Ron's Review Of The Season - Part 2
Part two of Richard Barker's review of Blues' 2009-10 Premier League campaign. Surprise of the season People tend to forget that Liam Ridgewell started the season out with a broken leg. Everyone was surprised at how quickly he recovered and weeks ahead of schedule, he was back in the first team squad. By now, Scott Dann and Roger Johnson had made the centre half berths their own, and so Ridgewell came back in at left-back. He has shocked everyone at how well he's done there. Regular readers of my reports down the years will know that I have never been a particular fan of Ridgewell and his mistakes, bad positioning and windmill arms. I'm fairly stubborn too, so for him to win even me over shows just how good he has been this season. Bizarrely, he's been a threat as an attacking full-back and any deficiencies in his game are still defensive ones. He's bombed down the flank, overlapped his winger, scored goals at the far post - he's been immense. Now that he's actually playing a centre half again, in Dann's absence, it sounds bizarre to say it but some of Blues' attacking threat has been diminished by Liam Ridgewell not being at left-back. Honestly, if someone had said to me twelve months ago that after a season in the Premier League I'd be making a comment like that, I genuinely would have thought they were mad. The most telling aspect of Ridgewell's season is that, from being a number one priority, the left-back position is probably no longer the most crucial area that Blues need improvement. Don't get me wrong, if a decent one is available, I'd take him, but if you have to go in to next season with Ridgewell at left-back because you've spent money elsewhere, I think you'd be ok with that. That, in a way, is the best bit of praise you can give him. From someone who virtually hated him, for me to say well done to him really is something. Moment of the season Like goal of the season, there's a number of candidates. There was the 'Let's All Do The Wenger' song/dance at St Andrews against Arsenal. There was Ridgewell's towel antics at both Stoke and Wolves. There was Richard Forsyth being 'Star of the Day'. I particularly enjoyed the lap of appreciation after the Burnley game at home. Kevin Phillips' super-sub performances against both Wolves and Arsenal also deserve mentions. Finally, and the one that should probably have won, but I'm trying to be a bit sensible, there was Stephen Carr's performance at Villa Park, and I'm not talking about during the 90 minutes. For me though, and perhaps it's because it's fresh in the mind, it was the send-off that Joe Hart got from the travelling Blues fans at Bolton. It's rare that a player and fans share such a bond. Often there is a bond, but rarely is it so, well, intense. It's probably even rarer that that bond is developed in about nine months. As the Blues players and staff came over to applaud the fans at Bolton, there was only really one guy that the fans were interested in. The Bolton players had disappeared before they re-emerged for their lap of appreciation, and Hart was pretty much left alone on the pitch. He threw his gloves, boots and top into the crowd to a huge chorus of "there's only one Joe Hart" as he touched his heart a few times in acknowlegement, before walking of to a deafening rendition of "England's Number One". As he walked off, the Blues fans applauded and sang, and the other three sides of the Reebok also stood and and applauded him. He left the pitch with his head down, genuinely, genuinely moved, I'm sure. I'm welling up just typing about it. It was a moving moment, and one thoroughly desvered. Hart's probably got about fifteen years left in his goalkeeping career, and for those fifteen years, he'll always be guaranteed a great reception at St Andrews. Board of the season Who's been the best board that Blues have had this season? The old lot or the new lot? The winner, fairly clearly, is the new lot. There's no doubt whatsoever that they've brought back something of a feelgood factor. They were incredibly lucky, in a sense, that as soon as they came in, Blues went on that run that I described above. If anything's going to help, it's having new people at the helm at the same time as the side are winning matches. The ticket prices improved and the new season ticket deals are great. There seems to be a genuine desire on their part to include the fans in everything and take the fans' views into account. There are one or two worries that have surfaced, such as the apparent claims being brought against the old owners over due diligence and the failure to pay a sum to Seymour Pierce. These aren't particularly major and have no impact on the footballing side of things, but they may be seen as indications that the new lot still have a bit to learn when it comes to the business of football over here. I'm sure that they will learn though. The one thing that I will say is that given the way a lot of fans felt about the old lot (not me, I may add, although I could understand a lot of the complaints), this first six to twelve months was always going to be easy. What they've done has been great, and fair play to them for that, but people haven't just reacted to that - people like them because they're new and because, well, they're not Sullivan, Gold or Brady. They could have done pretty