“Act as if ye have faith, and faith shall be given to you. To put it another way, fake it till you make it.” – Leo McGarry, The West Wing
As our new manager might well attest, a lot of life is spent believing in things despite a lack of tangible proof. That’s not a dig at the religious, because even as someone who’s broadly an atheist but doesn’t want to be all Ricky Gervais about it, I often find myself having faith in the unlikely and improbable. Just last week, I believed Stoke would win at Griffin Park.
Football throws up concepts that make a mockery of normally logical, level-headed people. The curse of the manager of the month award, lucky garments, the form book going out the window on derby day, and the idea of the new manager bounce. There may of course be statistical data to back up the latter, but my hopes of victory in London weren’t based on any stats. Just the good feeling around Jones’ appointment, and the idea that new managers generally start well.
Of course, Stoke aren’t the best example for conforming to football’s unwritten rules, especially the new manager bounce theory. Rowett, Hughes, Pulis II, Boskamp, Pulis I and Cotterill all failed to win their first games in charge. Paul Lambert did win his first game, and then went thirteen more without a taste of victory, so his was the bounce of a kangaroo being dropped from the top of Blackpool Tower.
What Saturday was a grounding in reality for the Stoke fans buoyed by Jones’ appointment, and for Jones himself. Outplayed, outfought, outclassed, for the second time this season a new Stoke manager has lost 3-1 in their first league game, and been given a 90-minute demonstration of the playing staff’s many weaknesses. As the game wore on, I felt foolish for my own faith, like when Krusty the Clown bets against the Harlem Globetrotters (“I thought the Generals were due!”).
We’re not going to reach the play-offs, and I doubt we’ll come close. For one thing, there’s the defence, which has been the core problem for Stoke since day one, and been left largely unaddressed save for two Everton cast-offs. There’s a whole new system to learn and adapt to, players to get off the wage bill, players to bring back into the fold. Based on Nathan Jones’ desire for players with character, more than one big name could and should be moved on at our earliest possible convenience.
The first half of this season has been spent discovering you can’t put a plaster on a hemorrhage, despite how expensive and shiny the plaster may be. In our new reality, we can’t simply expect to throw money at our problems and expect immediate solutions. I have faith that our new manager won’t tolerate the failure’s we’ve seen under previous managers. That faith though, is at least backed up by the evidence of his record at Luton and what he’s said in interviews.
I want to be the sensible fan. I do think that the end of next season will be the time to judge Jones, rather than the end of this one. I also know I’m just as reactionary as some of the other fans I like to moan about. It’s why I thought we’d beat Brentford despite months and years of evidence that said we simply weren’t good enough.
This is going to get worse before it gets better. If we can reach the end of the season having muddled along, occassionally playing some good football with signs Jones has not only changed us tactically, but culturally, I’d consider that a decent launching pad for next season. I have to have faith in Nathan Jones, because there’s been so little else for Stoke fans to have faith in lately.
An upside of Brentford may be the starkness of the reality check. Fans are no longer demanding promotion this season, and fans have found out that miracles don’t just arrive in the form of Welshmen from Luton. For the time being at least, we just want some fun, and to believe in the unbelievable.