I watched three matches in full yesterday and, sadly, all of them contained incidents which meant that much of the post match talk would centre on the man with the whistle – if they say that the best refs are the ones you don’t notice, then I’m afraid that those in charge of the Wales v France World Cup Semi Final, the Academy game between City and Spurs and the 2-2 draw with Ipswich definitely do not fall into that category. The day started with Alain Rolland’s robotic adherence to “the letter of the law” that created a situation whereby even members of the victorious side were saying that the better team had lost, then a harsh penalty decision transformed what had been an even and entertaining Under 18’s game and, finally, another very odd penalty award proved to be the main talking point of the Ipswich match a few hours later.
In the first two incidents it was the team I was supporting that was on the receiving end of the controversial decisions, but the fact that it was my team who benefited in the third instance doesn’t make Dean Whitestone’s decision to award City a penalty for handball by Ipswich’s Carlos Edwards correct. I couldn’t see why it was given at the ground and, having seen the incident on television again, I still can’t – if the ball did hit Edwards’ hand, then it did so from a range of no more than a yard or two after Earnie, seemingly, had stopped the ball going out for a goal kick. Not for the first time, there was confusion as the referee consulted a linesman for what seemed ages before he confirmed his decision. I reckon he was checking to see whether the ball had gone out of play or not, but it shouldn’t have taken so long and there were other occasions when needed to consult with his fellow officials. The first came after he missed a signal for a City corner and, before that, there was an unnecessary delay in the awarding of Ipswich’s second goal because, for reasons best known to themself, the assistant had raised their flag when there was, obviously, no offside.
It wasn’t a good day for Mr Whitestone who, besides getting the biggest decision in the game wrong in my opinion, then missed what looked an obvious penalty a couple of minutes later when Kevin McNaughton was brought down, he was also inconsistent in his decision making and was guilty of not playing advantages when he could have. However, the referee’s failings didn’t stop it being an enjoyable and entertaining game – even if the overall standard of play wasn’t the highest. Ipswich arrived high in confidence and in good form – they were nothing like the shambles that had been destroyed 7-1 at Peterborough in a televised game a few weeks back. City more than matched them early on though and probably deserved the lead given them in the nineteenth minute by Rudy Gestede when he headed home Aron Gunnarsson’s long throw in from City’s right.
It was the popular French striker’s first league goal and, notwithstanding his one on one with the keeper miss late in the game, I thought Rudy was a deserved winner of the Man of the Match awards announced as the final whistle went. Indeed, it could be argued that Gestede has been as effective as any of our summer signings so far, but I can’t help thinking that his very success is creating a problem that is making us easier to play against than we could be. For most of yesterday’s game, I thought our attacking plans A, B and C consisted of knocking it long and early to Rudy – it was as if someone had looked at the big names in Ipswich’s midfield and reasoned that there was no way we could compete with them so we would by pass that area completely. Now, I accept that our midfield is more perspiration than inspiration, but there are still some tidy players in there who began to become more influential in the closing stages and I just think that, although Rudy is definitely making an impact at Championship level, our approach needs to be more varied.
Unfortunately, the goal had more of a positive effect on Ipswich than it did on us and for a forty minute period either side of half time, they went some of the way towards justifying the pre match hype that emanated from their camp. They were the best team in the Championship according to a fan’s blog entry and Danny Collins, a player whose performances for his adopted country at least give him no right to be arrogant, talked of teams “struggling to cope” with them. The visitors knocked the ball around confidently during this spell and with both full backs getting forward to knock in some dangerous crosses, their equaliser after half an hour didn’t come as too much of a shock, but someone in City’s middle two defenders (I tended to believe it was Mark Hudson, but it may have been Ben Turner who, overall, had a decent game on his first start for the club) or Aron Gunnarsson should have been there making life much harder for Jason Scotland as he turned and fired in a fine, low shot from twenty yards.
The rest of the first half saw play, increasingly, heading towards City’s goal and there was no doubt that they were hanging on in the minutes leading up to half time. However, any thoughts that the interval would signal a change in the way the game was panning out proved short lived as Ipswich were, if anything, even more on top in the opening minutes of the second half. Indeed, there was an air of inevitability about the goal which put them into the lead on fifty one minutes – for someone who is so driven by scoring goals, the highlight of Michael Chopra’s afternoon had to be the simple header he scored via a post from another cross by the adventurous Edwards. Regular readers of this blog will know that I was not a big fan at all of the 2010/11 version of Michael Chopra and my very brief applause when his name was read out before the game was given grudgingly. However, I thought he conducted himself well throughout the game (the celebration of his goal was a muted one) and deserved the generous applause he got from both sets of supporters when he went off with a quarter of an hour left.
Therefore, it seemed that the headline writers had been given their story – Ipswich would go on and get their usual win in Cardiff courtesy of a goal from former City hero Chopra. Certainly, that seemed the way of it as the game entered it’s last twenty five minutes with City struggling to get the ball even as far as Gestede for minutes on end. During this time (in fact, for much of the time before it as well!), I probably bored the people sat around me by going on and on about our witless football, but I was reckoning without the spirit, fitness and work ethic which makes this City team such a hard one to beat. At first, there was nothing pretty about the way we fought our way back into the game as we forced a succession of dead ball situations from where we could launch the ball towards the big men. This was how the penalty eventually came about, but, by then the nature of the game was changing as Filip Kiss (whose introduction definitely improved the team) began to cause some problems with his surging runs.
With Peter Whittingham becoming more of an influence as he dropped a bit deeper and Joe Mason adding some mobility and craft to our forward play, we were now, at last, playing some decent football. With seven players over thirty in their starting line up, I got the feeling that Ipswich found it harder to cope with us in the middle of the park and at the back (their lack of young legs is one of the reasons that I don’t see them as the best team in the Championship – I was more impressed by Brighton and Southampton than them) and, although it would have been undeserved over the ninety minutes, it was City who were the team who looked like winning when the score was 2-2. Gestede never really inspired confidence when he was through though and with Stockdale also keeping out efforts by Cowie and Whittingham. Ipswich also had a couple of attempts that weren’t far off in the dying minutes, but the game ended with the level scoreline that was probably just about right.
For City it’s off to Peterborough next and although one defeat in five on our travels is a decent record, we need to start winning more – yesterday again emphasised that we need one or two more players who can conjure up that something unexpected which confuses defences at this level, but, frankly, I’ve given up on us signing anyone on loan in the immediate future. Therefore, if we are going to continue with what we have got, I’d like to see at least one of Kiss and Mason included at London Road – Kiss showed yesterday (and at Hull) that there is more to his game than just harrying and tackling (he managed to get one of his “lunges” in yesterday though!) and I just think that all Mason lacks to be a real threat at this level is a goal or two.