Dean Keates has often spoken of the importance of developing an unbeaten run, and as he won multiple promotions during his playing career, he should know what’s required.
In a season which has seen clubs around the world struggle to find consistency in remarkable conditions, we seem to have settled into something approaching consistency. If it’s not a flash in the pan, we might just be setting ourselves up for a grandstand second half of the season.
I’m wary of suggesting this too eagerly: after all, the very nature of inconsistency means we might hit the heights and then regress. Look at Liverpool: far from the side that swept all before them last season, they’ve suffered some calamitous defeats in recent weeks. Yet they still have the capacity to batter Red Bull Leipzig, and enjoy a series of emphatic wins.
We could suffer similar ups and downs in the months to come, but we are at least developing that hard to beat characteristic Keates craves.
We’re on our longest unbeaten run of the season, and only Eastleigh can match our 6-game run without a loss in the division. That’s Eastleigh, who would have been beaten at home by us 4 games ago if the referee hadn’t given them a ludicrous second half penalty in a game which they were struggling to pose a threat in.
We also ought to have beaten Dagenham and Redbridge the following weekend as we squandered a 2-0 lead: I know what-ifs count for nothing, but we could easily have won 5 of our last 6 games.
The exception was the goalless draw at home to Halifax, when we fought out a tight game with a strong side, but ran out of steam dramatically in the last 5 minutes and ought to have lost.
So what has brought about this improvement? We changed our shape to three at the back in mid-December, and enjoyed some success with it. However, it really started to gel when we played Dover.
That was the first time Fiacre Kelleher was used as the central defender, with more mobile centre backs either side of him. Previous we’d asked him to play on the right, which hardly played to the strengths of a redoubtable stopper who likes to be in the fray when long balls are launched into the heart of the danger area.
Kelleher has looked good all season, but in the centre of a three he’s been outstanding. With pace either side he can focus on what he does best: stopping strikers in their tracks.
The shift of emphasis at the back was, ironically, brought about by an injury crisis at the back. Keates was forced to improvise and use the likes of James Horsfield, Mark Carrington and Jordan Davies in the back three as injuries piled up.
Davies was an experimental pick, forced into duty at the back as the injury problems hit a peak, but the other two have shown previously that they have the attributes to play in that part of the pitch, and their ability on the ball has meant we’ve looked more balanced coming forwards.
That, in turn, has helped us to strike up the sort of partnerships across the pitch which aid creativity. Accurate passing out from the wide centre backs mean our progressive wing-backs can receive good service, and both Reece Hall-Johnson and Jamie Reckord have been tearing thing up in the last month.
The arrival of Tyler French, a specialist right-sided centre back who is calm on the ball but also accurate with his forward-passing, has unleashed Hall-Johnson on the opposition, and he goes into tomorrow’s game having managed an assist in each of our last three games, as well as a goal.
On the other flank, Jamie Reckord is in his best form of the season since returning to the side, which is no great shock when he has the redoubtable Mark Carrington feeding him.
It looks good, and it looks balanced. We need to take a long term view of things, but the more we can continue in this vein, the more likely it is that we’ll be able to challenge for promotion before the new owners start investing in the playing.