The Squad in review – 2012-2013

 In less than 24 hours, the great cull of our squad will have begun. So, just before two-thirds of the squad become ex-players, let’s look back on a wretched 9 months and see how the squad has fared.

It’s time to pack our metaphorical bucket and spade and head for the metaphorical beach, the season is over.

It’s customary at this time of year to pick through the bones of the squad. That seems a bit of waste of time this year as half the squad look set to leave and the other half seemed unable to string together more than half-a-dozen games before heading for the treatment room with a grazed knee.

Jake Wright was majestic throughout the season, and therefore becomes the first player to win Oxblogger Player of the Year along with Player’s Player of the Year and Supporters’ Player of the Year. I’m sure he’d be delighted if he ever found out about that. One day, I’ll buy a trophy or something to mark the honour.

Thankfully, I think we’ll see Wright playing at the Kassam next year. He’s intimated a desire to ‘play at a higher level’ (i.e. leave) with the normal safety caveats of loving the club and all that jazz. He’s still under contract so would command a fee. Even though he’s only 27, I still think he’s too old for a Championship club to take him on, even if they were looking to a League 2 team with a negative goal difference to solve their defensive issues. Few in League 1 or 2 are likely to spend the required amount to bring him in.

To my mind, there were really only two other contenders for the title of player of the year. Sean Rigg got the games in and was solid and reliable throughout; although his end product was lacking. It’s somewhat ironic that his last contributions to our season were the lung busting run down the flank for Alfie Potter’s goal against Rochdale followed by his tap in against Accrington, that is, plenty of end product. Darn that man.

Potter probably had his best season in a yellow shirt, but his form and confidence faded in the bog of our pitch mid-season. Both Potter and Rigg suffer from that thing with wingers; that their job – providing goals – means that they’re always likely to fail more than they succeed. So, on a game by game basis they can be frustrating, it’s only when considered over a period of time, when you’ve had the chance to edit out the frustrating times, that you realise the contribution they make. For this read: Joey Beauchamp.

Of the rest, Andy Whing seemed to be the difference between the team being in and out of form; he just didn’t play enough, James Constable had a solid but unspectacular season; the prospects of him racking up 20+ goals in a season seem increasingly remote, but his presence for the fans is important. Damian Batt was similarly solid, Ryan Clarke, when fit, seemed to lack something of the sparkle of previous seasons; perhaps a sign that he was carrying his shoulder injury for some time before he jacked it in for the year.

Age seemed to catch up with Michael Duberry though he let nobody down when he did play. Peter Leven didn’t seem fit at any point and only really contributed from deadballs and set pieces. I have a soft spot for Michael Raynes who never lacked in endeavour.

Others’ performances were fleeting in the main, Liam Davis and John Paul Pitman played reasonably in between bouts of injury and Scott Davies’ brief flurry of appearances demonstrated a robustness which was a virtue others weren’t able to offer. Tom Craddock had sublime moments accetuated with periods of almost other-worldly distinerest and Simon Heslop looked like he wanted to be anywhere but a football pitch.

Jake Wright aside, the squad was ridden with injuries and patchy form. Both Chris Wilder and Ian Lenagan have talked about a squad of youth and robustness, it’s fair to say there wasn’t much of either on show over the last nine months.

The aftermath (part five) – the strikers

When it comes to strikers two words sum up the whole sorry tale; Kristaps Grebis. It’s not Grebis himself that sums the season up, it was the desperate decision to sign him. We floundered for goalscorers throughout and there seemed to be something conspiring against us from finding one. Could it be the fact that Jim Smith’s first move when he came in was to sign Andy Awford as a defensive coach and Scot Gemmill to look after the strikers. Gemmill, of course, quickly moved on leaving Awford in charge – the lack of anyone showing the strikers the whereabouts of the net was evident for all to see.

You could argue a case to release any of the strikers. The Queen Mum of strikers; Steve Basham was the most obvious choice to go, his salary, fluctuations in form and general fitness all played against him. It’s a shame to see him go, few could dislike him, but there’s a greater force at work here.

