In the last few days, media veterans of the Midlands football scene have been scratching heads, furrowing brows and trying to remember the last time it was such a miserable experience reporting on the top local sides. None of us can come up with a similarity to this season.
When I started reporting football for BBC national radio in this area in 1981, half the top flight comprised Midlands clubs, including Stoke City, Notts County, Coventry City, Leicester City and Nottingham Forest.
Then there were the usual suspects like Aston Villa, Birmingham City and West Bromwich Albion. Now those three West Midlands teams are in the bottom four of the Premiership, a salutary corrective to the pre-season optimism that we all fostered. None of us went on the record to say that those clubs had bought duff new players, that cold realism should be the order of the day for the coming season. We?ve all been caught out.
David O?Leary, with eight new players at a cost of #21 million (including first year salaries), was sufficiently emboldened to state that Uefa Cup qualification was well within the club?s compass. Hadn?t Villa just missed out on the final day of the 2003-04 season? Now the manager was getting the chance to shape the side in his own vision, with his own players, who he believed he could really trust. Hmmm . . .
Bryan Robson?s summer dealings gave a broad hint that Albion wouldn?t again have to struggle to avoid relegation, as they did on the final day of last season. A period of mid-table conformity surely lay ahead, as long as the Baggies could build on that momentum which carried them to safety just a few months ago. And hadn?t they landed an excellent goalkeeper in Chris Kirkland?
Steve Bruce had every reason to believe that the loan deal bringing in Nicky Butt and the return to fitness of several key players would thwart any relegation worries. This was to be the campaign that launched Blues into the established section of middle-ranking clubs like Charlton, Bolton and Blackburn. Solid outfits with good, experienced players who could bring a sniff of Europe.
Alas and alack, as they say on the Tilton End. It?s all gone pear-shaped. Injuries, particularly with Blues, have derailed all three clubs and it now looks a slog, especially until the January transfer window.
By then Robson may have worked out his best XI, especially up front and revived the season for Zoltan Gera, who?s been treated badly by his Hungarian international coaching staff.
In West Brom?s favour is a strong work ethic and a mature, professional attitude among key players, manifested when Darren Moore and Neil Clement fronted up to the media after the home defeat to Newcastle and took the heat off the manager. Other, more precious clubs, take note.
It?ll be interesting to see how much Bruce can wring out of his Birmingham directors once the transfer window opens in January. The vibes coming out of the boardroom suggest that the manager?s had enough at his disposal over the past couple of years.
The ritual dance between hint-dropping manager and sceptical directors has already started at Blues, although if Bruce can get most of his key players back from long-term injury soon, he will be happy. The time to judge Blues and their manager will be after the international break, leading up to Christmas, when David Dunn, Muzzy Izzett, Mario
Then there?s Aston Villa. So much is in the melting pot at that club. David O?Leary would love more money to be made available, even if that means the end of the Doug Ellis regime, a chairman with whom he professes to enjoy working. But how much more money should be made available? Enough to buy another Eric Djemba-Djemba?
All managers make mistakes in the transfer market, but so far O?Leary?s successes for Villa in that area have been in the bargain section ? Gavin McCann, Kevin Phillips, Thomas Sorensen, Nolberto Solano.
When Villa fork out big money for a player who?s expected to transform the side, it?s invariably been a failure in the past decade.
Is O?Leary?s judgment more secure than that of Brian Little, John Gregory and Graham Taylor?
I also wonder if he?s wise to keep harping on about the legacy he was left with when taking over in the summer of 2003. He gives the impression that he only really rates the Villa players that he?s bought, rather than inherited. Not sure how that goes down with comparatively old sweats like Lee Hendrie, Gareth Barry, Olof Mellberg and Mark Delaney.
Perhaps we all take too much notice of managers and their supposed powers of alchemy, as they strive to get the ingredients and chemistry right. It?s really about good players, isn?t it? And there are not enough of them acquitting themselves consistently on the West Midlands front in the Premiership.
Let?s try to select a composite XI, drawn from the three local clubs in the Premiership. This will play 4-4-2 and is based on form so far this season. See what you think about this side . . .
With the greatest respect to these worthy professionals, this is hardly a side that would have you queuing overnight for a ticket. Among those not considered because of injury and sporadic appearances so far this season are Dunn, Izzett, and Melchiot of Blues, Villa?s Hendrie and Baros and Albion?s Gera and Kanu.
