Thursday, May 28, 2009

2008-9: An annus most horribilis

OK, you don't really want to be reading this, I certainly don't want to be writing it - but, as I'm already heartily sick of hearing fans of other clubs offering us the benefit of their usually ill-informed opinions, let's get it over with...

The 2008-9 season drew to a close on Sunday with our relegation to the Championship after sixteen years of thrills and spills in the top flight. Fittingly enough, it was an own goal that sent us down - not so much shooting ourselves in the foot as blasting ourselves into smithereens with a rocket launcher.

Of course, it wasn't just about the Villa result. The fact is that the preceding 37 games had left us needing at least a point from a trip to a club that occupied the final Champions League place for much of the season. Little wonder we weren't up to the task - and the lifeless, bloodless performance of the players suggested they knew as much before kick-off. More fools us fans for putting everything that had gone before behind us and blindly investing our belief in them. But then that's what we do - and what we'll continue to do next season in the Championship. That, after all, is the nature of being a football supporter.

However, loyalty and faith don't preclude analysis and critique. When asked what had gone wrong in the wake of Sunday's match, Wor Al - "hurting" and "raw inside" - was brutally frank: "There’s a million things you can look at this season, last season, and going back a long way that haven’t been right ... It's a culmination of everything". Let's pick through some of those things, starting at the beginning...

1. The managerial not-so-merry-go-round

Our problems stem, arguably, from the sacking of Sir Bobby Robson in August 2004, when this site was less than a week old. At the time, we were extremely disappointed but felt dressing room unrest compounded by a poor start to the season had made his position "close to untenable". Consider this us holding our hands up in acknowledgement of fault - time, it must be conceded, has made us look rather foolish.

Out of the door with Robson went all the stability, optimism and calm assurance he'd brought to the club to rescue us from the grim post-Keegan wasteland of the late 90s under Dalglish and Gullit and steer us to third, fourth and fifth place finishes in consecutive seasons. Fat Fred compounded his cack-handed management of Robson's sacking by installing Graeme Souness as his successor - both of which give the lie to the piggy-eyed one's attempts to lay all blame for the club's Premier League demise squarely at Mike Ashley's door. It's unlike Fat Fred not to want a big fat slice of something - though in this case the difference is a big fat slice of blame is something he richly deserves.

With Soumess the rot set in - arrogance, infighting, Jean-Alain Boumsong et al - and though his caretaker replacement Glenn Roeder briefly patched up the gaping holes in the hull of our hitherto sinking ship, guiding us into seventh and a place in Europe in 2006, flirtation with relegation the following season saw him deposed himself in May 2007. Unlike Soumess, Roeder was a decent bloke whose efforts the previous year had earned him the opportunity to assume the manager's position permanently, but ultimately he wasn't up to the task.

Neither, let me stress to the legions of opposition fans claiming the contrary, was Fat Sam. His particularly joyless brand of "football" might have been accepted (if never enthusiastically embraced) on Tyneside if it had borne any fruit - but it didn't, and with the club on a downward spiral, Ashley was right to give the arrogant arsehole the boot and make King Kev his first appointment. A bold fan-pleasing move which reinvigorated us all, and one which after a sticky start ultimately paid off with comfortable survival in the 2007-8 season.

Everything seemed geared for a bright 2008-9 - but we had reckoned without the nefarious influence of Ashley's other appointments Dennis Wise and Tony Jimenez, and the season was only three games old when Keegan sensationally walked out, resentful of the duo's interference in (or even dictation of) transfer policy. Ashley's biggest mistake - as his recent apology to fans belatedly appears to acknowledge - was his determination not to dismantle the off-pitch structure of which he'd been the architect, or even modify it so that the manager had the final say over transfer decisions, even if that meant sacrificing the cult hero he'd brought back to the fans' delight. Had Keegan remained in charge, with Wise and Jimenez sent packing, I'm convinced we wouldn't now be contemplating trips to Scunthorpe and Peterborough.

Chris Hughton held the fort briefly - and by holding the fort I mean presiding over some cheap victories for the opposition - before Ashley announced JFK would be installed as caretaker manager. It was like Fat Fred replacing Robson with Soumess all over again. If the rumours were to be believed, JFK got the gig after once meeting Ashley in a bar - presumably our owner had done a few of his trademark pint-downings when he made the decision...

