|The Championship – Saturday 26th April 2008|
Forty-five of the forty-six regular rounds of the Championship are now completed, and still our fate is undecided. We could play another one game, or three, or perhaps four. We can finish as champions, be promoted automatically from second place, win the play-offs at Wembley, lose the play-offs at Wembley, or lose a play-off semi-final at the Circle.
Much, of course is, out of our hands, of which more later. What was in our hands was the chance (and requirement) to beat the Championship’s form team, Crystal Palace, at an engorged Circle. This we did, in our customary thrilling fashion, to leave open such a dizzying array of possibilities over the coming week(s). Never, ever let it be said that being a City fan is not the most exciting thing you can do with your clothes on.
Knowing a City victory was imperative with Stoke’s imminent victory at relegated Colchester, Phil Brown decided to resolve his months-long dilemma of who he should play up front by simply playing all of them, as the Tigers lined up with an adventurous 4-3-3 formation, accommodating the following: Myhill; Ricketts, TurnerBrown, Pedersen; Ashbee (c), Marney, Hughes; Windass, Folan, Campbell.
City had Duke, Doyle, Walton, Barmby and Fagan on the bench, while Colin kept faith with most of the side that had won 2-0 at ailing Watford last weekend to extend Palace’s unbeaten run to ten games.
Before the match, a moment’s applause was given for Billy Fletcher, the young lad taken from us in a road accident en route to Barnsley. The tribute was genuine and warm, and we tip our caps to the Crystal Palace supporters for their enthusiastic participation.
It was the visitors, buoyed by the most lively away support we’ve seen this season, who nearly snatched an early lead – a corner being directed by Mark Hudson on to Boaz Myhill’s post before being hacked to safety.
A let-off – but on a warm and sunny spring afternoon City were looking a little nervy, and only a stern intervention from Wayne Brown prevented a jinking run from Scott Sinclair ending in disaster. With ten minutes yet to be completed, the opposite goal-frame was struck – a peach of a free kick from Deano some 25 yards out totally beating Julian Speroni, but hitting wood and bouncing out just beyond the reach of Michael Turner.
Already at a brisk pace, the game stepped up another gear and Ben Watson fired a shot narrowly over the bar – but a minute later we led.
Fraizer Campbell was the scorer, with another gem of a goal. Collecting possession with his back to goal twenty yards out, he executed an improbable piece of control to swivel in an instant, shift the ball rightwards and flash a right-footed drive past the bewildered Speroni. An absolute peach from a player who is now close to exhausting our supply of genuflecting adjectives.
With another capacity crowd exultant, City were firmly on top and a few minutes later the ball was in the Palace goal again – sadly disallowed when the East Stand linesman determined that Deano was offside while neatly volleying home a Hughes cross. A close decision. We’ll award the flagman the benefit of the doubt.
Deano was everywhere, but his afternoon, and possibly season, was soon to be curtailed. A wicked challenge from Shaun Derry felled our iconic striker, and while referee Booth played the advantage, he failed to pull it back when this instantly withered and with Windass in distress on the turf, Palace sprang forward and nearly fashioned a shooting chance while the City fans howled in outrage.
When play finally halted, Deano was finally able to leave the pitch, sporting a wound visible from the stands. And he was not impressed by events, trying to escape the clutches of clearer-headed team-mates to visit justice upon Derry, which would likely have resulted in Derry eating through a straw for several months. Still raging, Windass was finally escorted off and a red-booted Fagan hopped on to replace him. Derry was cautioned, luckily, and spent the remainder of the afternoon receiving the bitter scorn reserved for a Leeds player who’s attempted to cripple a hero.
It was a white-hot atmosphere in the ground now, with both sets of fans creating an impressive din in support of their sides. The visitors nearly had something to cheer with half an hour gone, when Michael Turner deflected a cross heart-stoppingly close to his own goal, though the ball thankfully flashed inches wide.
Phil Brown’s options for later in the game reduced yet further when Henrik Pedersen had to be withdrawn. He hadn’t looked fully fit, and on came Nathan Doyle for just his third appearance of this season. Though we weren’t to know it, this was to be a telling moment.
Seven minutes before the break, Crystal Palace equalised. Wayne Brown halted a tidy move by Colin’s charges, but showed dopey indecision on the scale of his Prime Ministerial namesake in possession, which allowed Morrison to rob him of the ball – it fell to Sinclair, who poked it past Myhill for the game’s second goal.
A kick in the knackers, but on balance, a deserved leveller for Palace. The mood, once exuberant, darkened further with news of a Stoke goal at Colchester, with odds of 1/infinity being offered on it coming from a long throw proving to be generous.
Owing to the extensive delay for Deano’s injury and subsequent rage, our game was several minutes behind Layer Road, and the second didn’t get underway until 16.08 – the tension of the afternoon was evident immediately, as the City support quietened, aware that as things stood Tony Pulis’ anti-football was just forty-minutes away from success.
Would we fall apart as harmfully as at Bramall Lane? Or was there to be yet another heroic effort from the Tigers to take it to the final week? Nails were chewed, sighs were expelled, many stood throughout, all fretted – and proceeded to watch, spellbound, as City tore into Crystal Palace for 45 exhilarating minutes.
The first real chance came from an outswinging corner by Dean Marney, which was meatily met by Michael Turner, but unusually his set-piece direction was lacking and the ball flew harmlessly wide. At the other end, Hudson also flashed a header wide, but increasingly the play was all coming at the packed South Stand towards which City were kicking.
