Pre-match, the consensus was that City would struggle against a team whose manager knew us as intimately as theirs. Our style of play would be anticipated and negated, our weaknesses exploited and strengths nullified.
All except one: the late 20 yard shot by Robert Koren. Left that one off your little list, Nigel?
It was always going to take something like a shot from distance to break down Leicester. Down to ten men for the whole of the second half, they were wholly non-existent as an attacking force, forced back by City’s remorseless ball retention and their own absence of ambition. However, Nigel Pearson gets teams organised and it seemed for a long time that he and Leicester were to escape south with the point they sought. Until someone left Koren in a tiny pocket of space…
It was inevitable that one man would dominate the build-up to this game. There are countless views on Nigel Pearson – it can be argued that few have divided the Tiger Nation so starkly in recent years. History may judge him better than the present does, for the squalid, selfish nature of his leaving currently overshadows the very good work he did in stabilising and developing the wreck of a squad he inherited. However, time will lend perspective and the squad he has bequeathed to his successor is testament to his skills as a manager – as, indeed, is the fact we were sorry and angry he left. You don’t mourn the departure of someone you don’t want.
What was unavoidable was that Pearson would get stick from the outset, and that it’d continue throughout the afternoon. The first sighting of him was an embrace of Nick Barmby, both sporting rictus grins as a gaggle of photographers surrounded them, and boos crashed from the stands. Some of it (“we’re not boring any more”, “sacked in the morning”) were mildly amusing; some of it was depressingly small-minded and petty.
Anyway, football! The off-field circus was a distraction from a game of no little importance to both sides. For Leicester, this was the opportunity to secure a play-off place and continue the Pearson honeymoon into December – for City, a run of two successive defeats and four in five was a mini-slump that required arresting as quickly as possible. And some bragging rights, too.
Nick Barmby made two changes to the side that was edged out at Southampton on Tuesday, the widely anticipated restoration of Paul McKenna to the side in place of the luckless Tom Cairney, and the slightly surprising swap of Dawson for Dudgeon at left-back. It meant that on a cold, blustery afternoon in East Yorkshire the Tigers lined up: Gulácsi; Rosenior, Hobbs (c), Chester, Dawson; Stewart, Evans, McKenna, Koren; Fryatt, Mclean. Ten of that eleven were Pearson signings, we noted.
On the bench for City were Basso, McShane, Dudgeon, Cairney and Adebola – meanwhile, Leicester made one change to the side that bested Blackpool in midfield, with one-time Tigers transfer target Neil Danns replacing Paul Gallagher on the right. Former loanee Lee Peltier was also in the Leicester XI.
It was a pretty stodgy start to the game, not helped by a swirling wind and both sides being rather unwilling to commit too many men forward. City were defending the North Stand, populated by an admirable Leicester turnout in excess of two thousand, who crowed about their recent managerial acquisition, whose parentage and prioritisation of monetary reward was loudly queried in response.
It took until twenty minutes were on the clock for even a half-chance to be registered, when a snap shot by Nugent on the Leicester left about 22 yards from goal bobbled wide of Gulácsi’s near post, the City keeper having the ball comfortably covered.
Leicester were perhaps fractionally on top at this stage, but a couple of minutes later they nearly fell behind when a sweeping counter-attack prised them open – a move between Danns and Beckford broke up on the edge of the area and an immediate 60 yard ball by Hobbs found Stewart in space on the right. His control was predictably immaculate, he cut inside past Konchesky and found Koren bursting into the area on the left. The Slovene’s swift low cross arrived at Fryatt’s feet, but he was put under pressure and scuffed the effort wide. Great play by City though.
Dawson was cautioned a few minutes later for a foul on Beckford, presenting Konchesky with a set-piece opportunity from distance. His shot was well-struck but went well wide of Gulácsi’s post.
