One problem ahead of another season, or any tournament, usually involves managing expectations (given that our club is by a distance the finest in the land they will only be satisfied, to some extent, when we have dominated the Premiership and the rest of Europe for say five years). This time around it’s different as there’s a bit of a problem in actually framing our expectations for the campaign ahead (while for once there’s general agreement that England don’t have a bat in hell’s chance at the Euros). I noticed that Huddersfield’s manager, following the most entertaining penalty shoot-out for the neutral since a certain 7-6, was quick to state that their priority is to survive in the Championship. Can we say the same?
It’s easy to list in order our priorities: first, to not get relegated; second, to avoid a relegation battle (such that we might actually enjoy some games); third, to challenge for promotion; fourth, to get promoted; and fifth, to win every game and blow away the division. Somewhere in the list you can feed in playing good football. In the past six seasons the single priority has been easy to identify: stay in the Premiership (failed), rebound (failed), consolidate (failed), rebound (failed), get promoted (failed), get promoted (succeeded, gloriously). This time around, and ahead of new signings, I just don’t know what would constitute success. I guess the answer is, as for Huddersfield, not getting relegated, as that’s progress. It may turn out that way; equally something a good deal better could be on the cards.
A quick check on one website for the early odds on us winning the Championship suggests the bookies aren’t sure yet either. We seem to be being bracketed in a group outside the obvious favourites (Leicester, Wolves, Bolton, Birmingham, Leeds) but at around 20/1 on a par with those that are considered likely to finish mid-table but could surprise (Notts Forest, Middlesbrough, Ipswich etc). We are favourites to finish the top London team in the division, but given the competition that given could still be compatible with a relegation struggle.
I don’t know either whether the outcome of the season ahead will be affected by uncertainty over the objective, even whether my uncertainty is framed by experience (which can be useful but sometimes a limitation). It would be foolish of Sir Chris or the board to be making statements to the effect that promotion is the goal. Last season was different. We all knew that the club couldn’t survive indefinitely in the third tier (I remember Rochdale fans singing ‘your ground’s too big for you’ and at the time they were right). We all know that it can live in the Championship; we’ll be competing against peers in terms of size, probably with a set-up and squad size that will stand comparison with others but not be stand-out. In this division you know you’re just one good season away from the dosh; we can live there. So I guess next season – and the one after that - is all about progress and getting stronger, to whatever degree, on and off the field.
I don’t think that amounts to complacency about being back in the second tier. Yes, we have spent most of my life in the division; the Lennie spell in Division One was a glorious interlude, something of a triumph of will for sides packed full of character, albeit one marred by inability to enjoy ‘home’ games. The period under Curbs was different, given that the money generated afforded the opportunity to develop the club (including the stadium) to a level whereby we could expect to compete in the top flight. We didn’t quite make it that far, in that we were always one bad season away from potential disaster (ie not getting back). I’ve never been able to feel sorry for clubs like Wolves, Sunderland, even West Ham when they get relegated. Sooner or later, given their support levels and potential, it’s virtually assured they will get back (I wouldn’t add Mans City, they needed another few seasons in the third flight to get some semblance of reality into their lives). It’s different for Wigan, Bolton, Blackburn etc, as it was for us.
What did in the end for the Lawrence era in the top tier was, as he effectively said, was a collapse of will. You can over-achieve for only so long and he has talked in terms of the well having been drained. I think there were elements of that in Curbs’ final year, after Murphy threw his toys out of the pram having not received an England recall, Smertin jumped ship, the team lost momentum, and then Curbs himself didn’t get the England job. What gives me confidence for the season ahead is the fact that mental fatigue shouldn’t be an issue in that sense, plus the character shown by the squad through the past season. They showed qualities that carried more than echoes of the best sides put together by Lawrence and Curbishley. We have indeed got our Charlton back.
I do still think – and don’t doubt that Sir Chris and his team are well aware of it - that there will be work to do on the mental side of the game ahead of the season. The squad that was put together a year ago involved a large degree of cherry-picking the best players from teams in the division. They already knew that they could thrive in the third flight. To a man they’ve earned the opportunity to show that they can do the same against better quality opposition. But it is relatively unknown territory for many of them and they have to show they can step up. Confidence shouldn’t be an issue early in the season, but a bad start and that can change. Hopefully all the squad will see this as their best opportunity to prove they belong in at least the second flight, if not higher.
It’s not as if we haven’t done it before. Never mind Lennie and Curbs, I’ve just been reading through the Sam Bartram book and the tales of how a team moved from the third division to Division One runners-up in successive seasons, each time people questioning their ability to cope. So progress is fine and good enough, but collectively the squad could prove to us all that it could involve priority number four, if not five.
It all adds up to bitter disappointment for Pep Guardiola. Having quit Barcelona, it seems he said that “I will be ready (to return) if one club wants me and seduces me”. You can’t blame him for sending out the obvious feelers in the direction of SE7, but sorry Pep, the job’s taken.