much anything and people would have been onside with them. The test is now. The infamous "£40m in January" quote was a mistake. I don't think anyone genuinely believed it or even necessarily thought we needed to spend it, but the fact is that it was said and it never materialised. Fair enough - I'm not sure anyone has huge complaints. A bit more investment may have seen Blues pick up a few more points or go a bit further in the FA Cup, but I'm not sure it would have had a huge impact on the season overall. However, it is something that will stick in people's minds, and it will get brought up again and again if more and more promises aren't quite lived up to. It's exactly what happened under the old board. With the players on loan, those out of contract and those likely to move on, Blues need to invest a lot just to try and be a mid-table team again. To try and push on, you're talking morel ike £50m to £60m rather than £20m. Blues need quality AND quantity, and that doesn't come cheap. It's still a honeymoon period so far, and so it should be - they've done nothing wrong. When it comes to the big issue (player investment), they haven't done anything really as yet though, and that's what they'll ultimately be judged on. Here's hoping they do their bit this summer. So far, so good though. Manager of the season Quite an easy one to call, given that there's only been one manager this season, but Alex McLeish wins hands down. Really and truly, you can just look at the league position to see how well he has done. It's Blues' highest finish for over fifty years and he's been behind it. He deserves immense credit for that. Throw in an FA Cup quarter final too, and it's been a great season by Blues' mediocre standards. What's more amazing though is that last season, in the promotion season, Blues played some of the worst football I have seen. Many people said it was the most arduous ordeal of a season that they could remember. I hardly enjoyed any of it. That last day at Reading felt like we'd cheated death. To go from that to a side that had played some excellent football at times this season, been resilient and won plaudits from all sections of the media is quite staggering. The players have obviously played their part, and Barry Ferguson has been instrumental in that, but it was McLeish who brought Ferguson in when some questioned it. It was McLeish who trusted in Stephen Carr. It was McLeish who decided to start using James McFadden on the left. He's done an awful lot, and he's been successful with a lot of it. He's clearly behind this new, improved Blues. I also like the way that he's approaching the whole infrastructure of the club. It's his club now - he wants it in his style. I always feel that it's managers who should decide on how the club is run from top to bottom, but in reality that rarely happens. McLeish seems to be insisting that it does happen, and I hope that the board go along with it. It should be McLeish's club to manage, bot just his first eleven. I still have doubts in certain areas. As I've expressed many times, I find his non-selection of Christian Benitez frankly baffling at times. I also think he can be too cautious, in a number of ways. Firstly, I think he can be with his management during a game. He strikes me as being reactive rather than proactive on a number of occasions. Sometimes it's obvious that a game is going a certain way, or that a certain something needs changing, and often it's not done until ten to fifteen minutes later or after it's too later. The Villa home game and the Portsmouth away game (FA Cup quarter final) are both examples. The other over-cautious approach I find is perhaps with the transfer market. He's been mocked for his "due diligence" in the transfer market, and it's understandable why he does it, but there does seem to be a reluctance to take that chance on occasions, as it seemed in January. Like the board though, this summer will tell us a lot. Perhaps I'm being unfair. Overall though, for what he has done this season, McLeish deserves an incredible amount of praise. It's been beyond anyone's (realistic) expectations. Enigma of the season Christian Benitez. It's probably the best way to describe him, to be honest, and he's divided opinion all season and continues to do so. His finishing has been shocking and for a forward, he has simply not scored enough goals. However, when you look at the impact that he's had on the side's results when he's played, it really is startling how much better Blues are when he plays. He brings something different to Blues and gives them a new complexion. In his first season in English football, I think that he's done really, really well. The problem is that, if he could finish, it could have been so, so much better. Player of the season I'm actually going to do a top three. In joint second are Barry Ferguson and Lee Bowyer, both of whom have been magnificent alongside each other over the season when many questioned if either of them would be up to the task. I've included Bowyer because, whilst I think his performances have dropped over the past six to eight weeks, at the start of the season he was head and shoulders above anyone else. Blues didn't start the season too well, as I've said, but Bowyer was at it from the word go (after his suspension had finished). It seems a long time ago