***WARNING MAY CONTAIN SPOILERS***
I think all but the most positive of City fans would admit that this season has been far from what we were expecting.
Even when we were top, confidence was not flowing through the fans or indeed the players. At best we were scrambling our way through games, the two notable exceptions being Blackburn and Rotherham.
I believe we should expect more at this level than “winning ugly”, but we certainly should not be losing ugly!
I’d go as far to say that at times watching City this season has been akin to watching the zombies in HBO’s hit TV series The Walking Dead; slow, predictable and decayed (OK; I made that last one up).
But I thought it’d be interesting to take a look at where the bat of Negan should fall, should the cast of the Walking Dead in that incredible season 7 premiere be replaced with City players, staff and owners.
Picture the scene: kneeling in front of Negan are Alex Neil, the captain Russell Martin, the players huddled together as a group and lastly Delia and Michael. The fans are represented by a thirsty Lucille, angry from an underwhelming season which has begun to unravel and deciding where she’ll attribute the blame.
The bat dangles menacingly over the owners first – what’s the case for swinging here? Well, their article in The Times was poorly timed and raised some real points for concern as to the future of our club. As much as I agree with some of the statements around the state of modern football, their own actions contravene this in ticket prices and some of the other statements, around foreign players and not even listening to offers, felt as out of touch as a career politician telling the working classes he’s on their side.
The current succession plan – over to a family member – is completely their right and something I may well do in their position, but it worries me that we’re beginning to fall behind Championship rivals. Handing the reins over to somebody, irrespective of their support of the club, without considerable personal wealth could leave us incredibly exposed.
It’s not a world I like, but putting your head in the sand and pretending it doesn’t exist is not going to make it go away.
The bat moves to Russell Martin. He’s the leader on the pitch, the man charged with leading the troops on the pitch, with organising the team and for getting the manager’s instructions carried out. I’d suggest all of these things have been sorely lacking, especially, dare I say, since Russ came back and regained the captaincy from Jonny Howson.
There’s been a great debate over whether he is best at centre back or right back, and I was in the right-back camp until I saw how things have gone since Ivo Pinto has been out. Russ is a lovely guy and I’m appreciative of what he’s done for City on his journey with us, but I think it’s a time for a changing of the guard.
Look at some of the goals we’ve conceded: Leeds and Preston’s winners were both from dead ball situations where we were still organising ourselves and were simply not ready. That’s the manager’s fault at the highest level, but on the pitch it forms a crucial part of the captain’s role.
The bat swings round to Alex Neil. The man with ultimate responsibility. He has had several transfer windows to shape the squad as he sees fit. He picks the team, decides on the tactics, makes the substitutes and is responsible for inspiring and leading us all.
When he joined us he was generally touted as one of the finest up and coming managers in the country. But I’m naturally a sceptic and thought, hang on, he’s a man who’s only managed Hamilton for a limited time – admittedly he did well – but was it enough time? And was it of a level to be considered one of the country’s best young prospects?
I wasn’t convinced. That said, he did of course get us promoted. This season has been very different though; a stubbornness on tactics, a lack of a plan B, the same formation and players making it very easy to work us out. The players look like they’ve lost faith in Alex, much of the fan base has too, and that very rarely ends well.
The bat moves over to the rest of the players. They’ve lacked organisation, guile, guts, acumen and any number of other useful attributes and things seem to be getting worse. There have been some important players injured – Pinto and Howson have been huge losses for us – but having got used to a steely determination under Paul Lambert, with players having a point to prove, this current squad looks frail and unwilling to dig in and fight.
The passing has been pedestrian, allowing teams to get behind the ball, and against Leeds you could see players actively pulling out of challenges; that’s seriously worrying and defensive organisation has been almost non-existent throughout the team.
So, where should the bat fall? As I’m Negan in this analogy, I’m going to decide – and the bat swooshes back to Alex Neil.
I don’t think Delia and Michael are to blame for where we find ourselves; it was the right call to give Alex a chance to get us back up. I do think the succession plan is a concern and I do think they’ve been guilty of some strange decisions – like keeping Chris Hughton for so long only to axe him with five games left – but for me they are not at fault for this season.
Russ and the rest of the players are by no means blame-less; Alex doesn’t send them out there to play slow, predictable football going forwards and shambolic error ridden football defensively. It feels to me like they’ve lost respect for Alex and that was always a risk when employing a manager who played at a lower standard than the players he’s managing.
When he came on board he had momentum on his side and carried them through, and that carried on into the Premier League season and I thought we were incredibly unlucky to lose some of the early games. We played with high intensity and good, quick passing, but that slowly eroded and culminated in that complete disaster at St. James’ Park.
We’ve simply not been the same since then and neither has Alex.
He’s still a decent guy, who says the right things, but he doesn’t carry the same conviction any longer and players pick up on that. I hear people saying that players should always give 100 per cent. Well, do you? In your working day do you always give 100per cent?
Of course not, you’re human, just like footballers are. I’m not excusing poor performance, far from it, but it will happen and it’s the manager’s job, ultimately, to turn that around.
Alex has built a squad that has some of the best attacking midfield options we’ve ever had, but is that what we needed? Are they the right fit for the Championship. I think they would be if we were playing quick one-touch football filled with movement, but we’re not. We’re trying to grind games out and we just don’t have the players for that.
Our defensive midfield options seem limited and not sorting out the defence in the summer when we got promoted was suicidal; only adding Pinto and Klose leaves us picking from options which I don’t consider, for differing reasons, are good enough.
Before Wolves appointed Paul Lambert I was very much in the Neil out camp and I wanted the man that gave me the best three successive seasons I’ve witnessed to come back and lead us, to turn us back into that nasty team that nobody liked playing against. Because that was his biggest achievement of all for me – removing that soft underbelly and getting rid of that nice Norwich tag.
I don’t buy the never-go-back chain of thought; it can work both ways and I was up for trying. However, that’s not an option now and I have no idea who could replace Alex effectively.
I sincerely hope he turns things around but find that hard to see, so it could be a long season with many hazards – much like surviving the zombie apocalypse.
Let’s hope we find a cure quickly.