Widnes Wild Head Coach Mike Clancy (Photo by Geoff White)
We are now more or less half way through your first season as Wild Head Coach. How would you say things have gone so far?
I have to be honest and say this is the strangest season I have ever been involved with in ice hockey. We started the season well with 25 good strong skaters and brought in some new players to try and replace some of the experienced players of last season who left during the summer.
I have had a period of adjustment coming into the Wild set up – which has had a really successful team – and trying to continue with that and drive it forward. So, from that point of view, I thought we got off to a really good start with the blend of youth that has come in to replace some older players, although that’s not going to replace the goals. And I think that with a 25-man squad that puts us in a reasonable position to play competitive hockey.
I didn’t expect to have a huge list of players being injured. We then had three family bereavements – part of that took me away from the team for about 4 weeks – and I think because of all the upheaval and changes, we haven’t been able to get settled and get some stability in the lines. So, we have had a little bit of bad luck, a little bit of wrong place, wrong time for some of the players who got injured and we didn’t expect it – so that has put us back.
What about taking part in the Midland Cup – has that been a help or a hindrance?
The start of the season was great – the Cup games for me have been great learning experiences and I don’t think they have disrupted our season in any way. What they have given us is what we thought they would give us – which is an indication of where we need to be in order to be able to compete in the league above and to give the fans a little bit of something different because there were people who were disgruntled at the decision not to go up at the end of last season.
I don’t think it would have been very good for anybody to have taken the step up to the Moralee Division this season and then get beaten in almost every game, while you are trying to rebuild the team.
Everybody seems to forget that the core of last year’s team who were very strong on points scoring and assists and leading the team have all stopped playing this year. So the likes of Ollie Barron and Brittle – the list goes on – but in total that’s about 200 points taken out of the team and that is a tough challenge to replace. So, I thought a compromise would be to take part in the Midland Cup because it enables us to see what we need to do because our ambition is to step up to that level.
I think we have been very unlucky in a number of those games – especially the Blackburn game at home when we competed from start to finish and lost out narrowly at the end. I think Sutton at home was a very competitive game, again, and we just lost out towards the end of the game, conceding two goals. I think we have had two very good games against Nottingham – who, I would point out, did take that step up to the next level and have not won a game.
And at the end of the day, if anybody had said to me at the beginning of the Cup campaign would I have been pleased to have taken 2 points out of it, as well as the learning experience, I probably would have said “yes.
How happy are you with the make up and balance of the squad for the season?
In view of the fact that we have a lot of players missing through injury, we probably do need to strengthen the squad but I am not going to go out and just bring in anybody to fill up a shirt and sit on the bench. If I can’t bring in somebody to do a particular job and strengthen the side, then I won’t take them.
The reason behind the recent Callum Worthington-Evans signing was that we had brought Solomon Smith in to try and help us beef up the defence but that didn’t work for several reasons. One was that he wasn’t able to get to training sessions so he couldn’t understand the systems we were working and the other was that he had his eye on the bigger prize of moving to Blackburn and playing at the next level.
So, I thought we were lacking a bit of depth in defence. Callum’s name had been mentioned to me a couple of times and he came onto the ice quietly and trained with us a couple of times, so I was pleased with what I saw. I definitely thought he could offer us something and that’s why we took Callum on.
You said at the start of the season that you wanted to set up a clear development pathway between the junior teams and the Wild NIHL team. Sam Anderson is a good example of how that is working, playing for both the Wild team and the Under18s. What can you tell us about him?
Sam has been absolutely fantastic. He is well liked around the changing room and he is looked after – and very much so by the senior players. I think he has a great future in hockey but I think people tend to forget that he is still only sixteen years old and that is the only bit that concerns me.
In the home game against Deeside, we gave Sam a lot of time with regular shifts on a line and I felt that he was a little bit nervous and a bit tentative about the physicality of the team we were playing. With the strength of the team and the age of the team at Deeside, we knew they were going to bring a physical game and I just thought that Sam was maybe looking over his shoulder a little too much. I didn’t want him to get hurt and that is why I didn’t use him for the latter stages of that game.
I do think that, given time, because he trains with the Wild senior team, as he grows and gets a bit stronger in stature, his ice time will certainly increase.
Jake Lowndes has been called up from the Under 18s to the Wild bench for a few games. What can you tell us about him?
Jake has been training with the Wild since the past five or six weeks – he has been training well and he has had a bit of success with the Under 18s and I think having him training with the older, more experienced players is helping him develop further.
We had Jonah Armstrong and Tom McDonald away for the Deeside game so it gave us the opportunity to blood a youngster and give him some experience. If something had happened to Phil Pearson – would we have played him? Yes we would, because it would have been the right thing to do but would I have expected to put him in if Phil had been OK – then probably not as it was too strong a game to do so.
But the experience of being around the team on a match night is the next step of development for him and, as he grows and continues to train, by the end of the season maybe a Blackburn-type game he will get some ice as a starting goalie.
What are your thoughts on the Laidler Division this season so far?
It is safe to say we are not in the position at the moment that I would like to be in – and we have shown a lack of strength in some of the games we have played.
Looking at the season overall, I am viewing each contest as a mini series of head to head games and the challenge to the squad is to make sure that we win every series against every single team. So, if we don’t beat them by wins over the full contest, then we make sure that we beat them by goals. That means if it’s two wins for us and two wins for them, and we score 15 goals and they score 14, then, to me, that’s winning that series of games.
So against the likes of Bradford, Hull, Altrincham and now Deeside – and probably Sheffield – I think that’s where we are. I think we need to win our mini series against each of those teams and if we get more points out of those sets of four games, then we will finish top of the pile.
Despite the setbacks we’ve had with injuries, etc. there is still a great positivity in the changing room but I really do need to get a few of those key players back as that will get us motoring again. They are a big influence around the team – Michel Novak, Mike Mawer – when they are back from injury that will give us an edge.
It would be silly of me to try and say that we are going to go out and win every game from now until the end of the season because some of these games are really, really close. Bradford, in particular – and the home defeat to Deeside shocked me a little bit.
With those home defeats to both Deeside and Altrincham I’d be really upset if we didn’t compete, although on both occasions, we heavily out-shot the opponents and just couldn’t find the clinical finish to put the puck in the back of the net.
In the Deeside game, when I pulled the net minder, if we had put the puck in the back of the net, we’d have been the heroes and probably gone on to win that game. To concede like we did at the end was disappointing – and it is a risk, not everybody likes it – but what’s the point in playing if you are losing..?
What are your predictions for the rest of the season?
I said at the beginning of the season that I expected the team to have the quality to be able to win this League and I am not going to change my thoughts just because we have had some pretty tough games.
We have only played 10 league games and we still have the majority of our league season to play coming into the New Year. I really think we will be able to start picking up points pretty quickly. The Christmas break has come in at the right time so we can get some of those boys fit again as well.
At the minute I’ve got people playing in positions they would not normally play in, playing systems they wouldn’t normally play, so there are so many things going on.
Every game takes a lot of thinking about – every game is a slightly different system, depending on the opponents and I watch all the games that Colin records from start to finish to see who has done what, where and when and what we can do better next time.
We need to get Michel Novak back – he makes that first line of Dippy and Bullock work – Hajek, M.J. and Gilbert – I’ve lost Mikey until February – they would make that second line work really well and I’d have the likes of Mawer, Gee and Tarpey – they make up a really strong third line because there are goals in every single one of them.