This is my first article for a while. Some of you will know the reason: I was looking after my wife through illness, an illness that eventually took her life in September.
Fortunately, the quality of writing on this site means I haven’t been missed (except, apparently, by the editor’s dad!). So it’s above all for me that I’m resuming; it’s good for me to get back to normal things, including watching City and offering some observations.
My one plea is for you to respond normally too: express your reactions (especially disagreement) as robustly as ever! That’s good for me too.
I’ll make it easier by proposing some thoughts which I suspect, right now, won’t win any popularity contest.
I was at Brighton on Saturday (my first away game of the season) so I’m under no illusions about that performance. In almost every department, it wasn’t good enough for us to think of avoiding relegation next May.
As Gary and others have said, it was far too easy for Brighton to create chances. We didn’t have the strength in defence, or the bite in midfield, that’s a necessary foundation to compete. Nor did we create much ourselves.
If the spirit was willing, the technique and belief weren’t. The one consolation is that the players clearly recognise the reality of the situation.
So why will I hold up my head and say I’m as proud of the set-up at our club, and as keen for the regime to continue, as I was in the summer?
It’s not an excuse to go back to the situation of April 2017 and Stuart Webber’s appointment – it’s a relevant reality. We weren’t skint; it was worse than that. We had to build a new team and philosophy while saving a vast amount of money. We weren’t going to be promoted that spring or the next one, meaning the end of the parachute payments that were keeping us afloat.
In that situation, you can either accept decline – as we arguably did in 2008 – or try to turn the tide. With inspired recruitment, you can get back on an upward path.
You can bring in talented individuals who’ll contribute to the recovery, both on the coaching and playing side.
What you can’t do under those constraints is bring in the finished article. The coaches and players (whether imported or home-grown) may have talent but won’t have experience of the special demands of our leagues. That’s to say, they have to learn.
One of my abiding memories of the Webber/Farke era will be their head-to-head (and I assume heart-to-heart) on the touchline at Millwall after our 4-0 defeat. It showed us how closely they work together – surely better than a manager struggling in isolation – and subsequent events showed us that they could find solutions.
Learning never finishes, though, either in life or football. Last season we cracked the Championship. The Premier League is a very different kettle of fish.
We weren’t in a position to spend as much this summer as some fans believe. The continuing repair of past finances, promotion bonuses, upgrades of training facilities and much else took big bites out of the first tranche of Premier League payments.
Whatever division we’re in next season, we’ll be financially far better prepared for it than we’ve been since 2016.
That said, we could have spent more this summer than we did. I imagine Farke and Webber thought that the experience of Timm Klose (arguably our most effective player last time in the PL) and Grant Hanley would provide stability, while the range of midfield options (including Hernandez and Vrancic) would allow us to mix-and-match for different opponents, as well as deal with variations in form.
Long-term injuries to those players, and others, have hurt our options badly. In defence, they’ve meant we need to rely on young players whose naivety wasn’t costly in the Championship but is ruthlessly exploited in the Premier League.
Those factors are real but, of course, don’t excuse a performance as limp as at Brighton. In terms of competing better against the Brightons, Burnleys and West Hams, it’s Farke who still has learning to do.
It was painful to watch City at Brighton, as it was that day at Millwall. For me, though, the eighteen months following that experience at The Den speak of an exceptional young head coach who – with support from his sporting director – can face and overcome challenges.
We’re all focussed on how we’ll fare against Watford on Friday. Longer-term thinking – by football standards – is where we’ll be next spring.
There’s a slightly different question I ask myself. If our current regime stays in place – Stuart Webber, Daniel Farke, and yes, Delia and Michael – where will we be in three years’ time? Me, I believe we’ll be established in the Premier League.
I suspect this would have a been a popular hypothesis after we beat Man City – rather less now. I understand, but I’ll stick to it.