Although Valencia are mounting a determined pursuit of them at the top of the La Liga table and are only four points adrift, Barcelona’s ten point advantage over the Madrid clubs even at this early stage of the season is beginning to look insurmountable and Real and Athletico must be reaching the point where they are wishing that their Catalan rivals really did have to go to Stoke on a wet and/or cold Tuesday or Wednesday evening.
For me, Andy Gray’s ludicrous evaluation of how good the all conquering Barcelona side of six or seven years ago were scuppered much of his credibility before his career hit the skids over allegations of sexism. However, it cannot be denied that a version of Gray’s Stoke scenario had existed in domestic football for decades before he hijacked it to, presumably, try to make a point about the alleged strength in depth of the Premier League compared to La Liga.
It’s impossible to say for certain now, but I’d guess that I first heard or read about the midweek away confrontation played in poor weather at some distant outpost in the eighties. Back in those days, the venue for this sort of showdown, which was meant to separate the wheat from the chaff when it came to trophy winning/promotion credibility, always seemed to be Grimsby, but the passing of time has seen it extended to various “unfashionable” sides in whatever league your team happens to be in at any given time.
I daresay Gray picked Stoke as Barcelona’s Nemesis at that time for a couple of reasons. First, the design of the Britannia Stadium, with its gaps between its stands seems to ensure that it is always windy during matches played there. More relevantly though, the way Stoke played the game then would have represented a real culture shock for a team like Barcelona – it would have presented them with a challenge which they had probably never faced before.
The Stoke of Mark Hughes is a different animal from the Stoke of Tony Pulis and you are no longer likely to face the sort of examination by long throw and long ball that you did during the Rory Delap days, but, even so, the Potteries club is still as good a destination as any to apply the “a wet/cold Tuesday/Wednesday night in ………….” criteria to if you’re talking about the Premier League – are people only starting to talk about Man City emulating Arsenal’s 2003/04 “invincibles” this season because they know that their trip to Stoke in March is scheduled for a Saturday I wonder?
I suppose supporters of sides in, say, the north east might use Cardiff as the venue for their ordeal by inferiors in the rain or cold, but, for some reason, we don’t seem to be the sort of side that gets singled out for this sort of, frankly, demeaning treatment.
If you look at it league by league, Grimsby still seems as good as anywhere to pick in League Two (I see Russell Slade’s side ended the long run without a goal with a 3-2 win over promotion chasing Swindon last night in exactly the sort of game which would attract the type of attention I’ve been talking about), while in League One, a side like Rochdale or, until this season anyway, Shrewsbury would be candidates.
When it comes to the Championship, then City’s opponents last night, Barnsley, are prime contenders for the nomination. As I mentioned before, I feel it is insulting and patronising to single out individual clubs in this manner, but most cliches only exist because they do have an element of truth to them and I cannot deny that, to an extent, this one does as well.
I say this because in any league campaign there are always going to be some games where it is easier to get a team “up” for than it is for others and, conversely, there has to be some where it would be so easy for a team to get into trouble because their attitude going into it wasn’t quite right.
For example, a midweek game played a long way away from home in inhospitable conditions in front of a lower crowd than you are used to playing in front of against opponents below you in the table, would present the sort of challenges that could see an unwary visiting side come unstuck – that set of circumstances faced third in the table City last night, but the same scenario could have been applied to a half a dozen or more teams in our league, not just Barnsley.
Bearing all of the above in mind, the fact that, far from coming a cropper, City were able to leave Oakwell with a 1-0 win says a lot about the mentality of our current group of players. Notwithstanding the cold Tuesday night in Barnsley line, the Yorkshire side are so easy to underestimate because they have one of the smallest budgets in the division and had the guts ripped out of what was a very impressive side this time last year by the wholesale departure of almost all of their best players from last season.
At various times since he took over here, Neil Warnock has singled out Gary Monk at Leeds and Nigel Clough at Burton for special praise and candidates for a Championship Manager of the season award, but I’d say it’s hard to look beyond Barnsley’s Paul Heckingbottom if you are talking about the best managers over the past two years.
Heckingbottom took over at Barnsley when they were at, or very close to, the bottom of League One and then got them promoted, before becoming Championship Play Off candidates last season until the January transfer window took its effect. There were other important departures during the summer as Heckingbottom brought in fifteen new players for this season – I’d say that given the circumstances under which he has to do his job, getting Barnsley six points above the drop zone at the moment with a game in hand on most others in the Championship is some achievement.
City have a good recent record at Oakwell and I make it that this was our sixth win at the ground since Barnsley returned to the Championship in 2006, but the fact that two of them have been by 1-0 and the other four by 2-1 rather tells the tale that they always tend to be tight, competitive encounters when the two teams meet in Yorkshire.
Neil Warnock used the midweek away game line in his post match interview, but, rather than single out Barnsley, he talked about Yorkshire as a whole and spoke about how such matches often came down to things like grit and spirit. On Radio Wales, Kevin Ratcliffe talked about how it was a game that was never going to be decided by pretty football, but by who came out on top in individual battles all over the pitch and, in a way, the late goal which decided the match summed up what the ex Wales captain was talking about.
