Whitley started the new year with only their third league defeat of the season, a heavy 5-1 loss at the hands of Carlisle City and after the game manager Nick Gray discussed the game and also looked back over the first half of the season.
“I’ve had the worst year of my life personally in 2022 and I thought 2023 was going to be better, but that start wasn’t great. But the first thing I want to say is well done Carlisle. They were far better than us in every department. I’ve got no complaint about the result. I apologise to the supporters on behalf of the squad and myself for today’s game. But for me if you look at the game, Kirkup their number 5 showed us how to defend as a centre half. Up front their number nine Birdsall never gave anyone a minute at the back. He was a menace, he was a nuisance, he was outstanding today was the centre forward for them, and credit to them, it was well deserved.
“We spoke about it all beforehand and it just didn’t go to plan at all today. I was disappointed with the performance. We haven’t had many of them this year. It’s one to take on the chin. When the players get up tomorrow it’s going to hurt them. I didn’t say a lot after the game really, because I’ll say more at training. What you say then is what’s meant to be said, but I looked in there (the dressing room) 20 minutes after the game and I could still see Turnbull in there with his kit on. It shows how much it means to him. We’ve got to take things on the chin and when things are going well you can try different things. When things don’t go well that defines you as a player; see what your character is what your mentality is. We were second best every department today but three points it’s a bad home defeat, our second home defeat of the season. It hurts us and it’s got to hurt us. We’ve got to learn from it. We’ve played 20 games, we’ve lost three games, the first half of the season has gone, we’ve done smashing but we’ve won nothing. Good sides and good players, they come up when it matters most. Nothing gets won or lost in the first half of the season, it’s the second half of the season and we’ve now got to go out and show what type of players we are, what character we’ve got when things don’t go well, that’s when you see what people are like and today was a dreadful day at the office. It’s disappointing because there was a good few people here today. I just feel as though the hard work we’ve done in the first half of the season and some people have come today for the first time and they’ve seen this. I’m just disappointed for everyone involved in the club today.
“You go into every game to try and win games. The Ashington game was a great three points but, it’s only three points and you move on to the next one. This is our last performance so this is the one we’ve got to think about. We need to learn from our mistakes quickly. We’re still miles away from being a very good side. We are competitive in every game. We are getting better. We do sometimes go backward and then you go forward. But I do think we need to take some things on board. Today was the first time in while we’ve asked people to do some things in a different way. But if you look at their roles and you ask the players who did their job today, you’d struggle to count more than two possibly three who did ok today.”
When asked if the heavier pitches are making it difficult for the younger players to perform, Nick’s response was “Not if they take on board what we say to them. There’s going to be heavy pitches now for the next two months and it’s the same for the opposition. You’ve got to take these things on board because they might be able to do it at grass roots level but at senior level you’re not going to be able to dribble past three players; there’s times there in the game that we needed to move the ball quickly and we didn’t do it and when we haven’t done these things, no one says a word. No one says 'move the ball'. Don’t be embarrassed about telling people what they should be doing on the pitch because if you don’t say anything, they’ll do it again. They’ve got to take the criticism on board. We’ve got some experienced people out there and I’ve got experience myself as manager I’ve been there long enough to know I will make mistakes but I get more right than wrong. You’ve got to take these things I know about, you talk about the pitches, you can’t play football on that pitch today, it was certainly playable, it was, but where we did our best was probably out wide and if you get the ball out wide you could play but we didn’t do that often. We tried to take it through the middle of the pitch. You’ve got to play to the conditions, like the opposition. They played to the conditions and were outstanding today. Our lads have got to take things that the experienced players do in these games. We’ve got to take them on board. It’s not about ‘me, me, me’ it’s about ‘us, us, us’ and today I hope it hurts and they take it on the chin and we go again and learn from it.”
Nick said he was really looking forward to next Saturday’s trip to Penrith. “Yes I cannot wait, it can’t come quickly enough after today’s result. I said that in there. You want to hope to be playing next week because after today’s performance there’s a lot of them will be thinking ‘will I be playing next week? ‘ I know that when I was a player I didn’t want to rely on someone else to do the job, I wanted to put it right myself. The best players and the strongest players and the strong mentality players with the best character do come again and I’m sure they will.”
