Darrell Clarke is facing the toughest test of his managerial skills since Bristol Rovers dropped out of the Football League.
The Pirates visited Scunthorpe United yesterday, having lost six of their last seven League and cup games, conceding 17 goals in the process.
By my reckoning that is the worst sequence of results Rovers have suffered since the 2010-11 season when they were relegated from League One.
When you consider that the dismal run followed a 6-0 victory at Northampton Town, which raised hopes that the expectations of a previously up-and-down campaign would be fulfilled, it is all the more perplexing.
Clarke is that rare breed of manager whose press conferences are more interesting after defeats than victories. He invariably analyses poor performances honestly and accurately.
In recent weeks he has chosen first to stick up for his players and then to criticise them, without ever questioning their commitment to the cause.
After the 4-2 defeats at Notts County and at home to Swindon Town, which ended interest in the Emirates FA Cup and Checkatrade Trophy respectively, for the first time I sensed that Clarke was uncertain of the way forward.
He never lacks self-belief, but I wonder if he currently knows what his best line-up is. In last week’s column I urged him to field a strong team against Swindon because a run in the Checkatrade Trophy, however little interest their might be in the group games, might lift the season.
Last Wednesday night at the Memorial Stadium, Clarke did exactly that, sending out a side packed with experienced players, including his first choice midfield. Even the substitutes’ bench looked strong on paper.
What he then witnessed was more shambolic defending, including another goalkeeping error and a fourth Swindon goal, which came from a solo run by the scorer that started on the edge of his own penalty area.
When it came to previewing the Scunthorpe game, Clarke admitted: “There is a grey cloud around the place at the minute and a lot of negativity surrounding the club.
“We are conceding sloppy goals through individual errors and there are a lot of questions being asked. It has been a disappointing week of cup fixtures and I am bitterly angry and frustrated.”
The term ‘individual errors’ is another of football’s clichés that can mask a more serious problem. If the same individuals are continually responsible for costly errors, it signals they are probably not good enough for the standard they are playing in.
Clarke has clearly been shaken by criticism from fans, with justification considering the magnificent job he has done in resurrecting Rovers’ fortunes.
While insisting he would rather “pickle my eyes” than read internet forums, there was a sense of injustice, as well as a thinly-veiled warning to his players, in the interview posted on the club’s website on Thursday.
“Everyone thinks they are a manager or player these days, not just around here, but in football generally,” said Clarke. “I have to keep a sense of realism.
“The players are aware that they have to do better because I am not a manager to stand still and let things deteriorate. There are two months to the transfer window and we need to improve.
“But only those people with very short memories will forget how far we have come and how quickly. Sometimes you can become a victim of your own success.
“The fact is that we have had a great three years. We are having a tough time as a club at the minute and the only way you get through that is by working hard and everyone pulling in the same direction.
“There is a lot of pressure on myself and the players to turn things around and we are working long hours to put things right. In 350 games as a manager I’ve never had the bullet yet. Perhaps I shouldn’t be saying that!”
During a national radio ’phone-in last week, I was astonished to hear West Bromwich Albion fans calling for Tony Pulis to be sacked. The response from the presenter, quite rightly, was “be careful what you wish for.”
That applies equally to Clarke’s critics. On all known form, he will inspire a change of fortunes, even if it takes some ruthless transfer activity in January. While there is precious little loyalty in football, he is certainly owed some.
It was sad that the Swindon defeat came at the end of a day which had seen the Rovers family unite in paying tribute to former chairman Geoff Dunford at a service to celebrate his life.
St John’s the Baptist Church, Keynsham, was packed in recognition of the man who did so much to help resurrect the club in the 1980s and who sadly died of cancer recently at the age of 66.
Clarke and chairman Steve Hamer were in the congregation. Among the past Rovers managers and players attending were Gerry Francis, John Ward, Ian Holloway, Paul Trollope, Lennie Lawrence, Gary Penrice, David Mehew, Geoff Twentyman, Nicky Tanner, Phil Bater and Phil Kite. Bristol City were represented by chairman Keith Dawe and president Marina Dolman.
Touching and often humorous eulogies were read by Geoff’s son Peter, former (italics) ITN (end italics) reporter Ken Rees, a close friend, Ward, who spent two spells as Rovers boss, and past fellow director Chris Jelf.
It was a service of great warmth and a fitting demonstration of the affection and respect in which Geoff Dunford was held.