We’re back on track, promotion is on and it’s all down to Dave Kitson, isn’t it? But, can he keep his head and body together long enough to propel us up the division?
I’ve a lot of sympathy for Gary Waddock, when he applied for the Oxford job he was potentially taking over a team in the unusual position of seeking a new manager while actually being on the up. The squad, he might reasonably have assumed, would be an easy one to take over. They are experienced; they would be focussed and in the groove, he could steer them to the play-offs or promotion; tweak for next season and move forward. It was almost the dream job.
Then, he takes over a club with an entirely different set of characteristics. One in free fall; the challenge suddenly shifting focus entirely. A team not on the up, but on the down, players seemingly incapable of stringing two passes together. Confidence fast evaporating and the idea of shots on target becoming more baffling than the conceptualisation of a new branch of theoretical physics.
Granted, this is a more normal position for a new boss to come into; the previous manager has usually been fired because the team has not been performing. The new broom cannot fail to have some kind of positive impact, so he has very little to lose in his first few weeks and months. So was Waddock taking over a successful team that needed a tweak or a failing team that needs an overhaul? The fans can’t even decide that despite having watched this team for 7 months, why should it be easier for him given that he’s only had three weeks?
Last week after the Fleetwood game Waddock was asked why he doesn’t start with James Constable. There’s been an understandable sense of apoplexy in his preference for Dean Smalley. Waddock said it was because he wasn’t showing in training. The implication is laziness, but it’s probably much more marginal than that. What else has Waddock got to use to assess his team? Before Saturday, Constable hadn’t scored for nearly 2 months and not in a winning team since mid-December. A timespan where Dean Smalley has scored twice in winning teams.
Waddock should have enough experience to know that, at this level, there are an awful lot of solid competent and reliable players and the difference between one club and another is the availability of one bit of class. What he must have struggled with was is where our dose of class had come from.
The answer to that question, is not James Constable, while there might appear to be a chasm of difference in attitude by Constable and Smalley, objectively there is not much difference in performance. The man who has made us tick is Dave Kitson.
I actually thought we’d seen the last of Kitson, he is a precarious balance of form, fitness and mental state, especially if his terrible books are anything to go by. I think it’s quite likely that depression is an issue, as the books suggest, but even if not, then his disciplinary record is significantly more awful than his writing. Especially if you consider he’s an experienced player with Premier League pedigree. Compare him to, say, Michael Duberry who was able to get away with all sorts of things due to his presence and experience, Kitson’s inability to manage a game is even more remarkable. He might write it off as ‘passion’, but you’d hope that he might, at some point, step back and think that whatever the injustices of it all are, it’s not working with referees.
Fitness and form are also significant factors; the former probably informing the latter. 34 isn’t that old; you might expect a Premier League player to hold his own in League 2 that late into his career. Natural wear and tear, and a slowing of pace, should be compensated by experience and core talent. The big risk with these players is how quickly they degenerate when they do get injured (Phil Gilchrist is another classic examples). Kitson seems to be right on the brink of that precipice, he’s a class above but a leg strain from retirement. I can’t see him being at the club next season, but if he was I doubt he’ll be playing much.
But, when Kitson is fit, and playing well, and has the right attitude he is amongst the best in the division and that does two things to the rest of the team; it take pressure off the back four because he gives the midfield he plays slightly in front of space to play offensively and protect defensively. More importantly, he give Constable a platform to work from. By Kitson holding up the play and acting as a target man, Constable benefits from the freedom this gives rather than having to do the job himself.
I’m cautious about assuming that the revival is on after the win at Plymouth, we’ve yet to deal with the pressure and expectation that comes from playing at home. And everything about the York game on Friday suggests that anticipation will be ramped up to 10 now we know that a promotion push is possible. There’s the possibility of a larger than usual holiday crowd and a win will almost certainly put York to the sword in terms of play-off rivals. It won’t just be Kitson’s ability that will hold the key, it’ll be the temperament of those around him too.