When I volunteered to write this piece, I didn’t realize I’d be shortly following Ed Couzens-Lake’s article on Laurie Sivell and much more. If you haven’t read that one, I beg you to stop right here and go to it. It’s wonderful (unless you harbour a rose-tinted view of Ted McDougall). Not just a hard act to follow, but an impossible one.
It gets worse for me.
If I can’t offer any inside information, then at least I should be offering a first-hand view of the pre-season preparations. I was at Hitchin, but faced a terrible dilemma on Friday: could have gone to The Open at St Andrew’s, the Test at Lord’s or Norwich’s latest run-out at Cambridge.
For several reasons I’d have loved to go to Cambridge. Out of respect for the delicate sensibilities of MFW readers, I won’t go into detail of undergraduate life in the 70s – suffice to say that, like John Ruddy, I’ll always be grateful for the fantastic start Cambridge gave me.
But in the end Lord’s was – like Mitchell Johnson, as it turned out – irresistible.
So my observations on the state of things at our club come from a mix of first-hand observation, conversations with knowledgeable friends and bits-and-pieces picked up elsewhere.
After watching half a season of Alex Neil’s regime, we shouldn’t be surprised to see some distinctive things in his approach to pre-season games. Above all, there’s an intensity of commitment and expectation. For Alex Neil these games, like everything else in his programme, have a clear purpose.
Watching him on the touchline, you wouldn’t guess this is pre-season against Hitchin and Cambridge – it might just as well be the Premier League. And forget going off for a shower and a beer when you finish your 45/60 minutes: the players sit and listen to Alex’s detailed dissection of their performance.
For that reason, we can assume that the individual performances in these games are noted and will reflect in later events.
The biggest talking point for our fans seems to be Ricky van Wolfswinkel. I’ll come back to him, but I’m not sure his performance has been the most significant.
Though it’s only pre-season and a far cry from Palace and Sunderland, four players have caught my eye and I’d guess have pushed themselves up the rankings a bit. They’re Harry Toffolo, Tony Andreu, Jacob Murphy and – as a midfielder rather than left back – Louis Thompson.
Football fans are notoriously fickle. Now and again it’s understandable; after the shenanigans of Fabian Delph I’m as close as I’ll ever get to sympathising with Villa fans. But usually it defies reason and common sense.
The one who’s currently bringing out extreme reactions in us seems to be RvW. To judge from Twitter, his two-yard tap-in on Friday sent many of our fans into a state of euphoria, if not sexual arousal. It prompted a flood of messages begging him to forgive our terrible treatment of him and give us another chance.
Give us another chance??
Yes, Ricky could have been better supported in his first season at City. Chris Hughton and Robert Snodgrass, among others, might look at themselves. But hang on – if a player wants to succeed at high level, he also needs to show a good streak of resilience and hunger to adapt to new challenges.
Ted McDougall may have been a moody so-and-so, but he never felt sorry for himself or lost his will to score goals.
I’m delighted AN has given Ricky a clean sheet (and no doubt some helpful hints) as he did with Bassong. And I’ll be even more delighted if it has the same effect – including forcing me to eat my words.
For what it’s worth, I remain a bit sceptical. I wonder whether Ricky has the strength – physical and mental – to play the role AN wants from his strikers, or the predatory instinct that’s needed in the Premier League. In other words: he’s wolf by name, but is he sufficiently wolf by nature?
But stranger things have happened.