When a new manager takes over at a club there is a clamour among fans – and indeed the new appointee himself – for them to be given a chance to ‘stamp their authority on the squad’. Jez certainly did so by immediately dropping most of Ling’s misfiring cloggers and handing Luke Berry his debut. Over the coming months, more and more young players took their first-team bow. The reduction of both the average age and wage of the squad became the defining feature of his reign.
While a little less dramatic, the transition from Jez’s Juniors to Money’s… er… Marauders seems to be a more balanced proposition, with the careful splicing of youth and experience, rather than a wholesale ‘out with the old in with the new’.
Kevin Roberts, along with Josh Coulson, seemed to be the prime base pair from which the rest of the Money Mutations could follow. As a young player with plenty of experience, stretching back to his debut for Chester as a 17-year-old, our Kevin seemed to be an integral part of Money’s plans once he took the reins, continuing as captain and further cementing his place as one of the first names on the team sheet. But then, working in the lab late one night, something unexpected happened. Money signed another senior right back.
Richard Tait, rather like Ryan Donaldson, was signed to very little fanfare. It wasn’t just that right-back is rarely the sort of position that sets the pulse racing – it was also that he had spent the last five years at Tamworth, albeit with the prestige of leading the team as captain in his final season.
That promotion aside, his seemed to be a career that, after some initial promise (he completed his scholarship at the highly regarded Nottingham Forest academy), had stalled in a part of the midlands which probably only exists because of non-league football.
Whether living on year-to-year contracts had led to stagnation at a club where survival is the sum total of ambition is anyone’s guess. Recommended by Tamworth’s former manager, Marcus Law, during a period of scouting for the U’s, Tait clearly did enough to persuade Money and Jez that, at the very least, he would be good competition for Roberts.
As a genuinely attacking right-back – and also clearly a player who has played in the position for some considerable time, unlike Roberts’ almost accidental assumption of the role – Tait’s U’s career so far has been a mixture of committed defending (I am yet to see anyone really get the better of him, for either pace or determination) and excellent forward play. In fact, his role in the right-sided triumvirate, featuring alongside Berry and Arnold-or-Donaldson has been, at times, a genuine pleasure to watch.
He can pass, move and cross – a handy set of abilities for any footballer and that have so far born three assists. This puts him second in the assists charts for the season as it stands, behind only Arnold; it would seem that the right side of midfield has been particularly fruitful.
Of course it helps that Tait has been on some dead-ball duties, but it is his ability and willingness to give-and-go and get in behind the defence that really marks him out as an attacking threat. I hope, too, that this will see him earn a spot on the scoresheet soon.
Added to this is the way he brings the ball out of defence. You rarely see him playing the hit-and-hope ball over the midfield to the big front men. Of course, playing alongside Berry and Donaldson-or-Arnold helps, but Tait has a natural inclination to carry the ball and build from the back.
He is also always available and screaming at Maxwell for the ball to be thrown to him by The Record Breaker. Our distribution from the back, something Maxwell is a big part of but not solely responsible for, is one of the real differences in our play this season and something not a lot of teams in this league are successful at.
Money recently has been fulsome in his praise of Robbo’s abilities as a player (before sending him out on loan…) and his standing in the squad. It seems obvious from his full-blooded performances that very few train harder or appreciate their duties as a professional footballer more than our Kev. And, after a sticky start under Ling playing in an unfamiliar position, it was these qualities that eventually won over the crowds , made him a popular member of both Jez’s and Money’s squads and won him the Player of the Year award.
But this is a different team playing to different strengths. Under Money last season we simply didn’t have the impetus or pace all round the park to counterattack in the way we do now – and Tait’s ability on the ball and attacking mindset is a part of this. Roberts’ qualities, as befits a player who began his pro career as a centre-back or defensive midfielder, are mainly defensive (although it is with great affection that I recall his frankly baffling run of three goals in four games in 2011/12). When attacking, he has a tendency to play the ball to the feet of the man, rather than in front of the attacking player for them to run on to.
Similarly, he isn’t as willing to overlap the fullback with anything like the regularity Tait does. It is this change in attacking intent from our right-back, coupled with the confidence of our crossing from both wings, that means our attacking play rarely loses momentum (Hereford excluded) when we are playing against a team who are willing to defend deep or when we get forced out wide. It isn’t that Tait is a step up from Roberts, just that he is a different type of player.
A team like ours, with a reasonable – albeit not of Crawley-, Fleetwood- or Forest Green-sized (I remain to be convinced that any of those are actual places rather than the output of a set typewriter-wielding monkeys) – budget cannot afford to have two senior players in a position like right-back. The flexibility of players like McAuley and Hughes should also ensure adequate cover should Tait be injured for a short period of time.
So where does this leave Super Kev? I would like to think with a position in a team in this league or perhaps the one above and, of course, the best wishes of the United faithful for whom he has served so well. If it does come to pass, I will be sad to see him leave but hope that he ends up somewhere befitting of his obvious qualities and maybe with a chance to revert to his original central position.
These are the types of ruthless decisions that Money has to make in order to fulfil his own remit of ‘the relentless pursuit of points’. He clearly has no favourites in the dressing room and no room for sentiment. It is this pragmatic approach, alongside his excellence as a coach, which has won him the respect of the players and supporters.
While Tait, Donaldson and Champion stand up as great examples of our considered approach to recruitment, this alone doesn’t build that all important team ethic. Money has got them playing well, for each other and seemingly with no sour grapes from those who don’t make the match day 16, or who get substituted for tactical reasons. It is this canny man management that has made a squad into a team and is ensuring that players like Tait are beginning to earn their share of the limelight.