I’ll start with the critical bit. If last year’s team had put in a performance as flat and lacking in urgency as their 2011/12 counterparts did yesterday in losing 3-0 to West Ham at Upton Park to crash out of the Play Off’s on an aggregate score of 5-0, then I would have been laying into them about how they were a bunch of overpaid jessies who lacked the stomach for a fight. They would have been told that they had bottled it and that they had contributed, once again, to making the words “doing a Cardiff” a commonly used term in the football world – instead of that though, I’d like to say thank you to our manager and players for delivering more than what many were asking for at this time last year.
Now I accept that I’m being somewhat hypocritical and illogical there – some will say that we bottled the big occasion yet again (there were those who were doing that after the First Leg, so I can only assume that they feel the same way after yesterday’s even more one sided fare). On one level, that is hard to argue with, but I still say that comparing this year’s team with last year’s is like comparing chalk and cheese and, I for one, celebrate many of the differences between the two.
I found the 2010/11 side a hard one to like – too many big egos who couldn’t see that the best player in the side (by some distance) got to where he has in the game through hard work, a real team ethic and a lack of self indulgence. I’m certain the 2011/12 City side would have frustrated Craig Bellamy as much as the one he played in did at times, but I’m pretty sure that the reasons for this would have been very different – he would have liked the honesty of the current team compared to the wasted talents in his side, but would have been concerned at their lack of attacking precision and flair.
That lack of a cutting edge only made yesterday’s game something of a Mission Impossible for City as far as I was concerned and I’m not going to bother going into any great detail about how the match panned out – we were beaten fair and square and I would say that the three goal margin of defeat was about right. In fact I’d say the tie was as good as over as soon as Jack Colllison’s deflected shot hit the back of our net on Thursday night – you cling to the hope that we could turn things around in heroic style, but we are talking about a side who have not been very good at creating goalscoring opportunities in recent months and, when we have managed to make chances, our finishing has often let us down. A one goal deficit may have been retrievable by a backs to the wall defensive effort, but, even then, I’m thinking in terms of the West Ham team of February, March and early April – the one we’ve seen since their 6-0 annihilation of Brighton is a completely different animal.
I believe that one match has made a huge difference to a side who must have got to the stage that they were wondering if they’d ever win at Upton Park again. Whoever they play at Wembley, West Ham are big favourites to go up in my book now because in that one game everything clicked into place and they’ve surged on from there to be unrecognisable from the hesitant outfit that were dropping home points to the likes of Doncaster and Palace not so long ago. Looking at it from a City angle, I think there have been similar such matches in each of the last four seasons which have seen us involved in the promotion shake up each time. 2008/09 is easy – if a 6-0 win transformed West Ham, then a 6-0 defeat had a devastating effect on us as well as giving the team who pipped us for the last Play Off spot an impetus they couldn’t have expected. The following season’s against the odds 2-1 win over Leicester gave City a momentum which took us through the remainder of the regular season and into the first leg of our Play Off Semi Final, while last year I feel the 1-0 home defeat by Swansea planted doubts in the manager and player’s minds where there had previously been none and they took a couple of months to start recovering from it.
This time around, the match which shaped our season as far as I’m concerned was the Second Leg of the League Cup Semi Final with Palace back in January, but there was a significant difference between this one and the previous three. Whereas the impact, for good or bad, was a mental one in the three previous seasons , I believe that this time the team were effected physically. After that night, apart from an understandable drop in confidence as results worsened, the side were as strong mentally as they had ever been, but the physical and mental excursions of that night meant that their bodies were never able to reach previous levels of stamina and vibrancy from then on.
People have said that we played fifty seven matches during the season, but add in five periods of extra time as well and that figure becomes closer to fifty nine. Yesterday we were up against a team that had the advantage of a better squad than ours, which had the advantage of £16 million worth of parachute payments (don’t get me started on them again!) which helped give them the advantage of making a big squad even bigger by spending millions last summer and in January (there were also a steady flow of loan players signed during the autumn and after January) and, very significantly, had the advantage of knowing since early January that they will be playing no more than fifty one matches this season. As Malky Mackay pointed out after the game, that’s a very improtant difference (especially when Sam Allardyce could rotate his squad in a way our manager couldn’t).
Anyone who had seen us play at home over the past three months would have had West Ham as big favourites to go through once they had sorted their results at Upton Park out. Sorry to come over a bit defeatist, but this is the first of our recent Play Off defeats which was virtually unavoidable in my book – even the two leg format was to West Ham’s advantage. People will still find things to criticise Malky Mackay for I’m sure, but, given the resources he had available, I would only take issue with the decision not to use Earnie yesterday (the tie may have been over, but it would have been good to see Earnie have the chance to say goodbye, if, as expected, he leaves this summer, out on the pitch rather than kicking his heels on the substitute’s bench).
Apart from that though, it’s hard to know what more our manager could have done – he’s not been faultless, but, overall, I believe that he’s done a very good job in his first season. The fact that he’s been given an extended contract says it all as far as what the Boardroom think of Malky Mackay and if he and they can work together more effectively than they appeared to during those strange final days of the January transfer window, I believe those who are, naturally, feeling downbeat about the future at the moment will have plenty of reasons for their enthusiasm to be restored over what I predict will be a busy and very interesting summer for the club.
* picture courtesy of http://www.walesonline.co.uk/