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A really tough season - 12/05/2003

I Don't need to tell the supporters how disappointing the past season has been. They will be feeling it more than anybody. It was mentally and physically tough. So much happened at the club and some of it did have an effect on the players. But we still should have been good enough to finish higher up the table.

We must now go away and return fully-focused on doing better next season but Division One will not be any easier, and may well be more difficult. West Bromwich Albion and Sunderland have been relegated from the Premiership and will be joined by West Ham United. I think West Brom will be well-equipped to bounce back. They do not appear to have over-stretched themselves financially by being in the top flight and will be determined to enjoy a better season. According to reports, Sunderland may have to sell players to ease financial problems and then rebuild under Mick McCarthy. They may be in a similar position to when we dropped out of the Premiership but the Stadium of Light is a tough place to go and I expect that to be the case next season. West Ham may also have to sell if they come down but will have plenty of talent around the club.

There will also be three of the four play-off clubs who do not make it - Wolverhampton Wanderers, Sheffield United, Nottingham Forest or Reading. Ipswich Town and Norwich City look certain to be in the shake-up. We saw how good Ipswich are when they beat us in the final game of the season at Pride Park last Sunday. People in the game will tell you that Division One is the hardest to get out of. It's because the rewards are so high. There is so much to play and fight for. Our inconsistency never allowed us to get into a position where we could make a real push for the play-offs. We thought the wins against Stoke City and Rotherham United at the end of January and beginning of February might kick-start our season. But then we went nine games without a win, taking only two points from a possible 27. We were up there at the start of the campaign but once the division sorted itself out, we were always on the fringes. Sadly, there were more lows than highs. The defeat by Burnley at home was a low as was the 3-0 loss at Forest. The away game at Sheffield United was also very tough given that the manager had been suspended the day before. And then there was the FA Cup defeat at Brentford. Those memories will hopefully drive us on to better things next season.

So Manchester United pipped Arsenal for the Premiership title. I have been tipping Arsenal all season but United deserve great praise for putting together a fantastic run. Once they get into their stride, they keep churning out results and it puts pressure on other teams. It certainly did that to Arsenal. Arsene Wenger's team played the better football this season and have tremendous talent and flair. They are a real joy to watch. But it's all about consistency and winning games. United know that. They have been there so many times before and it worked for them again.

Next season? Well, it's impossible to look beyond the same two clubs doing battle again. Newcastle United have taken another step forward this season and I'm sure they will strengthen in the summer and will look to push United and Arsenal even harder. Chelsea and Liverpool will also be in the mix but they all have to finish above the current top two.

Derby Evening Telegraph

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