Sunday, 3 August 2014

More questions than answers

With a week to go before the season starts, this trip to Kidderminster was meant to be something of a dress rehearsal for Bury next week.
I went to Aggborough expecting to see a starting 11 and system pretty close to that which we will see at Gigg Lane, and hopefully a nice, fluid performance to give some confidence.
But if that was the starting 11 and system we hope to employ, then on this evidence it will be a long trip home next weekend.
Last season we went to Aggborough and came away 3-1 losers in what was a pretty limp display. We had a few youngsters on display then - this time there are no real excuses.
Even the 'it's only a friendly' thing can't gloss over it. It wasn't good enough, and the seeming lack of desire from some players was the worst part of it. Kidderminster simply wanted it more.
After trying out the three at the back system last week against Bristol City, we were without our new skipper Matt Taylor with a slight knock and his absence was keenly felt.
A look at the teamsheet when we arrived led to the assumption that we would play 4-3-3 with Jason Taylor alongside Matt Richards and the returning Asa Hall in midfield.
But no. Taylor was employed in between Steve Elliott and Troy Brown in a back three, and to put it mildly it was a complete shambles.
In the first minute, Craig Reid got through and forced Trevor Carson into a great save, and we were totally unable to cope with the powerful Nathan Blissett.
He bullied his way through some very half-hearted 'challenges' to score the first goal after six minutes, and the first quarter of the game was a mess from our point of view.
At least Mark Yates saw sense and changed it, Taylor moving into midfield and I really do hope that we never see him tried in that role again. He cannot play centre-half.
The formation change, which also pushed Omari Sterling-James and Terry Gornell into wider roles supporting Byron Harrison saw us get slightly better (from a low base) but we still created nothing and looked rocky defensively.
The second Kidderminster goal came after Ahmed Obeng and Blissett again bullied our defenders, Troy Brown this time, and he and Lee Vaughan were helpless as Jack Byrne had a simple finish.
The third was even worse. A free-kick was placed into our box and none of our players were switched on to it - Craig Reid was and he scored.
Then Brown - who has looked poor this pre-season in my view - gave away a needless free-kick which Carson saved well, and thankfully the half-time whistle came. We were three down, and if it had been six we could not have argued with it. It was a mess.
Shape and organisation have been two key factors of pre-season - but they went out the window in those first 45 minutes along with any sense of cohesion, fluidity and - most worryingly - desire.
We were back out for the second half a good five minutes before Kidderminster emerged, and I have to confess surprise that we made one change.
That was Craig Braham-Barrett for Paul Black, who was not the worst player in the red and white - as someone watching the game with me said "it was like getting a cut on your leg, and putting a plaster on your ear".
Vaughan, Brown, Elliott, Taylor, Harrison, Sterling-James, Gornell. Any or all seven of them could have been dragged off at the break, and had no arguments at all.
Carson kept the score down, Hall needed the extra time on the pitch and I don't feel Matt Richards was as terrible as the ones mentioned above - yet Black was the one replaced.
Vaughan and Brown were culpable for the second goal, Elliott was bullied by Blissett, Taylor could do nothing right in either role he was used in.
Harrison was anonymous - bullied by centre halves Josh Gowling and Chey Dunkley, Sterling-James was utterly anonymous for the hour he lasted, and Gornell was, well, Gornell.
I like Terry, but how many chances can he have? He is an enigma, flatters to deceive, and much as I and others like him, the time has come when he has to start delivering performances that show he deserves a place in the side.
Whether he has played in his best position or not, the bottom line is that he hasn't scored since last October, and hasn't often looked like ending that drought - it is now 24 league and cup appearances since his last goal.
So he has still had plenty of chances in the side, and for a player who came here with a decent record for Accrington and Shrewsbury, he just hasn't delivered.
At 24, he needs to kick on now with his career but he isn't producing the goods, and hence it isn't a surprise Yates wants to strengthen our forward line.
At the moment, we are totally reliant on Byron, and what happens if he pulls a hamstring in the first five minutes at Bury, or does a Cureton with a dislocated shoulder or something? I'll tell you. We are stuffed.
We may be stuffed anyway if Byron turns in too many performances like the one we saw today. His movement was poor, his anticipation non-existent and I don't remember him winning a header all afternoon. It was like going back 12 months to the insipid display he put on in the same game last season.
