Friday night provided us with a very familiar feeling. Not only were we dumped out of the FA Cup early on, but we caved in under the slightest pressure away from home. Only this time, it all seemed a bit more, well, infuriating.
Don’t get me wrong, it’s very nice not to have the opportunity to be turned over at home by some part-timers, like we usually do. But the capitulation witnessed by the travelling support was one that infuriated them as much as it did the manager.
Realistically, a narrow defeat, say a 1-0, wouldn’t have been met with much derision, despite Notts County’s place in the league below ours. They’re doing well, on a good run of form, and clearly have some money behind them. But to race into a two goal lead, surrender it and then find no way back, gives everyone the right to stick the boot in. No wonder Darrell Clarke called the side “weak” and “bullied” in his post-match presser.
Then, on Wednesday, out of another cup competition we dropped. Granted, it was the tainted EFL Trophy, but even if most of us don’t care about it, Wednesday’s defeat to Swindon was a first team outing, another defeat, and another four goals shipped. Carry on defending like this and the season is most likely over. People may point out that we were in a similar position in 2015/16 before our Lazarus-like revival that ended in that Lee Brown moment on the last day, but I don’t see lightening striking twice if we keep shipping three or four goals a game.
Clarke talked of changes to be made after Notts County. But given that we’re two months from a transfer window, I wonder what those changes are. Defensively, we’re scarier than a screening of The Exorcist on Halloween, but with games piling up thick and fast, has he got time to sort it out? We have lacked width in the side since Cristian Montano left and wasn’t replaced (no, I won’t let it go). Maybe it’s time for Ryan Broom to make the step up? Or are we going to see a few of these development squad players we stockpiled over the summer?
The manager spoke of a negative atmosphere around the club. Defeats, and heavy ones at that, tend to have that effect. Some might try to point to the seemingly endless rumour mill off the field as a possible cause for the negativity. But given that some clubs play under a constant cloud of uncertainty (the likes of Coventry, Blackpool et al) I don’t buy it. This need for some ‘supporters’ to run to social media or that old relic from the past, the club messageboard, to do the club and its’ leadership down, all in order to look like they’re in the know, is embarrassing.
But it’s not an excuse for the team. While Tom Broadbent has been our best central defender this season, his signing alone wasn’t going to cure our woes in the middle of the back four. As a team, sorry to bang on about it again but we can’t defend. The manager spent some money in the summer and while we look stronger in the centre of midfield with Liam Sercombe, a chronic lack of width, especially with Billy Bodin out, leaves us playing a formation that doesn’t suit the players at all. Tom Nichols can still come good, he’s clearly got bags of talent, but if we’re forced to play a system that doesn’t suit him, he suffers. And the more he suffers, the more people question the recruitment.
A trained chimpanzee could tell you that new personnel is needed in key areas after Christmas. But we’ve got a good few games before then, with the squad we have.
Clarke’s God-like status in BS7 is well-deserved; for my money he’s the best manager we’ve ever had and the saviour of the club. Plus, after all, we are 13th in the league. Talk of a club in crisis is off the mark. But there is a danger, if we keep conceding goals like we have, of turning from poor run into something worse.
If there are any calls for his head, and I’m not so convinced there are, they are undeserved. He’s earned the right to come out the other side of a disappointing few weeks. But saying nothing is wrong is as ridiculous as saying the manager isn’t up to sorting this out.
But a good hard look at the summer’s recruitment is sorely needed, as a squad lacking in balance, width and leadership is a squad with problems.
All in all, now is not a wonderful time to be going away to Scunthorpe, a side always capable of challenging for the top six at this level. But that’s what the fixture computer has handed us. The Iron sit fifth, and have one of the best defences in the division. Sadly I can’t see us coming away from Lincolnshire with anything to show for such a long trip. If, on the off-chance, I’m right, the home game next week v Wimbledon becomes a must-win if murmurs of discontent are to be hushed again.