A bump in the road for National League big guns

The midweek National League results have shown that despite most teams having played 12 or 13 games the division is showing no signs of settling down yet.

Just when you think a team is off and on a run, a defeat crops up and usually one that’s unexpected, not too handy if you’ve got an accumulator going on it’s a good job it’s only a pound each week!

At the beginning of the season I reckoned that around fourteen of the twenty-three teams felt they would have a chance of either a shot at the title or the play-off places. Around half of those teams would say they’ve under achieved so far but with time to turn things around with a mini-run of results.

Two of these who have spent a heck of a lot of money in Stockport and Wrexham suffered defeats midweek as did the league leaders Grimsby Town. County’s loss meant the end of the road for Simon Rusk, his record not the worst but having spent a fair bit of money to achieve promotion before the salary cap comes into effect next season and to be sitting with just eleven goals in 12 games and outside the top seven a change was inevitable.

Now most want to see Wrexham fail in their bid to get back to the National League. Dubbed ‘Hollywood FC’ with the investment from the film star pair of Ryan Reynolds and Rob McElhenney some of the fees paid out so far are eye-watering and while fans of the Red Dragons will point to jealousy that it’s happening at their club and nowhere else it’s a cup final for everyone else in every game to beat them. Despite a game in hand they are off the pace massively behind the top two of Grimsby and Chesterfield and my thoughts are another defeat or two within the next three weeks or so would see the end of Phil Parkinson, this league is ruthless this year.

I don’t think many picked Wealdstone to turn over the league leaders Grimsby last Tuesday. A much needed win for the Stones and re-enforcing that no result is guaranteed before a ball is kicked, every three points has to be earnt. It might also have relieved a little bit of pressure on Wealdstone boss Stuart Maynard after a run of four games without a win, especially as both Barnet and Maidenhead around them have recently picked up a few points.

One side who has quietly gone about their business are Solihull Moors. Neal Ardley has taken his side into the play-off places with only two defeats in their thirteen games, I expected them to do well under the former Notts County boss whose previous club trail his new side by three points.

Bromley must get a mention too under Andy Woodman.One defeat in their last nine games has the Ravens looking upwards only and should they win both their games in hand then they could be sitting on the top of the National League, only a four goal swing would stop them in that quest.

Woodman has shown you can step in from the relative sidelines and improve a club, I was as surprised as any when Bromley sacked Neil Smith, not just because I know him but they were then heading in the right direction and the rest of his coaching staff didn’t follow him through the door.

Granted Woodman has made some of his own signings, but the majority were here before him and it hasn’t made an ounce of difference, when you consider their budget isn’t in the same bracket as the Wrexham’s and Stockport’s it’s down to managerial nous and getting the best out of his players, it does help when Michael Cheek leads your line though!

If Wrexham and Stockport do win their games in hand they are back in the mix but still a long way off the top spot and only three defeats between both Grimsby and Chesterfield it’s going to take some run with very little margin for error.

With all of the top five having completed thirteen games now and only four points separating them it promises to be another intriguing weekend of National League football culminating with my team the Bees taking on Aldershot at The Hive live on BT Sport, three points please chaps, sorry Shots fans!

Bees deny play-off chasing Bromley

Picture courtesy of HilligerPix.com (Twitter @HilligerPix)

Not for the first time this season there was a new face in the Barnet dugout, well I say new face but a very familiar face would be a better description as former Conference winning boss Paul Fairclough made a return as caretaker manager following the departure of Tim Flowers during the week.

The last time the Bees went through many managers in a season they were relegated from the Football League, but after Friday’s decision by the FA’s Alliance Committee to reject the proposal for Step 2 to continue, relegation is now off the cards. Despite the proposal which had no relegation from Step 1 the FA Council still need to ratify the null and void vote made by clubs last month that appears a safe bet.

A free hit it appears for the club whose ‘gamble’ if you like has paid off and no drama for a few months, but this is Barnet Football Club after all and no doubt there will a few twists and turns.

When the Bees come up against any of the National League clubs whose manager I know and speak to, it adds a little bit of edge to it. I’ve known Neil Smith for just over a year and in fact it was just over twelve months ago I sat down with him at Hayes Lane and heard some tremendous stories, a beer is waiting the next time we can actually get together.

