SEASON REVIEW 2013-2014
Mickey Blue Eyes
Last pre-season, many of us, me included, thought the departure of David Moyes would prove disastrous for our playing fortunes.
We were wrong.
We finished fifth and could - perhaps should - have done much better. We could easily have finished in the top three. It was that tantalising. After all, we were only seven points behind fourth place Arsenal - who we obliterated 3-0 a few weeks before the end of the season. The players proved there was nobody in the league to fear if they were in the right frame of mind. Moreover, some of the points lost came against teams we should have swept aside; so the season was again sprinkled with frustration too. Overall it was a tribute to the legacy of David Moyes and the new optimistic methods and character of Roberto Martinez, though it is mildly intriguing to wonder what Roberto would have done with the situation Moyesy inherited in 2002. Much hard water has flowed under the bridge since then. The club has been rebuilt to stability almost from ashes......but at the cost of mortgaging everything: these are the precarious times we live in. Capitalism has been given a free run for the last generation. The results are all around you, even in football. If entire countries can go bankrupt over night, so can mere football clubs.
In these circumstances it would be absurd to ignore the respective contributions of David Moyes and Roberto Martinez, and that their personalities are almost diametric opposites. It also demonstrates the incalculable effect of public persona in human affairs; how much of it applies to their private lives is no business of yours or mine. Despite his formidable achievements and Calvinist mores at times Moyesy looked and sounded like a man with a tin can tied to his shirt tails, while Martinez has a sunny Mediterranean temperament and an open smile even when we lose. Off the field the change was sunrise on a clear day: for evidence ask anybody at Finch Farm. However, these are mere behavioural quibbles, celebrity chat fodder for ale house gossip. What matters is what transpires on the pitch. Common sense and good manners say it would be as churlish to forget David Moyes' work as it would to ignore how Roberto Martinez built on it.
At the cross over point there was hardly any variation in playing style. As under Moyesy, so with Roberto......we played good football all the way to the final third of the pitch, then, to put it politely, faltered. The main playing difference was our game was undeniably slower, though we kept the ball better and had more patience. In other words, slightly more of the same. But novelty of change lasts only so long. Season 2014-2015 will see the end of the Catalan honeymoon and the beginning in earnest of inevitable team rebuilding. It will be due to Martinez's own talents if he successfully navigates that tricky period.
However there is no denying last season was a success despite a short bout of hiccups. Following two opening fixtures against Norwich and West Brom, both drawn, we just about defeated Stevenage 2-1 after going behind in a dreary League Cup tie. I remember exchanging opinions afterwards with Plewsy when the general tenor was, "If that's what it's going to be like, I'm not sure I want to suffer it for the rest of the season." The next game at woeful Cardiff ended 0-0. I expected us to lose the following week at home to Chelsea. So naturally we go and win 1-0 with the kind of combined fighting display and quality noticeable only by its previous absence. Beforehand, Roberto had said, "Our season starts with this game," thus leaving himself open to cynical charges of getting his calendar wrong. Why, you wondered, could we not do this against the others?
But he was right, and he was right because he was successful: football existentialism. Afterwards, up to Boxing Day we lost only one League match at eventual champions Manchester City, though we also had our customary dismal exit from the League Cup, this time at the hands of Fulham - Yes, relegated-corner-shop Fulham. Still, along the way it was possible to see the players develop as a fine team. On occasion they could be devastating and well nigh irresistible, yet always there was a spell when it looked as though some players had retired early. Sometimes cohesion almost evaporated, a clear sign of much work still required.
