The line about football being a game of fine margins rang very true last night in a strange encounter with Ipswich Town that, somehow, saw the Suffolk team win their fifth successive match against us as goals by man of the match Jimmy Bullard gave them a 2-0 win. For Dave Jones it was a game where he so nearly got things exactly right, only for a combination of circumstances to conspire against him. Luck was certainly not on our manager’s side last night, but putting our defeat solely down to that, some great goalkeeping and a woeful linesman is to miss some important points in my view and I believe that, by the end of the game, there were grounds to ask questions as to whether he has it in him to deliver the top two place that he has said has to be the target this season.
In the days leading up to the game I expressed the fear that a central midfield two of Peter Whittingham and Steve McPhail in a 4-4-2 would not be able to cope with Ipswich’s three in their 4-5-1. Maybe Dave Jones felt the same way because he decided to continue with the 4-3-3/4-5-1 that we had seen against Leicester and Hull – whether Michael Chopra is the player best suited to be wide right in such a formation is arguable, but with three goals from his last three starts, our manager’s faith in him was understandable.
Jimmy Bullard went on to, deservedly, take the plaudits for his matchwinning performance, but, like so many of his outfield colleagues, he struggled to cope with City’s very high tempo approach in the first half. Whittingham and McPhail were winning their midfield battle with Bullard and Leadbitter for two thirds of the game, but, while all this was going on, you had to wonder how long the two City players could maintain that level of pace and intensity. With Whittingham being someone who is unused to seeing his name and the term”natural athlete” appearing in the same sentence and with McPhail being the wrong side of thirty now and short of match time in recent months, there was always going to be the suspicion that they would not be able to maintain that high tempo for the full ninety minutes.
There is no way of knowing whether a more considered approach designed to get a full ninety minute contribution out of Whittingham and McPhail would have worked, but one of the reasons why our response to going 1-0 down was so inadequate was that these two players had become far less of a factor as Ipswich took control in the middle of the park (McPhail in particular was being brushed aside by opponents as he looked out on his feet in the closing stages). I do think it is fair though to question Dave Jones’ approach given that Gavin Rae (who has become something of a bit part player this season) and the limited, at least when it comes to playing in midfield, Darcy Blake were the only options we had to replace our two central midfielders when, not if, they tired.
In our manager’s defence, it has to be said of course that City enjoyed no luck whatsoever. While credit has to be given to Ipswich keeper Marton Fulop for his excellent display, two incidents in particular stand out to me as the best examples of how the visitors had all of the luck that was going on the night. For the first, Dekel Keinan (my City man of the match) saw his header from Whittingham’s free kick ruled out by what was a blatantly wrong decision. Yes, it was very tight and there has to be a possibility that Keinan was fractionally offside when the ball was played, but, with the benefit of the doubt in such decisions now supposed to be given in favour of the attacking player, the goal should definitely have stood in my opinion – given the shocking overall performance of the linesman concerned though, it was hardly any surprise that he got his biggest decision of the game wrong.
The second incidence of bad luck came when Jay Emmanuel-Thomas’ second half shot beat Fulop for pace as the keeper could only touch the ball behind him and on to the ground. The fact that the ball went behind Fulop and downwards meant that the Ipswich keeper could not have got a full hand on the shot and the result should have been that the ball ended up in the back of the net, but, instead, from being knocked downward from no great height, it bounced crazily up on to the top of the net for a corner. Watching the incident live the whole thing looked odd to me, but when I saw the replay on the big screen, I immediately said “that’s it, we’re going to lose this” – Craig Bellamy’s post match comments rather suggest that a few City players felt the same way as well.
The whole incident had me in my mind of that televised game thirty five years ago when Adrian Alston’s header beat the Brighton keeper but then bounced up off the muddy pitch about four yards from goal and over the bar. However, for me, last night’s incident was in a different league from the one in 1976 when I can remember Alston getting people to search in the goalmouth on the Monday after the game for the coin in the goal area that his header must have hit for it to react so strangely – I suppose there has to be the remote possibility that the ball hit some 50p piece or £2 coin that was standing upright in the goalmouth last night but, somehow I doubt it!
There is a serious point to all this though – in the first half, when Fulop blocked Michael Chopra’s close range effort, the ball took a “dead” bounce in the goalmouth which almost fooled the covering defender. The lack of bounce in one goalmouth was at complete odds with the ridiculous bounce Emmanuel-Thomas’ shot took up the other end and I would say this has to ask questions about the quality of our pitch. I have been one of those who has said previously that the pitch is the same for both sides and they should just get on with playing on it, but, looking at the television pictures last night, it looked absolutely awful and, more importantly, played oddly. The prize City are playing for could transform our fortunes completely and to end up missing out on the Premiership millions just because of a crazy bounce like last night’s doesn’t bear thinking about. Once again, I accept that this is said with hindsight, but, as of now, the thousands we have shelled out this season paying Jason Koumas every week would have been better spent on the lights that, we are told, could transform our pitch wouldn’t they?
If Dave Jones had no luck, then it also needs to be said that he would have expected to have got much more from his much vaunted front three last night. I wouldn’t be too critical of Michael Chopra mind except to say that, like one or two others, there were too many fancy flicks and Hollywood passes which look great when they come off but, more often than not, concede possession cheaply. As for Craig Bellamy, we are now at the stage of the season when you expect your big players to start making the difference, but, unfortunately, his last two games have seen very muted performances from him – even when we were playing so well in the first half last night, he was having a poor time of it as he constantly gave the ball away and he needs to improve quickly on what he showed against Hull and Ipswich.
Up top, Jay Bothroyd continued his transformation back into the player he was before he signed for Cardiff with another self indulgent display which added little to the team effort. Having seen him interviewed plenty of times, Jay strikes me as being intelligent enough to look at himself in the mirror and know that what he has been doing on the park lately is not what got him all the recognition and praise he received in the autumn. The question is I suppose whether this bothers him or not and, currently, you have to feel that it doesn’t – if this is true then it is obvious that he is no longer such an important part of the team and the automatic starting place he has enjoyed up to now should be reviewed.
This though takes us back to our manager. I’m sure I’m not the only supporter who felt the prime candidates to be taken off last night were Messrs Bothroyd and Bellamy, but, once again, you were left with the impression that certain players within the squad are fireproof. Leaving aside the switch of Darcy Blake for Paul Quinn which I assume was for injury/illness, Dave Jones’ other two substitutions looked wrong at the time and still do now. Jay Emmanuel-Thomas had been the player most likely to make something happen for us and yet he gets hauled off with barely a second thought – that looked like management by numbers to me. Besides that, I find myself wondering just what Jon Parkin must think of his recent treatment by Dave Jones – I realise that he is not as talented as some of other forwards, but surely he deserves and could contribute more than the occasional five minutes at the end of a game?
The points dropped by some of our closest rivals yesterday afternoon gave us a tremendous opportunity and, although there were certainly mitigating circumstances for our defeat, the simple truth is that we blew it in a manner which raises a few more questions about whether our manager and players have it in them to reach the target they have talked about all season long. After doing so well against a variety of in form and/or highly placed sides in recent weeks, they came a cropper against a team from the middle of the division who it could be argued have nothing to play for – the “same old City” mantra has not been heard too much this season, but it was certainly being used by this supporter a few times last night!