Every year, the advertising trade publication Campaign publishes its ‘A-List’ of leading figures in the industry. (No, the ‘A’ doesn’t stand for what you might think, though there are more than a few on the list who merit the epithet.)
Those selected are invited to answer a series of questions, much like the ones often posed to footballers in match programmes – ‘Biggest Influence on Career’, ‘Biggest Disappointment’, ‘Most Difficult Opponent’, that sort of thing.
A few years ago, the creative director at one of the biggest agencies in London (who I never anticipated would rise so high when I worked with him at the start of his career) gave the following response to the question ‘What is the secret of your success?’:
“I always find a way to get the job done.”
At the time, I was underwhelmed by his answer. It seemed both vague and drearily pragmatic; where was the passion, the enthusiasm, the flair?
And yet… over the last few weeks his words have popped into my head again and again as City have continued to find a way to get the job done when it hasn’t looked likely.
I’m not being critical when I say that some of the performances lately have been less than scintillating. Yes, I know it sounds critical, but it really isn’t. It’s fantastic that we have acquired the rare and precious knack of conjuring up goals at just the right time; of knowing how to win however we’re playing.
This ability is usually expressed as: ‘It’s the sign of a good team when you play badly and still win’. (The BBC TV match reporter at Huddersfield last Saturday claimed we ‘won ugly’ and were ‘second best for most of the match’, though my best mate who was at the game furiously disputes this.)
But I don’t think it’s a case of playing badly; more a case of not dominating a match as much as our league position and run of results suggests we should.
It’s an easy trap to fall into, even for professional commentators; you look at the table and assume that the team way ahead at the top will outplay the opposition every week. The reality, though, is that most matches are closer, scrappier and harder-fought than that. It’s rarely a stroll.
(Curiously, this assumption can also occur in retrospect. I get the impression that quite a lot of City fans look back at the 2003/04 season as a majestic cruise to the Championship title since we finished eight points clear. Games like Huckerby’s destruction of Cardiff at home and the 5-3 win at Burnley may stick in the memory, yet if you dig out the commemorative DVD, you’ll see a much more prosaic picture.)
What the current team has – and the 2004 team had – is that ability to find a way to get the job done. It’s still a vague thing to say; you can identify components of that ability, such as fitness, resilience, perseverance, intelligence, self-belief and talent, but it isn’t precisely definable. And while there’s a pragmatic aspect to it, dreary it isn’t; quite the opposite.
It’s a special thing. And I can now appreciate that my former colleague has a real gift for his job.
Of course, now we’ve acquired this gift, we need to hang on to it for as long as possible – though this summer is likely to present an awkward hurdle.
If we’re promoted (please note that I said ‘if’; no ’ens are being enumerated here), Paul Lambert will have a tricky task in making changes to the squad for the Championship without losing that spirit and belief.
We saw in the 2004/05 Premiership season how quickly the magic can be lost when you get the adjustments wrong. The likes of Jonson, Helveg, Charlton and Bentley were brought in, while players like McVeigh, Roberts and Mackay who had done so much to get us promoted were sidelined or discarded.
(There’s a story, possibly apocryphal, about the chairman of a promotion-chasing club entering the dressing room on the final day of the season to deliver what he thought was a motivating speech. “Get us up today, lads, and we’ll really push the boat out and sign a load of top players,” he supposedly said, immediately causing everyone’s spirits to sink. I’ve often thought that the cast-offs of our 2004 squad must have felt the same way.)
Perhaps we shouldn’t worry about it too much, though. After all, Lambert has got pretty much every decision, selection and signing right since he’s been here. And maybe he’s already being clever by bringing in Whitbread and Elliott now; could it be that he sees them as players for next season, but wants them to experience the current spirit around the place?
Given the quality of his thinking, it’s entirely possible.
Unfortunately, the footage has now expired on the BBC site so I can’t link to it, but there was a great quote from Southend manager Steve Tilson just after the game at Carrow Road the other week.
“The lads have worked effortlessly for ninety minutes…” he said. Umm… do you think he might have meant ‘tirelessly’?
Similarly, this quote was attributed to Paul Lambert on this very site just last week before the trip to Huddersfield:
“We will play our game, our way and try to counterfeit what they have got.”
Did he really suggest that we would aim to be a poor imitation of our hosts?
These are still not as good as Paul Merson’s slip on Sky Sports a couple of years ago, though. Following the progress of a Norwich-Stoke match on his studio monitor, he remarked that in Dion Dublin and Mamady Sidibe, both sides had ‘bashful’ centre-forwards on the pitch.
I assume he meant that they were both given to bashing defenders around, rather than being shy, simpering wallflowers:
“Why, Mr Sidibe, I am most undeserving of your flattering attentions.”
“Mr Dublin, see how your fanciful protestations of unworthiness cause me to blush…”
But I can’t be too smug about such mistakes, as I know from personal experience how easy it is to use the wrong word, especially when there’s a camera pointing at you.
When my book on baldness was published, I filmed a TV interview during which I talked at some length about a bizarre hair-restoring treatment that had allegedly been tried by Anthony Hopkins. Later that day, I had to ring the production company and plead with them not to use that bit.
I realised that I should have said Anthony Perkins.