Grays Athletic 0 Yellows 4

There will be a time, sometime in the future, when things aren’t going so right, when people will compare an ineffectual midfielder as ‘another Simon Clist’. But this will be immensely harsh. Back in 1996 we had two Simon Clists – Dave Smith and Martin Gray, both much derided in their day. I know I could be alone in pining for such quality and guile in the years since they side-passed the hell out of opponents on the way to promotion.

Clist is the least spectacular of our midfield trio, with Murray’s passing and Bulman’s workrate both widely recognised. Clist is the man who does their housekeeping. When a ball squirms loose, Clist is there to pick it up and get it back under control. Away from home, when it comes loose, he takes off his pinny, puts on his prettiest dress and pops up to score – as he did in the routine demolition of Grays yesterday.

It’s Clist who must be under greatest scrutiny with the, surely inevitable, return of Braveheart Hargreaves. However, it’s difficult to see how it’s all going to fit together. In his pomp Hargreaves was in the Bulman mould, so do we need two brawlers in there? Even in his last season with us, Hargreaves was guilty of lunging tackles resulting from being fractionally behind the game – the years since will surely have slowed him further.

But, there is another side. Hargreaves is a man of obvious experience. More than this, he is a man of integrity and intelligence. Reading his blog, especially recently, has demonstrated how deeply he thinks about his career and its future. His influence in calming everyone’s nerves as the season draws to the close, could be invaluable.

Murray, alongside Constable, are reminiscent of the Mitchell Brothers; controlling the game through the force of their personality. Bulman, for all his bustle, is so focussed on his own game that to have to nursemaid others will be an unwelcome distraction. Perhaps what Hargreaves will lack in ability, he will make up in his influence to steer us through to the title. But, if he does, Clist’s contribution shouldn’t be forgotten.

Yellows 5 Grays Athletic 0

I had this post all worked out before the game. It was going to be about how Julian Dicks got lucky when he was caught up in the early Premiership gold rush. Now, stripped of the mystique of professional football, he’s just a sunken-eyed middle-aged fat knacker and a boorish oaf who had been humbled by the class and wit of Chris Wilder and his vastly superior squad.

However, Dicks’ interview before yesterday’s game revealed him as a bloke just trying to make his way in his profession. Yes, he was a tough tackler who got a brief and little deserved moment in the really big time. Unlike Neil Ruddock, Dicks isn’t an embarrassing middle-aged football hooligan shouting for people to take notice of him.

So, I have a newfound respect for the man (which, I’m sure thrills him) even if his charges aren’t very good. They should have declared no-contest on this one after about 25 minutes. After all, it comes to something when your team is improved by the introduction of Jamie Slabber.

Unlike the Eastbourne game, the team managed to stay awake during the second half, which is some testament when there’s no opposition to play. Sometimes it felt like we were watching the subs at half time trying to out-do each other with little flicks and round-the-corner passing. This must be what it’s like to support the auld firm; where, for most of the season, the question isn’t whether you’ll win or not, but by how much.

We’re so hopelessly out of place in this league. The Luton game aside, the matches don’t feel like games of football. The stadium, the crowd, the players, the manager, even the bloody marketing and sponsorship smacks of a team some way beyond the Conference.

I know that everyone’s been saying this for years – we’re too big to be in the Conference. But the truth is, whilst we have always looked out of place visually, like the kid in your third year rugby team who was over 6 foot and had pubes, in the past we at least been part of the competition. Now it’s like Stephen Fry taking GCSE English, we’re so superior we can complete the job in a fraction of the allotted time, then all there is to do is stare at the ceiling and wait for everyone else to finish. I thought that promotion would be an anxious struggle that would leave me with an ulcer, if we carry on like this, we’ll have it won in February.

Not that I’m complaining, of course.

Yellows 4 Grays Athletic 1

Prior to yesterday’s shambolic win against Grays, Radio Oxford got ‘miracle man‘ Rob Hughes in front of the mic for a quick interview. Whilst it is hard not to be sympathetic to Hughes’ position and the horrific beating he took, he was never going to make great airtime. Not only could he not remember much about his time with Oxford (you me both, Rob), nor could he remember anything of the original attack. His three minutes was mostly dedicated to telling us that he was training six hours a day with the (clearly deluded) aim of playing next season ‘in the Championship… or Oxford’.

It was a suitably odd start to a suitably odd game. Apparently the Grays team turned up in, like a pub team, in the players’ cars, they had a man sent off, conceded three goals and lost their goalkeeper all in a first half that finished an hour and a quarter after it started. It’s not a surprise that everyone seemed to have had enough in the second half.
The goalkeeper injury was the main talking point. Oxford fans demonstrated typical balance by screaming for the medical staff to get a move on when he first went down despite the fact the Grays Physio was clearly not concerned. Then, of course, once they arrived there was derision that they were taking the time to ensure he had no further injuries. Never happy, these people. Not that there was a lot to do while we waited. Grays went into a huddle (organising the lifts back, I assume), we jogged around keeping warm, the linesmen (my favourite bit) appeared to trot up and down the line as if the game was still on. You would think that there was a by-law you can invoke where both sides agree to finish the half rather than wait. We didn’t even have the pleasure of an announcement that “the referee has indicated there will be a minimum of thirty minutes injury time”. Which would surely have been a world record guaranteeing this freakshow its deserved place in history.
We contributed little in the way of oddness aside from having both centre-backs sustaining simultaneous blood injuries. In truth we contributed very little full stop. So disjointed and ill disciplined were Grays we did little more than turn up and capitalise on their ineptitude.  

