The four City games I have seen “in the flesh” so far have covered the full spectrum when it comes to level of performance – ranging from very good (Bristol City), to good (Parma), through to poor (Celtic) and very poor (Brighton). Hardly surprising you might feel for a team that plays in such an unpredictable division – especially one that is in the middle of a major rebuilding process having lost twelve senior players at the end of last season. On the face of it, the evidence of these four matches suggests that those who have predicted a season spent in mid table have got it right.
However, if a football fan cannot be optimistic in August, when can they be optimistic and I would still like to think that we are destined for better than that. Although there can be no doubt that an impressive Brighton team were well worth their victory in the end, I would say that it might have been so different and the outlook amongst City supporters so much more positive if it had not been for an awful error five minutes before half time which totally changed the way the game was going at the time. Before this incident, City had enjoyed a very encouraging first couple of minutes before the match settled into an ominous pattern which saw the visitors completely dictate proceedings for twenty five minutes or so – we came through this period thanks to some good defending and a well organised offside trap and the signs were definitely there that we were taking control of the game when it all fell apart for us.
I’ve seen Brighton being compared to Swansea a few times in the past few days and, after watching them in action, it’s easy to see why. Sides such as these have tended to cause us plenty of problems in recent years and, certainly in those opening stages, there were definite similarities with last season’s home match with the jacks (even down to the way that our goalkeeper hit the best pass from a City player!) where we saw so little of the ball and gifted it straight back to them when we did finally get it. That started to change last night though as City worked their way back into the game and Brighton were fortunate when Conway’s effort was rather luckily deflected away via a defender’s head (at least I think it was – Radio Wales reported it as a save by keeper Ankergren). There weren’t too many close shaves for the visitors at this time of City dominance, then again, there weren’t for us when they were on top either, but there was a definite feeling that a City goal was coming when the game was turned on it’s head completely as, instead, our opponents went 1-0 up.
I think I’ve made it clear on here over the past couple of years that I’m a big fan of Kevin McNaughton. Maybe he isn’t quite Premiership standard, but for the last five seasons he has shown himself to be a very good performer at Championship level, and, week in, week out, I’d say he has been our most consistent player. Super Kev picked up his umpteenth man of the match award last night when fans voted him our best player, but I can only assume that those who did so, automatically vote for him every game because, by his own high standards, McNaughton had a bit of a shocker last night. At one stage in the first half I mentioned that he must have bet someone that he could hit the giant screen with one of his crosses, so often was he wildly overhitting his delivery into the penalty area (often from promising positions), but it was his gifting of the ball to Ashley Barnes, who then proceeded to knock it in superbly from twenty five yards, which took his display into the nightmare category.
In that instant we lost all of the momentum we had been building up. What was beginning to look like a situation whereby we could have really taken a big step forward in our season by battling back and overcoming the sort of tactical approach that has often done for us in the past, once again became the rehash of that match with the jacks we had been watching earlier. There were plenty of disappointing aspects to last nights’ game, but the most disappointing for me was how we responded to going a goal behind for the first time this season. I’m afraid it completely knocked the stuffing out of us to the extent that I can’t remember Brighton being seriously tested defensively for about forty minutes after that. While accepting that the service they were getting was very poor as the players behind them completely lost their way, you have to look at the contribution of the strikers in such a situation. For me, although Earnie did well in the first half on an individual basis and I was surprised when he was taken off, you have to say that at no time in the league season so far have our starting front two looked like they can forge an effective partnership.
Ironically, the only time Brighton looked in danger during that spell I talked about was seconds before they were awarded the penalty that confirmed their victory! Unfortunately, Don Cowie’s careless cross was typical of so much of our passing and gave Brighton the chance to break quickly against a side who had committed bodies forward on a counter attack of their own. Mark Hudson’s limitations against a nippy and mobile striker like Craig Mackail-Smith were exposed in this incident, but, really the problems were caused, once again, by possession being handed away much too cheaply – the contrast in the quality of passing between the two sides was embarrassing at times.
The introduction of Rudy Gestede improved matters a little as, at last, Ankergren was forced to work a bit for his win bonus, but, even with the Frenchman offering a target that City could work off, the Brighton keeper only had to make pretty routine saves from long distance efforts. To all intents and purposes, the game was already over when both teams managed to score in the dying minutes, with Peter Whittingham’s penalty in a half empty stadium offering scant consolation for those who stuck it out to the end. In terms of positives that can be taken, it shows how bad things were that Gestede was probably a realistic candidate for best City player – I’ve mentioned Earnie making a few things happen in the first half and, although he was nowhere near as influential as he was on Sunday, I thought Joe Mason was one of the few who showed the sort of composure we needed against such well drilled and effective opposition, but I honestly can’t come up with anyone who deserved to be our man of the match.
Yet despite this and the decisive nature of our defeat, this was an even game until McNaughton’s intervention and I believe a sense of perspective needs to be kept. As Malky Mackay says, our squad is not big enough – apart from two target man type strikers, injuries to Kiss, Gunnarsson, Taiwo and McPhail meant we had no other credible midfield or attacking options on our books for this match apart from Aaron Wildig who is something of a forgotten man under our new manager. Brighton were able to bring on someone that many of their fans were talking up as their main danger man beforehand (Craig Noone), whereas we had three defenders to fall back on once Gestede had come off the bench – maybe Tom Heaton, who was a midfield player at Wrexham in his younger days, might have got a game if we had suffered an injury in the last quarter of an hour!