I’m sat here at 11.28 and my staff think I’m hungover, which is never a good start on a Monday morning. One pint in London before Palace, one pint (and it was terrible). I could have driven back rather than fanny on with London’s transport system if I wanted (hard to do with no car though) so I’m not hungover. I’m drained. Micky travelled to Palace and back with me. He’s drained too. He’s still in bed in fact but he had loads of pints but ignore that for now. I’m drained because this team, this season and this club are just a slog. It’s not fun. It’s hardly ever fun. This season it’s less fun than most.
Every game is a battle. We try and bring teams down to our level. Our level is slow and patient. We never start like a house on fire. If we do start well our house has the heating slightly turned up and we get to 15′ and we go from there. Everyone knows why and most people back what the manager has to do to drag us to Premier League safety. Try and think of a game you enjoyed not against teams called West Ham and Stoke. Liverpool at home was okay but it was okay in the context of building towards competing in ‘those’ type of games but in ‘those’ types of games we’ve gotten worse. We have one of ‘those’ types of games on Sunday and we need a result.
We’ve no luck and all the luck. Diame against Swansea. Very few injuries this season however recently I was making a point about our continued misfortune with the post or the cross bar. Everton at home, Bournemouth at home and now Burnley. Inside’s of posts and cross bars being rattled and United get nought. I was reminded of our neighbours who are second bottom of division two and their soulless battle with the drop each year. Often Sunderland would have one or two chances a game and then feel incredibly hard done if there one or two good chances didn’t hit the back of the net. I mocked them for it. That’s now United. One or two great chances a game. Compare to Bournemouth. They take some beatings but they have the players and importantly the pace to be able to miss three golden chances a game and still take points. We aren’t a good enough side this season to have anything, and I mean anything, go against us and win a game (unless it’s against West Ham).
We’re hopeless at home. Think of the dominance at stages of the games against Bournemouth, Everton, Swansea and Burnley. Stick Brighton in there because why not. 5 home games, 4 points. How an earth are you supposed to survive on that? Add in to the mix strong performances in stages against Palace, West Brom and Southampton. We’re up to seven points from eight games. It really could have been 24 points.
It reads so poorly, yet we still aren’t in the relegation zone. We’ve spent less time in the relegation zone all season than the majority of our relegation rivals. One win feels massive. A defeat to a relegation rival is cataclysmic. So we’ve been dealing in draws. The only game United have drawn that I feel we weren’t the better side was Liverpool. Soft penalties against Southampton and Palace came at a time when both sides had run out of ideas. Where have our soft penalties been? Despite all of this we’re outside of the relegation zone and have a decent goal difference cushion against the majority of the sides around us.
We need to win some games and I think we will. I feel Man City at home was almost a ‘reset’ for the team. Defend, defend and defend and all of a sudden we could defend again. Brighton was a really poor, but defensively sound performance. Swansea was good then bad and then better and overall we should have won. Burnley was better again. The problem with the horror Autumn/early Winter was that there was no progress. You watched games seeing the side wide open in the middle of the park, lacing leadership and the defensive partnership between Clark and Lejeune was like watching two really bad poker players play footy together. Neither of them knew what the other was going to do, at any time. It’s been better since West Ham away. So much better.
There’s a chance I’m simply inventing positives but I can see us growing as a side. The red side of Manchester turn up and route us two nothing this weekend and the positives seem even more difficult to grasp at but I see a team that after the nadir of the shambolic midfield display against Leicester, is getting there. We have six of the top seven left to play but we also have games against West Brom, Huddersfiled, Southampton, Bournemouth, Watford, Leicester and Everton. There are points there, loads of them.
It’s all opinions and conjecture at this point. We can’t predict the future. If Jamaal Lascelles gets injured, i’d worry. Kennedy looks mint, too good for us. What if he stops playing or gets injured? It doesn’t really matter as much as you think as we’re in the same boat as so many other sides. I feel a lot of the hand wringing on social media is only fixed on NUFC and NUFC results. There’s the line ‘don’t worry about anyone else just do the business yourself and you’ll be fine.’ Really? What’s fine? 34 points? 40? 29? ‘Fine’ is defined exclusively by other sides. I’ve also found this argument to be used mostly by fans who read our list of fixtures and think that we’ll not win any of them, as we’ll never win again.
The home support haven’t seen a league win since Palace in September and those that nick off early, since Stoke in mid-September. It creates fixture list anxiety. When you can’t do the business against a dire Everton side (hello one win away from home all season and it coming against us) and an even worse Brighton side, how are you going to turn over Southampton? If you take the lead against a hard working but limited Burnley at home and can’t see it through how will we go to Leicester and get anything? How can you not win a home game in four months (and counting) and expect to stay up?
