The Premier League – Friday 26th December 2008
Wigan: a freakish game when a team scored five goals from four shots on target.
Chelsea: a smooth and assured performance from one of Europe’s best teams
Man U: a spirited defeat against the European and now World Champions
Bolton: an unfortunate reverse largely down to goalkeeping heroics
Sunderland: a level game settled by a fluke deflection and Mike Riley
Thus did all of our previous Premier League defeats provide some solace. Some cite ill-fortune, which sounds churlish as we did have a reasonable splash of good luck in the early weeks of the season. But it also explained some of our previous losses. Comfort always came crumb-sized or greater.
No such consolation can be taken from our first ever trip to the City of Manchester Stadium. And if it sounds profoundly ungrateful to appear cross at a time when City lie seventh in the Premier League in our first attempt at this level, so be it. This was poor, very poor, and let us not shy away from getting our hands dirty discussing it.
Shorn of the services of both Andy Dawson (injury) and Sam Ricketts (Mike Riley), Phil Brown elected to restore Paul McShane to the side at left-back, meaning Mendy slotted in at right-back. Dean Windass made his first ever Premier League start for City, as we lined up on a chilly afternoon in Greater Manchester thus: Myhill; Mendy, Turner, Zayatte, McShane; Ashbee (c), Boateng, Marney; Geovanni, Windass, King.
For the home side, £32m signing Robinho was fit again as Mark Hughes’ struggling charges lined up with Shaun Wright-Phillips, Vincent Kompany and their star man at the Circle Stephen Ireland in the side.
The match started with City kicking towards the far end of the ground from which the sold-out away watched the game, but closer to us a worrying portent came about when Mendy and Myhill involved themselves in a fearful miscommunication that ended when the former French international wandering across the edge of his area with the ball when the City keeper ought to have been allowed to claim it. Troubling.
City responded quite well though, and a neat interplay between King and Windass seeing the former blat a well-struck shot at Joe Hart – he coolly pushed the shot for a corner. From another attack, Boateng saw a shot deflect wide for a corner, which like our previous set-piece by the flag came to nothing.
It was an open start to the game, with the two flanks coming in for particular attention as Bernard Mendy showed a lack of positional sense that was quite extraordinary for one with caps for the French national side, while McShane was clearly struggling on the left. With Robinho and Wright-Phillips sensing blood and City struggling to stem the tide, it did not bode well. And our increasingly sense of foreboding was eventually justified.
Robinho collected the ball in space on the City right; swept it across to Ireland in space on the left; he transferred it to Caicedo in space in the middle who had an easy tap in.
Space, see? City were offering it with excessive of festive spirit, and the home side were eagerly tucking in to it. The home side nearly doubled their lead when Robinho neatly cut inside and sent a shot flashing towards Myhill’s goal – he palmed it to safety. The Tigers nearly fashioned an equaliser decidedly against the run of play when Michael Turner almost fastened onto a corner from the left, but the ball was played to safety.
The respite was temporary. Mark Hughes’ men scored again when Ireland was given space on the right with Caicedo was also in space in the middle – the former passed to the latter, who scored a goal of truly depressing simplicity.
It was becoming a rout. City squandered possession in midfield, a particularly unwise move with Ireland on hand to collect it. He set Robinho free in space, who cut past Turner with uncommon ease and had a straightforward chance to shoot. He made no mistake, and with half an hour gone the game was over.
Caicedo fluffed a great chance for a first half hat-trick when, in space, he headed straight at Myhill. The visibly furious Phil Brown then dragged off the hopelessly outgunned George Boateng in favour of Nathan Doyle – he trotted over to the right-back position, allowing the horribly exposed Bernard Mendy to push forward.
It was 0-4 minutes later. Wright-Phillips advanced in space on the City left, who flicked it inside to Robinho (in space, if you can possibly credit it) who diverted it past Myhill.
This provoked the first murmurings of discord in the away end, though much of the commotion was of those heading off for much-needed alcoholic sustenance. The home side were still in total control, and even the occasional burst of activity from Mendy and Geovanni failed to offer any realistic hope of a comeback.
The half-time whistle was finally blown by referee Marriner, and with it came one of the most surreal sights ever seen even at a City match – no mean feat given the rollercoaster nature of the past fifteen years. Phil Brown, now incandescent with rage, stalked over to the away end, beckoned his players over, sat them all down and delivered a firm bollocking.
