Tuesday, 22 October 2013

Where does the buck stop?

It is two minutes into injury time.
Your team has not played fantastically well, but then again, neither have your higher-placed opposition.
Both sides have cancelled each other out. The score is 1-1, and you would therefore take a point against an in-form side.
Then, on the edge of your own penalty area, one of your midfielders shapes to clear the ball.
From nowhere, your right-back then decides to charge in from 10-15 yards away, in an attempt to clear the same ball.
The result is that the ball squirts to the feet of the opposition winger, who (to be fair to him) produces an exquisite chip into the corner for the winning goal.
Sounds pretty farcical and far-fetched, and I would have thought it was, had I not witnessed it with my own eyes at around 4.55 on Saturday afternoon.
It took me more than 48 hours to be brave enough to watch it, and still now I cannot actually work out what on earth went through Sido's brain to make him decide that course of action would be a good idea.
As a manager already under pressure from some fans after a worse than expected start to a season, what are you supposed to do?
No end of training ground drills, no end of dressing room inquests, no end of DVD viewings can legislate or prevent that sort of brain aberration - and yet it is that sort of thing which could, ultimately further down the line, cost someone his job.
Yesterday, we saw Dave Hockaday fired down the road at Forest Green after their poor run of results.
Some of the players took to Twitter expressing their sadness, with one asking why people were so pleased that a person had lost their job and livelihood.
My response to that was that maybe if that player and his colleagues had won a few more football matches, that scenario would not have happened in the first place - and it asks that question again - where does the buck stop?
On Saturday, what could Mark Yates have done to prevent Sido's brain storm? The answer to that is nothing at all - yet it is Yates who had had all the flak in the past 48 hours. But was he totally to blame for the defeat?
The way that game played out on Saturday, I would have taken a 1-1 draw, and moved on. We didn't deserve to win the game, yet I didn't feel we deserved to lose it either.
The post-match stats say we had one shot on target, Troy Brown's on-the-line diversion which put us ahead, and Dale had two - Henderson's header and his winning chip.
We apparently didn't have another shot, which will delight Russ Penn, as he can erase his pretty bad miss, seconds after the equaliser, from his memory and claim it never happened. Yet it was the clearest-cut chance of the whole game.
From very early on, it was a game of chess. Attritional, played out mainly between the two penalty boxes.
Neither goalkeeper made a save of note in the whole game, both sets of centre-halves dominated the opposing strikers as the build-up play was promising as far as the 18-yard lines, but that was as far as it got.
The quality from there on was lacking, our crossing was poor, set-piece quality low - typified by Braham-Barrett making a great run down the left on more than one occasion, then failing to provide any sort of cross whatsoever.
Yet that was the same for Dale. They didn't look like a side on a good run of form, and scarcely looked like really being able to hurt us - from 20-25 minutes in, the tone of our radio commentary was that it would be a one-goal, maybe one-chance game.
So when Troy's goal came, I thought that was going to be that... and maybe it should have been, and here comes the time when the manager would earn his corn.
Keith Hill made a triple change with 20 minutes to go, and visibly enthused his side. The fresh legs gave them a new impetus, and we were hanging on.
As we have seen in the past - not only under this manager but all the way down the years - we seemed to drop deeper and deeper, defending not on our 18-yard line, but almost on the penalty spot.
Yates changed the system, Harrison and McGlashan moving wider and Cureton on his own down the middle, but stuck with the same personnel, even though some seemed to be flagging.
The equaliser seemed inevitable, yet again was preventable, and not (in my view) a direct result of a lack of substitutions, but more a decent cross whipped in, and Sido losing his marker on the far post resulting in a free header two or three yards out.
Then came Penn's miss, and ultimately the horror show that was the last-gasp winner, and from a position of strength, the manager is again in the eye of the storm  - and not totally of his own making.
For the record, I would have made some sort of change. I do feel that was a mistake not to in the hope of giving us the same lift that the Dale subs did - but what and who to change?
If the system was changing to put two players wider, I would have taken Harrison off, maybe for Vincent or Kotwica - but Harrison has a greater work-rate and would track back (although he was culpable of letting Donnelly have space to cross for the equaliser after finding himself in the left-back position...).
