Back in March of 2019, Dad and I walked through the turnstiles at the Riverside stadium, knowing that victory over Middlesbrough would create a seven-point gap to third-place, with just seven games left.
“God, I hope we get promoted”, I said. “I know next year would be a total car-crash and we’d probably lose every game in the Prem, but it would all be worth it.”
That’s not to stake a claim as a modern-day Nostradamus or for a smug ‘I told you so’ moment.
Common sense and cold, hard logic pointed to this season being an almighty struggle for a club that few had predicted would even challenge in the Championship.
However, if I genuinely believed my own words and had accepted the certainty of relegation before a ball had even been kicked, then I wouldn’t be feeling so utterly despondent about it now.
And the reason for that despondency is simple. While I didn’t admit it at the time, there was a piece of me that had got caught up in the fairy-tale.
A sense that Stuart Webber would conjure up more rough diamonds for Daniel Farke to polish.
A ‘sneaky feeling’ that our cut-price collection of kids, misfits and journeymen could upset the odds again and that Daniel’s ‘Davids’ would slay a few of the Goliaths waiting in the Premier League.
I’m sure I wasn’t alone in getting caught up in the euphoria of last season’s heroics. Many of us on the terraces, and possibly some within the club itself, had grown accustomed to last minute goals and everything going our way.
Guilty of beginning to expect, the delightfully unexpected.
But with hindsight, it was naïve and borderline arrogant to even entertain those thoughts because, despite Sky’s marketing teams trying to convince us otherwise, the Premier League doesn’t really do fairy-tales.
No happy ending for those with only a handful of beans in a world of giants and golden eggs.
Even Bournemouth, whose supposed Cinderella story is bank-rolled by the Russian petrochemical industry, have lost their glass slippers.
This season has dished out a ruthless reality check for the fantasists amongst us, serving up a string of unwanted records and statistics along the way. Our lowest points total, most consecutive defeats, fewest away goals, no points collected from a losing position and we can now lay claim to having the most Premier League relegations to our name.
In the circumstances, it’s natural and wholly understandable to go looking for answers and someone, or something, to blame.
We probably all accept that injuries, VAR decisions and the disruption caused by the pandemic did us no favours. While all that serves as some mitigation, nobody can deny that we got it badly wrong, both on and off the pitch – just look at the league table.
It would be easy to play the smart @rse and use the benefit of hindsight to pinpoint all the mistakes that have been made.
However, in trying to find my scapegoats, when I reflect on this season’s approach, and compare it with previous failed campaigns, I come to an uncomfortable conclusion.
The truth is, I wouldn’t have done much differently.
Admitting that is like wilfully stepping out of an angry mob to join those on the gallows, so I better explain.
Let’s start with finance.
We all have different figures that we quote when it comes to City’s financial outlay. What we can probably all agree on, is that compared to others, it was the square root of f*** all.
Conventional wisdom suggests that more money = better players = better team = more points = more money.
Little wonder then that some within the media have been so critical of our approach but it’s easy to criticise, when it’s not your money or when your own gambling is restricted to a couple of quid on the Grand National.
The fact is, the amount of investment needed to guarantee Premier League survival is way beyond all bar the top seven or eight clubs. Anything less, represents a punt and one that may even jeopardise a club’s future.
When you consider the reported fees required to sign Duda or Amadou on permanent deals, or that Steven Naismith’s City contract allegedly awarded him a seven-figure promotion bonus (whilst on loan at Hearts), it’s clear that throwing cash at the situation carries considerable risk.
Maybe it was prudence from the club to not over-stretch itself. Maybe it was arrogance, and an assumption that we had a magic formula that could buck the trend.
Either way, heading into the season, I supported the approach. I honestly believed that our strongest asset was the dynamic and spirit within the squad. A dressing room, united in their collective achievement and without ego.
So difficult to create and so easy to destroy.
Think back to the impact of releasing the influential Malky MacKay and Iwan Roberts, when Nigel Worthington went shopping for supposed Premier League upgrades. Or the signing of Ricky van Wolfwinkel, which instantly turned our talismanic captain, Grant Holt, into a bit-part, bench-warmer.
So I was glad that we kept faith with the players who had delivered a Championship promotion. To my mind, they deserved a chance and represented our best chance of success.
And if you’re prepared to stick with the squad, then to my mind it was right to retain the playing style and philosophy. It suited the players we had, and they were used to the system.
We’ve attracted plenty of criticism for being too open and for letting the full-backs push on, leaving the defence exposed. Our brand of football has been labelled ineffectual and lacking potency and Farke has been accused of having no plan B and failing to address the failings.
All hard to argue, based on ‘Project Restart’ and the final league table, but in those early matches, didn’t we see enough to suggest that we could compete playing ‘our way’?
Alex Neil ripped up his game-plan following a hammering at St James’ Park. His side became harder to beat (and harder to watch) on their way to relegation. Chris Hughton achieved relative success through stoic defensive stability and trying to scrape enough points to earn the right to try it all again. His ultimate reward was being showered with clappers and a P45.
Farke played his way throughout and came up against better, stronger, faster players, who were ultimately too good. I honestly don’t know what else he could have done about that.
I’m no blind apologist, offering up excuses for what was a season of abject failure and I share the anger and frustration that many fans feel.
However, part of my personal frustration stems from the realisation that I must take a share of the blame.
I let my heart rule my head and conjured up a notion that everything would be alright.
The very definition of fantasy football.