It’s been a month since the 2020-21 season concluded, and it was a campaign that won’t live long in the memory. For starters very few of us were able to see the team play in the flesh; although to be fair that was probably a blessing in disguise. No blame could be attached to the club for the lockdown and the lock out of fans but there was plenty that could be apportioned in respect of what happened on the pitch.
The nature of our promotion via the play offs and the foreshortened close season meant it was always going to be a battle against time to put together a squad of Premier League quality. However, having been in the same boat two years prior, we should have been able to learn from the mistakes made then. That time there was much made of the £100 million plus spent; a statistic that was repeated with depressing regularity by TV commentators this season. This was later usurped by mention of Lookman’s missed penalty at West Ham which only further demonstrated the paucity of Sky and BT’s coverage. Oh to be back at the Cottage where the wisdom and analysis of your peers in the crowd is far more succinct and to the point.
As has been our experience in recent years the club’s transfer business is almost always done as close to the transfer deadline as possible. There are sound business reasons for this, as Tony Khan explained in an interview aired on the website mid–season. The downside to this policy is that we always start the season with our hands effectively tied behind our backs. Unsurprisingly we started the season looking woefully ill equipped to deal with the top flight and after the defeat to Aston Villa TK compounded our problems by publicly criticising the players. This was a serious misjudgement on his part. Airing dirty linen in public is never a good look and he was off the mark in his criticism. Effort was not in short supply as Scott Parker rightly pointed out in defence of his squad. The real issue was quality, which as Director of Football was far more TK’s responsibility.
In fairness to our DOF the club did ultimately do far better business in the 2020 window than that of 2018. Instead of big money signings, we picked up bargains like Antonee Robinson and Tosin Adarabioyo. The club also did well in the loan market, with the likes of Alphonse Areola, Joachim Andersen and Mario Lemina demonstrably of the quality required. The trouble was we were already six games into the season before Parker had the chance to bed them into the team let alone forge them into a cohesive unit. It meant we were always playing catch up after our dire start, and although performances quickly improved the lack of goals meant we were grinding out draws far more often than being sprinkled with the gold dust of victories. This consistent form did mean we weren’t a soft touch for anybody though and when we followed up a historic victory at Goodison Park with a six pointer over Sheffield United and another magnificent performance on Merseyside, taking three points off the reigning Champions, survival looked within our grasp.
What happened next was a mystery. A creditable defeat against Manchester City was understandable but then followed a series of games against mid table sides with nothing in particular to play for. Our goal famine meant we were never going to blow teams away but in theory if we could repeat the standard of performance we’d shown for most of the mid-season period then these fixtures were our potential lifeline. Instead they turned into our death sentence. We dissolved at Villa, were outplayed by an energetic Leeds and then just didn’t do enough against a Wolves side there for the taking. While we were falling apart, our prime targets Newcastle were putting together a run of form that pulled them clear and despite a mathematical chance, belief and hope had clearly evaporated.
Ultimately we ended the season just two points better off than we were in the disaster of 2018-19. I think we’d all agree that this season’s squad were of far superior quality so although relegation was always a probability for a team promoted via the play offs, it’s fair to argue we should still have done a lot better.
The old saying is that success has many fathers whereas failure is an orphan. This is certainly true of the reaction at the club to our relegation. Scott Parker did say there needed to be analysis of what had gone wrong once we were mathematically down, but from the hierarchy of the club there has been a deafening silence. Tony Khan only seems to put his head over the parapet when we win a game, although in view of his injudicious use of social media it’s probably best he remains silent. Shahid Khan did post a piece when season ticket renewals went online, however it was heavy on platitudes and light on detail. Amidst the impasse is constant speculation on the manager’s future. In fact by the time this piece goes live we may find that he has left. If that proves the case it will make some fans happy who don’t like his style of football nor his treatment of Aleksandar Mitrovic. I must confess I’ve always admired him and think in the long run there’s a good manager waiting to get out if he could just shed some of his cautious instincts.
If Parker is on the verge of leaving we must hope that the club have already identified his replacement and that plans are in place to have a squad capable of hitting the ground running in the Championship in early August. However as we enter the 8th season under the Khans’ ownership, hope is all we have rather than concrete evidence they’ve got to grips with the complexities of the football industry. Our COVID enforced absence from the Cottage still makes most of us desperate to get back there regardless. It would just be nice to have some clarity from the top brass at the club of what we can expect once we get there.