David Cameron Walker

Posts Tagged ‘Gary Mills’

Is all well that ends well?

Wednesday, May 1st, 2013

It’s odd what difference a couple of months make.

In early March, seventeenth place and four points above the relegation zone is cause for panic and a sacking. By late April, seventeenth place and four points above the relegation zone became apparent cause for celebration.

York survived at the end of their first season back in league football after eight years away. Needing a point away at Dagenham on the final day, they won 1-0. Job done, priority number one achieved. It was always in their own hands given the fixtures in the run-in, but credit is due. A few weeks ago, it looked like the best hope was to be marginally less rubbish than a couple of sides in a similar position, but while others could scrape a few points together, the last couple of weeks saw York turn into something like a model of consistency, stringing three straight wins together to pull away from danger.

So all’s well that ends well then? In issue zero of The Blizzard, Sid Lowe interviewed Juanma Lillo, the coaching guru who was so much the mentor and inspiration to Pep Guardiola. It’s a wonderful interview, a rich, wide-ranging piece that covers vast swathes of territory (Issue zero still available in digital formats at The Blizzard’s website – http://www.theblizzard.co.uk/product/issue-zero-digital-download/ – and worth it for that article, let alone the rest of it). One of the key passages I took away from it followed the question “Are we wrong to judge the process based on results, even though the process intends to achieve the result?”

“Human beings tend to venerate what finished well, not what was done well. We attack what ended up badly, not what was done badly. The media does that. And beyond the possibility that maybe you don’t have the capacity to judge whether the methodological process is the correct one, it’s flawed to judge on those grounds.”

At no point have processes been given due consideration at York. Win games, it’s all rosy. Lose games, the sky is falling in on our heads. For weeks towards the end of the Gary Mills reign, voices in the crowd were urging “just lump it” and “get a big man up front”. In the games against Accrington and Southend recently, similar voices were insisting that we “get it on the floor and bloody pass it”. For the last ten games, York have been more direct, playing low-percentage football but doing enough to garner the points that have ensured survival. It ought to be something to if not celebrate, then at least be pleased about. It doesn’t feel that way and that’s because it all feels so aimless, on and off the field. What is the plan? I do not wish to venerate what finished well when I don’t believe in the process behind it.

The planning for next season appears to have begun in earnest, but the whole thing is rather confused. First, we were told that Jason Walker was first out of the door with Matty Blair thought to be close behind. Then we get news that the board are in discussions with Nigel Worthington over continuing as manager before Worthington announcing the retained list. If he’s not actually signed on for next season, who is making these decisions? How can any plan be made until you have someone with a plan to implement? It’s all a bit muddled and hardly sounds like the start of an era of doing things well, of getting the processes right as Lillo insists.

Walker leaving looks significant. A diminutive front-man, he immediately looked on the outer once Worthington arrived. He’s a fair leap on him, but was always at a disadvantage when competing for long, high balls forward. His strengths lie in linking play with his back to goal, receiving the ball to feet and bringing others in. That’s clearly not going to be the case from here. See also Blair, Paddy McLaughlin and Scott Kerr; midfielders who like to knock it around on the deck. Down with that sort of thing. That the last vestiges of Millsology are the first things to be abandoned marks a definite full stop at the end of a chapter.

It appears to be the end of ambition at the club. Maybe that’s realistic. After all, the vast majority of the club’s history has been in the bottom division, and more often than not near the bottom of that. Financially, we remain a minnow in the division. Maybe it’s enough just to survive at this level, to be just like every other small, northern club. Maybe we’ve got to forget everything, accept where we are and that it’s so unlikely that we’d ever do well any higher up so what’s the point in trying. Maybe we’re not a club big enough to listen to the likes of Juanma Lillo and it’s only the outcome that’s important and not the process that delivers it.

The end of ambition, that is, of playing progressive football. When Worthington was appointed, however, chairman Jason McGill spoke of exactly that. “I’m sure all the fans will think this is a great coup for the club, and shows our ambition”, he told local news. Well, perhaps. After all, Worthington has coached in the Premier League, at international level. And yet, as Tor-Kristian Karlsen – a man who has been a scout, chief executive and sporting director at clubs around Europe – wrote in the Guardian (http://www.guardian.co.uk/football/blog/2013/apr/03/paolo-di-canio-sunderland-manager-research) in April, “The reasoning rarely goes beyond “he did a good job at x, so let’s have him”. Rush, panic, lack of preparation and poor advice eventually lead to equally unfortunate sporting consequences.” Like Lillo, Karlsen suggests that there’s a process to be applied here in the same way as there is on the playing side. The ambition in this instance seems to be more about employing someone whose CV has ostensibly impressive-sounding entries on it rather than assessing the next step and appointing appropriately on that basis and in terms of the resources available.

