The Premier League – Saturday 6th December 2008
Ten minutes remain, and the Circle is subdued and fretful, the mood as dismayed as it’s been at any time this season. Middlesbrough lead 1-0, their fans are in full voice, and we gloomily reconcile ourselves to a seventh game without victory ahead of a trip to the League leaders next season.
Six minutes later and we remain fretful, this time over our prospects of holding onto a lead that was sudden, unexpected and quite thrilling. Now, however, the Circle was awash with noise and fervour, the mood was once that familiar but never boring species of triumph which with most of this startling campaign will be forever associated.
At the start of this season, a discussion was held among my regular travellers as to our prospects of winning from behind even once in the Premier League. Majority view held that once was about conceivable, but far from probable. Surely sides at this level would simply close us out once ahead? We’ve done it three times in the “2008” part of the season already, a fact that grows no less arresting for being frequently related.
Testament, then, to the quite extraordinary spirit of the team and its inspirational leader. We all fancy ourselves as sagely observers of the side, yet I freely concede I saw no way back yesterday despite the precedents for it. Or against Man C. Or Portsmouth twice. I should know better. Falling behind seems only a minor irritant to this remarkable side of ours, and even being desperately short of time in a fixture seems of little importance. Middlesbrough will have left another sold-out KC Stadium wondering quite what happened to them – if it’s any consolation to their impressive visiting support, their bewilderment has been experienced by others, and is to some extent shared by us.
Keeping the dream alive at a chilly Circle this week were: Myhill; McShane, Turner, Zayatte, Ricketts; Ashbee (c), Marney, Boateng; Geovanni, King, Barmby. George Boateng was afforded a generous hand by the Middlesbrough supporters populating one half of the North Stand before the game, who were then treated to the sight of their own team trooping over for a huddle right in front of them; sadly referee Mr Tanner allowed his plans for kick-off to be delayed, when blowing the whistle and allowing the waiting City side to march through an empty Middlesbrough half would have been easily the more entertaining option.
We’d have needed it too, because the opening minutes were worryingly one-sided in favour of the visitors. A brace of menacing corners were delivered and only half-dealt with, the second requiring a number of steely challenges to be inserted to block thumping Middlesbrough shots before Mr Tanner spotted a foul and gave City a much-needed respite.
Middlesbrough remained on top however, and when Downing cut in from the left he appeared to have a lot of goal to aim for as Myhill has slightly got his angles wrong – however, the sometime England winger hit his low shot too close to the City keeper, whose handling was assured.
Despite their early territorial advantage, Middlesbrough failed to fashion many clear chances and City gradually settled into the game. It wasn’t the most technically accomplished of affairs, but with Messrs Brown and Southgate having instructed their sides to attack at every opportunity, it was an appealingly open game.
Midway through the half City should have taken the lead when a sumptuous ball by Nick Barmby released Geovanni on the right. He darted forward and advanced on Ross Turnbull’s goal, but instead of shooting from an acute but certainly presentable angle, he squared the ball to King, who was being well marshalled by David Wheater and he cleared the ball to safety. It was the start of a strange afternoon for Geovanni, who made a rare poor decision in this instance, and followed it up six minutes when a superb ball in by King picked him out unmarked and onside eight yards from goal – his diving header flew some twenty yards wide.
Despite this, City always look dangerous when our Brazilian hero is involved, and as City began to enjoy the better of the game he wriggled free twenty yards from goal, rushed forward and drew a clumsy foul on the edge of the area. The stadium throbbed with the expectant hum of excitement that can only come when a former Brazil international is about to take a direct free-kick on the edge of the area – sadly his shot deflected for a corner that was irritatingly wasted.
It was becoming the Geovanni show, and a genuine privilege it was to watch. When the adventure is over, when City are no longer in the top flight, when the wheel of fortune transports us back to football’s flip-side, memories of watching Geovanni at the height of his powers will keep us all warm. His next contribution was to somehow fashion a shot from a zippy ball that arrived waist height twenty yards from goal and with Wheater chivvying away (legally) behind him; Geo’s glancing first-time shot flew through the air and for a thrilling second it looked as though it may loop over Turnbull and in, but sadly it dropped back to earth enough for the Middlesbrough keeper to safely catch.
Middlesbrough were struggling a little as Boateng and Marney’s relentless midfield work closed them down in the centre of the field, and it looked like our reward for this vigorous improvement since the opening minutes would arrive when Ricketts (again) danced free of his marker on the City left and delivered a sharp low cross into the area. It passed by a few bodies but was met by Geovanni’s head – astonishingly, he directed this header even further wide.
Middlesbrough rallied as the half drew to a close when an Aliadiere cross from the right fell to down; he slashed at the ball and sliced into the side-netting, although Myhill appeared to have the effort covered. That was the final action of the first forty-five – an entertaining game that didn’t look destined to end goalless.
