I can still remember exactly how I felt as I left Ninian Park on Easter Monday, 13 April 2009. For seventy five minutes our top of the table clash with Burnley had been a typically cagey affair and was goalless going into the last fifteen minutes, but then it exploded into life as goals by Jay Bothroyd and a couple by Ross McCormack took us to a 3-1 win in the old ground’s penultimate game.
I felt pride in the team and a real belief that we could go up automatically. The odds were probably still against us because we were four points behind second placed Birmingham, but we did have a game in hand, a none too testing looking run in and a goal difference which was comfortably better than the Midlands team’s – most important, we had real momentum with twenty points from our last ten games.
For Burnley’s part, they dropped to sixth, some four points behind us, with three matches left for them to play with their far worse goal difference – it seemed inconceivable that they would finish above us, let alone Preston down in eighth, who had the same number of matches left as Burnley and another vastly inferior goal difference but were double that number of points behind us.
In the event, I had been watching a promotion side that day, but it was not us – any City fan worth their salt knows that it was Burnley who went up that year via the Play Offs as we found ourselves denied by Preston for sixth position after their 6-0 demolition of us at Deepdale five days later completely changed the momentum I had talked about earlier for both teams.
The nightmare which started at Preston lasted a fortnight until we were put out of our misery with defeat at Sheffield Wednesday on the last day of the campaign, but, truthfully, I’d known for a while that we were fated not to finish in the top six and it seemed that nothing we could say or do could deny what had been ordained.
My brother and his son, who both live in Birmingham, tend to come down to watch one home match a season and that year it was the Burnley fixture. This season’s game for them was last week against QPR and that match seven years ago came up in the conversion when my nephew said it was the best of the fifteen or so City matches he must have seen since I took him to see them draw 1-1 with Oxford United in what is now League One in 2000.
Since then, I have often felt the need to apologise to him and his dad for the dross they’ve had to watch (they were at the Bolton game last season!). I started to do that last week, but my brother rather cut me short by saying he’d enjoyed the second half and that we were very unlucky not to win – his son echoed his sentiments as well.
However, whereas seven years ago, they excitedly joined in with my talk about the likelihood (I really did have a mighty fall to earth that season!) of a top two finish, the assumption as we chatted in the ground at the final whistle last week before they made their way home was that there was little or no chance of us playing Premier League football next season now – I wonder what would have been said if they had made their journey a week later and watched yesterday’s strange 2-1 win over Bolton Wanderers?
In my piece following the 0-0 draw at Turf Moor nearly three weeks ago, I said;-
“if it turns out that we miss out on the top six because we couldn’t beat an already relegated team (Bolton) which is adrift at the bottom of the table at home, then we’ll have no one to blame but ourselves.”
So, in so many words, I was saying a failure to beat the team who had been at the foot of the table virtually all season and who had four points (all from draws) to show from their twenty one away matches before yesterday, would be catastrophic for our Play Off hopes – odd, therefore, that I should feel renewed optimism after we had made painfully hard work of beating a Bolton side which had conceded nineteen goals in losing their last six games on their travels before yesterday.
For a couple of months now, Russell Slade has been saying that we were at the stage where performances didn’t matter, it was all about results from now on. Our manager is/was right of course, but, even so, you would expect those results to be gained with a level of performance which suggested that there was the quality, particularly in attacking terms, within your ranks to get you the win you need if, unusually for the Championship, a match is an open affair between two sides placing more emphasis on scoring goals than keeping things tight defensively.
Watching City labour tortuously at times to break down a Bolton side reduced to ten men for the last hour of the match, it was almost impossible for me to imagine that we possessed the attacking wit, the quality to deliver the right pass at the right time and the cool and composed finishing to put put away any chances which arose in the unlikely event of a clear scoring opportunity. I’d given things up in that I could only see a 1-1 draw as we huffed and puffed in the last half an hour and, even then we would probably need more saves like David Marshall made to stop us going two down within the first ten minutes.
In the event, I was proved right about Marshall, but wrong about our lack of a cutting edge meaning we would not win. Somehow, we got the three points in the end, but in such an unconvincing manner that, being honest, I can only cling to the notion that, if it had been preordained somewhere that we were not to finish in the top six in 2009, then might it be that, this time, powers that we do not understand have decreed that we will be in the Play Offs, no matter what happens?
When young Bolton left back Niall Maher had, rightly, been shown a red card by referee Lee Collins for a reckless challenge on Craig Noone some twenty five yards from the City goal, I said that, if it had not been already, our opponent’s mind had been made up for them now by the decision – it would be two banks of four parked in front of keeper Ben Amos for the last hour, effectively, telling City to break us down if you are good enough.
Even, in the exultation which greeted the late. late, late winning goal, it was impossible for me not to feel some sympathy for a Bolton side that had defended with character and spirit throughout, but, in truth, it was easy to see why they are where they are in the table.
