Issue Boulding stays and will hope for a more competitive League Two

As told by Jason Mckeown

Touch wood, everyone will be starting the new campaign equal. Last season’s League Two saw a whopping 74 points collectively deducted from four teams, with the result a less competitive and more conservative division. With Luton beginning on minus 30 and Bournemouth and Rotherham minus 17, you had to be really bad to become embroiled in the relegation battle. Two clubs – Grimsby and Chester – were, thanks largely to some wretched winless runs. The latter getting relegated with Luton, who never really stood a chance.

But what of the rest? There were around 10 League Two clubs with little to play for last season. No where near good enough for promotion, but no where near bad enough to throw away such a sizeable headstart that relegation worries were anything stronger than faint. It was a campaign for going through the motions.

The downside, on Valley Parade evidence, was how good a result an away draw was thus considered and we had to become used to visiting team after visiting team playing either five at the back or five in midfield. Compare Macclesfield Town’s – the perfect example of a club able to coast through a nothing season – approach at Valley Parade last March to that of relegation-threatened Mansfield and Dagenham the March before. City’s home record may have been better last season, but few opposition teams turned up to BD8 with ambitions of testing it.

No player seemed to suffer more from this than Michael Boulding, who’s first season in Claret and Amber can be politely described as disappointing. It became quickly obvious that Boulding was a player who likes to run the channels and receive the ball at his feet, but the deep defensive tactics of opposing teams meant the space to do so was minimal. In too many home games Boulding was anonymous, rarely touching the ball never mind threatening to score. Away from home he wasn’t always on his game, but the increased space afforded by home teams more prepared to take the game to City meant he was a more notable threat. He ended the season with 13 goals – but hasn’t scored at Valley Parade since December 2008.

The affect of these opposition defensive strategies meant the kind of football the majority of City fans like to see wasn’t always possible, and over time the myth has grown that manager Stuart McCall likes his teams to play ‘hoof ball’. It’s true to a point that City have become more direct under Stuart compared to the style that predecessors Colin Todd and Nicky Law, for example, liked to play, but the chances of City getting through a sea of opposition players parked resolutely in front of their keeper makes the success of short patient passes manifesting into goalscoring chances limited. Get it into the opposition’s final third, even if it’s not by the prettiest of means, and the opportunities to get closer to goal increase.

During a season where there was endless debates about no Plan B, it would be wrong to say this was all City tried. It appeared they went for a mixed style with the ball passed around some times, then targeted down the wing at others, with direct attacks another weapon. Play the same way all the time and, against defensive-minded opposition, it becomes too predictable. Some of City’s better moments certainly came through quick-fire passing and, when in form, were an exciting team to watch.

‘Hoof ball’ really came to the fore during the poor run of form in March, which showed it was a sign of drained confidence. Players are less likely to try the patient approach when people in the stands are screaming “forward!” and ready to chant “you’re not fit to wear a shirt” at the first sign of problems, so our necks began to feel the strain from all those ‘hoof balls’ during the increasingly desperate run-in. Stuart needs players with certain qualities to take the club forward this season, the conviction to play to your strengths and take ownership of situations, even when low on confidence, being high up there. Easier said than done with League Two calibre players though.

Which brings us back to Boulding, who has today revealed he wants to stay and prove himself after last season’s disappointment. Whether opposition teams – more likely to go into matches targeting a win with a proper relegation and promotion battle – change their defensive approach this season remains to be seen. However for Boulding to succeed he’s going to have to show more in his game. Unlike at his former club Mansfield, where he was the star, this City team is not going to be built around him. He faces a battle just to make the starting eleven ahead of Peter Thorne and Gareth Evans. It’s not going to be enough for him to have long anonymous spells in games and to wait for the team to play him the right ball, he has to come looking for it and to be more determined to influence games.

There’s no doubting Boulding is a good player and City remain fortunate to have him. In a division that should be more adventurous and competitive this season, he needs to follow suit.