Or so it seemed as we enjoyed our half-time beverages; the beginning of the second half was rather quiet, as though both managers had been just a little concerned at the frequent advancement of their enemy and wished to tighten things up a bit.
In fact, it became a stolid game, typified by Ian Ashbee’s sixth caution of the season for a deliberate foul on Alves after the City skipper lost possession on the halfway line and had little option but to cynically chop down the Boro player.
The stadium had quietened considerably, and with an hour gone Phil Brown could tolerate the drift no longer, withdrawing Barmby and Marney for Mendy and Cousin – Mendy slotting in on the right to give us the width we’d lacked throughout the game on that flank, Geovanni moving back a little as King and Cousin spearheaded the City attack in a 4-3-1-2 formation.
Geovanni was involved another flowing moving from deep, drawing two Middlesbrough players in before releasing King on the right hand side of the area. His first touch wasn’t the most secure, and it made a tough chance even harder as he eventually swiped the ball high and wide.
With twelve minutes remaining and anyone who’d backed fewed three goals already spending their winnings, the match detonated. Justin Hoyte scampered away down the right with a troubling lack of City intervention; he got into a position close to the by-line and squared it to Tuncay, who neatly backheeled the ball into an open goal. The City players protested about the goal being offside, but Tuncay looked level with Hoyte and the ball was square, and the appeal looked more desperate than genuine.
Disappointment washed over us all – this wasn’t a game we’d deserved to lose, but a critical lapse (and a good Middlesbrough move) looked to have done for us. Not so. Ninety seconds later we were level.
A cross from the City left was only partially cleared and the ball fell to Mendy, eighteen yards from goal on the right of the area. He speedily shifted the ball to his right and created a shooting chance – his low effort flew past Turnbull and struck the post, hit the prone keeper and dribbled over the line despite an attempt to clear it. The linesman immediately flagged for the goal and Mendy raced off to the subs’ bench to celebrate – meanwhile, the City fans rejoiced in delight at such a speedy and decisive riposte.
How swiftly the mood can alter in a game of football! Suddenly our tails were up, songs were being sung, our players were swarming forward and Middlesbrough looked fearful, having had their lead snatched away so swiftly.
City smelled blood, and three minutes after equalising we led, in highly controversial circumstances. Geovanni fastened onto a long ball and was allowed to run through on goal despite appearing clearly offside. David Wheater made a significant error in appealing for a decision instead of attending to Geovanni, and this allowed the City forward to get in front of him and enter the area, where he was felled by a covering challenge by Wheater.
Mr Tanner took a moment to decide before pointing at the spot and immediately showing Wheater a red card as the stadium bellowed in frenzied delight. Now, we need to be fair here. Football’s a game of noise, passion, colour, and we all howled for the decision and cheered its award, but this needn’t prevent it being analysed in a sober fashion the day after the event. It was not a penalty. Geovanni did not dive, but a foul did not appear to be committed. And he was undoubtedly offside. Middlesbrough were harshly dealt with, and can consider themselves unfortunate. They’re unlikely to hear our contention that we’d been on the other end of a bad penalty decision seven days ago with a particularly sympathetic ear.
But we WERE as unlucky last week as we were fortunate this week, and it was down to Marlon King to capitalise upon this corrective stroke of luck. The Circle was beset by a terrified hush, the vital nature of the kick apparent to all. His penalty was eerily reminiscent of Fuller’s last week, a weak shot only just beat the keeper, but beat him it did, and the celebrations were long and lusty on both terrace and field.
The ten Middlesbrough players were visibly unhappy with their lot, but City have closed games out impressively this season, and Mr Tanner had one more nice surprise for us by issuing only three extra minutes – they were safely negotiated.
A huge, huge win. No-one was panicking about six winless games, but in a league as viciously competitive as this, that can only go on so long. Imagine it – Middlesbrough making it seven, the likelihood of an eighth at Anfield, then if a new manager at Sunderland energised them make it nine, a hard trip to Man C, then Villa at home…
Winless runs can only go so long. We played well throughout it, of course. Old Trafford remains a treasured memory from the earlier portion of it, while Man C and Portsmouth provided both entertainment and valuable points. But only now that laid it to rest does the realisation of how it was gnawing away become apparent.
Life looks a lot rosier today. It was still pretty good before, of course. But this lifts us back to fifth, and we can treat Anfield as a shot to nothing before targeting Sunderland as the chance to put serious distance between us and them, still safe in the knowledge that we’ll enter the New Year with a minimum of 26 points and only five more wins away from being able to prepare for Premier League football remaining in Hull in 2009/10. And all thanks to a team that simply does not know when it is unbeaten. (AD)