While much has been made of the youthful exuberance, attacking flair and quality football we are enjoying most weeks – and quite rightly, too – I can’t help but think we need to toughen up, and quickly.
Championship football – much like League One – is a scrap, and we saw once again on Saturday that when it comes to doing the ‘other side’ of the game – like getting into the opposition’s faces, getting at the referee and generally being a bit of a pain in the arse to play against, we’re miles behind many other teams.
Over recent weeks, I reckon teams have sussed out that if they unsettle us, fly into tackles and generally ‘get stuck in’ against us, they improve their chances of coming out on top. It’s a testament to how well we’ve done this season, but we need to wise up.
We are lacking a bit of nous, a bit of grit, a bit of ‘streetwiseness’. (If that’s, in fact, a word. If it isn’t, it is now.)
Now, I’m not suggesting Trai Hume begins getting private coaching from John Kay, Michut unveils his new Kevin Ball tattoo, and Joe Gelhardt starts going to bed in his Billy Whitehurst pyjamas. And I’m not suggesting we should be hounding the referee continually, chasing him around the pitch. But we need to start playing the off-the-ball game as well as the on-the-ball game and do what other teams are doing to us every week. We need to be standing up for ourselves, and standing up for each other.
Does that come down to experience? Maybe. Much has been made of the lack of strikers at the club, and that’s looking like being a big factor as to whether we mount a playoff challenge or not.
But, while our lack of cutting-edge has meant we only picked up one point from games against Bristol City, Rotherham and Coventry, I believe our lack of experience has also been a contributory factor.
Consider the Bristol City game. The referee let a load of tackles go, and not once did our players get around him, making the point he was letting them get away with too much. Of course, we conceded a late pen, which was debatable – to me, there was as much of a foul on Hume just prior as there was on the lad who went down, but there was little more than a whimper from our lads. If we’d got into the ref’s ear on the couple of occasions they’d chucked themselves down in the box prior to that trying to win a penalty, maybe the referee would have thought twice about awarding that injury time one.
Against Rotherham, Jordan Hugill played ‘the game’ brilliantly for them up front. Niggling, feigning injury and putting himself about. Clattering into defenders, in the refs ear all game.
He wasn’t the only one. The whole Rotherham team were quick to surround the ref, get in our faces - and we just took it.
On Saturday, it was a similar story. From the off, Coventry spent as much time getting stuck into us and doing the off-the-ball stuff as they did playing football.
It could be our general approach to the game ‘go out and enjoy yourself lads’, a reluctance for these young lads to go head to head with senior, gnarly pros and keep at the ref, or a combination, but we need to get better at it.
Of course, I’m not advocating us being in referees' faces from the off, chasing them around the field, and kicking the shit out of the opposition. But by not standing up for ourselves and not doing the same as other teams are doing, we’re putting ourselves at a significant disadvantage. And we’re doing ourselves a huge disservice because we’re not protecting the talented players we have and, therefore, not giving ourselves the best chance of getting a positive result. We’ve seen so many fouls on Amad, Roberts, Clarke etc go unpunished, and we barely whisper a word to the referee.
This year at the Stadium of Light already, we’ve seen two prime examples of the opposition benefiting from it.
The referee was reaching for a yellow card for Luke O’Nien before the Swansea players descended on him - prompting him to swiftly put back his yellow and fish out a red.
Likewise, the Reading game - and earlier in the season, the Blackpool and Preston games - when the opposition were time-wasting from the off. Yes, there were murmurs from the crowd, but the players getting on at the referee from the get-go would have certainly seen the referee take more action - and considerably more time added on. Reading must have wasted about 15 minutes – only four were added on at the end. When Embleton was ridiculously sent off at Hull earlier in the season, we barely said a word in protest.
Of course, this side of the game will come with time, but I can’t help but feel we need the experienced players in the squad on the pitch to set the right example. Of course, Corry Evans is out for the season, and Bailey Wright at Rotherham, so that task falls to Danny Batth, Alex Pritchard and Luke O’Nien – who, to my mind, should be three of the first names on the team sheet for Saturday, which is likely to be another scrap. (Why O’Nien didn’t start on Saturday in the centre of midfield is baffling, but that’s another topic for another day.)
And then there’s the ‘other’ side of things too. The know-how to see a game out - Bristol City being a recent example here – and the ‘dark arts’, which no one bar Luke O’Nien seems to have mastered.
All of this makes me curious about how we’ll approach the summer window. Our plan is well documented, concentrating on youth, and we won’t veer from that too far. But the plan was always to have a core group of experienced players, too – Danny Batth’s signing is a prime example of this – and having that core group of quality, first-choice players is critical for all of the reasons above and for the development of the younger players too.
While Evans and Batth have signed new deals for next season, chances are Bailey Wright will be sold, and there are question marks over Alex Pritchard’s future - so bringing in at least a couple of older heads who’ll be regular starters and positive influences in the dressing room is likely to be high on the agenda.
The current squad will be wiser and more experienced - but wouldn’t it be nice to see them taking on the opposition at their own game (within reason, of course)?
It’s a side we are yet to see from this group - and I feel we need to see it soon, because learning how to play that side of the game could be the key to unlocking the huge potential this squad has.