I have to say, I draft this item with a wee bit of disappointment that Alex Pritchard has moved on.
Over the past few years since he joined us in our League One days, I think it is fair to say Alex has been a pretty significant player for us, both in our successful exit from the 3rd tier and with him chipping in well at times when we were needing to establish ourselves across the past season and a half in the Championship.
For him to leave the way he has is a bit of a downer, but when asking myself whether we have been fair on Alex as a player given what he has done for us since joining, I think we have done what most clubs would, give or take, maybe more.
As can be seen from his farewell messages on social media, the focus from Alex’s side was on stability for his career for as long as he could secure it. At times like these, that makes some sense - we all need to look after our families and pay the bills, and while football wages are good, they don’t go on forever.
He had played pretty well across the Christmas period, deserving his player of the month for December, and he showed a few times how he can help the team to find a way to get points even when faced by the most determined of bus-parkers. You can sort of understand why he may have wanted something to sort him out for another couple of seasons. His determination to get more than the one year extension he was after, however, was unrealistic in my view.
A cursory look around the changing rooms shows any of our senior players that the club is focusing on youth development; building a squad and a first 11 side for the future while getting profits from those who we develop but decide to cash in on, rather than try to retain.
Being player of the month recently doesn’t compensate for the many games where he could not give us 90 minutes or the occasions when, try as he may, he just couldn’t get the spark in himself or the lads around him to ignite anything more than a minor puff of damp smoke. He scored recently but has only notched 5 goals in his last 63 games in the Championship. He has arguably found a level where he can contribute but isn’t totally excelling. He has peaked and may well be on the decline very soon.
His fitness and pace are also more likely to depreciate as he leaves his twenties in the past and gets closer to 35. He has missed quite a lot of football due to being in the treatment room while with us, an issue which younger and less worn-out footballers statistically should suffer less of.
Getting back to his exit approach, the way he refused to play for the team rather than dealing with the situation in one of many less obstinate ways was for me a step beyond where he needed to go, too. Yes, he may have had a verbal offer from Tony Mowbray ringing in his lug hole, but he and the club have been of such benefit to each other across the past few seasons, exiting that way just wasn’t in alignment with the way he clearly clicked with the club and the fans.
He brought experience and a touch of class to what was no doubt a troubled football establishment when he came in. We were an ambitious League One club who wanted to get back up the leagues with help from lads like him. In return, the club gave him another chance after his peak seemed to have passed him by. He had gone from being a Premier League player worth around £11m to someone who was struggling to know what he could offer and at what level. The reset in football terms was as significant for him as it was for SAFC. A perfect storm had derailed the ambitions of both man and club - an ideal time for such a symbiotic opportunity to develop and to reward both the individual needing a chance and the club needing experienced players to help them back on their way up the ladder.
We are where we are now, and Pritchard is in Birmingham, with a deal that gives him more in line with what he wanted, but with a manager who very rarely selected him when leading us, This was despite other options in the team stuttering as Tony’s tenure dwindled towards its end. This in itself arguably says quite a lot about what was more important for Alex right now.
I don’t pretend there will not be downsides to the exit of the wee man - the experience we have around the team will be chopped back significantly by his exit, but equally, his exit makes way for the “heirs to the role” to get more game time. They can build more experience playing in the second tier readying themselves for the next level when it comes and can develop at this level while also growing in financial value for the club. There were no doubt plans to bring in other options too, who may have also superseded Pritchard in the pecking order, ignoring the challenge he already had with our existing promising youths.
No sooner had he declared his intent to not play, up stepped one of the lads given a chance due to that, and he scores one, while also providing two assists for others. An immediate demonstration of what can happen giving young and talented kids a chance to shine under a new gaffer, trying to find his way to get the best out of his lads. Even in the face of difficult situations with other players, chances are given and taken.
That’s the nature of football.
While his may seem quite a dramatic exit, I honestly think this will be the way we now operate ongoing for the future. You do not develop young stars into superstars by playing older and more established pros ahead of them. Where would Dan Ballard be now if we kept Danny Baath and left the younger option on the bench?
If these young guns are ready, at whatever age (and Chris Rigg shows that can be very young), they need playing time to grow and thrive.
Alex’s exit is probably doing nothing more than reiterating the determination the club has to embrace this chance to fully rebuild through driving the academy optimally and possessing a relentless focus on youth. We are working in a sustainable and financially astute manner, as we have across the past three or four seasons.
So, while I wish Alex all the best with his future in Birmingham Blue and will always appreciate the commitment and graft he put in while donning the beautiful red and white shirt, I am fully confident that the club and our other younger players will step up and prove this as the right outcome for both parties.
I know I am in the majority who will be saying good luck to Pritch. But being realistic, I really don’t expect Tony to pick him when we play in a few weeks. Though he may now have a longer contract, he will likely play even less football in the coming season or two than he would if he had bowed out gracefully at the SOL.
Given how much Alex and SAFC both got from this, it’s a shame how it all ended, but I hope you play and play well Pritch (except against us).
This was all purely business and strategy, and nothing personal. We wish you all the best, and we know you wish that back.