I hope very much that all of you reading this are well and have not succumbed to the lurgy. We are in lockdown again it seems and miles away from ever seeing the inside of St Andrew’s Field in the foreseeable future. I’ve just read through my last report of 23 July when we played Derby to complete last season. Despite the defeat, we escaped relegation and much has happened in the interim. As many of you who bother to read my articles know, I don’t tend to report on games in detail when I don’t attend the match which at the moment is never. However, with a quarter of the season now gone, I thought I would summarise where Blues find themselves.
Since July a lot has happened with the appointment of Aitor Karanka as manager, a proven force at this level and he has brought in much needed quality to the squad with the signing of George Friend, Adam Clayton, Neil Etheridge, Andres Prieta, Riley McGree, Ivan Sanchez, Jonathan Leko, Jon Toral, Mikel San Jose as well as getting Jake Clarke-Salter back for another year on loan and the securing of Scott Hogan’s permanent signature. Of course we said goodbye to Jude Bellingham but got good money for him which has prudently in my view been banked since apart from relatively small fees for Leko and Scott Hogan, little cash has been splashed. In addition a fair amount of dead wood has been pruned out and the squad has a far fresher look which on paper and indeed on the field, looks competitive. It is a work in progress and nowhere near the finished article but in my opinion AK has made a good start in turning the fortunes of our famous old club around.
I’m not going to go into a lot of detail about yesterday’s game as many of you, like me, will have watched the match on Blues TV and you don’t need me to spell out what happened. I truly miss not going to the football from my home in Surrey. The journey up on the train, the people I meet along the way, the interaction with mates like Chris, Will, Rob, little Jack, Tim and many others make the occasion for me. Being able to have a couple of pints and a bite to eat with friends whilst soaking up the atmosphere, the sights, the smells, the sounds in the ground is what being a fan is all about and the dystopian society that we are presently living in has detached us all from these things which saddens us all I’m sure.
The new season, if you can call it that, started in September against Brentford and I was not hopeful going into that game, given that the Bees had very unluckily missed out on deserved promotion to the Premier League and would surely be a force to be reckoned with once again this term. I simply didn’t know what to expect from Blues but to my surprise, Blues were solid, uncompromising and scored the only goal of the game through Jeremie Bela from a corner. We rode our luck at times but started with three valuable points. Next up was a tricky looking game at Swansea which ended in a goalless stalemate with another pleasing solid defensive display and Blues did have chances to steal all three points near the end but it was another point acquired. It was back to an empty St Andrew’s for the visit of Rotherham United and it looked as if we were going to be mugged with only four minutes left when the visitors were awarded a dodgy penalty which they converted. Fortunately, the largess of the referee continued since in the last minute he awarded another penalty, this time to us for a challenge on Jon Toral. This was also questionable but it was more a penalty than the first one so 1-1 it was and five points from nine was an OK start.
Stoke City awaited Blues next and having taken the lead from a Harlee Dean header looked to have secured the points only for Stoke to equalise with barely any time left on the clock. This was vexing as I felt we should have won this game. Still a point away from home at a difficult place is not to be sniffed at. The wheels came off however in our next game at home against Sheffield Wednesday when another penalty secured all the points for the Owls. It’s irksome that ex-Viler, Barry Bannan should score but in truth, Blues were lacklustre in this one, offered no threat and were second best all evening and got out of the game what was put into it which was nothing. Next up was Norwich at Carrow Road where Blues put in a creditable defensive stonewall performance. They were four minutes away from another point having been under the pump all game when Adam Clayton got sent off and Norwich score a minute later. It was tough to take but the correct side won in the end whether we like it or not.
