Monday, 2 June 2014

No need to push the City Ground reset button again

Well, that was an almightily balls up wasn't it? 2013/14 is a season heading straight for the bin marked 'waste of time'...or is it? Is there a crumb of comfort to be rescued from the wreckage? As it happens, not just a crumb but hopefully much more than that (a slice?!).

It started off ok, probably more brightly that your average Billy season, and even featuring an impressive 3-0 win over a Bolton Wanderers side that this writer laughably thought would challenge.

Then, after the obligatory home defeat on the birthday of yours truly to Reading (cheers lads, still not quite as bad as the 0-4 reverse to Leeds a couple of seasons ago), Billy's boys went up a gear and powered through a 16-game unbeaten league and cup run.

At that point a tilt at the title still looked a little way off, but the race for second place wasn't too fanciful and a play-off spot was surely on the horizon.

And then it happened. The meltdown of Shakespearean proportions befell Trentside, eventually sweeping away Billy 'Macbeth' Davies and his team amid an ever-fractious environment.

Gary Brazil laudably brought in some calm - and a couple of kids - and there was a glimmer of false hope just to ensure we couldn't properly relax as the season finished. But, if we're honest, it was never going to be our season after a bizarre month-and-a-bit stretching from the cup defeat at Sheffield United on February 16 (we would've been a home game vs Charlton away from Wembley) to the pathetic display down the road on March 22.

The end of the Davies era has been, rightly, dissected from all angles - with the laughing stock press conferences (my highlight being when he once posed his very own question to himself and then answered with a 'no comment'), the clashes with photographers and 'legal advice' not to discuss his own team's performance following games while he served a touchline ban all mulled over. Billy's own bland 'it is what it is' mantra became a tongue-in-cheek catchphrase among the fans, a bit of dark humour from the masses to rail against the Davies dictatorship.

If we're honest, all or most of that trouble was looming large in the sidelines even when things were going well. It just took 8 games without a win - particularly the painful sheep dip showing - to convince Fawaz that it was time to part ways.

It could, of course, be argued that it was injuries that cost us really. Add Reid, Wilson, Cohen, Hobbs, Lansbury, Lichaj into the side in March and we would, surely, have done better - especially with Reid's magic wand of a left foot to conjure something from nothing.

But can injuries be purely put down to bad luck? The sheer volume of those on the treatment table at least causes you to question if more could not have been done to a- keep the players fit and b-not sign players that were unfit.

Bad luck or bad management - we might never know on the injury score but the alarming slide meant Davies' demise proved inevitable.

So that's it - wash our hands with the whole episode, etch the Natalie Jackson interviews from our memory, forget the 'unfinished business' hashtag and start again?

Well, maybe not. Two years ago we were still facing the prospect of attracting an owner. We'd had the failed McClaren experiment and the watch-through-your-fingers Cotterill rescue to endure. When Fawaz bought the club and appointed Sean O'Driscoll we had barely a month to piece together a back four without a defender on the books. With that much upheaval you're always going to struggle to succeed.

This time it should be different. The last two years as a whole were a mess. Although backed with money, SOD was sacked after precious little time to put a side together, McLeish was just a terrible mistake and then came the rise and fall of BD round two. But, if we set aside the managerial merry-go-round, the basics of a team/squad have emerged from those ashes.

Stuart Pearce (*resists the temptation to pause blogging for a Psycho fist pump*) should come in on July 1 with much less to do transfer wise than either of the last two pre-season incumbents. Why? Well, when fit, there's no reason why the following nine players can't be part of a Pearce line-up come August: Darlow, Lichaj, Cohen, Hobbs, Wilson, Reid, Lansbury, Vaughan, Paterson.

Add to that:

Lascelles - perhaps harshly missed off that list but bound to be needed given the injury record of messrs Hobbs and Wilson

Fox - who is better than he showed here last season - especially given his background from dead ball situations

Halford - maligned by some but does have a good touch and football brain, if not a preferred position. In some ways the 'perfect sub' since he can cover for anyone else

Mackie - a hard worker who just lacks finesse

de Vries - an able deputy at this level

Osborn - looks a natural 'Forest midfielder' and really took to first team action when thrown in under Brazil

McLaughlin - also stepped in towards the end of the season, looks a little raw but will hopefully benefit from the experience and could push for a place on the bench

Then there's players we may be 'stuck with' and have to find some use for...

Majewski - has proved himself to be pretty unreliable over the years, performs in fits and starts but goes missing too often and makes mistakes that leave you tearing your hair out

Cox - a huge disappointment in the Garibaldi Red. Has shown very very occasional flashes of the talent he possesses but looks far behind the player he showed himself to be at Swindon and West Brom. Maybe a Pearce sized boot up the posterior could get something out of the Irishman?

I'd move Henderson, Harding and Collins towards the exit door if possible - all have proven to be below the quality needed for the top end of the table and are surely no better than what Brazil might be able to prepare for us from the academy.

Pearce wants a smaller squad apparently so that probably only leaves 3/4 berths to fill. Of those nine starters mentioned you could either see that 'core' as two banks of four that simply need two strikers to round it off or as a creative midfield that needs a tackler behind it and striker in front, or a natural 433 that needs a striker and another attacking winger.

In essence I'd like to see that core of nine being adapted to be play as all three of those formations. Pearce's shopping list should definitely have a tackler on it to free up Reid, Lansbury and Vaughan to run games, with Paterson just off a front man. Too often we pushed Vaughan and Reid very deep to paper over the fact there was little or no 'screening' for the back four. That can only be to the detriment of players whose talents lie elsewhere. The others used in this role - Moussi, Greening and Jara - have all been moved on.

The shopping list should also, most obviously, have strikers on it. Yes, maybe one that can peel wide as a modern winger-cum-striker but absolutely top of the list should be an out-and-out goalscorer. Forget the departing Miller and Derbyshire, the deteriorating Henderson or the mis-firing Cox, this needs to be a proper 20-goal figurehead. Reid, Lansbury and Paterson managed 29 goals between them in a stop-start season, a proper striker on top of that would make us an altogether more deadly prospect.

I'm sure Pearce knows this of course but it is worth reflecting on the fact that, despite everything that has gone on, if we sort our fitness out we are just three or four players away from having a pretty good side - maybe just two from the starting 11. Yes strikers occupy probably the hardest, and certainly most expensive, of positions to fill but we've got (and had) plenty of time to look and it's refreshing to think that what we require isn't a massive rebuilding job, it's a sensible 'building on what we've got' job.

All that may not be the sexy 'clear them all out and start again' territory that excites some but, as we've seen, that sort of thing doesn't bring overnight success. Everyone praises Leicester for building a side and developing over time. If we utilise the decent core of players that I think we have then there's absolutely no reason to think we can't look back and consider these last two years as being ones in which we've 'built' towards our long-term goal.

Of course, it isn't all about players. But you do feel that Pearce and his staff should bring the leadership, enthusiasm and calm to the dugout that should help to move his side in the right direction. If he's scouted sensibly then let's hope he can get those couple of players in early, get a decent, injury-free pre-season under our collective belts and then definitely ensure we haven't been wasting our time for two turbulent years.