Reasons to be cheerful

Cod Almighty | Article

by Paul Savage

23 March 2017

The season may be ending in a rare damp squib, but with sound recruitment and attendances up, Town are in a strong position to progress next season

If at the start of August you'd have said to me that we'd finish in mid-table, I'd have bitten your hand off. Not to be a smart arse, but that's exactly what I said when interviewed by FourFourTwo magazine ahead of the season's start.

Consolidation was always going to be key, and not getting carried away important. Yes, Bristol Rovers had their success last season and their momentum carried them through the leagues with successive promotions. But after six years in the wilderness, ensuring we didn't immediately return was, for me anyway, the main objective.

If you'd have told me back in August that we'd achieve this despite losing our manager and top goalscorer and inheriting an almost entirely new team in the January transfer window, I'd have been even more pleased. Usually, when teams have to make as many changes as we have, they struggle to find rhythm or are in a relegation scrap. Remember Nicky Law bringing in players like Mickael Antoine-Curier to try and stop our slide down the leagues? Wigan did the same this January – incidentally purchasing Omar Bogle – yet also look likely to go down as the team hasn't managed to gel.

Stability is key – credit to John Fenty for not pulling the trigger on Paul Hurst when many fans, including me, doubted the now Shrewsbury manager's ability to get us promoted out of the Conference. It took six years, granted, but that period of stability galvanised the club, got the town back onside and helped pull the fans closer than ever before. Operation Promotion would never have worked, or resulted in the success it did, had we not had that stability behind the scenes. We're all critical when football clubs sack managers willy-nilly (well, at least the sensible fans are) and the outpouring of disgust when Leicester sacked Ranieri was a reaction to sense and sentiment having gone from the game.

Sure, our only consistency is that we are inconsistent, but attendances are up, we've had some fantastic away days and Sam Jones and Jamey Osborne look like cracking recruits

To sack Bignot now, as some have called for after some of our recent performances, would be an absolute travesty. Sure, we've had some dodgy results recently and our only consistency is that we're inconsistent.

But there are plenty of reasons to be cheerful. We'll likely make an operating profit this season. Attendances are up. We've had some fantastic away days despite defeats. And players like Sam Jones and Jamey Osborne look like cracking recruits who, given a pre-season and a period of adjustment, could be shrewd signings who progress up the leagues.

And let's face it, they are a vast improvement on some of Hurst's summer midfield acquisitions.

So why the sniping from a section of Town's fans? Has the criticism of the style of football and the 'entertainment' on offer been justified? I've only missed a couple of games, home and away, since Christmas, and at times we've played some great stuff. It is clear that Bignot wants to build from the back and try and pass the ball on the floor – and it will take a bit of time for the players, particularly those playing part-time football recently, to get up to speed. Similarly, at times we've not been great at all. Stevenage was atrocious and the less said about Crewe the better.

I don't think this squad is quite there yet – we probably need two strikers and we need a left winger too – but the vast bulk will hopefully be with us next year too. That key word again: stability. Give the management time to put fresh ideas and impetus into the squad, cut the wheat from the chaff in the summer and go again in August, when we can hopefully be looking upwards and not over our shoulders at the bottom.

Are our collective expectations heightened because all we can remember in recent years is success? Thrashing Stockport by seven, seeing Hearn smash four in against Alfreton, Arnold's goal to send us into ecstacy at Wembley... There is probably a generation of Town fans who have never seen us with nothing to play for. For years it's been relegation battles or play-off campaigns. Now that a season is petering out, have we just forgotten what that feeling is like?

There are clubs – like Rochdale for many, many years – who simply achieve nothing but the plod of mediocrity. Year in, year out they finish somewhere and nowhere and nothing changes. We've been lucky enough to experience numerous Wembley visits and the rollercoaster of emotions over the last couple of seasons. Real football: none of this fake, plastic rubbish that Sky and BT serve up on their "Super" weekends.

Expectations are always hard to manage, particularly when we've been used to being the biggest fish in a small pond. Now we're not and we have to readjust. We will win more than we lose this season (just!) and there's a lot to be excited about on and off the pitch. Would we rather be Cheltenham fans right now, crowing last season about winning the title and now being found out with a lack of quality on the pitch?

I know where I'd rather be, that's for sure.

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