I can’t remember the last time City had a full-blown injury crisis, but as we approach tomorrow’s game against Sunderland, that is exactly what we have.
Sadly, there are indications that the promising season we have experienced is on the brink of collapse through little fault of our own. Okay, maybe we could have gone out of the EFL Trophy earlier, saved a couple of Tuesday nights, but ultimately would it have stopped the injuries from piling up? Probably not. We have experienced a rather imperfect storm, a small but talented squad assembled on a tight budget, asked to play more football than any other squad in my living memory at the highest level we have battled at for just under 40 years. We all hoped it wouldn’t break us, but I think today’s press conference has proven that not to be the case.
Firstly, let’s recap on the situation before this morning’s presser. Joe Walsh, arguably our best centre back, has been out since our 2-2 draw with Accrington and has spent three periods on the sidelines. He isn’t due back anytime soon, and is likely to miss most of, if not all of the season. Harry Anderson is out, he’s only played four times this year after being ruled out through Covid at the turn of 2020. He did come back, briefly, but picked up his first muscle injury and has since been ruled out again. It’s understood he may be a couple of weeks away.
So, that’s a first-team central defender, as well as our longest-serving player and the Player of the Month for November ruled out. It got even worse in the dying stages of our 4-3 defeat at Plymouth as Jorge Grant came off, and as we know that injury is likely to keep him out until well into April. That’s now our leading scorer, most creative influence and vice-captain added to the list. Up until this week, we also had the captain out, Liam Bridcutt, and Adam Jackson has been running close to a stint on the sidelines too.
In the last couple of hours, we have discovered our number nine, Tom Hopper, is now also likely to miss the rest of the season. He started the midweek defeat against Gillingham, the first time this season we have risked two up top (as we have a shortage of natural forwards anyway), and obviously Sod’s Law saw him injured too. That leaves just Callum Morton as a recognised centre forward, although leading scorer Anthon Scully might stake a claim to play there now. He might have too. Hell, I might have to at this rate.
It’s also been revealed that defenders Lewis Montsma and Adam Jackson have not trained in the last 24-hours, and they too are doubts for the trip to in-form Sunderland. That means we have one central defender fit and ready, that being TJ Eyoma who has played all season at right-back. Max Melbourne cannot be recalled from his loan spell, otherwise, he could play.
I know early in his career, Liam Bridcutt played central defence for Sunderland, which is an option should Jackson and Montsma miss out. I think we’ll understand more about the situation this evening when the Under 18s play in the FA Youth Cup. If Sean Roughan starts that game, I imagine Montsma or Jackson are passable. No Roughan tonight, and the situation looks worrying for the first team.
With new signing Max Sanders also out, a player we don’t miss because we have never really had him, it means our squad of 24 (including Roughan and Hayden Cann) could now be a squad of 17. That includes Sam Long, and the two other U18s with professional contracts. We’re down to one natural striker, Callum Morton, who is only a couple of games into his return and Liam Bridcutt who has had 60 minutes. I said earlier in the month that injuries were threatening to derail our season, and no sooner does one come back than another one drops.
What is to blame? I think you have to look at eight Tuesday games in a row as one contributing factor. yes, the small squad could be an issue, but is 22 or 24, depending on how you count the young players, really that small? How does any team have a contingency against losing their leading scorer, their number nine, possibly three central defenders and their longest-serving player, all at the same time? They don’t. I know some will say we should have recruited more in the winter window, but with what? Football teams don’t accept buttons as payment and Michael brought in four players, one who is now injured, who have already collectively appeared 34 times for the club.
I guess some could say we should have a recall clause for Max Melbourne, but I imagine that a deal is structured in such a way they agree to pay wages but need a degree of certainty about him being available to them for the duration of his stay. At the time Max left, we had Edun and Bramall ahead of him at left-back, and Montsma, Jackson and Walsh ahead of him at centre back, with Eyoma an option too. It didn’t look like he’d play, but one or two injuries opens a space he now can’t take. With hindsight, Michael would surely have kept him, but people can’t see into the future. Our last manager got criticised for spending money on players in the winter window who didn’t play, and I can imagine those same critics will now be moaning about Michael not overstretching ‘just in case’.
We are still in the promotion hunt, but the next five games are so tough, and we’re going into them as weakened as at any point this season. There’s no loan market we can turn to, we simply have to keep patching the players up and fighting towards the end of the season. It looks like a really sad end to a campaign of immense promise and excitement, but it is just that, an end to one season, not a cessation of the wider journey. If (and it is still an IF) these injuries do see us lose our grip on a top-six spot, there is still plenty to be excited about going forward.
It isn’t defeatist, but I have made my peace with the fact we might lose our chance this season. A case point: (and I risk incurring the wrath of that rather agitated Sunderland podcaster again), is Sunderland, who have a first-team squad of 29 players, with a further five from the academy with League One experience this season, a total of 34 available players. They were able to spend £300,000 on a striker in the winter window, a striker who has since been injured and only just come back. My point is they were able to carry one fine without him, courtesy of their big squad. If we spent £300,000 on a player, not only would it double our record expenditure (or more than triple the official record outlay), but we’d be utterly bereft of hope if he’d then missed two months. That isn’t me criticising them, but merely pointing out the gulf in resources between the two clubs. In a season so condensed that we’re asking teams to play 180 minutes of football every seven days, as a minimum, which side is likely to finish strongest?
It is really hard to take, we’ve done so well and we’re now stumbling at the final hurdle. I know injuries are not the only issue, three or four players have completely lost their form and at times, we have turned in some below-average performances and wasted some great chances, but if we had a squad of 30 to pick from, I strongly suspect we would have shaken things up and found a way to arrest the slide. Instead, we’re hoping for a miracle over the next few games, for a small group of players fatigued and some out of position to take on big guns in terms of numbers and finances, teams like Sunderland, Charlton, Blackpool and Oxford who have been established at this level far longer than us, and take points.
If we were to find five or six points in there, it would better anything we achieved earlier in the season in my opinion. If we do not, then fear not. yes, it will make me feel physically sick, I’ll be miserable for days and (even more of) a nightmare to live with, but it won’t be the end.
Whatever happens over the next few games, this is still just the beginning.