On the other hand, not many would want to see Yemi go, he offers something which is raw and unpredictable which helped break up the set patterns of play which dogged us mid-season. He still lacks end product and in particular the predatory instinct players you expect from players with his pace. It’s his lack of goals that prevented me from naming him my player of the season (though I can fully appreciate why so many did). There’s no doubt he improved hugely as the season progressed, most notably his stamina which turned him into a 90 minute player. If he could finish, he’d be dangerous.

This leave the big Zebroski, Marvin Robinson and Rob Duffy; who have all played that target man role up front. Zebroski has a bit of pace, application and occasionally the finishing. Duffy got the goals early in the season (though lots of penalties), but lacked pace, was petulant and sometimes looked like he was lacking that extra 10%. Robinson was an obvious battering ram and a useful weapon to roll out when things looked ropey. Each offered something different, but were required to play the same role. You wouldn’t need three, especially if, above all, a new goalscoring forward is needed. Zebroski, if he can be kept, still has a lot to offer, whilst Duffy, coming off the bench offers a different challenge. For me, Robinson wouldn’t make the final cut.

The aftermath (part four – nearly there) – the midfield

Steel seems to be the order of the day in the Conference; those able to stick their boot in seem to excel whereas the creatives are quickly neutralised for being fancy-dans. Carl Pettefer and, in particular, Martin Foster were both excellent all season because they both were tenacious in everything they did. Foster would have been my player of the season had he been with us all season. Both should provide the requisite grit next season.

Andy Burgess is an enigma, when he’s on form he’s probably the most talented player in the league; but for a lot of last term he struggled to make an impact. His storming form early on meant that the team settled into a system which fed everything through him; when he failed to perform the team couldn’t find another outlet to make things happen. Yemi took on the mantle as the season progressed, but whereas Burgess can make teams, Yemi provides a slipstream in which others thrive. I think I’d retain Burgess on balance, but aim to divert some of the playmaking attention away from him. However, it looks like Jim Smith thinks otherwise.

Danny Rose was brought in to do pick up what Burgess couldn’t carry, I think everyone appreciated his application and enthusiasm for a cause that wasn’t his, however he was occasionally overrun in the chaos of a Conference midfield. I not sure whether it’s worth trying to keep him; though a better player than Foster and Petterfer, you suspect he’ll be kicked into submission once word the got out. His brand: captain of the Manchester United reserves should secure him a decent contract further up the league.

You knew when Eddie Hutchinson was about to limp off the field, because he was having a decent game. When Hutchinson was fit and playing well, he looked a worthy replacement for Christ Hargeaves. But he was fit so infrequently, one has to be a question mark over whether he can last a season.

This leaves Old Braveheart himself, on paper age and wage both count against Hargreaves in terms of getting a new contract. But he was one of the stars of the run in and he seemed to be fit. It’s unlikely he’ll go on much longer before doing a Gavin Johnson and fall apart in front of your eyes. I would have been tempted to keep him on though, if his wage weren’t too high, although when players’ legs do go, they can go fast and perhaps Jim Smith felt he didn’t have a whole season left in him.

Next, and finally: The strikers

The aftermath (part three) – the defenders

It seems churlish to criticise what was the best defence in the league, especially as it was at the other end of the pitch where the real problems were. What frustrated most, I feel, was the groundhog day feeling of the goals we did concede. Typically set pieces from the right and attacks down the left. All season (at home, anyway) we conceded only one ‘worldy’; against Kidderminster.

The weakness on the left was there for all to see, so it’s no shock to see Johnson and Brevett go. Both had their moments, Johnson was excellent until the Northwich game when his hamstring pinged. Brevett looked the business for about a month. In truth both were in bits and as the weather turned, pitches softened and they thrashed their ragged engines, it showed. There’s little reason to try and retain George Santos, who looked OK when he played, but has age, fitness and competition for places playing against him.

On the right the problem was less apparent; Eddie Analcet was my player of the season. Not because he was the best player, but because, in a season that was one massive big-dipper of inconsistency, he was the most consistent. He has weaknesses, no doubt, but for me, he was the most reliable most of the time.

We’re flooded with central defenders, Willmott, if he can recover from his injury, is the defender who ticks most of the requisite boxes for next season whilst Day offers good versatility. The duo of Corcoran and Luke Foster, if they can be retained, should be able to offer much.

