Tuesday, 13 January 2015

Blown off course

IT was the supreme irony that the game at Hartlepool on Saturday ended with players squaring up to each other in one of those pathetic displays of posturing you get far too often in football these days.
It was the only time during a 90 minutes which plumbed the depths of performances this season that our players had shown any willingness to fight.
Up until then, they had shown nothing. No desire for a battle, no appetite to compete against a team who looked as if they wanted to fight for their lives despite their precarious position and terrible run of results.
Spineless, gutless, pathetic - pick your adjective. It was an abject surrender, and while the manager wants to be positive and says he was happy with the work rate he got from his team, I wasn't.
Neither were the 177 behind the goal who spent 15 hours of their Saturday on the motorways to get there.
The manager was right about two things though.
There are no leaders in our team, no-one who wants to take any responsibility. No one to shake up the rest of his team-mates and say 'come on, we're going to do something about this.' They are all happy to leave it to someone else.
That has to come from the senior players. Matt Richards, Troy Brown, Trevor Carson, Lee Vaughan, Craig Braham-Barrett,Terry Gornell - they are the senior players in the 11 which started. They have to set the example to the rest of them. None of them did.
The other thing he got right was about the conditions. Hartlepool adapted to them, we didn't.
This comment was interpreted by some as Buckle 'blaming the wind' for us losing the game. Wrong. He didn't.
He was blaming our players for not having the appetite to go out and play in it, and rolling over far too easily just because it was a bit breezy. He didn't say we lost because it was windy, he said we lost because our players didn't want to or just couldn't adapt to it.
If anything, I think he let them off a bit easily in public after the game. I hope he didn't do the same in private.
Let's start with the goals. The first one was comical.
Vaughan failed to stop the cross, then Lloyd Jones didn't deal with it at the near post. Brown and Carson looked at each other as it made its way through the six-yard box, then Braham-Barrett was dozing at the far post as Scott Fenwick tapped it in.
Then the second came from our corner. Yes, our corner.
It was cleared to the edge of the 18-yard box, and we lost a second ball. No shock there as we haven't won one of those for about 12 years.
Hartlepool broke, then Michael Woods won a 50-50 challenge and set Rakish Bingham away. Braham-Barrett came towards him - then started a retreat Mussolini would have been proud of.
Bingham kept coming, and could not believe his luck at the gaping hole inside Carson's far post and he rolled it in.
Two pathetic goals. Braham-Barrett partly culpable for both in the week he is supposed to have rejected a new contract. Not the most sensible action Craig, as the video of those goals might make sure there isn't another offer forthcoming.
Yes, you have been better this year, but from a pretty low base and if I were you I wouldn't be turning my nose up at too many contracts.
Carson wasn't blameless either. Yes, he has been our best player this season and kept us in many games. That doesn't say a lot for the shower in front of him though, and the cold facts are that he has not kept a clean sheet in the league for 19 games.
All-round, he is a better keeper than Scott Brown in my view - but Browny is now having a great time at the other end of these islands - top of the SPL with Aberdeen with seven successive clean sheets. You are better off out of it Scott!
Bingham's finish was well-taken, and of course has led to the moans that we didn't sign him in the summer.
He was terrible at Bath and Leamington though, and had plenty of time in trainig to impress. Mansfield took a chance, but have bombed him out on loan again despite him being their top scorer - four goals in 25 games... a worse record than Gornell and Byron Harrison have his year.
It wasn't a great surprise that Buckle went with an unchanged team after the Oxford win.
We have seen many times though where the team plays well, gets the vote of confidence and responds with a tame shambles next time out. It shouldn't have been too much of a surprise.
But I would have changed it. It wasn't the game for Omari Sterling-James, and he never got to grips with anything and was pretty anonymous for the second game running.
I'd have played Joe Hanks in a narrow three with Kevin Stewart and Richards and had Ferdinand just ahead of them - the sort of system with finished with at the Kassam. Hindsight...
As soon as I saw Ferdinand lining up on the right the alarm bells were ringing.
Like Omari, he was never in the game. In commentary I barely mentioned him, so with him and Omari not contributing, we were basically playing with nine.
Stewart tried his best, and along with Jones (the first goal aside) these two were probably our best players, but he and Richards never got on top of Woods and Tshibola in the centre of midfield.
It is here were our problems really lie. At this level, that is always the key area. Get on top here and you can control the game and more often than not you will win it.
We have always struggled to find the right formula here. We've never managed to find a trusty and reliable pairing to play two in there, looking more comfortable with three - but then you more often than not have to sacrifice a forward.
Buckle needs to find the solution to that conundrum quickly if he wants to play 4-4-2 - but that will mean he has to drop Richards in my view. Two of Stewart, Ferdinand and Hanks is surely the way to go - hopefully we can add Asa Hall to that shortly, and that's a decent quartet.
With every game, my frustration with Richards grows. On Saturday, he contributed very little.
Paul Buckle said after the game things have been poor for two seasons at the club. Richards is the common denominator as he has been in the side for practically every game in that time, and seems undroppable.
He is constantly slow on the ball and gets caught in possession. Then he lacks the mobility to go and win the ball back. He is weak in the tackle more often than not and his set-piece delivery is terrible on the whole.
Add the leadership thing I mentioned earlier. He is the most experienced player we have and it says a lot for me that he is not the captain with Matt Taylor out.
On that subject, Taylor is a big miss at the back, as is Steve Elliott.
