The Championship – Saturday 23rd February 2008
Truly significant moments are rarely easy to spot at the time they occur. The perspective needed to identify them only really comes with the passing of a little time. The last few eventful years have seen several – games whose results carry more importance than just the result.
Think Swansea away, when we finally won at the Vetch to make our promotion from Division Four seem assured even if there were several games remaining. Think of that evening at Hillsborough, the largest away support of our generation carrying us to a memorable win, establishing ourselves in another promotion race and cementing our credentials as an upwardly mobile club. In the summer, will we be reflecting upon West Brom away on Saturday 23rd February 2008 as another of those days? Let’s not try to call it too early – but as our quite astonishingly brilliant away support capered with mad glee towards of the end of this game, there was a scent of something truly thrilling in the air.
Never let it be said that Phil Brown doesn’t have some guts – he may be gently teased for his vivid hue, but as manager of City his capacity for taking brave decisions cannot be called into question. A side containing Campbell, Folan AND Okocha? News of this unorthodox arrangement raised eyebrows. Could Jay Jay function in a four-man midfield? Against West Brom at the Hawthorns? Crumbs.
The return of Andy Dawson from injury and Richard Garcia’s arrival from compassionate leave in Australia meant two changes from the side that struggled against Colchester last week – Barmby injured and Walton dropped as the Tigers carded: Myhill; Ricketts, TurnerBrown, Dawson; Garcia, Ashbee (c), Okocha, Pedersen; Campbell, Folan.
Intriguingly, Michael Bridges was on the bench, included in a City sixteen for the first time since September. He was joined by Tyler, Walton, France and Marney. For West Brom, Jonathon Greening returned to the side with loan signing Luke Moore on the bench – the outstanding pairing of Kevin Phillips and Roman Bednar were both fit and both started.
It was a scrappy start to the game, Caleb Folan’s caution, Ashbee’s trickling daisycutter and a shot whacked well over by Koren being the most notable incidents. Leon Barnett nearly put the ball past his own keeper from an Okocha cross from the left, Dean Kiely swiftly reversing direction to clasp the ball to prevent disaster for his side.
City nearly fell behind when Zoltan Gera spun past Pedersen and hammered a right-footed shot goalwards. Myhill flung himself to the right, but the curl on the ball saw it fly narrowly past the post. A relief – and we were to make the most of this good fortune moments later.
Jay Jay Okocha was having a tidy game, and he helped to create the chance by dancing free of his marker in midfield and passing the ball twenty yards forward to Frazier Campbell. He span towards goal, assessed the option of Pedersen bursting forward to his right before instead decided to pass the ball into the top corner. Not a bad decision, really.
A truly outstanding goal. Even from a hundred yards the breathtaking nature of this moment of skill was obvious, and the City fans leapt around dementedly.
Two minutes later, delight turned to dismay as a cheap free kick was given away, Greening curled it in and Gera nodded a far-post header past Myhill – only for delight to return when the linesman instructed referee Steve Tanner to disallow it for offside. How we crowed. No-one had seemingly appealed for the decision, it didn’t even occur to check the linesman’s view of the event, although subsequent television replays back his version of events. Just. Phew.
This had the effect of galvanising the home side, and City were rocking quite a bit for much of the rest of the half. Myhill had to make a good save from a Morrison shot, but made a mess of a Gera shot, batting the ball unconvincingly back into play when parrying it wide would have been a better option had he not felt capable of catching it. Hoefkens raced in for the rebound and blatted the ball goalwards…and again it swerved just off target.
Bednar had a crack next, saved easily by Myhill, but just as it appeared we’d hold out until the break West Brom finally scored. Philips collected possession on the right, curled a superb ball in and Bednar stole in behind the defence to power an unsaveable header past the City keeper. He was so incensed by the linesman’s reluctance to effect a repeat of his earlier intervention he hared after the hapless flagman – sadly for Myhill, the big screen in the ground showed that once again the linesman had called it spot on. Ho hum.
Half-time arrived with the City fans quietened for the first time after a half of boisterous support, but a standing ovation was afforded nonetheless as both teams prepared themselves for the likelihood of West Brom piling forward in the next forty-five in search of a winner.
Michael Turner was cautioned for a reckless lunge on Phillips as the anticipated onslaught commenced. It had certainly livened up the home fans, a little quiet thus far but now fully engaged – impressive enough once they got going. Shame about the fucking drum, mind.
Phillips had a couple of shots, both repelled by the creaking but resolute City defence. Yet, it was almost the Tigers who scored next when Kiely misjudged a dash off his line, was disposed by Campbell whose challenge spun the ball into the air. Folan teed his strike partner up with a cute back header – with Kiely racing back into the area Campbell steaded himself and cracked a volley at the gaping goal…only to pick out the covering defender on the line, the force of the shot knocking him over but deflecting the ball to safety. Teeth were gnashed at such a wonderful chance being spurned.
