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Club News

GROVE STREET | LIAM KITCHING

19 January 2022

Strangely, Saturday's game against Birmingham City is our first Sky Bet Championship fixture of 2022 and we are already well into the New Year. Cancellations because of Covid outbreaks in opposition and our own squads have wreaked havoc on the schedule, meaning our last league outing was at Blackburn Rovers.

Of course, in the midst of all that was a fittingly bonkers Emirates FA Cup clash against Barrow AFC in the third round, a tie that encapsulated everything that football supporters love about that wonderful competition.

Yes, heartrates may have been a little bit higher than they perhaps should have been given that the Reds led 2-0 at half-time against 10 men, but this is football – a sport where, famously, anything can happen.

It’s the age old saying ‘the magic of the cup’ and we were almost on the wrong end of one of those all-time classic upsets. But the Reds pulled through and secured safe passage to set-up a fourth round Yorkshire derby with Huddersfield Town.

“I think that’s one of the craziest games I’ve ever been involved in,” admitted Liam Kitching, as we took our seats in the North Stand boot room. “But, as you say, it’s the magic of the cup and we all know in football that it’s not over until the final whistle.

“We’re obviously pleased to go through because, at the end of the day, that’s the target we set ourselves before the game and we’ve achieved that, but we’re disappointed with how we’ve done it.

“Conceding four goals against 10 men shouldn’t happen and it’s up to us, now, to take a look at ourselves, reflect on the game and the performance as a whole and work on what we can do better as a team.”

There haven’t been many occasions this season where the Reds have shipped so many goals, with Championship top scorers Fulham the only other team to have bagged four against us this term.

In fact, since the arrival of Poya Asbaghi at Oakwell a couple of months ago, defensive performances have been reasonably sound, which is what left many of us scratching our heads in the wake of that victory over Barrow.

“It’s frustrating because, as a defender, you hate conceding goals,” continued Kitch, as he is known to us here on Grove Street. “I think, if you look at the ones against Barrow, they’re all preventable.

“We need to be more switched on because we can’t afford to give away those kind of opportunities against a high league opposition or else – as you’ve seen – we’ll be punished for it.”

That was clear to see in our final encounter of 2021 at Ewood Park where we were brutally put to the sword by the division’s form team as Joe Rothwell and Ben Brereton Diaz pounced after the hosts won back possession.

Other than those two moments, the Reds were relatively untroubled by Rovers, but Liam believes it is time for he and his teammates to start eradicating those errors from their game if they are to climb out of trouble.

“I don’t think they broke us down at all; the only chances they got were from us losing the ball,” he reflected. “Hopefully, we can start keeping clean sheets – which we need to improve on – but we need to stop making silly mistakes and that’ll give us an even better chance.

“I think we gave them goals from our silly mistakes, which we need to cut out of our game because if we didn’t give them those goals, they didn’t really break us down or create many chances.

“The only chances they got were from our mistakes in our half of the pitch, so I feel like we’re building on that to try and cut out mistakes and try and create more chances.

“It’s decision making, I think. No one wants to give the ball away in that area, but sometimes it’s just decision making with what to do when you’re in that position or who to play to or, if it’s risky, get the ball gone and put it into a good area, squeeze up the pitch and start again.”

Unfortunately for the Reds, there was an injury to a key player that evening as Michał Helik hobbled from the pitch just after the hour mark.

He was also absent against Barrow last weekend and Kitch insists the Polish centre-back is a big loss when out of the side.

“He’s a massive miss; he’s a fantastic player and you can learn a lot from him, but we’ve got other players who are more than capable of putting a good shift in,” discussed Liam. “But he’s a big player – on the ball and with his leading attributes.

“He’s a good leader, even if he’s not talking – if he’s on the ball and doing something good or defending, he’s always a leader, and he kind of gives the team a bit of momentum if he goes and wins a big header or whatever.

“I look up to him a lot; he’s not just a great guy but also a fantastic footballer. I try to learn a lot from him on the pitch and off the pitch.”

Recent preparation hasn’t been particularly ideal, with a combination of Covid cases and injuries limiting the number of players available to train with the first team set-up.

With the Nottingham Forest game postponed and the rearranged Stoke City clash also another casualty of the pandemic, Liam admits that, despite putting plenty of hours in on the training ground to iron out the creases, it’s difficult to get into any kind of rhythm.