I feel there was little scope to change any of the midfield three. He already had his three workers on the field - Penn, Taylor and Richards. To have taken one of them off for Noble or Deering would not have increased the work rate in there, which had been good throughout the game.
The back four had been comfortable, so there was no reason to take any of them off, as you could not forsee what our right-back had up his sleeve for stoppage time.
I asked Yates afterwards about the lack of subs, and he said the only player he might have taken off would have been Cureton, but he was our best hope for a goal.
The growing number of critics will interpret that as Yates thinking about that change, but not doing it as he was scared to after JC moaned about coming off at Dagenham. I hardly think he would worry about that, however, given some of the ruthless decisions he has made in the past weeks and months.
But we are all managers, we would all do things differently - yet ultimately it is Yates' decisions which count.
He opted not to make any changes, and although many disagree with that, me included, I would contend that that decision was not a massive contributing factor in us losing that game.
We lost it because of one decision, by one player, in the heat of the moment. It might cost him a seat on the bench tonight (again) and for a few games after that, but it might cost his manager a bit more than that.
You can play tippy-tappy stuff like Barcelona, or try to dog out wins in attritional games like Saturdays, but ultimately if you are not winning games regularly, then things will get sticky for you.
On Saturday before the game, I got to go into the dressing room with my son, who was mascot for the day. It was the first time in more than 30 years of watching this club that I have been in there. Good banter was flying, they all seemed in good spirits, and united.
I didn't sense a 'lost' dressing room, and overall I don't sense an imminent change on the horizon. I am sure there have been discussions at board level as this is a results-based industry, but I just cannot see anything happening quickly.
Remember the chairman's programme notes from earlier in the season when he talked about players' attitudes and effort levels not being where they should be. It is clear where he was putting the blame, and it is not (wholly) at the manager's door.
Naturally, there is a growing frustration at the results and the league position, and some of the performances have not been good enough. I share that frustration.
This is a tight league. The top six are separated by a point - I thought Chesterfield would run away with it, but they have had a rocky spell.
Dale are second, but were not better than us. Oxford are up there, yet we should have beaten them. Wimbledon were top three when we beat them.
On the other hand, Plymouth, Torquay and Bury sit below us, yet put a combined 11 goals in our net, and have only won another five games between them aside from beating us. One of them has changed manager already, the other two bosses are feeling the heat.
That is the frustration - a lack of consistency, both in performance and in selection and formation.
Injuries have not helped, especially defensively, but no players have performed consistently enough to warrant a regular place.
When we have played well, and the manager has kept the same starting line-up, by and large he has been let down in the following game with an insipid performance, making a mockery then of his decision not to make any changes.
Often I have gone to games, looked at the team sheet, seen it unchanged, thought 'fair enough', then been left scratching my head in disbelief at the inept 90 minutes playing out in front of me.
After Saturday, I have no clue what team I would pick tonight, although I can think of one name who might not be in it.
Some players have to step up. Some established players have been very disappointing, some new arrivals have not shown what we expected from them, and some have not been given a chance, or played in their best position, by the manager.
Maybe, ultimately, we have to face up to the notion that our squad is not as good as we thought it was - that it is not a play-off squad as we all thought a few months ago, and adjust our expectations accordingly.
The majority of performances so far would certainly suggest that is true.
So whose fault is that? The manager signed the players after all. He assembled the squad, he decided to spend the budget given to him on this group. He decides the tactics, he sets them up to play the systems we have used.
But it is the old question again. He can't go out there over the white line and make them execute it. All he can do from minute one to minute 90+ is affect it with tweaks and substitutions, and on some occasions he hasn't done that effectively ... but not every time.
He has put his trust in, and is staking his managerial future and reputation on these players, and sometimes, like in injury time on Saturday, he has been let down by them.
Let down by individual decisions and errors he can have no control over. The players are underperforming (as the chairman stated earlier in the season in his programme notes...), and the manager is underperforming by virtue of the results not matching pre-season expectations from the board and the terraces, and with some questionable decisions.
