This weekend’s meeting with Middlesbrough is the final friendly of this pre-season. After the final whistle blows, there are eight days until we travel to Hillsborough; a time for motivation, tweaking and refinement.
It’s been a good pre-season so far. Unbeaten in six with a good win in France under the players belts, thoughts of an instant return to the top flight need to be tempered by the standard of opposition faced. Cambridge, Bristol Rovers, Telford, Graz and Worcester; all teams picked to breed confidence in the players and understandings. Bed in the new, weed out those who don’t have the commitment the cause requires.
Tomorrow is different. Middlesbrough are a Premier League team. Nothing unusual in that phrase but Aston Villa as a Championship team? That, despite the inevitability following last season’s performances, still sticks in the throat.
Despite it being a friendly, there is a lot we, as supporters and the players, can learn from the performance. We need to be almost at match sharpness, if not there already. ‘Boro are unbeaten since March and would have been crowned champions had they not drawn their last four games. Their performance will give us an indicator of where we stand compared to one of last season’s top sides in the division.
It isn’t definitive by any stretch of the imagination. Their pre-season has been mixed. Beating English lower league sides, struggling in Spain on their tour before beating the Saudi champions. Aitor Karanka’s men haven’t really been extended and with Real Sociedad and Udinese to come, they may argue that their toughest tests are yet to come.
We don’t have that luxury. Sheffield Wednesday at Hillsborough is as tough a start as we could have wished for. And we need to go into the match brimming with confidence, not the lethargic mess we became as 2015/16 progressed. The danger in tomorrow is that a mauling from Middlesbrough would leave our confidence in shreds. As much as it is bred by winning, it is a brittle trait in footballers.
If there seems to be a sense of foreboding in the tone of this piece, it’s a protection mechanism. It isn’t just players who bear the scars of last season; the helplessness of the football supporter is, in my view, more desperate than anything those on the pitch suffer. The XI can at least try to change things, we simply cajole, support, scream and shout before slumping quiet resignation.
The pre-season is our Star Wars moment: A New Hope. Every year, we hope for something better; invariably, we’ve got something worse in recent seasons. It’s why tomorrow’s match has a flicker of extra importance; it’s something for us to hang our hat on. A home fixture as well, meaning we aren’t relying on media interpretation of events; we can see the truth.
And that is the most important thing we will learn about tomorrow: hope.
It’s all about hope for supporters. If we don’t have that now, what else do we have?