A fug and malaise currently hangs over the City Ground like a malodorous stench. The dismal end to the season after the failure of the whole Stuart Pearce experiment ensured that most fans were more than happy to kiss the ass of the 2014-15 campaign goodbye. Moreover, it seems that anticipation and optimism levels for the coming season are currently flatlining with more desperation than a Phil Jones tackle. The reasons for such apathy are many and varied. However, in a desperate attempt to dissipate the funk amongst many fans (this one included), here are 13 reasons to greet the coming season with something more than a state between apathy and utter dejection. Let the tub-thumping begin in earnest:
1. There might - just might - be some unexpected benefits arising from the whole FFP and resulting embargo situation. The club certainty won’t be splashing the cash on a stellar signing that goes and selfishly gets injured. Besides, big signings aren’t necessarily guaranteed to deliver success and if the club is forced to rely on picking up waifs, strays and ne’er-do-wells (like Jamie Ward) so it can put out a team, then the pressure-o-meter might just drop a little. Good teams are built, crafted and develop together, often taking the league by surprise. Burnley showed us all just what could be achieved with a tightly knitted squad of grafters without pressure.
Burnley did indeed show us what is possible with a group of players and management who have grown together over a period of time. So did Leicester and Brighton and Accrington too. In fact, sustainability and stability turned out to be the real winners as arguably the three best run clubs in the Championship finished in the top three while the two worst run clubs suffered relegation. Shout out too to Blackburn and Leeds for adding weight to the theory that poorly run clubs have to stand and watch when the prizes are dished out.
In the end, we ended up with perhaps too many waifs and strays who lacked the quality required to compete in the league. Some astute recruitment was in evidence but this was tempered somewhat by the Federico Macheda affair. Ultimately, perhaps simply too many designer wash bags got carried in and out of the City Ground dressing room.
2. This embargo – which isn’t really an embargo but coquettishly masquerading as one – does negate the need stay up longer than is necessary, glued to the breathtakingly tedious rolling coverage of Deadline Day. What’s more, the hand wringing and gnashing of teeth about ‘lack of ambition’ can be left to other clubs’ fans.
Actually, the closing of the August transfer window was reasonably exciting with the acquisitions of Chris O'Grady, Nelson Oliveira, Ryan Mendes and Jonny Williams. O'Grady started well but was ultimately found wanting - very wanting. Oliveira offered glimpses of what he could be while Mendes wins the award for the most infuriating player to have pulled on a red jersey - and no, Franz Carr as not been forgotten. It seems a shame that we weren't able to see the best of Jonny Williams.
3. Another neat side effect of this ‘embargo’ is that surely it will force the club to become more reliant on the promising crop of youngsters currently hovering in or around the first team. Jorge Grant, Oliver Burke, Tyler Walker and Ben Osborn have all had a taste of the action and Matt Cash seemingly isn’t far away. Of course, blooding kids when they aren’t ready can have disastrous side effects but cast your mind back to Paul Hart’s first game in charge and the supportive atmosphere that his young team were afforded since we all accepted that anything around mid table would be a fantastic achievement. They did better than that and we gushed with pride that a team composed of mostly local ingénues was playing in Garibaldi red. Couple this thought with the rekindled pride manifested in the Lower Bridgford flag wavers and perhaps, regardless of what happens on the pitch, we just may have a team that makes us happy once again.
As long as Dougie Freedman plays them, of course.
Here's Michael Dawson scoring his first senior goal away at Stoke under Paul Hart, a game in which Jim Brennan and David Prutton had a little contretemps. Good times:
Freedman teased us by dangling youth in front of our eyes but keeping it just out of reach. Walker was often used as a lone striker, resulting in utter frustration for the lad and fans alike. Burke showed us flashes of brilliance but was then smuggled away behind the club washing machine for periods of time. Grant looked the part when he was allowed to play with the big boys but was seemingly told to sit quietly in the corner with a blanket over his head. Cash and Joe Worrall have impressed out on loan. Osborn has developed nicely, even though he has been deployed on the left wing for the duration. Even Dimitar Evtimov made his first team debut.
Utilising youth players appropriately in order to get the best out of them while taking care not to break them is a tough and tricky business. While Freedman did indeed introduce youth to the first team, it was never allowed to flourish. For whatever reason, the talent at the club's disposal remains under-utilised - this too in a season when players were in short supply and the youth teams covered themselves in glory.
It can only be hoped that the players mentioned above have learned from their respective experiences this season and are in a strong position to bang down the manager's door come August.
