Idealism departs and the bigger picture shrinks

There’s something unromantic about allowing Scott Neilson to depart back to non-league circles and the lining up of out-of-contact Seb Carole as his potential replacement. But then idealism only gets you so far on a limited League Two budget.

Neilson quietly exited Valley Parade for Crawley Town on Monday evening, a contrast to the fanfare that had greeted his arrival almost exactly a year ago. After impressing on trial for the reserves against Middlesbrough, a three-and-a-half year contract was gleefully signed by the Cambridge City winger. And while the hope was he would follow the unexpected early season instant success of James Hanson and Steve Williams, we were quickly to become familiar with a player who had much to learn.

His full debut at Rochdale was thrilling, a purposeful run from his own half and deflected long range looping shot winning a low key JPT 1st round cup tie. ‘Scotty’ continued to play a part in City’s recovery from a slow start to the season, scoring in the 3-0 win at home to Chesterfield but then overshadowing a excellent individual display by inexplicitly shooting against the post when presented with an open goal. His crucial miss against Morecambe a few days later probably summed up a player with potential, but where further development was needed. Sven Goran Eriksson was a fan, making a serious enquiry.

Neilson was the ugly duckling of an unsightly first team performance under Peter Taylor at Accrington, quickly finding himself shipped out on loan to Cambridge United due to concerns over his deficient fitness levels. He only returned for 20 minutes of the final game at Crewe, but an encouraging pre-season suggested he would make a bigger impact this season.

Alas, his two starts against Shrewsbury and Notts Forest saw deficient performances that hinted he would become a bit part player again. Repeated transfer bids from Crawley manager Steve Evans ultimately proved too tempting, presenting the chance to restore money into an over-stretched transfer budget that might otherwise have lead to more important players leaving.

But still the potential that was evident in Neilson is sad to see depart. On paper it may appear as though the step up to the Football League came too soon, but with time and further development a bright career at City might have been realised. Playing week in week out at Crawley may be more advisable at this stage, and in time it might be looked back on a temporary step downwards before returning stronger and wiser to this level.

With Leon Osborne’s role in the squad as a fringe player who could play a part this season, could Taylor and City afford to invest wages and time polishing up Neilson? Should the trial be a success, his replacement Seb Carole offers far greater experience and instant know-how. Taylor will look upon him a player who’d offer greater consistency and team discipline, not someone who’d hide in his shell and allow a Shrewsbury winger to rip his full back apart.

But as impressive as Carole’s pedigree is on paper, the memories of ‘ex-Celtic star’ Bobby Petta still linger at the back of the mind. If Carole can match Neilson’s work rate and appetite to improve Taylor will have a player who can deliver this season, but the trail of Carole’s career drifting down the leagues and in and out of clubs offers indications that enthusiasm is lacking. If City represented Neilson’s big chance, do we merely signify a regular wage to Carole?

Time will tell. But if the realities of League Two finances and pressure for instant success provide grounded logic to cashing in on a promising young player and replacing him with a rootless winger, it ignores the longer-term picture.

Idealism allows us to dream that Neilson could have grown and learned from his mistakes, becoming a star player who maybe one day would have been sold to a bigger club. Realism is that Taylor was only given a one-year contract and will probably be asked to leave if results over the next 44 league games don’t end in promotion, and so he has to prioritise accordingly.

A tough trip down South

Neilson’s City debut actually came against Torquay a year ago, with the then-newly promoted outfit going down to a 2-0 defeat as part of only two league doubles the Bantams achieved last season. And while the 2-1 victory at Plainmoor last January left the home side languishing in 20th place and only six points above the relegation zone, a spectacular end to the season lifted Torquay out of trouble and then some.

Torquay’s last defeat was at Morecambe on 27 March, the last time they conceded a league goal was Easter Saturday. Those nine consecutive clean sheets include a 5-0 demolition of a Rochdale side who expected to seal promotion that April afternoon, and two impressive league wins over Northampton and Lincoln this season. They are not the tentative outfit who allowed Gareth Evans to crash home two late goals eight months ago to prolong Stuart McCall’s departure by a week.

Neilson’s exit means five of the startling eleven at Plainmoor that winter afternoon have been let go by Taylor, and the rotation methods employed during the first three games of the campaign means we are still unsure who features in his first-choice eleven. Jon McLaughlin starts in goal and the back four he will be in front is likely to see some changes in the centre at least.

