There’s no denying that Ross Stewart (and to a lesser extent, Ellis Simms) has been a miss whenever he’s been injured this season.
He’s arguably our best player, and he does a job nobody else in this team can do.
Obviously, lots of talk recently - and, frankly, for most of the season - has been about what we could have achieved with Stewart available.
It’s been the topic of almost every interview I’ve seen from someone at the club for the last six months. Tony Mowbray can’t hold a press conference without mentioning it, and even the players keep getting pressed into talking about it whenever someone slams a microphone in front of them.
We get it. We’d be better with a striker. We’d be better with Ross Stewart.
Am I the only person who’s tired of talking about it?
I think it takes away from the fine job the other players have done without a recognised centre forward in the team. Caveating everything with “.... but imagine if we had a striker?!” isn’t fair and, to be honest, I think it ignores the immense job some of the other players have done in stepping up to the plate.
Would it have made a huge difference to our goals scored tally? Well, we’re the fourth highest scorers in the division behind the top two and Boro. Prior to the draw at Burnley (the first team to keep a clean sheet there, I might add) we had scored in 22 consecutive games, and have scored goals - four in one of them! - in the two since.
Scoring goals has not been an issue.
We’ve pressed well from the front too. I’ve seen players like Clarke, Amad and Roberts develop and adapt their game because they’ve had no choice but to. And say what you want about Gelhardt, but arguably his biggest asset is his pressing and work off the ball.
Where we’ve definitely missed Stewart is in his ability to hold the ball up, trap it and get us ten yards further up the pitch. Sometimes when we’ve needed an outlet or the opportunity to take a breather, the option simply hasn’t been there.
So please don’t get me wrong here, because I’m not for one minute saying we haven’t missed Ross Stewart or Ellis Simms - I just don’t think it’s been as big an issue, overall, than some might claim it to be. I certainly don’t see the merit in repeatedly talking about how much better off we’d have been with a striker up front.
Instead, I actually think the bigger loss has been Corry Evans.
Take a look at most of the goals we concede, and it’s not often you’re sat back thinking “Fair enough, that was great” - more often than not we’ve been the architect of our own demise.
As good as some of the other players have been, I don’t think we’ve got another player who does what Evans does. He naturally enjoys sitting in, sometimes even as deep as the centre halves, and as the captain he shoulders a huge amount of responsibility when it comes to the organisation of the team in front of him.
Game management has been a big issue in the time since he got injured. That’s not just something we can pin on the young players either, because some of the more experienced lads have been guilty of it also.
That’s not necessarily a dig at the other players either, because I think that the things Evans offers us just aren’t coachable. We can’t expect a player like Dan Neil or Edouard Michut to do the job of a holding midfielder when it’s their natural instinct to play the ball forward and carry it into the opposition half - and nor would I want to discourage them from being as positive as they often are when in possession.
So whilst I’m growing more and more tired every time I hear ‘Ross Stewart’ and ‘strikers’ mentioned, I can’t help but feel that the more glaring loss has been that of our captain in the centre of the park. Truthfully, I think we’d be several places higher in the table right now if he’d been available over recent months, whereas with the lack of forwards I think that we’ve found a way to play without them and that several players have stepped up and deserve all the credit in the world for doing so.
The season is not yet over, and whether we’d be better off with our injured players available feels largely irrelevant to me at this point. Their absence has given other players a chance to shine who otherwise may not have had the opportunities to do so, and no matter where we finish in the table now I think I’ll feel really happy with how the season has gone.
We can’t dwell too much on what’s gone wrong when so much has gone right.