Maybe we’ve got to learn to love the hoof, clap if it works, shrug if it doesn’t and apply no critical thinking to the methodology – or lack thereof – behind it. Maybe we’ve got no choice, but it is my fundamental belief that if the answer is Nigel Worthington and the style of football we’ve seen from him so far, then the question is flawed.

Written by John Dobson, We Are Going Up’s York City Blogger

John tweets at @johnnydobbo

 

Winter of (some) discontent in the House of York

Wednesday, February 6th, 2013

Nobody wants to lose 4-1 at home. Nobody plans to – Europol investigation notwithstanding – and nobody goes out with that intention in mind, but it can and does happen and there are generally reasons for it. The problem is that in the febrile and fickle world of the football supporter, where half a dozen clubs have offed their manager in the space of a couple of weeks, calls for a change at the top are often the first resort of the disgruntled fan.

Unfortunately, York City did lose 4-1 at home last Saturday. It wasn’t pleasant and the grumbling began instantly, in the ground, on the radio and online. Gary Mills has lost the plot, apparently, and if City are to prevent an early return to the Conference then he has to go. That seems to be the prevailing opinion expressed by a noisy minority. It’s also rubbish.

City actually started pretty well at the weekend, but went behind in the 23rd minute, Kevin Ellison nodding down a right-wing cross for Lewis Alessandra to sweep home. City stuck to their game plan and were level five minutes later from the penalty spot after a foul given for holding at a corner. And from there on, there appeared little danger to the City goal. Trouble is, there’s not a huge amount of danger at the other end. With quarter of an hour to go, a hopeful ball down the channels should have been easy for City keeper Michael Ingham to deal with. Instead, he missed his attempted clearance and allowed Ellison to nip in and restore Morecambe’s lead. With time ticking down, City launched everything forward with the almost inevitable consequence of leaving themselves wide open at the back. Against a decent counter-attacking side like Morecambe, it was a gamble and one that didn’t pay off. Twice in the last few minutes, they broke the City siege and found nobody at home and, twice, substitute Jack Redshaw profited with goals.

Taken purely as a result, it is of course dispiriting, but the nature of the defeat was not in any way indicative of structural flaws in the way City go about their football. You can’t legislate for a goalkeeping brain-fart, especially from one of the better keepers in the division, and the two late goals were always going to be at least a possibility when everybody else was up at the other end of the field. The team is short of goals, this is clear. Ashley Chambers hasn’t played since October, but still sits second on the goal-scoring charts – one behind Jason Walker – and fellow forward Michael Coulson, who had a great start to the season, damaged knee ligaments in September and is out for most, if not all, of the rest of the season. Alex Rodman came in on loan from Aldershot to fill in on the left side of the front three and it would be fair to say he’s not been a resounding success, but to heap blame on the forwards alone is to miss the point.

Defensive pragmatism blunted the attacking intent of the full-backs which, in a 4-3-3 system, is absolutely crucial. The result has been a dearth of chances created and while the forwards haven’t been converting too many, they’re largely feeding on scraps and it’s difficult to be over-critical. Steps have been taken to improve the supply lines by getting Curtis Obeng in on loan from Swansea to play at right-back, but the hunt for a left-back during January proved fruitless. There appears to be money there to bring players in, particularly after moving other players on, but City are still operating on a budget that even by League 2 standards cannot be regarded as anything other than small.

Recruitment in the summer wasn’t huge either and this was understandable. Over the previous couple of seasons, a winning mentality had been cultivated and the group of players that got out of the Conference got first chance to consolidate the club back in the Football League. It not only seemed fair, but also the right thing to do. However, for a lot of those players, this is their first experience of league football. Perhaps the pace is getting to them. Perhaps other teams, now that there’s a lot more footage available, have been able to work City out a bit more than was happening in the division below.

Either way, it’s more a series of minor things that just aren’t quite coming together rather than something that indicates the need for fundamental and structural change. It’s not a time to get rid of the gameplan – despite plenty of calls for a big lump of a striker to chuck on up front and reverting to a 1970s lump-it-and-hope, low-percentage brand of football that’s best left in the distant past, the brand of football that got us relegated out of the league in the first place – or the manager. When the loan window opens there may need to be personnel changes and Gary Mills remains the man to do that and to see City into the mid-table obscurity that everyone at the club would have bitten your arm off for five years ago.

