Here’s part #2. Again, the cast is: Rob is Rob Griffin; Rich is Rich; Jamie is JamieR; Dave is Chopper; Tim is me; Don is HatterDon; Nick is Nick Johnson; Colin is Colin Baker.
After being just a point off bottom on New Year’s Day, what do you think happened in the locker room or training field that saw our fortunes change in 2011? Was it just injured players coming back; was there a noticeable change in tactics; or was it something else?
Jamie: I think there was a period before Christmas when we were caught in between the Hodgson and Hughes styles and ending up with the worst of both: tentative going forward (not helped by all our strikers being injured) but also open at the back. As time progressed I don’t think it was so much a change of tactics as the players simply becoming more comfortable under the new regime. We also had a relatively easy run of home fixtures in the New Year, which helped confidence – and of course once the likes of AJ, Dembele and (especially) Zamora returned it made the world of difference going forward. No good playing swashbuckling football if the ball’s going to end up at Eddie Johnson’s feet.
Dave: For me the first half of the season was a mixture of struggling to come to terms with a new philosophy of football introduced by Team Sparky and a series of unfortunate injuries. We looked a mess in some of those opening games. It seemed that in an effort to apply Mark Hughes’ attacking desires we had forgotten how to defend. Certainly some of the roles the midfield were now playing meant less protection for the back four and exposed players who were used to Hodgson’s team defense approach.
The win at Stoke was ridiculous. We NEVER win at Stoke and were a shambles going in to the game but from nowhere Mr. Baird stepped up and showed what he could do.
Rich: What fascinates me is the power of turning points in sport. Here we were ending 2010 in a sorry state, away at Stoke City and wearing a curious green and gold strip.
Who should pop up but Chris Baird! Now, as we’ve seen with his efforts since, Chris Baird is not Gianfranco Zola. Yet on this day at Stoke, amid rumors that Hughes was on the brink, here he is: bang! 1-0! bang! 2-0! What are the odds? Was that the season’s turning point?
Rob: There’s one name that sums up our season: Zamora. When he broke his leg it was like the heart was torn out of the team. No-one could see where the goals would come from. Yes Dempsey can always be relied upon to do his bit but Dembele was pretty much unproven at that stage (and has since turned out to be rather fragile) AJ was still out of action and Gera was simply being ignored. Bobby’s return galvanized the entire team. Even when he came on against Bolton at home in our hapless FA Cup defeat his energy got the crowd going. He gave us – and more importantly his team mates – belief and scored some good goals – Blackpool and Arsenal in particular.
Don: West Ham was the first of two major slaps in the face at home for us, and it certainly marked the low point in our season. I don’t believe, however, that the defeat resulted from training ground or locker room problems so much as it was a case of a poor team catching a better team off balance and pummeling them senseless. I never put much credence in “the manager losing the locker room, the plot, the support of the board” as a reason for poor results. As some backwoods philosopher probably never said, “Some days you eats the bear; some days the bear eats you.”
Having said all that, Stoke away was certainly a welcome performance and result. It is also usual for us to dominate for long periods or even an entire match and get nothing out of it — Arsenal at home last 2009-2010 is an example — and our nicking two goals in a match we never really seemed to control was a nice turnabout.
Colin: It really took a long time to get going. After the draw with Villa at home, we sat 12th in the table with +1 goal difference – that sounds respectable, but we should have done a lot better. We had a very easy schedule to start the season, but we allowed opponents to have too many easy chances, and the results suffered. Into November and December – possibly the most difficult portion of the season – we’re still not defending all that well, so it’s not surprising that we dip into the relegation zone.
I considered Stoke away to be a bit of a good luck result, but it also seemed to mark the start of one confidence boost after another. Some impressive individual performances from Baird, Stockdale, Dempsey and others helped turn our luck around, and by February, all of the regulars were back to playing at the levels we had expected at the start of the season.
Nick: I never saw this as a “locker room” issue. Our senior players seem to be a pretty level headed bunch that is very professional in their approach. It was simply a question of personnel and adapting to the Hughes system.
1) Zamora’s absence. 2) Other strikers’ absence. 3) The Baird factor: not his highly improbable goals at Stoke, vital though they were. It was his spell at Left Back which restored our fraying defensive solidity. 4) The Sidwell factor. I like Etuhu and he had some storming cameos as a sub at the end of the season, but for me Sidwell gave us better balance.
Tim: Though you all bring up good points about Chris Baird solidifying the defense and Bobby Zamora coming back; for me it was all about Damien Duff. He started off this season battling injuries and horrid form, but ended up a stalwart for the side (before missing the last 7 games injured).
It’s probably no coincidence that when Hughes started playing him inverted on the right, the club’s form improved. From the start of the season until that game at Stoke, Duff started on the left in 13 of 18 games. After Stoke away, he played on the left side just once for the rest of the season. He would score four goals over this span, including the winner against Newcastle, the equalizer at City, and to put us ahead twice against Blackburn. And although he didn’t score, he played an integral part in our 4-0 thrashing of Spurs in the FA Cup.