Putting to one side the actual performance, it was everything about league one that I hate. A ground that isn’t finished, stewards and bar staff who are used to dealing with 300 away fans, a car park I thought I might not be out of in time for work on Monday and match officials who I can only assume won their chance in a ‘ref for a day’ raffle. I hate it.
But me hating it won’t get us out of League One. Neither will our players whinging at the referee. We all left feeling cheated by him, but we weren’t cheated. League One referees aren’t cheats, they’re just not very good.
But in amongst the misery of my drive home and the feeling that our chances of automatic promotion were hanging by a thread, I’ve decided there’s a light at the end of the tunnel and it might not be very far away.
Against Oxford we fielded new players all the way down the spine of the team, from centre half to striker. Add in a new winger and it’s no wonder they played like they’ve only just met. But I think all four of them improve us massively and will only get better from here.
Leadbitter is, quite simply, a class above in this division. The problem he had yesterday was remembering that his team mates aren’t always up to his level. He played balls into channels that his team mates didn’t run on to. He played one-twos with players who didn’t give it back. But that link up will come. It improved as the game progressed and will keep getting better throughout the season.
Grigg looked lost, but not for want of effort or his preparedness to stick his body in positions to get kicked. His distance from the rest of the team was down to the ongoing problem of our attacking midfielders and what seems to be a gulf between defence and attack. If you want to feel positive about what Grigg will bring us, simply watch our goal and his part in it. It’s not pretty, it’s not the beautiful game, but in League One it’s very effective, and that’s what we’ve lacked.
And what of the other two January signings? It’s worth remembering why clubs let players leave on loan. It’s not a case of ‘here you go, one fully formed League One player for you’. It’s a case of ‘play this lad and help him learn’. Against Oxford you could see Dunne and Morgan learning. I think that they’re now very close to being the first names on the team sheet based on ability and not just potential. Morgan has probably never experienced defenders that are nothing but elbows, hips and two stone more timber than typical for an athlete. It unquestionably put him off. But there were signs that he was getting it as the game developed.
Dunne is learning that, at this level, you’ve got to put your body in the way and if they want to get the ball they’ve got to go through you. He didn’t do that in the first half and his weakness led to their chances. In the second half he won those penalty box battles. He was fouled for their goal (after he’d put his body in the way) but the blame for that goal lies in the poor defending that followed, not the Dunne incident.
What I’m saying is that, based on the last couple of weeks, they’re close to clicking. Close to being the spine that we need.
It leaves us with two problems to solve and, in my opinion, this is where Jack Ross needs to earn his money. But again, it’s a problem we have all the tools to fix.
First of all, tinkering with the defence. Why? Why did Baldwin play yesterday after Flanagan played last week, rotation of centre halves is weird? Why rush Matthews back when O’Nien played so well there? I’d like to hear Ross say that he’s sticking with Baldwin (or Flanagan) unless there’s an injury. I’d like to see the attacking threat of O’Nien and James given a chance. Whichever players he goes for, I’d like to see a settled defence from now on, the foundation we can build on.
And the midfield. We need a League One proof midfield. We need wingers who’ll run at pace but also win tackles and challenges. Players who’ll get in to the faces of the opposition and make runs into the box.
We need to be faster and stronger. And yet we play McGeady. McGeady is an amazingly talented player. But he’s not the player we need right now. Yesterday he made his runs, he dribbled, got the crowd on their feet… and then consistently over hit it or hit the first man. More importantly, his tracking back is always an afterthought. He’s a luxury we can’t afford.
For very different reasons, Power is a shadow of his former self, the cards have left a mark on his game and the tackling, moving and physical side have been replaced by someone who has lost all confidence and is, sadly, not up to what is needed. With two out of five not what’s needed, two recently signed and our captain coming back from injury, it’s no wonder we lack any presence in midfield. But, as I’ve already mentioned, the new players are looking better and Honeyman does a great job in stretching the midfield.
For me, the Power role needs to be given to McGeouch or Cattermole and McGeady replaced by Gooch or, in more physical games, a front two of Wyke and Grigg.
What I’m saying is, we’re close. Close to it clicking. If Ross can bring the stability in defence and makes the changes to give a more stable footing in midfield, the new players will do their jobs and we can look back on Oxford as a stepping stone to what we’re trying to achieve, which is, of course, not going to places like Oxford again.