The Diary

Cod Almighty | Diary

The swallows are on their way, another campaign is almost over

24 March 2017

Retro Diary writes: In a wise and insightful contribution on Tuesday, Wicklow Diary seemed resigned to the idea that our lot, as Town fans, is to have our beautiful moments eternally subjected to karmic rebalancing, locked into a destiny of periodic success but ultimate mediocrity.

Indeed, that there's something pointlessly circular about football has been noted here many times, and tends to come to the fore during our more mundane interludes. You beat the opposition; they beat you. Come back in 100 years' time, and whatever went before has been revenged and re-revenged with no prospect of finality. But we're all still here, kicking this pill around, as likely as not somewhere in the bottom half of division three. But for me, there are two things that prevent this existential inertia from leading to a catastrophic loss of interest.

The first is that not only is football bound up with who you are – your very identity - but, once you've set off you can't change sides. This is the equivalent of not being able to get off a rollercoaster once it starts moving. No-one ever suggested that a rollercoaster was pointless, just because it ends up where it started.

The second is that although football is indeed very circular, that circularity is not absolute. If it were, then the whole thing may indeed be pointless. We could gain the impression that the role of football clubs was simply to deliver a kind of polite mass entertainment in never-changing perpetuity, with customer satisfaction as its bottom line. Or worse, it could merely be a way to try to separate us from our cash, if that's not actually the same thing. But that's enough about the Premier League.

Football didn't turn out to be very circular - we should point out - for Bradford Park Avenue or New Brighton. Or Maidstone, Darlington or Scarborough. Orient's circle may yet be broken despite an apparent reprieve, although we would rather that particular disaster had befallen a more deserving victim. Football certainly wasn't a circular pursuit for Rushden and Diamonds. Here's their sorry patch of heaven as it stands now – the ground where I nearly saw Jason Crowe score the solo goal of the century, had he been able to finish it off by rolling the ball the correct side of the post from point blank range with the keeper beaten.

Rushden & Diamonds' derelict stadium

And who knows who's next in line for a brush with fate? It could even be us. But there has to be the occasional club fatality in football, to create a meaning – and an edge - to it all. Just like death is essential for evolution by natural selection to work, the occasional extinction in football is the only known antidote to suffocating circularity. Without death, what would there be to fear? A rollercoaster without fear. Hmm.

There are teams, of course, which have benefited from football's imperfect circle. Watford and Wigan spring to mind as two who don't seem likely ever to return to the pisspot depths where I first encountered them. Man City have gone up an echelon, as - seemingly - have Doncaster, although I wouldn't be describing Donny's advanced status as permanent quite yet. Similarly, Brighton seem to have emerged from a turbulent few decades onto a rather high peg. And that's not even to mention Bournemouth or Hull.

And so, taking the long view, I rather hoped that Town might also rise in the cosmic order. For me, that is the point of it all, the place where the dream resides - the distant utopia. One advantage we have is that there's a new stadium on the way, and that can mark an important step change - it’s the moment of the century when you get to play your joker. It can work the other way too, if you don't get it right; but let’s not think about that now.

The first priority this season, as Marcus keeps telling us, was always to make sure we became an established Football League club again. According to most fans, including Paul Savage today, anything that wasn't relegation back into that dark underworld was a satisfactory outcome in this first honeymoon campaign.

When I think of the number of places those seven points could have been picked up, it starts to makes me feel a bit sick

But why? Now that we've seen the division and its multifarious failings up close, are we happy with that? Actually, as aspirations go, survival in the bottom division isn't all that ambitious, unless you're in financial difficulty or a minnow clearly above your station (whoever said "Cheltenham", get out). No other team of our stature - I can guarantee – had their primary stated target this season as relegation avoidance, even if that's where it finished up.

It's quite clear now that we could have made the play-offs this season - at least. Who knows when our next chance will come? We had half a season with the best striker in this division and the next, and club and fans surfed into the big time on a wave of positivity. And here we are, momentum long gone, just seven points adrift of the play-offs, but out of runway. That's all. Seven points. When I think of the number of places those seven points could have been picked up, it starts to makes me feel a bit sick.

We could see from pre-season onwards that the new team Hursty put together for us was competent. It wasn't perfect, but it had already pretty much avoided relegation just by virtue of its personnel, which, let's face it, meant our objective was achieved without a kick in anger. The Hursty exit meant a shake-up, and if the Marcus masterplan is still in the making, then I can't really see where it's going yet. But for this season at least, time is against us - tomorrow the clocks go forwards; the swallows are on the way, and another campaign is nearly over.

The thing that seems to have cost us points most regularly recently - and it's certainly a bugbear of mine - is incomprehensible formations. The question we're not allowed to ask, lest we should lay bare our ignorance, is "What the hell is actually wrong with 4-4-2?"

We know the answer don’t we. The answer is there's nothing wrong with it at all. It's simply out of fashion. There is a stigma. It's old hat. For a manager to play 4-4-2 these days is like admitting you haven't kept up. Like saying you never went to footy school.

But 4-4-2 still has its uses, especially at our level. It's balanced, and it has natural width. The overwhelming advantage of it, of course, is that everybody understands it. You should be able to put eleven players together who have never met, give each of them a role in a 4-4-2, and they should know exactly where their team-mates are, and be able to ping the ball around more or less without looking. OK - the very top teams tend to prefer 4-2-3-1 or 4-3-3 these days – or possibly other formations if they play to the strengths of certain players. Chelsea and England do the three at the back with wing-backs thing and make it look very effective indeed – but they've got the players with the natural mobility to carry it off. But make no mistake, 4-4-2 is still perfectly capable of succeeding. Just ask Leicester.

But we also understand why 4-4-2 went out of fashion. As a formation, it doesn't keep possession particularly well. Also, it's too easy for an opposition to take control of the centre of midfield by simply sticking an extra man in there. Indeed it's usually what happens now when you turn out in a 4-4-2 - the opposition immediately switch their own system to outnumber you in midfield. But unless their attack and defence are very good indeed, by doing so they have to leave themselves short somewhere else, so you just have to put more pressure on the bit they've weakened. Wing backs, for instance, can be rather easy to get behind, especially if they're not very good.

The very best players these days know how to exploit the spaces between the two lines of four. But that's if you’re Bayern Munich. Against most of our somewhat limited fourth division peers, 4-4-2 is a system with a reassuringly short list of associated risks. Done correctly – when it can look truly exhilarating - it would have brushed aside Crawley, I'm quite sure, and numerous others I could mention.

OK – a team needs to be adaptable these days, and if you can play more than one system, that's all to the good. But the players have to be able to understand them. What I do know, is that any system in which a player taking possession of the ball has to look up, spin round aimlessly a couple of times and then pass backwards because there's nobody in sight – a system in which our lord Disley spends the game having to lunge for last-ditch tackles instead of drifting effortlessly into wonderful positions - isn't really a shape at all (did that sound like a Crawley match report? It was meant to). When that happens, instruction should come from the bench to revert immediately to something they understand until the team can get back to the Cheapside whiteboard. I'll tell you another thing - taking a kick-off without a single body in the left half of the pitch – not even the left back – isn't normal and freaks me out. Do we know any other team in the world who does this?

Tomorrow it's Accrington at the stupidly-named Wham Stadium. Town have a couple of mystery injuries, whose disclosure will obviously dictate whether Stanley adopt their Barcelona or their Brazil formation. So we - and they - need to wait.

Meanwhile, Cheltenham have provided even more proof of their complete inability to cope with League football by stupidly moving our kick off time to 1pm on Easter Monday. Sending them down will be so much more satisfying now we're already annoyed. UTM