Dawson was booked for a very deliberate and cynical foul on Morrison as the game continued to heat up. Ashbee had the chance of being set up well by Pedersen, and with an hour gone we were beginning to re-establish ourselves in the game.
This wasn’t lost on Tony Mowbray as the uncommonly becalmed Kevin Phillips was withdrawn along with Roman Bednar in favour of Luke Moore and Ishmael Miller. Bednar’s departure was a welcome relief.
City were now looking slightly the better side, forcing a couple of corners before Campbell dragged a shot wide. However, our prospects looked for one terrifying moment to be about to collapse when Michael Turner – already cautioned – went in for a challenge with Morrison that left the West Brom player in a heap on the floor. Mr Tanner’s whistle shrilled, he reached for his pocket and we stood aghast as the yellow card was flashed, awaiting the glimpse of red…but none followed and we rejoiced at realising Morrison had been booked for diving.
Impossible to say with certainty as it was a distant event, but it looked a generous decision. Without Turner and down to ten for twenty minutes, we’d surely have lost. A few minutes later City made the first change of the afternoon, the tired and possibly jet-lagged Garcia’s solid shift being curtailed in favour of Ryan France, and shortly after Marney replaced Okocha as City introduced some fresh legs into the midfield. Canny move by Mr Brown.
The Tigers forced a few corners, West Brom did likewise and both sides continued looking for the victory but chances were at a premium and with time slipping away it seemed that a fourth successive draw was on the cards – a good result itself.
Then Caleb Folan showed what you get for a million pounds.
He fastened onto a pass wide on the left some fifty yards from goal. His marker was a little slack in giving him space to run into, and he smoothly motored down the wing, cut in, suddenly changed pace to fashion a yard of space before thumping a low drive past Kiely into the bottom of the corner.
This moment of skill detonated the City fans. Utter madness reigned among the 1,500 Tigerfolk – limbs flailed, bodies writhed, voices bellowed cries of triumph – it was total delirium. A moment to treasure. City were leading, leading at West Brom, and the frustrations of the past week were all gone as we roared our delight.
The match itself was far from over. Folan’s goal had come with eight minutes remaining, plenty of time for West Brom to salvage the situation. Phil Brown had made his first defensively-minded manoeuvre of the day, introducing Simon Walton for Fraizer Campbell and survival was now the priority.
It was a close call. Gera flashed a great chance from a free-kick over before missing yet another chance minutes later when a ball from the right evaded everyone and with Myhill grounded and the goal vacant just eight yards from him, he somehow blazed it over. And now we knew we’d win. It was to be our day.
Mr Tanner decided four extra minutes would represent a fair test of our resolve but this final examination was passed in a blur of dancing and singing, the entire City support throwing itself into vocal action with rare fervour. And when Mr Tanner concluded an exhilarating afternoon and the players skipped over to share the celebrations, your humble correspondent noticed just how bloody shattered he was.
Tiring stuff, City being ace. But ace we are. This is a very, very big win. While it appears that West Brom are not going to win the title they were expected to do, they remain an extremely strong team. To have gone there and won, just a month after losing 3-1 at home to them, demonstrates just how far we have come.
Excellence shone throughout the side. The defence survived a serious onslaught in a way that’d have been simply inconceivable last season. The midfield stood its ground, in no small part thanks to Ian Ashbee – charged not only with containing West Brom’s playmakers, he had to do it alone because of Jay Jay Okocha’s licence to roam. A great captain’s display from Ashbee.
Okocha was, of course, a delight. Part of watching professional football is to see players who can do the sort of things we can never do ourselves. Okocha is such a player. He looks a more focussed individual than in his earlier days at City, and he may play a bigger part in the season than we thought a few weeks ago.
In Garcia and Pedersen, the wings were shored up. Both can attack, both can defend. We are never particularly vulnerable out wide, a major part of our difficulty to beat.
Up front, Campbell is a man with a glittering future who appears to genuinely like being at City. That’s nice, because we like having him here. Folan, who we are fortunate to have on a longer-term basis, looks every inch the modern forward. Tall, pacy, strong, skiful – he’s a man we’d hate to face.
These are incredibly exciting times for English football’s most underachieving club. The three points lift us back to eight, two outside the top six and with the chance to go fifth if we win the game in hand. But more than just the win is the sensation of a vague daydream solidifying itself into a tangible and realistic goal. We’re not just having a good season any more – we’re having a serious crack at promotion to the top division for the first time in our 104 years. (AD)