“We’ve obviously missed a few games through Covid and whatever, but we’ve been training well and working hard on the training pitch, so we’re ready to focus on the league again and get as many points as we can,” he asserted.

“You train all week and your mindset is right, and for it to get called off you’ve got to look at another team and train all week in preparation for them – do different patterns and different styles of play to break them down, and work on their strengths and weaknesses.

“For me, I like the competitiveness, I like playing and I want to win. I want to turn the season around and play as many games and win as many games as possible.”

Postponements and progression in the FA Cup have naturally led to a fixture congestion, with our home clash against Cardiff City in February another one to be rescheduled to accommodate the fourth round tie with Huddersfield.

The schedule up until the end of March – the next international break – looks set to be relentless and, should Barnsley hit a nice run of form, could provide the kind of momentum that propels us up the table.

“If we get one win, I think we can kick on and hopefully go on a little run and that’s always good for confidence and team spirit,” reasoned Kitch. “With games coming thick and fast, if you have a bad game, you can turn it around quickly or, if you have a good game, you can have momentum and take it into the next one.

“We’ve got some good characters who will pull together and, hopefully over the next couple of months, we can gain as many points as we can.”

It’s easy to forget that Kitch is still only 22-years-old given the number of mature performances he has put in, in what is his first full season at Championship level.

With 51 appearances for Forest Green Rovers under his belt prior to arriving at Oakwell last January, the tough tackling defender has experience to fall back on in terms of game time, but playing in this division has been a different kettle of fish entirely and a challenge he has embraced.

“It’s been good for me on a personal level and it’s good for me to be around this environment,” insisted Liam.

“I’m always learning every day and trying to make myself a better player, on and off the pitch, and I feel like I’m growing as a person as well, just being at Championship level.

“You’ve got to look at it in a way where you want to perform against these players and test yourself to see how good I really can be.

“I think I’ve been up and down a little bit; it doesn’t help with where we are in the league – it’s disappointing and does take its toll, personally, when you’re losing. Sometimes you’ve just got to look at it like there’s a game in three days and you can turn it around.

“In some games, there have been areas where I can improve a lot, but I’m still learning a lot and it’s my first season at this level, but I know I can do better.

“The more games you play, the more experience you’ll get and different types of games give you different experiences. Say at lower league, it’s more long ball and different teams have different styles of play.

“You bring that all together and you have to merge your game, and you get better by learning and playing against different styles.”

He has been deployed as a left-back recently under Asbaghi, who appears to enjoy the way our number five drives forward with the ball when in possession and fires diagonal passes over to the right flank.

It is a position that Liam is comfortable in, having played there previously during his time with Harrogate Town and Forest Green, and feels like he is learning more about the role with each passing day.

“I’m always happy to be on the pitch and playing,” he stated. “Whatever the gaffer asks from me, I’ll always give it 100%, so if he wants me to play there, I’ll play there and I’ll always give my all.

“It’s football, at the end of the day and, you never know, I could be moving back over like with Mich’s injury or if someone else gets injured or with Covid – you never know what’s going to happen. You’ve got to be ready for anything.”

Indeed, that has been the case with a number of our academy prospects over the past few weeks with several stepping up to train with the senior squad as our Head Coach looks to integrate those who have been performing well.

Joe Ackroyd, Danny Benson, David Bremang, Jordan Helliwell and Jason Sraha were all on the bench against Barrow, with Ackers featuring for 15 minutes as a replacement for Romal Palmer.

“It’s always hard to step up from the under 23s to the first team, but I feel like they’re getting into the swing of it now,” said Kitch. “They always give their all, which is great to see, and I’m sure with all that hard work they’ll have good careers.

“They just need to keep working hard on the training pitch and doing everything right because there’s some good players in there.

“It’s nice to see some young players coming through and doing well. It’s always good for the club and shows how good the coaching staff are, so credit to them for developing these young lads.

“I remember when I first stepped up to a first team set-up and I was a bit shy and nervous, so you’ve just got to try and give them confidence. If you do that, they’ll feel a bit more comfortable with their performance.

“With confidence, you’ll always perform better, so you’ve got to give him little tips here and there to help them become better players.”

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