So, the big month has arrived, the decks are already being cleared. At last Dean Keates can look to remould his squad, and attempt the drastic surgery needed to preserve our place in the division.
He’s done it before, but the circumstances are different, and although I have genuine faith in his ability to improve the squad to a point where it pulls clear of danger, it won’t be such a simple proposition this month.
Last time, our squad were all tied to Gary Mills’ bizarre incentivised contracts. Everyone was out of contract in the Summer, giving Keates scope to move the out early by convincing them they would be better off finding first team football than watching us from the stands for the rest of the campaign.
This time, there are more long term contracts for him to deal with, and his budget has been limited by the substantial spending of last Summer. It’s ironic that the board have been criticised for failing to provide a competitive budget for Bryan Hughes when the figures clearly show that this Summer he had the biggest transfer fund since the WST took control of the club. The problem was, the way he spent it made it look like he’d not been given much.
Keates has wrangled the squad he’s got and the flexibility of the three at the back system enabled us to squeeze some points out of the Christmas fixtures.
How you view recent results depends on whether you’re a glass half empty or glass half full person, although even the optimists among us would have to admit that viewing 6 points out of 15 against our relegation rivals is hardly a success.
It gets worse if you take the more pessimistic view: the only side we were able to get anything out of in this crucial run of fixtures was Chorley, a team we appear to have definitively pinned to the bottom of the table.
The manner of the defeats to Sutton, Maidenhead and Aldershot were worrying. We were lacking in each, both in terms of quality and heart. I’m not accusing players of not trying – to be honest, I think such talk is nonsense. There’s absolutely no question that the players were wholeheartedly committed to the cause, even in an awful performance like last Saturday’s. Ask me if they were good enough and I’ll give you a different answer.
No, the lack of heart came into play when we went behind. The squad’s confidence has been damaged, and no doubt some of the better players still remember the end of last season, when a lack of attacking options meant that going behind meant we automatically went into throw-the-kitchen-sink mode. Too often this season we’ve struggled to recover from the blow of going behind. Keates’ previous recruitment relied heavily on the character of the players he brought in, and surely this month will be no different.
There are unknown factors to throw into the mix, of course. It feels unacceptable to not know the rules of the game this late into the season, but it’s quite possible that there will only be three relegation slots in April: it all depends on where Bury end up being placed.
I suppose there’s nothing new about such uncertainty, though. It turns out that the famous last-day escape against Boston United was actually irrelevant. The Football League were playing a cowardly game and hoping we’d do the dirty work for them by relegating The Pilgrims: they’d already decided that their off-field demeanours meant they had to be demoted, but knew that if we beat they’d avoid a lot of flak for taking such an action because we’d have condemned to relegation, fair and square.
Of course, in a more meaningful sense that victory was futile. It didn’t signal an opportunity to regroup and develop a squad which would make sure we never flirted with relegation to non-league again. Instead, we lurched into a catastrophic campaign which rarely looked like it would end any other was.
So this January is crucial. Last time round, Keates built a side which, had he stayed, might well have gone up. This month is not just about survival, it’s about laying foundations for the future, in a way drafting Eifion Williams in as a star striker didn’t in 2008.
We don’t want to be hoping for a reprieve through Bury’s resurrection. We want to put together a squad which is capable of completing the season strongly and giving cause for Summer optimism. First things first though. Keates has to repeat a difficult trick again and make sure he’s able to inject quality into a squad which desperately needs more depth and class.