AN ILL WIND
Mickey Blue Eyes
It's not something you don't already know, or at least suspect: alas, a second-half-of-the-season recovery is out of the question except maybe in the FA Cup. But even that looks as likely as a Lahndan banker going to jail. And if the best we can do is eke out a draw - and I do mean eke, friends - against relegation-threatened Blackburn Rovers, then gawd help us when we play any of the top four on the run in. No, this time there will be no late compensation unless we get through in the Cup against Fulham and draw weaker teams later. We just don't have the players; in the past our more experienced players would have rescued the season. Now it is beyond them, legs gone......another Indian Summer notwithstanding.
Last season was our best chance for a breakthrough but the players didn't deliver, simple as. Since then disappointment amongst the fans has been palpable, and understandable. You don't get many second chances in the most unforgiving and chauvinist of professional sports, not when you have no money and no prospect of getting any. It's one of the few human activities where having no dosh is actually considered an "offence." But that's the kind of peculiar society we have created.
In the end a draw was about right against Rovers, but only just. If anyone deserved to win it was the visitors. Once again we had as much creative spark as a sponge drenched with suds, the same kind of messy soap we have endured all season. The metaphors are mixed deliberately since it's the only way to describe this difficult phase of transition. One hopes David Moyes finds his way through it with minimal damage, though it is likely next season will be even more difficult. Already his ginger hair has grey tints to it. If he puts things right in the short term it will be an amazing achievement, perhaps his greatest. We'll see.
The problem now is: how can it be set right? Answer: if you don't have the players, it can't. The distant hope is that a return of the injured ones will help steady the ship, though they weren't performing even when they were match fit.
As with so many of this season's jousts there wasn't too much to say about the game itself. This time we didn't even have the kind of possession in other matches - our only scant consolation this season. It was a baddy alright, easily the worst of 2011-2012 to date. TV replays show both goals were clearly handled in a scramble. This was entirely appropriate and an accurate reflection of the standard of play even allowing for a strong, cold wind and occasional sleeting rain. In the overall circumstances arguing about team formations is about as useful as hair spray on a bald man. It almost doesn't matter much where they play if there's nobody capable of initiative or motivation.
In reality Moyesy has run out of options and is stuck with what he's got. And what he's got now is three players at the heart of the team who can't do ninety minutes, Louis Saha, Phil Neville and Tim Cahill; this is no criticism of them, merely a fact of physical life that comes to all footballers. At premiership level you need only lose half a metre of pace and you might as well stay in the dressing room slicing lemons. None of the other players are capable of lifting the team over a lengthy period of play, though one or two can produce flashes of brilliance. All of which means Moyesy has to replace at least a quarter of the team. He's in the position of a First World War army officer leading his men over the top while armed only with a pistol and a swagger stick, and with about the same chances of success.
Really the only straws we could grasp at were the performances of Shane Duffy and Darron Gibson. In Shane's case it was good to see him play with surprising self confidence. Darron's a different matter - still needs to lose a little weight, still not quite match fit, and evidently a one-pace player, but nevertheless the kind of solid centre mid we're going to need if the rest don't buck up. Marouane Fellaini can't do everything and in this match looked as if he was more than a bit sick of trying after Tim Howard did an action replay of his failed juggling act at Ewood last season. In the end Blackburn's younger players were simply hungrier and more determined even without in-form Chris Samba and Ayegbeni Yakubu. Had we stolen the match at the death, as we threatened to do, it would have been an injustice to Rovers.
So pre-season warnings of an ageing squad and a transition period have turned out to be all too true, perhaps more footy-painful than anticipated even by your correspondent. It's a bleak Winter. And likely to get bleaker if we meet playing disaster on Friday evening. Strong nerves are required.