Monday, 26 January 2015

Another small step

AS many of you will already know, I had my own reasons for really wanting us to win Saturday's game.
But by the end, the fact that we didn't wasn't too much of a disappointment as I came away with encouragement from many aspects of our performance.
Therefore I have been surprised once again at the level of negativity after the game.
I heard some boos at full-time, and have had tweets giving the view that my BBC Glos colleague Pete Matthews' summing up of the game was very much on the generous side. The studio also had some critical tweets and texts post-match about our display.
But the vast majority of people I have interacted with in person and on social media since the game seemed to concur with my view that we put in a decent-enough display and more than merited the draw we got.
We weren't brilliant throughout, and yes, I know we didn't win. I also accept that it is getting to the stage of the season, given the position we are in, that we need to start winning games, and decent performances to get draws are not going to see us climb that table at a great rate.
But surely fans can understand that the transition from Mark Yates to Paul Buckle was always to be a gradual one, and was never going to bring an instant upturn in results, and that we look a better side now than when Buckle arrived?
The vast majority of teams change their manager mid-season because they are in a poor run of form, with a low-confidence squad and the arrival of a new manager with new staff and new ideas is going to take time to bed in properly and start to produce consistent results.
Buckle needed six games to work out what he really had inherited, and to find out which players were going to buy into his way of working.
Now having more or less sorted that out, he has more or less decided who he wants and who he doesn't.
Then it is a case of wheeling and dealing to bring some new faces in and get some of the sidelined ones out, as he has with Jason Taylor, Paul Black and Andy Haworth.
To my mind, this game was the last of his honeymoon period, and from the game at Dagenham on Saturday onwards, he needs to get results as he will have done everything he can by then to put his own mark on the squad.
As I showed in the blog last week, his record for his first eight league games is not really any better or worse than any other CTFC manager.
I think we all know that it's going to be a bit hairy between now and May, as it was when Yatesy took over five years ago.
Despite the failure to really upturn the results and get that so-far elusive home win, I don't feel we are as much of a soft touch now (Hartlepool excepted), and am convinced that if Yates had been in charge on Saturday, we would have lost that game, as Luton would have bullied us out of it.
It was heartening to see us show a bit of backbone when we needed to, digging in during what became a very attritional second half, having in the first played some pretty decent stuff at times.
While he has been assessing what he has, Buckle has gone more 'horses for courses' with his selection.
It was 3-4-3 against Morecambe to match what they did, and then this week it was a 4-1-4-1 to be solid.
I thought in the event he got it right, looking for solidity at the back and in mdifield while trying to use a bit of pace with Zack Kotwica and new boy Jake Gray coming in to the side to try and get in behind them.
I thought they both did ok, I was bit disappointed at times though when Zack cut infield when I thought he had a chance to take on his man, while Gray tried to go outside when he could but was a bit weak physically at times.
I'll cut him some slack as it was his first game. To both of their credit though, both worked hard defensively and kept going for the full 90.
In Zack's case, that was, I felt, his most encouraging performance for us when he has started a game. Hope he can keep it up.
Matt Richards was back in as the midfield sitter and to be fair to him, the axe and subsequent rocket up his backside seemed to have had an effect.
I thought he did a decent enough job, and allowed the two ahead of him, Kevin Stewart and Kane Ferdinand, to play with a bit of freedom.
Stewart was, for my money, comfortably our best player (not Troy Brown as the sponsors somehow concluded...) and is getting better every game he plays as he settles into the hustle and bustle of proper football - which is what you want from a young player.
He looks like he belongs, and alongside him Ferdinand had comfortably his best game for us. Please no more playing him out on the right, as he was suited to the role he was given, getting forward to be a support for Jack Dunn.
We do look much better with a three in there, and this trio plus Joe Hanks will have to do the work in there for the rest of the season - I for one have written Asa Hall off until pre-season next June.
Stewart and Gray made the goal, and credit to Zack for being in the right place to finish it off. I felt we merited the lead.
The downside was, of course, that we conceded so quickly. The midfield I praised above did switch off to allow Adam Drury space to shoot and Trevor Carson won't be happy with how he dealt with it - although he will ask Craig Braham-Barrett why Shaun Whalley reacted quicker than he did.
For the rest of the half we were on the back foot, and it was going to be a test for our defending and we just about passed the examination.
Some of the clearances were a bit panicky, but they got the job done, and Carson made one decent save.
But we didn't fold, as we might have done a few weeks ago. There was backbone, determination and a desire not to concede, but to stand firm. They were led by Matt Taylor, whose fitness in the next few months could really be pivotal to the club's future.
Among those defenders was Lloyd Jones deployed  in an unusual right-back position, with Lee Vaughan dropped to the bench.
