Signs of life, but survival depends on improvement at home – Interview
Wednesday, 10th Jan 2018 15:36 by Clive Whittingham
Burton have won three in a row on the road but our resident Albion fan Steve Eyley says a record of eight defeats and a draw from nine home games is hanging his team.
Assess Burton's season so far for us...
SE: We had a very iffy first third to the season but have picked up a bit in the last month.
We started off as I feared we would last season: plenty of hammerings (of the sort we never actually suffered last year) and the goal difference was irreparably damaged early on. As early as October I thought: 'loads of goals conceded, no goals scored; this is what a relegation side looks like'.
Every now and again we'd get a backs-to-the-wall 0-0 away draw but our home form was and is woeful. We were hammered at home in the space of four days to the tune of 4-0 by both Villa and Wolves, in games where you could see the financial chasm laid out before you. We haven't won at home in nine (eight straight defeats plus a recent 0-0 draw with Norwich).
In the last six weeks, we have tightened up a lot at the back, and the away form is keeping us from coming adrift at the bottom. Normal Championship rules don't really apply for a club of our size. We are third bottom going into the second half of the season. That would be viewed as a disaster for everyone else but I definitely feel some optimism at this stage because I know they will give it a good go and not fall apart at the seams.
Suddenly, three away wins on the bounce over Christmas, how and why?
SE: The old fighting spirit is definitely back. Man for man, we presumably have the 24th best squad in the league in terms of talent, but in terms of attitude and spirit, we must be near the top. Playing away suits us: we defend for our lives and try to hit teams on the break. At Sheffield Wednesday on New Year's Day it worked like a dream whereas earlier in the season we looked like we were trying not to lose, rather than win, such was the paucity of our attacking options. When we play at home and have to make the running, we don't have the cutting edge to beat teams at the moment.
I thought losing Jackson Irvine would kill you guys this season, how've you gone about replacing him?
SE: We haven't really replaced him, that's the trouble. We bought Jamie Allen and Matty Lund from Rochdale but neither have reached the required level yet. In recent games, utility man Tom Naylor has stepped in and provided Luke Murphy with an Irvine-esque partner in central midfield. He's tall, strong, covers the ground well, can pass, can tackle (as befits someone who often plays in defence) and has scored three in the last four. The partnership looks quite promising.
Any January transfer window activity in the offing? Does Our Nigel lean through the car window often at this time of year?
SE: I think we need two strikers and a creative midfielder with a bit of the X factor that Michael Kightly provided us with last season. However, Nigel has made some worrying noises in recent days about us not needing many coming in because the squad is stronger than this time last season (it isn't) and because our record signing Liam Boyce is expected back in from his long-term injury in March to hopefully score a few. We must have some money to spend from the Irvine sale but I fear it will be the usual make do and mend blend because clearly we are not going to be forking out £5-10m for anyone.
Where is the team strong and where is it weak?
SE: I would say realistically we have only half a dozen players of genuine week in week out Championship standard in the squad so that is a glaring weakness and all 11 players have to play out of their skin for us to win a game. Up front is the problem. Some of the strikers have other good virtues but finishing is not one of them. It is painful to watch us trying to score at times but the money is not there to splash out in that department so we have to rely on others to score.
The strength is in the attitude and unity of the side, plus the defenders have got their act together in recent weeks. We let a lot of goals in early on but we have got back to how we were last year in recent weeks, and Stephen Bywater has really stepped up between the sticks, after a couple of seasons warming the bench.
Luke Murphy would get in the central midfield of nearly all teams in this league and is always among our top two performers week in week out, Lloyd Dyer and Sean Scannell have shown useful flashes on the wing although the crossing generally is still of the 'will-this-do' lower-league standard. Scannell is back with parent club Huddersfield at the moment for treatment on a groin injury. Lucas Akins is always a handful, whether upfront, wide on the right or even at right back. If he could finish, he really would be quite some player.
Success is presumably fourth bottom - you going to manage it again?
SE: It's going to be tight and our goal difference is a real hindrance. A month ago I would have said no chance. The stats say we have the second worst defence and second worst attack in the league, but we are under nowhere the level of pressure that Sunderland, Brum and Hull are, plus we've been here before. We don't have a trigger-happy chairman so off-field issues will not impact on the pitch. Everyone is doing the best they can in the circumstances and pulling together in the same direction, which always helps.
We have the same number of points now that we had at this time last year so if we sign wisely in January and do what we did a year ago, then maybe we can do it, although realistically we are still favourites to go down, and I'm not sure miracles like last season happen twice. If we could actually win a home game or two, we can make some progress up the tightly packed lower half of the league and then who knows?
Do the medium and long term aims for the club stretch much beyond that?
SE: I can't really see a time when we are not in a relegation fight in this league. We will always be the underdogs. Other sides are able to improve by 10 to 15 per cent each season because of their financial clout but for us it's more likely to be 1 or 2 per cent and eventually this crazy ride up the leagues will be over, but relegation would surely not be the footballing and financial disaster for us that it will be for some of the bigger clubs. We know what we are and realistically that is a League One/League Two club, rather than a Championship outfit.
Are you going to have to whack seats into three sides of your ground if you stay at this level? Seems daft.
SE: Seems so. I can't see how we can get around that. That will presumably reduce the capacity further although we might actually get close to filling it if that's the case. The attendances have been pretty disappointing and have not shot up as we might have expected. I suspect all those Burtonians who support Derby are not popping along to watch us when the Rams are away, as they used to.
We’ve been half-arsedly linked with Tom Naylor, who is out of contract this summer I believe. What’s he like?
SE: He was signed by Derby (by Cloughie if I remember correctly) as a full back from Mansfield but didn't make it. Came to us on loan in League Two and JFH immediately and surprisingly used him as a central midfielder. I well remember the look of confusion on his face in one early game where he broke through one on one and thought 'what the hell do I do now.' Did well in that loan spell and was signed permanently as we moved into League One, and Jimmy used him in central mid or as a back-up in central defence.
When Cloughie took over we thought that was curtains for him as not really done anything under him at Derby but he has played sporadically in central defence, right back and central midfield. This most recent spell in the side, he's looked good. I think he has a high ceiling. He is tall (6 ft 2 I think), mobile, quite feisty, covers the ground really well, tackles well, passes OK. Shooting a bit iffy but he is very useful. Still a bit of a work in progress but he's improving all the time.
I'd be gutted to see him go but wouldn't blame him as he never seems to get a really long run in the side.
The Twitter @loftforwords, @SteveEyley1
Pictures – Action Images
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