The goal came from a corner and, before I go on, I’d just like to put a theory of mine out there for consideration – it seems to me that we are bypassing our best attacking header of a ball, Sean Morrison, at many of attacking set pieces these days, perhaps because of the way he is constantly balked by opponents. As is often the case now, the corner, taken by Junior Hoilett, was aimed towards Sol Bamba beyond the far post who nudged the ball goalwards. Any danger seemed to have passed when a defender shaped to clear, but Callum Paterson showed determination and anticipation as he came in with a block tackle and the ball diverted off him into the roof of the net.
A scruffy goal to decide a scruffy game then. Heckingbottom called it “garbage”, but added that he only said that because his side had lost, he also talked of Cardiff gamesmanship without going into any more detail and spoke of the sort of challenge City presented to other sides in this league.
In lots of ways, last night’s match reminded me of our November win at Barnsley in our Championship winning season when we scored twice from corners in one of those 2-1 victories. That match was the first away game we won after what I’ll always believe was a change of approach following our 5-4 loss at Charlton which brought to a head a situation whereby we were conceding too many away goals and losing too many away games to be realistic title challengers.
I’m convinced the word went out to tighten things up away from home after Charlton and, from then on, there were far more wins on the road, but they tended to be by single goal margins with many of them coming from free kicks, corners and throw ins.
With our rampant early season home form being replaced by low scoring draws, the odd defeat and by mostly hard fought and tight wins, it’s easy to see why the 12/13 Champions are now criticised as being boring by some, but I maintain that without that change of approach in November 2012 we might well have ended up like so many of Dave Jones’ sides – entertaining and highly watchable on their day, but too flakey and inconsistent to deliver the promotion to the top flight that supporters had waited so long for.
This all comes back to the theme I explored in my piece on Saturday’s game with Brentford when I spoke of there being more than one way to skin a cat. Although the match stats show both sides having nine goal attempts and us having a four one advantage when it came to efforts on target, Sky’s, very brief, highlights package is completely dominated by Barnsley attacks with the only action shown which didn’t happen in our half of the pitch being our goal.
Even if those highlights don’t represent a fair breakdown of how the game panned out, there is nothing to suggest that it came anywhere remotely close to emulating the 4-3 win by Barnsley at Cardiff City Stadium just before Christmas last year in terms of goalmouth action – as Heckingbottom said, it was much more like the typical end of season 0-0 between the sides in the return fixture in April.
With Paterson replacing Liam Feeney and Aron Gunnarsson coming in for Loic Damour, City’s side had a more defensive look to it than Saturday’s did even if the Scot was used as a wide midfielder/winger in what was something like a 4-2-3-1 with Craig Bryson being the most advanced of the central midfielders.
Warnock admitted that he did not enjoy a first half which saw Barnsley make most of the running as City found themselves pushed back without looking in too much danger of conceding a goal.
Although we pushed on a bit more after the break, the messageboards were beginning to show posts where the sender was getting impatient with what was being seen as a cautious approach by our manager. There have been times in the past when I would have joined in such criticism, but last night I was more patient because this manager has a habit of getting the right result in the end.
It’s worth noting that our three 1-0 away wins this season have all come courtesy of goals scored in the last ten minutes of the game – Kenneth Zohore’s goal at Burton came in the eighty seventh minute, while Joe Ralls’ penalty at Middlesbrough was scored, like last night’s, in the eighty third minute.
We now have thirty seven points from eighteen matches and it’s conceivable that the same total from our final twenty eight games could see us in the Play Offs – we’d be very unlucky to miss out on a top six place if we average a point and a half a game from here.
All of this only goes to show that automatic promotion can be achieved with slightly improved results than we managed from this stage onwards last season – we took forty four points from our last twenty eight games last season and if we could get six more than that from here, eighty seven points is usually enough to get you a top two finish.
As I mentioned in my Brentford piece, do we need to be playing what many of us perceive to be top two quality football every week to go up automatically? Do we need to be playing “top six quality football” all of the time to make the Play Offs?
Indeed, couldn’t it be said that we are definitely playing top six football (especially by the standards of the ever so competitive Championship) already? Or to go further still, aren’t we doing precisely what a top two finisher would hope to be doing at this stage of the season?
Shouldn’t the example of 2012/13 show that, for now at least, 17/18 is following the only precedent we have of a Cardiff side winning promotion from this division in the past half a century and more?
To broaden things out, how many teams have got out of this league playing expansive, attacking football home and away in recent years? Bournemouth spring to mind, maybe Huddersfield, but I’m struggling to think of anyone else since we went up – it’s also worth asking yourself what has usually been the fate of the team reckoned to be the “best footballing side in the Championship” every year?
Anyway, with Sheffield United losing an incredible game 5-4 at home to Fulham and Preston ending their winless run stretching back two months at Ashton Gate, it was a good night for us. It’ll be possible to enjoy tonight’s matches where Ipswich look to keep their unlikely Play Off challenge going at home to Sheffield Wednesday, Middlesbrough try to get back on the winning trail when they entertain Birmingham and two of the titans of European football (in the minds of their supporters at least) clash head on at Molineux when leaders Wolves tackle Leeds,