Nick Miller: So, if Eddie Howe knocked on your door and asked you to hand over your wallet, your trousers and the rights to your first-born, what would you do?
Andy Smith: Interesting opening question! There may be some who would say he wouldn’t do that. Look at Eddie Howe, with his hair and his impish grin they’d say. But they’d be wrong. He’s ruthless, as seen by the way he goes through goalkeepers more often than Spinal Tap go through drummers.
If he’d turned up two weeks ago and asked for those things there wouldn’t have been many who wouldn’t have handed them over straight away without question. However, after the last couple of weeks, if I was being churlish and listening to our more doom-laden fans on the internet I’d be more likely to say ‘but why, Eddie, did you not go and get those things when the January wallet, trouser and first-born window was open, if you knew that you needed them’.
NM: Is Howe performing the always-dangerous trick of raising expectations, then?
AS: It’s almost impossible for our expectations to not have been raised, we went from 71st in the Football League to first in less than six years, the national press have taken an interest, we were top for two months and every manager of every team we have played have said we deserve to go up and are the best team in the division.
Our support splits into two distinct groups though, the ‘stop moaning and remember where we were’ brigade and the ‘history is bunk, we’re a completely different club now’ ones – I fall somewhere in-between. We are a different club, unrecognisable from when we were edging towards the conference. But, for all the financial fair play bleating of some other clubs’ supporters, we are where we are with a team that, with a couple of exceptions, is made up of non-league and lower division players that were signed when we were in Leagues One and Two.
Tiredness, injuries and a lack of strengthening in January might cost us promotion, but we’re improving year on year and if anyone had said we’d be third in the league in touch with the leaders coming into March we’d have had them sectioned. Despite last year’s late flourish, 21st would still have been a good season, considering the teams that came up from League One and that came down from the Premier League, this is definitely a harder league than last year.
NM: At this point a bigger man would probably apologise for the dreadful mugging we performed at your place earlier in the season. Unfortunately I am not that man...
AS: Ha ha. That set the scene for the reason why we’ll probably ultimately fail to go up this year. Our home form has been imperious for 60/70 mins and then we get mugged. I think we’ve dropped something like 20 points from winning positions at home. If we’d held on in even half of those games (i.e Rotherham 1-1 injury time equaliser, MIllwall 2-2 from 2-0 down, Norwich 1-2 with ten men) we’d be set and well clear at the top. It got to the stage where we were even nervous when 3 goals clear (Cardiff) that we’d somehow mess up.
I’m not sure why it happens – we’re clearly full of confidence, some may say too much so. Our defence like to pretend they’re as good with the ball as the forwards and try and play their way out of trouble when a good old-fashioned wallop into row z would be the best thing. Or our high-tempo pressing game is only good for an hour or so and then away teams come into the game more. We’re quite susceptible to a period of sustained long ball pressure.
NM: Sounds like it's a fitness issue rather than a bottling one, albeit one that's perhaps inevitable given your style. Or are you the Arsenal of the Championship...?
AS: Quite possibly. One of our more reasoned complaints of Eddie is we do appear to have no plan B. If things start to go wrong, or we need a change his substitutions either come too late, or are man for man swaps that don’t really change the style of play. Obviously plan A, for the most part of this year, has been sufficient, but there have been a couple of games where we could have done better if we’d changed shape.
For all the talk of our depth of squad, the ‘cup team’ don’t really get a chance in the ‘league team’. Which is fine when we’re playing so well, but now we’ve injuries and suspensions are they going to slip in and do the same job. Harry Arter sits out his second game through suspension against you and two of our three spare central midfielders are injured. Shaun Macdonald came in against Brentford, but he doesn’t even make the subs bench when Gosling or O’Kane are fit.
NM: The manager who can make an effective substitution is a rare thing indeed. So we know about Wilson etc - who else should we be looking out for?
AS: Our obvious dangermen are Pugh & Richie, both who like to either go outside, or cut inside and move the ball at pace, or score – both ably backed up by their marauding full back partners, Simon Francis, who given how much running he does must surely be a robot, and Charlie Daniels. However, word on the street is that Richie is out with a pulled hamstring so I’d expect Ryan Fraser to start. He’s a great young player, fast as lightning and good feet.
Wilson has been our stand-out player for months though. Given his size, his strength is frightening. He’ll go on to better things than playing for us. Who partners him depends on which way Eddie’s magic striker 8 ball goes. It’ll be Pitman, or Kermorgant. Both have scored goals, but Kermorgant offers more I think. No one divides the support more than Pitman though. Scored goals for fun in the bottom leagues, didn’t really seem up to the Championship but has had good spells of late, adding more to his game.
And which Artur Boruc will turn up? A behemoth when he first arrived, his form has appeared to dip of late, particularily in his distribution. But, given Camp’s previous team history, will Eddie fancy shaking it up against a vociferous home crowd?
Also, returning from injury is Tokelo Rantie, a player we all desperately want to succeed but has never quite delivered. Got injured against Ipswich in a rare appearance, then went to the ACN and got injured on his return. There’s no doubt his skill and pace will frighten defenders if he gets on.
Finally a word on our centre-halves. As I said earlier, like to overplay, sometimes their decision making can be suspect, but if you play in front of them you won’t get past them. Was a big concerned seeing your scoreline on Saturday, but then I saw it was against the defending strength of Emile Heskey.
NM: We seem to have defied logic recently - our £5million top-scorer banjaxes his kneecap and we score eight goals in two games, so any attempt at a prediction seems foolish.
So, a prediction?
AS: A prediction. Hmm. What’s your pitch like? Billiard table or bog? We’ve not been playing well and your Freedman inspired bounce is still ongoing. I’ll be happy with a draw, to be honest but I think you’ll pip it with a late winner. But if we click again….
It’s a pain we’re playing on Wednesday – absolutely everyone around us played on Tuesday, and at home. A bad set of results could see heads drop, but I’d back Eddie to keep everyone focused on the game.
NM: It's more bowling green than Blackpool beach. I reckon this is the game when we'll find out if Dougie knows what he's doing, or if it's new manager bounce. A draw too though, I reckon.