Things can spiral quickly out of control. Even when you feel that you know the best course of action, circumstances can change dramatically. Bryan Hughes discovered that to his cost on Wednesday.
As is often the case in these situations, Hughes has been a victim of both misfortune and his own mistakes. The bank holiday defeat at Hartlepool encapsulates perfectly both elements of his downfall.
The bad luck came in the 17th minute, when JJ Hooper pulled up injured. His subsequent absence has been a massive blow for Hughes. Hooper is the sort of striker the side has been crying out for over the last few seasons, his movement and pace a constant problem for defences. Without him, although Jason Oswell has filled in well, we’ve lacked a mobile forward who can make space for other strikers. It’s no coincidence that neither Bobby Grant or Mark Harris have scored in open play since Hooper’s injury.
With Rob Lainton and Manny Smith also unavailable all season, it’s fair to say that some high quality players have been unavailable to Hughes. Jake Lawlor’s suspensions haven’t helped either.
The 4-2 defeat at Hartlepool wasn’t just down to bad luck, though. Rotating the side when there are two games in three days is certainly not a preposterous idea; picking a full-strength eleven on Saturday and then changing six outfield players for an away game on Monday is asking for trouble.
The wholesale rotation of the side at Hartlepool was the most obvious in a series of decisions this season that put Hughes into a spot. We had to do something about our lack of creativity over the last two seasons, but becoming too attacking is not the answer. Instead, we’ve seen that it’s considerably worse than being too defensive.
Too often we’ve been outnumbered in midfield, a fact illustrated by the fact that both Luke Young and Luke Summerfield have been playing well, yet our midfield has often been overrun as we’ve lacked numbers in the middle of the pitch.
Substitutions have often come late in games we’re struggling in, and tend to have failed to change matters. Last Tuesday illustrated that point clearly: while Fylde changed their shape at half time and completely altered the dynamic of the match, we didn’t adapt, continuing to allow them a remarkable amount of space in front of our back three. When we did make attacking changes, they were unimaginative like-for-like affairs with just eleven minutes left. Throwing Paul Rutherford on in the 88th minute felt more like a token than anything else.
If you’d asked me a week ago, I’d have said I didn’t want Hughes to go. We’ve had too much upheaval in the manager’s office, and continuing to build on the solid foundations we’d already established was the best option. The last week has changed my mind. As I said earlier, things can spiral quickly out of control, and the nature of our intervening two defeats was very worrying.
To concede a 94th minute winner by leaving one man marking one at the back while we had a corner is utterly unacceptable. To then drop half the team and adopt a totally different shape three days later smacked of desperation. Those two performances, both against fellow strugglers, made the mood change. We weren’t a side dropping early points before gelling; we were a side in danger of putting itself into a relegation scrap, and the consequences of losing it were unthinkable.
Our Summer recruitment also sowed the seeds of Hughes’ downfall. There had been a sense of progression in the previous couple of transfer windows, as a decent squad was accumulated and improved upon. Two summers ago Dean Keates brought in players of the calibre of Pearson, Smith, Roberts, Wedgbury, Wright and Holroyd. Last Summer we brought in Lainton, Summerfield, Young, Pyke and Beavon.
Last summer was far less successful: at the moment JJ Hooper is the only unequivocal transfer market success.
Yet fans are pre-programmed to harbour unrealistic expectations, suffering from pre-season blind optimism. Expectations were perhaps artificially high, but they have not been met.
Of course, whether the dreadful reaction amongst a pocket of fans accelerated these problems is a chicken-and-egg question. The atmosphere at the last home game was dreadful, and utterly unacceptable. It forced the board into a premature vote of confidence, because they needed to do the decent thing and back a man who was doing his best.
It also made the prospect of Hughes returning to The Racecourse after two more defeats difficult to imagine. I can’t begin to consider how poisonous the reception would have been. Such vitriol against players, staff and the board must have an effect on the pitch. If you think screaming abuse at your own players will make them play better, you’re naïve at best. If a child can’t do a sum, would having the Maths teacher scream “Think harder you idiot!” in their ear help?
We’ve gone from a side which was not taking advantage of being on top of a game, to a side which was being overrun. The players must carry some responsibility for this; the fans who undermined their confidence should have a good, hard look at themselves; but inevitably it’s the man who picks the team who carries the can.
Please can we give the next bloke a decent chance, though?