Blame game ends as Neilson looks to relieve the pressure at Luton Town
Temporary boss Alan Neilson refused to label Saturday’s visit of play-off rivals Mansfield Town as a ‘must-win’ game as he looks to keep the pressure off of his shell-shocked players, writes Mark Wood.
Having surrendered a one-goals lead in Tuesday night’s 1-1 draw against 10-man Macclesfield, and with Town still reeling from the departure of boss Paul Buckle the same day, Neilson was doing his best to stay level-headed at yesterday’s press conference.
And he is keen to instil some new-found confidence in his charges as Town looked to put a run together, while the search for a new manager goes on.
Neilson said: “I wouldn’t like to say it’s a must-win because it then puts more pressure on them. But it’s a game we definitely have to look to get the three points. We know that we can’t lose the game and three points would make it closer. Mansfield have played the same amount of games as us so we have to close the gap on them.
“Mansfield are going to be tough, they’re always tough. We saw down there earlier this season, we were winning 2-1 and they brought the big lad on up front and we drew 2-2. Away from home a point’s not the end of the world, but when you are winning 2-1 with five minutes to go you expect to win the game.
“We know they’re going to be big, strong, physical. We have to be mentally strong enough to hold up and win the physical battle against them and also go and play our football.
“The focus of myself and the staff is to concentrate on the game, concentrate on Mansfield, how they’ll play, how we’ll counteract it and how we’ll hopefully go and get the three points.”
And Neilson believes instilling new confidence in the players and not focusing on their mistakes could be the way to take the pressure off as they look to go on a run to get them back in the play-off frame.
He said: “We’re trying to get confidence into them. We saw on Tuesday night, the second half there wasn’t a lot of confidence in the play. We didn’t pass the ball well enough and they looked like they were bigger, better and stronger than us. Obviously that comes with winning games, winning football matches.
“After the game against Millwall last Saturday it was a big disappointment because we let ourselves down against Millwall. Me personally, second half as well I thought we let ourselves down against 10 men and let them back into the game. Our focus now is just to let the players relax, be comfortable. We know they are good players we just need to give them the confidence to go and show the fans how good they are.
“I think if you look at the cup games there’s been no pressure. There’s no pressure on them because Wolves are in the Championship, Norwich are in the Premiership and also Millwall are in the Championship and it looks like we’re underdogs.
“Nearly all of the games we play in the league we’re nearly always favourites and that takes a lot of pressure off and they go out and express themselves.
“Yes, Millwall, we conceded some sloppy goals and made some individual mistakes but that happens.
“I said don’t worry if you make a mistake. Just forget about it and make sure the next time you get on the ball make sure you do a good pass, good shot, or good clearance or header, or great save from (Mark) Tyler, whatever it may be, just go out and relax, no pressure and enjoy it.”
But he admitted that being so far adrift of both the automatic promotion places and the play-off spots brings its own demands.
“I think the situation we are in now, you look at the table,” Neilson said. “We’re not going to kid ourselves, we’re points behind and got games in hand and I think that adds a little bit of pressure.
“Our home form’s been good. We’ve lost three at home all season against lower sides and we’ve lost seven away games which hasn’t been good enough.
“It’s going to be difficult, but there’s still 17 games to go. I’ve looked at the average number of points to get into the play-offs and it’s round about 80. We need to go on a run.
“Kidderminster at the start of the season they lost the first five games and look where they are now. They’re absolutely flying, on a great run. We know we’ve got the players to go on a great run and it’s got to start Saturday.
“We know we’ve got good players here, we just need to give them the confidence and give them the mentality to go out and express themselves. I said before, don’t worry if you make a mistake. If you make a mistake forget about it and try and do it better next time.
“We’ve tried to make it as nice and relaxed as we can. We’ve done a lot of technical stuff today and tactical stuff on the team shape and just tried to have a nice little fun day so that they’re relaxed so that when they go on the pitch on Saturday they’re at it, but relaxed at the same time.”
However, Neilson knows there is plenty to work on after Town’s terrible second half showing at Macclesfield on Tuesday night.
He said: “From Tuesday I think it was the first half. We’ve gone through the DVD and watched it. First half, Andre Gray’s chance is a great chance. The ball’s thrown out from Mark Tyler it went to Andre Gray, he played two-touch and played it Jonathan Smith. Jonathan Smith has played it to Alex Lawless it went to (Jake) Howells, went to Greg Taylor, Andre made the run and hit the post and Jon (Shaw) had the chance.
“We created chances, Andre Gray knows himself he had three good chances, he’s scored one, hit the post. If you look at it we did create things. The most disappointing thing second half is we didn’t pass the ball well enough.
“We tried to sit back and defend the lead, it didn’t work. Once they equalised it looked like we had more belief to go forward again. We changed gear. It’s just having the belief in the players that we can go out and pass the ball for 90 minutes. We know we will be under pressure for some parts of the game, but need to have the belief and be relaxed enough to pass the ball.
“We had a look at the DVD after training yesterday, the second half wasn’t good enough. And we went through the reasons why. Today we’ve gone on the tactical stuff going forward and tomorrow we will work on the defensive stuff.”
The Hatters will now be looking for their most experienced players to lead from the front, with the likes of captain Ronnie Henry, Steve McNulty and Wayne Thomas the most likely candidates.
Neilson continued: “I think now if you look at the experienced players, the captain Ronnie Henry, you’ve got the new lads. Steve McNulty is experienced and Wayne Thomas has come in now that he can play games.”
Henry had laid into his Hatters team-mates after Tuesday night’s draw and, while respecting his skipper’s opinions, Neilson believes there is more than one way to skin a cat for Town to get success.
He added: “I think Ronnie’s been at Stevenage. He’s won things at Stevenage, two promotions, they won the FA Trophy. Ronnie’s been with a team that’s been really strong and physical and at Luton Town we probably play in a slightly different way.
“Of course you need strong players, but we try to pass the ball and move it about. Ronnie’s teams have been big physical players, which you need a mixture to get out of this league.
“At the minute, Ronnie might be right when he says we haven’t got big units that are all six foot, but we’ve got players that try and play. You have to do a nice balance, when to play football and when not to play football and when to go big and strong against some of the teams that will try to play the ball more direct.
“I think it’s a mix. Ronnie’s the captain and he’s got his opinion. You do need big players, but you need players who are going to be strong on the ball. It’s not just about having players that are going to be big and strong and kick people. You need big, strong players and mentally strong enough to get hold of the ball and want the ball when we are not under pressure. But at the minute we are under pressure.”