• To More Than Survive a Big Summer is Needed

    So that’s it then. Time for the scarf to go back in the cupboard, fold up that replica shirt, put down the flags and stick that Stone Island coat to the back of the pegs. We’re done for another season and we’re safe. Just. Premier League football will be back at The Amex again next season. At times it wasn’t for want of trying to get out, or so it seemed, yet, at others, we were very close to sublime. But when you score one goal in the whole of April and every pundit in the game is pointing out that you could bore for England, no one remembers the day you took apart Manchester United or put three past Palace in one half with ten men.

    So, was the season a success or failure in retrospect? Who exceeded expectations? Who has potential? Who stunk out the gaff? What should the powers that be do about it? And should the powers that be still include Chris Hughton as manager? Here is just one fan’s humble opinion but, as ever on NSC, the debate is over to you.

    Firstly though, I’m going to do what many people on NSC never do and link back to an article I’d previously written, in order to admit that I was wrong. Let me take you back to late July 2018. The sun had been shining for about three months, England had just got to a Semi Final of a World Cup, the Albion were signing players like it had gone out of fashion and NSC was tracking a plane from Holland containing a certain Iranian, fresh from said World Cup. The annual battle of the Lickers versus the Wetters was non-existent (this, in something I’ll call Bozza’s Third Law of Posting, always ends in someone posting something along the lines of “for God’s sake just sign SOMEONE, how hard can it be!”). And so I wrote this, already smug in the knowledge we’d done our business early.

    Only I was wrong. Not only was some of our more significant business still to happen but, it turns out, the “bullet spraying” approach to signing players is no more effective than the careful “wait till the price is right”. In the cold, wet winter of 2019 this was to come home to roost.

    But, as I said at the start, we are safe, so can the season be reasonably considered a success?

    Season Positives and Negatives

    Positive number one, above all else, we stayed up. But there was more than that to enjoy in 2018/19. On the face of it if you’d offered us the following at the start of the season, every single one of us would have taken it; staying up, taking six points off Palace and getting to Wembley. In fact that would have been the dream. Nobody thought we were going to do a Leicester, or even emulate Burnley and get in to Europe (albeit at the Thursday evening in Azerbaijan end of the scale). Staying up was the number one aim, taking six points off “them” was a massive great chocolate cake wrapped up in a lovely box and delivered with love from Thornton Heath and a great day out at Wembley was the icing on it. What’s not to like?

    Well, certainly those two games against Palace are very much to like. The points helped keep us up for one. Warren Aspinall crowing “we’ve only got ten men” still lives inside my brain even though I was in the stadium and going absolutely potty, rather than listening in at home. But a ruthless examination finds problems even here. Palace are our ideal opponents it turns out. Playing mostly on the break (and playing for half a season without a recognised striker) they were there for the taking because our tactics suited them perfectly. The fact it nearly drove Wilf to tears, that I can still see every second of Balogan’s, Andone’s and Knockaert’s goals in my dreams are bonuses. When a team sits back against us, when they’re using Andros Effing Townsend as a striker you SHOULD beat them.

    The cup run was magical but boy, did we make hard work of an easy set of games. Except Bournemouth away, which was a great performance in a harder game on paper. But after that we huffed and puffed our way past West Brom after one of the least memorable 0-0 draws in Amex history and were an absolute fluke / keeper howler away from going out to Millwall of the arse-end of the Championship.

    Ultimately the greatest achievement may have been staying up itself. Having been horrible at home to Southampton, Bournemouth and Cardiff, games we probably would have taken five to seven points from in the past, we dug in at our lowest ebb and rescued the season with a battling 0-0 at Wolves, a comeback from the worst first half I’ve seen since Withdean against Newcastle and, with the pressure off, a second draw against Arsenal. Plus, Cardiff really were rubbish after all.

    The points to stay up were mostly earned in the first half of the season. In a season as long as our domestic one the table doesn’t lie. We rightly ended up fourth-worst due to the 2019 blip but at Christmas we were looking like Thursday nights in Azerbaijan were a possibility. You have to consider the home performances against United, Arsenal and Everton when weighing up the season as a whole. We just about deserved it.

    But the “just about” is a concern. Since January we were, frankly, horrible. The story of Brighton – coming back from near extinction, playing “home games” 70 miles from home and in a run down athletics stadium with a temporary stand – should endear us to the neutral more than “plucky” Bournemouth and their inexplicable spending. But while Eddie Howe was playing expansive, attacking football (and racking up nine points more than us) we were boring the pundits and fans to tears. Boring, time wasting Brighton were wheeled out along with our shots on target stats as evidence of our anti-football. Whether that’s fair or not, that’s currently where we’re seen. So, was this down to the players or the manager? Or both?

