That invincible home record, the one saving grace within a deeply dysfunctional season, seems a million miles away now. Five days, two defeats, deserved and extended criticism and little immediate cause for optimism.
It does City an odd favour that the latest team to outthink them in the Championship brought with them their own personal soap opera, as the timing of their win, and an impressive win too, meant that on a national scale at least, the problems of our own cash-strapped ex-Premier League club were thoroughly glossed over. But locally, it is acknowledged there are problems. It is starting to feel like the Phil Parkinson era all over again. New manager following an achiever whose place in club legend is secure, purchases players in whom he seems to have limited faith, offers little in terms of encouraging noise during and after matches and has genuinely no idea how he really wants to play.
Nigel Pearson is, if the Parkinson template holds firm, a month away from the sack now. And then what?
In that month, we have away games at Barnsley and Leeds United sandwiching a home fixture with Scunthorpe United. Emotionally there are no bigger games in this division than those three, irrespective of who is where in the table and how each is faring. The emotions are going to run even higher now as we prepare for a visit to Oakwell next week, television cameras waiting to pounce, knowing that we either are at our best – 07/08, the Ashbee header, the Windass cameo and instant goal, Phil Brown’s upward-pointing finger – or our dismal worst – 06/07, the Ashbee shrug, Phil Brown’s probable nadir during his period as an unheralded manager – when we go there. Then, any manager who loses at home to Scunthorpe United deserves all he gets (and all he doesn’t get). Three days on from that, the trip to Elland Road. Meagre words do not adequately describe the feelings going into that game for any member of the Tiger Nation.
As I said, it does City a favour that Portsmouth have their own tribulations to cope with which, even though we are evidently still encased by financial weaknesses and ownership uncertainty, still make our situation look positively solid. So let them have the credit – they deserve it – as victory for them is attached more to the spirit in the club undoubtedly enhanced further by the saga at its base. Hardly anyone will mention how bad we were or how much in trouble we look. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t there.
The defeat against Sheffield United was clueless and an offence to the notion of paying money in exchange for entertainment and application. It was made worse by the fact that the Blades, a team we’ve still not beaten in the League since 1983, are hardly great purveyors of flair football. Portsmouth are a better side than Sheffield United and we played better against them. Only the stupidly optimistic would regard that as a real step forward, especially as, from the evidence so far, the Championship is a division generally lacking in quality and yet despite this, with our Premier League pedigree, experienced squad and allegedly sought-after manager, we’re someone else’s result away from going into three massive derbies in the relegation zone.
Pearson may sort it out, of course. The East Stand implored him to against Portsmouth, whose manager Steve Cotterill was ribbed in some quarters when his name came up as a possible candidate during vacant periods in Hull City’s sequence of managers. But he’s generally been a success everywhere he has gone as the main man. His ludicrous achievements at Cheltenham should never be underestimated just because they were in the non-league. That club remains in the League now because of him, still. He was organising a quiet revolution at Burnley until a short sticky period activated an itchy chairman’s trigger finger and he was dumped, unfairly, after defeat to City within that humorous sequence of managers getting sacked after losing to the Tigers. He didn’t have Notts County for long, but they were way behind Rochdale when he took over last season and he took them on a hugely impressive run that ended up with their coasting to the League Two title.
Most of this below Championship level, of course, but who’s to say that he isn’t the man to take Portsmouth back to the Premier League at the first go? If the club survive, which we always knew would probably happen, only a confounded moron would not take Cotterill’s run of three straight wins and brilliant use of the loan system – I loathe Liam Lawrence, but heavens to betsy we need him in our team – as a sign of what is ahead. If Portsmouth sort themselves out and the new owner doesn’t turn out to be a berk, then I think they’ll go up.
They were miles and miles better than City at the Circle. Pearson picked a new side, reverting to 4-4-2. He made good choices – starting Nick Barmby, telling Caleb Folan to leave his boots in his locker, giving a bright-looking Jamie Devitt a full City debut – but it’s notable just how much he has inherited is surviving his desperate attempts to find the winning formula. Jay Simpson cost a fortune and can’t get in the side. Pearson is right to keep him out and, for once unlike Parkinson, is happy to accetpt that his own men should earn their place like those who aren’t, but it really is time to start questioning the judgment shown in paying real cash to Arsenal in the first place. Elsewhere, John Bostock is all self and no team and also, rightly but worryingly, off the Pearson radar. Rowan Vine is still settling but after a very promising debut, looked like a different human being against Portsmouth. Robert Koren is gifted but we’d like up to ten good things per game, as one is just not enough. Only the two centre backs, both of whom we have to hand back at some point, look like being cast as real successes, even though they proved in both of these home matches that they’re prone to looking daft.