Much of this was by rapidly transferring the ball forward. Not the unwatchable long-ball rubbish preferred by such sides as Stoke and Watford, but with City playing a tight 4-3-3 with little width in midfield, it primarily involved the two full-backs chipping the ball through the midfield for the frighteningly quick trio of Campbell, Fagan and Folan to chase. Although the shortage of manpower in the midfield had led to us struggling to exert much control on the shape of the game in the first half, Ashbee was now doing the work of several men, all of them excellent, while Marney and Hughes were scampering around in nimble supporting roles.
Palace were struggling to contend with this, and fell further and further back as City’s urgent need for victory carried us deeper into enemy territory, and for longer.
A word, now, for some of the men making the second half such a compelling spectacle. Nathan Doyle. Ah, where has he been all season? This is meant as no criticism of Sam Ricketts, a legitimate player of the year candidate, or Andy Dawson, who has stepped up this level in a quite unexpected manner. However, that this was his first League outing of the season suddenly seemed quite peculiar, as he put in a rather wonderful shift at left back. Quick, skilful, disciplined in position and with an eye for a speedy pass forward, he was terrific. Indeed, he nearly scored a wonder goal of his own with a piercing run from deep that carried him past seemingly half of the Palace side, before sadly blazing his shot wide from about fifteen yards.
Ian Ashbee we have already mentioned, but his fist-shaking intensity coupled with the diligent midfield play so imperative to his worth were all present. His place as a City legend is, thankfully, no longer in doubt.
Mr Booth, thy miscreant whistleblower. An errant, performance, and arguably the worst we’ve seen all season. There was a wholly astonishing period in the second half where virtually every single decision that was not 100/0 in our favour went the way of the visitors, and his cowardice in awarding decisions to whoever was the defending side could only serve to punish City. Very poor.
With 22 minutes left and Stoke only quarter of an hour from a win no-one doubted they would complete, Phil Brown made the only attacking change open to him, bringing on Nick Barmby, although Bryan Hughes can count himself a little unfortunate to have been withdrawn.
City continued driving forward, just a hint of desperation creeping in. However, it was slipping agonisingly beyond us. The City crowd, orchestrated for once by those inhabiting the south-east corner, was showing commendable defiance and the noise continued to build as our hopes began to slide, but Palace have not surged into the top six without showing plenty of resilience themselves, and they grimly hung on.
Campbell had a snapshot well parried by Speroni, Mr Booth turned down a penalty shout that was only half-hearted because not one single person in the stadium considered him possible of giving such a decision, we continued to hurl balls in and curse a higher power as they were all cleared, just, and that instant of fortune we needed mockingly eluded us.
Then, with injury time underway at Layer Road and 85 minutes on the clock at the Circle, cometh our captain. Palace had what looked like a clear corner denied to them, to cries of hallelujah from the City fans, initially gobsmacked that Mr Booth was capable of pointing in a direction that wasn’t north, City bounded downfield and won a corner than Dean Marney hared over to take.
His delivery was immaculate, and it met Ian Ashbee hanging an immense distance off the ground. His connection was sweet, and from fifteen yards the ball arced beyond Speroni’s camera-friendly dive and crashed into the goal.
Utter pandemonium detonated around the stadium. One of the most intense goal celebrations witnessed in the Circle’s short life shook the air and suddenly the dream was – just – back on.
The final minutes were played out amid a haze of delirium, so fervent that even the usually, ahem, more reserved patrons of the West Stand were flinging out arms and belting out anthems. The noise rolled around the clean corners of our magnificent home and assailed the ears as our final stand was rewarded with an utter cacophony. A quite memorable scene.
Little more of the match is worth reporting, for Palace took their defeat like men (as manly as southerners for whom “fack” is a proper word, at least) and trudged off to their horrible part of their horrible city, while we feted our heroes off the pitch, and then after serenading our recently triumphant Juniors, feted them once more in an end(ish)-of-season lap of honour.
And how we should remember this side. There is Deano, changed, be-suited and on crutches, beaming with pride at being among his own. There is Phil Brown, pointing skyward again, still believing. There is Ian Ashbee, his place in our affectations secure again (and how your correspondent cringes at his prior ingratitude). There is Fraizer Campbell, shyly accepting thunderous acclaim from fans of another club, hopefully knowing his six amazing months here will make him welcome forever in East Yorkshire. There is Brian Horton, standing slightly to one side, the quiet mastermind in the background. There are various children of the players, slightly agog. And lastly there is the chairman, sporting the same brown shoes as appear to have become an unofficial trademark of the club, positively revelling in the cheers, doing a slightly unbecoming yet hugely endearing jig, his chest puffing out to hear the first – but surely not last – cry of “one Paul Duffen”. The East Stand loved him.
And finally they went back to the dressing room, and we too left, wondering how we’ll get through the final nerve-wracking days of this arresting season. We all know the permutations – failure to win at Ipswich, and we’ll stay third. Victory there will still count for nothing unless Stoke lose at home to struggling Leicester, OR West Brom fail to get a single point against Southampton on Monday evening and at QPR next weekend.
It’s hopelessly out of our hands. But then we always knew that, and while people who think that football and grass should be kept firmly apart appear seem destined to prosper at our expense, we cannot overly concern ourselves with the injustice of that. We can only travel to Ipswich in our official and unofficial thousands, hope to overturn the division’s best home record, and hope that someone does us a massive favour elsewhere.
And if they don’t, the worst that’ll happen is that we’ll finish third, and take on any of Bristol, Watford, Palace, Wolves or Ipswich in the play-offs, all but one of whom have already lost at the Circle and all but two of whom we’ve either beaten on aggregate – one being a latest score of 3-1, the other being a shattered and deflated Bristol. Hardly the end of the world.
There’s no pressure on us any longer. We can roll up at Portman Road, enjoy ourselves, hope for a miracle, but most of all, feast our eyes once again upon what is now unquestionably the greatest City side of all-time, and wonder at how and where the journey will end. And so, to Ipswich… (AD)
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