When we opened the season with four consecutive league defeats and without a win in nine, there were those who applauded the style, if not the results, that Michael Appleton was trying to produce. The more sceptical pointed out that not only were the results not coming, that come the long winter months, the weather would ensure that things could only get worse.
The quality of pitches this season seems to have become more of an obsession than in the past. Perhaps it is because of the ubiquity of the lush, green carpets of the Premier League that we have come to believe is the norm. Maybe it is the product of extreme weather resulting from global warming. Maybe it’s the London Welsh obsession, although the obsession doesn’t seem limited to the state of our pitch. Maybe it’s a hidden product of the economic downturn where clubs are cutting corners to save costs.
Certainly the expectation that pitches should be green and lush throughout the season is a modern phenomenon. In the 70s and 80s, rutted, muddy pitches in January and February were the norm, it became a great leveller that ensured FA Cup giant killings were more likely. Football, perhaps, wasn’t viewed through the filter of the aesthetic, as it is today, but instead through one of dour pragmatism. It was less important that a game was good and played the right way, more important that it simply happened.
Some seem to be under the odd illusion that lower league players cannot play football on grassless pitches. And that this is at the heart of our problems; because the quality of pitches is awful, we cannot play our way. On the contrary, this is surely much more of a norm for most of them.
Michael Appleton applauded his team’s ‘combativeness’, ‘organisation’ and ‘professionalism’ in the draw against Portsmouth. All terms that wouldn’t have been out of place in a Chris Wilder post-match interview. Incidentally, for those who don’t track this kind of thing, Mr Wilder, with his dull, defensive football, is currently at the helm of the division’s leading goalscorers, the boring sod.
Like last year’s memorable 4-1 reverse, the occasion of the Pompey game probably overstated the result on Saturday. Away draws at Morecambe or Wimbledon – teams directly above and below Pompey – would have been considered solid results rather than some something akin to a win. The 12th Man of Fratton Park is probably the complete opposite at the moment as the visitors thrive on the novelty while the hosts whither with fear. Something we know about only too well.
Organisation and combativeness are both qualities that take you far in League 2, particularly on pitches which won’t allow the ball to run true. It has become more evident in our game in recent weeks and it seems little coincidence that Jake Wright and Ryan Clarke, amongst other warrior types, have finally found some form. It seems that they are relying on their instincts and strengths – honed on the awful pitches of League 2 and the Conference – rather than obsessing over playing the game the right way.
Is this the emergence of a Plan B? A conscious move away from the FA’s training text book towards the cold realities of the lower leagues? Appleton is not clear on the matter. My instinct would say that it’s a happy accident, although the signing of the lanky target man Armand Gnanguillet might suggest otherwise. The key is whether Appleton will learn from this year’s experience or stick pig-headedly to the philosophy. Will he be fooled by the return of beautiful lush turf come August?
I have some sympathy for Michael Appleton after the draw against Morecambe. This ‘trench warfare’ football never looks good when you’re losing. We were far from outplayed, as we were against Shrewsbury, Wycombe and Southend, and in the end the same performance could easily have produced a defeat, a win as well as the draw we got.
The problem he has is what got us here in the first place; too many signings, too much rhetoric, too many false dawns and corners turned. People were quick to jump on his pre-match comment that this was the group of players he wanted all along. That was a daft comment – similar the ‘no plan B’ statement at the start of the year – which was always going to come back to haunt him.
Because he is so backed into a corner with his previous statements about not being one for compromise, it’s difficult to know whether he is genuinely learning from this season’s experience – as it appears on the pitch – or whether, as his interviews seem to imply – he’s blind to the realities of what he’s dealing with.