How do we feel about the forthcoming season? And what might we learn from the past?
Eleven years ago, approaching the 2005-06 season, I felt pretty good. Yes, we’d been relegated – but only narrowly. Our highly successful manager Nigel Worthington had stayed, as had our trump card Dean Ashton.
That gave us a forward line of Ashton, Leon McKenzie and Darren Huckerby – a combination that would surely tear Championship defences to shreds. As consolation for going down, this season would be fun as we ran away with the league.
And we had an extra bonus. With Coventry’s ground being renovated, the first game was switched to Carrow Road – giving us three home games to start the season and launch our title bid. We looked forward confidently to nine points on the board and a marker laid down.
It didn’t quite work out that way.
Those tempting three home games – Coventry, Crewe and Palace – all finished as 1-1 draws. By the time we lost the next three, the writing was on the wall. We were going nowhere that season; January saw the inevitable departure of Ashton, and Worthington limped through to the end of the season before being replaced early in the next.
We were favourites for promotion in that 2005-06 season, and clearly didn’t lack quality. So what went wrong, and what does it say about our prospects now?
Quality matters, but – as Paul Lambert showed in his one Championship season with us – not as much as mentality. A relegated team has got used to losing, whatever its quality, unless it can shake off that mindset, is going to be vulnerable to hungrier and mentally more positive teams.
No wonder only one in four clubs who come down from the Premier League bounce straight back. Many more (like Fulham and Cardiff who came with us two years ago) fade into obscurity.
I listened to Alex Neil’s words at the end of last season – but paid just as attention to his body language. To me, Nigel Worthington never recovered from relegation in 2004-05; his spirit was broken, and that conveyed itself to the players. If Alex Neil showed the same signs, I’d have called for us to let him go.
Alex’s demeanour told me differently. He hated the failure of relegation, including the part that his inexperience played in it. But what shone through was resilience and determination. He’s OK.
So what else do we need? Some freshening-up of the squad, for sure. Alex knows what resources he wants, and which players he trusts to bring the necessary attitude to the rigours of 46 league games before us.
In terms of our scope for squad-building, there are two big obstacles and two big plusses. The stark economics of relegation – which still seem to escape some of our fans – clearly restrict City’s scope for new signings.
Our playing budget (ie transfer fees + wages) has to show a surplus in this window. And though no other club can match the commitment of our owners, several can match and surpass their riches.
On the plus side, the outstanding management of our club over recent years means that we can deal with a 60 per cent drop in income without a fire sale of our best players. We can sell a couple of non-essential assets to create funds for 3-4 incoming players – just as we did two years ago.
In short, I see grounds for optimism – at least optimism that’s guarded by past experience. With one rider: we have to replace the goals of two years ago that came from Lewis Grabban and Gary Hooper. A proven striker is the one absolute necessity I see, and we’ll need to push the boat out to get him.
That means some more fund-raising. Beyond Redmond, at least one more ‘big name’ has to go. If it’s Brady, so be it – in fact, if we sell Brady to fund a new striker while keeping hold of Timm Klose, I’ll be ecstatic.
McCormack, Assombalonga or AN Other? If I had any inside knowledge I’d be happy to share it. As it is, those two may or may not be our prime targets, and may or may not be within our means. But let’s play along.
McCormack is the closest thing to a guaranteed Championship goalscorer, but 30. He’d be a short-term investment – not my usual inclination, but if it’s ever the right thing to do, it’s now.
At 23, Assombalonga is the perfect age to buy but clearly more of a gamble. He looks the part, but has only scored 16 Championship goals. On the other hand, the shirt-printing income isn’t to be sneezed at…
Take your pick – and don’t be surprised if the striker we actually sign is someone completely different.