Sunday, February 25, 2007

Tiny chinks of light?

The victories over Southend and Luton were hardly history in the making, in fact they were positively laboured at times, but maybe, just maybe, they offered a couple of chinks of light at the end of a very dark tunnel to show us the way forward.

With Championship safety just about assured, the hopes of most fans now will be to see how the team shapes up for next season and beyond. In that respect, the recent introductions of Lewwis Spence, Lewis Grabban and Dave Martin can only be a good thing.

Many of us feel that this has been something of a wasted season. Palace Echo’s editorial before the Luton game questioned the direction, or lack of it, that on-field matters have been taking and for the most part we’ve all moaned, groaned and yawned through the stuttering performances and grim scorelines. It might have been easier to take if we’d felt that there was some purpose to it. Instead there have been doubts about the players brought in, an all round lack of pace and movement and even question marks over their passion (perhaps the most insulting accusation you can level at professional footballers). It all rubbed off on the crowd and contributed to a somewhat testy atmosphere.

It’s amazing how soon that mood can lift when you’re presented with a breath of fresh air like ‘Microwave Dave’ Martin (so named, apparently, because he blew up his microwave after putting tin foil in it). A bit of perspective is needed here, he only had 30 minutes to make an impression and he is stepping up a long way from Ryman League Dartford, but his pace, willingness to get stuck in and ability to put in a testing cross endeared him immediately to the fans. At just 20, he’s exactly the kind of player we’ve been crying out for and, at the start of what will hopefully be a swiftly rising career, he already looks the type to lift the spirits.

Meanwhile the two Lewises, although not sharing the same number of Ws, have made encouraging if extremely brief appearances. To make any kind of judgement on them yet would be ridiculous, but at least they’re coming through.

Concern over Peter Taylor’s judgement in the transfer market has also lifted slightly in recent weeks given the improved form of Leon Cort and Carl Fletcher and the mostly positive contribution of Paul Ifill (although his injury record is a worry). If Taylor can find three or four more like them in the summer and blend them with players from the youth set up then maybe he will be onto something.

For that to happen, most fans still believe we need a significant clear out and that may see the end of some big names. Chief among these could be Michael Hughes and Dougie Freedman, two heroes whose time may just about be up. If the end is near for them it will be a sad day, but perhaps a necessary one.

Working through the team, we still have goalkeeping issues with doubts over Gabor Kiraly’s future, while Julian Speroni and Scott Flinders remain untested over any length of time.

The full backs are also a worry. Another youngster, Rhoys Wiggins, has been ruled out all season and we don’t know whether he will make it. Gary Borrowdale has just completed his 100th appearance and has still yet to totally cement his place or convince us that he can maintain any kind of high level performance. Danny Granville, another ageing and injury hit hero, is rumoured to be on his way out and neither of the two right backs Danny Butterfield or Matt Lawrence have been totally convincing. In central defence Hudson and Ward along with Cort have all been okay without being completely reliable and they all lack pace.

The midfield, a long-standing problem area, may be taking shape at last with Martin and Ifill’s arrival giving us credible options on the flanks. Jobi McAnuff has been in and out of the team and on and off form but he will need to produce more if he’s not to lose his place. Centrally it looks like we just need to find the right partner for Carl Fletcher, who is beginning to show why he was so well thought of by West Ham fans. Tom Soares, always a better bet as a centre-mid rather than a flank player, looks a possible for the pace and power option but Ben Watson has had a season to forget and few fans have a good word to say about Mark Kennedy’s leaden contributions.

Major problems lay up front. Clinton Morrison’s goals against Luton showed the kind of finishing of which he is capable, but most of this season has been frustrating for him and us. There hasn’t been much sign of understanding with Jamie Scowcroft, who despite hard work and some good touches simply doesn’t score enough goals. Shefki Kuqi is all over the place; occasionally a menace to opponents, his first touch is often dire and he’s as likely to lash one into row Z as into the top corner of the net. Can we rely on him? A very big question. Then there’s Dougie, a much loved legend, still a gifted footballer and perhaps our most intelligent player, but the legs don’t seem to take him away from players like they used to and the goals have dried up.

Before Christmas many of us were saying that there seemed to be no improvement in this team. Maybe that’s less true now, we’ve got three or four experienced players who look like they could flourish in a good side, we’ve got three or maybe four youngsters who might come through in the next year or so, and we’ve got a proven finisher if he can rediscover his old sparkle. Somewhere slightly further back in the production line is a crop of players such as Victor Moses and James Dayton who may also have a big part to play in our brighter tomorrows.

The big question is do we give Peter Taylor time to continue ‘rebuilding’? There are two significant aspects to this. First, do we trust him to spend what might be not all that much remaining money wisely? That’s a tough call as you could point to Martin, Ifill, Fletcher and perhaps Cort and Stuart Green and say ‘yes, that’s not bad going’, while on the other hand you could point to Kuqi, Scowcroft, Kennedy, Flinders and Lawrence and say ‘no way, he’ll waste it’. The second consideration is one of tactics and motivation. You could argue that we’ve become harder to beat, but there are genuine concerns over our lack of pace and mind-numbing negativity. Sitting back on slender leads and the everyone back at corners routine, not to mention perhaps the most mind-numbingly over-cautious approach to away matches ever, are not appreciated.

Yes, we got ‘good’ points at Preston, Cardiff, Sunderland, Southampton and Wolves, but we probably didn’t create more than half a dozen chances in all those games put together. If we’d gone for it and won two and lost three of them we’d have had more points. People often talk up the Championship, but it’s rare to find a genuinely good team in it and Palace this season seem to have shown some sides a ludicrous amount of respect, to the extent of never daring to leave our own half. If you go out and put teams on the back foot in this division you have every chance of beating them, if you sit back hoping merely to hang on the reverse will be true.

On balance, though, perhaps Taylor has done just about enough to be given a little longer. If Simon Jordan agrees, what would most of us want to see from him for the rest of the season and the summer? Certainly he should take a longer look at the emerging talent, certainly introduce more of an attacking impetus – it would be quite nice to actually score a few goals before half time and one or two high scoring games might brighten up what promises to be an otherwise gloomy end of season DVD. In the summer he needs to try to clear out as much dead wood as possible (the recent removal of Marco Reich and John Macken from the payroll may also be considered plus points) and slim the squad down. As for incoming targets, let’s forget the ‘been there sort of done it but not capable of doing it again’ journeymen and see if there’s any more where Dave Martin came from.

Ultimately, we could be looking at clearing out a lot of players. Are Julian Speroni, Matt Lawrence, Danny Butterfield, Danny Granville, Mark Kennedy, Tommy Black and James Scowcroft really worth keeping? What about Gabor Kiraly, Scott Flinders, Darren Ward, Gary Borrowdale, Ben Watson, Dougie Freedman and Shefki Kuqi? That’s 14 players and it’s difficult to imagine them all leaving in one fell swoop, but you could argue that a good number of them are not what we need long term.

Coming in, we may be looking for at least one keeper, right and left backs, possibly a pacy central defender, a centre midfielder to work with Fletcher and two, maybe even three strikers, although if we’re fortunate one of those may turn out to be Grabban.

The current team is a long way from being capable of anything more than mid-table mediocrity, its transformation will be a real challenge. Some fans seem to think next season will see us return to our old promotion challenging ways, but what they’re basing this on is difficult to pinpoint.
Most of us just want to see the manager and club heading in the right direction and trying to take a coherent approach. A big part of that is to establish some kind of stability, but Taylor still has a lot of work to do to convince fans that he is the right man for the job in the first place. The summer ins and outs will be very interesting.

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