But where does the buck stop? At the moment, it is 50-50 in my book, but players don't get the sack, do they...?

Sunday, 6 October 2013

Crunch time is coming

AS away performances go, overall this one wasn't the worst. But the result is all that counts.
Ifs, buts and maybes were a-plenty in a frustrating 90 minutes, however it only takes one look at the league table to show that the situation is now dire.
Managers always say they don't look at the table until 10 games have been played. It's not a pretty sight.
Nine points from 30 wasn't in the script. Only Accrington and Northampton sit below us, and among the teams also on nine or 10 points are Torquay, Bury and Plymouth... teams who have put 11 goals past us and count a win over us as just about their only bright spot so far.
Yesterday's game was one which I felt we deserved more from. We let the early goal in, which is now virtually a customary occurrence in a CTFC away game.
This time it took five minutes. A ball chipped in to the edge of our box, Deon Burton laid it off and Etienne Esajas had too much time and space to take it down and pick his spot.
After the late win last weekend, we went in with the same team. When we did that after West Ham and Accrington, they bombed the following game. This was not the same total debacle as those games were, but it was another loss.
We had started with a 4-1-4-1 system, Terry Gornell on the left, Byron Harrison on his own up front. That was thankfully abandoned quickly as Byron was isolated and Terry wasted, and we stayed in the game in the first half.
We didn't create much, but we stayed in the game, hung in there and didn't capitulate for a change.
But still we are unbalanced. It is like a broken record, I know, but the manager wants to shoe-horn Russ Penn, David Noble and Jason Taylor in the same side, while wanting to play 4-4-2.
You can't do both. He has to bite the bullet and leave one of them out.
He got flak for leaving Penn out against Pompey, so since then he has been in the side, but has been the one, more often than not, marginalised on the right-hand side.
Noble was a signing he wanted, so he wants him in the side. Taylor is seen as a security blanket, especially away from home, and played a big part in the two games we won.
He also knows he will get stick, as he did last season, for playing one up front, and on form at the moment he cannot leave two of Harrison, Gornell and Cureton out of the side.
But the second half display (especially after Noble came off and Cureton came on) showed that we need that balance in the side.
We pushed Scunthorpe back, negated them as an attacking force, and should have at least equalised.
We had a couple of scrambles from corners, McGlashan should arguably have had a penalty, as could Cureton, and then came the big moment - Harrison's good work setting up Cureton for a golden opportunity which he fired straight at the goalkeeper.
If that had gone in, I believe we would have got something, as we were on top at the point, and the home fans were most definitely restless.
But it didn't, and as we chased the game they started to pick us off in the last 15 minutes, missed a couple of sitters of their own and finally got a second in the six minutes of stoppage time.
So despite all that second-half effort and endeavour (with Penn and Taylor at heart of it, and with Harrison again putting in a good shift) we again ended up with nothing.
These early goals are killing us. Once again, we left ourselves a mountain to climb in the opening five minutes of the game.
You can't give teams a head start like we keep doing, and expect to get something out of the game.
It kills the game plan straight away, and inevitably heads go straight down when it keeps happening.
After that opening goal, I thought our defending was ok.
Wilson and Troy Brown struggled early on against Burton, but they got to grips with it. I felt Lowe and Richards were steady enough at full-back, Richards getting forward to good effect at times, and his set-piece delivery was better than in recent weeks.
The midfield only became effective when Penn was moved into the middle after Noble went off. Noble showed some flashy touches but largely flattered to deceive, got himself booked for a fourth game running, and was sacrificed for Cureton.
Penn and Taylor, while not having the creativity, have the drive and determination you need in the middle of the park, and they spurred us into life in that second half.
We went a bit more direct at times, and I felt we worried them a lot - Brian Laws admitted as much post-match - but despite a lot of possession that Cureton chance was the only time we really tested their goalkeeper.
But we couldn't keep up the intensity we showed for the first half-hour of the second half - that's when we needed to get that goal, when we were on top.
Gornell was replaced by Kotwica, the 17-year-old's first game for a while, but he was unable to really get into the pace of the game, and that change didn't work.