Jones, Brown and Jack Deaman have done their best but they need that experienced help - that calming influence, leadership and know-how. But that's where Carson has to take that over. He has to be the one guiding them.
Up front we offered very little. Jack Dunn had a shot in each half and one disallowed for offside, but that was about it. We didn't look like scoring.
Dunn tried his best but Gornell was as anonymous as OSJ and Ferdinand had been. They were bullied too easily by the centre-halves.
So all the focus was then on whether Harrison would come on. Whether Buckle would 'swallow his pride' - as some have put it - and chisel him out of the ice box. Not that he would have needed chiselling on Saturday.
He did - and in the time he was on field showed just why I think the manager is right to try and move him on.
You would think that a player who had been on the bench for three games while teenagers came on ahead of him would have a bit of fire in his belly. Would want to come on and say 'right pal - I'm going to show you.'
But no. Nothing.
He had absolutely no impact on the game whatsoever and turned in another of his listless, bordering-on-the-uninterested displays, the type of which is not going to persuade Buckle that he is wrong about him.
He was meant to be the focal point for us to try to get back into the game, but he offered nothing. No physicality, no test for the central defenders, no target to hit.
Yes he is our top scorer, and our main goal threat - but I fear that says more about the quality of the rest of the players we have at the club than the attributes of Byron himself.
'He scored a hat-trick against Swindon' I hear you cry. Yes he did, and memorable it was. But the mere fact that we keep harping back to that shows what little he has done in the other 25-odd games we have played this season. One good game in 25 is not enough.
I feel for Buckle as he has inherited a squad which is nowhere near good enough, and he doesn't have the resources to do what is needed with it - ie ship half of them out and replace them.
He has try to make a silk purse out of a sow's ear and try to find a way to get six more wins between now and May, or we are gone. It's as stark as that.
Buckle is trying to wheel and deal, but he has been left with, on the whole, a very poor group of senior players (it is unfair to group the youngsters in here) and even if he made them all available I'm not betting there wouldn't be many takers.
So now we are basically relying on two teams being worse than us in the next 21 games, so let's have a look down there and try and clutch manically at some straws.
There are six teams below us, and even after that win on Saturday Hartlepool still face a battle. They are 11 points behind us, so need to win four more games than we do to overtake us.
Tranmere, now under Micky Adams, haven't really had an uplift in form, and neither have Carlisle under Keith Curle, and they have been hit by off-field issues with six players being fined and he wants to bomb another few out as well.
Dagenham have been very up and down, but are the only team in the bottom seven not to have changed their manager and that trust and stability may work in their favour. Our game there on the 31st is a big one.
Mansfield weren't impressive against us, but Adam Murray has brought in five players, many with experience including our target Billy Kee so he'll be hoping they gel quickly.
York are another team whose managerial change hasn't maybe had the impact they'd have wanted, and they are more or less in the same boat as us.
Add the three above us, Northampton, Portsmouth and Oxford, and it's a mini-league of 10 in which we need to finish seventh or higher, unless someone higher up drops like a stone.
The quest for those points and the first of those six wins we need starts with Friday's game against Morecambe, then we host Luton the Saturday afterwards.
There has been much doom and gloom about the predicted attendances for those two games, but to be honest I am not bothered about how many turn up - it's all about points now.
We need results now, and I don't care how we get them.
But on the subject of fans, they were short-changed again. Another long trip in hope and expectation left crumbled into dust as they were let down by their team.
Again after the game, we saw complaints that they weren't acknowledged by players or management, and some calls for fans' travel to be re-imbursed and for an official club apology.
I saw all the players acknowledge the fans before the game, during the warm-up. After the game I was watching the melee to see if anyone was yellow or red carded so didn't see what happened after that. To be fair however, practically all of the players were involved in that as the game ended.
After a 2-0 defeat in such weak circumstances, I am not altogether surprised if they didn't want to face up to the fans, having not wanted to face up to Hartlepool either, while I am sure Buckle's first thought would have been to get into the dressing room ready to tear a strip off them.
I have tremendous respect for everyone who follows the team away from home. We all want to team to succeed and they spend their hard-earned cash on the team.
It is expensive and time-consuming. If I wasn't commentating, I would be there with you as I was for many years before moving to the press box.
But travelling to any away game is your own personal choice, and you have to go into it with your eyes open. The risk you take every time you get on that bus, train or into the car is that the team will not perform. Yes, there are days like Bury, Tranmere and Cambridge but there are also more than your fair share of Hartlepools.
Paul Baker or Paul Buckle is not in the car park holding a gun to your head, and you know that a trip to Hartlepool is going to mean an 15-16 hour day and you are running the risk that there might be nothing at the end of it. I have done enough trips like that myself (the 5-0 at Runcorn still leaves scars).
I can understand the club doing the odd gesture for fans who have travelled like they did after the 8-1 at Crewe, but they cannot be expected to do it every time the team put in a disappointing performance on the road (they'd be bankrupt...).
I think the players and management should always try to acknowledge the fans who have travelled. But sometimes I think we have to accept that the circumstances of the match might mean it doesn't happen. Not saying that's right, but it will happen from time to time.
The fact that it happened away at Hartlepool after a limp defeat so far from home does, however, make it worse and I think the players and management do have a duty to fully appreciate what these fans sacrifice to follow them.
All in all, on and off the field it was a day to forget - but lessons must be learned from it or the consequences could be dire.