I wrote this piece last season for PopularSTAND fanzine. Four months on i believe its words are as relevant now as then. Following a pre season of ‘no distractions’ off the field (the excuse put forward for the last 2 seasons of mediocrity) we find ourselves having taken two steps back and with a centre back playing at right back, a left back who isn’t good enough to play left back installed as a right winger and one goal from open play (that was on purpose) in 5 games….
Here it is (from April 2015)
I caught a preview on the Champions League quarter final first leg between Madrid’s neighbours Athletico and Real on the radio the other day. It contained a warning for the free flowing Galacticos as the European correspondent noted a genuine physicality to Athletico; advising that they seemed to become more aggressive with each derby – Real should steel themselves for a genuine battle. The reasoning behind this was clear and appeared so obvious it barely merited saying (though as often is the case with TalkSport, it was anyway) “Diego Simeone – well, he’s built a team in his own image hasn’t he?”
Throughout his illustrious playing days the Athletico manager was known for his aggression and strength in midfield. He was a battler who would roll his sleeves up and fight, but when the battle was won, he could play as well.
It seemed reasonable to consider the virtues someone extolled as a player would constitute the bear minimum he’d expect as a manager? Reasoning I couldn’t translate to the Rovers. Our own manager, nicknamed ‘The Wasp’ and ‘The Pest’ during his own playing career, was the kind of player you hated if he was playing against your team; throwing himself into challenges; full of commitment, energy and bite. He could be awful on the pitch, a right pain in the arse, but no one could say he lacked the desire to win. So why then, given these qualities are what personified his playing days, do they seem lacking from his own team so regularly? I don’t think things are quite a simple as that, it’d be easier if it were, I think things are deeper than commitment; that should be a given at this level. There is however, more crucially, a lack of direction from the dugout at present.
I’ve a confession to make: when Sean O’Driscoll was sacked I thought the correct decision had been made. I’m aware of other factors, ‘experiments’ and what not, but let’s look solely at football for now; I thought that on the pitch he’d lost his way, becoming almost obtuse in his team selection as he refused to change things which weren’t working and hadn’t worked for months.
The difference between him and Paul Dickov is that he had his way and wouldn’t deviate from it. Our current supremo hasn’t got a way and hasn’t displayed the finesse required to find one. He hasn’t had the conviction to hang his hat on a style or a system and go for it, instead lurching from one failure to the next. Occasionally a couple of draws and a win will see one fling extended but it won’t last. Concede space, two holding midfielders, one up top, two wide men, two up top… It’s dizzying. Little wonder the players seem ponderous so regularly.
At home we seem happy to concede two thirds of the pitch when we lose possession then, should we reacquire the ball, seem content to sluggishly play it square before whacking it up field for whichever ill equipped forward has got the nod up front. It does not work and it is mind numbing to watch. Surely at home there should be an obligation to at least try to be mildly entertaining?
Let’s be honest, League One is poor, as it was the last time we were here. It doesn’t require too much free thinking to direct a side to compete at this level; a team has to work hard, be organised and mobile. Dean Saunders assembled a side which was just that: big and strong at the back, good delivery from wide positions with runners getting in and around an effective big man, and whilst it was not always great to watch, he ultimately delivered the Championship.
Whilst in the process of writing these words, the local papers have reported that Paul Dickov has conceded, “As the manager I have to put in place a system, or maybe two, that we’re going to stick to” whilst also appearing to have been reluctantly awakened to this void by one of his own senior players, further explaining to the Free Press, “I don’t want to elaborate on it too much, but I did have a long conversation with Copps”.
Publicly conceding the need for a philosophy, a style of play and a direction for his team, comes as a startling admission and suggests prior to this he has had neither. This begs a important question – what have we been doing for the last 21 months then?
The recruitment is just as baffling. Why, when your holding midfielder is injured do you bring in a forward from Rotherham? Why sign people like Razak, Ikpeazu and Clarke-Harris who have offered nothing, when we have gained less than if these opportunities had been afforded to our own promising youngsters (especially given the development of youth was an important part of the ethos identified at board room level this summer). Recruitment should be better, with players acquired to do a specific job, in a specific system, not simply because they are the best available at any one time.
If we had an identity; a way of playing and stuck to it, I’d find things far more palatable. Over a season you see which areas needs improving, who’s not up to it. The players settle into familiar roles and the individual parts become the whole. Over time, a direction emerges and, dare we dream, things improve. We should be pressing high up the pitch and not surrendering the majority of it. We should be playing at a high tempo; working hard and controlling games in our own back yard, using the quality we have to dictate games, playing on the front foot and giving the supporters something to get behind.
Two years on, that for me is the unacceptable element to Paul Dickov’s reign. Building for the future with kids, realistic budgets, sensible expectations are all things I can buy into but a team without identity is one I cannot. What is the Dickov style? How do his team’s play? I still don’t know and, to be honest, I’m growing increasingly weary of waiting to find out and maybe the same could be said for him. The way that gates are beginning to decline, I’d wager I’m not the only one losing patience with boring, directionless football.
Rightly or wrongly, O’Driscoll paid the price for sticking to his philosophies, something I can’t help looking back on admiringly, especially now, and by rights, Dickov should be on borrowed time because he still hasn’t one of his own.
For the record, Athletico delivered the kind of performance TalkSport’s expert suggested they would. Even star striker Mario Mandzukic left the field bloodied and battle wearied. Whether they progress following the second leg in the Bernabéu is up to the footballing gods, but how they will play is much more clear. Like the other top teams, they will play their way, not least because they have a manager who will accept nothing less.
Check out PopularSTAND here, and better still treat yourself to a copy next issue on the 3rd October v Barnsley.