Chris Lakey: King's Lynn Town proving football's generally about what's between the ears
I will hold my hands up now and admit, I haven't seen King's Lynn Town play this season - but I am heading into territory well-known to many keyboard warriors, and I am going to have my two penn'orth worth anyway.
A quick recap: Lynn sacked manager Simon Clark and his background team earlier this week after a less than convincing start to the season. A 2-2 draw at home to Histon in the FA Cup a week ago – courtesy of a late Linnets equaliser from Frazer Blake-Tracy – was perhaps the final straw for owner Stephen Cleeve, especially as fewer than 500 people turned up to watch.
Lynn headed to Histon for the replay on Tuesday and won 7-0. They were 6-0 up at half-time.
The fact the men in charge were Neil Fryatt and Robbie Back, who have yellow and blue blood, simply made it the perfect response to a failed plan – and probably answered, in the best possible way, the question ‘what’s gone wrong?’
What went wrong was that human nature got in the way of Clark’s master plan.
Success under his predecessor Ian Culverhouse was not always down to complicated tactics, about detailed scouting reports and working to instruction without putting a foot out of place. Culverhouse allowed the players to express themselves, to play football the way they liked to play it and the way spectators liked to watch it. From the first whistle, his teams grabbed games by the throat. He allowed them to make mistakes, he allowed them to play themselves into form, he didn’t have favourites – he just had a squad that listened to what he said and got on with it.
Culverhouse is a top class coach, but his strength is at The Walks was man management. He had the respect of his players and he defended them to the hilt: I cannot remember him ever being negative about a player, even off-the-record. It was, he said, all about the players. Not him.
Most of his players remain, but under Clark it seems life was a little different: no great surprise – different manager, different way of working. But did he know enough about what made those players tick? Did he truly know their strengths and how to extract them?
Why (and this is taken on second-hand information) did he not let them let off their attacking steam as they used to? Why were the full-backs not bombing on like they used to? Blake-Tracy and Cameron Norman were brilliant attacking full-backs last season. Norman went to Oxford United, but why shackle Blake-Tracy? Why not use the flanks like they used to?
The strengths, it seems, were ignored.
But, worse than that, is the way the players feel above the neck: football is won between the ears. They need to be mentally spot on. They need to be happy. They don’t want too much information to take on board.
I recall Clark’s post-match interviews in pre-season when it was already clear that things were changing: he spoke to us media chaps as if we were fellow coaches. His answers were littered with technical references. No soundbites, just stuff about transition and the like. And he made us wait longer than Glenn Roeder used to when he was Norwich City manager...
Then there’s the Harry Limb signing: the youngster chose Lynn, having been released by Burnley, and the club quite rightly made a big thing of it. On Tuesday he started his second game, and scored. Apparently, he hadn’t been ready. In a team struggling for goals, this talented striker wasn’t ready. I’m sorry, but that decision says it all. Suddenly, it wasn’t all about the players. Everyone was talking about the manager. And that isn’t always a good thing.
After Tuesday’s win, Back said: “It just goes to show with a bit of hard work and a bit of confidence you can put in a performance like that, we are a good football side. That’s nothing to do with me and Neil, it’s those players.”
Back, in a nutshell, had summed up last season and the start of this. The successes of one regime, and the failings of another.
So, what now? Cleeve isn’t scared to make a decision – he’s been around the block too many times for that. But Lynn fans expect an awful lot and he needs to deliver.
After Culverhouse, he surprised a few by not going for ‘a name’. He was convinced Clark’s coaching credentials would bring success. The theory isn’t invalid by any means, but it simply proves how difficult the next step is.
The picture of Angus Gunn sitting gloomily in the dug-out at Carrow Road watching, rather than playing for, England Under-21s, should be pinned to Gareth Southgate’s office door.
Gunn is a fine young keeper, doubtless considered by many as a natural inclusion in future tournament squads.
But while he is occupying a similar substitutes’ role at Southampton, it isn’t going to happen.
The England philosophy seems to be that if a player isn’t featuring at club level, then he won’t be featuring for England. Harsh, perhaps, but understandable. Southgate wants fit and in-form players, although the financial wallop of some of England’s biggest team means you can be one of the best players in Europe and still not be a regular starter.
Manchester City would win the Premier League and probably take runners-up spot as well if they were allowed to field two teams.
They have a young player called Phil Foden: he is quality. But his chances of appearing regularly in Pep Guardiola’s first team are limited. It isn’t Guardiola’s job – or City’s responsibility either – to develop England players.
“The landscape is what it is and I understand the difficulties club managers have,” said Southgate.
“They have to try to win matches. It is not as straightforward for Pep as: ‘Oh, I’ll just give Phil a game’.”
While Ruben Loftus-Cheek should be strutting his stuff for England, and getting used to the international stage, it was clear during the win over Switzerland on Tuesday that he was short of senior football. This is a player who should be a central figure: instead, he looks like a talented player with just something missing from his game. In this case, it is playing time now after Chelsea have decided not to allow him out on loan again. He’s played 33 minutes of Premier League football this season.
It all leaves Southgate in a difficult position.
The uncomfortable fact is that a man who breathed new life into the national team in the summer might never be able to name his first-choice team. And if that happens, how long will he want to remain England manager?