4. At some stage – some faraway, undefined stage – Chris Cohen, Andy Reid and Britt Assombalonga will stride onto the pitch to a standing ovation after immeasurable periods of time spent on the sidelines. Not only will this be a lovely moment but given the quality of these players, they will surely bring the noise to the party. Obviously, to expect each of them to hit the ground running and slip seamlessly back into being the hub of the team would be a little too much to ask but their return – all of them, some of them, one of them? - is something to look forward to.
When the beautiful human being that is Chris Cohen took to the field at The Valley in December in front of a huge away following, it felt good. Indeed, a large proportion of the away support that day were there for that very reason. From then on, Cohen has slowly but emphatically got back into the groove of posting 8/10 performances with each game he has played, culminating in this life-affirming moment with his goal and celebration on the final day of the season:
Britt too enjoyed a cathartic moment in the very same game.
Andy Reid, less so.
5. Besides, the Great Injury Depression of 2015 is surely a spent force, at least as far as the near future is concerned. The Injury Gods must have had their fill of throwing down spears of groin strains and smiting us with dislocated knees for a while – surely they will choose another club for their entertainment and leave ours alone for a while.
The Injury Gods are still very cross with Nottingham Forest. Despite returning Cohen and Britt to us in scenes reminiscent of The Terminator's return to present day but without the nakedness, this came at a price. Henri Lansbury and Jack Hobbs were struck down for periods and while Jack Hobbs and Matty Fryatt remain missing - presumed adducted by aliens.
6. But this club of ours isn’t the first to be in such circumstances. Whilst at Bolton Wanderers, Dougie Freedman had to contend with the parachute money drying up so he has experience of working under testing conditions. He realises that the war chest containing untold treasures must remain under child-lock for a while longer but this shouldn’t faze him. In fact it might just see Dougie step up to the plate and empty the contents of his locker all over the dressing room floor.
It wasn't. It might have been and very nearly was but ultimately, while there is certainly a case to be made that Freedman did alright under difficult circumstances, he never really convinced anyone that he was capable of taking the side beyond 12th place. Besides, the football was terrible at times.
Perhaps the real kicker for fans is the very nature of those performances. Even when points were garnered, it wasn't pretty. For the most part, the game plan revolved around ceding possession and taking one of precious few chances created. Against weaker teams or teams who were not at the races, it worked. But on occasions, watching such performances was like watching a toddler try to balance a ball bearing atop a needle: painfully frustrating and reliant on the tiniest detail and blind luck.
Click here for more thoughts on Freedman's tenure.
7. It’s not the worst of times. Scraping around in the nether regions of League 1 for three years was bad, or had you forgotten about that? Trips to Bristol Rovers and Cheltenham were kind of fun but incredibly trying at times. There was the whole Woking thing too. As it is, the club will still be competing in the much-loved Championship: a league renowned for its unpredictability in which the difference between challenging for a place in the top six or fighting off the pack of hungry dogs that is relegation is the width of a green Rizla paper. If you’re in it, you have a chance. Here's Kris Commons banging in three away at Cheltenham:
It wasn't quite the worst of times but on occasions, it felt damned close - the pummelling delivered by Bristol City and Brentford in our own neatly mowed front garden felt as bad as some of the very darkest of times, conjuring up memories of Plymouth at home in April 2005 and Coventry away in the very same month.
8. In 1865, something magical happened that left a strong legacy, still felt by many today. Sure, Lewis Carrol published the truly bonkers entity that is ‘Alice in Wonderland’ but aside from that, this thing that we are all up to our necks in was born. Details remain vague regarding how the club plans to mark the 150th anniversary – pre season friendlies against Malmo and Hamburg have been mooted – but regardless of what happens, there will surely be something to look forward to…even if it’s only a commemorative shirt or mug.
Where to start with this one. The movie and the book were and remain glorious. The Premiere event was special, as was the 'Evening with...' event.
The club has tried to mark this special anniversary but every single idea required the fans to put their hands in their pockets in order to feel part of the landmark. Buy a brick. Buy a special shirt. Buy a couple of special ales with a special glass. Finally, buy a very expensive place at a gala dinner for which your esteemed host will fail to show. It could have been so very different.
In the end, the fans took charge and wrote their own invitations for their own party, culminating in a special event that paid tribute to the founders of this football club with dignity, laughs and smiles.