now, but he was man of the match in pretty much every game. Don’t forget his goals earlier in the season too. He got the winners against Fulham, Wolves and West Ham - all games in that "five in a row" sequence of wins. For a man whose legs were supposed to have gone, his energy levels have been absolutely tremendous. The season started back in August, and if this award was for August until February, Bowyer would win hands down, I'd say. His performances have dropped off a bit, but they're still good (just down on his own high standards) and for what he did earlier in the season, he deserves recognition. Ferguson has quite simply changed the way that Blues play. His role is crucial in the Blues system. He sits in front of the back four, not necessarily in a destructive way, but in a prompting way. He makes Blues tick. He gets things started. He's the one everyone looks to to get the ball rolling, quite literally. He is forever collecting the ball from his centre halves or goalkeeper in a very deep midfield role and looking for little passes to get a move started. He's not afraid to receive the ball under pressure, and he's not afraid to pass the ball to someone under pressure. We could all sit in midfield and retain possession by picking simple passes to someone, but they'd probably not get us anywhere. Ferguson picks his passes carefully and probes. He tries things that others wouldn't be prepared to try, and is then on the move again to get the ball back and try something again. He's like no midfielder I have ever seen for Blues, but he's like the midfielder I've always wanted to see at Blues. With better players around him, he'd be even more effective. Sir Alex Ferguson famously described how Andres Iniesta and Xavi get the ball "on the carousel" for Barcelona, and to a much lesser extent, that's what Ferguson brings Blues. He gets the ball on that carousel and is then always available to keep it on there. He's ace. I decided on my player of the season on the back of a Blues performance in which he didn't play, bizarrely. That performance was when Blues lost 5-1 at Manchester City, and whilst Maik Taylor wasn't horrifically bad and was just really his normal self, it just highlighted quite how brilliant Joe Hart has been this season. Hart came in with a decent pedigree anyway. He'd already played plenty of games for Manchester City and had been capped for England. However, with Shay Given at Eastlands, Joe needed Blues and Blues needed Joe. It was a match made in heaven. The highest praise that you can pay Joe Hart is that for pretty much every minute of every game he's played this season, as a fan, you haven't had a single concern about your goalkeeper. You haven't sat in the stand and wondered if he was coming for a cross or not. You haven't wondered whether he's going to come out of his area and clear the ball or not. You haven't wondered whether he's going to miskick a backpass or not. You haven't sat in Row Q and thought that his goal kick might hit you. His shot stopping is superb. His distribution, for a goalkeeper, is magnificent - his throwing and kicking. I've said many times about Taylor that a pass from a goalkeeper is just like a pass from anyone else - you need to try and retain possession. Hart does that. His positioning is brilliant - he acts as a sweeper behind his defence. His decision-making has improved considerably through playing every week. You can see that his defence know where he is and that they trust him. They have faith in what's behind them. Within the first 20 minutes of the defeat at Eastlands, Maik Taylor had had rollickings from Bowyer and Roger Johnson for being too tentative. That never happens with Hart. In football these days, it's no longer just a back four - it's a back five. They all need to work together, rather than just being a bank of four in front of a bank of one. Hart's relationship with those in front of him has been a key component of Blues' success this season. They say of referees that the best ones are the ones you don't notice. In some ways, it's true of goalkeepers too. You don't notice any mistakes that Hart makes, because he doesn't make them. Think back to Maik Taylor and how often you're on the edge of your seat. With Hart in goal, you just take everything for granted. He's got everything and he does everything. He does it all without a fuss. The reason I've chosen Hart ahead of Ferguson really is that I think if you'd taken Ferguson out of the side this season, you may have got 10-12 fewer points. I think if you'd taken Hart out of the side, you may have got 15-20 fewer points. He has been that good. They say that you don't know what you've got 'til it's gone, and I think that's true of Joe Hart. The fact that for nine months Blues fans have been able to sit back and watch their team not worrying about their goalkeeper has been a joy that we probably won't appreciate until next season when, whoever comes in, won't be able to match Hart's standards. Not matching Hart's standards is nothing to be ashamed of for whoever comes in though, because this season Joe Hart has been absolutely magnificent and virtually flawless. Match reporter of the season Me. I'll be back next season, but in the meantime I hope that everyone enjoys their summer and the World Cup.
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