Here’s my column from last week’s Leader. It forms part of the paper’s comprehensive pre-match coverage every Friday, featuring interviews, an in-depth look at the opposition and lots of statistical analysis. All content in the column (c) www.leaderlive.co.uk.
The form of Declan Walker this season gives me great hope for the future, and a slight sense of regret about our past.
It seems we’ve been talking of Walker as the next big thing for years, and the anticipation has lead to the hardening of the assumption that he’ll be dropped into the first team as the finished article.
Dean Saunders’ faith in Walker encouraged this idea. He started four of the first five games of the 2010-11 season, and came on as a half time sub in the other, but perhaps didn’t quite look ready for the responsibility of being first choice right back and lost his place, making only one more appearance that season in the dead rubber at Luton on the final day.
The serious injury he then suffered wrote off last season, and that reputation as a young star remained in suspended animation despite the fact that we’d no idea how he’d recover from such a serious set-back. It’s gratifying to see him return looking like he has developed impressively.
Always good going forwards, he looks stronger defensively. The Tamworth match was potentially a tricky test for him against a long ball team with two big target men.
The right side of our back four is less adept at dealing with an aerial challenge than the left, with Martin Riley the left-sided centre back taller than Chris Westwood, and the Tamworth right back Richard Tait likes to stick the long diagonal in, so I anticipated a lot of rough stuff to come Walker’s way.
He coped admirably, as did the superb Westwood for that matter. As he came through a similar test when Grimsby target man Anthony Elding pulled across onto him last Saturday, I think it’s fair to say the defensive side of his game passed the test.
It’s enough to make you wonder whether that injury he picked up was actually a crucial turning point for us.
Most fans would agree that the unavoidable departure of Curtis Obeng to Swansea in the January transfer window was a major contributory factor in us narrowly missing out on promotion last season. Obeng’s adventurous charges down the flank played a crucial part in our success during that remarkable first half of the campaign, and they were never fully replaced.
I like Stephen Wright, a clever acquisition who will continue to show the value of his experience and adaptability this season. He also chipped in with a terrific amount of assists last season – six from eleven starts. However, he wouldn’t try to tell you that he can tear down the wing like Obeng did.
The other player tried in that position, Danny Alfei, looked tidy enough but equally wasn’t in possession of that most elusive characteristic which set Obeng out: extreme pace.
Walker isn’t in the Usain Obeng category either, but he’s a more attack-minded option than Wright or Alfei, and I can’t help wondering whether, if Morrell had been able to fall back on him after Obeng had left, we might have missed the Swansea-bound right back a little less.