Feel free to disagree, but you’re wrong.

Written by John Dobson, We Are Going Up’s York City Blogger

John tweets at @johnnydobbo

Great Expectations

Monday, November 12th, 2012

Seven years and eleven months ago, York City were about to embark on a run of twenty league games of which they won precisely none of them. That is relegation form in anyone’s book and, lo, it came to pass.

Promoted out of the Conference playing attractive football and with the manager’s preference for a 4-3-3, you’d think that would appease fans, even if it wasn’t quite working. But no. This is football after all with all the fickleness that implies.

On Saturday, York were poor against an AFC Wimbledon side that has found this season a bit of a struggle so far. The first half was grim as neither side got going and it was, consequently, one of the dullest 45 minutes of football you’re likely to see. At least, we consoled ourselves during the interval, we can’t possibly play as badly in the second half. Oh, but we could.

A hopeful ball over the top caught the defence flat-footed and allowed Byron Harrison to open the scoring. Stacy Long added a second with ten minutes to go which sealed the win, so unlikely were York to get back on terms at that stage, before Jack Midson added a third from the penalty spot in the dying moments after skipper Chris Smith caught Charlie Strutton’s heels when clean through on goal. Wimbledon might have added more misery with Michael Ingham making one great save and Strutton somehow managing to clear the crossbar with a downward header that looped up and into the visting fans behind the goal. There weren’t so many of the home fans left inside Bootham Crescent to see it.

Home form hasn’t been good with just two wins from nine so far compared with just one defeat on the road. As such, the majority of the support are a bit starved of winning football this season. Add in that a significant number of the support this season didn’t see us over the last eight years in non-league football – crowds last season were around the 2500 mark compared to nearly 4000 so far this term. Comments around the ground that I heard laid the blame on “too much passing” and the remedy identified as “stop all this tippy-tappy nonsense”. This is patently ridiculous, of course.

The manager, Gary Mills, has clearly heard and/or seen some of the same things as in the local paper, he’s quoted as saying “Why would I change a formation that has won us lots of games and got us promoted?” which is a germane argument, one I also subscribe to. He went on to say “I’ve never heard such rubbish if people want us to change because we’ve lost one game of football. Over the last 12 months, the system has seen us play entertaining football and made us hard to beat. Saturday was our first defeat in seven games and the first time we haven’t created a lot of chances, but that doesn’t make us a bad team or me a bad manager. I got boos because we lost one game. I’m glad I wasn’t here when the team was losing every week before I was manager. It must have been horrendous.” Again, it is nigh-on impossible to disagree.

Mills has been a breath of fresh air at the club. Since relegation to the fourth tier back in 1999, the club really wasn’t going anywhere. It wasn’t until Martin Foyle arrived in November 2008 and started the enormous task of turning a failing club round that we’ve had anything like optimism on the terraces.

I started watching the club 30 years ago. It was a good time to get started as, a couple of years later, Denis Smith’s swashbuckling side scored 96 goals and won Division Four with a then-record 101 points, the first club to break three figures. The football was excellent and, though I didn’t realise at the time, I was being spoiled rotten. Bobby Saxton’s disastrous reign and relegation back to the bottom tier four years later was something of a reality check, but there was another peak in the mid-1990s with a first ever Wembley appearance and promotion after a penalty shoot-out against Crewe. League Cup wins over Manchester United and Everton followed which certainly gave the club a boost in publicity terms, but we quickly reverted to type. What I’m saying here is that for perhaps 22 of the 30 years I’ve been watching the club, we’ve not been up to much. For the last two years, however, that has not been the case.

Under Mills, we play nice stuff. We try to play football. It’s attractive, entertaining and clearly gets people through the gates. It’s good to watch and while no system is a panacea – ask Barcelona about their loss at Parkhead recently – playing the way we do will ensure we will win more games than we lose. No it won’t work every time and clearly didn’t against Wimbledon, but if you take even half a step back and see what is being attempted, then it shouldn’t be too hard to shrug off that defeat and look to the next game (that next game being a Cup replay against… AFC Wimbledon on the evening of the day I write this). People suggesting otherwise either have short memories or didn’t see us under Saxton or Colin Walker or Chris Brass. Now is not a time to panic and throw away everything the last two years have brought us.