On thirty minutes an improving game took a jarring, decisive turn. McKenna tidied up a loose ball in midfield and transferred possession to the left, whereupon a square ball saw Fryatt cleverly dummy it to Stewart – he was tackled by Bamba but the ball bounced fortuitously for City to Mclean, played onside by Mills. As the nearest blue, he went over to challenge Mclean, who’d hesitated in shooting, and his initial tackle was an outstanding block…however the ball remained in play and as Mclean went for it, Mills sneakily legged up the City forward. It seemed certain referee Hooper wouldn’t see such crafty play, but he did, and pointed spotwards. He also thoughtfully acquiesced to our entreaties to produce red, which always seems a bit unfair when you’ve just conceded a penalty. However, Mr Hooper was applying the laws correctly, and he’d done outstandingly well to spot the offence.
Mills trudged off the pitch, not for the first time this season, and we held our breath as Fryatt stepped up to take the penalty. As his father used to, Schmeichel appeared to fill roughly 97% of the goal with his daunting frame, but the Leicester keeper dived left, the ball went to his right and an explosion of delight washed over the Circle. Sadly Nigel Pearson didn’t respond when enquired as to the score seconds later.
He did make a substitution though, bringing off Jermaine Beckford for Sean St Ledger and adjusting his formation to a 4-4-1. You have to admit it worked, as City didn’t really capitalise on their numerical advantage. Save for a shot by Stewart that posed little threat to Schmeichel, Leicester successfully steadied themselves…and then scored an outstanding equaliser.
Leicester benefitted from a lucky ricochet of their own that caught the City back-line far from straight, playing Nugent clear on goal and definitely onside. His tame shot was parried by Gulácsi, but Konchesky was lurking on the edge of the area and steered a low right-footed shot into the far corner. A bitter blow for City, but an exquisite finish on his weak foot by the Leicester full-back. A genuine peach of a finish. Not surprisingly, the Leicester fans fêted their manager, and mocked our sudden quietude.
That was about it for the first half, as Leicester sought to end the opening 45 minute as uneventfully as possible, while the City players looked stunned at coughing up yet another lead.
The second half started with the weather deteriorating, the wind having intensified and cold rain sheeting down. It was to be a remarkable half of football, with City having almost completely uninterrupted possession of the ball and barely leaving the Leicester half – it really did appear an attack versus defence training drill, but with Championship points at stake. Leicester defended magnificently too, with two rigid banks of four working tirelessly, while for their part City’s control of the ball was outstanding, constantly looking for the tiniest gap in their opponent’s rearguard. It was compelling stuff, even if it meant chances were few in number.
There were a couple though. Dawson played a ball through the box that Rosenior couldn’t properly connect with, while a shot from distance was repelled by Schmeichel – the shot was bobbling awkwardly on a skiddy surface, and the Leicester keeper did well to keep it out. Both Dawson and Rosenior were contributing more and more to City attacks as Leicester abandoned any attacking hopes and Dawson was involved a move that culminated in Koren sliding through a brilliant pass to the onrushing Rosenior on the right about twelve yards from goal – however he seemed uncertain whether to shoot or square it, and ended up clumsily knocking the ball to Schmeichel The ball itself was a thing of beauty though – Robert Koren is surely one of the most technically gifted players in our entire history.
The fairly ineffective Danns was replaced by Gallagher on 63, and then Nugent by Fernandes as Leicester seemed to adopt a 4-4-1-0 sort of formation – no-one was recognisably leading the line or providing an attacking outlet, a little reminiscent of City’s 4-5-0 at Peterborough a dozen or so years ago. It meant there was no respite for Leicester, but they were being encouraged by City’s play becoming a little over-elaborate. The Tigers are a wonderful passing side, but sometimes it appears they’re a little too much in love with their own capacity for stroking the ball around, and much of it was either too slow or too far from goal. You could sense Leicester’s confidence growing.
