I think a bit of perspective is in order. Obviously losing four in a row is a bad thing. However, we’ve not hit crisis point yet. In mid-January we’re four points off the top of the table, and one point off a position which would guarantee us a one-off home match in the semi-finals of the play-offs. Would you have taken that situation at the start of the season? I certainly would have!
This squad devastated the side most fancied to win the league just three weeks ago, suggesting there’s plenty of potential at the club. Furthermore, the subsequent defeats, while unwelcome, are explicable.
The return game at Salford saw the most expensively-assembled side the National League has seen for a while park the bus against us. That’s a compliment, an indication of how they regard us, and frankly it’s no great disgrace to be unable to break a side of that quality down when they’ve been convinced to show such discipline. Remember, we were applauded off the pitch after the game, despite struggling to create chances. That defeat wasn’t a turning point; it was one of those things.
The loss to Dover was painful, but that’s what Dover do. New manager, same approach: Dover are expert spoilers. If you try to pass through them, you’ll suffer at their hands. That was the fourth home game in a row against them in which we’ve failed to score, so struggling against their particular style of football is not a new thing for us. In total we’ve played them ten times: we’ve only beaten them once, and we’ve never scored two in a match against them. Let’s not treat a bad day at the office against Dover as something unexpected!
Like Dover, Bromley have also found form lately, and it was no huge shock to return from Kent empty-handed either. Bromley, quite simply, are playing a bit better than us at the moment: that was their fourth win in a row, and both Fylde and Sutton have fallen to them in that time. It was always a tricky game in hand to negotiate. If Bobby Grant’s spectacular shot at 0-0 had hit the bar and gone in, rather than ricochet into the crowd, it might have turned into a hell of a good result.
As for the Orient game, I think it might have been a missed opportunity more than anything else. The visitors rotated their side, although it should be remembered that there was a lot of experience amongst the players who came into the team. With our losing run established, I feel we’d have been well advised to select a full strength side. I’m not saying we ought to prioritise a cup run, but it was a chance to put a full stop to the losses, and gain a small advantage over a promotion rival. The experiment with three at the back confirmed what I suspected before the game: it’s probably not the answer with the current side.
In terms of the game itself, it hinged on a soft penalty call from a referee who’d turned down a couple of earlier, better calls and probably felt it was time to give one. It was a match decided by fine margins and, unlike the league game with Orient earlier this season, I didn’t feel we’d been held comfortably at arm’s length by a superior side.
I don’t want to come across as making excuses for the side. There are issues which need to be resolved, most obviously going forward, as we’ve now failed to score in 9 of our last 13 games. That’s an astonishing figure for a side still in touching distance of the top spot, and it must be resolved swiftly.
I don’t want to hit the panic button yet, but I do feel concerned that we need to halt this run soon before it does become a problem. I’m concerned that the next match, at Fylde, is another tough one, and we’ll have to be strong to avoid suffering a fifth straight loss. But all sides have rough patches, and there is no side in this division which looks capable of maintaining title-winning form all season, as Salford’s two extended blips have already illustrated.
I cling onto a thought which came into my head in December. Of all the top of the table sides, we’re the one which has the most obvious deficiency: a creativity problem. Logically, that also means we’re the side most capable of making major strides forward if we find the correct solution. Let’s hope Graham Barrow’s able to crack that particular conundrum.