The system, the plan is not the thing that’s at fault and hiring a big lump of a centre forward, reverting to two banks of four and hoofing it long is not the remedy. The remedy is to keep plugging away at what we’re doing. Clearly some players are struggling for a bit of form and there may need to be some personnel changes, but it’s tinkering in the margins rather than wholesale changes that are required.

As a support-base, we’ve long had a reputation for negativity – hardly surprising when most of the time we’re rubbish – but for the first time in 15 years we’ve got a manager worth believing in. It would be a disaster for the football club if chelping about his ideas on playing the game were to drive him away. In Mills I still trust.

Written by John Dobson, We Are Going Up’s York City Blogger

John tweets at @johnnydobbo

Grading York against the ten-game test

Friday, October 5th, 2012

Ten games, it is often said, is when you judge a campaign. Well that’s how many York City have played in their first season back in the Football League after ending their eight-year absence by beating Luton at Wembley in the Conference play-off final back in May. City sit 14th after those ten games – won three, drawn four, lost three with a zero goal difference; about as neutral as it’s possible to get. Inconsistency has been the watchword so far.

Manager Gary Mills is a week away from marking two years with the club and since his arrival the team’s style has been based around passing football, quick pressing without the ball and a very definite 4-3-3 shape. This isn’t a 4-5-1 masquerading as an attacking line-up – it’s a genuine three up top based around key man Jason Walker, who cost a princely £60,000 from Luton, through the middle.

Walker has taken some criticism from fans for not being prolific, but that’s to misunderstand his role. Yes he’s a goalscorer, but so much more than that. As the fulcrum of the attack, it’s up to him to hold it and bring others into play and also to drag defenders out of position – out wide or further forward than they’d ideally wish to be. It’s telling that the wider men in the front three – most notably Ashley Chambers and Michael Coulson – are profiting from the work Walker does with half the team’s goals between them.

The problem lies deeper than that. Goals conceded were a major problem, even in games that didn’t end in defeat. Just a couple of weeks ago, the only sides with a higher number in the A column were right down at the bottom end of the table. Injuries were partly to blame, and the relatively high-profile signing of Clarke Carlisle followed as a result and he was thrown straight in. With little football under his belt, he had a shaky start, but grew into games alongside the dependable Chris Smith. Carlisle has been found out in terms of pace on occasion and the return to fitness of Chris Doig has seen the former Countdown champion relegated to the bench.

Despite the recent defensive improvement there is still a feeling of fragility at the back. That improvement, though, has come at a cost. In a 4-3-3, it’s the full-backs that need to provide the width and in trying to stop leaking goals, their attacking instincts have been curbed somewhat. It’s a difficult balancing act that Mills is still trying to get right. Last season, it was an easier act to balance with James Meredith deployed at left-back. He was ideal in the role, but left the club for Bradford after his contract came to an end. He’s not been replaced with another attack-minded player, someone who is going to go beyond the last defender and deliver into the box. Moreover, one of the midfield three has been tasked solely with providing a screen in front of the back four and that man has been former Wales U21 international Danny Parslow, a centre-back by trade. While he does the job he’s been given to the best of his abilities, he’s not the most dynamic of operators in that area and the return of club captain Scott Kerr, who would normally assume those duties while also offering more going forward, cannot come soon enough. Kerr missed the run-in last season after suffering a cruciate ligament injury and is due to come back shortly.

As it stands, it’s fairly clear that City are not going up this season. Neither are they going to be in relegation trouble. And that’s absolutely fine. It’s the first season back, the club might be stable but isn’t exactly over-flowing with cash and consolidation is not an ugly word or concept. The system works, by and large, and the football is entertaining, as evidenced by the encouraging numbers coming through the turnstiles every week. With key players – primarily Kerr and long-serving centre-back Dave McGurk – to come back from long-term injury, things look OK. Find those elusive marauding full-backs – and convince them that the Minster city is the place for them – and it’ll look positively rosy.

So ten games in, York are doing OK – nothing more, nothing less. Thirty-six games from now, if they’re in the same position as they are now, that will be absolutely fine. This season is about re-establishing the club as a Football League side and anything more than that is a bonus. Besides, after last season’s double trip to Wembley, a little bit of mid-table mediocrity might make for a nice change of pace.

Written by John Dobson, We Are Going Up’s York City Blogger

John tweets at @johnnydobbo