Watching the first half display against Sunderland, I was more than a little frustrated.
Lack of control, overplay, confusion and panic all seemed to overcome our players in that first half. Feelings of here we go again, coupled with ongoing doubts regarding the ability of the players on show in black and white and their motivation to drag us out of the mire we are in. Left me doubting their ability to rescue our premier league status from the mouth of the Championship trapdoor.
As the half-time whistle blew, I could sense the crowd’s feelings of gloom descend around St James Park. There was a distinct air of acceptance to the fate of relegation but as always at half-time, I made my way inside to meet with my brother-in-law and young nephews.
Having had a moment to reflect upon what we had just witness and after munching on a few Cola Bottles our conversation was based largely on “time for Rafa to earn his money” and “if we lose this that’s probably us down”. However, the old adage ‘it’s a game of 2 halves’ also made an appearance and I felt all that was needed, was a calmer less frantic approach and I was sure we’d get a result.
As it panned out, we did indeed get a result and I was more than happy with the second half performance and eventual draw for a number of reasons.
Firstly, we’d stopped the rot in terms of losing games against our bitterest rivals, which can only be a good thing moving forward. That fear factor and intensity of needing to break the six in a row cycle now finally removed.
Secondly, Rafa Benitez did get a reaction out of those players and the motivation, effort and desire so often lacking in our players this season, was there for all to see. I also witnessed slight changes in our approach during the whole 90 minutes that indicated a different playing style, ‘an actual playing style’ we’d been without this season.
For me there was a clear intent to get the ball wide and deliver crosses at the earliest opportunity. Players had clearly been instructed to shoot and not be afraid to have a go. There was a directness in some of our players, for example Townsend and Wijnaldum regularly picked the ball up and ran at the opposition. A definite change as instructed by the new gaffer.
Norwich, Crystal Palace, who are not out of the relegation battle yet, and Sunderland have all had their managers for most of the season, if not all. Can they really get any better, can they improve enough with the players they have and a manager who basically got them where they are?
Can we improve? Absolutely!
Rafa seems to have his feet firmly under the table, he’s a winner and will ensure each player knows their job to the letter before they cross that white line. He will give them structure, a purpose and an understanding of what is required and having watched us all season, this will be refreshing to see.
Then it is obviously down to the players.
Many fans feel the players don’t care, and not without justification, based on some of their performances this season but, under Rafa, I think the improvement in attitude will be massive and just what we need.
Thirdly, the nature of the equaliser and its timing left not only the fans, but also the players, with a far greater sense of enthusiasm and positivity towards our chances of survival. Far greater than that of a defeat for sure, the added bonus being that of our nearest rivals in the relegation battle who looked decidedly downbeat at the final whistle and who for the third game running will see it as points dropped.
There are undoubtedly many fans who still think relegation the most likely outcome this season but for me, with eight games left, I see survival as equally plausible, if not more so.
The two week break gives a manager with undoubted tactical nous the opportunity to drill his short-term plans home to the players. Players who seem, at least so far, to be willing to listen, to try and believe in what the manager is trying to implement.
The premier league this season has been the strangest yet in terms of results and quite literally anyone can beat anyone. So why not us?
Yes we have some tough fixtures left like those at places where we are renowned for failure, such as Anfield and St Mary’s, but, just like our most recent derby record, things don’t last forever and given the nature of results this season there is no reason to believe we can’t get a result in any fixture that is remaining.
That additional confidence and enthusiasm gained from the derby comeback, the impact of the new manager, a top top manager at that. Then both players and fans with a greater sense of belief in that the club may actually have got it right with this appointment…and could actually be going places given a little time and luck, can collectively ensure we get the results needed.
Too little too late? Maybe not.
Maybe, just maybe, the right man, in the right place at exactly the right time!