The season in review: the defence

A Chris Wilder squad is like Crash Mountain on Total Wipeout. It continually spins forebodingly. Some make it to the relative calm and stability of the centre, but most end up being thrown in the water.

In such a dynamic environment, it is somewhat ironic then that in a season in which we struggled to keep clean sheets and ended with a negative goal difference that the back five were the most stable component of the first team.

In a sense it’s telling, worrying really, that Ryan Clarke is my player of the season. When goalkeepers are noticeably the best player in team there’s usually something wrong that’s leading to all his champagne moments. But credit where it’s due, the odd flap aside, Clarke’s shot stopping has been of a quality of a much higher level.

Damien Batt’s inclusion in the team is a question of tactical philosophy. He may not be the best defender in the world, but to replace him would sacrifice something going forward. Nobody has his dynamism and impetus. For many years we’ve seen wingers toiling as they try to carve out a cross without any support. Batt’s willingness to get forward is something to be celebrated.

On the other side Anthony Tonkin has perhaps struggled a touch. Neither rock hard defender nor rampant wing back; he’s often caught between those two stools. It’s telling that a lot of goals have been conceded from crosses, and a lot from the left hand side. Tonkin doesn’t impose his game on opponents like Batt does. His place is perhaps most under threat.

For me, Harry Worley ran Clarke close for player of the season. He’s a modern defender in the sense that he mixes both athleticism and ability with the classic willingness to put his head where others won’t. If he’s missing something it’s the ability to organise, which will come with experience. Jake Wright clearly has the respect of his team, but of the two was probably more prone to individual mistakes during the season. If you’re going to tighten up the defence you’d expect to see some focus being put on the centre. Wright’s had a decent season, but may not be as prominent during 2011/12 has he has been.

Wee Stevie Kinniburgh looked a bit out of depth. He may be lacking match sharpness, but Chris Wilder isn’t the kind of man to give that kind of excuse any sympathy. It was not a surprise when it was announced he was free to go. Ben Purkiss is a bit more of a surprise as he is both versatile and dependable. He’s not likely to see an extended run in the team over, say, Batt, but when he was needed he did his job well.

Many other defenders wallowed in the water of Chris Wilder’s Crash Mountain pool – Lee Franks, Ben Futcher and Mark Creighton – joining them will be Eastwood, Hanson and Sangare, who enjoyed an odd but fleeting cult status, but none will be missed come next season.

Yellows 2 Crewe 1

“Ken” is an idiot. I didn’t catch all of his expansive diatribe on Radio Oxford relating to our ‘failed season’ but it seemed to involve listing a series of players (Bulman, Creighton, Deering) who were unceremoniously ejected at the expense of clearly ‘inferior’ replacements (McLean, Worley, Hackney, perhaps).

This may have been a joke, it may have been ironic, it may have been provocative, but it didn’t sound like any of these things. Subsequent callers quite rightly treated him with derision.

The dismantling of the Conference squad was the hot topic in town despite the perfectly adequate 2-1 victory over fellow play-off botherers Crewe. Jack Midson is off to Barnet with Simon Clist, Ben Purkiss and Wee Stevie Kinniburgh all available for loan.

Both Clist and Midson’s contracts are up in the summer and we have to think whether we envisage these players making a challenge for League 1 or even higher in the next 2 years (the tenure of a typical contract). As much as I would love for us to be able to run a living museum for our Conference squad, the answer is surely that there isn’t a place for them in the long term.

Midson’s situation has become increasingly embarrassing. Every home game he will appear on the touchline in his high visibility tabard to a smattering of sympathetic applause from the South Stand Lower. Like Red Rum being paraded at the Grand National, he skips purposefully as though he’s about to be thrown into the action only to find that he isn’t. The Miracle of Plainmoor was a mere aberration; the reality is that his time has come.

Like Midson, I have a huge amount of sympathy for Simon Clist, they are both good professionals who we owe a lot to as a club. They were a massive part of the promotion campaign and demonstrated huge strength of character to get us over the line at Wembley. But now is now and Clist has slipped behind McLaren, Heslop, Hall, and now Burge for a starting berth. Clist does what he does very solidly, but it’s difficult to see his game changing to the point where he’s challenging the others.

Purkiss and Kinniburgh have had uneventful seasons. Purkiss has been a perfectly able stand-in and despite Wee Stevie enjoying the kind of paternal sympathy normally afforded to a new lone arrival in a village church community, neither look set to mount a sustained challenge on the first team.

“Ken” is probably rolling around on the floor convulsing in disbelief at the latest news but many will simply take it with a gentle shrug of the shoulders. Things move on, but I for one look forward to welcoming back the likes of Midson and Clist as part of any Legends of Wembley Reunion.