Away with your complaints! Football supporters are simply not allowed to offer any opinions on team selection or tactics – because what do we know? The paid professionals have vast experience in football, watch players closely in training every day and possess massive tactical intellect which we could only dream of having.
But just occasionally we might think we know better. We’re going back to the opening day of the season in August 2004 for this tale about selection disasters.
American science fiction series Lost premiered in September 2004, but it was Graeme Souness who had completely lost the plot at the start of his fifth season in charge. Things had already started to go badly wrong in Season 4, but the opening match of 2004/05 at home to newly-promoted West Brom provided one of the most baffling team selections ever put forward by a Rovers manager.
The first match of the season should inspire confidence. It’s a clean slate, everyone’s fit, there’s a host of fresh signings eager to make an impact and the manager has had all pre-season to work on things in non-competitive matches. The starting eleven will surely be announced with the best players in their strongest positions lined up in a solid cohesive formation. Right? Wrong.
Even with knowledge of the eleven names who began the match, arranging them into any sort of logical formation proves impossible – but there’s a reasonable attempt here.
The spine of the side probably picked itself for Souness. Craig Short and Lorenzo Amoruso were the senior centre-backs at the time, Barry Ferguson returned as the team’s new captain and the previous season’s saviour Jon Stead led the attack.
However, despite regular right-back Lucas Neill being unavailable, Souness strangely seemed thankful for having stocked his ranks with left footers. Mickey Gray was the automatic choice at full back after a decent end to the previous season. New signing Dominic Matteo, principally a left-sided defender, was used in midfield while the increasingly erratic Vratislav Gresko was shunted into the most random “Left Defensive Midfielder” position.
He then chucked in another lefty in debutant Javier de Pedro – leaving poor Brett Emerton praying that no attacks would be coming down the right. On reflection it’s surprising that substitute Nils-Eric Johansson wasn’t also fitted into the starting line-up. The lack of balance apparently caused subsidence in the Riverside Stand, but at least the threat from £1.25 million signing Jonathan Greening would be quadruply nullified.
Could you predict that a left-sided West Brom player would nick a goal? Well, yeah. Neil Clement scored and the Baggies led 1–0 at half-time.
Souness realised the horrors everyone else had sensed at 2:59pm. Gresko and De Pedro were hooked at the interval. But even after the introduction of the two substitutes – Tugay and Paul Dickov – you were left wondering what the hell the formation was supposed to be now and who was playing where exactly.
Rovers somehow managed to scrape an equaliser – ironically with a cross from the left wing by a right-footed player. Jon Stead brilliantly swung the ball in and Short rose highest to head home. An anticlimactic 1–1 was the final score and a social media meltdown would surely have occurred if there’d been such an outlet back in 2004.
“Much has been made of systems and selections, what is your take on it?” Souness was later asked. “Too much has been made of it, don’t you mean!” he replied. “You can talk all day about systems and patterns, but ultimately it comes down to what the players do individually and collectively in terms of skill and commitment.”
After three impeccable seasons and a dubious 2003/04, this was a sure sign that Souness had now lost his touch – which made his surprise departure to Newcastle in September all the more bearable. Of course, Souness would vehemently argue that his revolutionary tactical nous was going to be missed at Rovers. Because what do we know?
Rovers: Friedel, Emerton (Gallagher 84), Amoruso, Short, Gresko (Dickov 45), De Pedro (Tugay 45), Ferguson, Matteo, Gray, Yorke, Stead. Subs Not Used: Enckelman, Johansson.
West Brom: Hoult, Haas, Gaardsoe, Purse, Robinson, Greening, Scimeca, Johnson (Gera 87), Clement (Moore 75), Kanu, Horsfield (Dobie 76). Subs Not Used: Kuszczak, O'Connor.
This article was originally published in Issue 97 of 4,000 Holes. Please support the continued existence of the fanzine by considering a subscription or buying the occasional copy via this link.