It feels odd to be preaching patience at the end of January, but this bizarre season, twisted out of shape by forces beyond anyone’s control, throws convention out of the window.
Dean Keates is still fine-tuning his side, and Tuesday’s game was an interesting indicator of his progress, up against a side which plays in a very similar manner, and looks to have clicked.
Our last two promotion seasons show that a successful side’s best eleven can take a very long time to reveal itself.
The side which played on the opening day of the 1992-3 season bore little relationship to the settled eleven which would clinch promotion by the end of the campaign. For a start, it lined up in the familiar lop-sided 4-3-3 which would become Brian Flynn’s trademark, but would only start to get results when he switched to 4-4-2.
The back four was in place, but behind them was the unfortunate Ken Hughes. He arrived as an impressive capture, but sadly his value on the pitch wasn’t as great as it was on paper. After nine games he lost his place and would make just one more appearance as he paid the price for a catalogue of errors. Mark Morris stepped up to replace him and was crucial to our promotion.
Further up the pitch, Gareth Owen would have to wait another 20 games before Mike Lake arrived to strike up the midfield partnership which would drive the side forward, and Karl Connolly played up front, before switching to the left when the side was reshuffled.
The most striking absentee was Gary Bennett though. The talismanic striker wouldn’t appear in the first two games as he saw out a suspension, and although he scored two goals on his delayed debut, with Mark Taylor also making a first appearance of the season, we lost 4-3, and would concede 4 goals in each of our next two games too. Imagine the meltdown if that happened now!
Our next promotion in 2002-3, was based on a similar formation to the one Keates is now deploying. However, the way Denis Smith set it up in the first game of the season was a far cry from the side which battered opposition in the second half of the run-in.
Once again, the goalkeeper who would be crucial to the promotion effort wasn’t present, as Kristian Rogers was in goal ahead of Andy Dibble.
Smith had lots of quality up front, and tried to squeeze as many strikers as possible into the side. The opening day at Scunthorpe saw him shoe-horn Andy Morrell, Lee Trundle and Lee Jones into the team, but the balance wasn’t right and he didn’t try it again.
A terrible incident forced Smith into a drastic rethink, as Waynne Phillips suffered a career-ending leg break just 9 minutes into the opening game. In the aftermath, Jim Whitley switched to the centre of midfield, and Carlos Edwards slotted in on the right. Edwards, who enjoyed a magnificent season, hadn’t even started the game.
Apart from Morrell’s fabulous goal-scoring spree, that season would be memorable for the buccaneering feats of Edwards and his namesake Paul on the other flank. Yet Paul Edwards would be absent for the next five games as Shaun Holmes was given his chance.
The midfield duo of Phillips and Kevin Russell was superseded by a combination of Whitley, Darren Ferguson and either Steve Thomas or Paul Barrett, with Scott Green arriving later to make a crucial contribution. Russell wouldn’t start another game all season.
In this world of on demand gratification, it turns out that the best things are worth waiting for!