I speak with authority; I was once a football manager. A real one, not just online.
For some time I was in charge of Capital Canaries, in Division 5 of the West Fulham Sunday League. We even had one heady season in Division 4. Moreover, like Alex Neil at Hamilton, I was player/manager. In the interests of complete accuracy, I was player/treasurer/driver/kit washer/half-time orange bringer/manager.
It’s true that there are differences from the Premier League. A primary concern, for instance, was whether 11 players would show up on the day (hold the jokes about Alex Neil having that problem, please).
A pivotal moment in my career did involve numbers. We had 11 players for a Cup game, while our opponents (appropriately enough, Newcastle Supporters) had only 10. At half-time we were 2-1 up, and I pondered my team-talk. Should I congratulate the boys on being ahead, or lambast them for a sloppy performance?
I decided high standards were the order of the day, and delivered a stirring lecture on the need for improvement and how we’d put the game to bed.
We lost 3-2.
So perhaps my authority to speak about City’s current struggles is limited. My only claim is having marginally greater knowledge than some fans – apparently including the host of Canary Call. I listened on Saturday for as long as I could bear, in which time I counted seven clear factual inaccuracies on the part of callers. The host corrected the most minor one (the league in which Pinto played) while letting whoppers go unchallenged, or calling them ‘great points’.
That mini-rant aside, my view is no more or less valid than anyone else’s. So I’ll add my two-penneth to the mix.
I think Alex Neil was right to change our approach after Newcastle; if he hadn’t, we were heading the way of Ian Holloway’s Blackpool. He was even right, in my view, to change for the Stoke game following the home wins against Villa and Southampton, both of whom have very different styles and strengths to Stoke’s. It was working perfectly until Gary O’Neil’s brainstorm.
So he’s a thoughtful manager prepared to learn and adapt. However, the degree of tinkering has reflected his inexperience and led to problems. One or two players are playing out of their natural positions; there’s a lack of coherence in our play; and the confidence of some, such as Nathan Redmond, has been dented by being in-and-out of the side.
I hope Alex is now taking a deep breath and consulting with his senior players about the challenge. To read some fans’ comments, you’d be forgiven for thinking we were eight points adrift with three games to go. We’re actually one point off safety with 13 games to go.
The big issue is the lack of confidence and conviction in our play, a cycle we have to break. It may require a bit of luck somewhere, the rub of the green – but we have to give ourselves the best chance of getting that bit of luck. The situation is stark: play better or go down.
There seems to be universal agreement among fans that Alex didn’t select the right team at Villa, or in other recent games. So far, so good. Except that there’s absolutely no consensus about what the team should be.
Many fans have taken to social media since Saturday with the team they think – no, the team they’re convinced – we should go with. Being generous, I see some agreement on just under half of the XI. Most want to see Ryan Bennett and Timm Klose as our centre-backs, Alex Tettey and Jonny Howson in midfield, and Steven Naismith somewhere in front of them.
Beyond that, it’s chaos. Rudd or Ruddy? Wisdom, Martin or Pinto at right back? Olsson or Brady at left back? Brady in midfield? Hoolahan in the team? Jarvis? Redmond? Mbokani, Jerome or Bamford as main striker? Or more than one? Everyone’s sure of his selection, but it’s a kaleidoscope of proposals.
The myriad of suggestions surely reflect the fact that we have a lot of players of similar standard. That’s a reasonable situation for a club of our status, and the manager now has to make some calls – including the players he sees as having the character to battle our way out of trouble.
It’s only two games since we outplayed Liverpool for 55 minutes. Of course we’re unhappy after being outclassed by Spurs then capitulating at Villa. But we’re in a fight and we have some fighters, including the manager.
Sunderland and Newcastle – both much better at home than away – still have to come to Carrow Road. We go to West Brom, a team whose home form is a weakness. There’ll be twist and turns, and we’re not even at the beginning of the end. Perhaps – to plagiarise a real leader – it’s the end of the beginning.