Of course we spoke during the week after Flowers left and I’m sure Smudger wasn’t sure what to expect from Wednesday to Saturday in terms of the Bees personnel and formation.

Unbeknown to most Darren Currie was in attendance as Smith’s guest at Hayes Lane which I think is the first time he’s seen the team live since his departure last summer.

As per most games this season I went into it hoping the score would be kept down, I did ask Smudger if he would be so kind during the week! Having the division’s top scorer in Michael Cheek in their ranks and able to sign Courtney Duffus from Yeovil earlier this year, our defence were likely to be in for a torrid time.

What didn’t surprise was Fairclough’s formation, 4-5-1 but without isolating the striker as JJ Hooper found under Flowers. What did surprise a little was the attempt to play a passing game, as Currie would put it, passing with a purpose.

And that was to be the pattern for the Bees throughout the game instead of playing off the second ball launched up the field, and it almost gave Barnet an early lead, Ephron Mason-Clark forcing former Bee Mark Cousins into a smart save. At the opposite end Scott Loach was also in action, Joe Kizzi testing the Bees stopper.

As so often has happened this season Barnet were behind and early on in the game, Cheek breaking through only to be denied twice by Loach before reacting quick enough to pick out Liam Trotter who smashed the ball into the net.

The Bees weren’t behind for very long, Courtney Baker-Richardson was put through on goal brought down by Kizzi, penalty awarded and Kizzi sent off. I don’t believe it was either a penalty or a red card, you can argue you can’t tackle from behind but I felt it was harsh.

Not that it fazed Baker-Richardson who got up and sent Cousins the wrong way from the spot for his first goal in black and amber. The frenetic mad start didn’t end there as Barnet were forced into an early substutition, Loach landing awkwardly after tipping the ball away and later known to have dislocated his elbow, Aymen Azaze coming on to take his place, all this in just the opening 15 minutes.

The Bees tried to make the extra man advantage work for them, evidently more passes were strung together over five minute periods than we’ve seen since ‘Currieball’ was the theme of The Hive, clearly some of those brought in by Flowers and even Beadle can play a pass, can keep it simple, was it just very taboo to play that way?

The Ravens had a good shout for a penalty turned down ten minutes before the break, James Dunne appeared to me to leave a foot in on a challenge but protests were waved away.

A minute later we had a second red card shown this one to Smith, deemed to have taken his protests over the non-awarded penalty too far and was sent to the main stand on the far side from the dug-out, the Bromley manager confirming afterwards he was sent off for foul and abusive language but failed to use any swear words when given the referee’s full performance I wouldn’t have blamed him, but we’ll come to him later.

Both sides had chances to be in front at the break, Mason-Clark hitting the side netting while Azaze’s flying save left honours even at half time.

The home side came out more on the front foot with Barnet struggling a little to get hold of the ball and make inroads into the final third despite the extra man advantage, the Ravens going in front on the hour mark.

The contentious handball rule came into play with the ball striking Liam Daly on the arm and Bromley with a penalty of their own despatched by Cheek past the diving Azaze.

Once again the lead lasted no time at all, in fact just three minutes as Mason-Clark stole away down the right hand side and crossed for Michael Petrasso who connected with a delicious volley past Cousins to bring parity once more.

The game seemed to tail off pretty much after that fourth goal although both sides had chances to grab a winner, but not before the Bees went down to ten man nine minutes from time.

Skipper James Dunne was given a yellow card for a foul, continued his protestations and received a second yellow card for his troubles, something you knew the referee was looking to even up.

Petrasso almost won it at the death for the visitors, his shot just missing the far post after good work from Harry Taylor while the closest the home side got to a winner in the final moments was a wild shot from Frankie Raymond lashed over the bar.

A very decent point for the Bees against a side who played us off the park back in November at The Hive and so good to see the players on social media afterwards saying they enjoyed the game they played in, makes you wonder what was going in the dressing room and on the training pitch to suck the enjoyment out of doing their job.

Dunney was doing for the first time this season what he does best, breaking up play and keeping it simple, he won’t need telling how silly the cards were and what will interest me is if we miss the first bit of that paragraph because we don’t have that other midfielder in the squad to do that job.

