Earlier this season I got all sorts of abuse for suggesting that the players we already had were good enough to get us out of this division. Not that we are out of course, there will still be any number of twists and turns before we get to May, but recent signs are good.
The ranting and raving about our players and their absolute lack of ability included such classics as ‘they’ll relegate us, this lot’, ‘not one of them is good enough for League One’ and ‘we’ll need six or seven signings to get near the play offs’.
Well, we are very near the play offs and, to be fair, we did make a number of signings but, if you look at the team sheet week in week out, none of the new signings are starting. Most of them aren’t even finishing games.
I’ve said all along that the players were good enough. Even with Flanagan, who was everyone’s go to excuse for doom, I kept saying, he’s been promoted from this division and is playing international football. He can’t be that bad. And he isn’t.
So, first and foremost, let’s be clear. I was right. The question then becomes ‘what changed?’. For me, it’s down to three big changes.
The players were not fit. I don’t think anyone would argue with that. The introduction of Nick Allamby to the backroom set up has had a huge impact with player stats improving week after week. Power now looks like the box to box midfielder we thought we were getting where before he looked like anything more than a centre circle to box run might finish him off. Hume, Gooch and O’Nien have found another gear and Maguire is, well, a footballer again.
People have talked about the need in some games to grind a team down. That takes time and if your entire squad is getting tired with 20 minutes to go, we stop being the team pushing and become the team hanging on.
The improved fitness has been fantastic and, if we can maintain these levels until May, teams will struggle to keep us out.
The fitness levels also allow players to reduce injury and play on in a structure they’re all getting more and more familiar with.
Without wishing to be too stereotyped, footballers are not the brightest of people and need to be told what to do pretty much all the time. There were games earlier in the season where it looked like they’d never met. Our set play work, especially defensively, was dreadful with our one great strength being random pointing at each other after the other team scored.
Recently our play in all parts of the field looks more organised, like there’s a plan. Actually, I think Ross had plans, I’m just not sure the players knew them.
It doesn’t matter how good a footballer you are, if you’ve no idea what job you’re being asked to do, there’s no way you can perform to your potential. I think this is still a work in progress and I’d like to see more variety going forwards and on set plays in the final third but, step by step, decent players are being seen to do their jobs. It’s not that they weren’t decent before, it’s that they’ve been told what to do.
3) MENTAL STRENGTH
Psychology is a funny thing.
Obviously, there are huge gains from a winning run and the associated improvement in morale and focus, clean sheets bring confidence too but where did it start?
For me the new players in the squad may not have brought changes on the pitch but they’ve definitely brought a challenge to the players currently wearing 1-11 (not that people wear 1-11 but you know what I mean). Dobson and Power know Scowen is sat there, sharpening his studs and imagining the carnage he could bring. Charlie Wyke can see Lafferty warming up. Maguire and Gooch look towards Semenyo and Watmore and know they have to perform to stay in the team. The pressure to perform is there for the first time.
And they all know that, if called upon, the replacements are well organised and fit to go. Look at how easily the Wizard of Oz replaced the Wizard from Oz in defence this weekend.
But I think the outgoings are as important as the incoming. The big change psychologically is that some of the players who were questionable influences in the changing room have moved on, either permanently or temporarily.
What is good news for McDonalds in South London is also good for our team spirit. The one player that did not get challenged by fans in terms of ability had to be questioned in terms of attitude and application. Things which every one of our recent match day squads has had in abundance.
I’m not claiming our squad are Premier League bound, I never was. I’m just saying that they are good enough to win this league and that has come from improvements to their mental and physical health and being well drilled.
Is that last paragraph an admission I was wrong about Parkinson? Well, I’ll answer that in May but what is clear is that his backroom have started solving the problems within the squad. Not by replacing them but by managing them. And long may that continue.