Even then, it wouldn?t be a team of all the talents. You?d get a far better composite XI from the cities of Liverpool and Manchester, from the North-East, and from London ? Chelsea, Arsenal and Tottenham and another drawn from Fulham, West Ham and Charlton. And, on current form, from Blackburn, Wigan and Bolton out of the North-West of England.
That last comment is the severest indictment on the poverty of the current West Midlands football scene. The dearth of high-quality players is the biggest problem, and those who berate Messrs Bruce, Robson and O?Leary for failing to win enough games ought to consider that the cupboards at their disposal are rather bare.
Mind you, who buys these players who just do a job and little more? Now that?s another subject for discussion at a later date . . .
Fergie's march to mediocrity
So Manchester United moved to within five points of Wigan Athletic by beating Chelsea on Sunday. That?s how relevant that game at Old Trafford was.
It suits the media to talk about the gap at the top of the table narrowing but Chelsea are out of sight already. If United had lost on Sunday they were effectively out of the running for the title ? in November. That?s a measure of Chelsea?s supremacy and if Sir Alex Ferguson starts trying to con us about United?s hot breath on Jose Mourinho?s expensive collar then he?s even more off the pace than I thought.
Make no mistake, Ferguson is out of touch now. He may have got his players up for the Chelsea match but the signs of decline have been so obvious for so long that you could say that Sunday?s game was a one-off.
Ferguson?s transfer dealings have long been faulty. He may bluster about being short of money but he spent more than #20 million each on Wayne Rooney, Rio Ferdinand and Juan Sebastian Veron while Cristiano Ronaldo and Ruud Van Nistlerooy didn?t come cheap. Every other club apart from Chelsea would love Ferguson?s budget for players.
He has presided over a slow march to mediocrity as key players have aged before his very eyes and he shipped out David Beckham when he didn?t really want to go. Ferguson hasn?t bought a top-class midfielder since Roy Keane in 1993 and until last summer his record in signing goalkeepers to replace the peerless Peter Schmeichel ? who left in 1999 ? has been poor.
Ferguson's loyal supporters keep saying he?s just the man to turn things around and point to his record in that direction. But that was then, this is now. He?s 63, living off former glories, unsure which formation to adopt when he used to be so decisive. This will be the third season in a row that he?s failed to win the Premiership and, judging by United?s hapless efforts so far in Europe, they could be out of the Champions? League by the end of this month.
He can bully the media as much as he wants but they?ll have the last word. A close study of great managerial careers in British football shows that it almost always ends in anti-climax.
Honesty worthy of praise
Rest assured, it?s players who get managers the sack. Any reporter at Molineux last Saturday was left in no doubt about that by the comments and demeanour of Nigel Worthington after his Norwich City side had lost so abjectly to Wolves.
Norwich were dreadfully passive and Worthington was in no mood to conceal that afterwards. Clearly he had protected them at times this season, as they failed to storm into an expected challenge for promotion after relegation from the Premiership on the final day last season.
This time we had a manager opting for honesty and it was refreshing. He said his players were ?spineless? and that he hadn?t wasted his breath talking to them in the dressing-room afterwards, otherwise he?d be there for a fortnight. He?d let them stew in their own thoughts on the long coach journey back to Norfolk and see what sort of reaction he?d get from them in training at the start of the week.
Today?s professional footballer is such a precious, cosseted individual that Worthington was obviously taking a risk in going public. He?s clearly, in the modern parlance, ? losing the dressing-room.?
It remains to be seen if he?ll get the necessary response from a justified boot up the collective backside.
If not, Nigel Worthington will get the sack. I hope not, for various reasons, one of which is that I?ve enjoyed my professional relationship with him during his five years at Carrow Road.
More importantly, his footballing principles are very sound and players who cheat the supporters and their manager need to be exposed more often. The supporters deserve nothing less.
How many of those Norwich players got onto text messaging as soon as they climbed onto the coach at Molineux at 5.30 on Saturday night, wondering how they could spend their money, out on the town, without a care in the world? And did they offer a fleeting glance to their 44-year-old manager, who?s gone prematurely grey during his time with Norwich City FC?