Sunday, 21 September 2014

Time For Action at the Lane

As I write United sit tenth in League 1 yet, at such an early stage of the season, we are just three points off second place with a game in hand on some of those above us. After last season's end this is perhaps below expectations and performances to date have done more to dampen them than raise. Those of a positive bent point to the small points gap and the fact we are yet to gel and find form, yet it is that lack of clear purpose and direction that worries me more.

Three home league games have seen an unjust defeat to early pacesetters Bristol City and scrappy single goal wins over Crawley and Rochdale. In both of the latter two games we have been pedestrian and plodding, whilst creating limited chances. In fact our best performance came at Preston where we soaked up pressure and counter attacked very well.

The manager is focused on not conceding, rather than winning, but with few clear cut chances created we are always at risk of defeat, or at best a draw, if the opposition score. To criticise such tactics may seem churlish given this was the basis of the strong unbeaten run from February onwards. It also delivered results for six games this season, but we are playing to tight margins and the risk of failure is high. 

The defence, shorn of it's best two players looks susceptible and errors are commonplace. Players who ended last season brimming with confidence, such as Murphy and Flynn, look lacklustre and limp with little energy or will to drive us forward.  

Post game, after the 5-2 defeat at Swindon, Clough explained that he set out to nullify the home side's attacking threat, but in doing so invited them on, we couldn't handle them and all impetus was lost. Chasing the game we give ourselves the glimmer of another three goal comeback but their players knew they had the beating of us. 

The comeback at Colchester aside we look mentally weak and there is a fear inherent in our play - such as taking it to the corner with ten minutes to go at home to Crawley. The manager has them worried about the opposition, not focused on what we might do to them.

There have been rumours of player fall outs and the manager has struggled to incorporate his new signings into the squad. One player,brought in as an experienced centre back and leader was written off in pre season, others have struggled to fit in the team and perform the role expected.

His team selection for the opening game against Bristol City could be equally judged brave or bizarre. His substitution of Neill Collins at Swindon could have long term ramifications for the player, not least for the fact he was viewed as culpable in pre-season defeats. My impression was that he intended replace Collins with Butler and Doyle with Basham, yet form and injuries seem to have scuppered the plan.

Whilst United fans have wanted the transfer market equivalent of Fabergé eggs, the resulting buys have been more like Kinder eggs. Largely underwhelming, lacking sparkle, meet the basic requirements of being an egg, but you are left with a feeling that what you are left with is an inadequate product, poor value for money and not something you would want to have again.

Pre-season results were poor and as much as you say it wasn't about results but fitness and understanding, it rapidly became apparent that bulking up the squad left the manager uncertain as to his best XI. Matches were thrown into the schedule late on, such as Dundee at home and the much demanded Fenerbahce tie and I am not sure this helped.

What increasingly worries me are the cracks in man management, something Nigel Clough is renowned for. After the Colchester victory, secured on the back of three late goals, the manager criticised the efforts in the previous day's training session. Yet whatever he said in response to the lacklustre session had little effect for 80 minutes of that match and much of the game at Swindon that followed.

For the last few months United felt unified. Business done early, with the best of League 1 purchased and players with Championship and top level records overseas. These were players that we were told were attracting Championship interest and we had fought off their interest to sign them. At no point did the manager suggest these were not his targets or that he had a lack of funds to buy the players he really wanted to. Yet post match versus Swindon he criticised the Summer recruitment plan and the panic bidding on Deadline Day.

The words of a manager refusing to toe the party line or of one not willing to acknowledge he has potentially made some bad signings? Let's be honest a majority are proving to be more of a Billy Paynter than a John Brayford. If it's a lack of funds he could have made a stand in the summer, but we were told that he and Mal Brannigan had approached the board for a sum of money to get a promotion winning squad.  This had reportedly been received and they were left to recruit he players they wanted without board sanction. The only exception being when salary bands were breached, or if additional funds were required.

So what is the case? For a board who are, somewhat understandably, reluctant to show their financial hand publicly, a gauntlet has been thrown down by the manager. They are in a difficult situation with a seemingly compliant manager now displaying such a recalcitrant attitude. It would be difficult to publicly deny his claims without undermining the manager, placing him in an increasingly awkward position. To say nothing would leave it open to imply the manager was correct and club statements of action and intent were false.

Clough's standing in the game and portrayal by club and media as a straight talking and honest individual places him in a stronger position in the fans' hearts and minds, than a board yet to fully win over many fans who cannot see where the money is spent. 

For what it's worth, a look at last year's accounts show a loss making operating model, this summer has seen a significant incoming players, not all for fees, but at a cost in signing on fees and salaries. I think a decent amount of money has been spent and there is more available. But fans are naturally suspicious having been hurt by failed promises in the past. 

It is now time for Nigel Clough to stand up and show whether he is up to the job. To show he can be positive and for his team to impose themsleves on the opposition. It is now the time for action in the transfer market. It is now time for the board to show that they mean business. Without this I see a jittery season, belief waning, crowds falling and the unity felt in May disintegrating. 

There have been noticeable improvements in the way the club is run off field, however they lose their importance if success on the pitch doesn't follow. The key to unity is trust in one another. Comments like those post-match on Saturday do little to maintain trust.