“Well that was a little bit better than last week wasn’t it?”
You probably heard the same words or very similar from all around Hillsborough as we exited the stadium following Sundays 3-0 drubbing of Yorkshire rivals Leeds United. It was a performance of stark contrast to what we all witnessed the weekend before and I’ve been asked on a few occasions since, why, and how, can virtually the same team produce two incredibly different performance in such a short space of time.
I don’t think there is simply one reason for it would be my answer. There is an old cliché that is used in football pretty regularly; ‘goals change games’ which seems quite obvious really doesn’t it? But never was it highlighted more then the game against Leeds. At 0-0 I thought we looked a little hesitant and lacking in confidence and conviction, totally understandable from what had happened in the preceding seven days.
We had started the game with a much better tempo, playing in Leeds half of the pitch whenever possible and looked to take the game to them as opposed to the sometimes slow methodical and laboured pace of play. Leeds started the same and it was a very open game from the off, but as soon as we scored through that man again, Gary Hooper you could see the confidence coming back into our play and the players’ attitude lifting. Leeds however never capitalised on any of the chances they created and again our confidence seemed to grow. Had Leeds converted even one of their chances and got it back to 2-1 it would have potentially been a pretty nervy finish for us but thankfully they didn’t and that is where I say that goals really do change games.
The second reason for me would be the opposition. Leeds came and wanted to play a very open, free flowing game that suited our style of play and once we had gone ahead and the confidence was coming back some of our play was nothing short of exquisite. The disallowed Kieran Lee goal was a beautiful passage of play, only ruined by the referees’ assistant’s premature offside flag. In comparison to last week, Sheffield United came to make it very difficult for us to play our game, they knocked us out of our stride and when you are two down inside the first 15 minutes then it is bound to effect the confidence of the players.
Following the derby defeat we were all looking for a very positive reaction on the following Wednesday when we visited Birmingham City and to come away on the wrong end of a 1-0 defeat was most certainly not the result or performance we were all hoping for. It made Sunday's visit all the more difficult and the show of solidarity and strength shown to Carlos Carvalhal by the chairman, Mr Chansiri in sitting next to him at pitch side before the game was a classy piece of Chairmanship. The vultures were starting to circle and for the first time Mr Carvalhal was facing some real adversity in the media as well as in the stands. The performance and result against a current top-six Leeds side firmly put that chatter to bed and the club can go into the international break on a far better footing than before.
The players will obviously be aware of the murmurings of unrest amongst a section of the supporters and media and most, if not all, will feel that weight of responsibility as to its emergence. It’s a bit of a myth that players don’t care about what is happening at a football club. Maybe they’re not die-hard supporters of the club that they represent but in general players have their own personal pride in wearing the shirt and doing the job to the best of their ability.
Not only that but you have a duty to the club that is paying your wages, your teammates and of course the supporters. It is all too easy to suggest that players “don’t care” or “aren’t bothered”, especially when things aren’t going the way that everyone hoped but I can honestly say that you could probably count on one hand the number of players that I have encountered over the years with this kind of attitude. The majority of players hurt, and they hurt badly; there is nothing worse than the frustration and embarrassment of a heavy defeat. There was nothing else I could think about afterwards, wondering what if I’d done something different, replaying episodes of the game over and over in your mind. That is why the better players will learn from those experiences and improve. Experience counts for a lot in football; sometimes it can be overshone by the naivety of youth but more times than not I’d be backing the old head against the young raw one.
We have a few away on international duty this week and in some ways that’s credit to the players who have been selected for their countries but as a manager I reckon Carlos Carvalhal will be frustrated that he doesn’t have the full squad here to work on for the next couple of weeks. You can not beat time out there on the training ground, getting the understanding back and raising confidence in each other and as a team.
We have two excellent away fixtures after the break against Bolton and Derby and I just hope and pray that in both games the team starts with that positive attitude and high tempo of play. There is nothing to lose and everything to gain in my opinion and it would be great to see them impose themselves on the game early, set their stall out and really have a go at both teams. Following this is yet another local derby against Barnsley so it will definitely be an interesting few weeks ahead again.