Sunday, May 9 2021
Something strangely familiar in the most unique of seasons.
Hopefully, this is the only ever season to be played out behind closed doors. It’s not just the being at the game that’s missing – the choice of what you want to look at, the atmosphere inside the ground – it’s all the rituals of matchday. The drive up and back from Bristol, the walk up to the ground permeated by the smell of over-priced, underwhelming burgers, being implored to come over to God’s side by an old-fashioned sandwich board man, the Made in Brum man appearing to shout ‘Ladies’ Bums’, the occasional serenade by a bagpiper, always through the same turnstile, purchase from the same programme seller, taking a seat around the same guys every game, for better or worse.
But despite the strangeness of missing out and being confined to the sofa, there was something familiar. The high hopes at the start of the season, a good run of form that makes you think we’re on course, a collapse in that form into the despair of near-certain relegation, before the arrival of a messiah to save us. Where have we experienced this before? Well, virtually every season for about the last ten years.
For those of an older persuasion, this is not a new phenomenon, it was just that in the late 70s and early 80s it used to be surviving in the top division that was at stake and the players and managers were Francis, Harford and Smith, rather than Adams, Caddis, Redknapp and Bowyer.
I’ll admit, I thought Karanka was the right man for the job. The previous season had ended in near chaos under Pep, we were saved by the inadequacies of others rather than by anything we did ourselves. If there had been a couple of more games in the season, I’m convinced we’d have been goners.
What we needed was someone to bring a bit of order and method to the chaos, as Rowett or Monk had done. With his track record, Karanka appeared to be that man. There was no suggestion that it was going to be done flamboyantly, the fun was to be had from winning games again – something that we had forgotten how to do.
And the first game of the season seemed to bear this out. A one-nil at home to much-fancied Brentford, when we barely got out of our half in the second half but the organisation and resolve were enough to keep the Bees at bay. We were going to shithouse our way to the Prem.
So it went on in this vein, mainly very low scoring draws, or one-goal victories either way. Nothing spectacular, clearly having trouble scoring goals, a long-term shortcoming, mainly solid at the back. We weren’t going to storm the division, but maybe that solid mid-table season beckoned.
Then around November, they started playing dreadfully. The turning point was an awful second-half performance at home to Wycombe who, up to that point, had been everybody’s whipping boys. A new, unwanted template emerged. Not only could we not win at home, but we also couldn’t win at home against teams who couldn’t win away.
A few of ‘it’s the hope that kills you’ performances apart, away at Cardiff, Bristol City and Reading, and the die was cast. Mostly performances were just lacking in any energy and will to win and you suspected that Karanka was sending them out not to lose games rather than win them and paying more attention in his line-ups to the opposition rather than making things happen ourselves. This lead to some bizarre team changes and a gradual sapping in the confidence of the players. Rather than the consistent pattern we’d thought we were getting, the formation seemed to change every game and the players we had weren’t that adaptable, most lower league footballers aren’t, that’s one of the reasons they’re lower league, and they need it kept simple.
There was also the strange treatment of players. In the victory against Reading, Jon Toral had won the game almost single-handedly with a display of power and skill – the best individual performance of the season. His reward? Dropped for the next game. We never really saw Toral again. And that was another emerging trait of Karanka, he was prepared to cut off his nose to spite his face. Desperate for goals to win games, Karanka stubbornly refused to consistently pick players like Toral and Jukey.
And then the wheels really started falling off. Mostly it had been dull games where our inability to score had led to narrow defeats. Already the team, due to Karanka’s management, weren’t fulfilling the basic requirement from any Blues fan – to give it a go. We were being bored into submission, cowardly sleepwalking towards relegation. But then we started getting slaughtered in games.
We already had a taste of it when Middlesbrough turned us over 4-1 at St Andrew’s when the defence, and indeed the whole team, fell apart before our very eyes.
The feeling that we had got out of these things many times recently and everything would be alright in the end was truly extinguished in an abject home performance against Bristol City in a game that turned out to be Karanka’s last.
I do not doubt that if Karanka had stayed a moment longer we would be contemplating trips to Cheltenham and Cambridge.
Someone else in the hierarchy, not Dong, thought the same and once again a firefighter was required.
