Ten games, it is often said, is when you judge a campaign. Well that’s how many York City have played in their first season back in the Football League after ending their eight-year absence by beating Luton at Wembley in the Conference play-off final back in May. City sit 14th after those ten games – won three, drawn four, lost three with a zero goal difference; about as neutral as it’s possible to get. Inconsistency has been the watchword so far.
Manager Gary Mills is a week away from marking two years with the club and since his arrival the team’s style has been based around passing football, quick pressing without the ball and a very definite 4-3-3 shape. This isn’t a 4-5-1 masquerading as an attacking line-up – it’s a genuine three up top based around key man Jason Walker, who cost a princely £60,000 from Luton, through the middle.
Walker has taken some criticism from fans for not being prolific, but that’s to misunderstand his role. Yes he’s a goalscorer, but so much more than that. As the fulcrum of the attack, it’s up to him to hold it and bring others into play and also to drag defenders out of position – out wide or further forward than they’d ideally wish to be. It’s telling that the wider men in the front three – most notably Ashley Chambers and Michael Coulson – are profiting from the work Walker does with half the team’s goals between them.
The problem lies deeper than that. Goals conceded were a major problem, even in games that didn’t end in defeat. Just a couple of weeks ago, the only sides with a higher number in the A column were right down at the bottom end of the table. Injuries were partly to blame, and the relatively high-profile signing of Clarke Carlisle followed as a result and he was thrown straight in. With little football under his belt, he had a shaky start, but grew into games alongside the dependable Chris Smith. Carlisle has been found out in terms of pace on occasion and the return to fitness of Chris Doig has seen the former Countdown champion relegated to the bench.
Despite the recent defensive improvement there is still a feeling of fragility at the back. That improvement, though, has come at a cost. In a 4-3-3, it’s the full-backs that need to provide the width and in trying to stop leaking goals, their attacking instincts have been curbed somewhat. It’s a difficult balancing act that Mills is still trying to get right. Last season, it was an easier act to balance with James Meredith deployed at left-back. He was ideal in the role, but left the club for Bradford after his contract came to an end. He’s not been replaced with another attack-minded player, someone who is going to go beyond the last defender and deliver into the box. Moreover, one of the midfield three has been tasked solely with providing a screen in front of the back four and that man has been former Wales U21 international Danny Parslow, a centre-back by trade. While he does the job he’s been given to the best of his abilities, he’s not the most dynamic of operators in that area and the return of club captain Scott Kerr, who would normally assume those duties while also offering more going forward, cannot come soon enough. Kerr missed the run-in last season after suffering a cruciate ligament injury and is due to come back shortly.
As it stands, it’s fairly clear that City are not going up this season. Neither are they going to be in relegation trouble. And that’s absolutely fine. It’s the first season back, the club might be stable but isn’t exactly over-flowing with cash and consolidation is not an ugly word or concept. The system works, by and large, and the football is entertaining, as evidenced by the encouraging numbers coming through the turnstiles every week. With key players – primarily Kerr and long-serving centre-back Dave McGurk – to come back from long-term injury, things look OK. Find those elusive marauding full-backs – and convince them that the Minster city is the place for them – and it’ll look positively rosy.
So ten games in, York are doing OK – nothing more, nothing less. Thirty-six games from now, if they’re in the same position as they are now, that will be absolutely fine. This season is about re-establishing the club as a Football League side and anything more than that is a bonus. Besides, after last season’s double trip to Wembley, a little bit of mid-table mediocrity might make for a nice change of pace.
Written by John Dobson, We Are Going Up’s York City Blogger
John tweets at @johnnydobbo