***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.
Bucks Canary says
Interesting read. The only point I’d quibble with is the “not giving 100% all the time”. For this reason: players do not play football all the time- just ninety minutes once or twice a week.
The rest of the time, they undertake PR duties or training – or travelling. Their working week is generally a lot shorter than average.
The only comparison I can come up with is that of actors. Other than the fact that they are mostly unemployed, their work consists of learning and rehearsing, but when they go out on stage, they have to give 100%. That’s just the way it is. If they don’t- they won’t work.
I cannot understand why it would not be the same for footballers. If you can’t do that – if it is not your passion to play – walk away.
Gary Field says
You’ve covered a lot of ground there. There are many things to consider.
I personally think that Delia and Michael’s loyalty to a manager, while admirable, is perhaps misplaced, especially in this instance.
I also believe that Jez Moxey is unlikely to be the instigator of change, unlike McNally the last time around. That’s another concern.
However, the major issue for me, given that I believe Alex Neil is on borrowed time, is his urgent need to prove to fans that he isn’t a man who’s run out of ideas. If he goes 4-2-3-1 again, with few changes, I’ll be livid just after two o’clock on Saturday.
It’s either got to be 4-5-1 or, preferably, 4-4-2, with a start for Lafferty. Never thought I’d write that, but, drastic times call for changes on the pitch, otherwise, a change in the dug-out is required.
If a manager cannot organise a defence with a degree of thoroughness and astuteness then what use is he?
Delia’s interview could scarcely have been worse in both terms of it’s content or timing. Some may also start to wonder if a Board is of very much use unless it has a vast personal fortune.
Stewart Lewis says
Some good observations and fair points, Craig – except perhaps one.
Alex Neil most certainly DIDN’T have momentum on his side when he joined Norwich. The team wasn’t playing anyway near its potential and the fans were up in arms (sound familiar?). Those fans’ fury was ratcheted up in further by the appointment of AN, almost universally dismissed as “the cheap option”, “rubbish” and worse.
He had to win over a sceptical set of players and an even more sceptical set of fans. And no time to use that transfer window.
Whatever we think of him now – the jury’s certainly out – let’s not distort history.
Craig Bailey says
@BucksCanary – Thanks for your comment, you’re right, I was conscious I’d already written more than I intended. My main point was there is often a disconnect between what fans see footballers as and the reality of players who perhaps see it as a job in the same way we all view our jobs, which makes it suffer from all the same human issues as any other.
@GaryField – We’ll see what formation and line up AN selects, but the impact of not changing when losing has huge ramifications across the entire squad, it sends the wrong message to those playing and those not playing.
@pab – a very good question and I agree on the article – made even worse give the ticket price analysis stats released today.
@StewartLewis – apologies for the confusion, I meant personal momentum, he’d not experienced anything except success in his limited time as a manager when he joined us, so naturally he was upbeat which filtered down to the players. We had also, the awful cup displays (something which had become the norm for some time), had a couple of sizable wins in the league. we’ll never know how that may have panned out.
Interesting thoughts. The situation has parallels with the post relegation slump overseen by worthington.
Having taken us up, he promptly took us straight back down again, albeit with very little backing from the board. The summer again saw little in the way of backing and form soon fell off. Worthington, whose feet were well under the table appeared fire proof and the rot truly set in. The likes of ashton et al were replaced by tenth raters and the painful tailspin towards the inevitable was set in place.
Smith had dug her heels in and a succession of abysmal appointments arrested only by David McNally took hold,
The board are not fit for purpose and when the premier league riches run dry and the fur coat is pawned it will reveal an alarming lack of knickers.
Neil would have already been shown the door at a club where common sense is an available commodity.
Stewart Lewis says
Craig (5) – OK, understood.
Too many people now re-writing history and claiming AN was lucky with the situation he walked into. Good to know you’re not one of them.
General Melchett says
The problem is that I think that Lucille was weilded by Delia and the cull happend in the summer(Or maybe should have). Three lungs got pummelled to a pulp and was replaced my Irvine. But what was left behind was a leader Rick/Neil who was broken and tramatised, players frightened of playing and no longer trusting each other or their leader. Delia should have put Lucille to work on Neil and then a new leader could have been found to rally the troops. Ok Negan doesn’t want that, he likes the compliant Rick but should Delia? The troops have been through a battle or two and survived, even thrived. But they need a leader, not a broken and compliant man too easily coughing up 3 points. That’s on and off the pitch.
martin penney says
# Chris 6: “The board are not fit for purpose and when the premier league riches run dry and the fur coat is pawned it will reveal an alarming lack of knickers”.
Absolutely fantastic use of language and a great comment. Your memories of the Last Days of Worthy are similar to mine.
McNally has gone (unfortunately imo) and I’m not sure the comparison between Nigel Worthington and Alex Neil is relevant just now – ask me after QPR and Derby!
Dave B says
They question I’d ask is who’s Daryl in this situation? Who has the balls to stand up?
There’s ugly and there’s disfigured.