Nick then went on the review the season so far. At the halfway stage Whitley were in second place in the table and in the semi final of the Northumberland Senior Cup.
“Look at the first half of the season you can look at games in hand, points and all this and it’s in our hands at the halfway stage, but it doesn’t always work like that. Arsenal are top of the league but I still favour Man City personally. I just think we’ve done a lot in the first half, we’ve went out there we’re improving, not many teams knew about us. Teams will know about us more, how we play and what strengths and weaknesses there are and that’s when you’ve sometimes got to change it up, tweek it about a bit. We haven’t got the biggest squad, we certainly haven’t got the biggest financial squad, that’s for sure. We’ve got a tight knit squad; they give their all and there are going to be times when it’s not quite good enough, but you’ve just got to keep on buzzing and thinking we're going to do well. At the beginning of the season if you’d have said we’ll play 19 games and we’ll just lose two I’d have taken that. Second half of the season we won’t be far, far away from the top two or three and we’ve enjoyed the first half. It’s great to take that into the second half. We’ve played some great football, we’ve scored some good goals. We’ve had goals from something like 14, 15 different players which is fantastic. They’re a great group of lads to work with. We just need now to take all of the things we did well and still do them and things we need to work on keep on improving on them. These lads are getting lots of football. If they were playing in the league above they probably wouldn’t be getting as many minutes. The way they get better is by making mistakes, as long as they learn from them. Keep on doing the things they do well at. There’s times in the game where they want to get the ball and some times in tough games that you’re not going to get on the ball, but you’ve still got an important role to do for the team, and they’ve got to understand that a bit more.
“We’ve certainly got to be physically tougher because for me we’re a soft group, we’re a group that needs to toughen up and that’s not me being nasty to them; it’s just me being honest. If you’re getting kicked get up and get up and get them and don’t go down easy. It’s a physical game so you’re going to get a knock in the face. You’re going to get a kick in the ankle. You’re going to get a kick in the leg. That’s football and if you show you’re going down all the time, well that player sees that and they’ll keep on kicking you and you’ve got to understand that. I think that’s something the players as a group have got to do, use your body, use your weight better, be tougher in both boxes, defensively stronger in both boxes. You’ve got to come off the pitch kicked and hurt. It doesn’t matter, it’s going to happen. If you score the winner with a broken nose I’m over the moon! You’ve got to do that because I’ve been in football enough to know that if you put in a half hearted tackle you get hurt so you need to go in there with your full weight and full body behind the ball and if you do that you’ve got less chance of getting hurt.
“It’s been a great first half, we’re in the semi final of the Senior Cup and I look forward to whoever we play in that. I know that these lads will be relishing that and the team we play in the semi final know they’ll have a tough game against us.
“In the league we’ve played every team bar Guisborough and we want to learn from what we’ve done well in the first half. The oppositions’ weaknesses and their strengths and what we need to improve on and as long as we keep on showing progression I’ll be happy. We’ve had a lot more things going right for us in the first half of the season than going against us. The things we need to do better are the things that go against you. With the group we got, there are ten under 23s and they are going to make mistakes but I don’t mind that as long as they show improvement, show desire and they’ve done that this first half of the season.
“I’m not going to bring in some player like for like, they’ve got to be better than what we’ve got and with our financial restrictions here it’s hard, I’ve tried to get players from clubs where they’re getting more money than what we can offer and unfortunately in this day and age money talks. We’ve certainly not got the biggest resources here financially so in a way I’m limited with what I can bring in, however you always want a striker in your squad if he does becomes available.
“Sam Irons has moved on, he’s playing in Spain for a Third Division club and I wish him all the best He’s a good young lad. He went over there and I hope it works out for him. A lot of players here have got ambitions and as a club we’ve got to match their ambitions. I’m just hoping these young lads understand and take my advice and my opinion. I look at this as an 18 month project to get out of this league. If we get out this year, great. It would mean it’ll be a tougher league next year. However let’s see how quick these lads can learn in the Northern League. One thing I say about them is that they all show willingness to learn. When we get it right we learn together and when we get it wrong we’ve got to learn together and I’ll take it on the chin from the top.”