Grays Athletic 2 Yellows 0

One website is claiming that, following Saturday’s defeat to Grays, Darren Patterson’s job is hanging by a thread. Again.

Yes, the defeat is frustrating – it shouldn’t be happening given that we’ve dominated promotion contenders like Burton and Cambridge. But should we be questioning Patterson’s position?

Most will agree that success and stability go hand in hand. But equally, how do you know when you’re simply backing the wrong guy? Intuitively a manager probably needs 2 years minimum, simply to let the contracts set by previous managers run out. Patterson, for example, is still burdened with the likes of Hutchinson, Day and even Willmott. None of which are justifying their wages in performances at the moment.

He should definitely be judged, not on a handful of games, but whole seasons. But you can’t always wait until May to make changes. Also, short term trends are misleading – should Phil Brown at Hull feel under pressure because he’s taken 1 point in the last 4, even though three of the games were against some of the richest teams in the world?

Which got me thinking, the last game of the season is simply the end of a 46 game sequence. It isn’t difficult to calculate the moving annual total of points scored, so, not just Saturday’s game, but the 45 games that preceded it. If you do that over a long period of time (say five years), then you can see whether you’re progressing or not because you lose all the seasonality, short term injury crises, tricky sequences of fixtures etc.

In the last 5 years we’ve peaked as high as 79 points in a 46 game sequence, and dropped as low as 44, we’re currently running at 68. When Patterson took over, we were on 65. Not a remarkable improvement, but we’ve only peaked above 68 points for one sustained period – our first year in the Conference. The rest of the time, we’ve been in the doldrums. In fact, apart from that season, we’ve only bettered 68 points twice – one game, five years ago and in the early days of Patterson’s reign. In short Patterson is amongst our most successful managers over the last five years. Not difficult, you might argue, but true.

So, it’s not difficult to see why people are putting Patterson under pressure, but he’s working off a low base. He is digging us out of a hole (several deep holes, in fact), so to lose faith now would appear a bit premature.

Us 0 Grays 0, Aldershot 1 Us 0

In the round we are just about on the awful side of average. It would be difficult to describe us as totally inept. We gave Grays a game without ever threatening to beat them, we gave Aldershot a game without ever truly looking to disturb their promotion push. We’re like a decent sparring partner, but nothing like a contender.

The games are so drab they’re beyond analysis, it’s some relief that Darren Patterson’s swashbuckling in the transfer market has created some interest.

The decision to transfer list six players two weeks before the transfer window closed looked at best a risk, at worst foolhardy. But there’s no doubt that Patterson is not here to muck about. Out go Twigg, Corcoran, Robinson, Jeannin and Duffy in comes McCallister, Howard, Murray, Richards and Blackwood. It’s about time a manager cut the crap in this way.

Every player he’s brought in seems to be better than the players he’s let go; though admittedly none have yet been properly exposed to the United curse. It does make you question what Smith, Merry et al were up to in the summer. Twigg apart, everyone came in as triallists. One can only think that, hopefully, something else useful was occupying their time. The ground, for a whole manner of reasons, seems key to getting out of this mess. If they can produce the goods in that area, then Patterson’s work may eventually be rewarded.

Grays Athletic 0 Us 0

A fittingly dull draw against Grays last night. The fact, having needlessly lost points against Exeter, Cambridge and Halifax, we moved within three points of top spot suggests that the league is there for the taking. It’s just a question of who takes it.

Things look OK, we’ve now faced Cambridge, Stevenage and Burton away, all who appear to be in a cabal, which also includes us, Aldershot and Torquay who look best set to fight it out for the title.

My perception of last year was that Dagenham started poorly before coming good later in the season. This isn’t true; they dropped points early on, notably to us, but maintained good form otherwise throughout the season. It therefore adds strength to the argument that sitting in the pack remains a preferable option for now. To be striding out front again risks complacency and generating unrealistic expectations. I, for one, would prefer not to see an expectant sell-out crowd on Boxing Day if it meant we were able to keep our heads through to May.

I still maintain that pound for pound we had the best squad in the league last season. It ran out of steam and collapsed under the pressure, but had all things been equal we would have won the title comfortably.

I’m not so sure we do have the best team this season; we possibly have the strongest squad which may be preferable, but two things appear to be missing. Strong tactical leadership – both on the field (witness the capitulation against Exeter) and off (the unsettled team and poor substitutions) and a spark that makes things happen, either with creativity or with goals.

Paul Shaw may be the man we’re looking for. Whilst he doesn’t have the style of a Burgess or the speed of Yemi, he has the control that’s been lacking and may be able to channel either Duffy, Yemi or the Twigglet into being an effective and championship winning forward line.

That said; I did poor similar praise on Gavin Johnson and Rufus Brevitt last year; and look what happened to them.