Right, let’s get back to business. Now all that cup stuff has been dealt with, we can focus on the serious challenge of climbing the table again. Not that our league campaign won’t be influenced by the last couple of weeks. Indeed, they marked a crucial opportunity for Dean Keates to take stock.
Following on from the excellent performance against Bromley, our efforts against Rochdale surely crystallised Keates’ mind in terms of what he has available. The players he used showed they have the appetite to battle for him.
The Tunnocks Caramel Wafer Scottish Challenge Cup was something different. It gave an extended chance for the reserves to show Keates whether they’re also up to the challenge, and the kids an opportunity to catch the gaffer’s attention for the first time.
It’s probably too early for the current crop of youth players to be thrown into a relegation battle: I’d argue that Matt Sargent and Jack Thorn, both out on loan, are the young prospects who look like they might be ready, and if they were available I suspect Keates might have been tempted to use them by now. The other youth players have given an indication that they can handle the big occasions though, and are developing well.
Max Cleworth is, perhaps, the biggest find of them all. He did well in all three matches, but Ibrox was where he really shone.
In the first two games he’d appeared as a centre back, first in a three, then as part of a back four. On each occasion he looked solid, if perhaps not quite physically ready to play in that position in the National League just yet.
Let’s not forget how terrifically young he is: if he’d hit the net in any of these matches, he’d have unseated Craig Morgan as the youngest scorer in our entire history!
He fulfilled a different role last Saturday, though, although he’d already given an interesting preview of his performance in the FA Youth Cup.
In our home match against Sheffield FC, he’d made a difference to the outcome by switching at half time from centre back to defensive midfielder. The latter was the position he played against Rangers Colts, and he was superb. A range of good judges agree with me that he and Doug Tharme were our outstanding performers at Ibrox.
Cleworth was impressive in all aspects of the role. When we didn’t have the ball he was tactically disciplined, and made a number of smart interceptions as a consequence. When he had the ball he tended to keep it fairly simple, shifting the ball on quickly, but in the second half his confidence grew, and so did his range of passing.
Not only did he play a couple of nice forward passes which shifted play swiftly into the attacking phase, but he also provided one of our highlights of the match when a terrific change of orientation sent the whole Rangers midfield in the wrong direction and opened up the middle of the pitch, allowing him to drive forwards threateningly.
Matty Jones’ sustained tenacity impressed too, but Tharme is probably the one player from the weekend Keates might use in the short term.
Keates is the manager who gave him his professional debut, and Tharme’s impressive performance on Saturday will have been noted. He started the season on loan at Telford, and that unsuccessful, curtailed move appeared to be a setback. While the Scottish Challenge Cup has been his only opportunity to show what he can do since returning, he has taken that opportunity with some assured performances.
Since he last graced our first team he appears to have developed a confidence in drilling the ball accurately to the feet of players higher up the pitch, a very useful tool for starting a counter attack if your attacking players have a good enough first touch to take advantage!
Tharme’s chances of a call-up were increased by Saturday’s game, and not just because of his own performance. A reasonable summary of the game is that the youngsters took their chance, and the back-up players failed to force Keates to think again.