Playing a blame game is very tempting, but rarely particularly helpful. But after two home defeats in a row, and a run of five without a win, the knives are out and everyone is sniping at each other. So who is at fault for our current predicament?
There’s little doubt that Chris Wilder is under pressure and it’s difficult to see quite how he can pull the fans around to give him sustained support. Each run of form feels like a patch over a much longer decline. Like an old car that breaks down more and more and becomes more expensive to fix; there’s a point at which you just need to buy a new car. That said, managers rarely get the opportunity to turn their team around, they’re fired before they get to that situation, so there are few reference points to imagine him going from zero to hero.
On Tuesday, against Fleetwood, there was a sense that it wasn’t so much that he should be fired, more that he should be released from the purgatory of the situation he finds himself in. Though there are harsh critics of Wilder, only the truly demented will deny that he’s been dealt a tough hand. Money is tight, the pitch is terrible and injuries have desecrated us; it’s not an easy ride. One bloke behind me bemoaned that Lewis Montrose was “Another Wilder choice” ignoring that every player in the squad is a Wilder choice, even the good ones. A fit Ryan Clarke, Andy Whing, Michael Duberry, Peter Leven and Tom Craddock – all Wilder choices – would have undoubtedly given Fleetwood a better game – most of Wilder’s good decisions are not currently available.
He looks a bit of a spent force at the moment, without ideas and without anyone to turn to for support.
In the main I trust Lenagan’s ownership. He has a track record in running decent professional sports clubs and is clearly a successful businessman. Like many very clever people he seems able to process lots of information and distill his options into a series of apparently simple yes/no decisions. Emotion and indecision doesn’t come into it; as long as you’re not too risk averse, this is a good thing for running a business.
But Lenagan’s clear thinking comes at a cost; he lacks the empathy of people who are less clear thinking than him, which means he struggles to understand what makes football fans; with their baked in irrationality, tick. As a result he appears cold hearted and distant and some of his decisions – such as the signing of Luke McCormick – seem ill-judged. What’s more, he’s almost too honest. Suggesting that some players have been signed without a medical during the most acute injury crisis in several generations leaves him vulnerable. And, at the fan forum, failing to mention that the club were about to hand over their shirt sponsorship space to a local charity was a missed opportunity for some good PR.
Firoka have a lot to answer for. There is more to being the landlord of a professional sports stadium then providing a patch of grass, or as it has become now, rutted mud and sand. The science of hosting multiple sports exists; Cardiff, Wigan, Swansea and Hull all successfully run stadia featuring both rugby and football. And Firoka have actively sought a rugby tenant for some years. So this season’s difficulties were all predicable. Kassam isn’t providing a multi-sport facility; it’s a football pitch with rugby being played on it. The Firoz Kassam business model is the same throughout his empire; identify a desperate group of people; whether that be rugby and football teams or asylum seekers and provide them with a bare minimum service. In his purely transactional world, he ignores the benefit of collaboration – better facilities mean larger crowds mean more money and higher rents.
There is a chance to sort this out over the close season so that it never happens again, but the state of the pitch could be the route cause of a whole lot of our problems. If it does result in the manager losing his job, key players getting injured and crowds dropping, then Firoka should (but won’t) be held to account.
There’s no lack of commitment in the team, and no lack of quality, at least not in the treatment room. We just can’t keep the good players on the pitch and the likes of Potter and Chapman need good players around them to help them perform. With so much going against them, the sense of helplessness, the lack of confidence is becoming overwhelming. What’s more worrying is that the season doesn’t really offer any respite from the gloom. There’s no cup or derby to distract us from the solemn trudge from here to May.
The injury problem has been so extensive that you can look at it two ways; either it points towards a systemic failure in the club’s sports science set up, or it’s so bizarre that you cannot imagine that you’ll be inflicted with it again for a generation. Certainly the club should tighten up in giving players fitness tests before signing them, and the investment in sports science promised at the end of last season needs to begin paying dividends. But there have been a surprising number of in-game ‘impact’ injuries, particularly at home in the first half. While players may be carrying injuries into games that they aggravate, a lot of these injuries do seem to be the result of bad luck; or perhaps a badly rutted pitch.
Whilst understandably angry and frustrated, the fans have been spoilt in recent years; Wilder has produced three derby victories, a win at Wembley and, in his first season, a thrilling, if ultimately doomed dash to the play offs. We expect to be entertained. During the latter months of the Kassam reign the fans were in a similar rut; in a game against Rochdale the crowd spontaneously started chanting and banging the many empty seats around them. The fans had taken it upon themselves to claw back the club.
The same sense of helplessness, coupled with a degree of expectation, means the the fans are sitting back, or not even turning up. It’s certainly hard to raise yourself when faced with defeat after defeat, but sitting back and waiting to be entertained, is not going to help.
… And the solution?
Don’t fire the manager. At least not yet. Admittedly, Wilder’s future is an entirely valid discussion to have. It might make us feel better for five minutes because it’ll give us a sense of doing something, but it’ll instantly lose us 4 years of collective learning, and if Lenagan is to be believed then it’ll cost us £200,000 in compensation and recruitment fees, money that could easily be spent on something more positive.
You can’t isolate our performances down to Wilder’s decisions alone. So what could you do that would address the influencing factors? I would appoint a new chairman. Whilst Kelvin Thomas may be a little devil-may-care in this age of austerity, somebody who can dedicate time to engaging with Firoka, provide some support for the manager and give the fans something to get behind. This could create a galvanising force would pay huge dividends.