On a cold and damp afternoon in Kent, the direction of our season was finally discovered. Just a couple of months on from being top of League One, defeat to an average Gillingham side saw us consigned to a battle I have denied for a couple of weeks now: a relegation battle.
I’ve seen enough in recent weeks to believe we’ve got what it takes to finish in midtable, but yesterday was a game I felt we needed to win to ensure we weren’t being sucked into that vortex swirling away below us. Sadly, after a performance of such ineptitude that it felt like 2011 again, I’m resigned to the fact that the doubters were (finally) right.
When they said we’d not make the play-offs because of the EFL trophy, they were wrong. When they said we wouldn’t win the title because our form wasn’t good enough, they were wrong. Like a stopped clock, they were going to be right at some point and some negative supporters are sat at home this morning happy, in a sad sort of way. They’ve seen their prediction come true; we’re in a relegation battle.
I took a lot of stick last week after speaking to Chris Moyses. I was told that social media isn’t real life, that there isn’t negativity towards Michael Appleton, but sadly there is. It’s a shame for him and I’m backing him to get through it. You see, Michael Appleton is the only thing that has visibly changed since we were top of the table and therefore it has to be his fault. It’s football fanaticism at the very basic level, the same reason Tom Champion was blamed for a winning team losing games in 2016/17, or Callum Connolly getting slated earlier in the season after coming in. He’s the new guy, it must be his fault.
I suppose I’m going to have to talk about the game but rest assured, there’s no candy-coated assessment today. Why? Because as I’ve searched my extensive vocabulary for words to describe how we played, one keeps coming back around time and again and it’s a little less ‘Stacey West’ and a little more ‘Lincon City Banter’ at its worst. However, it really is the only word that adequately covers the game. We were shit.
A little credit to Gillingham, a functional team who should have enough to finish between 12th and 15th this season. They’ve stifled our flair players, the boys at the back (Ehmer and Ogilvie) were both excellent and had no trouble at all marshalling a frustrated looking Tyler Walker. On the flanks, we got no joy either, with their full backs able not only to suffocate our ‘threat’ but also get forward themselves.
The game was won and lost on a bounce of the ball, sure, but who would say Gillingham didn’t deserve all three points? Nobody, because they did. They had loads more chances than us, we looked all at sea for long spells and the odd time we did foray forward they stopped us without breaking a sweat. Their midfield looked like an experienced midtable League One midfield, high in numbers and controlling the pace of the game. Ours looked disjointed and unbalanced, Ellis playing well (in my opinion) but Tom Pett not enough alongside him to give us any foothold in the game.
I’ll tell you how it felt to me, and you know I always try and be honest whilst giving us some credit. It felt to me like we’d gone into the game saying; bugger their setup, we’ll do what we want and they’ll have to cope with it. On the other hand, it felt like they’d said; ‘if we do X, Y and Z then we’ll stop this player and that player, allowing us to go here and there’. I said before the game they change tactics a lot and right there we saw why; they adapt to their opponents allowing an average squad of players to get the best chance of a result. If we did do that, the players badly let the side down. If we didn’t, then we’re architects of our own downfall.
As soon as they took a lead, which probably wasn’t a fair reflection of the game up to that point, I knew it would be 1-0 to them on 90 minutes. I even checked the odds of a Gillingham win after 30 minutes; 1/4. Under 1.5 goals? 1/5. The bookies knew, the fans knew and it looked to me like some of the players knew as well. Our passing was poor, one or two players movement was woeful and a couple lacked fight. For their goal we made a really bad decision in the area, perhaps the one player you expect not to do so, and paid the price. It wasn’t a good goal to concede at all, it wasn’t one you could say ‘fair play to them for working that’. It was a mistake, a howler and even after the weak header we didn’t react.
Yes, before the game I wrote off Hanlan and Mandron. Yes, I was once again made to look a fool. They worked really hard and looked lively, whereas our approach going forward wasn’t anywhere near as good. Tyler worked hard, but Bruno wasn’t on his best form and Jack Payne is not (I repeat not) a winger in my eyes. Those flair players, the ones we collected and felt would be a big factor in any success we had, are not performing to standard. Jorge Grant hasn’t done it since Danny left and Jack Payne comes and goes almost as much as the postman (my actual postman, a nice chap with a beard called Steve. Not Neal Eardley, ‘the Postman’ who always delivers a dead ball. Maybe, just maybe he might have had a go yesterday because every single set piece we had, bar none, was bad. Really bad).
I can try to look on the bright side with the changes; at least Michael Appleton is willing to make alterations as soon as things are not going well. I do wonder if, perhaps, making changes at half time is affecting player morale. Jorge Grant came off against Wimbledon and looks marginalised, whilst I thought Callum Connolly was very unlucky yesterday. I get the Big John change and briefly him coming on did look to add a dimension to our attack, but to take Callum off for Bolger surprised me. We were losing the midfield battle and had two big strikers to deal with, but I felt the midfield was struggling too. They had an answer to our approach down the flank, so why not go to something like a 4-3-1-2 and narrow the game? Edge Connolly into midfield with Pett and Chapman, go flat back four and sit Payne or Andrade behind Big John and Tyler Walker? Start (dare I say it) going a bit long and fighting fire with fire.
Look, I’m an armchair pundit, I don’t get paid to make the decisions and I don’t pretend that I’m a better manager than MA because I’m not. The positive to take here is that when things are not working, he changes it. I’ve seen criticism of successful managers in the past based around not making changes, or being predictable every time. MA is not predictable in his changes and that’s not always a bad thing.
Okay, I’ve been negative for the first page and doubtless gave all of you death-eaters sucking the life out of social media plenty to feed on. On page two, I’m going to try and add some context, but I’m not shying away from the result at all. I know what it means for this club, as much as I didn’t want to admit it. We’re in a rut, we’re spiralling out of control and we need a shake-up in January.