Cometh the hour, cometh the man in the form of returning hero, Lee Bowyer. Many thought that the Carling Cup winner was mad to have ridden out the volatility of Charlton’s ownership during the last few years, only to swap it for the crazy house of Blues’ ownership situation and a team staring down the barrel at League One.
But they were wrong. From the get-go, Bowyer brought confidence back into the club, confidence in his ability – no more shrugging resignation – confidence in the players. He thought what a lot of us thought, these weren’t bad players, these were players who had been badly managed.
Back to basics from the first game. As he said it’s not rocket science, keep it simple, work hard and put a shift in. The main tactic was simple, get the ball into the box for the best header of a ball in the division, the criminally underused Jukey. The ball came in from wingers, free-kicks, long-throws, wing-backs, but it came in.
At the back he kept it simple as well – two big boys centre-halves to attack the ball and stick it to oncoming forwards, allied, usually, with two experienced full-backs. Roberts and, in particular, Dean, who’d been all over the place for weeks, were now clear about what they needed to do. Dean responded to the confidence shown in him by displaying the leadership that had been missing for most of the season.
And the midfield started working really hard. Gardner and Sunjic ran themselves into the ground, they were the ones who put the energy back into the team and drove them on, qualities missing since the release of Dutch Mike halfway through the season.
When you have got such commitment and consistency in the team, you can then add a bit of sparkle that can open things up if it’s tight. Halilovic, Bela and Sanchez provided that spark, most notably at Derby when it needed turning around after a poor first half. Even San Jose got in on the act in that game, reminding us of his class when, previously, he had looked non-plussed and an accident waiting to happen every time he was on the field.
Nearly everyone responded to Bowyer’s positivity. The only exception was Leko who just couldn’t seem to contribute anything, he became the liability. But Bowyer didn’t have a lot of options up front, a result of a recruitment policy which seemed to focus on getting as many lightweight number tens into the building as possible at the expense of people who might score goals – a million quid on Clarke-Harris during the close season might have created a very different picture.
The Derby game showed that Bowyer wasn’t just about sticking to a 4-4-2, like Monk or Rowett. We saw 5-3-2 regularly and, in that Derby game, a diamond where we got the ballplayers on to pass our way through. Refreshing flexibility and boldness by a manager willing to change the game plan according to how it’s going. Compare and contrast with Karanka’s stubbornness of sticking to the game plan, no matter what.
Within a few minutes of Bowyer’s first game against high-flying Reading, it started working. Bela ball to the back post and Jukey did what Jukey does. Despite being pegged back, Blues found a winner, another header from a ball into the box, this time from Dean, not the last time he’d do it this season. Hard work had kept Reading at arm’s length for most of the game and that quality saw Blues see out the game reasonably comfortably.
A good display away against premier league bound Watford, followed by a home win against Swansea and a point on the road at Brentford and Blues were on a roll after a run of Bowyer’s first four games against top sides in the division where we were expected to get nothing.
The momentum was now in Blues favour, the ship had been turned around. The main nagging doubt was Rotherham and their games in hand as a result of a COVID outbreak. That was dealt with with a one-nil win against Paul Warne’s side which was a result of being prepared to grind it out and wait for the break which came late on from another Dean header after the ball had been put in the box from a free-kick.
Safety was put on hold by a dubious 97th (!) minute penalty at home to Forest but was sealed a few days later with that impressive second-half turnaround at Derby.
Safe with two games to go. Unthinkable luxury just a few weeks back.
The last couple of games gave an opportunity to see what else was around the club in terms of playing resources, youngsters and fringe players. Both games were similar in that our inexperienced sides were picked off by their elders and betters in the last twenty minutes of each game to end up in heavy defeats.
Even by the standards of recent great escapes, this one was pretty miraculous. Of course, the players played a vital part but the credit must go to one man, ably aided and abetted by Gardner, Bowyer – a man who not only gets Blues but is experienced in working with, ahem, eccentric ownership and management, which he’ll need.
Quite rightly, optimism abounds, but a word of caution. The season after Jim Smith came in and saved us, it was into November before we won our first game, finished 21st out of 22, got relegated and had to sell Trevor. I’ve been watching this team too long to take anything for granted.