How long is it since I last sat at a keyboard to write anything for the site? Too long, I would imagine that even those of you who paid attention in the first place have given up waiting. I’ll not go into too many details but I’ve been through three laptops and two PCs in the last two months and time on line, for that and other reasons has been limited. Despite the best intentions and plenty of scraps of paper, I’ve not got a finished article since the match report for the Villa game, and how much have things changed since then? Probably not as much as you might think.
Things may not be that different, we’re still riding reasonably high and exceeding expectations with the addition of a cup semi final to the increasingly taken for granted second season in this division, but there’s plenty happened since the end of October not least a run of fixtures that would turn the most youthful of football managers grey. Important players (alright it’s just the one) have been dragged away to play in a tournament that no one seems to think should be played during the season, but still is ad right on cue we hit an injury ‘crisis’. Normal service has been resumed with the start of the transfer window. Whilst off the pitch we’ve seen increasing symptoms of a condition that has become all too prevalent at the JJB over the past few years, bloated expectations.
We all knew that they were coming and for many it was a case of putting a brave front on it, “anything we get from these games will be a bonus” and all that. The Spurs and Arsenal games provided quite a bit of hope, both could have been won on different days and although any sense of injustice would have been misplaced a draw would have been a fairer result on both occasions. Then it was the trip to Anfield and time for a lesson on what it means to be playing in the top flight. The view may have left a lot to be desired, but come 90 minutes some of the lads must have been wishing it was the one they’d had. Jewell claimed that we hadn’t turned up, but to be honest Liverpool are probably the best team we’ve played this season, solid throughout and a threat going forward, yes even from “England’s worst ever forward” (think before you chant lads).
Chelsea were Chelsea and despite us grinding away, they ground harder. It may have only been another 1-0 victory, but we never threatened. Old Trafford was something else altogether, in the ground earlier than I’d been for years, and earlier that I’d care to mention, but after you’ve gawped at the tourists, had your chips from the Clayton Blackmore chippy and bought a can from the Russell Beardsmore (the names may have been changed to protect the innocent, or because I can’t remember) offy there’s not much else to do. Once we finally got underway it was easy to see why they’ve still got a chance of winning any tournament they’re in, but at the same time why they probably won’t.
Going forward through Giggs, Van Nistleroy and Rooney, they were something else, definitely the best attack we’ve come across so far, but elsewhere they were fairly average. Yes they can keep the ball, but they struggled to get it off us, and at the end of the day they gave us as many chances as some of the less feared teams in the division have. Reading that back it sounds wrong, on the night we were steamrollered United got to exorcise some demons but if we’d capitalised on our early possession it could have been different.
Our season ‘restarted’ at home with Charlton who, along, it seems, with the rest of the division, saved their worst performance of the season for the 3-0 rout. This result really showed the gulf in class between those teams challenging for the champions league and the rest. In the blink of an eye we go from conceding goals for fun, without looking like replying, to battering a team that had looked like they were going to achieve something in the first part of the season.
It seems like ages since we’ve had a decent derby over Christmas so there should have been a real buzz about the boxing day sell out against City but the turkey and mince pies obviously affected the early atmosphere leaving it up to the players to get things going. These sort of games rarely involve the blood and thunder of yore but this was far from a cagey affair. Apparently I’m not allowed to call it a ding dong do, as the lead only changed once, but we managed to turn an early deficit into a long period of dominance, and then a seemingly unassailable lead into a decidedly dodgy last few minutes. Definitely one for the neutrals.
Legs going, bubbles popping, wheels falling off, the end of the world, whatever you want to call it you could have been forgiven for thinking it had happened at Old Trafford but we managed to turn that one around. In reality the bigger job is going to come back from the last two games. Whatever the reasons you have to look at the games against Blackburn and Birmingham as disappointments. Blackburn may have outplayed us, and scored two of the best goals we’ll see at the JJB this season, to beat us but we hardly put up a fight. The game at St Andrews is better off put to one side two poor teams with one putting in a slightly more adequate performance than the other. In all it’s been an odd couple of months in the league, we should have learnt plenty, but we haven’t put it into play yet.
Whether the players need a kick up the arse or a rest to get over the last two games time will tell. One thing is for certain, as strong a position we’re currently in we should not be assuming safety. Ok we’re as good as there, but our finishing position will be key to attracting players to the club in the summer the players need some sort of motivation and until it’s a certainty, the threat of relegation may be the best we’ve got.
In contrast to our league form and an approach to squad rotation that Claudio Ranieri would be proud of we’ve been progressing quite nicely in the League Cup. We have had the benefit of being at home for every game but so far we haven’t conceded a goal and depending on Wenger’s team for the second leg of the semi final have a reasonable chance of appearing in our first ever major final. Now it may be little more than a pleasant aside for the club, and you can understand Jewell putting the emphasis strongly on the League but how playing in first the quarter then semi finals of this competition has failed to grab the fans amazes me.
I wrote earlier in the season about fans buying into the press’s view that the League Cup is dying on it’s feet but you have to wonder, especially when just days before we had no better than 60% of the crowd against Leeds in the FA cup. Now plenty of people have given reasons for not going and some of them are valid, and whilst maybe the 3rd round of the FA cup might not have the romance when you look at it from our angle, for fans to consider these two games as inconveniences it more than a shame, it’s a crime.
Whilst they may have been happy to play big time Charlies by not turning up to cup games some of our fans have marked themselves out a distinctly small time with their efforts at Anfield and Old Trafford, I’m not entering for fan of the year this year, and plenty has been said elsewhere on this so I’ll leave it there. The more disappointing aspect of our support is the section that has decided that half our team are not ‘up to it’.
What exactly they’re not up to I’m not sure. Not up to getting us promoted to the top division? Not up to seeing us to New Year as one of the top five in the “best league in the world”? Not up to seeing us to safety with barely a struggle at the first time of asking? Or is it that their not up to challen
ging Chelsea for the title or Barca for the Champions League? Have a minute lads, no one is suggesting that we can’t improve on what we’ve got; but slowly and surely is the way forward.
Remember, the lads that have got us here wouldn’t have done it without belief; in themselves, in the team, in our club. Whilst they’re still here they deserve a little bit of that back. Otherwise we’re little better than the hacks that wrote us off before we started and the pundits who take every chance that they can get to remind us w
e’re punching above our weight. Yes they’ll be replaced over time but we should remember for what they have achieved, not take every opportunity to point out their failings.
I’ll leave you to chew over that for a little while, no doubt there’ll be some more catching up to be done over the coming days. For now, it’s good to be back.
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