A Cure for Insomnia? Part One: Reviewing February 2021
Hello and welcome to February’s review. Despite the still-smouldering debates which erupted after Jim Gannon’s sacking the team certainly didn’t break stride and the 4-1 win at Woking in Simon Rusk’s first game as County manager, was arguably the best, in terms of the manner of victory, we could have hoped for and we could all now look forward to a mouth-watering clash with fellow challengers Sutton United with much-needed enthusiasm.
Before that though, the National League invited clubs to vote on whether to continue (or conclude) the season. Clubs have 28 days to vote, with Wrexham already stating their intention to abstain as they are not eligible for funding through the Sports Winter Survival Package.
Early indications suggest that the two steps will be treated as separate entities and the National League will continue, whereas the National League North and South may well be declared null and void. Without access to a grant, it’s easy to see why many step two clubs aren’t willing to jeopardise their future with a loan. In fact, any club, whether in step one or two, who wanted to end the season due to financial concerns wouldn’t find too many people objecting.
Back to matters closer to home and like so often this season, against another promotion rival, County produced a subdued, nervous and frankly awful performance.
Sutton were no world-beaters on the night, like Notts County and Hartlepool United before them. They were, however, like the aforementioned teams, afforded time, space and allowed to dominate the physical battles by an insipid County side. The now infamous condition of the EP pitch certainly didn’t help, but it is not an excuse.
In the space of three days, we went from the sublime to the ridiculous as Liam Hogan’s heavy backpass skidded under Ben Hinchliffe’s foot and into the Cheadle End goal and it could be argued that was the high point of Hogan’s evening. At 1-0, County were still very much in the game, at least score-wise. Application-wise the game was already over. Alex Reid found himself isolated and the midfield, so imperious against Woking, was left to chase shadows around the EP pitch.
The second half saw little improvement from County, and sans Mark Kitching too after he was substituted at half time due to injury. The evening got worse for The Hatters as Isaac Olaofe, chasing a long ball and potentially one on one with Hinchliffe was challenged by Hogan just inside the penalty area. From the angle fans stuck at home watching on the stream had it looked a clear penalty, so, not too much to complain about there, for now. However, the referee interpreted that Hogan hadn’t made a genuine attempt to play the ball and sent him off. What followed was a confusing few minutes of open-armed, open-mouthed gestures, arguing and despair. Lois Maynard was booked for his part and the night, so putrid thus far, had just gotten a lot worse. Hinchliffe though, no doubt keen to make up for his part in the first goal, produced his second penalty save of the season to keep County in it.
The problem was nothing changed from a County perspective, they were still unable to gain any momentum despite some fleeting efforts to get into the Sutton penalty area, this was now coupled with the fact they had only 10 men on the pitch.
Sutton deserved their second goal, if only for the way in which they stuck to their task of playing the low block to stifle Reid and County’s attacking threat while using their wide players to pressure the paper-thin County defence. Olaofe, while on the receiving end of a heavy Ash Palmer challenge, smashed a second goal to seal the points with 20 minutes remaining.
The post mortem had already started long before then though. County have displayed a troubling lack of guile, flair and ruthlessness when faced with a deficit this season, especially against those around us atop the National League. A mere seven points from 24 on offer have been collected from a losing position so far this season. It can be argued there is something of an inferiority complex among the squad; a squad packed with seasoned professionals of National League and League Two experience. It could also point to a simple lack of ability to break down and grind out wins against the best in the division.
There has also been a lot made about the undercurrent of indiscipline which has reared its head from time to time. One can understand why Jim Gannon was forced to raise the issue of culture long before the board did so, the aforementioned seasoned professionals are obviously used to playing to win in a different environment and there have been differences between the former manager and players on the issue.
|Photo: Stockport County|
County had little time to dwell on the result (and performance) however, as an early evening kick-off the following Saturday against Yeovil Town fast approached. The squad was boosted by the signing of former Hamilton Academical midfielder, Will Collar. A former pupil of Rusk at Brighton, he will provide competition for Ryan Croasdale, Jordan Keane and Lois Maynard. There was also good news for the captain, Liam Hogan as his red card earlier in the week was rescinded on appeal.
Speaking of Croasdale, he produced another unsung display against Yeovil in front of the BT Sport cameras. His drive, tenacity and calmness under pressure are sorely missed when he isn’t in the side. Having settled well at EP he is quickly becoming a vital part of the midfield.
The game itself was hardly a classic, played on an increasingly heavy-looking, sub-standard pitch, not much can be done to rectify it given the time constraints, but it certainly must be contributing to the string of poor performances we have seen from County at EP recently.
