Gareth Dyer’s rugby column

Gareth Dyer
Gareth Dyer
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Former Preston Grasshoppers player and ex-director of rugby at Lightfoot Green writes every week for the Evening Post

The beginning of a New Year brings the opportunity for new starts in many different ways.

For those who finished 2016 in a strong position it brings the opportunity to pause, refresh and go again.

England coach Eddie Jones is coming to Hoppers on January 16

England coach Eddie Jones is coming to Hoppers on January 16

For those who would rather forget 2016 then the New Year brings the opportunity to evaluate what didn’t work last year and put a new plan in place – be it on or off the pitch.

I think it is fair to say that it will have been the latter approach on the agenda at Lightfoot Green over the Christmas period.

For 2016 was hardly a vintage year.

On the pitch, of the 31 league games played during the 12 months of 2016, Hoppers managed just nine wins and two draws.

Add in the bonus points achieved, the side picked up 55 league points during the calendar year.

To not put too fine a point on that, based on the 30 game National Two North league season, over the past five seasons accumulating 55 points would have only been enough to avoid relegation on one occasion.

Reaching the 60-point mark was always our first target during my time at the club as this would generally mean you would guarantee your status for another year.

Get there as quickly as possible and this would allow you to kick on and target the top half or even the top six.

I have to say that this year it might be that less than 60 points will provide safety, given that there is a glut of sides in the bottom half of the table all battling for survival.

Hoppers currently have 18 league points from 15 games played in this campaign.

They will need to at least double that return in the second half of the season if they are to keep their future in their own hands.

A tall order? Hmmm, perhaps not as big as it may seem.

For Hoppers have nine of their remaining 15 games at home, six of those against teams currently in the bottom half of the division.

Hence the home form will be crucial.

It is now imperative that the new Artificial Grass Pitch (AGP) works are completed as quickly as possible and that Hoppers ensure that it is to their advantage when they play at home.

The AGP will be a superb facility but it is clear that the installation time has gone on longer than envisaged.

My initial understanding was that the works would have been completed by early November.

This was then pushed back to early December and it appears that it will now be mid-January by the time the 1st XV finally get to run out on their new surface.

England coach Eddie Jones is due at Lightfoot Green the week after next for the official launch.

The size of the project was always going to mean that unforeseen issues could arise and cause delays. However, I don’t believe those delays were expected to have been quite as long as they have.

It has clearly been a frustration to everyone involved at Lightfoot Green.

Playing on a second pitch –however good the surface – has had a clear knock-on affect to the match day atmosphere at games and this hasn’t helped a side in transition.

In the summer I did wonder whether Hoppers would have been better served to ask the RFU if they could have switched some of their early season home games to away fixtures, so as to ensure they had an even greater stack of home fixtures in the second half of the campaign when the pitch works were complete.

No doubt this would have brought issues in terms of revenue generation during the early part of the season.

But having seen a reduction in crowds at Lightfoot Green so far in this campaign, it could be that this has been affected already.

So whilst the coaches and players have much work to do to ensure the 2016/17 campaign doesn’t go awry on the field, those off the field have just a big job ahead of them to turn the season around.

Work must be done to ensure that the matchday atmosphere is positive, vibrant and vocally supportive of the team on the field.

Too often in recent seasons the side line support has had all the fervour of a church fete.

There are a lot of passionate Hoppers supporters who follow the team home and away – season in, season out. I have no doubt that they will be fully behind the lads now more than ever.

But there are also a large number of supporters who attend home games who prefer the cosiness of the bar from which to voice their criticisms of what takes place of the field.

I am not suggesting that we suddenly create the “Hoppers Ultras” and expect the ground to reverberate to the sound of drums and flares to rival that of a Turkish football stadium.

But in the past the Hoppers support really got behind their side before, during and after games and that has steadily slipped in recent seasons.

So whilst the coaches and players must put in even harder yards to improve performances it is time for the club management and 
off-field support to stand up to be counted too.

Everybody has their part to play at Lightfoot Green if 2017 is to be the start of the Hoppers fightback.