So there you have it. Championship football – bar Millwall overturning a goal difference deficit of twenty four when they have only scored thirty seven times so far all season – is guaranteed for next season. We. Are. Staying. Up. Woohoo. Excuse me while I go and open some chocolates.
Oh no, wait.
This has been the most awful, turgid season since Mickey Adams part two fiddled about with poor quality signings and too many loan players, some out of position. Sound familiar? It should. But in some ways even that season was more fun. Until Russell Slade and Lloyd Owusu rode in on their white horses and raised the roof we looked dead and buried, but how much fun was that April for those who were there? Improbable win followed improbable win until we took on Stockport at Withdean with at least a couple of different permutations of staying up, the main one being in our own hands. A sold out Withdean followed and, for me, a pub that was nearly as packed with my old mates as before the Doncaster opener at the Amex. We won easily – it was never in doubt – and my pub friends chaired Slade high in the air off the pitch. Compare that to this April. One goal scored the whole month, one point attained in the most awful match I can remember at The Amex in terms of quality. We have survived because Blackpool are a basket case and Wigan and Millwall have been just a bit more consistently awful than us.
Since that day at Withdean in 2009 we have mainly been on the up, while our opponents that day, Stockport, are currently playing pub football. Slade couldn’t repeat his form but Poyet came in and steadied the ship before we went in to overdrive in the following season. Then came the Amex, the first two seasons a whirl of excitement as we got used to our new home and signed a mixture of exciting young prospects (Buckley, Mattock), ex internationals (Bridge, Upson and Vicente), relative unknowns (Ulloa, Spanish Dave) and Swansea cast offs, plus the odd crap loan striker. We had a style, we had an identity, we had a massively out of control expenses bill. Now we’ve got a slogan and it’s all gone a bit wrong.
So where? Where have we gone wrong? Can we rescue any crumb of comfort from an abortion of a season? What are our prospects for next term?
Where Did It Go Wrong?
Managerial Revolving Door
To lose one manager at the end of a season may be regarded as a misfortune; to hack through five in three seasons looks like carelessness. Especially when two of those seasons were relative successes. Already there are “Hughton out” tweets and posts on NSC but they miss the point. Right now we are at about square three on the metaphorical Snakes and Ladders board, but going back to square one AGAIN would not seem to be the right way to move from that position. Chris Hughton will have been given one objective and one objective only when appointed and that was to keep us up. He did it, no matter how. We were second bottom when Sami left with less that a point per game average. The current run we are on is devastatingly poor but, at one point, Hughton was on a 1.6 point average and the team were sailing up the table. It’s not that long ago we were putting three past Ipswich and four past Birmingham at home. I think there are other factors to the slide which I’ll come on to.
The point to take from this particular misfortune is that the club were briefing hard against Oscar after his resignation. It is beginning to look like both he and Andy Naylor had a very good point indeed. Not least because of…..
Recruitment of Players
What. A. Shambles. David Burke’s sacking mid season would seem to confirm that the club agree. The list of players we were supposedly after – according to transfer rumours and another Naylor report – included Stephen Ward and Adam Clayton, now plying their trade in the Premier League and top of the Championship respectively. What we ended up with was Joe Bennett (another loan left back, a liability in defence all season), Danny Holla (in and out of the side since Christmas), Toko (who?), McCourt (quickly shipped off to Notts County when it became obvious he only had ten minutes in him), Colunga (a worse quality Baldock who got home sick in two seconds flat), Aaron Hughes (barely played), Chris O’Grady (nice bloke but REALLY?) and David Stockdale (marmite). We made a great loan signing in Darren Bent, played him in isolation, got him injured and lost him again, replacing him with the vastly inappropriately named Leon Best.
There were one or two successes. Teixeira has been mostly excellent and very good to watch, but as a result tried to win games for us single handed. I’m not convinced that’s what Liverpool would have had in mind when they loaned him to us. Kayal was a great signing. Baldock, meanwhile, was just coming really good when he got injured. For me it is no coincidence that the goals dried up once he was out. A forward choice of CMS, O’Grady or Best is never going to score you goals. Talking of which….
No Goals From Strikers
If you’re going to play one up front make sure it’s Leo Ulloa and not, say, COG or Best. The stats bear this out, horribly.
Sorry, nice and honourable bloke he might be but it takes a great chef to make a decent meal out of scraps. Sami made scraps.
We have had two really bad runs this season. The first under Sami and the second currently. The reasons for the first are above, the reasons for the second are slightly more nebulous. Baldock getting injured certainly didn’t help but, for me, we became far too defensive once Colin Calderwood arrived. Under Jones and Hughton together we looked like we had real belief. Recently we are going through the motions in a desperate attempt not to lose.
Dreadful Performances Against Poor Sides
Our record this season against Blackpool, Wigan, Millwall and Rotherham says it all about the above. One win, having now played each of them twice. And yet it looks like we will survive on forty six points, eight less than Peterborough went down with just a couple of seasons ago. We have not had any quality when it has most been needed and that is really what has depressed the fans throughout the season.
That Massively Out Of Control Expenses Bill I Mentioned
Even Tony Bloom doesn’t have bottomless pockets. Whatever you say about this season the man has kept us alive. But have we targeted that money in the right way? Early on we overspent on facilities AND players. That was unsustainable. With an Academy to build we had to make the choice between one or the other and we chose to focus on the facilities in my opinion, certainly in terms of quality. FFP is a factor for sure but a massive increase to the playing budget would have killed the golden goose.
So What Next?
The good thing is that we have stayed up and that the club has miraculously achieved a near ninety percent renewal rate of season tickets. Many players are playing as if they are already at another club next season which can only be a positive. We have great young prospects in Dunk and Ince who we really need not to sell and Kayal looks an excellent player. Baldock will return. The major overhauls in the summer need to be at both full back positions and up front. I would also rather see Halford, not retained and Aaron Hughes (out of contact) replaced with a single quality centre back. Sell COG to Sheffield United, get rid of Best (PLEASE) and do not retain CMS. This should free up budget for Hughton to bring in his own men up front. Oh, and PLEASE again, as few loans as possible.
Long term let’s hope that spend on the Academy works and we become another Southampton. We need to stop relying on Tony Bloom’s money, not because of any jokes he may have made about being skint on Wigan station but because it’s not fair.
Meanwhile, don’t forget to enjoy the 3-0 defeat to Watford on Saturday and pray that Millwall don’t win by nine at the same time. Joke. Maybe.