At last a laugh out of yesterday’s apology of a football match. According to a Teamtalk report Danny Mills was sent off “apparently for speaking out of turn”. Silly boy. Obviously he should have put his hand up and asked the ref for permission to speak, or waited until Forlan had said his piece before interrupting what was obviously a lively and informed exchange of opinions. Is getting sent off for speaking out of turn more forgivable than getting a straight red for being unable to shut up? Or was it a case of taking the two-match ban to get through to the new year?
Well, there’s nothing else to laugh about. I just can’t make sense out of our season, even allowing for the lottery that is The Championship. With another new team I had thought we would take time to gel, that we would need to be patient, but that as the players got used to each other we would steadily improve. That we found ourselves in second place going into October – and playing some decent stuff, with a squad that looked well-rounded, had cover in all key positions, and was a cut above those around us – was most satisfactory. It looked as though the players had more in them and that, while it was unlikely we would run away with the division, automatic promotion was a realistic expectation.
Instead, even leaving the Hull game aside, since the break after the Barnsley game we have gone backwards. There have been some good performances, especially away from home, some good spells, some good moments. But overall its been very patchy, with no sign of late that we are a better bet to go up than any number of teams around us. I may be over-reacting; after all, we were a win away from going top a week ago and we’re still in a play-off position. But I think, for a number of reasons, we have rather come off the rails.
The statistics are informative. The Hull game was the first we have drawn since that Barnsley game. Of the 13 games since that break (seven at home) we’ve won six and lost six, picking up 19 points. The relative absence of draws has helped the points return, but it’s no more than top 10 form at best. In the first 10 games we won five, drew four and lost just one. We picked up 19 points from these games too, but perhaps just as important during that spell the opposition picked up seven points against us in 10 games; since then the team we’ve played have secured 19 points in 13 games. And in the post-Barnsley games we’ve conceded 17 goals – despite a run of four clean sheets. We’ve scored 17 as well – against 16 in the first 10. The figures alone indicate that we have gone backwards.
Why? There’s no single reason of course. But try these for size. First, losing games has become more of a habit, almost accepted as part and parcel of this division. Second, we had a swagger early in the season. Maybe it was just arrogance, but the team looked as if it expected to win games – and perhaps more important some teams were scared of us. Some upped their game against us, to beat one of the (relative) ‘big boys’, but others were a little intimidated and went for damage-limitation. It might have been the Plymouth and QPR home games that burst that little bubble. Nobody's scared of us now.
Third, the simple relentless grind of Championship fixtures seems to have taken its toll on the players. Of course it’s the same for everyone, but apart from Iwelumo and McCarthy how many of the others have experience of playing a full season at this level? We’ve lost some of our aura and we’re not going to get it back; we are learning that we are in the mix along with many other clubs.
Fourth, as a result of injuries, suspensions and players not matching up to expectations we have not been able to develop reliable partnerships in key areas. We have undoubtedly been unlucky with injuries, while three sendings off haven’t helped either. Losing Moutaouakil was a blow, even though until Saturday Mills had been a real bonus, but Gibbs/Thatcher/Basey getting injured, with the result that Powell has had to play far more games than he can cope with, plus disruptions on the right side, have worked against a settled defence. In the centre McCarthy started poorly, leaving Fortune and Bougherra as first choice. This was not a pairing that looked comfortable, so in came Sodje. If he does go back to Reading we are back to the other three, with the way looking clear for McCarthy to partner either Fortune or Bougherra, unless Semedo gets converted back to being a central defender. He is after all still described as a central defender on the website.
Up front losing Todorov for the season looks even worse in retrospect than it did at the time. Varney and McLeod have not as yet looked worth the money we paid for them; I hope both will still come good. The result has been no reliable partner for Iwelumo, virtually ruling out 4-4-2 even if we wanted to play it. Varney has done his best work outside the box, McLeod looks as if he needs more time to develop, and Dickson is as yet untested for us.
And let’s not pretend that the midfield has been functioning as it could do. Reid is the enigma as ever. We rely on him for creativity but he simply doesn’t have the pace to work well out wide, especially if the opposition set out to crowd him out of the game; and if he plays inside it doesn’t seem to work with Zhi or Ambrose. Holland does a job, so did Semedo before him. But Zhi doesn’t look convincing to me as one of a two-man central midfield. Should we play him in the hole – or Reid or Ambrose? As for the wide men, Sam has not looked the same player since his suspension. Thomas has looked much better after a problematic start. But even though just about every one else has scored for us so far Thomas and Sam have had 23 starts between them – and no goals.
Well, at least Weaver has been ever-present in the league. And he has produced some decisive saves which have won us points. It is increasingly obvious that teams we play against know he can’t deal with crosses, so its up to the rest of the defence to compensate.
Any football team that hopes to win something has to have some idea of its best combinations in key areas. The fact is we have not rotated players to show the strength in depth of our squad; we have alternated because of injuries, suspensions and poor form.
So what do we do about it? It’s increasingly clear that we’re not going to be able to sign a high-profile striker, ie Leeta or Zamora, in January, with Reading seemingly wanting 5m. I’m assuming we just don’t have the resources. Should we try to buy Mills? That’s down to Pardew and the figures of course. But do we want to end up with a defence of Weaver, Mills, McCarthy and Thatcher? If we have to buy defensive cast-offs, there are 91 other teams in the league with better defensive records than Man City (OK that was a dig). Trouble is I have no idea how bad Yassin’s injury is. Sankofa can come in. Mills let himself and everyone else down badly on Saturday and he’s too old to learn from mistakes.
All of this does beg the question – one which I would not have seriously considered early in the season - whether we should try to get promoted this season. The team we have would get slaughtered in the Premiership and I’m assuming there wouldn’t be that much money for new players. It would be a case of taking the cash and looking to rebound, while us supporters get used to being humiliated week in, week out. For the good of the club of course I want us to get promoted this season. But there is an argument in favour of us giving up on this one and going for next season.
What could be the nucleus of a team to get promoted next season? Randolph, Moutaouakil, Sankofa, Semedo, Basey, Zhi, Racon, Sam, Thomas, Dickson, Varney, McLeod, plus maybe Thomas (the defender), Arter and others, and the experience of Reid, Ambrose, Iwelumo, and Weaver, maybe Todorov as well. Whether Powell and Holland have another season in them would remain to be seen.
I’m not trying to make a case for just throwing in the youngsters or for giving up on this season (yet). Rather what is becoming apparent is that if we want to go back up this time we probably need to spend more money in January than we have, to get a forward to deliver quick results. Nobody can complain about the backing that the board has given to managers over the past 18 months and to demand more is unrealistic (although I do feel that the club is falling down in not commenting on the issue of fresh financing with the release of the accounts). But faint heart never won fair lady and blowing a little more money in the vain hope of making the play-offs and possibly squeezing through isn’t being decisive. If it’s to be no money spent and let Mills go back so be it.
A friend recently posted a comment to the effect that he wanted us to win this league but not get promoted. I’m not with him yet as I really don’t enjoy this league at all. The goal – as outlined by Richard Murray – is being in the Premiership with a ground capacity that enables us to compete. It’s just about how to get there. We have the manager we want, we have a board we trust, and we have the nucleus of a team that can get better. Maybe that team will flourish without the pressure of trying to chase promotion this season. To go straight back up we needed most things to go our way; instead we’ve been unlucky. If the end result is taking it on the chin this year and building for next, then getting promoted with a developing team that could compete in the Premiership, having to put up with one more year of playing at Selhurst Park is maybe a price worth paying. No pain no gain.