From RTG correspondent ‘Kev Turvey’
I’ve been thinking back to the end of May 2005, and trying to think what must have been going through Mick’s mind.
Having just won the Championship, he must have read with envy about the transfer kitty handed to Paul Jewell. He must have thought that with those funds, Wigan could bridge the small gap that existed between our sides last season and possibly move beyond us in terms of being a Premiership team. West Ham must have seemed a much more realistic opponent next season, having finished way below us in the league and having a similar young squad. He would have looked at the Premiership and would have sets his sights on Sunderland competing with the likes of West Brom, Fulham, Portsmouth and Birmingham, in addition to Wigan & West Ham. Those teams must have been the ones he looked at as our mini-league, in which we had to finish in the ‘top half’ to survive.
To that end, Mick knew he’d be losing the likes of Thomas Myhre, Jeff Whitley, Michael Bridges, Marcus Stewart, Sean Thornton and Mark Lynch. The squad was not that deep last year, so he had to replace them. The idea was obviously to do so with players who could make the grade at Premiership level. Having only been handed a £4m kitty from Bob & the Board would probably have left Mick a little deflated. Sure, we’re no longer a rich club, but we have to make every effort to improve the team if we are to stand any chance of survival. I guess he would draw up his shortlist of ‘Must-haves’.
I’m guessing long term target Jon Stead was no.1 priority to replace our top scorer, Marcus Stewart. That must have been the reasoning behind his willingness to pay £1.8m, almost half our kitty, on the striker. Kelvin Davis was close behind, as Poom’s injuries continued to be a cause of concern and Myhre was obviously not going to sign a new deal. That cost us another huge chunk of our kitty. Tommy Miller would have been his no.1 Midfield target, having bagged 15 goals for Ipswich and being out of contract. I’m also guessing he made overtures to Neil Warnock for Andy Gray, a striker he had admired for a while, to replace Bridges. The figure we were prepared to pay was probably not acceptable and we were linked with other strikers during the summer, most notable Kenny Miller. Probably a combination of missing out on other targets and seeing Gray score in Sheffield United’s opening game convinced Mick to part with a larger figure than he had hoped to pay for his services just before our season started. These 4 were probably his top priorities and account for almost all our cash, although he still needed a replacement for Whitley, as the holding player. I presume he figured Robinson or Whitehead could operate in the middle for the time being, alongside Miller.
We still had to flesh out the squad, especially at full back. Lynch’s move to Hull after a disappointing season where he providfed no real threat to Wright meant we needed a right back. Enter Nosworthy, picked from relegated Gillingham for nothing. I’m guessing there were a few free transfer options, but Nyron fitted the bill as young, eager and reasonable cover for the odd game. Any other signings were obviously to follow similar lines, with youth being the operative factor, as they could develop into the next generation for us whilst giving us some cover in the unlikely event of being needed. Enter Daryl Murphy (a mere 100k) & freebies, Martin Woods and keeper Joe Murphy. We still needed some Premership cover, especially as we were losing defenders like it was going out of fashion! Alan Stubbs was a great signing, as Everton failed to retain his services in Sunderland-esque calamity!! And he was joined by two young stars from top sides, Justin Hoyte & Anthony Le Tallec – both highly rated by their clubs and both likely to have great futures away from Wearside in the long-term. Still, they were available and would do a job for us. All in all, Mick had stuck to budget and replaced the majority of our departed players from key positions with promising, if not a little inexperienced, youngsters.
I truly wonder if Mick felt a sense of pride, or simply relief, to know he had changed the squad within the confines that he had been given. There is probably very little he could have done differently, given the club’s promotion and decision to let certain players move on. He would probably have looked out and saw his starting XI as Davis, Wright, McCartney, Breen, Stubbs, Lawrence, Arca, Whitehead, Miller, Stead & Elliott. He would have thought a regular bench to include the likes of Caldwell, Danny Collins, Hoyte, Robinson, Le Tallec, Gray, & Joe Murphy would have kept his options open. He probably thought he would be able to call on Piper, Kyle and Healy at some point in the campaign, after the trio recovered from their long-term injuries. Behind them would come the ones for the future – promising younsters: Alnwick, Neil Collins, Nosworthy, Welsh, Woods, Brown, & Danny Murphy. As long as we stay fit, we should be ok.
So, it couldn’t have been worse to lose McCartney & Danny Collins in pre-season, to see Piper’s pre-season curtailed due to artifical pitches, or to see Kyle’s problems linger. Neither to lose Wright for a long period following after only one game gone, or see key signings Stead & Davis start poorly. As we struggled in our opening games to register any points, despite our performaces being ok, Mick reviewed his holding midfield role that was vacant since Whitley left for Cardiff. Enter Bassila, another free signing, despite the comedy of a late approach from a continental side. In the end Mick had his man and, for a while, we looked stronger for it, winning in Middlesboro and probably should have won at home against the West sides – Brom & Ham. But this was short lived, as Bassila picked up an injury and we started to leak goals. To make matters worse, over the course of the opening months, we’ve lost Arca, Stubbs, Lawrence and now Elliott to injury for key games.
So here we are. And the only real notable points are the emergence of Ben Alnwick, to follow up the excellent start he made to his career last season, and the flashes of brilliance from Stevie Elliott, with his goals against Man Utd & the Mags. Maybe Arca, Whitehead, Lawrence &, much to Wenger’s delight, Justin Hoyte, have staked claims to be able to play at this level, but the rest seem to be struggling. Of our ‘experienced’ players – Stubbs, Breen, Caldwell, Arca, Stead, Le Tallec & Bassila – only Stubbs has played at regularly and with any success at this level before. We are starting to look out of our depth and we have shown, against Portsmouth, Villa & Birmingham especially, serious problems. We have always had them, but other aspects of our game showed flashes of promise in the games against Newcastle, Liverpool, Man City, & Chelsea despite losing them all. We were unlucky, maybe, or, more probably, naive, against Wigan, West Brom & West Ham when the points were there for the taking, but we have generally been rubbish against Arsenal, Charlton, Villa, Birmingham and, particularly, Portsmouth. Maybe only Alnwick has come out of any of these games with any credit.
So who’s to blame? Is it the manager, for bringing these players to the club? No, I can’t see what else he could have done, given the situation with both the squad and the finances in the summer. Is it Murray? Well, he was never going to risk saddling the club with huge debts, like Leeds. So is no-one to blame? Is it bad luck, that has robbed us of our better players who may have handled the Premiership better – the likes of Wright, McCartney, Arca &, latterly, Elliott? Well, we should have players who can step up, but yes, this is a big problem. Is it just that the players we have, the youth and exuberance that runs on confidence, is simply not yet of Premiership quality? Well, frankly, yes. There is not enough ability and players can only play above themselves for so long without drawing, let alone winning games.
But were we go with that assessment is anyone’s guess. Maybe we’ll find a run from somewhere, and luck will bounce our way so we manage to record a few wins. Or maybe we just tell the players & management to use each game as an experience, not to get too down, and we will come back stronger next time…..?