To misquote the late Graham Taylor: did I not like that.
Most of the games I’ve seen this season have been at home; Hillsborough was my first away game since the autumn.
Some might say that explains how I was able to maintain hope for so long. They may be right; certainly, Hillsborough forced me to drink the full bitter measure of bile.
Whether the performance was worse or not, this was a bigger and more significant disappointment than Rotherham, Burton and the rest. The season was on the line this time; surely the team had ringing in their ears the kind of message Will Jennings posted here on Friday.
Hillsborough was time to put the underachievement behind us; to step up to the plate; to fulfil our potential; to deliver.
You wouldn’t have known it. I’ll exempt Jerome and Wes, who worked tirelessly, from criticism. But otherwise it looked like a team, and spoke of a club, that’s lost its way.
I talked to a number of Wednesday fans on the tram back into Sheffield city centre. They didn’t mean to be hurtful – quite the opposite – but the truth of their comments cut to the quick. As one said: “We didn’t really think we’d win today. We certainly didn’t think it would be so easy”
Regular readers will know two things about me. I’m normally loath to read too much into one game; and I question some of the expectations that fans have about our club and team.
However, Hillsborough was an exception. By the players’ and manager’s own words, it was a make-or-break game. Judged by their own standards, not anyone else’s, it was woeful.
Whatever big-picture things we expect from our club, Saturday was a day to expect heart and determination on the pitch, expressed in things like clearing our lines and challenging for balls coming into our box. That’s to say, things we failed to do for three Sheffield Wednesday goals in the first 41 minutes.
My MFW nemesis Dave B asked me last week to reassess whether his negative view should be called pessimism or realism. I promised to ponder the question on the journey back from Hillsborough. Sadly, it didn’t take long.
Mathematically, we’re not quite at the point where I said I’d give up on the play-offs – ie a point behind for every game left – but I can no longer justify the possibility of optimism.
We’ve produced good performances since Christmas, but Saturday told us there’s a key factor missing. Fulham may have the belief and togetherness that it takes to mount a challenge for the playoffs, but our group of management and players don’t.
The Board has some tough and deep questions to ask itself. I’ve still no doubt about their emotional commitment to Norwich City. But can they bring the objective and dispassionate analysis to our situation that David McNally brought to the (much worse) one in 2009?
Undoubtedly the issues go further than the manager. But who can deny the manager is a significant part of the problem? Mathematically we can still make the play-offs, but under the current arrangements there’s no chance of the sustained form it would take.
My (perhaps belated) call for Alex Neil to be sacked in December wasn’t answered. If we were keeping AN through January, it didn’t seem logical to release him in February or March. But the logic has now changed; if the playoffs are out of reach, then the more time we have without him the better.
While I’m clear on that one, it should be recognised that many of challenges aren’t as straightforward as some would have us believe. The total lack of consensus among fans about who should replace Alex Neil (Rowett? Warburton? Hodgson? Culverhouse?) is an indication of that.
An even bigger challenge, perhaps, is the playing squad. Expecting us to be in the leading group for promotion this year, it was reasonable to keep and recruit some players who are Premier League class. But they’re not necessarily the players to get us there. I’ve no idea how Lewis Dunk would fare in the Premier League, but for sure he’d have been more effective for us this season than Timm Klose.
A number of expensive but surplus players will leave this summer as their contracts expire. Some more – I’d guess including Timm Klose – will be sold. What kind of players should replace them? How will we achieve the balance of youth and experience that tends to characterize the most successful teams?
For one more season we’ll have a financial advantage over most of the Championship. But we have to make it count. We simply cannot have another year of underachievement.
Delia (and colleagues): Sort it out.