|The Championship – Saturday 19th April 2008|
How different the world feels today. Three points behind Stoke, whose run-in could scarcely be easier – only two games remaining, which for us suddenly appear dauntingly tough. Automatic promotion seemed so real, so possible, in the aftermath of Barnsley. Now the Tiger Nation is suffering a collective hangover.
Phil Brown made just a single change to the side that won so handsomely at Oakwell on Tuesday, forced upon him by Wayne Brown’s unavailability. It meant a recall to the side for David Livermore, making his first appearance since the Cup defeat at Plymouth in early January. It meant that on a breezy afternoon at Bramall Lane the Tigers lined up in our now-standard 4-4-2 formation with the following weary XI of: Myhill; Rickets, Turner, Livermore, Dawson; Fagan, Ashbee (c), Marney, Hughes; Folan, Campbell.
For Sheffield United, revitalised since replacing the eternally clueless Bryan Robson with the shrewder presence of Kevin Blackwell, only one change was made – Halls in for Geary. Lining up for them was also comedy keeper Paddy Kenny as well as the experienced and talented Speed, Kilgallon, Tonge, Morgan and Beattie. The home fans yesterday must have wondered how such a side has been nowhere near the top all season long.
This is not a happy hunting ground for City, with our last victory in this part of South Yorkshire now some 37 years ago. Despite this unpromising statistic, the maximum permitted Tiger turnout of 4,200 was in presence. Sadly we were to spend much of the afternoon brooding.
It was a bitty but fast-paced start to the game, Campbell having the first attempt of the afternoon kicking towards Sheffield’s engorged Kop end, but the deflection on his long-range effort saw it bobble harmlessly into Kenny’s clutches. Tonge retaliated with a scorching and worryingly unimpeded run through the midfield, though his shot flew comfortably over.
Livermore was sadly looking a midfielder in a defender’s role, trying gamely but lacking the instinct, and he was cautioned (a trifle harshly) by referee Phil Dowd for a foul that more clumsy than ill-intentioned.
Chris Morgan then significantly found his way into the earnest Mr Dowd’s book, Craig Fagan then idiotically joining him after a witlessly becoming involved in a brief spat.
Halfway through a half in which the pace had now dropped, Marney had a great chance when the ball fell to him on the edge of the area, but his connection was leaden and the shot screwed wide and game began to meander a little…whereupon suddenly it sprang to life just before the break.
Fraizer Campbell was given a rare chance to run at the Sheffield defence, with only Chris Morgan in attendance. Campbell hared past him, and was halted only by a clear tug of the shirt. Mr Dowd consulted with a linesman, presumably only to ascertain the precise location of the offence, before inviting Morgan to undertake a spectating brief in the second half.
The mood at half-time was bullish. West Brom were merrily sailing into the distance at Norwich, but surely we would grasp the game against a numerically disadvantaged adversary in the second forty-five. Out we went, dreaming of glory, of cementing second place…
Our world caved in completely. As inexplicable as it was unexpected, the second half was our most rotten showing since the 0-4 gubbing at Southampton last year. It is impossible to understand just how it happened.
We even had ample warning, when Myhill was required to make a flying save to thwart Sharp. But a few moments later the ball fell to Quinn, unattended in the area, and his beautifully-hit shot flashed past the City keeper. Black despair and panic washed over us.
Not that it appeared to affect the City players. Our ability to keep the ball was much improved upon, as you may reasonably expect against ten men. But we kept to a pattern of neat play, probing, searching…but the cutting edge was wholly absent. Pedersen replaced the dismally ineffective Fagan, followed by Deano coming on for Dawson as City moved to a 4-3-3 formation – then Sheffield scored again and the game was lost.
It came from a penalty, a little softly, but broadly uncontested by the dejected City players. Plaintive cries of “the referee’s from Stoke” – true, as it transpires, and one may justifiably wonder just how a referee from that part of the world was appointed to this particular fixture. Though we shall not cast aspersions upon the character of Mr Dowd. He was fussy, he spent much of the game oscillating between giving 50/50s to us and then them, but no foul play can reasonably be suspected. It was, however, an intriguing appointment.
The penalty was nervelessly converted by Beattie, and the game was up. The home fans crowed smugly at our fast-receding Premiership aspirations, we cursed sullenly, and waited for full-time. For the record – France replaced the forlorn Livermore, a sole halfwit invaded the pitch from the away end and will probably be absent from City games for some time as a consequence, Marney spannered another glorious chance just wide, Deano had a free-kick adeptly saved – and oh, sod it, that’s enough.
Not much else happened anyway. City had a thoroughly lamentable day at the office – no more, no less. No means of explaining how it happened can shed any light upon it.
But how ill-timed it has been. Stoke’s subsequent and wholly unsurprisingly win over Bristol City means that promotion is theirs to lose – four points from their games against Colchester (bottom) and Leicester (fifth-bottom) will make them uncatchable, even assuming we beat an in-form Palace and become only the second side this season to win at Portman Road.
Suddenly, the dream has grown much more distant. On a happier note, we are now mathematically assured of the play-offs – and yes, of course if we’d been offered a guaranteed top-six spot last August, we’d have eagerly grabbed it. But for a few thrilling days, so much more seemed possible. It is not always better to have loved and lost.
Now all that remains is to pray for a hugely improbable collapse in Stoke while hoping we can end this amazing season with six more points – either to capitalise upon a Staffordshire-based cataclysm, or to ensure we get home advantage in the second leg of the play-offs.
Play-offs. Ulp. I’m bricking it already. (AD)
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