Another season which can only be described as dismal, as Blues reached the heady heights of mid-table in the Championship before falling away alarmingly after lockdown. They avoided relegation by the skin of their teeth, thanks to an injury-time equaliser against Charlton in the penultimate game of the season.
More alarmingly, we’re getting used to this. It’s almost a given that it will go until the last game of the season. A mindset is taking hold.
Continual mismanagement by TTA leaves us vulnerable to this happening time and again. Another season has gone without a hint of a strategy, or at least without a hint of communicating any strategy to supporters. It still feels as if it’s being run as a rich man’s plaything, rather than a proper business.
You shall know them by their actions, though. There seemed to be a hint of some long-term thinking in the first half of the season as we mimicked, a little bit, the Brentford model of buy ‘em low, sell ‘em high while playing a pass and move game on the pitch, as we went very Spanish and technical in our recruitment, Giminez, Villalba, Sunjic, Crowley and, later, Bela.
As I sit here relieved and peeved at having come so close to relegation to the third tier, again, it is hard to remember being excited by these signings and their early promise. Much of this promise was based on one twenty-minute spell against Middlesbrough where ‘Dongball’ kicked in and tika-taka in the Championship seemed possible.
But it was all a flash in the pan, both collectively and, for many, individually. Villalba, in particular, flattered to deceive, before giving up and running back to Spain as soon as it got a bit cold in Brum, with his model girlfriend in tow to keep him warm.
That didn’t stop a contingent of the younger support getting very excited and accusing the older supporters Neanderthal ways as being the root cause of our years of failure. I haven’t seen so much read into so little since Keita trapped a ball nicely about four seasons ago.
But, to be fair, it does look as if we’ll turn a reasonable profit on both Gimenez and Villalba. The main bit that’s missing is Brentford’s ability to win games of football while greatly increasing the value of their players before flogging them off.
For long periods of the season, we couldn’t win games, ending the season with our worst run of form in twenty-odd years.
As winter set in, someone lost their nerve. Dongball was jettisoned for a good old 4-4-2 and we hit our best form of the season post-Christmas, pre-lockdown.
Although we saw flashes of it later, Dongball may already have been on its way out before it had even got started. I saw them pre-season at nearby Bristol Rovers and they played three at the back with wing-backs to give width. No sign of that first game of the season as we shithoused our way to a one-nil with our only shot, albeit a header, from Pedersen, back in an orthodox left-back position. And by this time Seddon, our natural wing-back, had already been shipped out on a season-long loan to Pompey.
Throughout there remained a doubt as to who was making these tactical decisions. Was it Pep Clotet, Garry Monk’s erstwhile coach who was parachuted in with the faintly ludicrous title of Acting Interim Head Dongballer or summat like that. Or was Pep a stooge for Dong’s Football Manager aspirations? It didn’t help with the conspiracy theorists, and aren’t there a lot of them around nowadays in all walks of life, when Dong was pictured in his branded training kits and boots at Wast Hills after the resumption.
Structurally, they don’t seem to want to go the whole hog and create a Director of Football role, which Dong and the somewhat mysterious, and aren’t there a lot of mysterious people around our club at the moment, Kristian Speakman aspire to. That would then make the Head Coach thing more logical, rather than having a manager. We seem caught between two stools on this one.
Anyhoo, Pep had enough rumination time during lockdown to realise what he’d signed up for wasn’t sustainable and he was off at the end of the season. Instead of taking decisive action and releasing him straight away, Blues did what seems to be the default for them at the moment – they ran a social media campaign.
Pep was left as a lame-duck Acting Interim Head Dongballer, and the players responded in kind. Swapping the residue of my season ticket for access to Blues TV proved to be an uncomfortable experience in more ways than one. Perched on a high chair to see my computer screen, like a member of a boy band crooning away, was unpleasant enough, but what unfolded before my eyes easily topped that.
To be frank, Blues were diabolical after the break. The defence, in particular, was a shambles, each member taking it in turns to outdo each other in displaying a lack of basic defensive skill. The only exception, being the much-maligned Camp in goal. He let a shed-load in, yet was one of our few decent performers as we seemingly careered to League One. It was constantly described as ‘sleepwalking’, but there’s no way you could sleep through a car crash.
The midfield gave us glimpses, as they had done all season, with Crowley starting to add some consistency and defensive responsibility to his undoubted talent. Bela, another talent with his pace, skill and delivery, still raises big concerns about his ability to last the pace. His best moments post-lockdown came as an impact sub. Sunjic re-discovered some of the form that had marked him out as a quality modern footballer earlier in the season. Gary Gardner continued to be one Blues better performers, particularly with his running with the ball from midfield.
And the second coming of a boy wonder. Jude Bellingham was undoubtedly the best sixteen-year-old I have ever seen play football. Trevor was already in his twenties when I started watching the Blues, so I can’t compare. He’s already very good at many things; passing, moving, finding space, dribbling, shooting, he gets stuck in as well and he’ll only get better. He’s probably gone to the best club in Europe to aid his development and, thanks to the principles of the Bellingham family, the Blues have got a huge wodge in compensation for his talents.
Up front, Hogan went from hero to zero. The transformation of the sharp predator into blunt instrument that had all the confidence drained out of him was one of the mysteries of a perplexing season. Jukey does what Jukey does, he kept plugging away. He was eventually rewarded with what turned out to be the season-saving goal against Charlton, a fifteen goal haul and a raft of player of the year awards. Criticism of Jukey for not being Lionel Messi, given what he’s contributed over the years, seems incredibly unjust.
In many ways, this is a season best forgotten. In modern parlance, it’s hard to take the positives.
What’s really needed is a leader on the football side of things who knows how to organise a football team and manage players to fit into that organisation, who won’t take too much BS from the owners, and help spend the Jude windfall sensibly. Someone like Aitor Karanka.
It is, indeed, the renewed hope that kills you.
Here we go again.
Birmingham City 2019 – 2020 season review