First of all, let’s put the Tottenham thing to bed. It was only one game, only 3 points. With their current players and manager not many teams will go there and get anything. We went there without key players like both Taylors, Tiote and Cabaye, and with our relatively small squad, didn’t have anyone as effective to replace them. We’ll no doubt repay the Spuds after “Harry” leaves in the summer. We’ve stuffed them before, we’ll stuff them again, that’s inevitable.
Moving on to much more meaningful things. We’ve all heard the many statements this season which generally begin with “if someone had told me before the beginning of the season that in mid-February we would be…” – The thing is, it’s true. After the sale of quite a few of our more senior players in the summer of 2011 there was doom and gloom everywhere, even at the bookies, where we were written off as relegation fodder in waiting. We failed to bring in top players and “only” brought in the likes of Ba and Cabaye. Well, as we all know now, either by luck or good management, most of the dealings we made have improved us, not only on the pitch but also off it too, where the finances of the club have been put in order alongside the improvement in the team’s fortune, and we have expanded and deployed a scouting team which is now as good as anybody’s.
Don’t get me wrong. As those of you who have come across me before will know, I was and still am one of Mike Ashley’s biggest critics, and personally will never forgive him for his treatment of Sir Kevin Keegan or for bringing someone like Dennis Wise to our great club – a man with a long history of mutual dislike with our fans. However, credit where credit is due; Mike Ashley seems to have learned from his early mistakes and now appears to have a clue how to run a football club. Add to that a management, coaching and scouting team who can bring in good players, motivate and organise the team to get results, and progress has been made – to the point where even the media are grudgingly having to talk about us in positive terms again, and look to other clubs like Liverpool and Chelsea for their soap opera material.
Turning to the rest of this season then. It’s mid-February and we are currently sitting in sixth place in the Premier League, one point off a Champions League place and right in the mix for Europa League qualification. We are in amongst the group of teams that the media like to refer to as “big clubs” – whatever that means (For Liverpool, Tottenham and Chelsea it certainly doesn’t mean in terms of crowd size). A quick scan of the remaining fixtures this season doesn’t really frighten us either.
Earlier in the season when we had our unbeaten run of 11 games they said “we hadn’t played anybody yet”. Well we’re still here, and applying the same criteria as they did, you could now say we “haven’t got anybody left to play.” It’s not something I agree with particularly as I go along with the adage that there are no easy games in the EPL, as proven when we thought we would beat West Bromwich at home and get something at Norwich for example. However for a team which has proven itself to be at least the “best of the rest,” all of the remaining 13 games are winnable. Of the tougher ones, Chelsea, Arsenal, Liverpool, Manchester City, two of them are at home, two away, and we’re good at home, ask Manchester United. The rest are all teams currently below us. We have also proven that, even losing players of the quality of Ba, Cabaye and Tiote, we still have the strength to pick up results.
Further reason for optimism is that we now finally have two class forwards up front to play in the favoured 4-4-2 system which served us so well in that 11 game run. We also have Cabaye back (provided he isn’t subjected to any further trial by television) to give the Dembas some bullets to fire. We will also have Ryan Taylor back to add some steel to the right wing, and take advantage of any free kicks which come our way. Finally, we will have Cheik Tiote back to sit in front of the defence as guardian and protector, and provide some much needed effective distribution of the ball.
Looking to the future – next season and beyond. Well the one thing we know in football is that nothing stands still, change is inevitable. It may be that some silly money will come in for some of our players, and it may be that those bids are accepted. But one thing is clear, we now have the setup to find equally good or better players to replace any outgoings. We also now seem to have an owner and management who have a taste for progress, a taste for the upper echelons of the Premier League and enjoy upsetting a few media applecarts. Reasons to be cheerful folks!
Mind you, if we lose at home to Wolves, I’ll be as grumpy as anybody.