In Saturday’s programme, Michael Morrison talked of a “massive 72 hours” for the club. They couldn’t have gone much better, could they? We have time now to worry about fixture congestion (seems the Watford home game will be rescheduled for the next trip to Sheffield; would have been worse of course if Wednesday had equalised a second time and a replay was required), even to prepare for Saturday and what on paper at least appears like the hardest game of the season, even though we know that all we have to do is an emergency loan to get Kermorgant back for one game to come away with the points.
The images of Sir Chris sitting in the dugout on his own after Saturday’s win, then on Monday night swinging from the crossbar in front of the fans (unfortunately I can’t claim to have been among them, although I did make the youth cup game), will live long in the memory. After weeks of at best uncertainty (and at worst enforced disarray), he must have slept well on Saturday night, perhaps with the wins and contract negotiations seemingly started finally confident of being in a job come the next day. And let’s give him some proper credit, not just for taking the heat and pressure over recent weeks but also for his team selection and changes made. On Saturday we set up with two banks of four and (with hindsight) kept things tight for the bulk of the game, then made substitutions that gave us fresh impetus at the right time, as QPR were flagging towards the finish, playing as if they believed their manager’s daft comment about a “near impossible” pitch. And on Monday night, with some adjustments to incorporate fresh legs, we came away with the victory.
No question that on other days both games could have ended differently. There has to be some sympathy for Sheff Wed given the nature of our winner (it wasn’t a Maradona/Henry as Church had no intent to use his arm/shoulder, but having failed to make the connection with his head it was handball) and the subsequent near misses. Don’t have sympathy as such for QPR (and they don’t need it), but if they’d gone ahead it could well have been game over. On other days the luck has gone against us, so we take it and enjoy it.
All of which is just a bit of preamble to get us back to the basic issue: Duchatelet – visionary or fool? Perhaps there are fine margins on this front too.
After the debacle of the transfer window, I did come away with the impression that we would have sold anyone for whom an offer came in, as part of what looked to me like a deliberate Duchatelet ploy to prioritise cutting the wage bill/generate funds while shipping in those from his other clubs deemed surplus to requirements, in the process displaying an indifference to the risk of relegation. That wasn’t an unreasonable inference at the time, given the changes made (and hints of others). What comes across now, in light of what has been said in the conferences and written elsewhere, gives more of an impression of confusion and poor decision-making on the part of our new owner rather than the deliberate and pre-conceived enforcement of any asset-stripping policy.
Duchatelet of course cannot be blamed for the situation he inherited (ie Powell and so many players on contracts expiring at the end of the season). But surely he was made aware of it and/or realised it himself during and after the process of due diligence. In other circumstances I really wouldn’t have blamed Duchatelet for wanting to take some time to get to know Sir Chris himself, see how they could work together, even to the extent of leaving it to the end of the season before making a decision on whether or not to retain him. But the circumstances we were/are in called for a clear decision. What we ended up with was considerable uncertainty, with undesirable consequences as players (Kermorgant and Alnwick) felt they had to take up other opportunities to secure their futures. Equally, Duchatelet may have felt on taking over that we were headed for relegation with the players (and manager) we had in situ and felt ready to take offers for any of them (the club wasn’t obliged to accept offers). If he believed that, he was (in my opinion) mistaken; the team needed strengthening, not gutting.
If Duchatelet’s intention on taking over was to strengthen the team/squad to increase our chances of staying up, he has to date simply made poor, ill-informed decisions . Two wonderful wins (and the possibility of a Wembley visit or two) of course make us feel happier. But the team that took to the pitch against QPR contained only two Duchatelet signings (Thuram-Ulien and Ghoochannejhad) and they were (in my opinion) the worst performers on the day. On Monday night we started with just one (Ajdarevic). Of course I hope all of those who have arrived work out well (I was much more impressed with Ajdarevic's input against QPR than against Birmingham). As things stand, the changes made increased our chances of going down rather than the reverse. What impressed me most in the QPR game was the determination and resolution of the players, something for which Powell and his staff should get considerable credit. I had feared that these qualities might have been lost in light of recent events.
I suspect that my very adverse reading of what happened in the transfer window was down to an overriding priority of avoiding relegation, for reasons obvious to all of us. In his interview today with BBC London, Richard Murray reportedly said that “this season the big priority is to stay up; then, next season let’s see what benefits we get from it” (ie the new regime). Absolutely. I can’t say I’m initially attracted by the ‘European network’ option, but it’s what we’ve got – and seems to amount to a way of trying to exploit the fair play rules - and we’ll see if it brings the potential benefits over time. I’ll admit that in the midst of the transfer window sales the feeling that we might end up as a feeder club for Standard Liege came too much to the fore; that risk does seem to have eased as we learn more about Duchatelet’s plans.
However, I don’t like the fair play rules in principle and am sceptical they will have the desired impact in practise. Where is it written that football clubs have to/should break even? It’s not a principle enforced on other businesses (and the primary objective of a company is to survive, not necessarily to make a profit). I suspect that some clubs in the Championship will adapt to the new rules, some will ignore them, and some (perhaps most) will end up finding ways around them. So in turn I’m sceptical of any strategy that involves believing that the rules will prove effective and that the European network approach offers an efficient way of capitalising on them.
Here too, we will have to wait and see. In the interim, I hope that the contract extension offer for Sir Chris reflects his true value, rather than how the world of football should work as seen through the eyes of someone intent on adjusting the world to his own view. That’s a bit snide for sure, but I still balk at some of Duchatelet’s comments. “It’s important for the fans that Powell is a club legend, but for me it’s not the most important matter”. Quite right. “The most important matter is just that he’s a very good coach”. He isn’t a coach, he’s a manager and needs to be allowed to manage; and just why does Duchatelet, with his very limited experience of football, believe that he knows who is and who is not a good manager? For the record, he is.
Finally, the Tintinometer. Having been initially set on a neutral 5 out of 10 after the takeover, in light of the transfer window events I dropped it to 3, with a risk of a further downgrade to junk status. On the assumption that Sir Chris gets an acceptable contract extension, let’s drop the negative bias and push it back up to a 4.