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.
My first sentiment when I heard that Kevin Wilkin had been sacked was sorrow. He’s a genuinely nice guy and I wanted him to succeed. However, my wife immediately asked whether it’s possible for a successful manager to be a nice guy. She has a point.
A manager’s departure can usually be traced over a period of time, as the patience of the fans and board wear thin. This is true in Wilkin’s case, but there’s another factor at play. It’s incredibly rare to be able to pinpoint an exact moment where everything changed and dismissal becomes inevitable, but Wilkin was a dead man walking at 2.57 on Sunday.
That was when he made a catastrophic error of judgement which cost him the match and his job. I’m convinced he would have been guaranteed until Christmas in the hot seat otherwise.
That was the moment when he withdrew Dean Keates, of course.
If Keates had stayed on we’d have won. It was a totally counter-intuitive decision which could only have made sense if the skipper was on his knees. We all know he wasn’t.
The explanation for the change just made it worse, if possible. To withdraw the skipper because he’s shattered would be logical if true; to withdraw him as Wilkin explained afterwards because we needed more control in midfield was perverse.
If Keates can’t bring control to the side then who can? He’s the midfield organiser, the man who regulates play and retains the ball better than anyone else we have. Perhaps the next best option to offer ball retention under pressure would be Mark Carrington, but he remained on the bench.
The problem is that the baffling change wasn’t an isolated incident. I’ve often been startled this season when players I feel are playing well are withdrawn. Louis Moult has been a particular victim of this. I have to admit that I sometimes disagreed with tactical changes made by Dean Saunders and Andy Morrell, but I could always see what they were doing, and sometimes they proved me wrong. I often simply couldn’t understand what Wilkin was thinking this season.
If Keates hadn’t been withdrawn we’d have remained in the comfort zone, won a trophy at Wembley and established a feel-good factor which, while not obscuring a poor league campaign, would at least have anaesthetised its effect on the fans. With a cup win and an heroic effort at Stoke to buoy him, surely Wilkin would have had an opportunity to get to the transfer window and do what he does well: recruit.
But perhaps that’s the point. Wilkin has enjoyed two good transfer windows and built a decent squad. Yet the results aren’t reflecting that fact. The truth is that he’s getting about the same outcome from the players as Morrell did last season with much less to work with. For a long time I’ve felt Wilkin might be more of a director of football than a manager. Perhaps a nice guy can flourish in that role.