Much has been made this season of Phil Parkinson keeping faith in what is near as make no difference the same team that won promotion last season, after finishing seventh in League Two. Bar the recent injury, Parkinson has kept faith with the team that so easily put Northampton to the sword on that delightful May afternoon. Perhaps Parkinson's faith has been fully justified, considering City’s ascent to the play off positions in League One in comparison to Northampton's tumble towards the foot of League Two.
However, in recent weeks, coinciding with City's first real testing set of fixtures, these players have faced their first real criticism.
Garry Thompson, the provider of two assists at Wembley and so influential post-Arsenal last season, has seen his contribution scrutinised in recent times. 0 assists and 1 goal in a comfortable 4 goal win over Brentford has done little to keep the masses happy. It is, however, difficult to argue with those statistics – a winger is, after all, meant to be both the creator and scorer of goals. A third of the way through the season, a single goal reflects a pretty paltry return for the former Morecambe man.
Likewise, James Meredith who personified so much of what was great about last season has also seen his performances called into question. Compared with his ever reliable partner on the right, Stephen Darby, there have been whispers in the crowd that Meredith has reached his ceiling. Before the season started, fans were stringing the words Meredith, Brazil and World Cup together as calls for him to make the Aussie World Cup squad grew stronger and stronger. However, you would be hard-pushed to find many fans expecting to see Meredith strutting his stuff on the biggest stage of all come next summer. Perhaps Meredith is a victim of his own success. Meredith was a revelation last season for City - starved so long of a decent left back, possibly since the days of Wayne Jacobs and Andy Myers - bombing forward and forging a formidable left side partnership with Kyel Reid. His performances were only exacerbated when he had glandular fever, the team feeling his absence as McHugh, Good, Darby and McArdle all filled in with varying degrees of success.
And perhaps most surprisingly, Gary Jones (he’s magic, you know), has been labelled as past it, as is seemingly obligatory for any player the wrong side of 30. Jones, the most influential player City have had since Stuart McCall, swept up at the end of season awards last year. It is Jones who Parkinson has built the revival of City around, the central midfielder representing everything a fan wants in a player. He may be limited technically, and maybe this is the reason he’s rarely ventured further than League Two and Rochdale in his near-20 year career. For someone taken so emphatically and so quickly to the heart of each and every City fan, for him to be written off so quickly shows how quickly and how far expectations have risen.
A League Cup final appearance and play off victory after two consecutive 18th placed League Two finishes has seen the club revitalised and many believe the momentum now apparent can turn the decade of decline around and see the club reach and sustain Championship football. But is Parkinson right to stick with the players that begun the upward curve the club is now upon, or does he need to be more ruthless in his retention and recruitment of players?
A third of the way through the season, I don’t believe I have seen City emphatically outplayed by anyone, certainly not in league encounters anyway. So far, so good. City have shown that they can compete a level up, and should be relatively comfortable in their new, loftier surroundings. However, I do believe there is one area in which City lag behind their League One counterparts and that is how comfortable on the ball. For all his drive, motivation and leadership, Gary Jones is not the most technically able player in League One. For all his pace, trickery and match-winning ability, Kyel Reid doesn’t have the requisite ball control to be a constant menace.
The most technically able player City have on their books appears to be Mark Yeates. Yeates has shown in glimpses an ability to manipulate the ball, put defenders on the back foot and pick out a pass not seen at City in many a year, and yet Parkinson cannot seem to find a place for him in the team, nor can he find his best form.
So where does Parkinson go from here?
He has clearly begun the process of clearing out the excess from the squad. Alan Connell, Andy Gray, Ricky Ravenhill all being told they can leave. Connell and Ravenhill having clearly reached their ceiling and Gray, having seen a second spell at the club not go as planned.
With few of the current squad signed up beyond the end of the season (Wells, Davies, Kennedy, Yeates off the top of my head), a big rebuild is clearly going to happen sooner rather than later. Parkinson already has this in mind, signing players up with supposed higher pedigrees in Matthew Bates and Caleb Folan. But does Parkinson continue to do this throughout the season, or does he stick with the players that have coped with the step up admirably so far.
Far from throwing the current players on the metaphorical scrap heap, there is a solid base to the squad already within the building to build upon. Andrew Davies, Nahki Wells, James Hanson, Stephen Darby, Nathan Doyle and Mark Yeates represent gifted players all capable of playing at this level and beyond – contracts permitting. Parkinson's challenge resides in finding the correct players to complement this group and further aid the clubs development.
For what it’s worth, I believe the current crop is more than capable of securing a comfortable mid-table finish, which would represent a fine season a year after gaining promotion back to this level. It seems League One is a different beast to the one which City departed from just over 6 years ago, with teams displaying more footballing ability than in years gone by and back-to-back promotions may be a step too far.
City’s upward curve may slow down a little this season, and a real tilt at promotion may be more realistic next year, but for the time being I am going to enjoy watching the team that has revitalised the club, even if they may not be quite able to achieve that much desired double promotion.