|The Championship – Tuesday 15th April 2008|
Phil Brown strode from the pitch at full-time. His hair was sodden, his lovely shoes were a little grimy, but his grin lit the night sky, and he was jabbing his finger skyward. He thinks we’re going up. Sure, he may couch that in the anodyne language of the professional football manager when making his public utterances, but deep down he thinks it all the same. After this latest Tiger masterclass, few would argue with him.
City travelled to Barnsley knowing that victory would send us into the automatic promotion places, also knowing that changes would be forced upon us after Garcia and Pedersen both picked up injuries in Saturday’s frustrating draw against QPR. Never one to be shy, the City manager fielded two attacking replacements, Hughes and Fagan, and opted for pace up front by selecting Folan over Windass.
It meant that on a cool, blustery and (initially) dry evening in South Yorkshire, the Tigers lined up for the attending Sky cameras in the familiar 4-4-2 formation, populated thus: Myhill; Ricketts, TurnerBrown, Dawson; Fagan, Ashbee (c), Marney, Hughes; Folan, Campbell. Barnsley were once again without their captain Howard, but did field Cardiff’s FA Cup semi-final hero Kayode Adejayi, presumably for comic effect.
City nearly led after a minute when a back-headed from a block-headed Barnsley defender found keeper Luke Steele wandering around outside his goal area – the ball dribbled towards goal, but was hacked to safety with a yard or two to spare.
It was an open start to the game, City looking slick in possession attacking the home end, while Barnsley appeared a side confident after some timely victories of late. They had the evening’s first deliberate attempt on goal, a shot from Macken sailing over, though not by much.
Campbell was the next to clear the crossbar after he wriggled free on the edge of the area – and halfway through the opening half, was instrumental in us taking the lead.
He skipped into a yard of space in the area, knocked the ball past his marker – one Dennis Souza – and was then sent crashing to the turf when the aforementioned’s lunge missed ball but found shin.
130 yards away, four thousand people suddenly reconnected with the Almighty as Dean Marney, showing character after his miss at Leicester, prepared to take the penalty…and his kick was unerring, sending Steele the wrong way to give City a priceless lead. Capering abounded.
This settled City, who used every available outlet to control the ball and decide on the game’s pace and direction. Barnsley were already thinking about half time. Dawson and Ricketts were utilised in attack with delicious frequency; Ashbee was composed in possession and kept the flow of the game alive; Marney supported the two men of danger up front; Hughes scuttled in and out from his flank with finesse, a marked contrast to the invisible Fagan, the night’s only (minor) disappointment. City were hot, Barnsley were not.
The break came, in a violent, rattling hailstorm, and the Tiger Nation met with acquaintances on the broad Barnsley concourses, all convinced but nervous, hopeful but unwilling to commit to prediction. We’d experienced too much pain for that. Yet under it all, there was an unshakeable belief in the team, the individuals within, the manager and his sidekicks. This was a game we were never going to let slip. As the speakers played This Charming Man as a soundtrack to the retaking of our seats, the players re-emerged, and the noise which greeted was the loudest I’ve heard from the City support all season.
City settled down as if they’d never left the stage. A set-piece from the right gave Campbell the sort of space which should earn a free transfer for the defender responsible for shadowing him, but Steele blocked with his ankles. A corner, inswung by Marney, and headed home with vein-bursting power by Ashbee prompted scenes of delirium not seen since, well, the last ones. We’ve had a few lately. A supporter unwisely and unhelpfully leaps to the byline to join in the group hug, and the skipper manages to give him a forgiving cuddle within his joy before the hulkish stewards drag the bloke off the pitch, out of the ground and possibly on to the life ban list.
It’s 0-2, it’s comfortable, and it could now be a thrashing.
City relaxed without ever letting their concentration slip, and we were treated to a period of unabashed dominance and football of splendour and art. Chances were created. Campbell has one drive beaten out by Steele; Folan charges thrillingly down the left and glides through a low cross which just evades everyone; Campbell nods a corner wide of the far post. There were more.
Fagan, the night’s odd man out, is withdrawn and on comes France. City maintain their stranglehold, Barnsley duly begging for the throttling session to cease. As Windass warms up, I can almost hear the TV commentator muse out loud about a fairytale ending, about his 40th year, about his rapport with the supporters. Folan reciprocates the elongated applause upon his number going up and canters off, and on comes Deano. Play restarts, Hughes lofts one down the inside left channel, and Campbell, insolently, clips a divine backheel into the path of the newcomer. Windass smashes a left foot shot under Steele, who should have had it, but nobody cares. Like Martin Luther King seeking the promised land, Windass stands before his adoring, bellowing public, arms outstretched, telling them through gesture to believe what they’d seen and what was going to happen. God, that moment felt good. The fairytale had been written instantly, but this was a stunning work of non-fiction. It was true, real, based on proper events, the characters weren’t fictitious. We’ve got three games’ worth of ending to read.
Ferenczi prevented Myhill from adding a clean sheet bonus to April’s invoice with an injury time diving header, but given that goal difference is only going to benefit us, it didn’t really matter. The Tiger Nation got one more jubilant, vindicated wave from Phil Brown (Peter Taylor used to applaud rather than wave; Brown prefers to resemble an air traffic controller who’d forgotten his stuff) before the ref shrilled three times.
What a night. The dual reaction of players, management and fans suggests we’re all thinking the same thing. Our form, experience, late penetration of the top two positions and general confidence in a division “nobody wants to win” (copyright every national newspaper that’s not noticed us) makes us believe that, despite the difficulty of the fixtures which remain, it’s really going to happen. Phil Brown’s body language says it will. The chairman keeps talking about “when” we’re in the Premier League. The players are in no doubt they should do it. Everyone at the club is telling us to “dare to dream” – believe us, we’re daring, we’re daring (MR)
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