Did anyone else think “what’s he playing at?” when they heard the team for last night’s match at Blackpool? Speaking as someone who has criticised our manager in the past for what I saw as a tendency to resort to a long ball approach too quickly, I thought if ever an occasion was made for a more basic approach, it was this one to be played on a pitch that had been widely rubbished by the critics for being, well, rubbish. Surely, on such a surface, the best thing to do would be to keep the ball off it for as much as possible – especially against a Blackpool defence missing three regulars.
Instead though, Malky Mackay decided to use two footballers up front in Tommy Smith and Joe Mason instead of the target men Heidar Helguson and Rudy Gestede who, between them, had started all but two of our league matches so far. Furthermore, our manager opted for the “delicate” Kim Bo Kyung in our midfield . Now, I could understand leaving Craig Noone out on that pitch, but surely Don Cowie would have been a better option than Kimbo in what promised to be a very “British” game with power, endurance and a bulldog spirit to the fore? By going for a less physical approach, Malky Mackay was continuing with the policy we saw for the second half against Ipswich where the plan appeared to be to move the visitors back four around rather than rely on the more static, set piece orientated, stuff we saw in the first forty five minutes when the ineffective Gestede led the attack.
In the event, the Blackpool pitch turned out to be even worse than expected with Joe Lewis picking up an injury, which looked to be pitch related, in the pre-match warm up and Mark Hudson having to miss virtually all of the second half because of what may have been a injury that was down to the pitch. With the ball bobbling at times and not bouncing as expected at others, the pitch was certainly not a friend to good, constructive, football and yet, a team which, on the face of it, was not suited to this surface, turned in a performance which contained more of those qualities than most others we’ve seen over the last six weeks or so.
That’s not to say we played as well as we did in our last televised game at Blackburn, but there was an air of control to yesterday’s fourth consecutive away win (would anyone have believed that we would have taken sixteen points from our next six away matches after the shambles that was Charlton?) which was not present in victories over, say, Birmingham and Millwall over the holiday period. Blackpool’s acting manager Steve Thompson made it sound like all we did was knock the ball into channels for our forwards to chase and I’ve seen and heard our 2-1 win described as another ground out three points – I beg to differ and I think that’s harsh on a side which, unlike Hull last week, defied the pressure of kicking off later than everyone else can put on them to produce a good, winning, display.
On Friday night Leicester took on Middlesbrough in a game that was a good advertisement for Championship football – Leicester, as they always tend to when on television (invariably they’re at home mind), looked an impressive outfit, but needed some luck to see off a Middlesbrough side, who I still rate as the best visitors to Cardiff City Stadium this season, that probably deserved a point. As I watched both sides put together any number of pleasing on the eye attacks, I contrasted it with what we’ve seen from City in recent weeks when it came to attacking fluency and we were coming a distant third. However, almost immediately, I reminded myself that football is as much about what you do when you don’t have the ball as it is about what you do when you’re in possession – to a degree at least, Leicester and Middlesbrough were looking good because the other side was giving them the chance to look good.
Contrast that to the way we closed down the dangerous Thomas Ince in particular when he was in possession and the way we denied Blackpool space in general when they got within range of our goal – I told myself at the time that we were harder to play against than the two sides I was watching and nothing I saw yesterday made me change my mind. Also present last night was our very welcome recent ability to see out games where we are defending single goal leads out with relative comfort – of course, there’ll always be anxiety in such circumstances, but while you usually watch expecting an equaliser, I think it’s fair to say that, currently, one would come as a shock.
Of course, the sort of stuff I’ve been wittering on about in the last couple of paragraphs is the boring side of football, but I maintain that there was quite a few of the sort of things that got us interested in the game in the first place in last night’s win. For example, although it could have been strangled at birth with a free kick awarded for a foot being too high and the shot had a deflection on it, our second goal was a thing of beauty in it’s speed, build up and execution. There was also a winger’s performance by Craig Conway that had all the hard working qualities we’ve come to expect from him, but also an effective blend of guile and skill to go with it. Joe Mason may not have set the world on fire, but he was able to retain possession better than he often has in the past and the way he was able to bring others into play made sure that Helguson and Gestede were not missed as much as I feared they would. Alongside Mason, Tony Smith was given the chance to play a front running role and he simply proved that, even on that pitch, playing hoofball with him there is to waste the talents of a very good all round footballer, while Andrew Taylor turned in another of those quietly effective left back performances that have typified his season.
Outshining them all though for me was Kim Bo Kyung, the player who I thought would struggle to cope for an hour or so before being withdrawn was simply superb. Actually, I wasn’t too far out about the time when he’d be substituted, but I was hopelessly wrong about the effect he had on proceedings because, simply put, he was the best player on display. Dodgy cricket wickets have a tendency to bring the best batsmen to the fore because they have a pretty faultless technique and it turned out that the Bloomfield Road pitch was quite similar in that it found out all but the best when it came to things like first touch and ball retention. It wasn’t a coincidence that the ball didn’t seem to bounce out of Kimbo’s reach when he received it – it was because he was able to cope when others couldn’t. Besides the good things he did in possession though, Kim Bo also showed desire to get to the Gunnarsson shot which bounced off the post first for our opening goal and, as usual, put in a good shift for the team and this aspect of his game brings me back to Malky Mackay.
What looked to me like a dodgy team selection was proved to be the right one, but, perhaps, the best thing that Malky Mackay has done this season is create a situation whereby players who are out of the team don’t sulk about it and go through the motions when they do come in, they give of their best every time. Because of this, the tendency has been that our manager has been left with the right sort of tough task when it comes to selection for the next match. Kimbo epitomised this yesterday, but there have been others like Nugent (who didn’t look out of place at all again when he came on), Ralls and Conway who you could say the same about – it really does look as if all of those involved with the first team squad are pulling in the same direction.
Finally, it seems that there may be an addition to that squad soon. On Friday it looked inevitable that Sunderland striker Fraizer Campbell would be a City player by now, but a delay, reportedly down to Sunderland wanting to bring in another forward before releasing Campbell, makes it a little less likely now I suppose. That said, it would appear that a fee (believed to be around £650,000) and personal terms have been agreed for the player who has one cap for England (Campbell’s also had his medical apparently). At 25, Campbell could have his best years in front of him and with Man United and Spurs amongst his previous teams, he certainly has a good pedigree in the game, but there will inevitably be questions as to how much the injuries that have held him back in recent season have reduced his effectiveness – I suppose the way to look at is that there would be no way we would stand a chance of landing a player like Campbell without the injuries he’s suffered.