The players sat in stunned and meek silence while Brown delivered his deeply unamused verdict, before dismissing them from the pitch and down the tunnel to continue his tirade in private.
An astonishing episode. We’ll touch back on it later, but for now, the second half. It was a non-event, really. Craig Fagan made a welcome appearance for the final forty-five in place of Dean Windass. His thoroughly rotten first-half display suggests it may be the final time we see Deano in black and amber.
We also tweaked the formation, the familiar option of Geovanni moving to an orthodox left-wing position as we changed to 4-4-2. For the Mancs, Jo and Onuoha replaced Richards and Caicedo. It was a quiet half, City playing for pride and achieving it, sort of. Chances were few and far between as the home side also settled for what they had. Cousin trotted on for Geovanni, whose ovation came from all four sides of the ground.
Mendy and Zayatte picked up bookings for rash challenges before City at least ensured that our fantastic record of scoring in every single away game this season when a Cousin shot fell to Craig Fagan, who smartly tucked the ball away.
Sadly the defensive ineptitude was not over for the day: the home side swept straight up to the other end with Robinho, whose clever drag-back found Ireland – wait for it – in space, and he got the goal his fantastic performance deserved.
And that was that, for the home fans at least. With the match entering injury time at least 15-20,000 of a 45,000 crowd had already left, a startling show of ingratitude. Manchester City supporters and their media friends would have us believe that they are among the most loyal and marvellous in the country – a kind of Mancunian Newcastle United. The swathe of empty blue seats as their team completed a superb victory will forever stand as a contradiction of this claim.
At the actual end of the game, Phil Brown against stomped over to the City fans and rather showily applauded us. The players remained some distance away, showing their appreciation from what they gauged was a safe distance. An unnecessary precaution, really. We’ve seen worse, known worse, and however shocking a defeat and performance this was, all was being steadily forgiven and placed into context during the torpid second half.
But the first half…oh dear. This was comfortably City’s worst display of our first crack at the top-flight. Ashbee had a stinker in midfield, Boateng looked several yards off the pace, McShane was ruthlessly exposed in an alien position, Mendy cannot defend, Windass looked a spent force, Geovanni was subdued, Marney was characteristically tireless but submerged by blue, while Turner and Zayatte looked like strangers.
King emerges with credit for an uncomplainingly and unstinting shift up front despite the unending series of fouls committed against him – one wonders if Mr Marriner was trialling a new FIFA directive of “any offence outlined in Law XII will be considered acceptable play if committed against players named Marlon King”. When it got the stage at which the home side were simply hacking him safe in the knowledge that no foul would be given, it grew simply comical – a dash of dark humour on a dark day.
Myhill too looked secure, and could not be blamed for the failings of those charged with shielding him. Fagan looked nippy, and will hopefully start against Aston Villa on Tuesday.
For we have arrived at an interesting crossroads in this season. We still sit in the top half, but less securely than for many weeks. We remain clear of the chasing pack – not quite snapping at our heels yet, but our stumble has brought them into sight. Of course, the pack frequently turns upon itself and slows it own progress, but they are gaining.
Phil Brown’s actions at the interval may, to the uninitiated, appear desperate and unwise. That is not an assessment this observer shares. We made the Premier League and prospered here courtesy of an adventurous manager willing to do the unusual, prepared to take risks. Would we have won at Arsenal with 4-5-1? Do four successive away wins at this level come with playing it safe? They don’t. Phil Brown took a gamble, one entirely consistent with his philosophy, and he deserves it to succeed.
The players, whose efforts thus far have been magnificent, must now respond. Our high standards have fallen throughout the team. If we react with a good performance and a point against Aston Villa on Tuesday, we’ll know the team remains stoutly with him. There are those outside of East Yorkshire who are smugly forecasting a rapid descent down the table and relegation for the most refreshing entrant into English football’s top table for many years. Let us hope that we’ll use the break before Tuesday to clear our hands and, yet again, prove our doubters and detractors wrong. Over to you, City. (AD)
Myhill 7; Mendy 5.5; Turner 6; Zayatte 5.5; McShane 5; Ashbee 5; Marney 5.5; Boateng 5; Geovanni 6; King 8; Windass 5; Doyle 6; Fagan 7; Cousin 6