9. Around late August or September time, a film will be screened at a cinema near you that will make you claim that the pollen count seems strong or that there’s some dust in your eye. Jonny Owen’s feature length documentary film, ‘I Believe In Miracles’ promises to be a belter. Just trust us on this. It’s likely to make you fall in love with the club and football in general all over again.
On a cold October evening, the City Ground hosted a special event that made supporters remember why they fell in love with this goddam club in the first place.
If that isn't enough for you, there's more here.
10. Nobody really likes MK Dons – not even their own fans – but the season ahead means a trip to their relatively new and expanded home. It can be a soulless place, what with all the empty seats, but there’s nothing like a trip to a new stadium to create a bit of excitement. In spite of its faults, what the place can boast in spades is comfy seats: nice cushiony type affairs rather than de rigueur plastic ones. Not only this but if you are a bit low on tea candles (and frankly, who isn’t?) then you can stroll to the exceedingly nearby Ikea and stock up on those handy, everyday essentials.
There was a time around early April when it seemed as if this picture would be one humdingerrelegationdogfightsixpointerwinnertakesall. Fortunately, it wasn't.
It was though a very decent attempt at a party for a game that meant little as 4,000 fans travelled, sung, drank beer and made themselves think that even if just for one sunny afternoon in MK, it was all going to be alright.
11. The extension to secure early bird season tickets didn’t suggest that the ticket office sales staff were rushed off their feet, desperately trying to keep up with the frenzy and clamour of optimistic fans scrambling to secure their booklet of joy. Nonetheless, the club claims that more than 11,000 tickets have been shifted, which isn’t at all bad considering how the team stunk up the joint from March onwards. Also, away support has been excellent in recent seasons with the average away following stubbornly refusing to dip below the 1,000 mark. Following the team on the road has almost become fun again – the sustained chants and singing towards the end of the Huddersfield game, despite being tonked 3-0, was commendable. Even if the fare is distinctly standard on the pitch at times, one doesn’t feel alone away from home.
Away support continues to be deeply impressive, despite some shocking away performances - no matter how much we pretend that Bristol away didn't happen, it did - it won't go away. End of season away days at Fulham and MK were specific highlights, alongside an improbable win at Middlesbrough.
Home attendances are a growing cause for concern though. Support at the City Ground is dwindling and has been for a while now. The 'Kids for a Quid' initiative is worthy but has maybe run its course. In fairness, season tickets are reasonably priced and can work out as little as £16 a game. Once again though, the early bird renewal deadline has been extended, which could be interpreted as a gesture of goodwill, rank incompetence in dealing with demand or good old fashioned fan apathy. You decide.
It will need more than a new manager to get the fans back in their numbers this time.
12. It’s not only Milton Keynes that will welcome the away following and their inflatable trees (it is 1989 still, isn’t it?) but also the cider down in Bristol is excellent. Furthermore, their shiny new away end might even allow a glimpse of the actual pitch.
Let's just leave that one there.
13. There can be no denying that the kits last season were pretty much spot on, especially the white affair. With each new season comes a new opportunity to foist a new kit for the masses to blindly consume – there’s every chance that another retro belter could be in the offing given the 150th celebrations. Let’s hope so.
The yellow kit is excellent - a nod to the shimmering yellow kit of the late 70s/early80s. Sadly, this was superseded by the launch of the 150th anniversary black kit, which seemed to be worn with increasing frequency as the season wore on. Got to keep them sales spiking.
It’s our club – it’s a bit of a shamblebum of a dog’s dinner but it’s our shamblebum of a dog’s dinner. Occasionally, a sift through the rubble reveals polished little gems, just waiting to be unearthed.
It remains very much a shamblebum of a football club and despite the owner referring to it as "my club", it remains resolutely ours.
Increasingly, fans are made to feel that the game and their clubs belong to moneyed men in suits but it is important - now more than ever - to remember that it is OUR club and OUR game - it belongs to us, the fans. Remind yourself of Brian Clough's words in the coda of 'I Believe In Miracles'.
This isn't to say that we fans should get all Karl Marx on the owner's ass and storm the ground with a view to seizing the means of production. (While we could easily smuggle Benny Osborn into our pockets, we might struggle to make off with Chris O'Grady or Dexter Blackstock).
We should remember though that without us, the game loses its magic. Increasingly, fan groups are exerting pressure and reminding the powers that be of our needs and wants. We won't go away and neither should we. We aren't always right and we sometimes squabble with each other but we will be here long after the next manager, owner and star player and what's more, we have a voice.
Let's use it wisely.