As though to instantly prove himself unworthy of lacing King Kev's shoes, JFK blustered into a club not exactly renowned for its grasp of the importance of good PR and turned his first official press conference into one long childish verbal assault on the assembled hacks that turned the air a particularly deep shade of blue and - tellingly - drew criticism from an appalled Robson.

Otherwise his impact was negligible (other than in antagonising players - more below) and by the time he succumbed to a recurrence of his heart trouble, on the eve of the West Brom game at the start of February, we'd only won four matches under his stewardship. Back to Hughton we turned, this time in conjunction with Colin Calderwood, but the pair weren't able to change our fortunes either.

Enter Wor Al, on 1st April of all days (and, belatedly, exit Wise - the annus horribilis's anus horribilis). While eight games seemed enough to save us, we could have hoped he'd have been appointed sooner and given more time - and so, sadly, it proved. If Shearer was guilty of anything, it was of believing he could make a difference - but then we all believed that too, as did Ashley. With too many problems to solve and too little time, his remit was simply to inspire and drive us forwards - ironically, exactly the job to which King Kev would have been ideally suited. That he failed can't really be blamed on him, though, because...

2. Whither form? Whither passion?

... as the old adage goes, you can't polish a turd - and in terms of a squad that's exactly what Shearer inherited. No matter what he tried - personnel, formations, tactics - he simply couldn't fashion them into a team capable of being roused into delivering a decent performance, the ultimately futile win over the Smogs the only exception. JFK and Hughton had as much luck before him.

The fact that Shay Given and (to a lesser extent) Sebastien Bassong were the only players to show anything like consistently decent form - one left the club in January and the other took time to establish himself in the side - was lamentable given the supposed quality of what is an expensively assembled squad. There were occasional flashes from others, but the contrast with the likes of (for example) Stoke, for whom nearly everyone - unsung players all - performed at something approaching the manager's mythical 110% all season, was sharp. Dips in form are only natural, of course - but then so are peaks.

However, while form is largely beyond the control of the individual player (and so the lack of it not really blameworthy, even if extremely frustrating), and self-belief understandably ebbs slowly away when results are consistently poor, there is absolutely no excuse for a lack of effort. As Paul noted in his report, what was most infuriating about Sunday's match was the fact that at no point after the opening fifteen minutes did the team look sufficiently troubled by the prospect of relegation to be bothered to try and do something about it.

At a time when people have lost and continue to lose their jobs and all of us are feeling the pinch, the half-arsedness of some of the displays from individuals content to collect five- or even six-figure salaries every week was downright offensive. Only a handful of players seemed to be trying even when enduring miserable games - Nicky Butt and Steven Taylor chief among them. Did the rest not appreciate what it meant to the club, to the fans, to the city to remain in the Premier League? Or, worse still, did they simply not care?

3. Transfer trauma and tribulation

If everything Midas touched turned to gold, then we seem to have the exact opposite effect on players who sign for us - remember Hugo Viana and Albert Luque in particular, but the likes of Damien Duff more recently.

While Peter Lovenkrands proved himself a useful stop-gap during the second half of the season and Danny Guthrie can at least take a half-decent corner (a total novelty for us), after an electrifying debut on the opening day Jonas Gutierrez frustrated with his natural talent but inability to supply any end product, whether cross or shot, and the Spiderman mask never made it out of his sock.

Sometimes, though, it's not a matter of a reasonable purchase proving to be a dud - sometimes the purchase isn't reasonable in the first place. In the middle of the park, Alan Smith and January recruit Kevin Nolan were pointlessness personified, while the signing of Ryan Taylor from Wigan suggested little more than an attempt to ensure he doesn't score another impeccably curled free-kick against us ever again.

Of the Three Amigos who were Wise's pitiful legacy, Ignacio Gonzales took up permanent residence in the treatment room; £5m striker Xisco was consistently overlooked even when he was fit and none of our other forwards were, his sole contribution being a shanked consolation in the miserable home defeat by Hull; and Jose Enrique was reminiscent of Celestine Babayaro - also a left-back and also lazy and useless but, at £6m, six times more expensive.