The team then. Duke, McShane, Dawson, Ayala, Gerrard, Cairney, Koren, Devitt, Solano, Barmby, Vine.
City made some mild chances early on, with Koren seeing a shot from distance easily held by Jamie Ashdown and then Nick Barmby, easily the best performer in stripes, aiming a flick header from a Devitt cross again straight at the keeper’s chops. Daniel Ayala then sidefooted a volley over after Devitt retrieved a half-cleared Tom Cairney free kick to return the ball. Portsmouth coped, slowed the game down and, despite making fewer chances, still looked in relative command.
They proved they meant business when David Nugent, lest we forget a fully capped England player, strode with purpose down the left before cutting inside and belting a shot from 20 yards against Matt Duke’s crossbar with the City keeper comprehensively beaten. It felt ominous, and City had a most fortunate escape when John Utaka had a free header just three yards from goal and aimed it straight at Duke’s torso, prior to bashing the rebound wide. Devitt nearly calmed our frayed nerves with a fine diving header from Nolberto Solano’s cross that flashed inches wide, but as the injury time board went up, there was little to get excited about.
Then City had a set-piece cleared and Portsmouth broke, with Nugent working the soggy offside trap to perfection and running clear, free and with only one result in mind as Duke tried to commit him early by coming to the the edge of his box. The Portsmouth striker glided an expert finish past the City keeper and they had the lead, seconds before the half time whistle was due. And you know what? Not one City striker, on or off the pitch, could have scored that sort of goal. It had pace, awareness, timing and absolute confidence, all courtesy of the same mna. We have none of those things within a single player.
Pearson gave a debut to James Harper for the second half, and although he looked a solid and calming presence in midfield, by the time he had taken his first couple of touches, Portsmouth were two up. The free kick was softly conceded and Greg Halford, more known for towering headers rather than meticulous set-piece execution, belted it through the wall – not over, not round, but through – and Duke was rooted to the spot by a slight deflection.
Nugent put a good chance over as City were carved apart. Oh boy, was this poor now. Really wretched. And this made the craftmanship of City’s goal, within 15 minutes of Halford’s strike, all the more difficult to understand, but we acknowledged it and roared them on. Koren, more anonymous than ever, did his usual thing of turning up, executing a masterly piece of football expertly and then vanishing again. This time it was a cracking ball on the turn from the left hand side – think Richard Garcia for Manucho, March 2008 – which Ashdown lost in flight and Barmby met with a far post header, reducing the deficit (topical) and offering hope. False hope, but hope.
Koren tweaked something in the act of crossing and was taken off for Simpson, who was beyond all realms of ineffective and unenthralled by the occasion. He might still come good – all of Parkinson’s major signings did to at least a qualified level, although only after the chap who acquired them had been ditched – but right now he looks like one of those traditionally awful take-all, give-nothing strikers that we’ve been prone to signing down the decades.
Portsmouth slowed the game right down, and quite correctly too. They looked comfortable, together and fit. Cotterill has done so well to keep his team focussed when all of them were wondering if they were genuinely going to be unable to put super unleaded in their Audis for a day or two. City huffed but had no puff, and only a weak shot from Vine after Harper and Barmby had intricately set him up looked like even a remote opportunity to level up. Little to no sign of us doing to Portsmouth what they did to us in Iain Dowie’s debut as Temp… bollocks to it, as manager, last season.
Five minutes were added, during which the away team put their feet up and the away supporters sang with glee. The result of the game obviously pleased them but beyond the kicking of a ball, the Portsmouth fans – who at least equalled in number the corkingly poor turnout from South Yorkshire in midweek – must have been as pleased with how this day, game and all, went as they have been about any other. Since their return home, the club’s future has been rubberstamped and approved and we will make a visit to Fratton Park later this campaign after all.
But City, gah. This was deeply troubling. This time last week, we had not conceded a goal at home. Now we look like conceding all the time, not through shoddy defencemanship as such, but through a feeling of self-doubt and panic that is ripping through the whole team. In one months’s time, one Pearson may have to make a major decision about another, assuming he is given due authority to do so depending on the takeover terms. And with those three highly-charged, ultra-important local games ahead, we really do have a period when we can assess just whether this manager is up to it or not. It’s now up to the manager to get it right, and do so quickly. Time really is starting to run out.