It wasn't quite on a par with the infamous Bagasan Graham change at Swindon, but what it does is open up once again the Ashley Vincent question.
We asked Mark Yates afterwards about using Zack ahead of Ashley, and the question was side-stepped neatly. He sees the pair in training and it is clear that he sees Zack as the better bet.
But if I were Ash, I would be banging the office door down and asking what is going on, as he has not been given a chance to show what he can do properly since coming back here.
We all know Mark wanted Ashley Grimes. He was earmarked for the left-sided role we are now having so many problems with, and the subsequent cold-shouldering of Vincent suggests he was a bit of a panic signing, or that Yates does not know where he is going to fit in.
Vincent wants to play down the middle, but he is not going to get in there ahead of Harrison, Cureton or Gornell as things stand.
But having played a lot down the left-hand side, he must surely be worth a go there in place of a central midfielder played out of position, and (with due respect to Zack, who has largely done well when he has come on) ahead of a 17-year old?
We don't see him in training however, and it can only be that the manager doesn't feel Ashley is showing enough at Seasons? Who knows, but it is surely worth a go?
With a squad of 19 (CBB being just about the only other available player bar the 18 we saw yesterday) Yates has not got many options available to him, and with the form as it is surely he has to explore all those available to him, and Vincent is the one he hasn't seen fit to use.
At the moment, it is a wasted signing .
It has to be said that Vincent has done little in the games in which he has seen action, but we know from experience that he is a player who needs a run of games to hit form. Coming off the bench every now and then is not going to bring the best out of him.
So on to Dagenham, the scene of one of our poorest performances of last season, when we lost 1-0 - but we cannot afford a repeat of that this time.
I am sure the manager is feeling the pressure - his reaction to Jamie's winner last weekend tells us that.
This time of year is not a good one for under-fire Cheltenham managers. Down the years, Jim Barron, John Ward, John Murphy, Keith Downing, Martin Allen and Bobby Gould have all moved on for various reasons between mid-September and late October.
The last of those resigned after a home game with Rochdale on October 18, 2003. In two weeks time 10 years and one day since that seminal afternoon, Rochdale come to town again.
That becomes a pivotal game for Yates' future, along with the Morecambe game the following Tuesday.
I am not an advocate of change for change's sake - I do not believe the grass will necessarily be greener on the other side, but it is seemingly inevitable that poor results against Rochdale and Morecambe will, I'm afraid, see a change of atmosphere in the home faithful.
Slowly, patience will be ebbing away further with fans, and then the board will have a tough decision to make.
Talk of the contract extension has gone very quiet, quite rightly, and I would say that if we get less than four points from those two home games, there is no question that doubts will be starting to creep in at board level - if they are not there already.
I don't believe the manager has 'lost the dressing room' - whatever that means. Our spirit and determination in that second half yesterday shows me that the players have not given up on him. However, I sense he is losing an increasing number of the supporters.
The squad is unbalanced, and he is the one who spent the budget on those players. They are his choices and he is the one who has to mould them into a winning unit. Time is running out for him to do it.
Poor appointments in the past leave me slightly anxious about what might happen if the board did decide Yates' time was up - but the board have to weigh that up against their deep-down confidence in his ability to turn it round and lift us out of trouble.
A sense of loyalty to someone who has served the club well as player and manager and a wish for stability is one thing, but relegation from the League is another, and that is where we could be heading if this slide carries on much longer.
It's not a tough choice, as the latter would be a disaster for the club and waste all the hard work of the last 14 years.
It's all very well to say 'it won't happen' but many clubs have said that on their way down, and some have never recovered - look at Stockport for example.
No side is 'too good to go down' and there is no doubt this squad is nowhere near showing the potential it has, and the manager and the players are equally culpable for that.
The board have given the manager all their backing. He has got a decent budget, and been able to bring in his choice of players, plus additional coaching assistance.
They have done all they can, and the manager, his staff and the players are the only ones who can find a solution, or the tipping point will come.
Yes, we have had Spurs, Everton, West Ham, and two successive play-off campaigns. But I am afraid that is the past, and this is the here and now.
It's crunch time.