Of course, it was made a lot tougher for them by Maher’s dismissal, but, for example, the number of times that a City wide man found himself with just one opponent to take on when within thirty yards of the Bolton goal offered the clue as to how brittle defensively our opponents were. Yes, I’m sure acting manager Jimmy Phillips will take heart from the way his team gave their all in a match which must have been hard for them to get up for, but the harsh truth is that it was more down to the failings of their opponents that they were still clinging on to their point in the third minute of added time than their good play.
While it was true that Bolton’s goal after just seven minutes by Zac Clough, from a free kick given away cheaply by the sort of foul Lee Peltier is prone to when there is little danger to our goal, came as a shock to the home fans, it arrived during yet another opening by City which had me imagining Russell Slade saying something like “I know you simply have to win today, but let’s keep things tight for the first half, get in at 0-0 and then see where we go from there” just before sending his team out.
I’m sure in reality that our manager said nothing of the sort, but it’s been a source of frustration for me all season that we start home matches so slowly and this has been doubled in our last two games at Cardiff City Stadium in particular where we were in must win situations.
If Mr Slade’s approach may have suggested caution in the early stages of the match, then the complete opposite was true by the end of it, as our defence became more and more undermanned as the minutes ticked by – indeed, when Sean Morrison went up to centre forward for the dying moments, it’s probably true to say that Peltier was operating as a back one!
I’ve been critical of Mr Slade’s substitutions in recent games and I wasn’t too sure about some of them yesterday either. It was good to see him make a change after a first half in which Bolton looked quite comfortable, but the personnel involved surprised me – I thought there were more likely candidates for “the hook” than Joe Ralls (who I don’t think was injured) and, after eight months of seeing what he does and doesn’t offer the side, I find it a mystery that our manager still places so much faith in Sammy Ameobi.
One of the consequences of Ralls going off mind was to see Peter Whittingham moved infield. This was tried last week against QPR and I would say most regarded it as a failure, but the circumstances were different yesterday because when Whitts went into the “quarter back” role he has occupied with varying degrees of success in the past, Bolton’s one man disadvantage meant that he was given time on the ball of a type he doesn’t tend to enjoy much of these days.
As a result, Whittingham, for me, became an influential player for us. True, not all of his long, raking passes worked, but enough of them did to stretch our opponents and, perhaps, induce the tiredness which could have contributed towards the foul by which we eventually won the game.
Great credit should go to Whitts as well for the way he took on the responsibility of the penalty kick – there were others on the pitch who have scored from the spot this season and his record from twelve yards in a City shirt is far from flawless. However, as other parts of his game have shown signs of decline in recent years, his nerve can never be faulted and seeing him stood over that penalty reassured me that we could keep our Play Off challenge going for another seven days at least.
Going back to our substitutions, it was a disappointment to see Kenneth Zohore leave the field, but it was later confirmed what I’d say most already suspected – it was for injury, rather than tactical, reasons. In my view, Zohore showed he was some way short of the finished article at this level, but there was enough in his display to indicate that our manager was, again, being cautious by leaving it so long to give him a start (he almost certainly wouldn’t have got one yesterday if Lex Immers had been fit either) as he relied on a front four that had, largely forgotten how to score.
The final substitution saw a return for one of the club’s forgotten men, Kadeem Harris, who came on for Matt Connolly to play in a right wing back role. I thought he didn’t do badly at all and,by winning that vital penalty, he proved himself to be the most influential of our subs. However, his introduction did ask questions about our manager’s thinking because we ended the match with, arguably, six wingers on the pitch (seven if you consider Scott Malone’s experience in the position) and no specialist striker.
Quite what Idriss Saadi must have felt as Harris went on to the pitch, I don’t know, but if he couldn’t get some game time under yesterday’s circumstances, you have to ask what was he doing on the bench in the first place? If Russell Slade has so little faith in him, wouldn’t it make more sense to replace Saadi with Rhys Healey who is in good goalscoring form for the Under 21s?
Anyway, Zohore’s well taken first home goal (I did think Amos could have done better with it though) and Whitts’ penalty means that our manager can say he got things right after he was mere seconds away from being someone who would have been roundly castigated in the hours following the match. Therefore, we go to Hillsborough next weekend for a game where the pressure will be on the home side more than us – a win there and the whole mood of the last game of the season changes.
Is there an irony in the venue next week being the same one as where our hopes died seven years ago? I can dream for another week that something mysterious and unworldly is going on here, but, with my feet planted firmly on the ground, I can say that Wednesday, and Derby for that matter, were far more impressive than we’ve been recently in the first hour of their televised match yesterday lunchtime.
From what I saw before I left for our game, here were two sides that did not look out of place in the top six and at no time in our last four games, can you say that about us. Yes, it’s now four matches since Wednesday won, but I look at their attacking fluency yesterday, compare it to what we produced a few hours later and it’s like chalk and cheese.
Truthfully, Russell Slade and his team may be short of some key players for next week’s huge game and the need for a win could well see us operating in a manner which will play right into Wednesday’s hands – there’s little or nothing to suggest we can win, except for my faith in divine, or cosmic, intervention!
*picture courtesy of https://www.flickr.com/photos/joncandy/
+ picture courtesy of http://www.walesonline.co.uk/