Malcolm Dawson writes…..I nearly didn’t go today. I’ve got a bad back. But my lift arrived early so I struggled into my socks and shoes and did what Lamine Kone didn’t do and trekked along to the Stadium of Light. I’ve moved a row back this season but the faces from last year were all there and we spent the pre-match minutes inevitably talking about how the events of the close season have put us back into a familiar frame of mind for our first home game of the season. Of the starting XI only Don Vito, PvA and Defoe were left from the line up which had put Norwich, Chelsea and Everton to the sword and ensured another season of Premiership struggle. It wasn’t supposed to be like this. We were supposed to be consolidating ourselves as a top half side. Instead we lined up with kids and other clubs’ reserve team cast offs. My GP has ordered a whole set of blood tests, I’m due an X-Ray in the week to see if he can determine the cause of my pain and has threatened me with a prostate examination if nothing is forthcoming from those. (I think he’s a closet Mag!) In the meantime I’ll let Pete Sixsmith describe his own painful experience (and I don’t mean getting through the multiple roadworks on the A690.)
It’s better than last season. Honest it is. After two games last year we were bottom of the league with three goals scored and seven conceded. This year after two games we are third from bottom with a goal difference of minus two. As one of Comrade Stalin’s apparatchiks might have said: “There may be less wheat but it is better than last year’s. Progress Comrades, progress.”
Like last week there were things that gave some ground for optimism. The new centre half from Chelsea via Werder Bremen, Papy Djilobodji, looked more Kone than Diakite. Januzaj showed some early promise. Gooch worked his wee Californian socks off in midfield. Watmore ran at the Boro defence and caused them problems until he ran out of legs. So on that basis not bad.
However (you knew that was coming didn’t you) the sum of the parts totalled very little. It looked like a team that had been thrown together in the midst of a crisis. There was little in the way of genuine team work. Callow youth does not get you through games like this against opponents who were strong and who knew exactly what their individual roles were.
What worried me was that the team spirit and the ethos that the players had last season was not there. Instead of encouragement and high fives, there were complaints when a pass was mishit or if a ball wasn’t played correctly. The safety and security that Kaboul, Kone, Kirchhoff and Khazri brought to the table last spring has gone – as Kone will be by the end of the week. Instead we had two young men with little first team experience shoved into key positions. Both had good pedigrees at their previous club but neither looked the real McCoy here as they were hustled out of the game.
McNair played in front of the back four in the Kirchhoff role, but he could not keep up with the pace of the game. He arrived late for the ball, missed tackles and did little to push us forward. Love was little better at full back and looked lost at times, giving the ball away and being caught out of position. Gooch appeared to avoid passing to him in the second half. The idea was to use pace and trickery against defenders who were acclimatising themselves to the Premier League. Watmore provided the pace and Januzaj the trickery. It looked promising for the opening minutes and we had a couple of half chances.
Then a pass from Negredo, a huge beast of a centre forward, sent the Uruguayan Cristhian Struani off on a run. Van Aanholt backed off, presumably intending to close Struani down on the edge of the box. What he did not expect was a blistering 25 yard screamer that fizzed into the top corner of Mannone’s net. It was a genuine contender for goal of the month.
The could not be said about the second one where Negredo, played onside by van Aanholt, slipped past Rodwell and evaded at least two more feeble tackles before setting up Struani for the second. Coming as it did two minutes before the break and ten after John O’Shea had limped off, we looked to be in serious trouble and a real cuffing was on the cards.
Off went McNair and on came Jeremain Lens and that certainly improved things. The Dutchman has not been a great success and there is talk of him heading to Fenerbache to join Dick Advocaat, but he showed his quality here and began to get us back into the game. He was ably assisted by Stephen Pienaar, who had come on for O’Shea with Rodwell moving to centre back.
We had much more of the game in the second half. Both Watmore and Defoe missed chances before Lens put Watmore in. His shot was parried by an uncertain Brad Guzan and van Aanholt was on to it quickly to thump it into the net. We had chances to equalise, but they slowed the game down and it faded away for yet another afternoon of intense disappointment.
So where are we? We are seriously short of players. We have one centre half at the moment, assuming that O’Shea is out for a while. We have three key midfielders injured. Larsson is out until March, Cattermole has a hernia and Kirchhoff is not fit. Khazri and Lens were on the bench and Khazri did not even get on, Moyes preferring to use Asoro for a last hoorah at the Middlesbrough goal. Will Khazri be the next one to leave?
All over the country, supporters of other clubs will be looking at the table and saying: “Here they go again. Can’t make a decent start and will be struggling all season.” I would find it very hard to disagree with that perception after seeing us lose at home to a newly promoted side in our first home game.
It is all well and good saying we need new players, but who? We are perpetual bottom feeders; we lose managers with monotonous regularity.
Players who have been at the club for a short period of time and who have done well, bale out as soon as they can. None of this is attractive to good, solid professionals who are desperately needed to give us some stability. Moyes knows that he needs at least five new men to come in and that the margin of error is so small as to be almost invisible.
Middlesbrough played well and had the kind of players and the stability that we crave. Karanka has assembled a solid squad and I was particularly impressed with Ben Gibson, a quick and strong central defender who should go on to greater things. But be warned. Twelve months ago, Norwich City beat us 3-1 in our first home game and looked the business. They went down and we stayed up. There are 36 games to go…….
To add insult to injury, I returned home to find that the chicken casserole I had placed in the Slow Cooker was burnt to a frazzle – kizzened as they say in these parts. Next time I shall put the bloody thing on Low rather than High so that the cooker matches my expectations.