That’s probably it then isn’t it? League One it’s been fun whilst it lasted. Whilst we’re not mathematically down yet, Saturday’s defeat and the nature of it pretty much confirmed it in all but the most optimistic of U’s fans.
I’m not going to dig Bonner out over it – I’ve made my position pretty clear in recent weeks, and the board have made theirs clearer still, so there’s no point even discussing whether a change of manager will bring the upturn in results we need.
Instead let’s look at some of the things that have got us into this mess – you can complain about Bonner’s apparent inflexibility, but that would be unfair – he’s tried a number of different formations this season yet for whatever reason none of them have worked out, so it’s something deeper than whether or not we line up 5-3-1-1 or 4-4-2.
You can complain about the Rotherham situation upsetting players and the harmony at the club, but we weren’t exactly on a good run before that, and I can’t believe it’s had that much of an impact on the squad. You can complain about the small squad, but Mark added five new players in January, our busiest January window in recent campaigns.
So what is it? There’s a few things for me. Firstly, we haven’t utilised the loan market this year. Fair enough, Mark would prefer to keep a close-knit squad of players who buy in to United, and you could argue that a loanee would only have kept the likes of Simper and Worman out of the squad, so there’s definitely that consideration. But last season we had Jensen Weir in, and didn’t give him as much game time as he wanted so he ended up at Morecambe this season, where despite their struggles he’s impressed. The season before we bought in Boateng when he was needed, the year before that Jack Roles and a certain Paul Mullin came in and brought goals to a team in short supply. We’ve not even entertained the loan market this year, and in hindsight that’s been a massive mistake.
What else? Singings. Haunstrup, Okenabirhie, Thomas – all suffering long-term injuries this season. One or two you can put down to bad luck, but Okenabirhie and Thomas both had massive question marks over them. It was a gamble, plain and simple, and one that hasn’t paid off. Saikou Janneh was scouted for the past three seasons, yet was so shite we loaned him out to AFC Wimbledon after just ten league appearances. Jack Iredale wasn’t properly replaced, Wes Hoolahan for whatever reason wasn’t retained or replaced. Even though he’s pushing forty and might have only made a handful of appearances this year his experience would have been priceless this season. Ask yourself: Would you rather have got ten games out of Janneh or Wes this season?
You could also argue that as a club, are we actually ready for League One? Maybe promotion came too soon in Bonner’s tenure here. An extraordinary result in an extraordinary season. The training ground is now getting massive investment, which is much needed so kudos to the board for that, but it’s clear from the way Mark has spoken that we’ve missed out on targets in the past due to the facilities here. We also don’t pay good wages for the Division. This is a difficult one, because no-one wants to see the kind of profligate spending that’s bought trouble to the club in the past, but when you take into account the differences in crowds between League One and League Two, and the associated income then there has to be an argument to dip into the pockets a bit more often for the right player. When you see the kind of money even similarly sized bottom-third-of-League One clubs are spending then it’s clear we’re being left behind. We haven’t even come close to breaking our transfer record since 1993, there can’t be many other clubs in the 92 that have that kind of record. Our stadium, our catchment area (as great as our fanbase is, we’ll always struggle against the likes of Spurs, Arsenal and West Ham all being an hour or so away, not to mention having Britains most successful club Ipswich Town being just down the A14), our finances, let’s be brutally honest here – are all not League One standard.
There’s things this club are great at: Our fans travel in great number (our attendance at MK Dons was the third or fourth biggest away crowd in the EFL this weekend) and are as passionate as they come. Our community work is second to none, and rightfully wins awards for the work it does. Our owner, and manager, both fans of the club, despite their faults you can’t knock them for that. Our CEO, a few mis-steps here and there but on the whole communicates with the fans much better than the majority of people we’ve had doing that role in the past. But maybe for now, until the training ground is sorted, until we see some kind of meaningful redevelopment of the Abbey, until some kind benefactor adds another couple of million to the club coffers, maybe it’s time to admit that we are what we are, a League Two club punching above it’s weight for the time being?
Anyway. This is meant to be a match report, so here we go: The fans were great, the ref was shite, Lankesters goal should have stood, Eisa’s free kick was soft, they were bad, we were worse, Bonner should have come over and clapped the fans at the end, but didn’t, and that’s pretty unforgivable. I hope they don’t come down with us so we don’t have to go back there again as we never bloody win there.
Man of the Match: I dunno, Liam O’Neil? Did alright when he came on. No one covered themselves in glory really.
Soundtrack of the Match: Crowded House – Don’t Dream It’s Over
The painfully sad thing is that it wasn’t that hard to avoid relegation this season and I think we would’ve done that if Bonner/Strang/Barry hadn’t somehow concluded that, despite being one of the lowest scorers in English football since the start of September, we only really needed to worry about sorting out our defence in January and we’d be able to get away with not boosting our attacking options.
Time will tell if I’m right but I think staying in League One this season will prove to have been much easier than trying to get back into it next season.
You only have to look at where the four teams who went down from League One are in League Two at the moment to get an idea of how hard we will find life in the division below next season.
We were outplayed by Grimsby in the cup and they’re 16th!
The MK Dons and Forest Green will splash the cash next season, as will Wrexham, Notts County and the clubs who miss out on promotion to League One, so the standard in League Two will probably be even higher next season.
Sadly for us, we won’t be splashing the cash because what little money we have is needed for the training ground and improvements to the stadium.
I’ve seen some argue that, with everyone fit and with a few of our best youngsters added to the team, we will do well in League Two but are our better first-team players really going to stick around?
Also, it’s very fanciful to think our best youngsters will be here long enough to establish themselves in our first-team.
You may think I’m being too pessimistic but this is how I see it:
If we’d been playing in League Two this season, I think we would’ve been in a similar position to our FA Cup conquerors Grimsby, i.e lower mid-table.
Given that League Two will probably be tougher next season and, unless a decent amount of money is unexpectedly added to the transfer budget, we will definitely have a worse squad next season, I can’t see how we can possibly think about getting promoted next season and I really think a relegation battle could be on the cards, especially if we don’t have a good start to the season and Barry remains loyal to Bonner for too long.