Then winter came and cold weather had hamstrings twanging everywhere. Injuries disrupted Our Boys as they did most other teams; those with large expensive squads inevitably survived better. We had to make do and mend. In our case we lost the creative heart of the team in Steven Pienaar and Bryan Oviedo, and then the defensive heart in Phil Jagielka and Sylvain Distin. Other shorter term injuries played havoc with team formations as results deteriorated at a crucial time. Meanwhile, young players like Ross Barkley, James McCarthy and John Stones had to be carefully nurtured to identify their strengths and weaknesses. Loan players Gareth Barry, Romelu Lukaku and Gerard Deulofeu all played sterling temporary roles, though occasionally it was possible to see why they were here on hire. In such circumstances staying in the race for the top four was near impossible, but Roberto and his players managed it. The only genuine rout we suffered (mortifyingly) was in the analfield derby, and even then we could reasonably claim luck was against us. The FA Cup loss to Arsenal was due in large part to breakaway attacks, but that was quickly revenged in the League game at Goodison.
Of particular note was the Martinez use of substitutes, in which he mostly outthought the opposition and was more aggressive than Moyesy, most of the spells of pressure coming from the twin wing threats of Coleman and Baines. Early on it was a gamble that could have failed spectacularly; and it would have been understandable given our limitations. However, good generals often have luck on their side because they force the issue. Roberto had a measure of luck when almost everything fell into place quickly. Even positional experiments with Ross Barkley failed to backfire. Less successful was late-season team-formation tinkering as injuries took their toll, though by then we were clearly up against the limits of the squad. Quite rightly the crowd was won over.
In the opinion of many fans Seamus Coleman was the one whose talents gave most pleasure, so it was no surprise when he won the club Player of the Year award. We have watched him go from a naive gung-ho wide right man to a mature professional at the top of his abilities. It is always fulfilling to see a young player make it through his own application and single-minded efforts. To Coleman's great credit he listened to his peers when so many don't. We can all recount stories of someone who threw away opportunities because they started to believe hype, either from the media or of their own making. Seamus is a credit to the club for persevering with him, but most of all to himself for making the most of his opportunities. He is the kind of determined optimist you like to see on the field as much as among friends. He has come a long long way since that freezing December night in 2009 versus Bate Borisov and a deflection that lost the match. Nobody has earned success more.
I think James McCarthy surprised us all as much as the size of his transfer fee. Few, me included, expected him to be as good as he proved. In fact he was a sawn-off skinny Paul Scholes, the same kind of tackling bite, the same eye-catching Mr. Everywhere role. He made a formidable midfield with Ross Barkley and Gareth Barry and occasionally Leon Osman. In defence, John Stones added to his classy style of play with a show of maturity well beyond his tyro years: if only he had heading ability to match. Leighton Baines was Leighton Baines, which is another way of saying brilliant. Tim Howard is, with Nigel Martyn, our best and most consistent 'keeper since Neville Southall.
The main attacking force was loanee Romelu Lukaku, supported in various ways and with varying degrees of success by Kevin Mirallas, Steven Naismith, Aidan McGeady and Gerard Deulofeu. Lukaku's goals speak for themselves but he often puzzled this fan; in any case we cannot afford his (reported) absurd transfer fee so we will have to do without him. Mirallas could be dazzling and maddening in turns, Naismith improved greatly and eventually rightly forced his way into the team and McGeady showed his talent in flashes, as did Deulofeu. Eventually, we simply failed to score often enough.
So here we are back in Europe for the first time since 2010. Under David Moyes we came within one game of creating an English club record of successive home and away wins in Europe in the UEFA Cup 2007-2008. We will be more than satisfied if Roberto can equal or better that. And you can count me out of those who denigrate the Europa League: it is vital European experience for the younger players and keeps our name as a leading club. In status terms the so-called Champions League would be better, but we are in no position to dictate anything.
Whichever way you roll the fortune dice, one comes up "Roberto" and the other "Martinez." True, the situation was ripe for regeneration; but it still had to be accomplished through application and intensity. So far Martinez has shown both qualities in spades. Next season will show if he can keep up the impetus of team rebuilding.
In toto we had a better than expected season that at one point looked like it might surprise everybody, even us biased die hards. In fact we got so close to emphatic success we could almost taste it. It was that kind of season all round. And not before time.