The approved minutes from Monday's Fans Forum have been published by the club. It's always hard to take a lot away of these published minutes as they don't have inflection or even sometimes enough context, but take-aways are there to be had even still. It doesn't take very long to note a not so subtle change in this Fans Forum as one scans down the list of club representatives. The usual club suspects were joined on this occasion by Steve McClaren who now has a higher attendance tally than his predecessor, who wouldn't be caught dead cavorting with the very fans that caused his team to repeatedly drop points.*
*may or may not be the actual reason
The bulk of the minutes are questions and answers with McClaren which makes sense. The club and McClaren himself are facing the initial task of proving to fans that things are changing – and attempting to do so when all appearances seem to point to things being the same as they ever were – so this was an easy start. There is always going to be an amount of coach-speak or PR-speak to dig through any time anyone affiliated with any club says anything that will be consumed by the general public. It's a skill that has been carefully cultivated by coaches over an amount of time... say nothing but wrap it up in a pretty box. Reveal just enough. McClaren's comments are not a departure from this idea, but some of his comments may give us an idea of where we are headed as a club and how we will get there.
We've needed to get things in place. It's taken a while to get my staff in place because they've been here, there and everywhere. We didn't want to rush that because the people around you are important. It's important to get the right people.
This is one of those things that we're not supposed to think about and there is absolutely no reason to think we'll ever have answers, so it's pointless to talk about. It should be noted, however, that the month that it took to get names that were rumored to be "targets" almost from the word go is disconcerting. Sure the guys may have been "here, there and everywhere," but in this modern age of cellular telephones and electronic mail, the distance excuse is exactly that. It belies a possibility that things haven't changed as much as we might hope they have.
We've stressed from day one the kind of discipline we expect from players, as well as the discipline that they expect from us. We ask them to be professional; to do the right thing every day. Everybody knows what's right and what's wrong and we ask them to come in and do the right thing, to be professional.
This isn't exactly an indictment of the previous regime, but anyone who has watched this club deteriorate over the past two seasons can tell that there was a waning professionalism on the training pitch. Assuming that Alan Pardew and then John Carver had no tactical nous is fun and convenient and it is clear that whatever Pardew or Carver tried to install didn't match up to the strengths of the players at their disposal. Ultimately, there was a deeper malaise in the squad that has led to worst form in the football league over the last halves of the last two seasons. Every coach is going to come in and say "we've asked them to do the job professionally." McClaren's ultimate success is going to be directly related to his ability to translate this coach-speak onto the training ground.
I've been asking why is it that fans - who are the most important people - are questioning some of the players' attitudes, ability, talent and things like that. It's asking the players that question - why. They get to answer that. We believe with a change of culture and approach, we can change them. Will we change them enough so that they'll improve and come with us to get back in your good books? That's down to them entirely.
This is where the rubber starts to hit the road in McClaren's comments. He starts out with the acknowledgement that fans have questioned the attitudes of some players and some of the talent level. With some players, the former gives birth to the latter for sure, but the important part of this last quote is this sentence: "We believe with a change of culture and approach, we can change them." Perhaps the worst byproduct of the Pardew era was the ultimate lack of accountability to form and attitude. McClaren's acknowledgement that they must "change" players is encouraging. We can figure out pretty easily who some of these players are.
We want to give the leaders, the senior players more respect and more authority within the group. That helps young players.
One of the most famous stands that Mike Ashley made with regard to the playing staff was when he shipped off Kevin Nolan, Joey Barton and sent Chris Hughton packing for allowing too much player influence in the dressing room (among other reasons with regard to Mr. Barton). The result is that the pendulum swung to the exact opposite position. Led by Fabricio Coloccini's passive leadership style, the void of player leadership was striking. Does the pendulum need to go all the way back to where it was in the Hughton days? Likely not. It is undeniable, however, that the "no player power" model is an abject failure. There is a middle ground and it will be incumbent upon McClaren to find it.
I'm excited because of the plan I've seen. We don't just go short term with this transfer window, we look at the next window and the next one. We have a great opportunity in the next three windows if we get the recruitment right. I can understand if there is negativity but if I was a supporter and I knew what I know in such detail, I'd be very excited about the future.
This is perhaps the most important quotes from McClaren at the Fans Forum. If you're looking at a long-term prognosis, it is pretty clear that the club are keying up for the 2016-17 season... at least by way of stated intent. Coaches' words are cheap as we know. Pardew would sit there window after window and promise 3, 4, or even 5 players through the door and end up with half the number or worse. There is an old business philosophy that goes something like "Under-promise then over-deliver". Pardew never could figure that one out, but at the very least it looks like that is what McClaren is setting up. This doesn't mean that we are in for yet another white-knuckle ending to the Premier League season, but if we are again in that position, it looks like we as a club are looking past the 2015-16 season. If we accidentally get ahead of schedule, it will be cake and we'll get carried away. As it looks, we should know exactly where the re-focused priorities of the club lie by somewhere around this time next year.
Trying to dig meaning out of statements meant to keep the public from knowing exactly what is going on is difficult and could ultimately prove to be a fruitless exercise. It's all going to prove out on the pitch one way or the other. As McClaren stated at the Forum, "Talk is cheap. We have to make it happen."