So, what do we have to do to convince Carl Darlington to take the job? Because frankly, I left Blundell Park wanting to see a lot more of the same!
There was an uncomfortable feeling all season that Wrexham’s squad could be doing a lot better if better decisions had been made from the bench, not to mention a notion that there was no coincidence in the arrival of Darlington at the same time as we began to look more coherent.
And now Darlington is the boss, albeit temporarily, the players look like the handbrake has been released.
The sad thing about Kevin Wilkin, who is undoubtedly a decent man, is that he didn’t really give the impression that he knew his own mind. Once he took the reins a strange precedent was set: after his post-match press conference he’d stay with the press and further analyse the game.
I’ll be honest: this bemused me. At first I found it flattering and exciting. Almost like a chess grandmaster pulling the game apart with his opponent after the final move was made, Wilkin was inviting us into his inner thoughts, opening up and discussing his view of the side.
But it didn’t feel right.
Firstly, there’s a reason why managers keep their distance from the press. Divulging too much, especially in an open forum with all sorts of people present, is a dangerous game and could leave hostages to fortune. Sometimes his comments felt a little too candid. The Wrexham press are a solid bunch and nothing was going to be leaked by them, but there were often reporters from the opposing side, the BBC and sundry others around. It was a dangerous game to play.
Secondly, football people tend to look down their noses to varying extents at the press. This is silly in some senses – the prevailing wisdom that you have to had played the game to understand it only holds so much water, and the nonsense some ex-players come out with shows that playing at a high level is absolutely no guarantee of knowing what the hell is going on.
But isn’t keeping your cards close to your chest also a sign of certainty? You’d never see Denis Smith or Dean Saunders asking the assembled press corps for their opinions after the game because they knew their own feelings and nothing any of us said would sway them. Sadly, I increasingly came to the conclusion that Wilkin, on the other hand, wasn’t just chatting with us out of respect or decency: he wasn’t totally certain of what direction he wanted to take.
That’s why the arrival of Darlington intrigues me. Was it a case of Wilkin being open-minded and wanting another valued opinion at the club? Or was it imposed on him by a board which saw which way the wind was blowing? Either way, it must have been uncomfortable for him to see his squad seemingly galvanised by a new, part-time face. How would you feel if somebody was brought in to support you in your job and then appeared to immediately earn greater respect from your department? Might it inspire you to do something bold and misguided to show you were definitively in charge? Something like substitute your inspirational midfield general in the closing stages of a Wembley cup final?
Darlington is the furthest thing from a person looking to undermine his superior. His refusal to declare for the job proves that. He’s just a good guy who’s come in with good ideas and impressed the most difficult of audiences: a squad of footballers.
Other questions about the Wilkin era remain unanswered. His transfer dealings were excellent; his failure to mould a far superior set of players into anything significantly better than what Andy Morrell achieved last season with a much weaker group ultimately cost him his job as much as his peculiar tactical calls.
Yet despite the quality of his recruitment there have been mutterings all season that not all our signings were his own. I’m certain that at least one high profile player was “given” to him.
Loan signings seemed particularly odd. Johnny Hunt, our top scorer last season, was available for 27 games this season, but only started nine and didn’t get onto the pitch in 13. Four of his five substitute appearances were in the last ten minutes. Joe Thompson arrived and then waited three games to get on the pitch. Dan Holman was available for seven games but made four substitute appearances. A fifteen minute stint against Eastleigh when we were already 3-0 up was the only time he was allowed more than ten minutes.
And then there’s the strange case of Steve Tomassen. Given a new contract in the Summer, he had to wait until the 26th game of the season to get on the pitch, and the 37th before he made the starting eleven. Now I’ve always liked Tomassen: he’s a straightforward defender and you get what you see with him, yet I couldn’t see why he’d been given a contract if he wasn’t going to be selected, and assumed his Wrexham career was over as Ross White overtook him at both right back and centre back, Anthony Stephens leap-frogged him on the bench and both James Pearson and – wait for it – Scott Tancock were brought in on loan rather than give him a game.
Yet once he returned to the side he became a regular fixture, begging the question what had he suddenly developed which he didn’t have until late January?
The other obvious impact Darlington made was on our formation. Wilkin inherited a squad which had been playing 4-3-3 for four seasons, but announced he wouldn’t be playing it as he never had done in the past. I’m not saying he needed to stick to that shape, as last season we failed to perform using that formation, but the drab run-in he presided over showed that he would need to reform the squad to make a different shape work because his experiments with variations on the theme of 4-4-2 failed with those players.
Yet he didn’t quite carry out the root and branch reform of the squad we all expected. Of his Summer signings Dan Bachmann, Manny Smith and Blaine Hudson were upgrades, not players who would necessitate a change of formation. Connor Jennings and Wes York have looked best as wide attackers, suiting a 4-3-3, while Louis Moult is more comfortable with the requirements of a forward in that formation than Andy Bishop.
Still, we played 4-3-3 just once before Darlington arrived. It looked good in that game too: we drew 2-2 at Halifax and should have won. Instead the shape was shelved for a further 25 games, during which we won just 7 times, twice against lower division opposition. We reverted to a 4-3-3 against Halifax in the FA Trophy and stuck with it for 13 matches, winning 6 and losing 2. That was after Darlington had arrived of course.
And of course that’s the tricky thing in evaluating Wilkin’s achievements. What can actually be attributed to him? He might argue he’s very unfortunate to be removed when losing just 2 of his last 16 games, and each of those were in extenuating circumstances (losing at Nuneaton just before Wembley was always on the cards, and defeat up at Gateshead three days after the long journey and emotional high of the Torquay semi-final seemed inevitable, although one might ask why Wilkin didn’t take the opportunity to rotate his side more on that occasion.)
But was that his side? We might equally argue that it’s since Darlington arrived that defeats have become more rare. For the record, since he came on board we’ve lost 5 in 26, and as well as the two losses mentioned above, one of those was to Stoke.
But the Stoke game suggests Wilkin was smart enough to see Darlington as a vital aide. The coach was widely credited as having formulated the game plan which worked so admirably at The Britannia: Wilkin was happy for him to take the credit, going so far as to say that the availability of in-form strikers Moult and Bishop late in the week was too late to alter the side because he was committed to execute the tactical plan Darlington had laid out in training.
Sadly, this also opens up an issue which dogged Wilkin this season: the notion that at some point he lost his players.
The talk of “bad apples” earlier this season seemed silly. The current squad feel like a well-adjusted, professional bunch to me. Certainly the main name bandied around as a trouble maker makes me laugh as he’s the last person you’d think would rock the boat. Yet it seems clear that Wilkin simply couldn’t take the players with him. His erratic tactical decisions clearly shook their faith in him (Keates’ revelation last week that he was available for many of the games he was rested for certainly suggests Wilkin didn’t rate him, which would surely confuse the squad, as Connor Jennings’ post-Wembley interview suggested) and the lack of an impact when he first arrived hinted at a failure to inspire them. The willingness of the likes of Moult, who surely could play at a higher level, to commit to a new contract when he has been in and out of the side shows that Wilkin can inspire genuine loyalty in his players. But being a good bloke doesn’t necessarily lead to being a good manager.
The way the players ran to Darlington to celebrate their four goals at Altrincham felt revealing: they knew whose plan they were executing.
The ambiguity is temporarily gone. We know who is making the final calls now, and it looks good. The players look like the shackles are off, and perhaps that’s the most definitive verdict of all on Wilkin. What a pity the man responsible for setting the players free doesn’t want to keep doing it!