Well, that was a pretty good Easter, wasn’t it?
It’s been an incredible two full seasons under Chris Hughton. Really, we should have gone up last year. Our record would have been good enough in almost any other season. But we didn’t. Rather than get disappointed though it allowed us to go away and add even more of what it is that makes us great just now. So what is “it”? Some national newspapers have come out with great articles in the last day or so trying to get to just this and they’ve certainly been paying more attention than we thought. However, we regular fans have known the ingredients for a while, and in depth. Here – in my opinion – is how we did it.
“Just because you are a character, doesn’t mean you have character” – Winston Wolf, Pulp Fiction.
Now, I’m in no way claiming this makes me an expert but, over the last two years I’ve been helping out at my son’s football team as a coach. To do so I have had to pass a Level One coaching course through the FA, get screened and, for the last season, work closely with the manager. I’m actually about to pack it in but it’s given me the tiniest of insights in to how to build a team.
The boys are about to transition from under 10s – 7 a side fun games with widely variable standards and no league table – to the bigger pitches and more evenly matched league structure of 9 v 9 games at under 11 level. At under 10 you’re just trying to let them have fun while improving them. But we also need to start working on a style of play and our preferred method is passing and teamwork.
To do this you need to understand character and you need to try to refine it. We need to know who the greedy ones are and how to get them to pass it. We need to know who the shy ones are and try to get them involved with their team mates. We need to know which ones will take us literally and look to square the ball to a team mate with an open goal at their mercy (not many are like this admittedly but one or two will take everything you say ridiculously literally). We need to know who is a team player, who has an ego, who will run back fifty yards to win a tackle and who will give up. Then, somehow, we need to mould that in to a team. And that’s the tricky bit. You need balance.
Knockaert is raw and emotional. He wears his heart on his sleeve and wants to win every game with skill and passion. We love him for it but a team of eleven Knockaert's would be immensely self destructive. You need one of him. Dale Stephens is a character, but he also has character. The bloke leading the singing or photobombing on the team plane is also the one quietly breaking up an attack and starting the transitional phase in to an attack of our own. Baldock is another funny guy with his crowd surfing and chucklesome goal celebrations but this energy has been used to create space to massive effect all season.
Controversially Shane Duffy’s McGuinness tweet was fine with me, not because of what he said but because he said it in the first place. This guy isn’t scared of anything. Online he’s never short of a committed opinion. This translates on the field to a guy who will put his head anywhere, play with a broken nose, head away that brick, take a booking for the team, crank up the fans. Remove one element and you dilute the other. This is an all or nothing guy.
Character can be phlegmatic too. I’m still not sure I’ve seen Glenn Murray smile more than twice – he’s certainly no Baldock in this respect – but the guy has done nothing but put himself about on the pitch and score goals. Murray’s character comes alive on the pitch.
And character can be changed. Look at Dunk this season. He’s taken the silly mistakes and hot-headedness right out of his game and become twice the player for it – my player of the season in fact (though my son voted Knockaert).
Then there are the quiet, authoritative leaders and the community figures. Bruno, driving the team on from right back with his captain’s armband. Rosenior, so impressive on and off the pitch, a total ambassador for the club. And Stockdale. I’ve personally heard an incredible tale of this man’s generosity to the community this season. It’s beyond impressive.
There are others of course, but the point is that we have not only signed a blend of people who can work together, we’ve made it happen. I can’t even get ten year olds to pass to each other.
All this comes from……
Strip the poor recruitment and questionable tactics out of Hyypia’s team and you were still left with two big issues. Lack of leadership on the field and lack of leadership off it. We’ve covered on field leadership above. Now it’s time for the man himself.
Think back to school. The teachers would have been many different types of person. There would have been an exuberant one who ranted and raved at kids and headmaster alike – that’s Gus. There would have been one who was so ineffective you mucked him about – that’s Sami. But did you have one who was quiet, intelligent and respectful? Who always answered questions, had time for you, never flapped, provided advice and was there after school if needed. One who was respected back? I’ll guarantee you, though, that teacher could hand out a bollocking if needed, and I’ll guarantee he would have been the last teacher in the school you’d have wanted It from.
Our Chris seems unflappable, intelligent, almost studious but he’s earned his respect. It’s not all about being goody-goody, top-of-the-form either though. The team can be nasty and niggly when needed. We seem to know who to put challenges on, and how, to wind the opposition up. Our timewasting in that last ten minutes at QPR was a joy to behold, just the right side of the law. Even the ball boys are trained.
And we’re a work in progress. We take players and make them better. None more so than…..
I have to say when David Stockdale arrived I wasn’t overly impressed. Sure, he came with a good reputation, but he looked overweight and out of practice. He was certainly going to get a lot of practice in that team. There was even a #BlameStockdale hashtag, ironic in the end but started up because that’s what people did.
Fast forward to this season and he has been absolutely key to our success. Those penalty saves against Fulham and Sheffield Wednesday in particular have been as important as any goal we’ve scored all season. But it’s not just that. His shot stopping has improved, his control of the area is excellent and his distribution critical and first class.
It’s not just stopping goals though. Stopping them just gets you forty six 0-0 draws, equalling forty six points, relegation and a stadium full of people who are fast asleep. You need…………
At last we have a genuine 20-goal-a-season striker. Murray may well have been the final piece of the jigsaw but his arrival happened at the same time his colleagues found their shooting boots.
Four players have double figures. In all competitions Murray has 22, Knockaert 15, Hemed 14 and Baldock 11. But that’s merely good finishing. This season has been all about chance creation.
Here we veer from science and stats to feel. A simple question. How many games have you watched this season when you have thought “we’re never going to score here”? Even in that travesty at Huddersfield we scored a goal. I honestly can’t think of a time I was worried we wouldn’t score. And we score from all over. On the break. From set pieces. Lucky goals (think Hunnermier’s effort via the deflection), hustled goals (the two against Norwich where we panicked their defence), brilliant goals (Sidwell, obvs).
All season we have never looked like not scoring. Particularly…………
I have only seen us lose once all season in the flesh. I’ve seen some disappointing televised games but in the stadium I’ve seen just one defeat. Part of that was being in too much pain from a knee injury to attend Brentford and being very lucky with my away game picks; Cardiff, Fulham and QPR. But mostly it’s been our imperious home form.
Here’s where it’s all come together. Where the character of the fans has matched the character of the players. Where our Chris has been unflappable. Where the keeper and defence have excelled. Where we have scored non-stop. Brentford is the only home game we haven’t scored in. And I missed it! That means I have been out of my seat in that explosion of jumping joy at every home game I’ve attended. Some other STHs will be exactly the same.
This is a season, the like of which we may never see again. But, be assured. The above mix of ingredients is powerful and we are adding to it gradually, effectively and powerfully. This is because we have…..
A final word for the brass. Chris Hughton may be head chef, getting brilliant dishes to the pass but he’d not be able to get in the kitchen if the business wasn’t brilliantly run. So a final accolade for Paul Barber, who I’ve not always seen eye to eye with, and, of course Tony, who has masterminded, financed, cajoled and supported.
From the top down I believe we have the recipe not only to be Champions, but to stay up next season.