City are 20th now. This has stopped being a poor start, and is close to becoming a relegation battle. Another poor performance, six games without a win and just a point outside the bottom. Worrying times for the Tigers.
This latest failure to collect three points was not dissimilar to our last outing on the road: a shocking first half, a spirited recovery. That City did fight back to claim a draw offers some hope, but yet another limited attacking display and a fifth successive game without a clean sheet explains why the Tigers just cannot force a victory at the moment.
For an early evening kick-off at Oakwell, our increasing under-pressure manager made three changes to the side that completed back-to-back home defeats last week. Kamil Zayatte and Kevin Kilbane earned recalls, while newly-loaned Liam Rosenior made his debut. It meant that on a balmy autumn evening in South Yorkshire, City’s white-clad XI was assembled thus: Duke; McShane, Gerrard, Rosenior, Dawson (c); Devitt, Zayatte, Cairney, Kilbane; Vine, Barmby. Barnsley had ex-Tiger Nathan Doyle in their starting eleven.
The first half was, well, terrible. Not just City either, but both teams inflicted upon Sky Sports viewers a turgid display. However, despite the stolid nature of the play it was clear that Barnsley were comfortably on top. Chances were at a premium – Rowan Vine lashed a shot well over from outside the area, Hayes did likewise for the home side – but it was slow, dull stuff all around.
Then Barnsley scored. It came in the 24th minute, and was a combination of lousy defending and fine individual skill by Adam Hammill. He collected the ball on the halfway line on the City right, advanced thirty yards with no great attention being paid by the lackadaisical midfield and smote a superb thirty yard shot that went over Duke’s head and in off the underside of the crossbar.
Was Duke out of position? Perhaps, slightly. Should Hammill have been closed down? Undoubtedly. Was it a great strike? Oh yes.
City looked a forlorn outfit at this stage as the previously robust mood in the away end suffered a similar droop. Things worsened shortly afterwards when Nick Barmby limped from the pitch – a minor hamstring injury, we hear. He was replaced by Mark Cullen, who maintained his record of participating in every game this season. His eleventh substitute appearance of 2010/11 commenced in the 29th minute, while Barmby was given a fine ovation as he left the pitch.
Hugo Colace earned the first caution of the afternoon from Andy D’Urso for a foul on Zayatte and the game was nearly put beyond City as half-time neared when firstly Doyle had a chance that he mis-hit and then Hammill had another long-range shot parried by Duke. Yet the Tigers nearly pinched an undeserved equaliser in injury time when Tom Cairney’s free-kick from the right evaded everyone and went in. A very close-looking offside decision saw the benefit of the doubt awarded to the defence.
The mood on the concourses at the interval was not a happy one – and not only because there was an alcohol ban in place. Dark mutterings about Nigel Pearson’s right to remain City manager were evident, while the dismally timid nature of the first half display provoked widespread unhappiness.
Nigel Pearson must have been unhappy too, as he made his second and third substitutions of the afternoon during the break – the ineffective duo of Vine and Devitt hauled off in favour of Caleb Folan and John Bostock. The second half was a livelier affair, with Pearson’s presumably forthright observations spurring his side out their earlier torpor. Barnsley had the first chance of the half though, when the startlingly greedy Hammill fired a shot at Duke instead of feeding a better-position team-mate.
City still hadn’t had a shot on target – and even when they came desperately close that dire fact remained. Just before the hour mark, a marvellous lobbed through-ball by Tom Cairney found Caleb Folan, who’d successfully punctured Barnsley’s offside trap. He seemed to hesitate a fraction before attempt to loft the ball over the onrushing keeper…the ball sailed goalwards…the Barnsley goalie clattered Folan…the ball struck the bar and bounced away.
Folan wasn’t moving though, save for beating the turf in obvious and serious distress. The match was stopped for the City physio to race onto the pitch and administer assistance to the prone striker, whose reaction indicated a serious injury. With Pearson having already made three substitutes we prepared ourselves to cheer on ten men instead of eleven.
However, after a few minutes of intensive treatment Folan did actually limp back onto the pitch, to great acclaim. He’s had his detractors this season and his initial contribution since return from the longest dead leg in the history of medical science has been, umm, limited – but his pain was genuine and we should salute a man willing to play in obvious discomfort in order to keep eleven men on the field.
Hammill was continuing to have a great game and his cross in the 63rd minute for Gray should have produced Barnsley’s second, however he headed wastefully at Duke. It was becoming quite engrossing now as the Tigers sought to use their misfortunes as a source of inspiration. Folan was almost completely immobile but still courageously competed for headers, while Bostock had added greater zip to the midfield. The game was increasingly being played in the half of the pitch nearer to us, and the defiance on the pitch had spread to the away end, which was by then in fine voice.
Hill’s foul on Rosenior earned him a place in Mr D’Urso’s notebook, and on 72 minutes City finally equalised. A foul on the left saw Cairney’s flight in a free-kick. A penalty should have been awarded for obvious shirt-pulling on Gerrard, but play continued, the ball was only half-cleared to Kilbane, whose instant left-footed volley flew past the Barnsley keeper to spark riotous celebrations on and off the field. It was City’s first effort on target.
Barnsley responded with Gray and then Hayes having chances to beat Matt Duke, but both failed to rob City of parity. In the 83rd minute, there was controversy when Andy D’Urso waved away a penalty appeal when O’Brien fell under pressure from Andy Dawson. From our distant view it’d looked as though it’d have been soft but on balance correct; O’Brien’s ludicrous exaggeration probably tilted the decision away from him.
Having held the upper hand in terms of possession, if not necessarily chances, City were now holding on a little. Another penalty claim from Hammill was correctly interpreted as a dive and punished with a yellow card, a squalid piece of spoiling an overall display of high quality.
City’s bar was given a tickle when Andy Dawson headed an effort off the line and up in the air, Duke flailed horribly at the ball and shovelled it on the woodwork, but he dealt with the ball when it eventually fell to him.
With the game now stretched, there was nearly time for Barnsley to pinch the victory when Hammill – AGAIN – was given space, but his low shot prompted a great save by Duke and the point was secured.
So, what to make of this? City were utterly wretched in the first half. A better team would have finished the game in the first forty-five minutes. Yet, Barnsley failed to hammer home their advantage, and City’s fightback was worthy of a point, even if the above does read as though Barnsley had the majority of chances.
However, there’s a lot to be concerned about. Too few goals, too many against, too many half-time deficits to be turned around, too many players not playing anywhere near their best. It is a sobering thought that City are already 19 points behind the leaders.
Two critically important games await. This draw has steadied things a little, even if it remains slightly unsatisfying. Scunthorpe at home and Leeds away will go a very long way to telling us whether relegations concerns are justified at a time when the clocks have only just gone back. Two defeats would certainly see us enter the bottom three. A couple of derby wins would expose those worries as premature. Over to you, City.