By Sandrine Wyrich (@SunnyWyrich_)
This week marks the halfway point of Ayr United’s 2020/21 Championship campaign.
Going into the season, ambitions were firmly set on pushing for the play-offs, as the Honest Men did in the past two years, and early signs in the summer were promising.
Manager Mark Kerr and assistant Michael McArdle developed an audacious strategy that held key players at the club and enticed more to join, including high-profile names. For instance, Tom Walsh declined a contract with Inverness, Joe Chalmers transferred from Premiership Ross County and Cammy Smith joined from Dundee United.
But midway into the campaign, Ayr find themselves closer to the bottom than to the top. Only three wins out of 12 games see them sixth in the league standings.
Worse than the results themselves is how they came about: failure to capitalise on a weakened Inverness team; losing 3:2 to Morton after leading 2:0 until the 82nd minute; conceding in stoppage time which meant defeat at Palmerston.
The midfield looked disjointed and goals have been sparse. What once was the most feared defence in the league turned shaky and goalkeeper Viljami Sinisalo fell short of expectations.
A number of injuries to the core squad made matters worse and Kerr admits that the team too often “failed to do the basics”:
“It’s a lack of basic defending that’s costing us, teams aren’t even cutting us open. Our boys need to realise that there’s no excuse not to move the ball quickly, too often we’re taking too many touches.
“If you’re a winger – get by people, put the ball in the box and pick the right options. If you’re a defender – be aggressive, win the ball and make tackles. It’s nothing special but it needs to be done better.”
United looked particularly vulnerable after conceding: three goals in five minutes against Morton, three in six against Hearts and two in three against Arbroath and Queen of the South.
“We need to use our heads better and learn how to shut out a game for a period of time,” acknowledges Kerr.
It’s been a season of adaptation at Somerset Park, not only due to the Covid-19 pandemic. The campaign marks Kerr’s first full season as manager and the departure of long-serving players left a rejuvenated squad. Veteran Michael Moffat feels that roles have changed:
“This year the manager is looking to the likes of myself and Aero (Muirhead) to be the experienced heads in the dressing room and that’s been a new challenge.
“I’ll always like a laugh and a joke and that will never change, but I realise that my role has to be different now as we have such a young team.”
Adaptation to Kerr’s playing system is taking longer than anticipated and losing the experience and leadership of driving forces like Steven Bell and Ross Docherty has hurt United.
Essentially, the team lacks one thing: character. The intangible quality that so often explains the difference between success and failure. It’s that self-assuredness that the novel set-up still needs to improve. McArdle assures that everyone is working hard to deliver progress:
“We’re in good spirits physically and mentally. We’re looking forward to turning the form, to get results on the pitch. The training has been excellent and the morale has been good.”
Kerr agrees that the team can find their rhythm and still meet their targets:
“When you’re going through a sticky spell like we are just now, it’s obviously my job to get that turned around.
“It’s not like we’re being outplayed – this stuff is a lack of basic defending and decision making at key times. A lot of it is game management and we’re working on that.
“I still think we can get that solid base, we have good, creative players at the top end of the pitch to go and match anyone. Now they need to step up”
United have shown glimpses of brilliance. Chalmers’ deliveries have been world-class. Smith can cut through any defence. At times, Sinisalo pulled off wonder saves and Luke McCowan has become a reliable force in midfield.
Performances like the 2:0 win over Dundee demonstrate the potential and with the core squad back to full fitness, that quality can be built upon. Defensive midfielder Michael Miller believes there’s still all to play for:
“We’ve got a good quality of squad together and I feel we have a chance of going and competing.
“The aim is the play-offs and if we can keep the nucleus of the team fit, I don’t see any reason why we can’t achieve that.”
The Championship table is very tight and only four points separate United from a play-off spot. All the components are there, the task for the second half of the season will be to start putting them together.