A little less than a month ago, approximately 500 hardy Dons fans descended on Southend United’s anachronistic Roots Hall ground on a bitter Tuesday evening expecting not very much at all, writes IAIN SANDFORD.
The Shrimpers (got to love that nickname) were after all a side who had routinely turned us over in our three previous League 2 encounters, were packed full of the kind of combative players who knew how to get results at this level and were managed by a specialist lower league manager (the admirable Paul Sturrock) whose achievements with a variety of clubs have been criminally unsung.
Despite a cautiously optimistic first 30 minutes, we gave away our habitual soft goal courtesy of a penalty following a handball from Pim Balkestein so crassly blatant that you suspected he had been studying the videos of John Fashanu’s ‘unusual’ Harlem Globetrotters cameo of 22 years ago vs Sheffield United at Plough Lane.
Yet, against all expectation, something strange happened. As if it wasn’t enough to quickly respond with our second headed goal from a corner since 2006, the intrinsically cautious Neal Ardley replaced the by then ailing Balkestein with a striker in Jack Midson.
The second half performance was eye opening. With two sprightly, talented wide players feeding our ‘up for it’ front pairing, our boys took the game to a bewildered Southend, scored two good goals and frankly should have further reduced our albatross of a goal difference by a couple more. It was a stirring, stunning performance and many felt they were finally witnessing the Ardley blueprint.
Sadly it can now be rationally considered a one-off. True enough we have since notched a fortuitous victory against Aldershot and a workmanlike three points against Morecambe but we have not re-created the fearless, attacking football of that Tuesday night on the Essex Riviera. All of which wouldn’t be a problem if we were still accruing a steady supply of points. But of course we’re not.
One of my more tragic quirks is my monthly rolling subscription to Dons Player where there are usually two or three interviews every week with our articulate and likeable young manager.
Watching these exchanges, you can soon get a good insight into Neal Ardley’s approach to football management. It is thoughtful, well considered and studious and I have no doubt that he will in time be rewarded for this diligence with a successful managerial career.
But now is not the time for talk of our players’ lactic acid balances or recovery thresholds which tend to feature regularly in these interviews. In fact, given the context of our current situation, I will be frankly annoyed if I hear this kind of talk in the coming three weeks from our manager.
We have just recorded a trilogy of 1-0 defeats and are staring down the barrel of an ignominious relegation. We have three games remaining to rescue our Football League status and with it one of modern football’s most inspiring stories.
To survive, we have to do the basics. In this case, that doesn’t mean flooding the midfield or playing a high line or whatever particular mantra is currently in vogue. It means setting up a side capable of scoring goals. It means removing the tactics whiteboard from the dressing room, temporarily placing in storage the beloved coaching manuals and revisiting the kind of penetrating, attacking football that was demonstrated so wonderfully at Southend. With two wide men and two strikers please.
To do this, Neal Ardley must abandon, even if it is only temporarily, his current caution. If the last three games has shown anything, it is that we should not expect clean sheets to pull us out of trouble because we just don’t do them.
We have three games left. No more messing Neal. Attack and deliver.