teenager. We saw some flashes of promise last season, but that needs to progress further this time.
Pre-season now goes on to Leamington on Friday, then the three-day training camp near Exeter while Yates looks to tie up these last five newcomers before Bury.
One thing which did strike me and those watching with me last night was that we seem a bit of a 'small' team, height-wise. Carson is not the tallest for a goalkeeper, the two new full-backs are not that tall - indeed, of the starting side last night, I'd say maybe only Elliott, Hall and Harrison were six-foot plus.
So I'd hope these last five have some height about them. As for the centre-back, I want a lump - a Boka Freeman type, who will head it all day long, as I am slightly concerned about our aerial prowess in that area.
But last night gave me more causes for optimism than pessimism. There was a fluency about us, and a win and a clean sheet, although it was only a half-paced friendly, cannot be sneezed at.
Let's hope we can continue to improve and Yates can have some success on the recruitment front, then that optimistic outlook may increase further.