With Simon Ramsden out for a few weeks, Lewis Hunt will continue at right back while Luke O’Brien’s strong start to the season should see him hold the left back jersey. Williams – left out for disciplinary reasons last week and curiously receiving public criticism from Taylor – will hope to bounce back and continue his outstanding form. Luke Oliver and Shane Duff struggled to impress last week, despite the clean sheet, and Zesh Rehman may be awarded a first league start.

In midfield Michael Flynn’s 35 minutes for the reserves increases pressure on the midfield three of Tom Adeyami, Lee Bullock and Tommy Doherty – none of who found their top form last week. David Syers will also be hoping for a full debut.

Should the 4-3-3 remain, Hanson and Evans will have either Omar Daley, Jake Speight or Louis Moult for company up front. There are rumours Barnsley striker Ian Hume is about to arrive on loan until January, perhaps providing that cleverness to a forward line which Taylor fears is currently missing.

The long pre-season ends

As Lee Bullock turned a chance to get a fifth goal in City’s comprehensive 4-0 win over neighbours Bradford (Park Avenue) wide of the post following a powerful run by Tom Adeyemi the Bantams’ pre-season came to a merciful end with little learnt and little needed to be known.

Peter Taylor sent out a first half team assembled of players not expected to play on Saturday afternoon’s season opener against Shrewsbury Town with new face Seb Carole on trial and playing on the right with David Syers in the middle and suspended for Saturday Omar Daley on the left all ahead of – surprisingly – a first City appearance for Tom Doherty.

The bearded midfielder’s forty five minutes showed the glimpses of what Taylor sees in the player sitting deep and moving the ball around usefully finding the active running of forward pair Jake Speight – who dropped off well and showed a useful turn or two – and Louis Moult who is a strong looking, hard working striker who is instantly impressive in his play and attitude.

Moult scored his second goal for the club – and City’s second of the night – controlling a pass just outside the box and hitting a mid-height controlled shot past the visiting goalkeeper.

Moult’s goal added to a Steve Williams headed goal from an Omar Daley corner which saw the young defender jump unopposed in the box to head in. Williams and his defensive partner Shaun Duff started flat-footed allowing two chances in the first five minutes to test Lloyd Saxton in goal but that spell at the start and a pair of shots by Spencer Harris and David Heagrey at the end Avenue did little to threaten despite playing with spirit.

Spirit which City either lacked or controlled. Moult and former City man Tom Claisse both went in for a ball with studs showing and in League football both would have been punished the same but Claisse’s aggressive shove of Moult to the ground showed the difference in approach from the teams.

Which is not to say that City did not care – on the contrary, they do – but that Taylor’s side focus upset from incidents like that, stings from defeat, grumpiness from misplaced passes and pushes them into the performance. Avenue, seemingly, just push them into pushes.

Taylor watched the game from half way up the main stand trying to communicate with Junior Lewis and Wayne Jacobs on the bench with a series of hand signal and mimes which – in time – turned into a series of shouts. “Three subs?” Jacobs bellowed up to a nod, later before kids keeper Chris Elliott came on a head stuck itself over the dug out and was pointed at in a “am I coming on?” way. A couple of mobile phones maybe?

As technology failed City did not. A 433 after half time saw a team more resembling that which one might expect on Saturday with Gareth Evans being supported by James Hanson and Scott Neilson in the forward line which immediately looked lively. Hanson has grown as a player – in his play – and as a human – in his build – from his time last season looking a long way from the part timers he was playing against.

Evans moved well making himself an option always and held the ball when needed, bringing others into the game. Neilson charged up and down the right. Both got goals.

Evans’s reward for an inventive ball flipped over to Neilson was a return pass for the striker to accurately power in from the edge of the box to make the game 3-0. Ten minutes from time Neilson is given the ball and the freedom of the box to get a fourth.

The comprehensive nature of the win aside the game offered little for Taylor to learn. Luke O’Brien and Robbie Threlfall combined well down the left in the second half as they did at the end of last season, Evans looks to have brought his fine end of last year to the start of this, Lee Bullock looked controlled and quality as he did last year. You can see the theme building.

This was City’s first game of pre-season at Valley Parade – a bedding in for the new turf of which it is said with justification that one could play a snooker game on it – but it was the last game of a pre-season which went back to the start of April when Taylor’s side ensured they would stay in League Two.

Four months of build up to a season which starts on Saturday.

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