Kelly forced to second-guess solution to Widnes riddle

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Neil Kelly does not believe in second-season syndrome, seeing it as a product of journalists' imaginations rather than a genuine affliction, but that does not stop him agonising over just what has gone wrong at Widnes this year.

This time last season, Kelly's Widnes side were everybody's favourite breath of fresh air, with six wins in the bag and the way prepared for a tilt at the play-offs. Going into tomorrow's game against Huddersfield, they have just three victories to their credit and, were it not for the grim form of Halifax, they would be in danger of dropping back out of Super League at the end of the campaign.

Worse than that, some of Widnes' defeats have shown a sad absence of the very qualities that carried them so far in their debut season.

"We have got stronger individuals within our group of players this season, but the thing we had last season was a really strong team spirit," Kelly says. "Teams found us really difficult to play against, because we were always in their faces.

"We've got more quality now, but maybe some players have taken that as their cue to not quite put in the same amount of effort. After some of our defeats, you've had that feeling that the team hasn't given 100 per cent."

Although there was one spectacular incident of ice bucket-kicking earlier this season, Kelly has generally kept his cool with his under-performing players. After last week's 40-2 defeat at Castleford, however, he kept them behind closed doors for an hour of straight talking and he has promised team changes this weekend.

"One or two players have said that I need to be tougher with them, but I've had coaches who have ruled with an iron fist and any response you get from that is only temporary. When you lose their respect, you've lost it for good."

One of Kelly's strengths as a coach, one who was a near-unanimous choice as Super League's Coach of the Year last season, is his ability to step back and criticise his own performance.

"Maybe I've got one or two things wrong this season," he acknowledges. "I've given some people chances to redeem themselves which they haven't always taken. And all our wins have come with Jules O'Neill at stand-off. I changed that and we started losing."

Kelly has also questioned his recruitment policy for this season, saying: "I don't think it's ideal having so many players from West Yorkshire travelling across, but you look at our Super League rivals on this side of the Pennines and their junior set-ups, and we're trying to catch up very quickly."

He has even asked himself whether his duties outside the club, as coach of the Welsh national side, have been a distraction. "Most of that work comes at the end of the season, when we play Australia, but when you're having a bad run you wonder whether you should ditch it," he says.

Kelly has decided not to do that and he is also reluctant to use his sometimes abrasive relationship with the Widnes board as an excuse.

Unlike many Super League clubs, where the administration is pared down to one or two individuals, Widnes is still run by an old-fashioned and often unwieldy gathering of directors. It was a system that served the club well enough when they were the Cup kings of the Seventies and Eighties - in fact, they were then run by a committee - but it looks increasingly outmoded now.

"The club has changed a lot over the last couple of years," Kelly says. "But it's got to change more. You look at other clubs, at what works and what doesn't and you can see that it needs to be more streamlined. But these are changes that need to be made at a time that is right for the club, and I don't remember many turkeys voting for Christmas.

"I don't want to blame the structure of the club for the way things are going this season, though. That would be putting up a smokescreen."

Kelly describes Widnes' fans as "the one section of the club that has performed admirably all season. They have got right behind us and they haven't been rewarded with the performances they have deserved. They would be justified in asking, 'Why should we go again this week?' but now's the time we need them more than ever."

The search for answers to the elusive question of what is going wrong continues tomorrow at home to Huddersfield, the team trying to emulate what Widnes achieved last year by establishing themselves in Super League.

"The thing is that we over-achieved last season, which makes this very disappointing by comparison," the Widnes coach reflects. "I don't know about second-season syndrome. Perhaps we had our second season first."