And then we come to the coup de grace, Fabricio Coloccini, an Argentinian international who, after a promising start at Old Trafford, rapidly proved himself an extremely able Boumsong impersonator. Lax marking, carelessness in possession, weakness in the tackle, tripping over his own feet - nothing was beyond him. And yet, incredibly, one of the prime reasons for our relegation had the nerve to complain publicly that the club wasn't as it had been sold to him in the brochure...

All the more galling, then, that everywhere we looked central defenders we'd let go were prospering: Titus Bramble named as Wigan's Player of the Year; Aaron Hughes instrumental in Fulham's qualification for Europe; Abdoulaye Faye a rock on which Stoke's survival was founded; brothers Gary and Stephen Caldwell awarded Scottish Football Writers' Player of the Year and promoted to the Premier League with Burnley respectively...

At the same time that dross was being brought into the club, quality was haemorrhaging out. James Milner left for Villa in a deal which, together with the signings of Xisco and Gonzales, infuriated King Kev so much as to ultimately precipitate his own departure; talented youngster Charles N'Zogbia went to Wigan in January after a public slanging match with JFK in which neither exactly covered themselves in glory; and, after twelve long years, Shay Given finally got sick of being used as target practice and jumped ship for Man City. All three - Given in particular - cited our lack of progress as their primary reason for leaving, while Milner commented on the importance and value of the stability he'd discovered behind the scenes at Villa Park. They had a point.

4. Why take three points when one will do?

In the home fixture against Man City, there were fewer than five minutes on the clock when Stephen Ireland scored to pull his side back to 2-2.

In the home fixture against Wigan, the aforementioned Bramble struck an equaliser with seconds to go.

In the home fixture against Stoke, it was Faye who inflicted the late, late damage.

Can you detect a pattern here?

If we'd been able to cling on for what amounted to around an additional seven or eight minutes in those three games, we'd have been six points better off and comfortably clear of the relegation scrum. As it was, shoddy defending and concentration cost us dearly time and again.

5. Who's the wanker in the black?

It's customary in these situations to look around for someone or something else to blame. Sheffield Utd, for instance, laid the blame for their relegation on the fact that West Ham signed Carlos Tevez knowing the deal wasn't all strictly above-board. Spurs were more inventive and less justified when they missed out on a Champions League spot in 2006 to Arsenal, complaining they'd eaten some dodgy lasagne the night before. But if you really want an easy target, pick on the ref.

To name four occasions on which the officials did us no favours whatsoever this season: the sending-off of Habib Beye against Man City, which was later rescinded but which at the time contributed to our downfall; the award of the free-kick to Stoke at St James' Park from which their injury-time equaliser came; the baffling decision to signal for a corner from which Stoke scored in the return game at the Britannia Stadium; and Captain Pasty's disallowed header against Fulham in what turned out to be our last home game in the Premier League.

In each instance we can feel bitter and cheated, aggrieved that justice wasn't done.


But - and it's as big a but as there can be - these grievances about refereeing are actually petty and trivial within the context of the whole season, and should be dismissed fairly swiftly. The same goes for any gripes about injuries, whether short- or long-term. Let me make this perfectly clear: our relegation was definitely not a hard luck story.

The truth - harsh but evident - is that we simply weren't good enough. Our defensive solidity, our midfield creativity, our striking firepower - all deficient. The laziness and apparent lack of effort were particularly frustrating and upsetting - that and the subsequent gloating from the likes of Soumess, Fat Sam, Dave Whelan and the Mackems. (Even repeatedly self-professed Geordie and Newcastle fan Ol' Cauliflower Face beamingly proclaimed his delight that Wigan had finished so highly while certain big clubs had gone down.)

The points total of 35 with which Hull managed to stay up is pathetic, but just serves to illustrate the fundamental lack of quality among sides in the lower echelon of the Premier League. Our relegation rivals may have continually slipped up, but - as was the case once again on Sunday - we consistently failed to take advantage by not doing our own job. On this occasion, one goal would have been enough.

Of course, had we got that goal, or had Duff not redirected Gareth Barry's shot past Harper and into the bottom left-hand corner, then we'd be celebrating (albeit a hollow kind of celebration). So relegation has at least ensured we can't paper over the cracks any longer, and forced us to confront the realities of the club's situation face-on.

The next question is: where now? But that's something for another post and another day...


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