It’s been a few weeks now, but for me at least it’s still far too soon to think about next season. Obviously others have to, when it comes to sorting out who’s staying and who’s going. But there’s nothing we can do to influence this process, so let it run its course. It is, after all, going to have a long way to run, with no guarantee that it will be over when the new season kicks off. We could by then still have players out of contract not having signed for another club, leaving open the possibility that they will stay, and others still on the books we would be happy to offload. Just how Parkinson goes about shaping a team and trying to fill in gaps in these circumstances is beyond me, but that’s the task in hand.
Of the six already released, the only possible surprise for me was Spring. With Shelvey gone (to learn at the feet of Gerrard seemed to be the goal, although it looks like he might have to learn Spanish to achieve that goal), Bailey looking likely to be sold, and no certainty that Racon and/or Semedo will fancy another season in SE London (I hope they do), I would have thought he might have come into the picture. But so be it; presumably both sides felt he needed pastures new. McKenzie was a gamble that didn’t pay off, Dickson had his chances with us and others and went backwards through the season, while Sinclair never made the grade with us. I’ve no idea what goes on behind the scenes, but they are all players you hope still have something left to offer for others. As for Moutaouakil, even an ardent Francophile like myself has to say we’ll remember the name with affection but nothing else. The guy’s obviously a talented footballer, but like Dickson needs to take a long look at himself if potential is going to be turned into something concrete. I’d have honestly been ashamed of myself for picking up the wages and contributing nothing.
Nobody could accuse Bailey of not contributing his all. But as our one obviously saleable asset it’s a case of good luck as long as the fee’s OK. I hope he goes to a Championship side rather than, as rumoured, Southampton, for two reasons. First, he needs to improve. He’s been splendid for us in terms of his attitude and his goals, but it isn’t an accident that this season he was unable to really nail down the central midfield role and found himself pushed out wide left. His passing can let him down and he struggles to impose himself. Basically I think he needs to be playing at Championship level to really prove himself. Second, having sung ‘Bailey’s too good for you’ with others in the games against Southend, it would rather stick in the throat to hear it thrown back at us next season if he returns under Pardew, especially as Southampton have to be among the favourites for promotion.
But this wasn’t the purpose of the post, should there ever be one. The nation might be about to indulge in a month of solid football (albeit one destined to end in similar fashion to our season), but I’m still stuck in a rut trying to reconcile myself to our failure to win promotion and possible reasons why. I’m sure others have already been writing eloquently on the subject, but I’m sad to say that after Swindon I’ve not wanted to think about Charlton, for a while at least. So belated thoughts on what went wrong might just be the next, necessary step in a personal rehabilitation process.
Parkinson said the players should be proud of what they achieved. There’s merit in that, especially as before the season began expectations were not especially high. However, Murray and the board nailed their colours to the mast by not selling Shelvey or Bailey and making it clear that promotion was the only goal, and from about late August through to the final penalty I believed we were going to go back up. In that context the season was, ultimately, a failure. The fourth in a row.
A 46-game season in which you fall short by two-and-a-half points and fail to make a Wembley play-off final by one goal and a penalty shoot-out means that any number of games/incidents can be flagged with hindsight as crucial. The same applies to other teams; after all, Swindon would have finished second were it not for two last-gasp equalisers by us. Obviously the final game still rankles as we had done the hard part and let it slip from our grasp. But if there is one moment which might have changed the season (aside from Youga’s injury, followed not long after by the cruelly unpunished taking out of Basey) it was Millwall’s equaliser against us at The Valley. They’d actually played much better football than us on the day, but we were winning, against 10 men. We couldn’t close out the game, as against Swindon. In the final analysis, although the margins were fine, we came up short because we weren’t good enough.
That might seem a little strange as in the early stages of the season we looked head and shoulders above the others, with the exception at the time of Leeds. But for me the season had three quite distinct phases. The first was the period through to that game against Millwall just before Christmas. In those first 21 games we were always in the top two and took 45 points, or 2.14 points per game. That return if sustained through the season would have given us 98 points. Perhaps most tellingly, in that extended spell we won seven games (of the 13 won) by more than a single goal. In the remaining 25 games we managed that feat only three times more. At times I thought the team was sturdily professional and doing just enough to win. But with hindsight they weren’t good enough to blow teams away. With nearly every game ending up close it has to take a mental toll.
The second stage of the season was the 16 games from Millwall at home through to Gillingham at The Valley in March. This is the period when we blew a golden opportunity to secure a top-two finish. We managed just 22 points, or 1.38 points per game, a return which if extended through a full season would have resulted in a mid-table finish. The period included just three wins out of nine games at home, including defeats against Orient and Brighton and a failure to beat Gillingham and Tranmere (as well as Millwall and Swindon). In this period we kept just one clean sheet, conceding 24 goals.
By late March we were in danger of dropping out of even a play-off position and there must have been some home truths driven home as the team did manage to stabilise the situation. Indeed, we ended up playing better than at any stage other than the early games (when in truth the opposition often handed us the game). It began with a dogged and very necessary draw away at Huddersfield and in the final 9 games we picked up 17 points, or 1.89 points per game. Extend that through the season and we would have had 87 points – just enough to have taken second place. It was clear where the change came as in the final nine games we conceded just four goals – and never more than one. Back to basics of a sort.
So, we started and ended well but failed miserably in the middle. I can’t say why. A 46-game season is a long haul and, not unlike Leeds, perhaps we simply lost our way, with a few key injuries, some loss of form, perhaps some bad luck. What is galling is that when the management/team realised that we were in danger of missing out even on a play-off spot they were able to recover and show towards the end of the season what they were capable of. Perhaps they had it in mind through the season that if we were close to Leeds that would be enough, before Norwich came along and changed the picture. But only people in the dressing room will have a good idea why we went off the boil between Christmas and late March.
The next stage in the therapy will be my ratings for the season, perhaps mixing this with thoughts of how each department of the team might look next season (in a desperate attempt to avoid pure navel-gazing). I once received an application for a job and the candidate wrote that he was keen on the position because his psychiatrist had advised him that it would be a good move for him (not surprisingly he didn’t make the interview stage). If I had a shrink (other than one at the bottom of a glass) he/she might say that it doesn’t matter that everyone else has moved on. There will come a day when next season seems appealing, probably about the time that the club releases a DVD of what has just passed.