One step forwards, two steps backwards. If there is a phrase to sum up Town’s progress since returning to the Championship in 2012, this would undoubtedly be it.
Under both of Chris Powell’s predecessors, Simon Grayson and Mark Robins, there were prolonged periods where it looked like Town were on the cusp of establishing themselves as a Championship club – only for the team to spectacularly implode after much initial promise.
The challenge facing current Town manager Chris Powell, therefore, is to ensure that the same thing does not happen to Town this season.
A seven game unbeaten run, which saw Town pick up impressive results against Wolves, Blackburn, Ipswich and Nottingham Forest, had suggested that Town would not have to spend another season embroiled in a relegation battle. Since then, however, Town have picked up only four points from a possible twenty one and sit just two places above the relegation zone.
This contrast in form has been indicative of the sheer disparity in Town’s standard of performance under Powell. From the sublime 3-0 home win against Nottingham Forest – as good a performance Town have put in since returning to this level – to the ridiculous second-half 5-0 capitulation against Norwich, it is this inconsistency which is proving so frustrating.
So just what can Chris Powell do to make sure that the recent run of results are no more than a blip?
First of all, I think it is abundantly clear that Town need further reinforcements in the January transfer window, and to be fair this is something that Powell has already said he’s looking to press on with.
Without question the area that needs strengthening the most is Town’s forward line. With Grant Holt set to return to Wigan after the home match against Bolton, and James Vaughan frequently unavailable due to injury, Chris Powell will have a real paucity of strikers to choose from after the New Year. Therefore, bringing in a striker – and preferably one who will help bring the best out of Nahki Wells – should be the absolute bare minimum objective for Town in January.
Realistically, Town also need to bring in another centre-half to help bolster a defence that has leaked as many goals as anyone else in the division. Mark Hudson has been somewhat hit and miss since signing from Cardiff, Joel Lynch has struggled with injuries, question marks remain over Murray Wallace’s ability to play at this level, whilst Anthony Gerrard has found himself completely out-of-favour.
The problem is, that signing players of the requisite quality will cost a significant amount of money. Dean Hoyle’s laudable commitment to making Town a self-sufficient club which is fully compliant with Financial Fair Play rules, however, means it is unclear just how much Town will be prepared to spend in the January window.
What is only too clear, however, is that without new signings in January, Town are in for a long old slog in 2015.
"I really do believe Town are at a critical stage of the so-called ‘New Era.’"
In addition to strengthening the squad in January, I would also like to see Chris Powell take a more proactive and attacking approach to games, particularly at home. Saturday’s defeat at home against Birmingham was a prime example of this. Despite Birmingham being a decidedly average Championship team, Powell set Town up in a 4-5-1 formation, with two defensive minded midfielders, and seemed happy to take a point from what was an inherently winnable game.
It was only after Birmingham took the lead midway through the second-half that Powell brought on strikers James Vaughan and Nahki Wells, whilst it took until the 88th minute for wideman Joe Lolley to be introduced.
What is more, although Town have only lost twice at home under Powell, the home performances have been generally uninspiring, dull affairs – with the notable exceptions of the games against Nottingham Forest and Brentford. Turgid draws against struggling Brighton, Wigan and Sheffield Wednesday, has done little to persuade casual fans to come and watch Town on a regular basis.
This in turn has implications for Town’s compliance with the aforementioned Financial Fair Play. Dean Hoyle has often spoken of the need for Town to increase their attendances if they are to spend more money in the transfer market, however attendances are only going to increase if Town are prepared to have a go and play more attacking football.
It is therefore something of a catch twenty two situation. Without more fans attending games, Town are going to have less funds available to strengthen the squad, yet fans are less likely to come watch the team unless the club start playing a more attractive brand of football.
Nevertheless, it would be remiss to say that the overall picture at the club is a negative one, and there remain many reasons to be positive about Town’s future. At a time when a number of clubs in the Championship have already been hit with transfer embargoes, and non-league Hereford have been wound-up completely, it is hugely positive that Town are financially secure and competing at this level.
What is more, the club’s youth setup continues to make superb progress – although I would like to see more evidence of the much talked about ‘pathways’ scheme in the coming months.
Finally, it must be remembered that Town are still very much small fish at this level with smaller budgets and attendances than the majority of teams in this league. As such, it would be unfair to suggest that Town should be turning up each week expecting to get a result.
Nevertheless, I would argue that the current squad is the best Town have had since promotion back to the Championship, and the results from the seven game unbeaten run clearly shows the squad has ability. As we head into 2015, however, it is crucial that the team find some semblance of consistency. Obviously every team has good days and bad days, but the gulf between some performances this season has at times made you wonder if you are even watching the same team.
I really do believe Town are at a critical stage of the so-called ‘New Era.’ After years of false dawns, numerous managers, and a failure to deliver on promising beginnings, it is time for Town to prove that they do belong at this level. Another season without any tangible progress and survival by the skin of their teeth will only see attendances decline and increased apathy among supporters.