Now, maybe my reaction to it wasn’t typical of other fans, but when your side takes the lead by scoring a goal like the one Peter Whittingham got yesterday (I’ve only seen it the once, but it’s definitely in my top ten of best goals I’ve seen us score), it should lift everyone associated with it, be it the player himself, his team or those who support his team. However, it only took about a minute for me to revert from the euphoria Whittingham’s piece of magic engendered to the sense of intense frustration I watched 90% of yesterday’s match in as Barnsley went straight down the other end of the pitch to hit the upright as our players showed that the wonder goal hadn’t shook them out of the anxious state of mind that they displayed throughout a scrappy and error strewn 2-2 draw.
Usually playing later than your rivals at the top of a league is a disadvantage because some of them pick up wins that increase the pressure on you when you get to play a day or two later, but, on successive weekends, the likes of Swansea, Forest and Leeds have given us a great opportunity to send out a statement that we are not feeling the nerves that they appear to be and we have failed miserably both times. Okay, nothing whatsoever went in our favour last week against Ipswich and, maybe, for us to blow the one chance could be excused (I’m still not convinced about that mind), but yesterday was just not good enough on any level for a team who have realistic ambitions of playing in the top flight next season.
Barnsley responded the better to Whittingham’s goal and were soon level as sub Gray scored efficiently. City might have had a penalty when Bellamy was brought down just before half time, but I wasn’t convinced it was one and, more importantly, neither were the officials (and judging by how trigger happy he was when it came to offside decisions, the linesman who had the best view of the incident would have had his flag across his chest like a shot if he thought there was a chance of a penalty). Anyway, last Tuesday proved that gaining a penalty and actually scoring from it are two separate things and, whoever would have taken it, would have been under intense pressure in yesterday’s fraught atmosphere.
Before leaving Whittingham’s goal completely, I’m going to indulge myself a bit with some speculation. While I do appreciate that I’m stretching a point a bit here, one of my first thoughts after the ball hit the net was that Whitts wanted to make sure he got his shot away before the ball had a chance to bounce on a pitch which our players gave the distinct impression of not trusting one iota. Now, I know our pitch is poor and, to repeat what I said last week, it’s hard to avoid the impression now that spending money on making sure it was right at this time of year looks a better investment than all that dosh we have paid Jason Koumas in the last few months. However, a sense of proportion is needed here – there didn’t seem to be any of the mad bounces that we saw against Ipswich yesterday and, at the risk of sounding like an old fogey, the players I watched thirty and forty years ago had to cope with far worse when it comes to pitch conditions than their counterparts do today.
Only some of those employed by the club can truly judge how much of an impact the pitch has on games at the moment, but, I have to say that much of what I saw from our team put me in mind of a bunch of temperamental artistes asking “how can you expect someone of my talent to perform in such conditions?”! It shouldn’t go without mention either that the, otherwise, pretty ordinary Chris Burke showed that it was possible to play good, effective football on the deck yesterday in the build up to what should have been the match winner when his cross was nodded in by Dekel Keinan for the goal his attacking efforts in recent games have deserved. However, it seemed to me that, criminally, getting on for half of our team were distracted by Barnsley’s substitution and the quick free kick which followed it when Gray got his second goal of the game to give the visitors the point they deserved in the eight ninth minute.
Even if the pitch is as bad as our team appears to think it is, it shouldn’t be a factor in so many aspects of the game. To give some examples, the battle for second balls for one, the contesting of headers for two and the basics of defending for three. For me, Barnsley were the more effective side in the first two of those, while conceding goals from crosses played from thirty yards or more out in open play reflects poorly on the back four in particular and I thought that, having done so much better lately, Hudson and co were back to the levels of a few weeks ago when keeping a clean sheet looked an impossibility.
I don’t see much point in singling individuals out for criticism though – suffice it to say that my only real candidate for City Man of the Match was Seyi Olofinjana who only played for half an hour! Olofinjana was the catalyst behind our one convincing spell of the game as we stepped up the pressure on Barnsley in the ten minutes before Keinan’s goal and I can only presume that he was not included from the start or brought on when Michael Chopra suffered his injury because Dave Jones didn’t think he had more than thirty minutes in him – if this is not the case, then you really have to wonder what our manager was thinking about. To be fair though, I don’t think his substitutions were that bad – although the fact that JET always seems to be the one to be withdrawn irks me a bit, the truth was that he wasn’t that effective yesterday and Jon Parkin at least got the game time that people have been calling for (he did little or nothing with it though I’m afraid).
So, now we find ourselves in the same position that many of our rivals have done over the last two weekends in that we can only look on helplessly in the hope that Norwich mess up like we have done tonight – a gap of four points at this stage of the season begins to look a pretty big one when your own form is so unconvincing. A fortnight ago, having come through a period of very testing matches well in credit, we were in a great position as we faced a final twelve matches which included nine against sides in the lower half of the table. Having now played three of those teams and come up with the grand total of one point, you have to question whether our team has both the footballing ability and mental fortitude to deliver the top two place that they, and our manager, have been telling us for months is our objective this season.