If you want to really get into the DNA of a football team, look at its midfield. Compare, say, the flair and creativity of Xavi and Iniesta at Barcelona to the methodical coldness of De Jong, Viera and Toure at Manchester City. Defenders are organised and dependable, strikers are unpredictable firecrackers, the midfield are the character.
Look at our Conference midfield – Bulman, Clist, Murray (and latterly Chapman). That was a trio all about its strength of personality. Using our principle asset – our relative size in the non-league – we used these three to impose ourselves on our opponents. It wasn’t so much creative as intense.
Switch to this season and those three were quickly replaced. Perhaps the more composed players of League 2 weren’t going to be fooled by the pressure trick. However, there is a thing about promoted teams having momentum. Certainly Heslop and Hall are momentum players. Heslop had the better season of the two, albeit fitfully. Hall sometimes played like a bloke who’d turned up late for a kick about in the park and couldn’t quite work out which side he was on or who was on his team. Both had periods of form, but neither could sustain it for more than a few weeks at a time. I’m not entirely sure that either are The Solution.
As Heslop and Hall blasted away going forward, someone was needed to mind the shop. After the false start of Paul Wotton, Paul McLaren was drafted in to provide the cover and as a result was a late candidate for player of the year. There were times when he must have wondered what was going on with three strikers being joined by two from midfield and Batt and Tonkin joining the fun from the flanks. A worthy signing for next year, someone is needed to look after the kids.
The neo-McLaren was supposed to be Josh Payne, but whilst he had his moments, there were also times he looked a little short in terms being able to control the game. Clearly talented with occasional hot-headedness, the jury remains out as to whether he’ll here for the long haul.
His chances will be all the more limited if the club can find a way to sign Ryan Burge. Burge has much of what McLaren has, but with the added benefit of youth. A long term solution, but surely beyond our means to sign him.
All of which takes us back to the start and the last remaining member of the Conference trio. When Simon Clist was fit we looked a better team. He’s unremarkable in the way he plays, but such discipline is to be admired. I can see a point next season when he’s long gone, where we’ll be pining for someone like Clist to drop in and do simple things well.