October. The month of the year when cricketers head off for a well earned holiday before their closed season schedule really kicks in. For football and rugby, the season is starting to take shape, and in Gloucestershire, just about everybody looks to be batting on a sticky wicket.
Supporters are never shy of voicing their opinions if results are indifferent (or worse), and Forest Green Rovers have had the added burden of winning their opening match in the Skrill Premier 8-0. Such results raise expectations disproportionately. Tuesday’s 4-1 defeat at Kidderminster was their fifth in six matches, and Rovers find themselves 14th in the table. The angst among the fans appears greater here than anywhere else.
Manager Dave Hockaday took over in the autumn of 2009, and has been in charge for over 200 games. He had a relegation level budget until Dale Vince became Chairman a year later, and in 2011-12 Rovers made significant strides forward. The manager has been backed to the hilt since, assembling a squad of 26 players.
Now a collapse out of play off contention at the end of last season has been followed by a slide down the table after a firecracker of a start. Vince has publicly stated he’s at Rovers long term, but as a successful entrepeneur I suggest stagnation isn’t a word in his vocabulary. This is a time which will test his trust and loyalty in Hockaday – something a section of the club’s fans look to have lost.
Rovers ambition is to win promotion to League 2, where Cheltenham Town also find themselves in the wrong area of the table. Here too, it could be said that a manager who has built up a lot of credit is now having to draw on it.
Mark Yates was another 2009 appointment, and his 200th game at the helm will be against Rochdale on Saturday week. The corresponding weekend 10 years ago, Cheltenham also played Rochdale at home. They lost 2-0 and the manager resigned within minutes of the final whistle. I’m not suggesting this will happen again, but Yates needs a result or two.
The team, overhauled in the summer but with half a dozen fewer players than at Forest Green, still doesn’t look settled and the balance and recognisable formation from the past two seasons is a distant memory.
The next month, culminating with the 1st round of the FA Cup, is a time where he’ll have to find some answers or risk losing his place high up the list of long serving managers in the Football League. Only two men are currently above him.
Both teams have had their share of injuries, but then that is part and parcel of professional sport. Chetenham’s problem has been conceding too many goals. At Forest Green, Hockaday’s stance, until the “schoolboy” defending at Alfreton, was that Rovers don’t convert enough chances. At Gloucester Rugby, the issue is also about forward power, but in a different way.
Last weekend’s defeat by Exeter drew the same widespread observation from the national press – the Gloucester pack looked well short of what history tells us we should expect. True, unavailabilty has been a problem here too due to injuries and in the cases of Wood and Britton, suspensions.
However the stability needed to create a platform for the club’s lauded back division has been at best average and at worst, as two home defeats already will tell you, flaky. The Heinken Cup, where Gloucester face Perpignan on Saturday evening, doesn’t promise to be any easier.
The solution, with Nigel Davies still working with the bulk of the squad he inherited 16 months ago, may not come until he has the chance to make some decisions on contracts next summer.
I have no intimate knowledge of who earns what but perhaps the salary cap needs to be spent differently, with greater investment amongst those up front. Until then, it’s a question of trying to keep your most experienced operators fit for as much of the season as possible and seeing if they can play themselves back into form.
Across the various board rooms, there will be debate about recent results. In the club bars and in the stands, supporters will have those same conversations. There will be many and varied opinions about what can or should be done. I suspect there will be a direct relationship between results, patience and change.
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