This leaves the two stalwarts – Gilchrist and Quinn. Gilchrist is being held together with gaffer tape, and although he is well past his best, was the principle component in last year’s success. If there was a viable alternative, I would be tempted to move him on. Quinn, for all his professionalism, is not a great defender. He lacks some of the steel the pure breeds of Gilchrist and Willmott have, and has no pace to speak of. He does offer stability and professionalism that managers often like. There’s still enough uncertainty in the other contract negotiations so it’s understandable that Quinn is being offered a new contract. Again, if there was more certainty vis-a-vis Corcoran and Foster, it may have been tempting the release Quinn’s wages for a more needy cause.

(This all ignores the details of who is and isn’t in contract and was done before today’s announcement)

Next: midfield

The aftermath (part two) – The goalkeepers

I’m in two minds about Billy Turley. On one hand he can be an excellent keeper. And there’s no doubt he has been a key component of the best defence in the league. However he is prone to losing his head and creating panic in his back line.

He’s unusual for a keeper in that when we’re playing badly he looks awful, when we’re playing well he looks composed. Quite often goalkeepers playing in bad teams look like superstars. They have so much to do that they invariably end up playing out of their skins. Take Richard Knight – who looked like Gordon Banks in 2000/1 when he conceded over 100 goals. When the team is playing well, and the keeper has little to do, a rare breach of the rearguard looks like a disproportionate cock-up.

Chris Tardif is less of a number 2 and more the nice guy who hangs around and helps out with the kids. You suspect he could be at the club for years, helping out with sweeping the stands, working the turnstiles etc. As a participant in the first team, his involvement is increasingly marginal.

On balance I would aim to keep Turley and let Tardif go. However with the wage cap it would be tempting to not bring in an understudy. Many clubs rely on the option to bring in an emergency loan if the first choice keeper goes down. A credible, younger challenger needs to be brought in. Partly because you suspect Turley’s days as an effective keeper may be numbered, but also, to keep him focussed on performing on the pitch and not to the crowd.

Next: The defenders.

The aftermath (part one)

I can’t quite yet proclaim myself to be ‘hollow’ or ‘devastated’ as some have since Wednesday. I can’t, however, seem to shake a certain fug. Perhaps it’s the abruptness of the season’s end, perhaps it’s simple overload from Wednesday but something isn’t right.

Where do we go from here, seems to be a common theme. Plenty of unknowns seem to be floating around. Nobody was prepared to fail, I know I wasn’t. So where do we go from here? Well, why not start by assessing where ‘here’ is starting at the top and the management team of (broadly) Nick Merry, Jim Smith and Darren Patterson.

Call it a gamble or a major strategic error; but the decision to bring in players with lots of league experience was the wrong one. League players who can’t get league teams don’t really add up. They are either too old, too injured or just not good enough anymore.

It worked when it worked. But when the injuries came and the gaffer tape holding the Phil Gilchrist together unravelled, we had no plan B, no depth. The assumption from the outset appeared to be that we could last the season with two left backs who have a combined age of 74. It was always going to be a risk.

Nick Merry is a positive force in the club, of that there’s no doubt but he is perhaps a little to wedded to Jim Smith to be totally objective about his management team.

The one component that can make this work is Darren Patterson and the move to make him Assistant Manager was as good one. This season’s team was a core of experienced pros surrounded by a smattering of youngsters, but the formula required may be the complete opposite. Smith is not the strongest tactician in the world; he’s a motivator and networker, an old fashioned wheeler dealer. He has never been a strong teacher and has little pedigree with bringing players up through the ranks. He’s working with players less able than he’s used to and this may be an area in which we’re struggling. Patterson has the experience in the youth team and the qualifications to get the basics across that will turn us into solid unit.

If Patterson was to take up a central role as team manager getting the core right, Smith can use his networks to bring in the one or two experienced pros needed to support the core. There’s no way you would want to lose the experience of Smith if he’s prepared to stay, but a role away from the front line and frustrations of team management could be the solution that’s needed.

Next: the goalkeepers.