Tuesday, 30 December 2014

A month of destiny

AND so it can begin - the January transfer window of 2015, possibly the most important four weeks we have faced in our Football League existence.
By the time the final whistle goes at Dagenham on January 31, it is anyone's guess what our team will look like, but we can probably guess a few names which won't be in it.
We know Jason Taylor is one - even with five players out injured, the manager preferred to give a squad number and seat on the bench to second-year scholar Danny Reynolds on Sunday.
And another of them will surely be Byron Harrison. Since he came here in the 2013 transfer window, he has divided opinion as much as many other players before and since.
He scored one goal in the half-season after he arrived, then 15 last season and has seven this, so in a team which hasn't been prolific at all, he has carried the main goal threat.
Yet at Exeter on Friday with us chasing the game at 1-0 down, 18-year-old Harry Williams was sent on. On Sunday, in the same situation, another 18-year-old, Bobbie Dale, got the nod.
Those decisions were explained away by talk of work ethic, and the youngsters deserving their places on merit by their performances in training.
Basically, the manager has decided he is lazy, and it seems that it will take something akin to an earthquake for him to put Harrison on the field.
Six months ago Byron swept the board at the player of the year awards - yet I am sure his detractors in the stands and on the terraces will be saying 'at last.'
However I suspect even his harshest critics were calling for Harrison's introduction on Sunday. I am not, by and large, a critic of his but I was among them - but Paul Buckle will clearly not be moved, and that surely sounds the death knell for Byron at this club.
It's a brave decision - the manager of a team without a league win for two months, with only two senior recognised strikers leaving its leading scorer on the bench two games running when they need a goal.
It might have been designed to give Byron a kick up the backside, but I don't think Byron is the kind of character to respond to that.
He needs to be loved, have an arm put round his shoulder, and Buckle isn't going to do that. His mind is made up, and that's it.
His teams are based on work ethic, attitude and pulling together. If you aren't going to buy into that then you are gone. No second chances.
Brave, or foolhardy - but it proves once again that Buckle is going to do things his way whether we as fans or the players like it or not, whoever they are - young first year pro or higher-earning senior players - and he will back himself to get it right, and presumably (and hopefully) able to find a better replacement.
His words are confident too - and for the most part I like the way he talks. Straight to the point, always upbeat, always enthusiastic.
Those who criticised Mark Yates for his dour interview demeanour should be pleased. I for one am always interested to hear what he has to say.
While we might not always agree with what he says and does, we have to put our faith in him to do something this month with his wheeling and dealing, and improve the results on the field.
In between the speculation about who will come in and who will go out, we have some big games.
Trips to Oxford, Hartlepool and Dagenham, all in the bottom nine with us, and home games against Morecambe and Luton - a set of games we need to get some points from.
After the game on Sunday, I came away disappointed that we did not get what I felt we deserved, which was at least a point.
I was upbeat about the performance - I felt we had more spark and energy about us than we have for several weeks. Compared to the performances at the end of Yates' reign, I thought we were much better.
But we lost - and that is the bottom line for many, hence the surprising amount of negativity I read after the game. There were many saying it wasn't an improved or encouraging display at all, as we lost the game.
I woke up on Sunday to tweets saying we were going to get 'hammered', 'embarrassed', 'stuffed' and all other similar adjectives, and then since the game I have seen comments that we were terrible, that we'd be better off under Yatesy and that Buckle should go.
Yes, seriously. People are entitled to their own opinions, but some of them have been completely knee-jerk.
I don't think there is any question that the performances have improved since we lost 5-1 at Stevenage and 4-1 to Wycombe in Yates' last two games, and also since Buckle's early games. I felt yesterday was light years better than Dover, for instance.
Improved performances yes, but three 1-1 draws and three 1-0 losses are the bottom line, and I am not kidding myself that we don't need to get wins and clean sheets on the board, as we do.
But I am not panicking about it. Yet.
There is still half a season left to get those wins and clean sheets, and the manager at the very least deserves the breathing space of a transfer window to finally put his mark on the squad... come back to me on January 31 and we'll see where we are then.
We lost on Sunday as we switched off for a few seconds and let Adam Chapman have the space to find Chris Zebroski, who was then allowed to turn too easily and fire in a super shot into the corner - then before and after that we failed to show enough ruthlessness in front of goal to finish the chances we created.
Aside from the goal, I didn't think Trevor Carson had much to do. After the opening 10-15 minutes, Jack Deaman and Troy Brown looked pretty solid to me, coping well with Zebroski and Rene Howe when he came on, while Lee Vaughan had one of his best games for us - both defensively and going forward and Craig Braham-Barrett maintained his consistent form.
In midfield I thought Matt Richards and Kane Ferdinand were good - remember the problems we have had finding a 'two' to play in midfield in recent times - and I felt they kept us on the front foot.
Omari Sterling-James was undoubtedly the star of the show. He was irrepressible - getting the ball, running at people, taking them on and having the confidence to try his luck, and he was unlucky with a couple of efforts, one over the bar and one beaten away by the keeper.
His display shows the benefits of trusting the younger players at the club, something Yatesy never seemed to want to do. OSJ was, along with Koby Arthur, the catalyst of the comeback win at Tranmere, but was then sparsely used until now.
He was so dangerous in the first half that Newport changed their system from 3-5-2 in the first half to 4-4-2 to try and negate his influence - a massive compliment to Omari and to our overall display.
