Footballing jinxes come, and usually they go. City are no different to any other club in this regard. A win on television? Done that. A penalty shoot-out success? Finally. A trip to Wembley? Aye. Top flight football in Hull? At long last.
Placed alongside the last of these two, City’s ongoing travails at Bramall Lane rather pale into comparative insignificance. Not since the 1970/1 season had City won at Sheffield United, in a match fondly recalled by those present as the “Battle of Bramall Lane”. Nigel Pearson’s men have ended that decades-long hex with a more modern day battle.
City’s recent form had offered a few hints that this series could be ended. The Tigers were unbeaten in six games, and hadn’t lost away from home since September – another six match-run that now has another added to it.
The weather in South Yorkshire was decidedly more football-friendly than in Hull. There was virtually no snow on the ground, and while it was cool, any concerns over the game we’d had were completely unfounded. Although the pitch was, understandably, not in pristine condition it was a fine day for football.
City made just one change to the side that comfortably beat Bristol City last week, with the suspended Andy Dawson being replaced at left-back by Kevin Kilbane. It meant that jet-heeled Manchester United loanee Cameron Stewart and the resur…gent Jay Simpson were paired up front together as the Tigers unveiled a Boxing Day XI of: Mannone; Rosenior, Gerrard, Zayatte, Kilbane; Koren, Ashbee (c), Harper, Devitt; Stewart, Simpson.
That meant that Jamie Devitt was rewarded for a solid showing last week by given left-wing snood-sporting duties for a Yorkshire derby, while James Harper was returning to Bramall Lane for the first time since leaving the Blades last summer. Jimmy Bullard and Richard Garcia were deemed fit enough for the subs’ bench.
City scored almost immediately with a repeat of last week’s opener and with what we dearly hope will become familiar circumstances. Cameron Stewart easily outpaced his marker on the right, zipped to the goal-line and dragged the ball back to Simpson, who’d craftily stepped into a yard of space. The ball was slightly behind him, but he angled his body well and coolly steered the ball in right in front of us. The packed away end exploded with delight, and the Tigers led early on.
Deservedly so, too. City made easily the better start as Sheffield struggled to make even simple passes to each other. They weren’t helped when an early substitution was forced upon them, Taylor being stretchered off and replaced by Lowton….
It was City’s turn to make an early readjustment moments later, when Kilbane took a fearful whack to the face an incident that saw a raised boot and a ducked head – probably no foul, but Kilbane was in no shape to continue and McShane took his place
Anthony Gerrard and rotund playmaker Andy Reid were both booked after a robust clash, the latest in what was becoming a fractious encounter – City were in complete control and Sheffield tempers were flaring. They were off the pitch too, with a couple of flashpoints between City fans and stewards leading to a few ejections. To be fair, the stewards seemed to be doing their best in trying circumstances and a hostile air – they made no attempt to reverse the mass standing, including in the aisles. Some were even openly drinking and smoking in the stand, and there was very much a flavour of containment and intervention only when absolutely necessary. It made for a raucous atmosphere in the away end, if nothing else.
Things worsened for the home side when Quinn sustained an injury and was replaced by Ward. The home fans were reserving the majority of their vocal offerings to chide their side for its dismal offerings – their dismay was to intensify partway through the seven minutes of injury time referee Mathieson added on.
A through ball from midfield saw Simpson isolate Nosworthy – as per last week, the City forward pressured the defender and eventually made to get inside him and clear on goal. Nosworthy’s only hope was to trip Simpson, which he did right on the penalty area line. We howled for justice, and it seemed for a moment that Mr Mathieson was going to hedge his bets with a free kick, but his assistant to our left had his flag across the chest and City were awarded a penalty. Nosworthy was cautioned. It seemed, instinctively, that City were a touch fortunate with the penalty and that Nosworthy was a touch lucky to stay on. Replays don’t clarify it too well, so unlike Ricky Ponting we’ll just accept the on-field decision.
Up stepped Jay Simpson, deep into first half injury time and with the travelling Tiger Nation urging our new hero not to get carried away and fluff his lines. He stepped up…Simonsen dived (well, sort of meekly collapsed) right, the ball went to his left and safely in. We went utterly mental.
Half-time in the cramped concourses was an enjoyable one. They serve beer quickly, and we toasted what seemed an unassailable lead. City had completely dominated the game thus far, and with our tight defence, surely the situation was beyond… Sheffield? Surely we’d get our first win at Bramall Lane since Ted Heath was Prime Minister?
To do so, we figured City would need to withstand a 10-15 minute onslaught at the start of the second half. The Blades’ lack of sharpness will surely have earned them a severe ticking off at half-time, and a major improvement in their workrate must have been anticipated by Nigel Pearson.
So it proved. Montgomery won a header from one of two corners forced, but the connection wasn’t clean and Mannone had a catch so simple even an Australian could have made it. Mark Yeates, formerly and ingloriously of this parish, sent a weak shot sailing over, but the home side were beginning show signs of exasperation that they’d failed to make their dominance show – with an hour on the clock and the away end bouncing, we began to think we’d weathered the storm.