Again, County started brightly with Macauley Southam-Hales and Croasdale the stand out performers early on. Alex Reid made the Yeovil defence look a little foolish with a well-taken goal before the half hour mark and County looked set to coast to victory during a confident and crisp first half.
The problem, and one which has become apparent recently, is that County simply didn’t finish the game off when they were in the ascendency. Yeovil, improved since our FA Cup meeting earlier in the season, had their moments of pressure as they strived to get into the game, and although their recent form (including a victory against leaders, Torquay United) was impressive they played nowhere near their capabilities. Which made County’s inability to kill the game off all the more frustrating.
The win was secured, despite a couple of missed chances from Liam Hogan and Connor Jennings, and the gap to the leaders closed. While no County fan will complain when we have won, the manner of the lethargic and tame second half really does concern many. The better sides in the National League won’t be as forgiving as Yeovil were, as we well know by now. A win, but a lot of deficiencies masked, not least the most obvious one; displaying a killer instinct.
Another week, another midfield signing. This time old-new boy, Tom Walker returned to EP for the third time. His composed, dynamic and skilful style will certainly complement Rooney in midfield. You would be hard-pressed to find too many County fans who would be against making the move permanent in the summer.
|Photo: South Manchester News|
Onto Aldershot Town, the last of three home games in succession. Again the weather conditions of the previous week had a large bearing on the pitch. Although no longer heavy, on Saturday it was merely bare and frozen.
As the game meandered towards its conclusion it made you glad to be under a government order to stay at home as the weather and the game itself mixed to give a frigid feel to proceedings. County struggled to create anything of note in the first half, although Tom Walker impressed on his return.
The second half saw a much more urgent performance from County, in the build-up at least. Unfortunately, the undercurrent of inconsistency and lethargy in the final third afflicted County again; Richie Bennett missed from inches out and Rooney, like Reid and Sam Minihan before him at the Cheadle End, failed to convert a penalty. They were the clearest cut chances, but there were a host of half chances and near misses as County displayed plenty of endeavour but only had a solitary point to show for their efforts at the end.
Aldershot, like Yeovil and to a certain extent, Boreham Wood and Sutton, were no better than County on the day, yet we have only five points from a possible 12 in those games. Hardly the form of promotion contenders and as much as the free-flowing, confident football was quickly becoming a trait of County since Christmas, the odious aroma of the failure to kill teams off has always lingered in the background.
Reid was ineffectual, but his substitution for Will Collar, a defensive midfielder, was a strange decision by Simon Rusk, especially when we needed a goal. The resulting change of formation seemed to have Rooney playing as a second striker. He is talented, no doubt, but a striker he is not. Of course, this whole scenario wouldn’t have been a debate if County had the foresight to have an attacking option on the bench. Nyal Bell has been given the cold shoulder since his return from loan and Adam Thomas has also seemingly been forgotten. It is staggering that a club with such financial strength and a wide range of contacts within the game should take to the field without a striker on the bench.
The final game of this round-up saw us travel to Maidenhead United, a team of decent form and league standing. For those of us embroiled in the disaster which was the host’s stream could be forgiven for thinking they probably did us a favour in the end as the game was merely a carbon copy of the one against Aldershot just a few days previous.
As we have been accustomed to recently County showed plenty of attacking intent and controlled the game, but came away with just a point, and no goals, as a reward. Will Collar made his first start and both he and Tom Walker were impressive in the first half. However, there was little improvement in the second half as the team was largely anonymous and uninspiring and such was the insipid nature of the performance it was difficult to find any other positives.
The worrying lack of chances created is a huge concern; possession doesn't win you games and a pedestrian and turgid style certainly won’t create many chances.
The performances under Rusk so far, barring the huge outlier against Woking, do have a whiff of ‘back to square one’ about them. The players, new as a group, have taken time and effort to get to know one manager, only to now have to do it all over again. I am sure County fans are willing to give Rusk time to settle and get his ideas across and it would be prudent to mention County still have time on their side, but in the meantime, from the outside looking in, the result of the managerial change has seen the team regress somewhat.
Whatever has happened behind the scenes and just how much Rusk has to embed the board's 'culture’ into the squad remains to be seen. He, without question, has a big job on his hands to achieve the aims of the board and fans, a far bigger job than his predecessor did. Gannon had already had the backing of 99% of the County support, Rusk is an unknown quantity, a gamble, and that is something which cannot be argued. He has to motivate the team to improve in the second half of the season, especially at home and especially against our promotion rivals. Plus he also has to win over a percentage of fans who are still undecided about his appointment. Scoring goals and winning football matches helps.