With the Hallowe’en theme in mind, last night seemed to provide a couple of scares on and off the pitch. The result against Kilmarnock and the financial results released during the game weren’t the most positive. At a time when the team has had a few frustrating performances of late, it only heightened the general vexation.
But much like the aforementioned overly-commercialised “holiday”, things are being dressed up to look much uglier than they actually are. There’s no denying things could be better in both aspects, but they’re not as bad as being portrayed. Let me break down why I believe that to be the case.
Firstly, off the field. The figures don’t make for great reading, but after the way things worked out with Caixinha, we knew we were in for a loss. This season we’ve made more in outgoing transfers, and far more in terms of season ticket sales and European income. We’ll be much healthier this time next year. The board deserve great credit for helping us through the recent years, and I’ve no doubt they’ll continue to do so.
In many ways, that segues into the on-field performances. Regardless of a better position next season, the figures still show us that European income isn’t a bonus, but a necessity. We can’t come close to competing without it. When we talk about our season so far and say “if it wasn’t for Europe” to start an argument, just remember that it’s far more important than some bolt-on these days.
There was no doubt that the result against Kilmarnock was disappointing. Following up from the poor display in the semi-final made it feel even worse. I do disagree with those who say it was a poor performance though, and that includes the manager. It wasn’t our best, and it may not even have been good, but it wasn’t poor. Before last night, Kilmarnock had faced 81 shots against them in 10 matches. Their record was second best in the league in that regard. We had 19 shots at goal, missed two absolute sitters, hit the bar, and forced a couple of good saves. I’m aware it’s all academic due to the result, but it’s the reason why I feel the performance wasn’t in the same bracket as the Aberdeen match. At the moment, Kilmarnock are a very well organised team who have a great record in these matches.
But where I think many are really going wrong is in their belief that we’ve been found out or that our season is going to look this way from now on. After each result you could describe as a setback, we’ve done well. That sequence was broken last night, but that doesn’t mean we can’t do that again. After the draw with Aberdeen, we beat Maribor at Ibrox. The draw with Motherwell was followed by the 9-man heroics in Russia against Ufa. Defeat to Celtic saw us comfortably beat Dundee and St Johnstone, with the draw in Villarreal sandwiched in-between. And the Livingston defeat led to two of our better performances this season against Rapid Vienna and Hearts. I don’t disagree that things could have been better, but I do feel the suggestion that this team can’t bounce back without some major changes isn’t entirely fair. There’s evidence to suggest they can.
We lack consistency on the pitch, there’s no doubt about that. It’s probably the youngest average aged squad we’ve had in a long time, with a manager also learning his trade. Maybe that’s to be expected. I also believe the performances of other teams in the league and the fact we’re still competitive in terms of points behind Celtic (4, the amount we were behind when we lost in September to them) tells us that the league is more difficult this season in general.
And that’s where comparisons to last season fall down. The likes of Kilmarnock, Hearts and Hibs weren’t as strong this time last year. Even the sides who have regressed in that time, like Aberdeen and Motherwell, are still capable on any given day. On paper, we should still have more points than we do. The reality of football is rarely that simple. If Rangers win against St Mirren on Saturday, we’ll have made the same start in 11 matches as Dick Advocaat made in his first season in the league. Again, in both cases, context is key. We’ll never reach those heights, but neither does it mean we’re on the wrong path.
It’s easy for fans to dismiss things that managers, ex-players and pundits say. Too often it’s sanitised and repetitive. One thing many managers have stated is their belief that it’s difficult to iron out issues in a team through games alone. When they have a run of matches with no real time on the training ground, it’s harder to sort out what’s going wrong. Since the Hamilton match, we’ll have been lucky to have 2 normal training sessions with the full squad. Add that to the fact we’re a relatively inexperienced squad, not only in age but in how long the players have been together as a team, and we have a management team learning how to deal with things at this level, and maybe that explains why we’re not seeing huge differences between matches this past 10 days.
Sometimes, debates around something that invokes as much emotion as our football team descend into extremes. By saying “it’s not all bad”, some will feel I’m saying it’s good. That’s not the purpose of this. My point is ultimately that things are still moving in the right direction, even if we’re not performing at our very best right now. Runs of poor form happen to every team and should be even more expected of a team in our situation. Gerrard seems to be getting extra criticism because of the mistakes of previous managers. Any hint of anything that resembles a Warburton or Caixinha team is jumped upon when it’s not applicable to how things are right now. We’re a better team than we were then, and we’re certainly a more promising one.
Maybe I’m wrong and what we’re seeing is the start of a real dip, or an indication of where we really are. Time will tell on that one. I don’t believe that to be the case right now, and I think it’s a feeling perpetuated by past seasons rather than this one alone.
I’m not saying don’t be frustrated by the last two matches. The team certainly let themselves down against Aberdeen. It’s more a reminder that we don’t need to be driven by current negative feelings and annoyances when it comes to deciding how we think things can improve. We’re still competitive in the league and we’ve exceeded expectations in Europe. It’s not as scary as some will try to tell us.