    Those Summer Signings

    I read back that article from July and the thing I notice the most is who it doesn’t mention, rather than who it does. No Dan Burn, Montoya or Jahanbakhsh. These signings, completed later in the window, would be just as influential on the season in their own way. But the list does mention some who could be considered on the positive end of the scale. David Button came in as back up keeper and did a sterling job. If anything he should have played against his old club Fulham while Maty was still jet-lagged but that’s hardly his fault. Everything you need from a number two keeper was there. Bissouma and Bernardo meanwhile represent exciting potential. Neither are quite the finished article yet. Bissouma is young which makes him a little immature and prone to poor decision making at times but the only way he will learn is to play games and study under the influence of calming figures like Chris Hughton. Bernardo has the pace needed to play full back in today’s Premier League and can happily alternate with Bong for the number one left back slot.

    The jury is very much out on Andone and Balogan. Is the former the Romanian answer to Jamie Vardy? He could still be. Flashes of brilliance rescued us with vital goals against Huddersfield (twice) and THAT goal against Palace. But if Bissouma’s temperament is a little suspect Andone can hit boiling point from absolutely nowhere. Without Murray’s physical presence and years of knowledge he relies on his pace which is no good at all if the other ten supporting players are all around our own penalty area. Give him a season where he doesn’t start injured and some decent support and see how he goes. Balogan, meanwhile, also scored THAT goal against Palace (isn’t it nice when you can say that of several players) but has looked a more peripheral figure and was found out badly at West Brom of all places. For me it’s Burn who should be next in line should anything happen to the majestic Dunk and Duffy.

    And the others? Ah, come on, it’s time for that Ali J conversation. I’ve written so much about him on his own threads that I’ll be accused of having an agenda (everyone on NSC has an agenda) so let’s just cut to the cold, hard facts. The excitement that we all shared in July tracking that plane, that a guy who scored the most goals in Holland’s top division from out wide was landing in a private plane and about to be our record signing, has resulted in zero goals and zero assists. Now, as Paul Barber rightly points out, everyone makes mistakes in the transfer market and not everyone will work out at a club. See Daly Blind’s career at Man United versus his career at Ajax. Or Elvis Manu. Or Danny Holla. See what I did there?

    Those are the facts around Ali for this season. Maybe he’ll be great next season when he’s really adapted, though that will need a sudden burst of pace and strength that doesn’t seem to be present. Maybe he’ll go on loan. Maybe we’ll cut our losses. But the facts of the matter inform the most important conversation we’ll have this summer. Has Chris Hughton been too conservative for his players or have the Albion effectively sent him in to a firing range with a spud gun when the guy next to him has a fully functioning AK47?

    The Manager

    I have always been pro-CH. Well, up until about the middle of April. I thought he was a great appointment and, luckily, said so on a blog post. I defended him when he pragmatically rescued us from the Hyppia mess I revelled in his team coming so close to promotion the season after and nearly lost it when we went up. Our first EPL season, for me, was a big success. So this is the first time I’ve even questioned him. Up to now I’ve filed the “Hughton Out” threads firmly under “trolling”. And then, in the middle of April my mouse hovered over the “out” voting button. And, the Good Lord Peter Ward forgive me, it stayed there. I was an outer. It felt like defecting from Remain to Leave.

    Then we drew with Wolves, held Spurs for 89 minutes, had a HORRIBLE half against Newcastle, recued that horrible half, got kept up by Palace and played fantastically and without fear against Arsenal and were great for 28 minutes against City. We could do it after all. And I thought “I wish I’d stuck with ‘in’”.

    In comes with caveats. In comes with “we cannot be that negative again”. In comes with “we cannot just aim to survive”. And then, along came Paul Barber and said all those things and more in the Argus. And, ultimately, it’s Tony Bloom’s business and Paul Barber and Chris Hughton’s jobs. I’m just some random fan with a keyboard and a platform. What I think by myself absolutely counts for nothing.

    But what WE think together does matter, and the vibe I’m picking up is that we all think that a huge improvement is needed next season just to maintain our place. The Premier League, without the obvious weakness of Huddersfield and Cardiff, will be much harder. The pundits will have us as relegation favourites, boredom mongers to be shown last on MOTD and quietly patronised by Alan “they brought on March and some other players” Shearer. The manager will need to take off the shackles. But to do so we’ll need to replace his spud gun with, at very least, a Colt 45. But, to continue the firearms metaphor we cannot go for the machine gun approach either. To keep CH in charge but release the shackles we need real quality but only when it’s available. It’s going to be an interesting summer.
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