Then Sheff Utd scored. It was a cheap concession too, with Reid finding space on the right and crossing to Ched Evans – he’d stolen in ahead of Zayatte and skilfully directed his header past Mannone. A sinking feeling swamped the City fans.
Jimmy Bullard was brought on for Koren, who’d had a quiet afternoon, the thinking presumably being to improve City’s disappointing ball retention. Stewart entered Mr Mathieson’s notebook for a stupid and unpleasant foul on Simonsen as the Sheffield keeper made a clearance. The temperature rose further when Ashbee’s bone-crunching challenge on Montgomery resulted in a 21 man mêlée in the centre-circle – even Mannone sprinted from his line to get stuck in. The referee wisely waited a short time for tempers to calm and issued a couple of token cautions to the instigators. Good refereeing – maybe the rulebook wouldn’t approve of Yorkshire derby tensions being taken into account, but despite there being no shortage of thudding confrontations, the referee didn’t allow the game to get away from him and good man management such as this explains why.
With quarter of an hour left and City struggling, the home side equalised. A looping high ball appeared to present no obvious threat, but Zayatte quite awfully misread its flight and produced a skimming backheader that fell halfway between Mannone and Evans. The City keeper was a trifle slow in coming from his line but still should have grasped possession; he didn’t, and although their coming together saw the ball squirt away, Evans was able to compose himself and put the ball past McShane on the line. A sick-making moment. Sheffield United, once considered a proper northern club with old-fashioned traditions, denigrated their own heritage by playing music.
Even that moral victory meant nothing though. The feeling among the Tiger Nation was of desolation. Forty years…best add another one to that. In fact, we’d not yet got our point. A header flashed narrowly over from a corner as the home side poured forward in search of a winner, and with the balance of play firmly in their favour, it really did feel likely.
Garcia replaced Devitt, and City had a couple of rare forays forward – in the first, Stewart went down in the area and although the appeal was hearty, it didn’t quite feel right. In the next, Bullard sent a left-footed shot from outside the area about a yard over.
Mr Mathieson added three minutes of injury time on, and still the Blades came. In the last of these, we had one more attack to repel in order to safeguard our point – a solitary one, but now the summit of our ambitions and maybe not such a bad return on a long-standing graveyard of City aspirations. A corner was swung in from the City left, Mannone decided to come…and rose well to pouch the ball. We cheered the draw.
But…the City keeper hadn’t simply belted the ball downfield. He rolled it cleverly to Stewart, still well inside his own half. He put his head down and absolutely tore at Sheffield. Two defenders came to him; a combination of stepover and r…aw pace took him past them. We held our breath…he shot – saved! But the fall broke to Bullard, closer to goal than he initially seemed…he seemed to take about eight days to steady himself and rolled the ball into the empty net…and he wheeled away in pure delight, we realised he must have scored, simply must have, and the away end detonated.
People surged over seats, down aisles, bouncing into one another, tumbling onto the concrete, producing guttural screams that must have been audible back in Hull. Very rarely has a winner produced such scenes of fervour. There was still one horrific moment when a Sheff shot virtually from kick-off, and the ball swung with venom that Jimmy Anderson under slate skies at Headingley would have struggled to match. For just a moment it seemed Mannone had been wrong-footed, but he recovered to paw the ball to his side and grabbed it. We’d done it.
As every man, woman and child of a black and amber persuasion danced with joy, fists were pumped among the white-clad men who’d made it possible. Most of us are far too cynical to usually read much into this sort of thing, but our happiness sincerely seemed to be theirs. Nigel Pearson, once an Owl, stalked over and saluted us with sincere pleasure. He’s taken a while to win us over, but he is incrementally doing just that. We filed into the dark South Yorkshire streets, predictably filled with police sirens and indistinct shouts of moronic aggression, with idiotic beams of delight that will be there for weeks.
I wasn’t born in 1971, and cannot claim to have experienced anything like the unending despair about trips to Bramall Lane, so that’s best left to others. What is obvious, whatever your age, is that something very interesting is going on at City. Let’s take a moment to look at that (and hope that back-to-back home defeats later this week don’t make fools of us).
Jay Simpson has gone from none-in-loads to four-in-two. A cursory look through the stats suggests he’s the first City player to score twice in successive games since St Stuart of Elliott helped himself to five-in-two against Tranmere and Blackpool in December 2004. He looks utterly transformed. We look like scoring all the time.
Key to that transformation is Cameron Stewart. His pace is astonishing, and he seems able to pick a pass at the end of it. In not using him during his time there, Yeovil either have the best side in the history of Division Three or the densest manager in it. He’s out of contract at Old Trafford next summer. Don’t hang about, Messrs Pearsons.
City are five points from the play-offs, and one of the division’s form sides. We have off-field stability at last, a few quid to spend and a manager whose dour demeanour is instilling a businesslike and determined approach in a squad torn apart by relegation. This season may be a bit early for us to launch a serious assault on the upper reaches of the Championship. We should be wary of making rash predictions in the distorting glow of a result such as this. But Nigel Pearson is clearly making his mark. Give him the rest of the rest of this campaign and the summer to put together exactly what he wants – and dare we hope that 2011/12 could be a very, very good season?
(with thanks to @MrChumberley and Andy Medcalf for the picture)