Ever since we dropped into the Conference this part of the year has seemed particularly fraught and crucial. Talk of a retained list seems irrelevant: the issue isn’t who we want to keep, but who we can manage to hang onto.
Danny Wright has departed already, and the likes of Martin Riley and Dean Keates are surely crucial to the spine of next season’s side. There’ll be feverish activity, no doubt, to ensure they’re signed up as soon as possible, especially after the storm which has broken over Wright’s move.
No doubt Andy Morrell won’t want to shake his squad up too much, but there is one issue which must be exercising his mind. We struggled through the final stages of the season, forced to select a shadow side for the last four matches of the season, digging deep to get past Kidderminster, and then running into a game too far at Wembley.
With Keates and Jay Harris clearly struggling, Chris Westwood and Mark Creighton both gambles if they started, Rob Ogleby not looking right since coming back from injury and Danny Wright, Kevin Thornton, Danny Alfei, Nick Rushton and Joslain Mayebi all out, the best we could have hoped for was to put up a good fight really.
Morrell will ask himself why we were in that position and whether anything could have been done about it. With hindsight there was always a danger that we’d run out of steam: the foundations of our success also lay behind our eventual narrow failure to go up.
The experiences spine which runs through the team has been absolutely crucial to our continued success. Just look at the impressive seasons the likes of Keates, Westwood, Brett Ormerod and Stephen Wright have had. However, combined with a fairly thin squad and an exhausting home pitch, there was always a danger that we’d run out of steam later on in the campaign. It was the Faustian pact the management had to make in the hope of succeeding.
We’ve lacked the resources to rotate the squad. No doubt Morrell would have loved a couple more viable options at his disposal to allow him to rest some of his more senior players. Instead, he had to keep selecting them, which stored up problems for later.
Keates started all but four of the fifty-one matches we played before he was subbed at Woking, and all those games were missed through suspension. Furthermore, when Westwood broke down against Mansfield it was his twenty-sixth consecutive start.
Admittedly, Morrell tended to favour a settled midfield and defence; maybe he wouldn’t have rotated anyway. Also, when you’re going for the title it’s difficult to judge when you should leave a player out. But Morrell often didn’t have any alternative: that run of starts for Westwood started on the night Danny Devine played his last game for us. His departure left us an option light at the back.
So when the management team look at reshaping the team, they might consider adding an extra body or two, even if it means drafting in players who are not necessarily going to be key men. To put this argument in context, if Jamie Tolley had signed his six month contract at the start of the season, giving us a player to rotate at the start of the campaign, might Keates and Harris have had fresher legs come Wembley?
There’s a possible scenario which might help Morrell, Barr and Oakes out immensely as they plan for next season though: the fruition of the youth team. Rushton made a breakthrough this season, having benefitted from a couple of seasons in the League of Wales. If Steve Tomassen and Anthony Stephens return from their loan spells ready for Conference use our squad will have been padded out nicely. Similarly, the end of the season saw Leon Clowes, Rob Evans, Jay Colbeck and Bradley Reid suggest they might be ready to be used more regularly, I’d lump Rob Ogleby in with that group too, a young player who shows real signs of promise and now needs to step up to the plate and show we can rely on him as a regular starter.
Their development could lift the remaining gloom which naturally gathers at the end of a season which fell just short of glory. It’s a sense of post-Wembley emptiness symbolised by a sad sight I glimpsed last week: Glen Little sitting in Starbucks on his own. Danny Wright has gone, but we’ll get over it.