However, Vaughan being on the bench was a surprise as I could not see many circumstances that he would come on, and with Jack Deaman also being on there, but Harry Williams not being in the 18 at all after doing well from the start in the previous two games.
Before the game there were rumours that right-back Durrell Berry is heading this way from Torquay, and it seems this deal will happen - so you assume that Jones' switch was for one game only, while you wonder whether Vaughan's exile may be a longer one.
I would wonder whether putting Vaughan on the bench rather than leaving him totally out of the 18 was a bit of a softener for the blow of being dropped.
In attack, Dunn was his usual effervescent self. The battle with his fellow Scouser Steve McNulty was always going to be a fascinating one, and although he never got near him in the air as you would expect it was a different story on the floor.
He picked his pocket a few times and managed to get a shot away most times, bar the second-half rugby tackle wide out of the left which got McNulty a yellow. Some fans thought he should have got red, but it was never going to happen.
Dunn battled hard up front, and at times got frustrated with the service he was getting, and we were guilty of going a bit too direct to him at times and as we had to dig in during the second half, he did get a bit isolated.
I would hope that this week we can bring in a physical forward who could lead the line, hold the ball up and occupy the centre-halves while Dunn gets a bit more freedom to run in and around and using his pace.
But that of course would mean us playing two up front, which would affect the three man midfield, or mean playing three at the back... dilemmas and choices there for the manager.
We deserved a point overall - no more than that. Luton were what I had expected - solid, organised and a tough nut to crack as John Still sides usually are, and I must admit to slight disappointment to hear him blaming the pitch for them not winning. You're better than that John.
I didn't feel they did enough to win, and neither did we, so a draw was right, and I certainly would have taken that before the game.
There was a bit of talk after the game about the lack of substitutes until the very end when Byron Harrison made an almost token appearance in place of Dunn.
I said in the commentary that I might have made a change around the 65-minute mark to replace one of the wide men like-for-like with maybe Omari Sterling-James just for fresh legs, but some people have wondered why he didn't put a second forward on.
My only explanation for that would be that maybe Buckle felt that the system was working and that he felt it was more important not to lose the game rather than making an attacking change to try to win it. It was stick rather than twist, and I guess some would see that as negative, but I saw it as sensible.
I can see Buckle's reasoning in feeing one point was better than none. I would not have changed the system as I thought we were comfortable in the second half with Carson having no direct saves to make.
I think a system change would have left us more vulnerable to losing the game rather than giving us more of a chance of winning it.
Still made three changes, taking off in my view his side's three most effective players and changing their system to one which I thought actually made them less of a threat in the closing stages.
Now we have a big week culminating with the game at Dagenham on Saturday.
The transfer deadline is coming to an end soon, but I am sure that Buckle will ideally want all of his business done before we go to Victoria Road, and so things could get busy.
Priority number one will be deciding what to do about the three Liverpool lads. Dunn and Stewart have definitely improved us and it would be a real shame to lose them.
Jones has done alright, but with Taylor now fit, and also Troy Brown and Jack Deaman here, we have four centre-halves - and then you also have to add in Steve Elliott.
Elliott has been out for a while now (he is yet to play under Buckle) and doesn't seem to be any closer to a return, and I am afraid you have to start wondering if he will come back at the age of 36.
I am most certainly not pushing him into retirement as I love Stevie to bits, but being realistic, could we have seen his last game for CTFC?
In any event, I am sure Buckle will want to keep all three of the Liverpool lads, and he has said as much with negotiations already under way.
Berry's arrival seems pretty nailed on even though the manager flat-batted my question about it post-match.
I am sure he wants some more physicality in the final third. I suspect that will be it on the incomings unless the manager can do a bit of bonus business.
As far as outgoings are concerned, Black and Haworth moving on will have freed up a bit of cash on top of Taylor leaving, and there could be more if any of our other players are wanted.
My feeling is that if a club came in for one of our contracted players (with one or two exceptions - Carson for instance) and the player fancied it, they would be gone.
Harrison, who as far as I understand has turned a move elsewhere down, and Terry Gornell would be favourites to move on, and I wonder whether, as an outside chance with Berry coming in, if Vaughan might also get a loan move if one came up.
What I do hope is that after this week we might find a more consistent selection and way of playing.
I can understand the horses for courses thing, but by my reckoning we have used 30 players now this season.
I feel we need things to settle down and try to get used to a system and a more settled 11 as that will, I think, give us the best chance of getting the wins we need to move clear of danger.
Saturday was a small step in the right direction. I still feel positive but this is where we have to stop being encouraged by promising performances and start getting wins on the board.
We are getting better. Now we need to start getting the results to go with it...