Overall, Newport had six players booked, which was another indicator into how hard they had to battle and what they had to do to stop us - and most of those yellows were for fouls on Omari.
The rest were for fouls on Harry Williams, who in my view got a long-overdue first start of the season and got better and better as the game went on.
He started the game right up front alongside Terry Gornell and didn't find it easy against the physicality of Ismail Yakubu and Darren Jones in the first half.
Yet after the break he dropped off 10-15 yards deeper and I thought he began to have a real impact on the game, drawing fouls and setting up situations for us - and I am convinced he was taken out at the end and we should have had a penalty.
Zack was slightly disappointing as, like at Exeter, I wanted him to take on his full-back more. When he got the ball he looked to either dribble or pass inside instead of trying to commit his man down the outside - I'd like him to be a bit braver.
Gornell was his usual hard-working self. His touch was good, hold-up play usually adequate - but he lacked the ruthlessness in front of goal in hitting the post with one chance in the first minute or two and spurning a decent one-on-one.
I liked our positivity though. We kept going, had good 'legs', good energy and I thought we created as many chances as we have in any game for a while, and considering we had five players out - four injured and one in the ice box - it was a creditable, encouraging performance.
We didn't fold, as might have done on other occasions with the team we had out, and as we have done with a far more experienced line-up. Buckle said post-match we 'will not fold' under him. We'll see about that, but on this occasion we didn't.
I thought we took the game to Newport and they had to work hard to keep us out, resorting to fouls and picking up six bookings in doing so. It wasn't a stroll for them and they needed all their resilience to see it through.
But we still lost, I hear you cry. Yes. I know that. I saw the game too.  Despite that, I am reserving the right to be encouraged by what I have seen, and to feel that the overall display was better than we have seen lately and tells me we are improving.
The decision of Buckle to put the youngsters in was justified and long overdue, especially after the display of Omari, and Williams in the second half, and we finished the game with a front four of three teenagers in Dale, Williams and Kotwica and 21 year old Omari.
The average age of the starting team was 23.5 with only Matt Richards over 30, and he only reached that landmark on Boxing Day - all encouraging for me to see such a young team give it such a good go against a team with only two defeats in 19 games.
But we still lost. Yes, okay. I hear you. And we haven't won yet under Buckle - but I don't understand how people can have been expecting a sudden, and massive improvement from a team with no confidence or belief, which lost 5-1 and 4-1 in successive weeks before he came in, transforming overnight to a free-flowing team banging in the goals for fun.
In the whole of 2004, we have only scored 42 goals in the league, so we are not suddenly going to bang them in for fun, hence why keeping them out is so important.
Surely the progress was always going to be gradual? Surely he had to try to stem the flow of goals as a priority? I know he hasn't had a clean sheet yet on his watch, but six goals conceded in six games is an improvement on nine in two. Even my dodgy maths confirms that.
In my view, we were always limping through until January while Buckle assessed the squad he had inherited, hoping to pick up what points we could, then get an injection of players and form in January when the window is open.
As far as I am concerned, Buckle's job really starts now, as he has six games with his hands more or less tied by having a squad of players which is not his own.
It's like moving into a new house and not feeling it is yours until you have changed the curtains or covered up that horrible brown wallpaper in the hallway - he now has the chance to put his own impression on things in earnest with a coat of magnolia here and there or a nice Venetian blind in the bathroom.
By that Dagenham game on January 31, he won't be able to hide behind the 'squad he inherited'. The decision on Taylor and the almost-certain demise of Harrison along with some others maybe - Andy Haworth? Paul Black? - means that he will be overhauling it so it won't be the squad he inherited by then, it will be the squad he wants and will rely on until May - so no excuses and the improvement will need to have started by then to steer us away from trouble.
We won't have Asa Hall unfortunately, as he needs surgery and will be out for six more weeks. I am one of the rare breed who have seen him play a League game for us - most of the away fans missed it as they got the the Bury game late by which time he had already gone off.
I feel very sorry for him. I am sure there are those out there labelling him a sicknote as if he is enjoying himself spending six months not playing football having joined a new club. It sounds a horrible injury and I am sure he hasn't been having fun sat around watching when he wants to impress first Yates and now Buckle.
On the incoming side, I don't think we will have to wait long for a new arrival - I wouldn't be surprised if there was one new face at least in the squad for Oxford. Buckle doesn't seem like the kind of guy to muck about.
I understand a winger will coming in, and I am hoping for at least one striker and maybe also a central midfielder, depending on whether he wants to keep Kane Ferdinand or not. A centre-back might also have to be considered if Matt Taylor and Steve Elliott are out for a while, but I suspect they'll both be back by the end of January.
Raffa de Vita's departure has cleared some money, and my educated guess would be that Taylor and Harrison are close to the top of our highest earners' list, so more cash for wages freed up if they go.
We are three points away from the bottom two, but I am not worrying yet. The glass is going to remain half full and will be re-assessed on January 31.
2014 was a forgettable year in the history of CTFC, but 2015 needs to start with a bang to make us all breathe a little easier.
We all want this club to thrive, and to stay in the Football League, so we should all wish Paul Buckle the best of luck in the month ahead.
He will, and already has I suspect, made decisions which we don't all agree with, but he is the manager and that isn't going to change for a while so I just think we have to put our trust in him and hope he makes the right decisions.
The consequences if he doesn't are too horrible to contemplate, so let's just hope he gets us moving in the right direction sooner rather than later.