We went away to Loftus road next and put in one of the best performances so far in my view. The problem was we failed to score and a pattern was emerging; lack of firepower. Blues had to settle for a 0-0 draw in a game we should have won at a canter. Huddersfield were next up at St Andrews and having taken the lead and appearing in control we allowed the Terriers back in trying to defend the lead. It looked as if they, like their Yorkshire rivals, Rotherham were going to plunder a point until Lukas Jutkiewicz popped up with a late winner. We then went away to Preston, a place where we have only won once in the league in half a century. Blues put that to rights with a thoroughly deserved and excellent win by the odd goal in three. Two wins in a week; the stuff of dreams and heading up the table with 13 points.
Bottom of the table Wycombe Wanderers next at St Andrew’s; what could possibly go wrong? The same old perennial inability to beat the side we should beat came back to haunt us as was the frustrating trait that we seem to have of having a good half and a bad half. Blues played well first half but should have been more than the 1-0 up from Marc Roberts header from a corner. Second half, they looked as if they could sleepwalk their way to the win by sitting back and swatting away the pressure. Needless to say, it didn’t work and the Chair Boys scored a deserved equaliser late on. The goal looked offside to be fair but there is no excuse for the shambles of the winner. Etheridge came for a ball which he didn’t quite get to and then instead of heading the ball out for a corner, it was weakly headed sideways back to an opposing player who put it back in the mixer; bang 1-2 and a lamentable second half showing was complete. Blues had only themselves to blame and got what they deserved against a poor side who I have no doubt will be returning to League 1 at the end of the season.
This brings us on to yesterday’s match. Frankly, Blues were outplayed by the best side in the division. They look better than either Brentford or Norwich and I see them promoted back to the Premier League as champions along with Watford if they continue to play as they did yesterday. Blues did not play badly but the Cherries had too much movement, accurate passing and slick use of the ball when in possession for us to cope with. Once they avoided our high press, they were so quick on the counter and cut through us easily and doubling up on our full backs gave Colin and Boyd-Munce a torrid time down the flanks. In the last couple of games we have missed George Friend and Adam Clayton who will hopefully both be available after the international break.
Overall, it’s not been a bad start. Although we are 17th in the bottom half of the table, there are four or five clubs on 13 points and a couple of wins could see us in the top half and flirting with the top six. I think it is fanciful to think we will get anywhere near that level this season since we don’t have enough goal scoring threat and there are too many sides with more quality in depth than us but over the next 12-18 months with further strengthening and improvement with what we have, I see better times ahead. We are immeasurably better than we were only three months ago. We look competitive, tough to beat with the making of a strong spine to the side. The acquisition of a decent goalkeeper has been vital. I like the way Etheridge commands his area and with leadership from Friend in the back four and Clayton in midfield, we have become nobody’s push over. I can take dull and attritional for a while if it yields results. The most important thing is that we have stopped shipping stupid goals and keeping some clean sheets will result in points whatever happens. We do have flair in areas; San Jose is a classy player as is Sanchez and Bela. I like Riley McGree who was excellent at Stoke and he will only get better with experience at this level. Marc Roberts has been very good the last few games and Dean and Colin look back to somewhere near their best probably getting confidence from having a decent keeper behind them.
Leko has added energy and pace further forward and although he awaits his first goal in a Blues shirt, his time will come. The old warhorse Lukas Jutkiewicz continues to put in an honest shift every game getting a kicking in the process but never lets us down. Scott Hogan registered his first goal of the season yesterday which hopefully will give him the confidence to go on to score more. The attacking options require further reinforcements however and we await January for that. Were this a school report personifying the team as a scholar, it would read something like this:
“Blueboys has knuckled down diligently this term and has shown better effort and application after a disappointing performance last year. He still struggles with his creativity but is working hard to improve. There is, I feel more to come and so in conclusion it’s a case of could do better as Blueboys has enough talent that is not being fully utilised at the moment. Nevertheless, he can be pleased with his efforts so far.”
It’s Coventry ‘away’ in the St Andrew’s derby next. Blues must treat this game as a home fixture. Respect them by all means but this has to be a game we are looking to win.