Sterling-James looked miles away from someone ready to be thrown in for a debut next weekend. He has shone at Evesham and Bath and sparked a little against Bristol Rovers, but in the last two games looked miles off the pace. If Bowen, Dale, Powell and Williams are not ready, then neither is he.
He played against Bristol City, where he was lively for the first half, and again yesterday 'in the hole' but at Aggborough he barely touched the ball. I would have hooked him off at half-time, but he lasted an hour and his replacement Koby Arthur was much more lively and probably the only CTFC player who looked like making anything happen.
It seems to be between these two for Bury as Zack Kotwica was at Ledbury with the youth team - they won 15 (yes 15!) -1 with Zack getting four goals and Harry Williams five.
In midfield, Richards was his usual neat and tidy self as the shambles ensued around him, while Hall not surprisingly looked like a player who hadn't played for a few games and Taylor just had a day to forget.
I was delighted to see Joe Hanks get a runout and I thought he did well as we switched to 4-4-2 with Joe alongside Taylor as Hall and Richards went off.
I know he went with the Scottish under-21 squad last week, but I do not feel Hanks has had enough football this pre-season. He was a major positive in the last two games of last season, but I don't feel he has been given enough opportunity to carry that on and build on it.
For that reason I don't think he will start next week. But I really think he should, as he put in more tackles and accurate passes in the time he was on the field as anyone.
Defensively, the first half was a horror show. Brown and Elliott never looked comfortable in the three with Taylor, and never recovered from it.
Blissett was a handful for Elliott, while Brown and Vaughan's channel always looked suspect and after that area saw three of Bristol City's goals conceded on Tuesday they were culpable for Kiddy's second.
The first came down the other channel where Blissett came off the wing past three or four players and the third was a total nightmare from the set-piece - so no-one escapes without blame at some point - bar Trevor Carson.
He cannot be faulted for any of the goals as he was let down by those ahead of him, and made three good first-half saves and another in the second.
We did improve overall after the break, but it would have been hard not to, so woeful were we in that first 45.
I thought Arthur and Hanks of the substitutes put a case forward for a bigger role next week, while some of those from the first half got (slightly) better, including Vaughan and also Gornell, who had a shot saved and looked a little more lively - but the others' day got little better.
As someone who has constantly stressed in the past that pre-season results don't matter, I am aware that some may believe I am going wildly against my own words here - but my unhappiness with this outing was more about the performance and the levels of desire, as we simply rolled over far too easily. Friendly or not, that is what was simply not acceptable.
Some of the aspects of the performance were sadly reminiscent of what we saw at times least season - many of the personnel and coaching staff may be different but  in so many ways the on-field issues looked worryingly the same.
Therefore I was pleased to hear the manager afterwards not try to gloss over it with the 'it's only a friendly' mantra, but to admit it leaves him with more questions than answers, and that some players have played themselves out of the team.
It was interesting to hear him say he had tried to sign their centre-half Chey Dunkley, and on this evidence it was a shame he was not successful,  as he and Josh Gowling were infinitely superior to our centre-backs. I assume this bid came while he was unsure that the Matt Taylor deal was going to happen.
It appears our Tottenham target may be going closer to home in Southend, but Yates desperately needs to get some competition in a couple of areas - for Byron up front and in central midfield.
From maybe having five or six places nailed down for Bury before this game, this limp effort may have cut that number down to maybe three or four - Carson and Richards for my money, and also Vaughan and Harrison, but a lot of that is all because of a lack of competition in those areas rather than their performances meriting a shirt.
Like Harrison, Vaughan is another for whom we do not know the replacement if he was to pick up an injury or ban. Jack Deaman can play there we are told - but why has he not done so in pre-season?
Joe Hanks and Craig Braham-Barrett have filled in during friendlies to rest Vaughan but I hope neither does so should he be absent for any reason, so we have not taken the chance to try out viable alternatives.
Since getting back from Aggborough, I have been telling myself not to over-react, and I don't feel I have done so. I have to call a spade a spade and this was a big step backwards after some encouraging signs.
Winning every game in pre-season is not a certain prelude to a great season, as is losing them all not a ticket to relegation, but you hope to see progress as you go along, signs that the team is building gradually to a peak.
But this pre-season has not been like that for me. There have been the odd signs of progress, but nothing has really clicked into place, and after some tentative steps forward this was a big reality check.