They say sorry is the hardest word. I think floccinaucinihilipilification is the hardest word, but I accept admitting you’re wrong’s not easy either. It’s time for me to eat humble pie and explain why, after Tuesday’s FA Cup win, I hope I’ve got something badly wrong.
Before I fully confess my crime, I want to point out that I do feel vindicated by a related development. All season I’ve been arguing that we need a defensive midfielder to give us more solidity, stop us looking open the counter-attack and avoid being outnumbered in the middle of the pitch.
Obviously Dean Keates, having watched our games from before he was appointed, agreed, because we’ve played a defensive midfielder in every team he’s selected. What I got wrong is the capabilities of the man he has chosen to play that role.
I wasn’t massively impressed by our recruitment over the Summer, and have to admit that Adam Barton was one of the players whose ability I doubted. In fact, I was inclined to be dubious before I’d even seen him play.
The level of performance in the League of Wales is considerably lower than the level of the National League, and the same can be said about the lower Scottish leagues. Any player we sign from those sources would have to have been carefully scouted, because there are mediocre players who can shine at that level.
Barton’s last three seasons have been spent playing in those two leagues, so I was concerned about his credentials.
Before last Tuesday I felt my prejudices had been justified. Barton slowed play up too much, ponderously shifting the ball onto his favoured foot before moving it on, and exhibiting a reluctance to attempt anything but the most simple of passes.
This was illustrated most clearly at Aldershot, where we tried to shift the ball quickly from side to side to circumvent the four-man press their strikers employed, but struggled to do so as Barton slowed things down.
Furthermore, despite being tall, he didn’t dominate physically in the manner I’d have hoped, and attacking players between the lines found it easy to evade him.
To be honest, I assumed that Barton would have been high on Keates’ list when he started shifting players out of the club to make room for new recruits. When it became apparent that Keates was going to give him the opportunity to anchor the midfield, my mind wasn’t changed. I assumed that Keates had merely identified the need for a player in that position and decided Barton could fill that gap until he was able to negotiate an upgrade.
After the FA Cup win over Chesterfield, I reckon I might have been wrong.
Barton was a different man on Tuesday. He moved the ball forwards more quickly, won some important tackles and headers, and supported his centre backs in the closing stages when Chesterfield piled the pressure on.
On the evidence of those ninety minutes, there’s more to Barton than I thought there was. Perhaps Keates deserves credit for giving him a framework to operate in which suits him, and the opportunity to build his confidence by starting matches. Whatever the reason, we kept a clean sheet on Tuesday, for only the second time in the last seventeen matches. That’s a shocking deterioration in defensive performance from the last two seasons.
However, having conceded 25 in the first 16 games of the season, we’re letting goals in at the rate of less than one a game since Keates’ return. And since he started playing Barton in front of the back four. Coincidence? I’m beginning to think not.