In a situation we haven’t encountered in years, we’ve had to omit players from our squad after a cracking January transfer window.
After years of struggling with squad depth, we’re finally starting to build strength in areas we’re lacking, and it’s a welcome problem to have.
We knew Ciaran Clark was getting the axe before the squad was announced, and it’s a bold move. But a good one. Sections of the fanbase seem split on Clark. Some never want to see him in the squad again and think he’s an idiot. Some want to recognise that he’s been a good servant to the club.
I’m somewhere in the middle, but I’m probably leaning towards the former – but taking it with a pinch of salt. As a last-ditch defender, he’s at times been unbeatable. I’ve always liked Clark. He’s never been our best defender, but when he’s on form, he’s solid and reliable. It’s just that he’s been on form less and less in the past couple of years.
I do wonder what on earth was going through his head during both of his recent red-card incidents. Norwich was the biggest and most important match of our season and he’s primarily the reason we didn’t win it. Who pulls the last man down ten minutes into a game? As a seasoned professional, he should know better.
The friendly red card doesn’t really matter in the grand scheme of things, but it brings into question Clark’s mentality and his trustworthiness. Punching a player is monumentally stupid, there are no two ways about that. I’m pleased to see him out of the squad, both because his form isn’t great and these incidents mean we’ll constantly be worrying he’ll lose his head again.
Lewis is an interesting one. It’s disappointing, but also understandable. Many of us are questioning why the likes of Krafth and Ritchie are ahead of him. Krafth, for me, has improved under Howe, but he’s still not great. He’s not going to get much game time, so we could argue it’s a wasted space in the squad.
I’m preparing to get pelters for this, but I do agree with keeping Ritchie in the squad. I don’t expect him to play much, but he’s an important presence in and around the team. He boosts everyone when he plays, even if he’s losing his legs a touch, and he can be an impactful sub for that reason.
The real issue with Lewis is that he joined NUFC as a prodigy. He had raw talent and potential, but that needed to be honed by a competent manager. We didn’t have that. At the most critical point in his career, where he needed nurturing from a coach, he came to a club with statistically the worst-performing experienced manager in the league.
I would argue that to be able to progress in the way Lewis needs, he needs game time. And because we’re in such a precarious relegation situation, he won’t get it this season. He’s still raw and right now, we need solid, experienced heads – and that shows in our January recruitment. Even his versatility isn’t enough to see him get a lot of minutes. I think a loan will be good for Lewis, providing he gets regular games.
Now onto my biggest frustration: Isaac Hayden. I was blown away when I saw his Instagram post about not being in the squad (it’s been a busy week and I’d only expected Lewis, Clark and Hendrick to be out). I thought his injury only had him out until the end of this month, but it looks like it could be mid-March when he comes back. But that’s only around two extra weeks.
Although I understand it, it’s been a massive shame to see Hayden lose his place in the starting 11 since Howe came in. He doesn’t work in the more attacking, free-flowing system that Howe has set up – and that’s absolutely the right system to take advantage of our attacking players. I’d argue that Hayden is still a better choice in midfield than Shelvey for many reasons – consistency, attitude, etc. – but that could be a whole piece in itself, and it tends to send Twitter into meltdown.
Hayden might no longer be a regular starter, and he might be out until mid-March. But that still leaves two crucial months where we could really benefit from his level head, his unwavering consistency, his crunching tackles and his ability to shore up the defence while also offering decent distribution.
This relegation scrap is likely to go down to the wire, and we’ll get to a point where we’re relying on our leaders more than ever. Hayden is one of those leaders. Shelvey has improved a lot under Howe, but I don’t see him leading by example when the going gets tough, because he hasn’t before.
Overall, our 25-man squad is absolutely cracking, and it’s refreshing to see strength in depth and the rare dilemma of actually having to omit senior players. Leaving Clark out is the right decision, and I’m leaning towards the same for Lewis because it gives him a springboard to get some proper development under his belt and minutes that he won’t get here this season. I’m hugely unhappy about Hayden, but I’m hoping we’ll see him again next season.
To end the piece on a positive note, I’m excited at the prospect of never seeing Jeff Hendrick in an NUFC shirt again.