After 16 changes in the summer, the Stevenage fans were left in limbo. The team we knew was gone and we didn’t know what to expect. I set my stall out early, claiming we’d finish mid-table but that I’d have been happy with a season that saw us finishing anywhere outside of the bottom four. However, here we are, sitting in the play off positions having tasted the dizzy heights of second place.
Up until a few weeks ago we were neck and neck with Tranmere and separated only by goal difference. OK, our recent results have led to a bit of panic in the ranks and we’ve slipped a few places. But for us to be approaching Christmas in the play off places is remarkable.
The most intriguing thing about the season so far though is that, despite our current position, we haven’t actually played that well yet. We’ve played some wonderful football in sections of games, but we’ve also seen that countered by a defensive frailty not seen in a Stevenage side for many years.
Of course, this is only to be expected when the regular back five is broken up. Our left and right back positions have been taken up by new faces, influential centre back Jon Ashton is out injured and long term number one Chris Day has been relegated to the bench following the emergence of Steve Arnold between the sticks.
The defensive organisation is something that needs to be sorted quickly, as the last few weeks have seen us concede four goals at home twice (Swindon, Preston); four goals away at Sheffield United; and three away at Rotherham, where we were unceremoniously dumped out the FA Cup at the first time of asking. This has led to many questioning how good this side is, what they can achieve and whether our current position is actually a bit of a fluke.
A point away at form side Bournemouth has gone some way to allay these fears, but with Tranmere as our next test, we won’t have any time to dwell.
With Jon Ashton seemingly close to returning and summer signing Lee Hills back to fitness and well in contention to become our first choice left back, I’m quietly confident our defensive issues will be sorted so that our midfield can concentrate more on supporting our rather isolated lone striker, Marcus Haber.
There is a lot of creativity available across the midfield with Greg Tansey, Filipe Morais,Lucas Akins, Luke Freeman and Robin Shroot all capable of unlocking defences, but manager Gary Smith needs to work out how to best utilise them all.
Morais has been deployed largely as a winger with little impact, but when he’s had a chance to sit in the hole behind the striker, he has been a revelation. For me, Greg Tansey is finding himself dragged too deep. When he has performed, he’s kept play ticking over beautifully and scored some stunning goals, but he is prone to going missing too often.
Lucas Akins has arguably been the pick of our attacking bunch so far with some fantastic performances down the right wing. His pace and power have been a nuisance for many a left back already and hopefully he’ll continue that for the rest of the season.
As for Shroot and Freeman, it’s been a frustrating season for both. Freeman was last season’s star for us but this season his impact has been limited to a handful of sub appearances. I’m not sure if he’s lacking confidence or whether he’s just been found out when teams double or even triple up on him. And while he has the ability to beat them all, his final ball has been lacking.
As for Shroot, he’s joint top scorer having come off the bench a number of times early in the season to rescue points when the game has looked dead. For one reason or anotheras the season has worn on, however, he’s not been getting much game time.
So, despite looking to the outside world that it’s the same old Stevenage sitting in an elevated position and punching above their weight, it’s anything but. I think we’ve shown enough times already this season that we’re more than good enough to maintain a push for promotion but we need to show it far more consistently.
We’ve got a good group of players who came racing out of the blocks but no one would argue we’ve been lucky at times to scrape points out of games when we didn’t deserve them. We’ve had a tough run of fixtures against some teams who - on the day - were far superior to us and we’ve come unstuck.
It’s going to take a bit of mental strength and some clever management to make sure it doesn’t affect us too much and wreck the wonderful start we made. I honestly think that because these heavy defeats have occurred in quick succession, things seem worse than they are. If they’d have been spread evenly across the whole of the season and we were still sitting fifth, no one would bat an eyelid.
I fully expect us to get over this and have a real strong second half to the season.
Written by Mark Hollis, We Are Going Up’s Stevenage blogger
Mark tweets at @HollisMark