The most important aspect of the January transfer window is always the impact – immediate or otherwise – that the incoming players have on the squad. It was therefore interesting to hear Neil Warnock in his excellent press conference prior to the Reading game enthusing on the benefits of having characters like Bolasie, Kebano and Fisher coming in and lifting the players around them. It’s very obvious that they have all settled into the squad well, and the performance of both Fisher and Kebano on the field has certainly increased the belief that this could be the start of something very special indeed. It should also be said, though, that having existing players return to availability has had a similarly dramatic effect.
The two superb results against Huddersfield and Reading have certainly helped to restore optimism and enthusiasm around Teesside after an awful run since Christmas, with the league table showing us a mere three points outside the play-off zone. And with home games against currently struggling Bristol City and Warnock’s old club Cardiff to come, things could soon look very different to the way they have in the last few weeks.
The most important aspect of the upcoming fixture list, though, is that we can once again call on the best defensive partnership in the division after Dael Fry’s recovery and the common sense showed in the rescinding of Paddy McNair’s ridiculous sending off against Blackburn making them both available. The two incidents were very much connected as both involved studs, but the difference between them was huge. Fry was left badly injured after getting a boot in his face at head height, but neither immediate nor retrospective retribution was made against the offending player. The McNair challenge, meanwhile, saw him squarely take the ball before the impetus created by the challenge meant he connected with the Huddersfield player. He, though, was immediately sent off. The most disturbing similarity between the two incidents, of course, is that both saw us lose a vitally important player at a crucial time. The magnificent rearguard action in the Huddersfield game meant we still got the three points, but I still firmly believe the Blackburn result could have been so much different and I desperately hope that losing those three points will not prove crucial at the end of the season.
It’s ironic, of course, that the team currently holding that final play-off position has suddenly found itself with our former manager at the helm until the end of the season, with Jonathan Woodgate having been fortunately in the right place at the right time. And while I genuinely hope that he can ultimately make the kind of impact at Bournemouth that Gareth Southgate has achieved with England since being dismissed by ‘Boro, I’d still be quite happy to take Bournemouth’s place in the next few weeks.
With the relatively small squad that Warnock has had to deal with for the first part of the season now well supplemented by both the new arrivals and the return of Grant Hall, Ashley Fletcher and imminently Marcus Tavernier, there is definitely a much more optimistic outlook, though we certainly can’t afford another poor run. It’s great to see the impact that Ashley Fletcher has made in those two games, especially when he has previously not been the crowd’s favourite player. That is surely perfect evidence of the remarkable effect Neil Warnock’s man management has had on not only players but everyone around him. In addition I’m fairly convinced that the media must enjoy his press conferences much more than the stilted, mundane appearances that were typical of many of his predecessors.
Consecutive wins obviously make a big difference to the look of the league table and if we can once again achieve that feat against Bristol City and Cardiff it will go a long way towards a really exciting end to the season. We are once more looking upwards and continuance of that happy situation will be a lot more than anyone could ever have envisaged this time a year ago.