All valid questions. I don’t have the answers but I do think the questions are only relevant if the worst happens. Let me flip the question to ‘how bad must the other sides around us be if we haven’t won a home game in four months (and counting) and they’re STILL below us in the league?’. How can we be within two points of eleventh when all of the other clubs in the bottom half have outspent us in terms of net transfer spend? Most have changed their managers, enjoyed the ‘new manager bounce’ and we’re still within two points of them or above us?
My main point is that United aren’t in a relegation battle with United. We only have to be the 4th least shit side in the league. I see mags bemoaning dropped points and they point to the fixture list as proof of impending relegation. How about being West Bromwich Albion and five points behind United with twelve games to go? They’ve got Daniel Sturridge, and Alan Pardew and some good, experienced players at this level but what if they lose at St James’ Park. It’s an eight point gap (looking at it like I want you to). Of course they could win but what if they lose. The mags presenting our fixture list as certain failure to survive need to think like a West Brom fan. West Brom have won once away from home all season and scored six goals. I presume they’ve some away games to play in their remaining fixtures?
Stoke City have won once away from home this season as well conceding 11 more goals than we have in the process. ‘Look at our next 5 games!’ mags point out. 5 of Stoke’s next 8 games are away from home and they have games against Spurs, Arsneal and Manchester City in that time. They can’t win away from home. So that’s Stoke and West Brom I’ve looked at – their future looks bleak. Maybe they’ll somehow turn it round, if you’re a pessimist (or an optimist if you support hose sides). Probably not though.
‘Have you seen NUFC’s fixtures at the end of the season, nightmare!’ Huddersfield’s last four games are against Chelsea, Man City, Everton and Arsenal. We have Watford away (worst home form in the league currently, even worse than us) and West Brom at home (remember their away form?). There are loads of other teams with all their flaws, injuries (Hello, is that West Ham?), terrible records and demons to overcome. Maybe they’ll all do it. Maybe we just can’t win at home and maybe we’ll go down. We could quite easily be in the relegation zone going into Sunday and quite easily be in it 16.00 on Sunday. I don’t know about you but when a point at Palace is met with an explosion of negativity as this has been, I have a feeling a few will lose their heads and start pointing fingers already.
Rafa and the players will stay calm, maybe even feel a little pressure, but the remit will remain the same. If it happens, it happens. Inquests into relegation’s should happen once a team has been relegated. United have their worst points total after this stage in the Premier League era. Yet we still aren’t in the relegation zone. It’s something worth clinging to.
This is a football club doing the absolute bare minimum to try and stay in the league. An owner risking everything. I didn’t enjoy Palace. I didn’t enjoy Burnley even at one nil. I probably won’t enjoy any of the games until it’s confirmed we cannot finish lower than 17th. A dead rich bloke who owns the club does this to me and you. Does this to Rafa and the players. Do you think Rafa enjoys it? Enjoys making the subs people hate to protect a point, even at one nil? No one enjoys it. It’s so important to stay up. Even if all goes to plan if we went down and Ashley sold and we cam straight back up, I don’t want to contemplate having to do Palace away again to crawl to 25 points after 26 games in a desperate battle to stay up. It’s exhausting. I thought the Championship was exhausting but winning games is never tiring. Not like this.
We are unique. Look at Stoke’s home support, look at Watford’s and Southampton’s. You’ll see loads and loads of empty seats. It’s because it’s no fun. relegation battles are so dire because your team is so bad. Yet I can’t see there being any tickets unsold (unless away sides bring poor numbers) at any remaining games at SJP this season. Sections of Stoke’s support have given up. Season ticket holders aren’t going and at Southampton they just can’t shift the tickets for home games. Despite social media outcry after draws at Palace, we are still behind the team. Every away end will be sold out as mags get behind the lads.
That’s half the battle, convincing your public that this side are worth backing and worth staying with to fight for every point to stay in this league. Will United be relegated? Maybe, but I’m not giving up on our useless rivals yet, or Rafa’s draw taking mags. ‘Draws aren’t enough’ is a common phrase used after these games and maybe they won’t be. Better than defeats though. Ask West Brom fans if they’d have taken a draw now in their relegation battle fixture this weekend.
We only need other sides to be worse than us and I think there are just about three to four sides that just might be.
ALEX HURST – FOLLOW ALEX ON Follow Alex @tfalex1892
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