The rain continued to fall as night fell over the Circle – still the Tigers came, still Leicester grimly held on. The measure of City’s dominance was that the next chance involved both full-back as a deep cross by Rosenior found Dawson bombing in that the far post. He did well to fire off a volley at goal from about nine yards, but Schmeichel’s reflex save was phenomenal and he deserved a slice of good luck as the ball squirted past Fryatt and out for a corner.
Koren was next to try, sending a shot from about 25 yards whistling a foot over – though you sense the superb Leicester keeper knew it was flying the right side of his crossbar. Another slow, patient move opened up Leicester on the left when the almost unplayable Stewart collected a pass from Koren, beat Peltier via the medium of roughly a hundred stepovers and advanced goalwards. For one so young and skilful his decision-making is usually very good – this was a rare exception, as he tried an impossible shot at the near-post instead of squaring it to either Fryatt, Mclean or Rosenior. Frustration was creeping in.
With thirteen minutes remaining these frustrations manifested themselves when a superb through ball by Dawson found Fryatt on the left hand side of the area. His control was a trifle lacking and the be-gloved Bamba collided with him – PENALTY, we screeched. Not this time, opined Mr Hooper. There seemed a minor entanglement of legs; “seen ’em given” is the correct cliché, I believe. But it’d have been horribly harsh on Leicester, even allowing for the fact no footballer wearing gloves ever deserves the benefit of the doubt. On anything. Ever.
With four minutes left and the Leicester fans in full cry, feeling a point was theirs, the Tigers made their only change of the afternoon. Dudgeon came on for Evans, seemingly for fresh legs more than anything else. Formation had long since ceased to matter for City, with the game so firmly one-sided. But there seemed no way through.
Then we scored.
Dawson floated in a cross that a tiring Leicester defence couldn’t reach before Mclean. He switched it wide to Rosenior, who hadn’t been in his own half for about half an hour, who in turn spotted Koren making a five-yard dart into space. The pass was weighted perfectly and Koren almost lazily struck it with his (weaker) left foot and it flew past Schmeichel in a bewildering instant. So unexpected was this that we almost paused for half a second, before a massive crashing detonation of ecstasy rocked the Circle.
There were only two minutes remaining, plus three for injury time, and we all knew that was the winner. Leicester had been in reverse gear for so long and were so tired from stemming the amber tide that they had nothing left to give. Pearson’s job prospects were queried, the clearly gutted Leicester fans were serenaded out of the stadium, Nick Barmby was elevated into the godhead, and we gloried in putting one over a “Judas” and a “greedy bastard” who “should have stayed at a big club”. Juvenile and amusing all at the same time.
At full time Barmby and Pearson exchanged a brisk handshake before the former ostentatiously congratulated his players on the pitch; the new Leicester boss, his side now below the Tigers in the lead, equally ostentatiously applauded the away fans as jeers rained down upon him. And so did a trying, potentially horrible day end with a stunning win and a marvellous return to form.
What to make of it all? Firstly: we salute Nigel Pearson’s deeds at City, even if we don’t exactly wish his charmless new club terribly well. They’re a good side, but so are we, and Pearson deserves obvious credit for assembling it.
However, Barmby is currently marshalling it well. A narrow defeat at the leaders and ten minutes of madness against Burnley have been sandwiched by two very good victories. If there’s one criticism of City yesterday it’s that there was a lack of urgency at times. In particularly, ten minutes passed midway through the second half with nothing whatsoever created. It’s never easy against a side devoted to defending, but we only just got away with it.
There’s praise aplenty, though. City’s domination of possession was so overwhelming that Leicester never once looked like pinching a win. Keeping the ball from your opposition is guaranteed to ensure you don’t concede, and is a brutally tiring tactic to overcome. Eventually they were ground down.
So we’re eighth, at the time of writing. Our game in hand is against UEFA Cup entrants Birmingham on Wednesday, in which a win will ensure an elevation back into the top six. A tip for our visitors next week, if they need it: that Koren lad in midfield has a bit of a shot on him…