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.
Gary Mills has dragged me through the whole range of emotions this season, and it’s only now that I feel I can confidently assess his work since arriving last summer. I’ve experienced real peaks and troughs, and there were times when I had real doubts about his approach. Yet now, after seven months of scrutinising his side, I final get it. He’s really good, isn’t he?
I recently wrote that I’ve found this to be just about the most confusing Wrexham season I’ve watched, but omitted the key cause for my bewilderment. Mills arrived with a reputation for possession football which found its expression in sides which over-performed and played attractive football along the way. Ideologues don’t tend to cast their principles aside lightly, so I was confused that he persevered with that style of play only briefly. Actually, I was hugely disappointed.
I’d look forward to our matches against Mills’ sides, and had built myself up to enjoy a whole season of watching the most fascinating tactical battles. The early signs were promising: although we looked too open when we lost the ball, the way we put a succession of sides to the sword in the early part of the season suggested we’d soon click and run away with the league.
I still wonder whether we abandoned that style of play too soon. It seemed to me that the loss at Cheltenham and draw at Lincoln were turning points. The former match was frustrating as we controlled the game but were caught out by swift, direct transitions, while at Lincoln there was a spell in the second half when we were overpowered by The Imps’ tactic of launching long balls at the massive Matt Rhead.
I assume these concerns helped influence Mills’ decision to compromise his principles and change his style. At the time I felt tinkering was required more than wholesale change: after all, we had dominated those matches for long periods of time and would surely have taken a deserved two-goal lead at Cheltenham against ten men if the referee had spotted a blatant hand ball on the line which blocked a Wes York shot.
However, I’m looking at this from the outside. Mills is on the inside, knows whether his players are comfortable with the style of play he imposes on them, and is vastly experienced. If it doesn’t feel right, he’ll know better than I could.
That’s why he has scrolled through a number of different tactics, approaches and permutations to squeeze results out of his squad. That’s why our season has been characterised by erratic series of results as we’ve strung together consecutive wins followed by winless runs. That’s why I’ve been so confused. But I can now see that it was necessary.
The current, direct approach is not something I anticipated in August, and it took a while to warm to it. However, it’s hauled us back into the play-off picture, and although I baulked at it initially, I’ve grown to appreciate the thinking behind it. Mills knows what he’s doing.