Regular readers of On The Ponty End may remember an article I wrote earlier in the season, praising Keith Hill’s defensive options (A Case for the Defence). However the tides have debatably turned since then, with the Reds failing to keep a clean sheet for 13 games. That stat is not the only one that might concern Reds fans, with perhaps an extremely alarming stat existing – the Reds have only gained a point all season from losing positions. We ask if the wheels have come off defensively, or if other factors are responsible for the worrying stats, and indeed whether we should be worried by these stats.

Many fans will agree that the recruitment of players by Keith Hill since taking over the reigns has largely been successful, with many examples of improved players, and the creation of saleable assets. Hill has shown that he has the ability to turn around players also, with Jim O’Brien being a glowing example of how a player can go from being potentially lauded out of the club, to being a fans’ favourite and key player.

Of course involved in the creation of his squad was the recruitment of defensive options in Rob Edwards, Jim McNulty, Scott Wiseman, plus new signing Scott Golbourne, who scored a debut goal against Watford on Saturday. However it has perhaps not been the recruited players who have disappointed fans in recent weeks, but the pre-existing options in McEvely, Foster, and even at times Hassell. Both of the former have received increased criticism from fans of late, with both players making mistakes that have cost us dearly.

Whilst I’m not in the business of criticising individuals, the players have caused dilemma recently for their manager, and not the ‘good dilemmas’ we so often hear about in successful regimes. For me, the problem lies not in their ability technically, but in their own perceptions of their ability. There is no doubt that both players are able on their day; Stephen Foster has been a captain and player of the year, whilst McEvely has experience at the highest level – despite what some may think, you DO have to have ability to earn such accolades, with any team. However, it appears both players have their demons, with nervy performances leading to mistakes from both the men. Of course there could be many answers as to why both players seem ‘nervy’ at times, however in my opinion, they don’t need to be, and should they shift their demons, they are both capable of becoming top players.

For now however it appears that in McEvely’s case it least, he will not just have to battle his mind, but a new competitor for his place in Scott Golbourne. Is competition healthy? On the large part, I believe the answer is yes, since in the case of defence, players have each had ample time to prove themselves – with only Scott Wiseman in my opinion not always having the rub of the green in terms of selection. Whilst the competition for places has existed all season, I don’t believe that it has brought with it unnecessary pressure.

So how to solve the problem? For me, it’s about getting the right things out of the right players. As some fans will reluctantly admit – Bobby Hassell is not having his best season at Barnsley. Bobby has been a magnificent servant to this club, and more than deserves the honour of club captaincy, but how can he best contribute to this team given his aging years? A potential solution could be a switch to central defence, a position demanding less pace than right full back, but demanding inch perfect tackles – something that Bobby is certainly capable of providing. Bobby proved his flexibility in the role in pre-season in the 5-0 victory at Scunthorpe. Although the opposition was poor, Bobby performed magnificently alongside McNulty in the heart of defence, and in my opinion, the switch – should it occur, could prove excellent for the club captain.

For Jay McEvely, the answer could actually lie in his supposed new competitor. With both men capable of fleeting forward runs, could the answer be to play BOTH men, rotating between full back and midfield as and when required? Mark Robins tried a similar experiment last season when Matt Hill was around, and Keith Hill may wish to toy with the idea when McEvely returns from injury.

For Foster, it’s a case of building up the confidence. The loan market this season has taken dramatic turns in what it has meant to clubs. In times of old, a loan move was a precursor to a permanent switch, or an option to give more experience to youngster. Whilst this has been true on many occasions this season, examples exist where much more senior players have spent time away on loan and returned revitalized, with West Yorkshire rivals Huddersfield’s Jamie McCombe an example of the recent trend. If Foster spent a month away and helped a lower Championship or League 1 side find some form, that could do wonders for his confidence, and return him to a standard Barnsley fans enjoyed when voting him as player of the year.

Of course the defence can’t take all of the blame, and there can be questions asked throughout the team when trying to defend a lead, or indeed break somebody else’s. The stats show we’ve only got one point from a losing position – against Watford at home back in October. Whilst fingers could and may be pointed at the defence for conceding in the first place, it’s surely not their responsibility to score the goals too?

At times we have shown that we can be a force to be reckoned with going forward, however with the loss of Ricardo Vaz Te and the loss of form with Craig Davies, how will the Reds progress this season? For me, it’s again about mental strength, and leadership. Whilst Jacob Butterfield was arguably our best player in the first half of the season, was he really captain material? Did he bark orders and grab the game by the scruff of the neck? Now, however, it seems the Reds may have found a potential solution in the signing of Leyton Orient captain Stephen Dawson.

Dawson plays as a box-to-box midfielder, grafting for the 90 minutes and aiming to grab the game by the scruff of the neck. His rugged appearance would certainly suggest that he is a ‘grafter’, but does he have the credentials to lead a team? The answer will obviously come in due course, however if you ask any Leyton Orient fan, it would appear that we’ve nicked their best player, a player that will be a big loss to Russell Slade’s side.

It appears that mental strength is the only thing stopping Keith Hill’s side from being a great side rather than ‘just’ a good side. However, Reds fans must remember we have one of the youngest squads in the division, many of which with little or no experience in what is a very difficult Championship this season. We’ve got some good results against ‘the big boys’ and fans need to remember that HillCroft are in a process of building down at Oakwell. I would consistently expect inconsistency this season, but fans also need to remember how worried some were that this season could have been our last in the Championship. While we’re not mathematically safe, we’re on 39 points, and 15 off the bottom 3, a very healthy position at the start of February. Let’s enjoy the wins, and not over-react to the losses. No doubt we’ll have some good results and some poor, but surely it’s part and parcel of any team in this division, and boy do Barnsley fans know about it.
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Anonymous said...

Hassle, disappointing, really?