Here we go again? The most painful thought after Thursday’s cruel end to another promotion tilt was that we’re condemned to a twelfth season in the fifth tier of the league pyramid. Once again we’d come close, but that final edge was missing.
In the midst of our disappointment, though, it’s important to take a step back and allow ourselves some context. We might feel frustrated, but we should bear in mind that this side equaled the club record for most clean sheets in a season. It was one win short of equaling the club record for most league wins in a seasons. Adjusting for three points for a win, it accumulated the third highest points total in the club’s history.
To put it bluntly, this is a side to be proud of. They have achieved, even though they fell short of their goal. The closing moments at Halifax encapsulate what this team has been about. 2-1 down in the 96th minute, we found ourselves in a situation where a point was absolutely no use to us. Yet the players kept chasing lost causes, pursuing everything in the desperate desire to do their best for the club. As fans, we can hope for greater quality, but we cannot expect greater effort in our name.
Our frustration is increased by how close they came to making it, of course. Just one point off the top three, ensuring an easier passage to Wembley. Just four points off winning the whole darn thing. If only we’d not conceded that injury time equalizer at Chesterfield. If only we’d equalised when we ought to have done at Ebbsfleet. If only the ref had given James Jennings’ goal at Halifax. If only an Orient centre back hadn’t scored a fluke goal to beat us.
But every team has those sob stories: all our promotion rivals can say the same. What if Jermaine McGlashan’s off-target shot hadn’t somehow spun in to win the game? What if Kieran Kennedy hadn’t scored set piece winners in the closing minutes of two recent home games? “if only” and “what if” are dangerous phrases. In the face of the infinite number of variables contained within the 552 games of a National League season, we just have to accept where we finished and move on.
How Bryan Hughes moves on will determine what happens next. There are obvious issues to address in the make-up of the squad, and this is his first real chance to change things in a meaningful manner. What we know of Hughes so far is he’s tactically flexible enough to search for ways to wring some creativity from an inherited squad which is short of goals. He deserves credit for his willingness to take risks to make us more dangerous, but his need to do so is proof that there’s an issue which requires urgent attention.
This Summer we will learn what his philosophy is, what he wants a team to look like when given an opportunity to build one. His signings have struggled to make an impact this season, but don’t judge him on that; arriving as he did after January, the table was bare when he looked for players who could improve his squad.
For me, the record-equaling defensive unit needs little attention. We have four centre backs that would surely walk into any side in our division, and a young prospect to back them up. The hard work may be to retain them all. At full back, I was disappointed to see that Mark Carrington didn’t start on Thursday, but it shows the depth we have if we’re able to omit him.
There’s admirable industry in midfield which ought to be retained, but the process of adding passing quality which began last Summer needs to continue. Luke Summerfield can dictate play admirably, but we need other options to support his work.
Up front is where the major alterations need to be made. Our top league scorer was a centre back with six goals, which must make for hard reading for our strikers. We have a number of forwards whose movement and intelligence is admirable, but the figures don’t add up for them. Perhaps more creativity in midfield would help them, but there will inevitably be some tough decisions made in this area.
This squad has shown resilience to recover from the blows it has taken over the last two years. For a side to be challenging for promotion throughout that period to have five different combinations on the bench is remarkable, and cannot have been easy to deal with. Yet this squad has kept plugging on.
There were acknowledgements from within the club that there were psychological scars after last season’s capitulation, yet we finished the campaign with four wins out of five: the first time we’ve done so at this level.
This squad has shown it can bounce back. It has heart and a desire to take the club where it ought to be. There are areas which require improvement, but the foundations Dean Keates established are solid and, for the first time since Andy Morrell was manager, we have continuity on the pitch and are building towards something. With continuity on the bench and some judicious signings in attacking areas, we’re in a good position to make sure next season. The players will have to pick themselves up again, and so will the fans, but they will and we will.
We go again.