Fixture release day is always a big day. These days we’re not looking for derby matches or whether we’ve got Manchester United on Boxing Day but the day is still important. It gives us some facts about the new season and highlights that, with two weeks to go, we’ve still got a list of questions that desperately need answering.
The first thing to realise is how soon the season starts. As I write we are 15 days from the first competitive fixture and the club and fans seem to be almost oblivious to what lies ahead.
The fact we are about to have our first pre-season game (against a local non-league team) is extremely worrying, especially when you think six months have passed since anyone played a competitive game. Other clubs have been playing pre-season games against league opposition while we’ve been playing skins v bibs at the Academy, it’s simply not how title challengers prepare. I should say that I don’t know if it really was skins v bibs but we know it wasn’t home kit against away kit because, as far as we can tell, we haven’t got an away kit yet.
The fact we also don’t have a Chairman or an Academy Director is also alarming but, hey, as far as I can see the last ones we had didn’t do a great deal over two years so, perhaps we’ll not miss them over the next few weeks.
The fixtures, when they do come, come thick and fast with cup games mixed in with league games from the first week. That is the sort of fixture list that requires a decent sized squad, certainly more than one goalkeeper, three central defenders and three strikers. Parkinson’s desire to sign 4 or 5 more players was widely published (after the O’Brien and Wright signings) and yet none are over the line. In itself, that’s not great but, this season, it’s a bigger problem than in previous years. We are, inevitably, going to be looking at signing out-of-contract players (that’s how it works at this level no matter how much money owners have). Any player who is out of contract is either not training with a club or, at best, on the periphery of a club. They will arrive lacking sharpness and match fitness. Managers always talk about it taking a month or so to get up to speed and today’s fixtures show that, realistically, any players we sign now might not be fully fit for games against Hull, Charlton, Peterborough and Oxford, games which will almost certainly have an impact on our season as a whole.
So, what is preventing the club from making those signings? The salary cap legal case is an irritant unquestionably with players and clubs unsure what to accept or offer but I’d suggest the ownership merry-go-round presents a far bigger problem for the club.
As usual with North East football, nothing is done simply. We have non-disclosure agreements which allow for almost full disclosure, people claiming to be prospective owners running County Durham tourist trail campaigns, rumours that simply don’t make sense if you give them more than a second thought and combinations of investors being announced on forums and social media channels that sound like they’ve been brought together in a Cluedo game, I’ve heard it’s definitely Michael Gray and a Russian oligarch with a fictitious energy drink in the Roker Hotel…
It’s time to stop falling for the myths that are being leaked to fan groups and media channels and demand progress over the next two weeks.
The only beneficiaries of all the rumours and counter rumours of signings, investors or takeovers are the current owners and management. If the fans are busy with rumours, they’re not looking at facts and the pressure to deliver is reduced. Well, today brings some facts into stark focus. We’ve got two weeks until we play Hull in a competitive fixture.
A team recently fairly comfortable in the premier league with an infrastructure designed for higher levels who have been damaged on the pitch by owners focussed on their own pockets, who want to sell but are demanding far more than the club is worth, will visit the Stadium of Light.
Any potential investor will have looked at the fixtures with interest. They’ll have been frustrated that potentially higher attendance home games fall early in the season where crowds are likely to be heavily restricted. Hull visit on Boxing Day in a league fixture which, in normal times, would see crowd figures bigger than Accrington’s annual attendance figure. But what crowd will be allowed by the end of December? The ability to make predictions of income allows investors to plan expected cash flows with greater certainty and replace guesses with facts. The fixtures will have helped that process a little but there are still too many unknowns. Hopefully the other announcement today relating to fans, bubbles and crowd capacities will bring greater certainty and some good news.
The fixtures give us a definite date, a date where we need to know where we are and where we’re going – for that to happen we need to know about new players, pre-season games, board appointments, plans for the future, progress on sales or investment.
In the same way we ignore any signing until there’s a scarf picture, the opposite is true of owners – we should ignore all shirt wearing social media pictures until there is a formal press release. We need answers not rumours, certainty not suggestions and, with two weeks to go, we need them now.