Great to see the players wanting to knock the ball around and looking comfortable doing it, Fairclough definitely took the shackles off and it showed, Lee Vaughan again looked pretty good, Taylor a performance we know he can provide and even Muhammadu Faal had more purpose in 20 minutes coming on than most times he’s stepped onto the pitch this season.

I don’t think I have mentioned referee’s all season but yesterday was clear to see there are some who think the game is about them. Both managers agreed after the game he was poor, that is being polite which they have to be, but shocking instead. Five yellow cards and three reds suggest a poor, dirty game which was far from the truth here, his whole body language at half time and full time showed to me quite pompous in his demeanour but seeing some stats last night on Twitter he’s card happy and all about me.

Onto Stockport away on Tuesday night, another tough game against a side chasing promotion and a chance to build on a good performance this weekend, Azaze will have a chance between the sticks for a couple of weeks at least and barring any knocks and unless Dunne’s suspension kicks in I would expect to see the same ten outfield players hopefully the same response as well, we’ll see which Barnet turns up in midweek……

Smith: We do miss having the supporters as they are so important

On Wednesday I caught up with Bromley FC boss Neil Smith via text to find out how the season has gone for him so far:

TK: It’s been a stop and start season so far, how pleased are you with how the team has played so far?

NS: It’s been difficult with so long off from last season getting this season started was great but then we picked up silly injuries and it’s been hard trying to field an unchanged team.

We are just starting to play to how I want us to play so overall it’s been ok but we need to be better.

TK: Do you think we’ll be looking at a season full of interruptions or some calmness might prevail in the New Year?

NS: I think it will be a stop, start, go kind of season until the vaccine comes in, even then I think there will still be little outbreaks in places that cause us to stop.

TK: Only seven games in so far, but are you happy with where you are currently placed in the National League table?

NS: I’d like to have a few more points but to be just outside the play-off places with games in hand isn’t bad. It will be a tough league and there are a lot of clubs that could do it this season so it is early but we want to be in and amongst it all season if we can.

TK: Are there any clubs that have surprised you so far?

NS: Maidenhead and Wealdstone have had a fantastic start to this season and this shows just how competitive it will be for us this year.

TK: Has it been tough to motivate the players to play in front of empty stadiums each week?

NS: We do miss having the supporters as they are so important and it’s so much better having them watching us but the players are trying to create their own atmosphere.

The motivation isn’t a problem as they had so long not playing that I think they missed it that much they really appreciate how lucky they are to be playing football.

As a manager and a player you still have that mentality to win every game and we are still playing for the supporters and their club. We still want them to be proud of their team even though they are not here in person.

TK: Having watched you via the stream on Saturday against Barnet it looked like everything clicked and went to plan, was it almost the complete performance?

NS: It was a great performance from all the players and apart from letting a goal in and not taking a couple more of our other chances it was more like how we can play.

We’ve had a couple of games where we have a good first half and a not so good second half and vice versa. This was a more complete ninety minutes and gives us something to build from.

TK: Do you expect the table to settle down a bit in the next four weeks and give a more balanced idea of how the season might pan out?

NS: Yes I do, but I also still believe with being disrupted with positive tests and waterlogged pitches that it’s going to be a hard season to predict.

TK: How good have the chairman and the board been in helping the club be competitive again this season?

NS: They have been amazing from the start of lockdown to where we are now. The chairman made a statement saying that the club being sustainable was our main aim during these hard times but he also made sure everybody was ok and we did some fantastic work out in the community as well.

Since the start of this season he has backed and supported myself and my management team with his experience. He wants to give me the best chance to get Bromley into the play-offs for the first time even in what are unprecedented circumstances we find ourselves in.

TK: And do you think if you needed one or two extra for a final push later in the season it’s able to happen?

NS: I always keep something back myself in the budget for someone who might become available. Who knows, hopefully I’m in that situation and I’ll then find that answer out!

TK: We touched on it earlier, but how crucial is it to have the supporters back inside Hayes Lane in 2021?

NS: It’s so important for everyone, the supporters want to get back to watch live football but also to meet up with friends and family and as a club we can only survive with people coming to watch, the players also want to be playing in front of the paying public for that atmosphere. We are missing the fans as much as they are missing getting out and going to their clubs.